America Ferrera Interview

As the star of 'Real Women Have Curves,' 18-year-old actress America Ferrera isn't afraid of a good meal

As the star of 'Real Women Have Curves,' 18-year-old actress America Ferrera isn't afraid of a good meal

"I can't wait for my next film project -- a really good project. Hopefully it will come along before I go back to school."

Ahh, the enthusiasm of a brand new movie star! That's a quote from 18-year-old America Ferrera, whose winning portrayal of a plus-sized, astute and beautiful high school grad in the body-image-themed coming-of-age film "Real Women Have Curves," helped win the picture the Audience Award at last January's Sundance Film Festival.

An upcoming double-major freshman (international relations and theater) at the University of Southern California, she is smart enough to have learned not to mix work and school. "I'm definitely going to school in the spring, so whatever comes along professionally after that will have to wait until summer."

But until the spring semester starts, she's working the press circuit on behalf of the film, which is about her character being trapped between her meddling, small-minded, traditional mother (Lupe Ontiveros) -- who wants her to work in her sister's struggling dress factory now that she's out of high school -- and an opportunity to pursue her own desires with a scholarship to Columbia University.

This morning she's in San Francisco, with a generous room-service breakfast in front of her (sausage, eggs and potato), proving that while she looks several pounds lighter than in the film, she's proud of her very nice curves and certainly not on some Hollywood crash diet.

Reclining sideways on the couch in her hotel room, with her elbow on the arm and her legs tucked to the side, she pulls her hair to one side and cascades it over a shoulder of her plumb-colored blouse and smiles a knockout smile so genuine it's clear she has yet to be spoiled by her budding stardom or bored with talking about her movie.

Q: How closely did you identify with Ana?

A: Oh, I think the body image thing, everybody can identify with that. In our culture there's just so much pressure and so much attention placed on the way we look. You just turn on the TV or flip open a magazine and there's people who don't look like any of us. I think this movie is like, finally, a celebration of reality and of our imperfections. We're not all a size 2 and we're not all a size 0, and you know what? That's OK, because some of us like to eat!

Q: I noticed the sausage.

A: [Laughing] Yeah!

Q: Looks delicious.

A: So, definitely, just growing up in American, whether you're skinny or not there's just way too much attention placed on the way we look. It overshadows more important things in life like loving yourself, loving who your are and finding yourself on the inside. Not just what kind of clothes you like to wear and who's your favorite designer. My generation, you ask a kid, they'll definitely know who made the shoes they're wearing and what shirt they like. But they can't answer, who's your favorite artist? Or what's you're favorite book? They can say (they) love this magazine or this...singer. Or "I wish I looked like this person." But they know so little about themselves.

Q: I think "Real Women Have Curves" has a certain coattail potential thanks to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which addresses body image issues as well.

A: Right. I think it's telling of our times. People are hungry for life and want to see something real on screen. It's really hard to find movies that are real out of big Hollywood studios. I'm the first one in line to go watch "Spider-Man," but there's definitely something in me that makes me want to go to a movie and see something that makes me feel good about life.

Q: So what were the origins of America Ferrera the actress?

A: [A slight laugh] Well, I started working in theater when I was quite young. I was probably 8 or 9 or 10, around there. I started acting wherever I could -- at school, in community theater -- wherever I could do it, I did it. I'm the youngest of six kids in a singe-parent home -- with my mom -- so there's not, you know, all the resources in the world. But education was always the biggest thing in our family. It was "You're gonna go to college. You're gonna get a professional job." Then when I broke the news that I wanted to pursue an acting career, it was like a punch in my mom's gut. She wants to see me succeed and she's afraid, you know, the entertainment industry is such a precarious job. You're on top one day, you're on the bottom the next. So I can understand (her worry), but there's definitely been a struggle. That's a parallel to the film -- my mom's wishes for what she wants for me versus what I want for me, and finding a balance, and appreciating and respecting my mom's opinion but finding my own self and pursuing that.

Q: How old were you when you told your mom you wanted to be an actor?

A: [Another little laugh] I was like, 10. I was like, "OK, I'm gonna be an actor," and everyone just laughed. You know how when you're young you wanna be a fireman one day, a policeman the next? Everyone was like, "Oh, they're dreams. It'll pass. It'll pass." And it never passed. I just told them, "You just wait. One of these days..." I didn't know how. I just wanted it so bad I could taste it. I knew it would happen somehow, and I was going to make it happen. I was a junior when I got my first role, and the biggest thing was, "What about school?" I had always been a straight-A student and it was weird because my mom was like, "If you don't keep your grades up...!" So it was double duty. I was doing what I wanted to do, and working very, very, very hard at that, and then also having to keep up the other end of the bargain, which was my grades and my education. Being 16 and balancing these huge blocks on your shoulders, it was hard.

Q: I'll bet your mom's impressed now.

A: [Laughs again] I'm sure she's proud, and she respects that I set goals for myself and achieved them. But she hates the acting thing. She's with me and she supports me, but she still wants me to wake up and say, "Oh, I'm gonna be a doctor."

Q: Maybe she's realizing this job is not always easy for someone who isn't a size 2.

A: Right. Of course. First of all, there's not enough good roles written for young people. That's strike one. Roles aren't written for women. Look at all the budget films, they're all men. All of them.

Q: Unless you want to be Asia Argento on Vin Diesel's arm in "XXX."

A: Exactly. You're this sexy woman, or you're the sexy secretary. Or you're the wife or you're the daughter. But you're never the lead. But what's funny is, this month there are so many movies coming out that are about women. That's really exciting.

Q: It kind of happens in waves.

A: And then there's not enough quality roles for Latino people. All of my auditions are like, "Here, we're sending you out for the pregnant 16-year-old." Or "We're sending you out for the drug dealer." Or the high school drop-out. You know what I mean?

Q: Or for the girlfriend of the gangbanger who gets shot.

A: Exactly! Exactly. And for so long I was so frustrated (that) they can't get beyond the stereotype. But this movie broke every single stereotype. So I was just so blessed to be a part of this project. The timing and everything couldn't have been better.

Q: And I'll bet there's another barrier to certain roles in your case because you're Latina but you don't speak fluent Spanish. So it's not like you can go out for the Mexican productions like "Y Tu Mama Tambien."

A: Right, well the thing about not speaking fluent Spanish -- I understand Spanish perfectly, and if you give me a script I can memorize the lines and do it. But that fact parallels the movie as well -- that cultural rubber band, with the American side stretching one way and the Latina side stretching the other. There's this tug-of-war between two cultures. Am I Latin? Am I American? What the hell am I? I love my culture and I'm very proud of my culture. But sometimes I feel like I'm not Hispanic enough. That's unfortunate because I want to learn so much about where my family is from and my roots and to know Spanish. But when you've lived your entire life in American schools, you don't get that.

Q: So were you nervous about "carrying" a movie?

A: Oh, God! At first I was. But once I met the cast and the writer and the director, you just have to trust. It's such a collaborative effort. And when Lupe Ontiveros (perhaps best know as the killer of "Selena") walks on the set, it's like, there's goes half of the weight. She's just amazing. I watch her and I think, God, I couldn't have done this without her! Because it's such a give-and-take, you see? I trusted her, she trusted me. Anybody her age with her experience, she could have been like, "Who does this 18-year-old think she is?" And (she could have) not given me anything to work with and still have been great. But she was so interested in making it work that she carried so much of it and really just gave me a chance to work and have fun. We trusted each other, and that's why the relationship and the chemistry worked. The very subtle looks between them, they make the movie.

Q: So do you have a strategy for the acting career?

A: The only strategy...you know, I think the most important thing for an actor and their most important tool is intuition. That's it. That's all you can go by. Just doing what you think is right.

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