Acting was also a quick method for Ferrera to find a place where she belonged. Before she discovered acting, she struggled with her sense of self. That was in part the result of her growing up in a Spanish-speaking, distinctly Latin-American home while attending a school with much more of a So-Cal culture. The experience left Ferrera stuck somewhere in the middle.
“I grew up feeling like I had to straddle two worlds — like I didn’t belong 100 percent in either world,” she says. “I left the house every morning where we all spoke Spanish to each other and went to school where no one else spoke Spanish, so I wouldn’t want to speak Spanish because who wants to be that different when you’re a kid? I wanted to fit in, like most people do. But when I was younger, no matter what room I walked into, I didn’t feel like I fit in 100 percent. I always felt on the outside — like a watcher, not a participant.”
To make matters worse, Ferrera bore a rather conspicuous moniker, one that she inherited from her mother. She remembers the dread she would experience on the first day of school each year, as the time came for roll call. “It would just kill me when they would call out America Ferrera. Every single head would turn around because they had to see: ‘What freak is called America?’ ” she recalls. “There wasn’t really anything typical about me growing up.”
But experiences like those are what make Ferrera so relatable in her work today. Writer/ director Antonio Negret, who worked with Ferrera on the thriller Towards Darkness, says she’s different in that way from many of her peers. “A lot of actresses are so focused on being in front of the camera that they bring no real life experience to their work,” he says. “With America, there is something very interesting about her and very real. You know she’s at least as interesting after the director yells ‘cut’ as she is after he calls ‘action.’ ”
Bearing Ferrera’s history in mind, no part could be more perfectly suited to her than her starmaking role as Ugly Betty’s Betty Suarez, a sweet but unsophisticated girl trying to fit in at a high-fashion magazine. It seemed as though the character could have been created especially for her — which almost makes it seem unfair that she’s been awarded Golden Globe, Screen Actor’s Guild, and Emmy awards for her portrayal.
“Of course audiences love America as Betty — there is a very organic connection between America Ferrera and Betty Suarez,” says Horta. “America dug into her past all the time to create that performance. She’s lived that role.”
Ken Kwapis, who directed Ferrera in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, believes the young actress’s upbringing lends her a soulfulness and grit uncommon in artists of her delicate age. “In Sisterhood, there’s a climactic confrontation between her character and the character of her father. In the scene, America unloads all the hurt and anger she’s been harboring toward him,” he says. “Most young actresses wouldn’t have a clue how to plumb the emotional depths required to bring this scene to life. But America did. She did take after take — 15 takes in total. Each time she attacked the scene, it seemed to spring from a whole new place. America’s fearlessness, her ability to be so raw — so emotionally naked — in front of the camera still leaves me breathless.”