“I just love the work. My hunger has never been to be famous or well known or to win awards. I’ve never been interested in whatever the industry-prescribed definitions of success might be. My passion has always been to just do it — wherever I can, wherever they’ll let me, whenever possible. I’ve always been single-minded, a horse with blinders on,” she says. “And it’s probably a good thing because I’m not the archetype of the Hollywood starlet. I’m Latino, and even now there’s not a huge range of roles for Latino actors. I’m not stick-thin. There’s probably a long list of roles I’m ‘wrong’ for because of who I am, but that very rarely crosses my mind, because I’m always focused on creating a reality that will allow me to work hard.”
Playwright and novelist Josefina Lopez met Ferrera almost a decade ago when the then up-and-coming actress played a key role in the HBO movie version of Lopez’s Real Women Have Curves. “I don’t think America has ever tried to be ‘cute’ or a ‘girl’ to get ahead. She’s not had time to; she’s been a woman for a long time,” Lopez says. “The character she played in Curves came to life because America brought all of herself to the role without apology for not looking like a typical ingenue. She’s got a fire within her.”
Audiences most familiar with Ferrera’s full-blooded but genteel performances in projects like Betty and Sisterhood finally get to see her mature into a world-class actress in The Dry Land, a gut-wrenching war drama that she also produced and that her longtime paramour, Ryan Piers Williams, directed. In the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Ferrera plays the wife of a struggling war veteran. “It’s probably the most grown-up role I’ve played. When I did Sisterhood, I was 20 playing 16. With Betty, I always played younger than I am. I’m known for these coming-of-age characters, but in this movie, I’m a grown-up, dealing with grown-up questions of sacrifice and redemption and homecoming,” she says. “It’s an important movie for me.”
This month, she’ll add two new titles to her ever-growing résumé. Ferrera will grace the big screen first in Our Family Wedding, which costars Forest Whitaker and Taye Diggs. That will be followed by How to Train Your Dragon, an animated film from the makers of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. Ferrera says she enjoyed the challenge of doing her first voice-only performance.
“I loved doing the voice work,” she says. “It’s a whole different ball game. I’m used to doing film and television and stage, but when you’re doing the voice work, you lose your face and your body. Your toolbox gets emptied out, so you have to be as great as you can with only one tool: your voice. That was a huge learning process for me.”
But perhaps most of all, it was the subject matter of the project — which involves Vikings, dragons, and other mythical beings — that drew her to it.
“It’s a fairy tale,” she says. “And I love fairy tales. You might have guessed.”