Following an acclaimed debut in 2002’s Real Women Have Curves, America Ferrera rose to fame as the style-challenged title character in ABC’s Ugly Betty. These days, the LA native plays Cloud 9 floor supervisor Amy Dubanowsky in the NBC comedy Superstore (she’s also a producer), which will air a special post-Olympics episode this Friday at 10:30/9:30c before launching its second season next month.
Ferrera, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2008, continues to work on the Democratic presidential candidate’s behalf and speak out about vital issues, most visibly as a speaker at the Democratic National Convention and as a correspondent on America Divided, a documentary series premiering September 30th on EPIX.
In this candid Q&A, she talks about her role, her activism and the rock star she once waited on and didn’t know it.
“It was an incredible honor to stand on that stage and represent myself and millions like me who feel like they don’t have a voice in this election. Hopefully the convention did its job, which I believe it did, in motivating people to pay attention and engage and not sit it out.”
What attracted you to Superstore?
One of the things that drew me was that it was a comedy through the eyes of regular, working-class people. My mother raised six kids. We were working class. I’ve been working since I was 13 years old to help make ends meet. I grew up on working-class comedies like Roseanne and All in the Family and Cheers. There’s value in that shared experience of just surviving, getting through life with a sense of humor.
In our current social and political environment it’s a good time to show [that] point of view. We’re representing working-class people in a setting that is the intersection of American consumerism, and you’ll see every race, religion, background and class. We don’t have to necessarily take sides to be having a conversation. We can handle issues in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re on a soapbox or preaching so much as we are all characters that represent different experiences of life and different points of view.
Also, Ugly Betty aside, I mostly did dramatic movies. So this was a little bit intimidating and outside of my wheelhouse, but getting to work with people as talented as this, comedians as experienced as this, is what gave me the courage to step into something I hadn’t done before. What I so love about how writers write for my character is, yes, she is in some ways the straight man, but Amy gets fun things to do all the time.
Did you ever work in retail?
No. But I worked as a waitress and certainly once you have a muscle memory for that customer service, being in that position, it all translates. I was a waitress when I was 15, at a hotel. I once served Alice Cooper breakfast. I had to be told who he was.
You were a guest speaker at the Democratic National Convention. What was that like?
It was wonderful to be at the DNC. It was definitely a memorable moment for me. There was an incredible energy and it was very fortifying and uplifting for so many of us who feel dragged down by so much of what we’ve heard in this election year. It was an incredible honor to stand on that stage and represent myself and millions and millions like me who feel like they don’t have a voice in this election. Hopefully the convention did its job, which I believe it did, in laying out the stakes of this election in motivating people to pay attention and engage and to not sit it out.
Why is political and social activism so important to you?
I’m a citizen of this country and a citizen of the world and we all have huge stakes in this election. There are none of us who won’t be affected by the outcome. We all have a lot to lose and a lot to gain and I think it’s important for all of us to use our voices, especially in this moment that feels historic. It feels like we’re living at a very pivotal moment in our country’s history and so it’s time for all of us to engage and not relinquish our voices.
You also participated in Epix’s America Divided documentary series, investigating immigration issues.
It’s an important, beautiful series. My segment deals with undocumented people in the south of Texas along the border and what life is like there and what it’s like to not have access to things like health care or the justice system or things like not getting paid your wages and sexual harassment. We covered mothers who were denied birth certificates for their American-born children, and recent updates in that case are positive. It tackles some pretty weighty, important issues in a year where issues matter deeply and aren’t being spoken about. My job is to show up and listen, ask questions and be a conduit for the audience, to ask questions that anyone would ask.
You seem eager to use your celebrity to make a difference.
It’s been a very big challenge learning to embrace the platform and to embrace being considered called a role model for other people. It can be incredibly terrifying and overwhelming to be told that you represent millions of people. Trying to find my voice and embrace that challenge has been a big obstacle, but I feel like I’ve been doing a good job of it and I feel proud of myself for continuing to use my voice and continuing to grow.
So do you have any ambition to run for political office yourself?
I have absolutely zero expectation of that and no idea what tomorrow will bring. All I can do is wake up every day and use whatever platform I have, use my voice to stand up for the things I care about and do my work and have an audience for the storytelling I want to do.