NOT SO SUNDANCE UGLY FERRERA RETURNS TO SUNDANCE
by Paul Fischer
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Best known as the titular character in the recently cancelled Ugly Betty, America Ferrera is no stranger to Sundance, but this time she returned with a producer credit on The Dry Land, an evocative tale of a returning soldier coping with life in a small Texan town. Ferrera also plays his wife in the Ryan Piers Williams-directed drama. Amidst the hubbub of Sundance, the beautiful award winning actress talked to PAUL FISCHER prior to the news of her show’s cancellation.
QUESTION: Obviously, you’ve been with this project for a while. What kind of feedback did you give him to develop the script, and how much input did you have on this character, who could have just been a very thinly-delineated woman?
AMERICA FERRERA: Well, you know, to start with, I never intended to be in the movie. I was just gonna be an executive producer. And still, though, I really, really, really encouraged him to make Sarah a wonderful character, a great part for a young woman to play. I mean, I have a lot of young women friends who I was thinking about to play the part, some of whom we offered the role to. I mean, I really wasn’t thinking about stepping into it myself. But I was – you know, for obviously reasons, very adamant about her making her great. And he did, on his own. But I just pushed him to do that. I was there from before the first script was written. He kind of expressed his vision to me. And – you know, I was with him through the process of getting the script to a place where we were really happy with it. And I think that we had had so many conversations about what we wanted to get across. And I guess I was there to be his second pair of eyes, or just that outside perspective that could tell him what I was getting from it, you know? And talk about – “Well, you had said to me that you wanted to really portray this thing, but I’m not seeing it here in this script.” You know, or, “Wow, this is really interesting. We’ve never talked about this, but I’m seeing this whole new theme from this scene, that we’ve never talked about.” Or – you know, just to really be like his sounding board, and to be the person who believed in his vision, and committed myself to making sure that we stuck to that, you know?
QUESTION: Now, by the time you were ready to go with this, I assume that you’d already firmly established yourself with Betty. Was there a sense of commercial pragmatism involved in you ultimately agreeing to be part of the film?
AMERICA FERRERA: I’m sure that helped to some extent. But I mean, really, I had signed on before we knew who was going to be the financier. You know, when we met Ryan O’Nan, the lead character, and I met him, and Ryan loved him so much and said, “This is my James, this is who I want.” So I sat down and met with him. And I thought – you know, “We could really do this together, him and I.” And that’s when I signed on. we were just sort of like we’ll see who’s interested in this pairing of people. But it wasn’t about signing on for commercial reasons.
QUESTION: Now, after you decided to be in the film, did you do any additional research on wives of returning soldiers?
AMERICA FERRERA: Absolutely. Well, one of the things that was so crucial to this project, and what was Ryan Williams’ kind of main goal, was to create an authentic world. And he did so by gaining the support of the US Army. After a year of perfecting the script, he submitted it to the US Army, for their kind of official support of the film. And when they granted it – first, our liaison told us that it was the script that – in his entire time, in all the hundreds of scripts he had read, that he had the least amount of notes on. So, it was really a huge compliment, that Brian had done so much research before writing the script. But then, having them on, it was just making sure that there wasn’t a single thing that didn’t feel real and authentic to their work. You know, to a soldier watching, saying, “Well, you know, he wouldn’t be wearing that coming off the plane.” Or, “He wouldn’t be carrying that, coming”— you know. That he wouldn’t say that. He wouldn’t fly straight into El Paso. He’d go to Georgia first. You know, like, those sorts of things. But then it opened up, lthey gave me direct contact – they handed me phone numbers of women whose husbands had returned with PTSD. So, I had these incredible conversations with these women. And – you know, what was for me just a really challenging and interesting topic, became very personal once these women opened up to me and told me things that are so deeply personal to them, and were painful for them to say out loud. And I felt really honored that they had shared it with me, and then felt a huge responsibility to kind of tell their story. Because what I – the only reason that I can imagine that they would open up and tell me these things was because they were sort of dying for their story to be told. For someone to see them there.
One thing that was so reoccurring in the women that I spoke to was the thought that – their feeling that nobody ever asked them, “How are you?” It was always, “How is he? Is he okay? Is he coming home? When’s he coming home? Now that he’s home, how’s he doing? Is he okay?” No one ever stopped and says, “How are you holding it together? How are you taking care of the family and the kids and the work,” and worrying every single second of the day about your loved one who’s not there. Because for them – I mean, they’re there. They know when they’re safe and when they’re not safe. You know? As the loved one standing here, you don’t know. You know? You haven’t heard from them – you don’t know what happens second to second. So – so, just – you know. That feeling of their need to – to kind of express that they were at war with their loved ones. And when their loved ones came back, they were at war with them, you know? Trying to reconnect. And that’s what this story’s about.
QUESTION: Now geography plays a vital role – and hence the title of the film, obviously. Both symbolically, and physically, too, because of the geography. Does it enhance your own performance to work on location, and to be able to immerse yourself in that small-town Texan culture?
AMERICA FERRERA: Absolutely. Absolutely, it did. I started shooting it not even a week after I’d wrapped the last season of Betty. So, I had, like – a week to get Betty out of my head, and into Sarah.
QUESTION: That must be difficult.
AMERICA FERRERA: It is – I was afraid of it. But then what helped was that it was a different – I mean, Betty’s in New York City. You know, she’s a New York City girl, born and raised in Queens. And Sarah lives in Texas, where they talk slower. And even just picking up her accent, and talking in that accent, took me completely away from anything else. And being in Texas, the days before – I mean, we actually shot a lot of this in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for tax reasons, but we did get to shoot some in Texas, and we did a lot of studying Texas accents, and that sort of thing. But – yes. The specificity of the location, and the character’s way of life. The slowness. The way that things are – they just – they’re not in a rush, you know? And just allowing myself to sink into that helped really make that process go faster. Because if it was just another girl from New York City, that would have been harder to distinguish, between like – okay, Betty a week ago, and now this new character, who’s from New York and talks this way. You know?
QUESTION: Talking about Betty – I mean, when you signed up to do the pilot for that, did you have any expectations at all? And were you surprised – given the fact that you’re very attractive, that the producers saw something in you that made them think that you would be able to transform into this very gawky, strange little character?
AMERICA FERRERA: Well, you know, I give that credit to Salma Hayek, who’s the executive producer and I think she saw my work from before, and was an advocate for me and really saw that I had the spirit to play it, versus the physical part of itnd that’s such a gift that someone can give you, you know? That they can look beyond what they’re seeing, and have an imagination. Because not a lot of people do. And – and so – yes, I feel very grateful to have been given that opportunity. And yes – I mean, of course I had expectations. I wouldn’t have signed on if I didn’t think it was going to be something that was powerful, that meant something really important to people. And I’m just – I’m just glad that it did, when it came out, and it still does, to our core audience who loves the show.
QUESTION: You’ve gone through some rough patches, haven’t you? ABC switches time slots on you, and all that kind of stuff. Have you been able to navigate the politics of television?
AMERICA FERRERA: Well the politics don’t necessarily affect my work only to the extent that the politics affect the creative. You know, what time we’re on, how many people are watching? That doesn’t change my performance. But when certain politics are having an effect on what’s happening in the writers’ room, what’s going on the page, what’s going on the screen, those are the things that are difficult to navigate. And our show had such a strong vision in the first season of what it wanted to be. And then –we had that kind of sophomore year of going down some roads that didn’t make sense. And then finding our way back. I can honestly say that this season which is our least-watched season where we have the lowest ratings we’ve ever had – is the season that, I’m so proud of it.
QUESTION: There’s just so much physical comedy that you are able to balance between what’s going on inside this girl. Is that aspect – have you heard a lot about the art of being funny, physically?
AMERICA FERRERA: I think I’ve learned a lot. I don’t know if I’ve gotten funnier, but I think that I’ve learned a lot from watching the people that I work with, because Michael Urie is a physical comedy genius. I mean, he’s an incredible actor, in a ton of senses. But, he gets it. Like, internally. You know, there’s nothing cerebral about it. It’s just something that you’ve got. And he’s got it. Which is that thing of he knows the difference between looking for that long, and looking for – you know, two seconds, versus looking for three seconds and the difference in the funniness of it. I think I’ve tried to incorporate and steal what they have to offer. I have so much fun with it.
QUESTION: What will you do next, then?
AMERICA FERRERA: What would I do next? I don’t know. I don’t know. After four years of Betty, to still feel passionate and connected and challenged by what I do is a gift. To get to do this movie, The Dry Land, is a gift and if I could just keep on doing that? Projects that challenge me and make me grow, and feel like they’re important to me, then that’s all I can ask for, whether it’s gonna be with this director or that director, or if anyone’s gonna watch it, I don’t know. I don’t have control over that.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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