A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Gina Rodriguez took a stand early in her career. The NYU Tisch grad (who rapped in 2012's Sundance hit Filly Brown) won't play characters unless they serve as role models for young Latinos.
She's now riding strong buzz for The CW family drama Jane the Virgin, the unexpected hit of July's Television Critics Association's summer press tour ahead of its Oct. 13 premiere. Rodriguez is currently featured in THR as The Next Big Thing.
How did you develop your career plan?
I saw an interview that Rita Moreno had done very early on [while I was] in high school before I started getting into theater. She had refused to play certain roles because of they way they made her feel and the way they made younger girls feel about her. I found that interesting because my parents never thought that change was possible through art. I could see this gorgeous, Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar winner tell me that I can do something with my art other than just the fancy dresses and the playing pretend. It's always somebody that opens the door before you. The idea of being a sacrificial lamb, or being a complicated actor really wasn't the truth; it was more for standing for what you believe in. I didn't see color as a young girl; I used to think that we didn't even exist … and then to see Rita do it, I just realized we needed to make a stronger impact. That set off my course. And I used to say that I was going to be the Latino Meryl Streep one day. (Laughs.)
You've been vocal about only taking roles that you're proud to portray. What was it about Jane the Virgin that made playing her so appealing?
It was a breath of fresh air to read a script that I felt was so representative of the way I grew up — this dual identity. They say, "We need to hear more Latino stories." There is no feeling that anyone is exempt because of their ethnicity. I embrace the fact that I have this dual identity. I find it so interesting that in this industry, we want to divide. I guess that's just an American culture: divide and conquer, right? But that's so limiting. I am not defined by the fact that my parents speak Spanish or that my skin color is brown. I'm defined by my character, and my character is a strong woman that's independent, that's following her dreams, that wants love, that wants a family, that wants to succeed just like anybody else in this world. I found it limiting to see women of my skin color only playing very specific roles as though Latino stories are different. There's no difference! Yes, being a maid and being a landscape artist … these are phenomenal professions that pay really well. I mean, my sister's nanny makes a lot more than the majority of my friends. These are great, wonderful careers except they're not the only stories. And trust, me, it's not just Latinos that are doing these jobs. I felt very limited by the opportunities I had in Hollywood to play the maid, the pregnant teen, the drug addict. Those all exist, but they all exist in every ethnicity and culture. I wanted to tell stories that showed little girls because when I was younger, I didn't see us in Casablanca and these phenomenal movies that told the human story.
And the show comes as TV is starting to become much more representative.
That is so encouraging. And Jane the Virgin is just that. It's just a story about a girl who's trying to make a plan, find the husband of her dreams, do the job of her dreams and live a normal life like anybody else. Then this crazy mix-up that could have happened to anybody, anywhere in the world, happened to her. And she gets to tell the story. Now little girls are going to look up and be like, "There we are in different stories, as the heroes, as the people that win." Every ethnicity deserves to own that story, because it's a human story. When I read Jane, I was like, "Here it is! I've been waiting for this." I thought so differently about myself growing up and what it took to undo that view of my people, of women, of beauty and those things, I'm like, "Hey, if Rita did that for me, and she made me see that I could do it too, then hopefully I can do that for someone else."
What kind of personal and professional hurdles did you have to overcome?
I got thyroid disease when I was 19. I had hypothyroid, underactive thyroid and it was very hard to deal with my weight. It was something I never thought about prior to getting thyroid disease. For a while, I would look at myself and what was on screen and in magazines and say, "This is never going to be possible because there's no way I can attain that beauty size." I had to look at myself and overcome the idea that I was limited by what God gave me. When I was freed from that, I was capable of anything because I wasn't limited by this mentality that stopped me before even trying. The only way to success is through failure, but we're not going to be stopped by that failure because we know that there is nothing that can inhibit us but ourselves. … And I refused to let money be the dictator of my happiness, and to be the dictator of the decisions that I make. When I choose a role because of money and not because I believe in the project, I do a disservice to that project.
Did you have a backup plan if acting didn't work out?
I went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Sadly, I didn't get the educational backup plan, but because of the way I was raised, I've never been afraid of hard work. I refused to believe that I was going to live off anything else but acting.
What's been your biggest career setback to date?
I don't see one. I've had to turn down roles that could have been life-changing or financially changing, but I have to believe in it so it can believe in me. I always say to myself, "Is this something you're going to be proud of and be able to back up? Are you going to be mad at yourself if this is a success and you're not a part of it? Are you going to let ego creep in?" And when the answer is no, I know I'm doing the right thing and I've been really lucky in that respect. I feel like I'm right where I'm supposed to be.
You turned down Lifetime's Devious Maids on principle. What else have you turned down?
It was about my journey and the stories that I wanted to tell and the change I wanted to create. Television and film are fictional reality to reflect our daily reality. I didn't connect to Devious Maids. I didn't want that to be my coming-out. I also passed on this hip-hop film — I can't remember what it was called but it hasn't come out — because it was really negative in the sense that it portrayed Latinos in a real negative light, and they were throwing a huge chunk of change my way, and I just couldn't do it. And thank God. I wouldn't have changed anything because this is what I was meant to do. This is supposed to be my journey. Whether this journey lasts one season or 10, I'll take what I can get, because these are the stories that I want to tell.
What representation do you think TV gets right when it comes to Latino portrayals?
I'm really excited about ABC's How to Get Away With Murder and Karla Souza, who's playing a law student. That was definitely like the kids I grew up with. I'm so excited for Cristela Alonzo [ABC's Cristela]. Television and film are supposed to be a reflection of reality, right? We just want to see a slice of life. We want to be able to connect. We want to cry. We want to look at our lives on screen. It's clear to me that execs need to step outside of their office and really look at life. We are in interracial relationships. We speak multiple languages. We're multiple religions inside of that. I have Jewish ancestors. My sister converted to Judaism. I have Christians and Catholics and Buddhists in my family. I have multiracial, multiethnic relationships. We need to start casting color-blind because there is no specific anymore.
What does Hollywood typically get wrong about Latino portrayals?
That we all walk around with a sombrero on our head, a jalapeño in our hand and a taco in the other one. That's never been reality. We all are proud of where we come from, no matter what religion or culture we're in. We all love our family; we all love our tradition. That pride does not go anywhere. But do we wear a flag on our shoulder? No. Are we always speaking Spanish and pregnant? No. That is so very far few and between, and that goes across the board. There is nobody exempt of going through hardships or going through success. What we get incorrect in this industry is that the Latino story is different than any other story. Or the black story is any different than any other story. We don't want to only be limited to our world, or our skin color. We want to transcend. We want to be invited to the same party as everybody else.
What message do you really hope to send to young women who are tuning in to Jane?
This is not specific to one ethnicity. We're going to represent the human story with a new face that hasn't been seen before. I want little girls to be able to see that their uniqueness is what makes them special; they're imperfectly perfect like everybody else. What's so beautiful about Jane is that she's the every-girl. Jane is not specifically Latina; she's a very specific girl who is a type-A who wants her dreams to come true. I want to change beauty norms. I eat cookies and brownies but nobody's talking about what I look like on this show. Nobody's talking about beauty on the show. It's not a conversation because it doesn't need to be one. Because the only person I'm worried about that likes what she looks like in the mirror is me.
Age 30 Born Chicago Big break Filly Brown (2012) Reps Carlos Carreras, APA; David Guillod and Jeff Morrone, Intellectual Artists; Karl Austen and Peter Sample, Jackoway Tyerman