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NAB 2017: America Ferrera Looks Beyond Acting to Producing, Directing and Activism

America Ferrera is known to TV viewers as the spunky heroine in such roles as Ana in Real Women Have Curves, Carmen in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Betty in ABC’s Ugly Betty and now Amy on NBC’s Superstore.

But behind the scenes, the 33-year-old actress is doing all sorts of other things. She’s directing and producing, recently appearing in the second season of Nat Geo’s Years of Living Dangerously and executive producing Refinery29’s Behind the Headlines, a multimedia experience comprising video, text and images dedicated to humanizing the conversations around issues that matter to women. She contributed to Epix’s five-part documentary America Divided, which explores inequality in education, housing, healthcare, labor, criminal justice and other related topics.

Looking ahead, she’s executive producing a digital series for Macro called Gente-Fied, a dramatic comedy featuring an all-Latino cast, and docuseries Only Girl, which looks into what it’s like to a be the only woman in male-dominated fields.

Ferrera also devotes quite a bit of time to activism. She was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016 and at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January 2017. And she and her husband, who train for and participate in triathlons together, have founded an advocacy organization called Harness.

Full Coverage of NAB 2017

Ferrera received the NAB Television Chairman’s Award in Las Vegas on Monday and took a minute to chat with B&C contributing editor Paige Albiniak. An edited transcript follows.

B&C: You’ve been an actress since you were a child, but you seem increasingly involved in politics. What was the catalyst for that involvement?

Ferrera: I think that who I am is, by nature, political. I am a woman of color, a child of recently arrived immigrants. My history and my identity is deeply wrapped up in the issues that are so important right now in our national debate and have always been a part of my career whether I wanted them to be or not.

I learned that very early on as I set out to start a career in entertainment… that there are certain boxes that I was seen in. From the very beginning, I knew that representing myself, my unique self that lived outside of those boxes, was going to be a challenge. I’ve been so fortune to have those opportunities on Real Women Have Curves, Ugly Betty, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I realized very quickly that any representation that I was lucky enough to win for myself was a win for so many others because they weren’t used to seeing themselves on television and movies, just as I was not used to seeing myself on television and films.

B&C: Do you consider yourself political?

Ferrera: I guess it depends on how you define political. I think that when it comes to identity and representing more than just myself, that’s something that I couldn’t escape even if I wanted to, and I’ve chosen not to try to escape it.

It brings me an enormous amount of joy to know that work that I do and the characters I bring to life are representative of so many others. I am, yes, an actress, but I’m also so many other things. I’m a citizen of this world and a citizen of this country and a proud patriotic American. I feel strongly that we all have a responsibility to speak up about things that we care about.

B&C: What led to you speaking at the Democratic National Convention last July?

Ferrera: I’d been very vocal and supportive of Hillary Clinton’s campaign dating back to the 2008 primary and in 2016. I think as a very active surrogate speaking largely to young audiences and Latino audiences, it was a voice that they felt was important to represent.

B&C: And what led you to speak at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January?

Ferrera: When I heard that it was happening, I reached out to offer my help in any way, whatever they needed from me. I wanted them to know that I was there to amplify their work and support it. That manifested in a lot of different ways and one was them asking me to come speak as co-chair of artists' table.

B&C: How are you seeing your political interests manifest in your work? Do you expect to do more kinds of documentary work?

Ferrera: I think what’s exciting about this time in my career is I’ve stretched myself to work in a number of spheres—as a producer, as a director, as an actress, as an activist. I used to see boxes that those aspects of my work fit into, and now I don’t see them as separate. I see them as joined together by storytelling. That’s what I’ve always loved to do—tell stories that create connection, bring people together, create understanding and compassion. Whether that’s through a docuseries or using my voice as an activist. To me, the heart of the conversation is always the same, which is how do we see each other better, how do we invite more people to the conversation.

B&C: You mentioned in your remarks [to the NAB Television Chairman’s luncheon] that your family and friends didn’t necessarily see what your entree would be into the entertainment industry. In recent years, the conversation about diversity has accelerated. Do you think the environment has changed? Do you see more opportunities for people of color in the entertainment industry?

Ferrera: I think it’s changed. The awareness, the consciousness that there’s a need for more voices is in the zeitgeist. There’s a lot of nuance in the conversation. As a woman who is at the intersection of so many identities, I care equally about all of those aspects being represented in the culture and not just how I am being represented but how everyone is being represented. It goes beyond wanting representation for the things that I am. I hope that as compassionate human beings we can advocate for as many people as possible to be represented.

B&C: Switching to Superstore, what about that script and that project drew you to it and became something you wanted to commit your time to?

Ferrera: It was subtle and sneaky. First of all, I was very intrigued by the people involved. They had already begun casting and I thought the way they were casting was so interesting — diverse actors, grounded people.

B&C: Did you always see yourself in comedy?

Ferrera: No, not at all, I saw myself as a dramatic actress. Ugly Betty drew me in and then Superstore thrust me into this traditional comedy world. What’s special about this show is there’s so much heart, truth, pathos that exists underneath the comedy. It reminded me of the comedies that I grew up on—Roseanne, Cheers, All in the Family—shows that represented every day people. The comedy was based on truths that sometimes were hard truths but they sort of deepened it in a really extraordinary way. I saw that potential in Superstore. I feel very proud of our writers and how they are bringing that through.

B&C:Superstore is renewed for season three on NBC so you know you’ve got that on your schedule for a while, but what’s next for you?

Ferrera: Producing and developing television and also growing and building an organization that my husband and I founded called Harness, which seeks to facilitate conversation that brings communities together through all kinds of platforms.

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.