When The CW presented Jennie Snyder Urman with Jane the Virgin in January 2013, she didn’t quite know what to think.
“They just told me the log line, that they were interested in it, and I was like ‘I don’t know about that. That sounds too crazy for me,’” says Urman, who was asked to adapt Jane from the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen as part of her overall development deal with CBS Television Studios, the production arm of CW parent CBS Corp. “A girl gets accidentally artificially inseminated being the log line?”
Urman spent that weekend walking around her neighborhood, mulling the idea over. And that’s when, as she puts it, “It just started to emerge a little bit as a fairy tale, and I started to think that my initial inspiration was this ordinary, hard-working girl who loves telenovelas, who’s life suddenly becomes one.”
Jane the Virgin’s success has been somewhat of a fairy tale for both the network and Urman, who developed the series and also serves as executive producer and writer.
The critically acclaimed freshman series, which is produced by CBS Television Studios and Warner Bros. Television in association with Electus, nabbed The CW’s first Golden Globe nominations, and star Gina Rodriguez won the net’s first Globe for best actress in a comedy series in January.
“I’ve been on the other side of both success critically and ratings-wise,” says Urman. “So I definitely did not expect it to be as well received as it was. It was pretty amazing.”
When Urman attended Princeton, she split her time between school and New York City, where she pursued acting. But she came to feel she wasn’t “thick-skinned enough or perhaps talented enough or wanted it enough as a career,” she says. “So I thought about academia, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do after college.”
Her good friend Victoria Webster suggested that she and Urman try writing for TV. The duo wrote a frenzied series of scripts and packed their bags for Los Angeles, landing on the West Coast on Sept. 10, 2001.
“Yeah it was really a pretty awful time to move away from New York and all,” says Urman of arriving in L.A. the day before the Sept. 11 terror attacks. “It was very disconcerting.”
Webster (who has since left TV behind) and Urman eventually nabbed a TV gig as writers on Hope & Faith, where Urman spent three years.
Urman took to the craft of writing early on. “I [love] the way I can sit at home and work on writing by myself,” she says. “And with acting I always felt like I was at the mercy of someone else who had to choose me in order to do it.”
Glenn Geller, executive VP, current programming, CBS Network Television Entertainment Group, who has worked with Urman since she came on board The CW’s 90210 reboot, describes her as a tireless worker at her craft.
“She is such a gifted, talented writer, and her work ethic is kind of barnone,” says Geller.
Urman wears many hats on Jane—EP, showrunner, writer—and she particularly likes that the show allows her to explore relationships and write complex women.
“I have so many interesting, accomplished, wonderful women in my life...and I want to see more of them on screen,” says Urman, who has two children with husband and cinematographer Jamie Urman. “And I want my daughter and my son to watch more of them as they grow up.”
Urman will continue crafting those kinds of characters; in January, The CW ordered a second season of the show. “I’m a huge fan of Jennie. I’m looking forward to many seasons of Jane,” says Geller. “I’m looking forward to the next show that Jennie will create for us. This is really just the beginning.”
Urman attributes Jane’s success to star Rodriguez.
“There would just be no chance it would work if you didn’t have her at the center grounding everything and as the emotional through-line that the audience can hook into and who you really root for,” says Urman.
One of Urman’s first major tastes of creating came in seventh and eighth grade when she was pulled out of class and assigned to write and put on a play for her school about the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
“It was probably excruciating for everyone both involved and watching,” says Urman of the production, which she estimates approached the five-hour mark in length. “But I really did love it.”
She credits reading and theater with keeping her focused during her turbulent teen years.
The relationship Urman had with her parents growing up also played an important role in shaping who she is.
“I am very close to my mother [and my father], but our relationship during my teens was very rocky, and the difficulty of navigating that terrain has always stayed with me,” she says. “Growing up, I defined myself largely in comparison/contrast to her.”
That mother/daughter relationship, no matter how rocky, is a major through-line in Urman’s work, especially in Jane.
“I just thought I want to create a world where you could have really high stakes and really ‘holy s—t’ moments but at the same time if I could balance that with real grounded human emotion and a character that you root for, I thought that could feel different,” says Urman.
As the season finale of Jane approaches, Urman stopped short of any big reveals but does say, “everybody in our show has twists and turns and secrets and they’re all kind of going to come to a boil by episode 22 and I’m excited for that.”
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