'Jane The Virgin' Helped Change TV, But The Struggle Is Far From Over

04/06/2015 10:28 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

Ivonne Coll moved to the U.S. mainland four decades ago and has played Americans, French and Italian women and a host of Hispanic roles, though she’s rarely gotten to play “a Puerto Rican, which is what I am.”

One thing she’s never done during her Hollywood career: play a maid. That was by choice.

“I’ve always refused playing a maid or a house-cleaning lady or a nanny,” said Coll, whose “Jane the Virgin” dressing room features a vintage poster from the Sheraton in Puerto Rico, where her lounge show shared billing with Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck.

After a successful career as a beauty queen, a singer, a TV entertainer and an all-around celebrity in Puerto Rico, in the ‘70s, Coll gave up that glamorous life to study with an array of acting teachers, including Lee Strasberg, in New York City. Before her training led to roles on everything from “Switched at Birth” to “Lean on Me” to “Jane the Virgin,” where she plays Jane’s grandmother, Coll had to unlearn a lot. Standing next to the couch in her cozy dressing room, she demonstrates how she had to find a new way to stand on stage -- not like a pageant contestant, with one hip confidently thrust out, but normally, “like a person.”

“It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever experienced -- I was bare [on stage], I was nude, I had no image to protect me,” she recalled. Having worked so hard to establish herself as a serious actress in the U.S., she refused to take servant roles, even though that was so often what was out there for Hispanic actresses. It made life difficult at times.

“I paid too much money for my education as an actor to play a stereotype that will limit me for the rest of my life, so I held on,” Coll said. “You just cinch your belt. I’ve never stopped working, but it has been a big sacrifice.”

The irony is, years ago, Coll did a bit of housecleaning for a neighbor, partly to pick up a little extra spending money, partly as research into the lives of working-class characters she might be called upon to play.

“I wanted to do all the things people in life do, so I could portray real people,” Coll said, whose character, Alba Villanueva, is a home health worker.

“Jane the Virgin” is known for its surreal flights of fancy and its melodramatic moments, but behind the whimsy and fanciful elements, it is one of the realest shows on TV. The comedy is actually quite ambitious: It combines on-screen text, subversive narration, multiple plot threads, a variety of tones and twice the number of scenes that most one-hour TV shows shoot. It’d be a shame if "Jane the Virgin" were left out of conversation about programs deserving of the highest levels of acclaim, because its unique combination of pleasurable fantasy and narrative complexity has made it one of the most consistently surprising and rewarding shows of the season.

And yet it doesn’t have what many shows in the "prestige" realm have: A white man with ambiguous morality at the center, or narrative arcs that are mostly about Caucasian characters.

“Jane the Virgin” is a show about a family of working-class Hispanic women in Miami (in a TV landscape with an enormous number of financially comfortable characters, it's almost jarring to see characters punch a time clock at the hotel where Jane works). Jane and her mother and grandmother take the bus, they work hard for what they have and they are hoping for immigration reform. And along with shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” “Transparent” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Jane” has helped reform ideas about what quality shows can look like and who they can be about. Like those shows, “Jane” has accomplished many impressive things without relying on the kind of lazy stereotypes that have so often accompanied portrayals of people of color on American television.

Spicy Latinas, asexual Asians, sassy African-American women, menacing African-American men: One-note characters like these may be less common than they were a couple of decades ago, but ask an actor of color if they’re still around and wait for the sigh. As one "Ugly Betty” actor put it to me a few years ago, not only was she frequently asked to audition for maid roles, they were almost always named Blanca.

“Jane the Virgin” executive producer and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman has been a TV writer long enough to have developed a series of pet peeves about dumb kinds of representation. There’s a moment in an upcoming episode that mattered greatly to her but that “nobody will notice,” she said in a recent interview. In the scene, the Villanueva women -- pregnant Jane (Gina Rodriguez), her mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) and her grandmother -- are putting together a crib for Jane’s baby.

“It was just very important to me that they all know which tool is which, that no one is saying, ‘Oh, what’s this? Phillips head [screwdriver]?’ They just are good at putting together things because they’re three women who have lived together and have had to put shit together,” Urman said.

Clearly, Urman is sensitive to tired characterizations, but she’s a white executive producer making a show about a Hispanic family. The cast’s input, she said, is welcome and important -- and her open-door policy was put to the test early in the show’s run.

When reading the script for the show’s second episode, Coll came across a moment that didn’t sit right with her. One scene had Alba bringing Jane a sandwich as the prelude to a conversation among the three Villanueva women. As an actress whose spent years reading scripts featuring Hispanic women of a certain age, one element of the scene felt wrong.

“When you’re a Hispanic grandmother, you have an apron and you’re in the kitchen, cooking,” Coll said. “They had me bringing a grilled cheese sandwich. I looked at that scene at home and I said, ‘I’m not bringing any sandwich.’ Why should I justify my presence because I’m bringing food? Because that’s the thing -- the abuela has to say, ‘Que?! Eat something!’ What? This is a dynamic woman who has been a single parent for more than 40 years who is not in the kitchen cooking all the time. She’s outside, hustling for her family, to buy the house that they live in right now. That’s my house. I don’t owe it to anybody.”

Coll talked about the scene with the director of the episode, Uta Briesewitz, who spoke with Urman. She quickly agreed that Alba didn’t have to carry food in that scene.

“I’m grateful” for her willingness to bring up the topic, Urman said.

It’s just a sandwich, right? How important can it be? Well, it’s about more than just a grilled cheese. As Jaime Camil (Rogelio) said, Hispanic viewers have had to put up with a lot of stereotypes.

“Jane” is “portraying a Latino family that is not a caricature, and I love that,” said Camil, who is Mexican. “When you’re Latino, you don’t have to be shouting when you talk or saying ‘Tacos!’ or ‘Arepas!’ or ‘Fiesta!’ or having piñatas hanging from the ceiling of the house. No. That’s Hollywood.”

"When you’re Latino, you don’t have to be shouting or saying ‘Fiesta!’ or having piñatas hanging from the ceiling."

The broadcast networks have debuted shows like “Empire,” “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Jane the Virgin” this season -- all of which found viewers from all kinds of demographics. The excitement over these shows is justified, not just because they’re all entertaining in different ways, but because they unapologetically put a variety of people of color at the center of their narratives. Matters of race, class and representation are discussed within the shows themselves, and a wide array of characters are given the kind of shading, nuance and ongoing development that frees them having to be model minorities. Their hopes, dreams and flaws are easy to see -- and perhaps identify with -- because the shows spend a lot of time looking at the world from their points of view.

One of the reasons I'm sad "Looking" was canceled is because it depicted not just many different kinds of gay men but it also gave screen time to Hispanic men from different cultures and classes. "Looking" is nothing like "Jane the Virgin," but that's partly the point: TV needs more of this kind of variety, not less.

As Coll pointed out, the Villanueva women “are complete human beings, with their thoughts, with their intelligence, with their nuances. They disagree. They’re not a monolith, which we have been depicted as most of the time.”

“When our daily lives are not truly reflected on screen there is an exclusion that happens,” Gina Rodriguez in an interview in the show’s makeup trailer. “People don’t feel represented. They don’t feel involved and it’s hard for them to relate.”

An alarmingly tone-deaf Deadline article about television diversity makes it clear that there are many people in key positions in Hollywood who are change-averse (if not depressingly unaware of their biases). But the backlash to that piece may represent a ray of hope. It was clear from the reaction to that article that many people in Hollywood recognize that greater inclusion is long overdue. For television to remain vital and interesting and full of fresh, fascinating stories, and for it to have any relation to the changing demographics of the United States, more men and women of color need to be making, directing and starring in all kinds of TV shows (and this should not just be part of a cyclical pattern that fades away again).

But right now, the majority of TV shows are created by white writers. Thus it’s important for those writers to solicit ideas, to have honest conversations and to be open to feedback from their collaborators, who ideally should come from all kinds of backgrounds and bring many different perspectives to the process. I’ve talked to white writers who shy away from depicting people who aren’t like them out of a fear of getting it wrong, but as this incisive piece from an anonymous black actor makes clear, those writers need to recognize that those kinds of thought processes are part of the problem.

“My only hope is that writers don’t fail their actors of color out of fear of failing,” the actor wrote.

As Urman worked on the pilot for the show, she considered what it would be like for her to remake the Venezuelan telenovela “Juana the Virgen,” despite the fact that she isn’t Hispanic. For her, the key was making each character intensely specific and finding points of identification with Jane and her family, which wasn’t difficult.

“I’ve definitely had that moment of being like, ‘Am I the person to write this?’ But you look for the places where you connect. I find it harder to write men than I do to write a 24-year-old, really driven woman who has mommy issues. I’ve got that covered, you know?” Urman said. “If there is a choice isn’t that well thought out, then it’s easy to dismiss [characters] as ‘other.’ So I wanted to think about her as a real, fully realized person.”

Urman asked herself questions and thought up complicated backstories for each of the Villanueva women: Why did Xiomara have Jane so young? What impact did the death of her husband have on Alba? How did Alba’s faith fit into her life? What made Jane such a Type A personality? Urman’s thought process extended to the characters’ names: She decided Xiomara gave her daughter a “plain Jane” moniker because Xiomara didn’t sound like the names of the girls she grew up with in Miami.

“You know, Jane loves grilled cheese. That’s a very American choice and I like that she is a very American girl. She just grew up in a multicultural household," Urman said. "She’s a Latino girl who was raised by a very religious grandmother. Her mother’s not that religious. They’ve always been a very strong matriarchy. They work hard. They don’t have a lot of money. They ride the bus. The more details that you put in,” the more the story gives potential audience members things to identify with.

Ultimately, as Coll put it, “We are not a Hispanic show, but it is a show about a Hispanic family.”

"It’s a telenovela. Any of us could be stabbed with an ice sculpture at any moment."

Even as the show keeps multiple story threads afloat, even as it nimbly traverses epic moments and melancholy letdowns, even as it flits between serious scenes, comedic hijinks and surreal scenarios and makes the Latin Lover Narrator’s asides even more addictive, “Jane” also provides a meta-commentary on the very idea of romance via its telenovela elements. As cast member Justin Baldoni pointed out, “Jane” has spent much of the first season taking apart the whole idea of romance, partly through Jane’s fantasies, which are in turn influenced by the soaps she watches and the books she loves.

"The idea of ‘meant to be’ -- that’s the telenovela part, but what does it mean to be ‘meant to be?’” said Baldoni, who plays Jane’s wealthy boyfriend, Rafael. “You can come from two different worlds and have a beautiful connection and feel very ‘meant to be,’ but that does not mean you don’t need to work on your [relationship].

“It’s a telenovela,” Baldoni added with a laugh. “Any of us could be stabbed with an ice sculpture at any moment. But there’s a lot of thought that goes into this. There’s a reason for every single arc. In Jennie’s mind, if there’s going to be a crazy telenovela plot, there has to be a grounded foundation for that to start with, otherwise you’re not invested in that story. There’s always got to be a payoff.”

The “Jane” payoff for the CW has been noticeable: The show ended up on many year-end best-of lists in 2014, and also garnered Rodriguez the network’s first Golden Globe win. But Rodriguez still wants more. (Almost every cast member described the show’s star as a “force of nature.” “That girl never gets tired,” said cast member Yael Grobglas, who plays Rafael's ex, Petra. “I don’t know how she does it. She’s here morning to night, and she’s always enjoying herself and always such a positive force.”)

The show recently broke for its hiatus, but in addition to working on a book, a documentary, making an appearance on “Sesame Street” and possibly working on a movie during the next few months, Rodriguez also plans to do much more to put the word out about “Jane the Virgin” among Hispanic viewers. There was an effort to have the cast connect with Hispanic media outlets when “Jane” debuted, and though overall viewership for the show hovers under 2 million per week, 21 percent of that viewership is Hispanic, which is by far the highest percentage for any CW show, according to a representative for the network.

Still, Rodriguez won't be deterred from getting the word out about the show (in part to clear up the misunderstanding behind one of the remarks she occasionally gets from those who haven't seen the show: "But I don't have cable!").

“I always believed that [‘Jane’] was for anyone and it wasn’t just for the Latino community, that it was anyone’s story -- I always knew that,” she said. “I’m very happy to see that that’s been the result. I mean, my Twitter fans are of all ethnicities, all cultures, all religions and they’re vocal about it. And I have a lot of Latino followers and a lot of fans that are vocal but, you know, [Latinos] are 54 million plus in this country. We could singlehandedly make this show 14 million viewers a week easily. And we haven’t.”

“You don’t have to love it,” she added with a chuckle. “If you don’t love it, don’t watch it. But if they give it a chance, I think they’ll really dig it.”

One of the things that bothered many people about the Deadline article, which came out after my visit to the “Jane” set, was the implication that because there are now a few high-profile shows focused on non-white characters, audiences and actors alike should be happy with that and not expect more.

Like so many TV viewers, Rodriguez wants more, and she hopes that support for “Jane” and shows like it opens the floodgates.

“If you support this show, that means it could [lead to] any kind of show -- about Dominicans in Spanish Harlem or Cubans from Cuba or Salvadorians living in Arkansas,” Rodriguez said. “The point is that when you show somebody your power and they know that there’s money behind it, they create more.”

My entire interview with Ivonne Coll can be found in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below. And don't miss these recent interviews with Gina Rodriguez, Jaime Camil and Jennie Snyder Urman.

Suggest a correction