By Andrea Cuttler, Vanity Fair
America Ferrera; photo by WWD/John Aquino
This month, America Ferrera stars in the world premiere of Laura Marks's dark play Bethany, running Off Broadway at the City Center Stage II theater. The Ugly Betty alum plays Crystal, a single mother facing a financial crisis as she tries to win back custody of her young daughter. As Nemo approached New York City, the actress spoke to VF Daily about powerful female roles, being raised by a single mother herself, and the tolls that this emotionally driven, 90-minute show, has taken.
So you filmed the last two seasons of Ugly Betty in New York--how is it being back here to do this show?
Well, I live in New York now! At the moment I'm looking out at the blizzard.
Me too, it's crazy!
I moved to New York for a lot of reasons, one of which was the seasons that I didn't get to experience growing up in L.A. I'm looking out thinking some extreme weather is happening.
I grew up in L.A. as well. I'm in love with New York, but on my walk to the subway this morning, I thought, Why did I do this again? But it's nice to have the seasons every once in a while. So . . . what drew you to doing this show? Had you been wanting to do theater or was it this show in particular?
Well, I was actually keeping my eye open for theater. I hadn't done theater in New York in seven years so I'd been looking to find something that I felt excited about that could keep me in New York and get me back onstage. When Bethany came along, I was really drawn by everything that the script was touching upon--the social relevance of the foreclosure crisis and the levels of desperation that people have hit in our culture and how that hasn't gone away. And also this lead female role that was wide open to interpretation. I mean, she does some pretty morally ambiguous things but has a very airtight value system. A lot of people can put themselves in her shoes and understand how far she's willing to go. I just thought it would be really fun to discover the role. I feel like you could put a hundred women in that role and have a hundred different versions of the play. It's so dependent on how one person connects to that role and what surfaces in that sort of partnering of the actor and the role.
Definitely. I thought the show was very relatable. I think that on any given night, you'll have someone in the audience, who, at some point or another, can think of a time when there were financial struggles. Did you feel like you could relate to your character, Crystal, on any level?
Well, I was raised by a single mother. She raised six children herself, so there were definitely struggles, huge financial struggles. I could read the script and see in it a lot of my memories or even just my imagination of what it must have been like being on her own and raising six children. I remember it from a child's point of view, but it's interesting coming at it as an adult and rediscovering that journey. Not saying that my mother's journey is Crystal's exactly. There's definitely stuff that I can relate to and overall this wishful thinking that goes into our culture in our country. If you believe in it hard enough, if you want it bad enough, if you do all the right things, then it will come. We sort of put a lot of faith in that motto and yet we know that it's not true for everyone. Not everyone who does everything right and plays by the rules gets the golden ticket. So I enjoyed that it was raising questions about what we believe in as a culture.
The role seems very emotionally grueling. What's the preparation like to do that every single night?
It's challenging. I'm always there two hours before the show starts, and I get the physical preparation out of the way--hair, makeup, that sort of stuff--and then spend a good while trying to drop into that world. It can be challenging to have to go on that journey seven days a week, but luckily it's a short plot. I've definitely sensed the effects on my overall mood.
I can't imagine that it wouldn't affect you. What about the audience? For as dark as it is, there are some really funny, light, and sweet parts. How much of audience reaction affects what you're doing onstage?
Obviously you feel the audience's energy. I would say it's really important to tell the story we agreed to tell. We have some audiences that will tap into the dark comedy and laugh from beginning to end as if it was the funniest play they've ever seen. Without giving away too much, we've had audiences laugh in the gasp-inducing moments. Some audiences have chosen not to gasp but just to laugh. And then we'll have other audiences that will not laugh and will take it very seriously, and it doesn't mean they're not into it, but they're just having this completely different reaction. So we've had extremes and everything in between. I think with this play, especially, we have to stay committed to the story that we're telling and not try to make it funny or try to make it serious but to stay committed to the truth of what the writer wrote.
Right, because everybody will always process things differently anyway. So there's a lot of food onstage. When you're eating that burger, my first thought was, That looks delicious. And then I thought, Do you have to eat half a burger every single night?
I actually only take one bite. I'm glad that it looks like I'm eating half the burger!
It totally looked like it!
It's not the tastiest burger in the world. But it's fine. I'm gluten-free so the bun has to be gluten-free. Sorry, can you hang on a minute? I'm at the checkout line at Whole Foods. You caught me so scared. I ran to Whole Foods to stock up because I don't have enough food.
I just said the same thing to my boyfriend! I don't want to be a doomsday prepper, but don't we need to go get bottled water?
Yeah, well, hopefully the pipes don't freeze.
So have you seen any other shows? You live here, so it's not like you have to race to pack in all the culture while you're here.
Before the show started I wanted to get in some shows, since I know that once you're doing the show you can't really get out to see others. I went and saw Glengarry Glen Ross. I tried to get some good stuff in before my nights were taken. Theater is one of the main reasons why I fell in love with New York and why I'm here. I love the culture and live performance and being able to go any night of the week to experience something live. It's fun to get an idea of feedback on the performing side of the live performance.
Definitely! And what's up next for you?
I'm actually going straight into shooting an independent film here in New York City that I'm producing and acting in. This is a year of trying to stay in New York. I don't know how well that's going to work out--so far I have a play and a film I'm shooting in New York. And actually later this year a film I shot last year called Chavez that Diego Luna directed will be coming out, which is going to be super exciting. So yeah, it's day by day.
Well, it's almost February, and so far so good. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Of course, thank you, and thanks for coming to see the show. What day did you come this week?
I came Wednesday night.
Good, Wednesday was a good crowd! I thought, Oh I hope she didn't come Tuesday. That was not a great night for me!
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