09/24/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nowhere Near the End : America Ferrera on Cops, Chavez and Getting Out the Vote

Since her breakthrough role in 2002's Real Women Have Curves, America Ferrera has become a Hollywood leading lady by defying and frequently rewriting the term. She earned an Emmy for playing the capable, if not always best dressed, fashion magazine employee in Ugly Betty. Despite the braces and the odd color combinations she'd select, Betty Suarez consistently demonstrated that her supervisors where her superiors in name only.


America Ferrera in End of Watch. Courtesy of Open Road.

Without the unflattering wig and the prosthetic dental care gone wrong, Ferrera has demonstrated a remarkable range, playing a romantic lead in Our Family Wedding and a reluctant "coyote" in Under the Same Moon. She gets to add action hero to her résumé in the gritty cop thriller End of Watch, where she, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play part of a squad assigned to one of the toughest areas of Los Angeles. It's a far cry from playing a fairy in the cartoon Tinker Bell.

Ferrera and her cohorts might be doing something right. As of this writing End of Watch has earned an 82 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and she looks as comfortable knocking down doors as her male costars do. Speaking by phone from the Toronto International Film Festival two weeks ago, Ferrera describes how portraying a cop was challenging but in her blood.

With the officer you play in End of Watch, we normally don't think of you as someone who kicks a lot of butt.

It was completely different from what I've done before. The experience of the preparation was just one of the most rewarding things I feel like I've ever done. David Ayer (the writer-director) really challenged and asked all of us to really throw ourselves into these characters, no matter how big or small the role was.

We all went to academy training. We all did ride-alongs. He asked me to start boxing months in advance. We did mixed martial arts (MMA) together. We all really threw ourselves into it and spent a lot of time with the people that we were playing.

Cody Horn, who plays my partner in the movie, and I spent time with female cops. We spent time with male cops and tried to get the best feel that we could for the reality of it. It was so challenging physically, but more than anything, it was challenging mentally.

It was an incredible challenge because it's super humbling to come up against your physical limitations when you realize, "Oh, I'm a five foot one, 130-pound female." (laughs) There is not a lot I can do if a 200 pound man wants to sit on me. That was incredibly humbling.

But spending a lot of time with the women who were doing this job, you realize the intelligence and the tactics that go into being great at this job. So many men have said to us that some of the best partners they ever had were female cops.

In fact, my oldest sister was a cop for many, many years, and loved this job, so I knew it could be done.

A lot of the cops we spent time with looked exactly like me: my height, my weight, even my race. There were a lot them who were Latinos.

A lot of the female cops I've met here in Kansas City have wonderfully sardonic senses of humor like the character you play in the film has. Does that seem common?

What's funny is that cops actually develop an incredible sense of humor. A lot of the cops that we spent time with have wonderful bedside manner, if you will. And the way they're communicating with a certain neighborhood all day, every day, they come to know people, and people come to know them.

I think that they know that to be able to do their jobs they have to be able to be, not just the big bad cops coming in. They have to coexist. I think a lot of the ways they have to get through their day with the people in their community and also with each other is to develop a lightheartedness and a sense of humor when the reality of the job is that you're seeing some pretty heavy things all day long.

For those of us who don't live in Los Angeles, would it be fair to say the South Central area your character patrols is a lot different for the rest of the city?

Yeah. I don't know that the things that happen in that neighborhood don't happen all over. I'm sure they do: domestic violence and drugs and guns. I think that those are probably all over the city, but I think the volume is a little bit more intense because I think the resources in those areas are less. It definitely felt like a tucked away little universe that people could probably live in Los Angeles their whole lives and never ever catch a glimpse of those.

Because your sister used to be a cop, how does she react to their depiction on screen?

I don't know. I kept sending her pictures of me when I was in (the film). As an actor preparing to play a role, I tried to be as careful as I could not to say I knew what she felt like. She hasn't seen the film yet, so I'll be interested to know what she thinks when she finally sees the movie.

There was one blood curdling scene where you and your partner were mopping up a crime scene where a veteran cop gets a career ending wound. Your character and her partner were resentful because the inexperienced partner of the wounded cop had apparently botched the situation. Is there a kind of hierarchy with experienced cops versus the rookies?

The one thing that became so clear is that your job is to serve and protect, but your priority as a human is to stay alive. And your priority is to keep your partner alive and your coworkers alive. You're out there as a team, and at the end of the day, everyone has to hold their own weight for it to work. You have to trust that people are game, that they're prepared, and that they're not going to not hold their end of the bargain, so someone else is paying for it. Or that they'll end up paying for it, or the whole team gets hurt.

I think that's where that attitude comes from. If you're not up to it, it's better that you're out because in those situations, you can't afford to have a weak link. That is definitely something that was definitely impressed upon us while we were preparing. If you're not game, then you don't belong here because It's not a place where faltering is really the difference between your life, your partner's life and some innocent bystander's life.

I was interested to hear that your next project is playing Helen Chavez, the wife of Cesar Chavez of the United Migrant Farm Workers. Have you played a living person before?

No, this is my very first time. And actually Michael Peña plays Cesar Chavez. I play his wife Helen. We had just done End of Watch that summer, and then a few months later, we're back together as husband and wife, which obviously was such a turn for us.

It was daunting, and it felt like there was an added layer of responsibility because I had such an enormous respect for this woman, just being in the same room with her, meeting her, talking to her for a long time and her trusting me with a lot of her experiences that she shared with me. You
feel an enormous sense of responsibility to portray that, uh, well.

But it was fantastic, and it was also really wonderful to have sort of a blueprint because generally when I'm creating characters, everything's open, and it's free game. It's the script and you and the director, and you get to create. And there's very little marks that you really have
to try and live up to.

With a living person, there's a certain truth and a certain reality that existed, and so there's an obligation to represent that.

Didn't you have to learn how to speak in a dialect that doesn't exist anymore?

Yes (laughs). That was so hard. She was an American, born and raised in California. Cesar was an American, born Arizona and grew up in California. They were English speakers. They knew English, but they spoke English with an accent that was influenced by Spanish-speaking parents in the home. But it wasn't like what you'd hear today. It was a very different type of Mexican-American accent. So we had to do a lot of listening to tapes from that era.

I'm my case, Helen Chavez hated the limelight. She would never talk to press. The pictures that she's in, there are not many of them. So when it was about her talking, I could only find one 20 second audio clip of one quote, which she gave when she was 35. Other than that I only had her voice at 85. So it was really kind of daunting to try and reconstruct what did this woman did sound like at this time, in this era and at that age. I had a great dialect coach, and we worked together a lot.

It was exciting because the dialect brought that era alive, and it brought all the characters alive.

Which do you think would be more challenging: Being a cop in South Central, working on a fashion magazine like Betty Suarez did or picking grapes like the migrant workers did?

Let's take the fashion magazine out of there.

I would say picking the grapes because there was so little dignity in the work and in the way one was treated, so definitely it was probably the toughest job.

Earlier today, I read an interview with you that was part of a larger piece on Huffington Post about the Hispanic vote. You have been politically active. In the piece you expressed concern that while the number of Hispanic voters has been rising, a proportional number may not show up at the polls.

Numbers absolutely don't translate into participation. I think there are many reasons at the moment that you can't take for granted that the 22 million Latinos eligible to vote will show up. One of the major reasons is these voter ID laws that are really targeting certain demographics: American Latinos being one of them, African-Americans, young people, students, the elderly, the disabled.

These laws that are trying to be pushed through are meant to suppress people's vote. They're a big challenge to us now. There's the fight against the laws themselves, but they are being held up in some places. So the challenge then becomes with these suppressive laws, how do you then get the proper information and the proper resources to people so they can still exercise their right to vote?

And that's why the work I'm doing with Voto Latino on the campaign America for America is about getting the right information to the Latino community in these very important swing states, where they have the power to decide these races from the presidential campaign all the way down to the bottom of the ballot. All of those local elections have the power to decide which way it goes. At the moment, it can't be underestimated how much outreach needs to be done to empower people to use their right to vote.

Even though you've been associated with your ethnic identity, it hasn't restricted your roles. In cartoons, you've been fairy (Tinker Bell) and a Viking (How to Train Your Dragon).

(Laughs) I think it's very tough to say. I think in an industry that's really a lot about image and messaging, it sort of comes down to what an individual represents. I feel like I've been incredibly fortunate in my career to be cast in roles that are representative of the Latino community but have been able to cross over: Like Real Women Have Curves, like Ugly Betty, like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I don't have to not play Latino to still be universal.

If you ask me what I think the Latino audience wants to see, well the Latino audience wants to see what everybody else wants to see. They want to see good stories that relate to them. And I think they want to see themselves reflected.

I don't think they want to see movies that are made by Latinos for Latinos. I don't think anyone wants that. They're the first ones in line to watch the fourth installment of Spider-Man or The Bourne Identity.

I feel personally very fortunate in my career because I have gotten to branch out, but I think that it is still a struggle. I would hope that as the kind of larger conversation about what this country is looking like is changing -- we saw so many Latino faces at the (Democratic National Convention). You see even on the other side of the party line a certain need to appeal to and acknowledge and realize that this is the reality of the situation.

You would hope that once that conversation happens in the broader spectrum of our society, it could start to leak into our entertainment industry, and you would also be able to hope that we would be able to be the pioneers of it, that we wouldn't wait for popular opinion to say, "OK. We're ready to see Americans who happen to be Latinos on television and in films."

Also, within the Latino community there are, for example, also Cuban-Americans and other groups, and each of these is distinct.

It's incredibly nuanced. If you have a personal experience with it, you know that there's a huge difference between someone who's half-Cuban born in New York and someone who's half-Cuban born in Cuba, or somebody who's half-Cuban born in Miami or born in Los Angeles. And that's only within the same nationality. You don't have the time to explain the nuances between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and Cubans and Hondurans. The differences are many.