Gina Rodriguez carries a heavy burden.
I’m not referring to her schedule, which has her working long days at an unassuming film and TV studio on the outskirts of Los Angeles. And I’m not referring to the many, many things she does when she’s not playing the pregnant Miami resident Jane Villanueva on “Jane the Virgin,” a role that garnered her a Golden Globe award (the CW’s first) in January.
On a recent Monday morning, I sat in a trailer with Rodriguez as she got her hair and makeup done before shooting scenes in an upcoming “Jane the Virgin” episode, and by the time she finished recounting everything she had done the previous weekend — which happened to be the weekend of the Academy Awards — I needed a nap. With genuine excitement and self-deprecating humor, she recounted a non-stop schedule of photo shoots, dress fittings, meetings, red carpets and multiple interviews. The finale of the weekend of hoopla could have been a trip to the swanky Vanity Fair party, to which she was invited. She didn’t go because she was busy working on a treatment for a documentary she wants to do about the representations of Latinos in the media.
It doesn’t sound like she will slow down once “Jane” wraps its first season in a few weeks. During her break, she hopes to shoot a movie and plans to write a book of advice for young people, something along the lines of Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.”
“It’ll be a story of my life and all the different sayings my father gave me growing up and how I navigate through this crazy society we have, and how I don’t allow it to bring me down or make me feel less than but instead empower me and lift me up,” Rodriguez said. “Ideally I’d be able to give that to young kids, because ‘The Power of Now’ I love, but it’s so hard to get through, and I don’t think a teenager is going to pick that up in our day and age, when they can pick up an iPhone and watch TMZ.”
There are so many things on Rodriguez’s plate, and yet she carries none of it as if it’s a heavy load. On the show’s set, her energy never flagged; she buzzed around chatting with crew members and happily dove into an impromptu mid-afternoon buffet of Chinese food, but was completely focused when working with director Debbie Allen and the rest of the show’s cast.
She wears all those ideas and responsibilities lightly; the burden I spoke of never appears to weigh her down, even though it is literally on her body. The thing is, the pregnancy prosthesis she wears under her costume is really heavy. I picked it up before she changed into Jane’s waitress outfit, and it was so dense and weighty I almost felt pregnant again myself.
How does she do all she does and not get tired, especially given that she’s literally carrying a huge weight around? The secret is … she does get tired. And she has a new appreciation of what her sisters went through when they were pregnant.
“Before, I used to be like, you guys complained so much when you were pregnant!” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “Now I’m like, ‘Oh my God! I commend you, mothers.'”
Rodriguez and I spoke about the tricky balance of the real and the surreal in “Jane the Virgin,” the “fight” that she and executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman bring to television and the relationship between Jane and Rafael in the Q&A below. The entire conversation with Rodriguez is available in podcast form; these excerpts from our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Do you remember reading the pilot script for this?
Oh yeah. I remember the day I auditioned, February 6. Yeah, I remember everything. Tested February 19. Tested again the 20th. Tested again the 25th. I tested a lot of times.
Well, this was my assumption. Obviously I can’t speak for [CW executives], but it was really important to [CW president Mark Pedowitz]. He was branching out. It was a new genre for the CW they hadn’t seen on the network yet, and it was really important to him. I could imagine — it’s really important to me. So I was okay testing a bunch of times, because I wanted to be a part of a project that it meant that much to them. Everybody put so much time and care into this. It mattered a lot and I hope it continues to matter.
There’s a leap of faith an actor has to make in a new project, because you can read a pilot script and talk to the creative team, you can do all the due diligence in the world, but you never really know if it’s going to be …
… if it’s going to be anything good. You sign that first contract for the next seven years of your life. You do take a chance, same way they take a chance on you. You take a chance that the writer is going to lead you in a direction that [allows you to be] artistically creative, that you’re going to be able to fly, that you’re going to be able to really show people what you can do.
But you’re not necessarily in control of where it goes.
Actors talk about it sometimes, because not only do we have the writers kind of creating our destiny, but we have the editors who, God willing, bring out the best in your performance, and that’s huge. That’s humongous for me, that [“Jane the Virgin”] editors are phenomenal. But then, you have directors that come in every seven days. You have to trust that director is going to also guide you in the same kind of tone that you’ve been going in. And so there’s a lot of trust you’ve got to put into other people and trust in your fellow peers. Ultimately it’s just [about] putting your best work out there, because then you’re proud of everything. That’s the only thing in your control.
But I remember when I read this script, I could hear the brilliance of this woman. I mean, that pilot was so strong. I thought it was so good. I could hear that Jennie had a clear idea of this girl, and that’s what mattered to me. Her clarity on Jane wasn’t skewed by the misconceptions we have from society on Latino culture, Latinos in America. To finally read a script where I was just a girl, and everything that was the byproduct of being Latino was just part of it. It wasn’t something you had to explain. It wasn’t something you had to dive into. It wasn’t something you had to blow up so that everybody knew that she was brown.
Jennie had a very clear vision of who this girl was and that was who I was going to play and that’s who I fell in love with. Did I know I was going to go on this crazy roller coaster? God, no. Every week is like “Whoa, where do you guys come up with this?” But Jennie created a staff of people that she trusts and Jennie is my soul sister. I feel so lucky that we have the relationship we do.
You obviously have a vested interest in who Jane is because you’re playing her every day. Do you have input?
Jennie and I, we’re very close. It’s a beautiful relationship that we have. My input is my art. What she writes on the page, I never felt like I needed to touch. I have got luck beyond belief. I never have ever had to be like, “Jennie, really?” or like, “Come on, guys, let’s not do that.” Never once. I don’t think that’s common.
Jennie’s aware, she’s listening. She’s listening when we’re hanging out. She’s listening when we’re talking. She knows my heart when it comes to minorities in the media, when it comes to women, when it comes to beauty image. You know, I remember when we were getting ready for the upfronts [i.e. spring presentations to advertisers] after the pilot, and I got influenza and I lost like 15 pounds in like three days. I was hospitalized. It was awful.
And this was the week before we went to upfronts. I got super, super ill, and I have Hashimoto’s disease. I’m not naturally skinny to save my life. Nor do I want to be. I love my body, I love my curves. And when we went to upfronts, she saw me and she pulled me to the side and she said, “You know I love your body. You know I think you are gorgeous. Please don’t …” Like, “Let’s talk about this.”
I’m like, “No, I’m just sick. It’ll come right back in a few weeks.” She was like, “Oh, thank God.” She also was invested in changing the way women were portrayed onscreen. She is a very strong, brilliant, intelligent, independent woman that is a mother to a daughter, and she wants that daughter to feel that way and a world where every beauty type is celebrated and every women can be whatever she wants to be. That lines up so much with the way I feel about life, so that’s why I’m saying we’re soul sisters. Like, we both have that kind of fight in our art.
I could have felt like I had no control or I was lost or I don’t love my character anymore or [question] “Why does my character do this?” Because it is somebody else’s story you’re telling. Somehow I got lucky that I am in love with my creator, I am in love with the story she’s telling. I’m in love with the character she gave me. I’m too lucky. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate what’s been happening to my life.
You’re playing a character who’s had this new responsibility placed on her. This seems to be parallel to your life.
A hundred percent.
And not only are you the lead of this show, the show is also, as you said, something that’s very different for this network and for network television in general. It’s a mixture of telenovela, drama, comedy.
It’s kind of a new format. And we’re talking about social commentary that people have never touched on. Pro-life, pro-choice and not making a [judgment]. I commend all the writers. It has nothing to do with me, but to be a part of it is so great. The social-commentary thing they make with no judgment is brilliant. Talk about immigration reform. They’re not saying, “It’s terrible. You guys are awful!” Just, “Educate yourself.”
Do you ever think of yourself as being in a position like Jane, in that you were both given this unexpectedly large responsibility?
At times. You know, it’s funny, because I welcome it. At first it was very daunting and scary, that moment of, “Wow, this is happening. My dreams are coming true and I’m in a position where I can hopefully create some change or even just start talking about it or scratch the surface of it.” Because it’s already been talked about — I’m not [the first]. Just like Shonda Rhimes said in her beautiful speech about not breaking ceilings, I’m not breaking any ceilings. But I’m continuing to hopefully move the glass aside so other people can come in.
I’ve been praying for this. And now it’s here. “Oh my God, can I do this?” But the same way Jane [has] that moment of, “I don’t know, this is so much,” she also is like, “I can do this.”
I’m not alone. I have an amazing cast around me and amazing writers that are leading me. I have an amazing Latino community that supports me. I have amazing other artists, other women that have come before me. Rita Moreno who I was so blessed to work with [Moreno is an upcoming guest star]. Ivonne Coll who is my grandma everyday. So I’m not alone. But I found that parallel [between Jane and myself] not too long ago and I was like, “This is where I relate to Jane.” Because there’s so much about Jane that I don’t know if I know how to relate to.
I’m a little tougher. I have a little bit of a bigger bite. But this [responsibility] is where I relate to her. Because in this storm, I have to stay calm.
Jane is clear about wanting to remain a virgin, but at no point do I feel like the show is judgmental or trying to rein in the character’s sexuality, per se.
Yes. It’s beautiful. Jennie really [walks] that line with temptation that we all have and we all own and the sexuality which we all have and own. I mean, Jane is 23 years old. Of course she’s not only intrigued and interested, but she gets turned on like any other human being. It’s instinctual. It’s natural. And I think that shying away from that would then implement that other part that I kind of also grew up with, which is guilt. And we don’t want to put that out there because I think that there is a need to explore the natural urge for a woman, a man, for intimacy, for touch. That is real and we don’t want somebody to refrain from doing that because of the fear. And I think that Jane [walks] that line of getting close and maybe finding that thing of guilt.
But in the coming episodes, especially now when Jane and Rafael have been together longer, you’re going to see Jane have those moments of, “I’m ready — or so I believe.” Because she is ready. You know, at this point she thought she would have been married to Michael. After saving it for 23 years, she is ready to give it to the man that she loves. But then that got derailed. So the urge and the desire of like, “It’s about that time” — that exists.
I love that that Jane-Rafael relationship is romantic and has many ups and downs in believable ways. One of the most believable things about it is that they’re very different people.
And he’s going through a lot right now. He’s lost his father. The business is suffering. He’s got all kinds of challenges. It’s not inconceivable that these people don’t necessarily work together long-term. Even as a fan of the couple, I sit there and go, “Well …
“… Maybe it’s not the best idea.”
Maybe it’s not.
I like the way they set that up, because this scenario has probably happened to every single one of us, where we’re in a relationship for a long amount of time and then somebody new comes in, presents a newness or a dream or a fantasy that we’ve desired at some point to live out. We’re going to keep diving into the differences between Jane and Rafael, and then what’s beautiful is they bring Michael back to remind Jane of what she did have. We do this as human beings. We forget what we have and we go after something that seems like it’s about to fulfill a fantasy, and sometimes that doesn’t always work.
When Jane got pregnant, I think Jane’s natural instinct is that she wanted the family unit to exist. The mom, dad and the child, because she lacked that in her upbringing. We all make decisions based off of our past, situations that happen, how we see the world, how we’ve been taught to see the world. And sometimes that’s not conducive to the time that we’re in.
And it can be very, very tempting to …
To try to force that.
To stick to, “This is my plan. This is what I thought would happen. So I have to do this.”
You have to make it work.
Even when every sign in the universe is telling you …
No. I’ve done this before — I’ve ignored the signs. At least, thank God, I didn’t test that out with my career. But what I’ve realized in my career is that it does pay to be patient. It does pay to stick to the things that do feel right in your gut and in your integrity and align with your morals.
For Jane, trying to make this family unit work is where she’s actually taking her first risks. Because Jane doesn’t take risks. Jane’s by the book. “Don’t do that because that hurts. Don’t touch it because it burns. End of story.” That’s logic. But for the first time Jane is taking risks to make that idea work. And it’s very awesome that they are showing the [desire] to fight, to make something work and sometimes it’s out of your control.
That’s really the success of the show — everybody has multiple dimensions, everybody has flaws. And they all keep creating obstacles for each other, sometimes with the best of intentions. So as much as it can be a soap opera, as much as it can be heightened and melodramatic and comedic, it’s based in these realistic dynamics among the characters.
Yeah, exactly. That’s where success lies, that grounded nature, because that’s where we connect. That’s where we connect with the audience. [The show has] that catharsis, that moment, that lesson. You need to have that grounded authenticity in order to fly high in that comedy or else you’re just like, “Ah, you’re a joke. I don’t want to listen to you anymore.”
Without that, it just tips over into parody or something.
Yeah. And we border campy sometimes, but that’s where we get our kicks.
If it’s intentionally bordering campiness, that’s different.
Yeah. I definitely commend the cast — we know when we’re going there. And we go there and it’s nice and we have all committed to going to the heightened comedy, but also to saying, “Okay, here’s [a grounded] moment. We’re real. We’re real people that feel. Let’s go there.”
What are some of your favorite scenes on the show?
I love seeing my parents together on screen when I’m not in it. Every interaction. I love watching Andrea [Navado, who plays Jane’s mother Xiomara]. She’s so subtle and so fun to watch. And she’s so not like that character. She’s shy and she’s not really as outgoing and she’s not flirtatious. To see her put on Xiomara, I’m like, “Wow!” And I love Jaime [Camil, who plays Jane’s father, Rogelio de la Vega]. He’s always been by far my favorite character to watch. Everything he does is phenomenal and I just absolutely love watching the two of them together.
I miss working with Brett [Dier, who plays Jane’s ex, Michael]. The first five episodes, we were together all the time. I also love working with Justin [Baldoni, who plays Jane’s boyfriend, Rafael]. Our love together on the show is so romantic, where me and [Michael] were very naïve and young and youthful and light. With Rafael there’s so much passion.
[In Monday’s episode] there’s an epic dance scene with me and Rafael. It’s a dream, it’s magical realism. It’s a full-on performance, a minute-and-a-half song. It is epic and dreamy, and they set up tracks where the camera goes around us and then he spins me at the end and he keeps spinning me and I keep turning. And then I open my eyes and he’s gone.
You know, all of our romantic scenes where the petals are falling and and we’re kissing under that tree. When young girls to have their first kiss, I want them to have a moment like that. And I would want my daughter to have a moment like that. They’re so sweet. They’re so sweet to put out into the world, where now we just have sex scenes left and right.