The ‘Jane the Virgin’ star on role models, equal representation, and #MovementMondays
Gina Rodriguez has never been a cookie-cutter actress, happy to simply smile and wave for the cameras, and shy away from the conversations that matter. The Golden Globe-winning star of hit TV show Jane the Virgin uses her platform to speak about real stuff, addressing issues that are important to women today, including education, the environment, and media stereotypes. To celebrate the launch of the Latino Cultures in the U.S. project, we spoke to Gina about everything from the diversity of Latino cultures in the U.S. today, to her fangirling over Rita Moreno.
Early on in your career you decided that you weren’t going to take roles unless they offered real role models for young latinas. As a young actress just starting out, when roles might be harder to come by, how did you come to make that decision?
I think I was 27, heading to Sundance and I was just annoyed at the opportunities. They were the same roles we have seen over and over again. I wanted to play Sam, the office nerd. Or Veronica, the comic book artist. Or Jane, the teacher. I didn't want to be limited because of my ethnicity or skin color to the same stories that had been told a million times and that's exactly what it felt like, so I just said, “No". I grew up poor. I was already a broke-ass artist and what was I chasing? Money? Ha! I never once went into this for money. I just wanted to act. I just wanted to play pretend. So I decided to wait. Wait for the chance to be what I saw in my household; strong, independent, educated women who had dreams and would never allow limitations to stop them from trying. And that is what I am still pursuing today.
What about your process as an actor. Do you ever feel that you bring your own experiences, upbringing, and life into your roles?
I always bring in my own experiences in life, as well as stories I've been told or lives I've watched and observed around me. I usually go in as a clean slate. I read the project and break it down with script analysis. Mark the beats in the characters journey, along with the milestones, achievements, and moments that shift my character's perspective. I will then take the information and character description given to me by the writer. Listen to the directors opinion on the story and character. Go back and create specific gestures for the character. Sometimes I'll even write letters from my character’s perspective to the other characters in the script – that helps me figure out my relationship with each person and how I would naturally respond to each. Then I sleep. I sleep on my script and let it marinate. But this is just one process, and it naturally changes because life changes.
From your advocacy work, your philanthropy, and your amazing relationships with your young fans, it seems that you care very deeply about the experience of teenage/young latinas. Why do you think this period of your life is so important?
My teenage years were transformative: I was coming into my own, starting to learn what my body was, what life meant to me, and my dreams of the future were starting to form. Those years had such an impact on how I perceived the world and my place in it. During my teenage years I had two older sisters who shared so much of their wisdom – whether it was about boys, girls, relationships, college, body image, self love – and that was very helpful. I learnt from their lessons and they gave me an idea of what my life’s journey might look like. My objective now as a 30-year-old woman that doesn't have children or younger sisters (I'm the baby) is to share my stories and my experiences; so that whomever is listening doesn't feel alone and can hear my stories to help navigate through their own life.
How do you think seeing stereotypes in the media affects young people’s perceptions of themselves?
I can tell you how it affected me: I felt invisible. Not just as a woman, but also as a Latina that was dealing with this dual identity in America. At home, I had Arroz con Gondules and my grandmother speaking to me in Spanish. Outside of home, it was hot dogs and hamburgers with friends who had no idea what it was like to hide my other culture in fear of being bullied, misunderstood, or alienated.
It was a crazy feeling as a young girl to only see myself, my culture, portrayed negatively on-screen or, even worse, never portrayed at all. I felt like I didn't belong or I had to assimilate to be accepted or successful. I missed out on learning perfect Spanish because Latinos weren't the “good guys” on-screen, so god forbid anyone thought that way of me. My parents feared we would be discriminated against so they taught us English first. On-screen, we were never portrayed as the doctors and lawyers but, oddly enough, my sisters actually were, so I never really knew where my family and my culture stood in America. And I was born in America! It's wild.
Did you have any positive role models in TV or film when you were growing up?
Rita Moreno and Celia Cruz. I was a dancer before becoming an actor and Celia Cruz was my woman. Strong, fierce, and so proud of her roots that they came through in every word she sang or spoke. I wanted that pride. I wanted that strength. And Rita! Well, Rita was the only Puerto Rican I saw on-screen when I was a kid. She was the only one speaking for Latinos and women.
If you could give one piece of advice to young latinas today, what would it be?
I can't give any advice: I feel like I'm still learning myself. But I can share the advice I use, and work towards, when it comes to being a Latino in America - I accept all as one. We need to unite. Being called a ‘Latino’ can sometimes feel bizarre because you’re being made a part of a huge group that is compiled of so many different countries and cultures, where our only commonality is that most of us speak Spanish. So in those circumstances it’s natural to feel connected to your specific culture - be it Puerto Rican, or Cuban, or Mexican - and divide along those lines. But when I act, I am Latina. I represent all Latinos who feel connected to me and my journey. I offer a story that many Latinas from different backgrounds can identify with. So uniting Latinos is all I work towards, understanding other Latino cultures is what I work on, trying to understand the perspective and struggles of other Latino groups is what I work on.
How did #MovementMondays come about? Can you tell us more about it?
I wanted to use the platform I have to raise up and celebrate the amazing Latinos working today, and point a spotlight on their projects that we can support. We don't live in this world alone, and if I am going to practice my own advice, I need to find and support other Latinos. As the project has grown, we’ve also begun to highlight and celebrate artists from other ethnic groups underrepresented in the media. We are working on making Movement Mondays a real movement.
What responsibility do you think the arts have to ensure diversity and equal representation?
If art is to mean something, to make us not feel so alone in our journey through the world, to help us understand our story and the stories before us, then art must imitate life. Our world is filled with so many beautiful different cultures, religions, and traditions. We shouldn't limit the stories that are told. We should be celebrating our differences. At the end of the day, that’s what will bring about tolerance and understanding.