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Jenna Ortega's Transformation From Disney Channel Star To Scream Queen

Jenna Ortega had quite a successful year in 2022. In addition to starring in two horror hits (the fifth installment of the "Scream" series and Ti West's slasher "X"), the actress cemented her leading actor status as a Golden Globe nominee for her nuanced performance as the iconic titular character in the Netflix show, "Wednesday," after already having racked up an impressive resume spanning nearly a decade at just 20 years old.

Prior to 2022, Ortega began her professional career as a child actor playing a younger version of the title character in The CW's comedy series, "Jane the Virgin" and starring in the Disney Channel series, "Stuck in the Middle," as Harley Diaz. She later made appearances in the psychological-thriller series, "You," the family film, "Yes Day," with Jennifer Garner, and McG's 2020 follow-up, "The Babysitter: Killer Queen," before earning critical acclaim for her leading performance in the 2021 drama film, "The Fallout."

With the upcoming "Scream 6" on the horizon and "Wednesday" having been renewed for a second season, here's a look at the actress' remarkable journey from being a Disney Channel star as a child, participating in philanthropy and activism through her teenage years, endorsing a makeup brand, publishing her first book as an author, and becoming a household name in Hollywood in the past decade.

Was inspired by Dakota Johnson to get into acting

Artists are more often inspired to try their own luck in the game by the works of other artists. For Ortega, the inspiration came at the age of 6 when she watched a movie that isn't really appropriate for 6-year-olds. In an interview with Collider, Ortega revealed that, as a child, she joined her older sister to watch "Man on Fire," a 2004 thriller directed by Tony Scott that stars Denzel Washington as a former CIA agent turned bodyguard who rescues the 9-year-old daughter of a businessman, played by Dakota Fanning. Ortega added that it was after watching Fanning, who "was so talented at such a young age," that the budding actress decided she wanted to be "the Puerto Rican version" of Fanning.

It's safe to say that Ortega has continued along the successful professional path forged by Fanning, who went from a rising child artist to a renowned actress as an adult. Furthermore, Ortega revealed in a one-on-one interview with her "Wednesday" co-star Christina Ricci for Interview that in addition to deciding to perform in front of the camera, she believed that acting would enable her to realize other ambitions, such as becoming the first female president and an astronaut, through the roles she would play.

She was discovered through Facebook

Discovering her aspiration as an actor was not enough for Ortega, as she also had to convince her mother, Natalie, that she would do okay in that profession. Ortega talked with Latina Magazine about how she was discovered with the help of the internet, "I started begging my mom to let me act when I was 6 years old. She pretty much ignored me because she thought it was just a phase. Two years later, when I still wanted to do it, she started taking it more seriously. Facebook helped me get my first agent. My mom posted a video of me doing a dramatic monologue and a friend of hers from high school forwarded it to an agent. Three months later, I got my first audition and the rest is history!"

When Tamron Hall asked Ortega in 2021 about whether she remembered her mother telling her she was going to upload the video online, Ortega answered, "No, I didn't, because she [Natalie] didn't mean anything by it. It was kind of a joke. I remember at the time, she didn't want me to be an actor ... she just wasn't sure about putting me in that environment, in this industry that she had heard such terrible things about ... she posted it just as a joke for inside friends because her friends on Facebook knew that I was very dramatic."

Has already made an appearance in the MCU

As with most actors whose rising success leads to escalating casting rumors in popular franchises, speculations rose of the "Wednesday" star joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the upcoming 2024 Disney+ series, "Daredevil: Born Again" as a new superhero by the name of White Tiger. In the Marvel comics, White Tiger is a mantle currently helmed by Ava Ayala, who yields an amulet that grants its users superhuman strength and agility. Keep in mind, these rumors are unconfirmed, but the prospect of Ortega playing a superhero is undeniably exciting.

While this may be the actor's first stint as a superhero, most fans forget that Ortega has already made an appearance in the MCU in 2013's "Iron Man 3," which was the actress' first film credit, in a very minor role as the Vice President's daughter. Given that the Vice President's own daughter is an amputee, it is revealed in the film that he is backing Aldrich Killian's experimental Extremis program, which seeks to repair any debilitating disability by growing any missing or lost limbs in its host. Despite her blink-and-miss appearance in the film, her character represents the personal motivation for everyone who supports the Extremis project despite all of its serious flaws, including high-ranking government officials whose support gives Killian a lot of political leverage.

Being a middle child helped her in Stuck in the Middle

After playing a few supporting roles in shows like "Rake," "Jane the Virgin," and "Richie Rich," Ortega finally got her big break as Harley Diaz in "Stuck in the Middle," a Disney Channel sitcom that aired for three seasons between 2016 — 2018. As you might have guessed from the show's title, Harley is a fourth-wall-breaking aspiring engineer who is stuck as the middle child among seven kids. It was relatively easier for Ortega to slip into the shoes of the character, since she herself is a middle child with five siblings, and could draw from her own personal experiences when portraying the character.

The actress told Latina Magazine, "Playing Harley Diaz is awesome because I relate to her a lot. It is like I am playing myself! We both are middle children in a big family, we both can be goofballs, we both love our families and we both love math and science." The similarities also enabled Ortega to contribute ideas to the scripts of each episode of the show, as she would illustrate to the writing team how her own family would deal with particular situations in their home, which in turn informed how the show's fictional Diaz family would deal with the everyday chaos (via Mama's Mission).

Performed autopsies on lizards as a hobby

Everyone, even famous celebrities, has a hobby to keep them occupied in their free time. Tom Hanks loves collecting typewriters (per Express) and Daniel Radcliffe picked up a musical hobby after portraying Weird Al in "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story." While these are generally innocent hobbies, some celebs have the creepiest hobbies, and Ortega has revealed her own as well: dissecting lizards. Now, before you go on to make any unflattering assumptions about the actress, you should know that the lizards were dead before she sliced them open.

In a video for WIRED where she answered the internet's most-searched questions about her, Ortega brought up her childhood hobby of performing autopsies on small animals (particularly lizards) that she found lying dead in her backyard, as she talked about her friendship with her "The Fallout" co-star Maddie Ziegler and how "weird" the two of them are in their own ways. This just goes to show how spot-on her casting as Wednesday Addams is, with the only difference between the actress and the character being that Wednesday doesn't limit her macabre antics to dead animals.

Raised money for a child with cancer

When the parents of 5-year-old Riley Rose Sherman received a hefty $300,000 hospital bill simply for Riley to get diagnosed with a rare type of cancer that affects children, and their insurance wouldn't cover the expense, they had to turn to crowdfund events to raise the money. One of these events included a meet and greet held by Ortega in December 2016, who was motivated to help out the Sherman family after a friend of hers, Desirae "Desi" Cechin, lost her life to the same cancer (Neuroblastoma) at the age of 6. 

Ortega, then 14, said during the event, "I loved Desi. She was so kind and so sweet. I wanted to support her in any way I could. And now that someone else around Desi's age has the same disease — and you know it's the holidays it's the season to give — I thought I should do something and help in some way" (via Desert Sun). Riley ultimately passed away in April 2018 at age 6, and Ortega expressed her condolences through a Twitter post to emphasize the importance of finding a treatment for the illness that claimed Cechin's life at the same age two years earlier.

Her outspoken advocacy for diversity and minorities

Off-screen, Ortega has been a vocal supporter of minority groups and a staunch advocate of the value of diversity in the film and television industry. In 2018, Ortega wore a jacket to the Radio Disney Music Awards with the quote, "I Do Care, And U Should Too," etched on the back in reaction to Melania Trump, the then-First Lady, who wore a jacket with the words "I Really Don't Care." Do U?" printed on it during a visit to a facility housing undocumented children who had been separated from their parents. "There is no excuse to not speak up. It doesn't matter if you have five followers or a million followers. It doesn't matter your age where you come from. Every voice is important," the actress stated (via Forbes).

In addition to her support for the pro-LGBTQ+ "Pride Over Prejudice" campaign (per Teen Vogue), Ortega's activism also reflects in the parts she picks for herself, refusing roles that are detrimental to the Latinx community. She explained to Cosmopolitan, "I feel like the Latinx community, first of all, they're not often shown on camera in general. But they're also oftentimes not shown in a positive light. I never want to play a maid and I never want to play a cartel leader's daughter. I would much rather play a person of power, a powerful character in a positive way."

Is a brand ambassador for a skin-care company

Given that an actor's physical appearance continuously draws attention and plays a role in their career, working as an actor in the film and television industry can be brutal for one's self-image. Ortega revealed to People Magazine that she had gone through a similar ordeal, recalling a negative experience when she was made to feel "shameful" about her freckles when she was a teenager: "I think any insecurity that I had with my skin was more in terms of working with makeup artists. I remember [one] once made a comment about not being able to match my skin tone correctly [and] that my freckles made my face look dirty and that they needed to cover things up. For a while, I was really ashamed of my freckles and didn't want to show my face ever." 

As a result, Ortega decided to endorse a message of "positivity and the beauty of uniqueness" after becoming the brand ambassador of the skincare brand Neutrogena in 2020, whose products Ortega claims to have been using for most of her life. The actress told People, "It was the only skincare brand I saw in my house growing up," as she went on to describe her "consistent" skincare routine using a variety of Neutrogena products. She concluded by highlighting how important influencer diversity, visibility, and brand messaging are, as well as how her vision aligns with the brand's mission to spread "a message that's about embracing natural beauty."

Published a book in 2021

In addition to being an actor, philanthropist, activist, and brand ambassador, Ortega has proven herself as a talented author, having published her first book in 2021. "It's All Love: Reflections for Your Heart & Soul" is a non-fiction self-help book filled with quotes and anecdotes penned by Ortega herself that aims to help its readers (mainly teenagers) deal with their mental health difficulties. Ortega discussed the book with J-14, saying, "'It's All Love' is a collection of stories and lessons I've experienced while growing up in a non-traditional sense ... I think a lot of what I've been through might be helpful or insightful for teens struggling with their identity," adding that she's "always been very passionate about writing."

The first-time author cited her own struggles with mental health, saying "I've never addressed my aggressive struggle with my mental health, and I talk about that somewhere in this book. It's weird, I'm not a very social person, but I also want to be as sincere as possible in all I do. And I think it might be nice for those who also have a hard time that they're not alone." Ortega reaffirmed the purpose of writing the book by saying, "Being a teenager is tough. If there's anything I can do just to be a source of comfort or helpful in any way, it would bring me immense joy! People have been so kind towards me, and I want to return the favor."

Wednesday was the most overwhelming job she ever had

Ortega found that playing Wednesday Addams comes with its own expectations and difficulties given that the character has been ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist for nearly 60 years, ever since she made her on-screen debut in the 1964 sitcom, "The Addams Family." The actress had to study fencing, archery, canoeing, cello, and German in order to match the multiple talents demonstrated by her character on-screen for the 2022 Netflix series (per BT). 

Additionally, Ortega faced the creative obstacles of working with multiple directors on the series, each of whom had their own visions for her character. She explained to "Wednesday" co-star Christina Ricci (via Deadline), "We were going from Tim [Burton] to another director, back to Tim, to another director. I felt like everybody wanted different things from her ... There were a lot of battles like that because I felt like people didn't always trust me when I was creating my path in terms of, 'Okay, this is her arc. This is where she gets emotional.'"

Ortega added, "I would call my parents every night in a panic because I felt like it was different from any job I had ever done before ... I got out to Romania and we started training and shooting immediately. We didn't really have time for rehearsals. I remember it being very stressful and confusing. I did the best I could, but that's probably the most overwhelming job I've ever had."

Her future plans and aspirations

Aside from reprising her role as Tara Carpenter in "Scream 6" and Wednesday Addams in the sophomore season of Netflix's "Wednesday," Ortega is set to star alongside film legend Tommy Lee Jones in the upcoming Paramount+ thriller film "Finestkind" (via Deadline) and Martin Freeman in Lionsgate's "Miller's Girl" (via Deadline). Her foray into off-screen endeavors with her advocacy and writing demonstrates that her ambitions extend beyond acting. In a 2016 interview with Latina Magazine, when she was 14 at the time, Ortega discussed her future goals, saying, "I would really like to get some lead roles in big feature films in the near future. When I grow up I would like to get into directing, writing, producing, and still act!"

True to her word, the actress is slated to make her debut as an executive producer on the romantic drama, "Winter Spring Summer or Fall," in which she will also star with her "Wednesday" peer Percy Hynes White (per Collider). In a 2021 interview with Cosmopolitan, Ortega spoke about embracing her past as a "Disney kid" and her hopes to act in independent films and passion projects, saying "I do want to do projects that challenge me a little bit more and put me in situations that I may not necessarily be able to initially relate to, just to push myself and see what I can do."