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From Ugly Betty To Barbie - The Transformation Of America Ferrera

America Ferrera has come a long way in her career. Chances are, Ferrera's face is fresh in your mind, as her most recent role was in the Greta Gerwig-directed film "Barbie" as the distressed mother and Mattel employee Gloria. But long before starring in the billion-dollar blockbuster, Ferrera was already making monumental moves throughout the industry.

Over time, it's become more commonplace and accepted to see a wide array of races, body types, and genders represented on screen. While Ferrera was far from the first to push for this change back then, the popularity of many of her characters and projects continue to leave an indelible impression on audiences. Whether bringing authentic representation to her race, embracing her body, or empowering the working class, the actor views every role of hers through an honest lens that has managed to resonate.

In this time, Ferrera's accomplishments have spanned far and wide. Along with earning prestigious accolades from the Sundance Film Festival, Golden Globes, and Primetime Emmys, the performer remains a fervent activist, having made contributions to such movements as the Women's March on Washington, Families Belong Together, and the Time's Up legal defense fund. From her earliest parts to her recent ambitious endeavors, let's take a dive into the life and work of America Ferrera. 

Her first roles drove her desire for diversity

America Ferrera's parents emigrated from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to Los Angeles, where she was born on April 18, 1984. Her father would exit the picture and move back to Honduras while Ferrera was only 7. She was ultimately able to reconcile with his absence, stating in a 2007 interview with Marie Claire, "It wasn't until I was older that I thought, "Damn, I never really grieved over that.' And there have been male figures in my life who provided that kind of fatherhood role for longer than he was ever in my life." 

Ferrera acted through her school years, joining California Youth Theatre in Hollywood at the age of 11. Doing so gave Ferrera the much-needed escapism she was seeking in life. She briefly attended college at the University of Southern California but dropped out as parts came her way. She eventually returned to school and graduated in 2013. 

Following a role in the Disney Channel Original Movie, "Gotta Kick It Up!," she starred in her first theatrically released effort, "Real Women Have Curves" as troubled 18-year-old Ana Garcia. Not only was it her first lead role, but she quickly learned the value of her relatable character. In a 2021 Washington Post interview, the actor said, "I was and played a 17-year-old Latina America, chubby, poor, ... daughter of immigrants striving for more ... and the amount of people all over the world who came up to me and said, 'That's me,' ... they saw themselves in this character that was so specific and specific to me."

"Real Women Have Curves" became critically acclaimed and won Ferrera a special jury prize for acting at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Ugly Betty gave Ferrera her big break

After landing roles in such projects as "Lords of Dogtown" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," America Ferrera was offered the part that would change her life forever. 

In 2006, she headlined the hit ABC sitcom "Ugly Betty." The show stars Ferrera as Betty Suarez, a young woman who doesn't allow her lack of conventional attractiveness to deter her from making it big in the fashion world. Describing the character more in-depth, Ferrera saw Betty as a fresh vehicle for breaking women out of stereotypical roles. "I knew that little America growing up with so few realistic portrayals of women — beautiful ... and real — I just knew immediately that that show was going to exist and that it was going to resound with people. And so from there on and out, I was a million percent in," the performer said at a 2017 reunion event.

 "Ugly Betty" ran for 85 episodes across four seasons. The first three seasons were massive hits for ABC, but ratings dipped after the show was moved to the Friday night death slot, prompting the network to pull the plug on the series in 2010. 

Nevertheless, it shot Ferrera's name into the public consciousness. Her less-than-perfect yet lovable screen persona drew praise from many such as Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis, who felt her character broke new ground for Latino actors. Ferrera received a Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild award, and the Primetime Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series, the latter being the first ever for a Latina performer. In 2007, she was even included on Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World, setting the stage for her rise in prominence in the coming years.  

The 2010s were a prolific time for Ferrera on the big screen

While most of America Ferrera's schedule in the late 2000s was eaten up by "Ugly Betty," she still made time to star in a handful of movies such as "Towards Darkness," "Under the Same Moon," "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," and "Tinker Bell." The end of the landmark sitcom in 2010 was far from the end of Ferrera's career, however.

2010 alone saw a wide diversity of projects for the talented actor, from the drama "The Dry Land" to the romantic comedy "Our Family Wedding." That same year also marked her first blockbuster role with DreamWorks' "How to Train Your Dragon" as the spirited Viking Astrid, who rides along and eventually falls in love with protagonist Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) after he helps her overcome her discriminatory bias toward dragons. Ferrera continued voicing the character over multiple sequels, TV shows, and shorts.

Her focus on proper representation and activism never waned during this era. No project better exemplifies this than 2014's "Cesar Chavez." Directed by "Andor" star Diego Luna and starring Michael Peña as the titular civil rights activist who helped birth the United Farm Workers labor union, the movie would see Ferrera star as his wife, Helen Chávez. With little known about Helen, Ferrera took a personal approach to the research process, talking with both her and the Chavez family to get a better understanding of the character. 

She and her husband have a rich working relationship

In the midst of America Ferrera's bountiful time on screen, she also made a big move in her personal life when she got engaged to her longtime partner Ryan Piers Williams in June 2010. They got married the next year and went on to have two children. The two met during their time as University of Southern California students. Williams would later direct Ferrera in the 2007 short film "Muertas," which would be the first of several collaborations.

Williams' 2010 feature debut, "The Dry Land" would be their next project. The film, which follows a war veteran (Ryan O'Nan) readjusting to small-town life, ended up being a rewarding endeavor. It would receive nominations from the Sundance Film Festival and the Imagen Foundation Awards, including a best actress nomination from the latter for Ferrera's role as Sarah. Williams' next directorial effort, 2014's "X/Y," saw him star alongside Ferrera as fictional couple Mark and Silvia. Most recently, they shared the screen as a couple once again in "Barbie," with Williams starring as Gloria's unnamed husband who's trying to learn Spanish.

Ferrera has long championed her working relationship with Williams. "We met working, and working together has always been a big part of our relationship," she told Metro US. "Often when we're working together we're completely consumed by what we do anyway. To be completely consumed by the same project and be on set together in the long run becomes quite a bonding experience."

Superstore brought along Ferrera's next big TV role

For much of the 2010s, America Ferrera had taken a big step to the big screen. While she starred in a handful of TV projects, nothing could ever match the cultural impact of her days on "Ugly Betty." However, she would return to the television realm by the middle of the decade with the NBC sitcom "Superstore."  

The show takes a comedic glimpse into the lives of the employees of the fictional Cloud 9 big-box store, with Ferrera's Amy Sosa leading the pack as their floor supervisor and future manager. While never quite equaling "Ugly Betty" in popularity, "Superstore" managed to run longer, spanning 113 episodes and six seasons from 2015 to 2021. 

Ferrera saw the potential with "Superstore" to celebrate those working in customer service as layered individuals. On an interview with Desde Hollywood, she explained, "That was the main draw for me: The opportunity to put a name and a face to people that we interact with but we usually just gloss over. We never get to know those who work in customer service or similar positions. We wanted to challenge all assumptions regarding social class, ethnicity and race. Using humor as a great way to start conversations."

Ferrera got her first taste of directing while on the series, helming four episodes over the course of its run. In the same year of the show's first season, Ferrera launched her production company, Take Foundation Productions, and signed a deal with ABC to produce two different shows, "Plus One" and "Social Creatures." As of this writing, there's no news on the status of either program. 

Barbie resonated with her actvisit mindset

America Ferrera's dedication to bringing social awareness goes far beyond her entertainment work. Over the years, she's been an outspoken fighter for the rights of Latino citizens championing immigration reform and increasing voter turnout. Additionally, she was a speaker at the 2017 Women's March in Washington alongside other celebrities such as Katy Perry, Scarlett Johansson, and Frances McDormand.

So it should come as no surprise that Ferrera's latest movie role brought many of these passions together. In "Barbie," she portrays Mattel employee Gloria who leaves the real world to aid Barbie (Margot Robbie) in restoring order to Barbieland. Ferrera's experience with the world-famous doll was limited prior to the film,  feeling unrepresented by the brand as a whole. 

What ultimately drew her to the project was the script by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. Not only was she taken aback by the rich emotions she felt while reading it, but she found the film's diverse take on its world and characters to be refreshing. "I came out the other end ... feeling deeply surprised by how inclusive the world of Barbie was and I felt so honored that Greta was asking me to play Gloria, who's essentially the stand-in for all of us human women," Ferrera explained on a Sirius XM interview. "It's amazing to be part of a moment that is shifting a narrative that's so dominant and so influential in our culture that in this moment it's expanding to include more of us and it didn't have to be that."

From her first indie movie role to her newest blockbuster part, Ferrera's dedication to breaking the mold of what audiences expect out of her characters continues to evolve and inspire countless others in the process.