America Ferrera on Ugly Betty and Dragon-Riders

EVEN first thing in the morning, after a late night party and with the pollen count at an all-time high, it has to be said that America Ferrera is gorgeous. Not that she cares about that sort of thing, as we’ll hear a little later.

America Ferrera attends the UK Gala Screening of "How To Train Your Dragon 2". Picture: Getty
America Ferrera attends the UK Gala Screening of "How To Train Your Dragon 2". Picture: Getty
America Ferrera attends the UK Gala Screening of "How To Train Your Dragon 2". Picture: Getty

Besides, this is the actress who turned “ugly” into a huge compliment after scooping a Golden Globe for Ugly Betty, and she says the best thing about supplying a voice for an animated movie like How To Train Your Dragon and its sequel is that the recording sessions are the actor’s equivalent of Casual Fridays.

“Most of the time I would turn up just one step past pyjamas,” she says. “It’s just you and the filmmakers, and they didn’t care what I looked like. Although I did get to share one session with Kit Harington, from Game Of Thrones. Except I hadn’t seen Game Of Thrones, so I had no idea who he was.”

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She pauses to think this over. “It was a good thing,” she decides. “Because I didn’t make a complete ass of myself by geeking out over him.”

How to train your dragon 2. Picture: Contributed
How to train your dragon 2. Picture: Contributed
How to train your dragon 2. Picture: Contributed

Ferrera has a geeky soul; shy, smart, interested and observant

Thirty-year-old Ferrera has a geeky soul; a little shy at first, but also smart, interested and observant. At the premiere of How To Train Your Dragon 2, she confides, she caught co-star and Scots talk show host Craig Ferguson wiping away tears during the film’s more emotional moments. Then almost immediately she worries that she may have embarrassed Ferguson with the revelation. Given that Ferguson has told his prime time audiences about his family, drinking and divorces in the past, I think he’ll be fine with the suggestion that he is capable of manly tears.

At the heart of the Dragon movies is a fractious relationship between father and son. By contrast, Ferrera grew up in a matriarchal household. The youngest of six children (she has four sisters and a brother) in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, she was raised solely by her Honduran mother after her father went back to Honduras, never to return, when Ferrera was aged seven.

“I could probably stop right there and you’d have a pretty good idea of some of the challenges we faced,” says Ferrera. “We didn’t have money for luxuries, but we did have my mother, and she was determined that each of us would get an education. She never wanted me to pursue acting, not because she doubted my talent, but she doubted I’d get the opportunities. At 13, I’d sit on a bus for three hours to get to an audition. Once I proved to her that I was serious, then she drove me to auditions. But I had to prove myself first.”

Finding roles as a young Latina actress was rarely easy

Ferrera first got noticed for her work in films including Real Women Have Curves and The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants, but finding roles as a young Latina actress was rarely easy. After one audition, she had an unusually frank discussion with the film’s writer-director. “He said, ‘Look, I would like to give you a shot, but the truth is that we need a white girl in this role, and you’re not a white girl.’”

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Yet a decade on, here she is playing blonde Viking Astrid Hofferson in the Dragon films. “Astrid’s look came first, but I was really pleased that they were open to casting someone who didn’t look like the character,” she says. The teen dragon-rider also incorporates some of Ferrera’s physical tics: “They had a camera on me during the recording sessions, so every now and then I see a facial expression in the movies and think, ‘Yeah, that is probably me.’ I definitely recognise a lot of her glaring.”

Ferrera’s turning point was Ugly Betty, the US TV show about an earnest Latina from Queens who gets a job in a glitzy New York fashion magazine, but soon finds that her braces and big glasses make her stand out. Based on a Colombian telenovela, Ugly Betty was remade around the world with varying degrees of success. In America, it was a ratings powerhouse. ABC cancelled the show in 2010, but it continues to gather new fans; “I used to watch I Love Lucy, so it’s nice that new generations are coming to the show, young people who probably weren’t even alive when it started.”

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Ferrera is not the only actress to be lauded for underplaying her looks

When the show began, much of the press attention focused on Ferrera’s transformation in the makeup chair, having her eyebrows made thicker, train-track braces fitted and made to look lumpy with unflattering clothing. Ferrera is not the only young actress to be lauded for underplaying her looks, but she’s one of the few to dismiss it as a bold career move.

“I don’t want to be seen as brave because I put on a pair of glasses and braces,” she responds. “But I do understand that’s all it takes to stand out in this business. And not just acting; I was shocked when I saw pictures of the man and woman who won the French Open recently.

“Oh, I’m showing how little I know about sports here,” she says, laughing. “The man was sweaty and disgusting and holding his trophy like a world class athlete. But the woman who won had to be decked out in hair, make-up, heels and a dress.”

Ferrera clearly relishes this sort of discussion, leaning forward, smiling but intent. In the past, she’s campaigned for Barack Obama and shared platforms with the likes of Hillary Clinton. The former First Lady, of course, was no stranger to the expectation that 
she should not only be smart, but smartly dressed. “Whether you’re running for office or winning an Academy Award or being a scientist or winning the French Open, it’s not enough to be the best at what you do – you have to do it in couture and heels and perfect make-up.”

Ferrera last visited Edinburgh and the film festival four years ago with the film The Dry Land, directed by her longtime boyfriend Ryan Piers Williams, and starring Ferrera. The couple toured Edinburgh Castle, rode bikes around the Meadows and hiked up Arthur’s Seat, all largely unnoticed. Then at the premiere of The Dry Land, the paparazzi clocked her new engagement ring, and she was back on the front pages in a story that overshadowed the film winning the festival’s International Jury Award.

‘Thank goodness that’s not where I am right now’

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Apparently undeterred, she’s back at the festival with her now-husband Williams, a handsome, button-eyed thirty-something, who glides in silently with a cup of coffee for her during the interview. They are here with a new collaboration, X/Y, with Ferrera and Williams as two of four characters trying to find good sex and meaningful relationships in a New York that is better at online connections than real ones. One particularly unlucky woman discovers her latest internet date was a married man who may have herpes.

Does Ferrera look at these singletons struggling to find reliable partners, and hope, like Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally, that she will never have to go out into that dating world again?

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“Yeah, I often think, ‘Thank goodness that’s not where I’m at right now,’” Ferrera says, laughing. “Especially now there are all these new rules when 
it comes to technology and how you make connections and keep connections.”

Like many celebrities, Ferrera has a verified Twitter account, but you suspect she logs on a little reluctantly, especially when she says she stopped reading message boards and blog notices after the first series of Ugly Betty.

“I get cordial tweets and I get horrible tweets, and when I first started my career, I’d go online and read boards, and just be stunned by the things that people could say about someone they’d never even met or even knew. So, early on I cut that out,” she says.

“But the real issue is that none of us know where social media is headed. I do find it a bit creepy that I’m in 
a different country and there are ads 
on my feed that are specific to Edinburgh. It feels like I’m a walking consumer and this thing allows me to be marketed to every second of the day. I think I’m as ambivalent about it as most people are.”

Twitter: @Siobhan Synnot

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is on general release