Born for this role

Gina Ro­driguez, star of the CW’s ‘Jane the Vir­gin,’ grew up won­der­ing why no TV char­ac­ters looked like her. Now she’s landed in a sit­u­a­tion to change that.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY JES­SICA GOLD­STEIN Spe­cial to The Washington Post

When ac­tress Gina Ro­driguez was a kid grow­ing up in Chicago, she would turn on the TV and won­der: “Why does no one look like me?”

The youngest of three daugh­ters of Puerto Ri­can na­tives, she asked her mom, “When did Puerto Ri­cans come about? When were we born?” She didn’t see her­self in the movies and tele­vi­sion shows that she loved. She had “no con­cept of any kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion or any kind of lim­i­ta­tion in the in­dus­try.”

“I just thought, ‘We must not have been around. My par­ents must have started the Puerto Ri­can race!’ ” Ro­driguez said by phone from Los An­ge­les last month in the mid­dle of a day of film­ing her CW break­out hit, “Jane the Vir­gin.”

Ro­driguez watched “The Cosby Show,” “A Dif­fer­ent World” and “Fam­ily Mat­ters,” be­cause at least they fea­tured char­ac­ters of color. Even though they didn’t have brown skin quite like hers, “that was the clos­est I came to see­ing any­one like me rep­re­sented on screen in a pos­i­tive light,” she said. “When I watched ‘Full House,’ I never ex­isted. I was never por­trayed. And when I did see us, we al­ways had a very in­fe­rior po­si­tion in life.

“That lack of vis­i­bil­ity, that lack of re­lata­bil­ity, re­ally made me feel kind of alone in this world,” Ro­driguez added. “It re­ally made me feel a cer­tain way about my­self, about beauty, what I could and could not be.”

If she had only known then what she knows now: that, at age 31, she would be the star of “Jane the Vir­gin,” the crit­i­cally adored show en­ter­ing its sec­ond sea­son this fall; that she would win a Golden Globe for her per­for­mance as Jane and give an in­stantly vi­ral ac­cep­tance speech touch­ing on the idea of rep­re­sen­ta­tion; that she would see her face on Barbie-bright bill­boards all over L.A. and have a mas­sive

“I re­ally ad­mire Gina. She has taken this op­por­tu­nity, us­ing it as a plat­form. . . . She’s us­ing the bless­ings that she’s re­ceived [and] is turn­ing that around to the ben­e­fit of oth­ers.”

An­drea Navedo, Ro­driguez’s co-star

plat­form from which to speak about di­ver­sity and ac­cep­tance.

Here’s what Ro­driguez did know: She wanted to act. She wanted to change the way Lati­nos were rep­re­sented in pop cul­ture. She wanted to do her part to make sure that lit­tle girls — the next gen­er­a­tion of Gi­nas — would have role mod­els on TV who looked like them.

She de­scribes her­self as a “pretty faith­ful per­son,” and re­li­gion has cen­tered her. It has “made me re­al­ize that with great bless­ings come great re­spon­si­bil­ity. You can­not sep­a­rate the two.”

‘I have to be Jane’

Af­ter Ro­driguez went from un­known to one-to-watch with her per­for­mance in “Filly Brown,” a hit at the 2012 Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, she had what, on pa­per, seemed like a dream op­por­tu­nity: a role in Life­time’s “De­vi­ous Maids.” She turned it down. Her fam­ily wasn’t so sure. They asked her, “Why are you try­ing to be a sac­ri­fi­cial lamb?” And some­times even Ro­driguez wasn’t so sure. She said she had “those mo­ments of, ‘Oh, Gina, you bet­ter be freak­ing right about this! You know you did the right thing; did you do the right thing?’ ”

“Lis­ten,” she said to her fam­ily then. “I’mnot try­ing to be Je­sus! I don’t think I’m the Sec­ond Com­ing. But I know this isn’t my jour­ney. I be­lieve it so hard. I just knew that that wasn’t my path, be­cause it didn’t feel right.”

But “Jane” felt right, right away. Ro­driguez said that five pages into the pi­lot script, she knew she had to be Jane.

In Jane, Ro­driguez found a de­ter­mined, funny, type-A, com­pas­sion­ate woman who could be de­scribed by a bunch of buzz­words — Latina, Catholic, vir­gin — but was not wholly de­fined by those traits. The nu­ances of the Latino Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence were ac­cu­rately and lov­ingly por­trayed. These three gen­er­a­tions of women (Jane, her mother and her grand­mother) talked and be­haved in a way Ro­driguez un­der­stood; Jane’s grand­mother spoke Span­ish and Jane re­sponded in English, just like Ro­driguez did with her own grand­par­ents.

“It’s so flu­idly grace­ful on this show, about Jane be­ing Amer­i­can but hav­ing Latino roots, her not be­ing afraid of who she is,” said Ro­driguez. “The world Jane lives in is so ac­cept­ing.”

The show is a twist on a te­len­ov­ela, which might sound gim­micky on pa­per: “The preg­nant vir­gin!” But the axis of the “Jane” uni­verse is the bond among the Vil­lanueva women. Ev­ery­thing re­volves around those au­then­tic re­la­tion­ships.

Ab­sur­dity abounds: Jane’s fa­ther, whose iden­tity she never knew, turns out to be — gasp! — the star of one of Jane’s fa­vorite te­len­ov­e­las, and the fa­ther of Jane’s baby is not only the hand­some, im­pos­si­bly wealthy owner of the ho­tel where Jane works, but also — it can’t be! — the step­son of Sin Rostro, a vi­cious drug lord, who — Dios mio! — was hav­ing an af­fair with her own step­daugh­ter, who — there’s no way! — is the doc­tor who, dis­traught af­ter catch­ing her wife in bed with another woman, fails to give Jane a rou­tine pap smear and — oh, no! — in­sem­i­nates her in­stead.

And this is all be­fore we get into the un­der­ground plas­tic­surgery clinic, the homi­cides at the ho­tel, the faked death, the se­cret twins, the mul­ti­ple pro­pos­als of mar­riage and the char­ac­ter who pre­tends to be par­a­lyzed but rises from her wheel­chair to shove Jane’s grand­mother down a flight of stairs.

“Jane” cre­ator and showrun­ner Jen­nie Sny­der Ur­man had an­tic­i­pated “a very long search” for her hero­ine, but Ro­driguez was the third per­son to au­di­tion. “She was just amaz­ing,” Ur­man said by phone. “I re­mem­ber rush­ing home and show­ing my hus­band the tape, ask­ing, ‘Could we have found Jane so quickly?’ ”

Ur­man is still daz­zled by Ro­driguez’s will­ing­ness to say no to “De­vi­ousMaids” and hold out for a role like Jane. (The ABC-pro­duced “Maids” just started its fourth sea­son air­ing on Life­time.) “It takes a tremen­dous amount of courage to turn that down when you’re in that mode, and you’re hus­tling and you’re try­ing to get that break,” she said. “To say no, you have to have an ex­tra­or­di­nary sense of self and con­fi­dence and belief that it will even­tu­ally will work out. It’s stun­ning.”

Find­ing her voice

Ro­driguez started mak­ing head­lines for speak­ing out about Latino rep­re­sen­ta­tion dur­ing the 2014 Tele­vi­sion Crit­ics As­so­ci­a­tion sum­mer press tour, when an an­swer to a fairly rou­tine ques­tion about why she picked “Jane” over “De­vi­ousMaids” be­came, on the spot, some­thing more like a mis­sion state­ment.

“I found it lim­it­ing that that was the one that was avail­able to me,” she told the re­porter about the “Maids” role. “I found it lim­it­ing for the sto­ries that Lati­nos have.”

The Latino Media Gap (a re­port re­cently com­mis­sioned by Columbia Univer­sity, the Na­tional His­panic Foun­da­tion for the Arts and the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Latino In­de­pen­dent Pro­duc­ers) found that the sta­tis­tics bear out Ro­driguez’s per­cep­tion. In movies and on TV, Lati­nos “con­tinue to be rep­re­sented pri­mar­ily as crim­i­nals, law en­forcers, and cheap la­bor.” Since 1996, 69 per­cent of maids in film and tele­vi­sion have been Latina; in re­al­ity, only 44.3 per­cent of maids and house clean­ers are Latino. The prob­lem isn’t just in­ac­cu­rate vis­i­bil­ity but gain­ing vis­i­bil­ity at all: From 2012 to 2013, nearly half of all Latinocoded TV char­ac­ters didn’t even have cred­its or names.

Though “be­ing a maid is fan­tas­tic,” Ro­driguez said at the TCAs, “there are other sto­ries that need to be told.”

“That might have been the first time the press heard it,” Ur­man said. “It wasn’t new to me. That’s what Gina had been talk­ing about all along.”

That’s why, though Ro­driguez swears she did not write her Golden Globes speech in ad­vance —“I prob­a­bly wrote, like, 7,000 in my head” — elo­quence un­der pres­sure came nat­u­rally to her.

“It’s hard to come up with some­thing when Oprah andMeryl are star­ing at you,” she said. But in that mo­ment, “God spoke for me. I was as shocked as can be, and I don’t know if I could have writ­ten it bet­ter than my heart said it for me.”

“She knows that she was given this plat­form to do good with it,” said Justin Bal­doni, who plays Rafael, Jane’s baby daddy. “I think she wants to be the woman that walks the walk. ... She’s mak­ing sure that she’s not go­ing to dis­ap­point, and not only make it about her­self.”

Ro­driguez is not the only one. Just weeks ago, Vi­ola Davis scooped up her Emmy for “How to Get Away With Mur­der,” mak­ing her the first black woman to take home the tro­phy for out­stand­ing lead ac­tress in a drama se­ries. She, too, used her ac­cep­tance speech as a ral­ly­ing cry for rep­re­sen­ta­tion on-screen: “The only thing that sep­a­rates women of color from any­one else is op­por­tu­nity. You can­not win an Emmy for roles that are sim­ply not there.”

“I didn’t re­al­ize, my­self, un­til I did the show, how crit­i­cal it is to see peo­ple that look like you, be­cause I’mwhite,” saidUr­man. “I didn’t re­al­ize un­til I did ‘Jane’ how im­por­tant that was, and Gina has re­ally helped me see that.”

“Jane” does, on oc­ca­sion, ven­ture into ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal ter­ri­tory; in one in­stance, the hash­tag #Im­mi­gra­tionRe­form was lit­er­ally stamped across the screen. When “Jane” goes there, Ur­man said, “Gina is at the ta­ble read go­ing, ‘ Yes! Yes!’ ”

“I’mcon­stantly think­ing about what she says about rep­re­sen­ta­tion, what she wants to see. [She’s] made me more con­scious of that. I’m grate­ful to her for it,” said Ur­man. “When I get e-mails and tweets from younger girls who are so happy to see them­selves on screen, and see this re­ally driven hero­ine that they feel like they can re­late to, that’s an in­cred­i­ble feel­ing, and I re­ally credit Gina. She inspires me, too.”

“I re­ally ad­mire Gina,” said An­drea Navedo, who plays Jane’s mother. “She has taken this op­por­tu­nity, us­ing it as a plat­form, to speak” about the is­sues that mat­ter to her. “She’s us­ing the bless­ings that she’s re­ceived [and] is turn­ing that around to the ben­e­fit of oth­ers.”

Navedo is also of Puerto Ri­can de­scent and shares Ro­driguez’s ex­haus­tion with “not see­ing my­self rep­re­sented that much, or in a pos­i­tive light” on tele­vi­sion. “I think it’s been brew­ing, and I think the dam broke. . . . And I’d like to think that ‘Jane’ had some­thing to do with it.”

An un­ex­pected back­lash

Ro­driguez knows this is a heated time to be a prom­i­nent ad­vo­cate for di­ver­sity, par­tic­u­larly as the topic of immigration dom­i­nates pres­i­den­tial pri­mary head­lines.

“I’ve al­ready got­ten back­lash and con­tro­versy for be­ing out­spo­ken when it comes to Latino stereo­types and tak­ing roles,” she said. “I’ve got­ten it from other Lati­nos.”

This sum­mer, Ro­driguez gave an in­ter­view to Peo­ple en Es­pañol in Span­ish. She isn’t flu­ent, though, and when she shared the cover on her In­sta­gram, crit­i­cism rolled in: Fol­low­ers mocked her gram­mat­i­cal er­rors and ques­tioned if she was “re­ally” Latina.

That ex­po­sure to “in­ter­ra­cial Latino racism” was “eye-open­ing,” she said at the time, and she wrote a fol­low-up post im­plor­ing read­ers to be kin­der: “I was blown away at the im­me­di­ate hate pro­jected on my page.”

“I’m a hu­man be­ing who also f--- s up and trips all over the place, but I’m try­ing,” she said. “And I am go­ing to fail, and I am go­ing to an­noy some peo­ple by speak­ing up, and that just is what it is.”

“She feels a lot of so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, which is in­cred­i­bly ad­mirable, and she has an artis­tic sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity, and she’s re­ally merged those two,” said Ur­man. “When she says some­thing, a lot of times, I want to clap. It’s a re­ally rare qual­ity, to be that con­fi­dent in what you be­lieve, and con­fi­dent enough to say it out loud and not hold your­self back, be­cause you think other peo­ple might not like what you’re say­ing, or [you’ll] get back­lash.”

“If peo­ple are mad at her for say­ing some­thing, chances are, it’s be­cause she’s say­ing the truth,” said Bal­doni. “And I don’t think she’s go­ing to shy away from that.”

Ro­driguez said her dad al­ways told her that “any­body that cre­ated change pissed peo­ple off.” “You’re al­ways go­ing to piss some peo­ple off be­cause you’re tak­ing ac­tion,” she said. “Be­cause you’re speak­ing up for the voice­less.

“It was in­grained in me. It’s how I was born. I don’t apol­o­gize for be­ing out­spo­ken about try­ing to cre­ate change. I don’t.”

BRET HART­MAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

BRET HART­MAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

ABOVE: Ac­tress Gina Ro­driguez says she is a “pretty faith­ful per­son,” and that has “made me re­al­ize that with great bless­ings come great re­spon­si­bil­ity. You can­not sep­a­rate the two.” BE­LOW: Ro­driguez in the star­ring role of the CW’s “Jane the Vir­gin,” work that earned her a Golden Globe. She said she just fol­lowed her heart in her ac­cep­tance speech: “It’s hard to come up with some­thing when Oprah andMeryl are star­ing at you.”

GREG GAYNE/THE CW

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