Her parents began to see the possibilities when the 16-year-old Ferrera was cast on the Disney Channel’s “Gotta Kick It Up!” (2002), playing a Latina girl who joins a champion dance team.
“In a way it was the ultimate dream come true,” she says, “because my parents could see that acting was a real career – although I had to wonder how lucky one girl could be, because I was being paid to dance all day, which was my other passion.”
Ferrera’s big break came with the HBO movie “Real Women Have Curves” (2002), in which she played a Mexican-American girl with weight issues and a desire to go to college. By any reasonable standards Ferrera didn’t have weight issues – but Hollywood producers and studio executives have a different standard, and from their viewpoint she was overweight.
“They don’t really tell you that,” the actress says. “They just don’t call you back. So you kind of figure it out. ‘Real Women Have Curves’ was a breakthrough for me, because it was tailored for who I was at a specific period in time. It said that there are different body types that are beautiful. I think that opened so many doors for me and gave all women a boost of confidence.”
She hit the big screen a couple of years later when she nabbed the role of Carmen, a girl dealing with her father’s new family, in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” (2005).
Mainstream stardom came the next year, when she was cast as Betty Suarez, a dorky, anything-but-glamorous type who works as an editorial assistant at a top fashion magazine, with a heart as big as her fashion sense is small. It wasn’t a role she had pursued.
“I didn’t even hear that the show was going to be made,” Ferrera recalls, “until (executive producer) Salma Hayek came to me personally and said, ‘We are going to do this show and we want you.’ It wasn’t until about a year later that a real script emerged.
“Now I realize the show is such a blessing,” she says, “because I get letters from real women and young girls who identify with Betty. They might not be the quote-unquote ‘beautiful girl’ on their block or at school, but underneath lurks this amazing girl whose spirit is the most gorgeous thing in the world, and she really is beautiful.
“I think Betty makes people realize that the so-called beautiful people don’t have it all figured out.”
It took some time to find her inner Betty, Ferrera admits.
“Betty could become a cartoon character,” she says, “and then you lose the audience instantly. No one really cares about her if she’s just a joke. It’s all about keeping her real and making her playful. She looks like a mess a lot of the time, but she really might be the smartest one around.”
The real Ferrera looks as good as most of the models on the show, but she still refuses to join in Hollywood’s obsession with weight and looks.
“In real life I’m not sucking down ice-cream sundaes,” she says. “I’m a person who likes to feel comfortable and not self-conscious – I need all the confidence in myself to do my work.
“But, that said, it’s not about being a supermodel for me,” Ferrera says. “It’s just about feeling good in my own skin and feeling great about who I am as a person. I want to embrace health. That’s why I don’t overeat. It’s just about feeling good.”
She’s also feeling good about her movie career, though so far having a hit series hasn’t worked out the way it did for George Clooney.
“Work is not offered to me right and left,” Ferrera says. “That has never been the case, I don’t assume it will ever be the case in my career. I’m sure that, for the rest of my life, I will have to fight for the roles that I want.
“But I also know that the only roles worth doing are the ones worth fighting for.”