América Ferrera and the ‘Barbie’ monologue that we all talk about

Listing some of the many dangers of femininity in a still patriarchal society, the monologue that actress América Ferrera delivers in “Barbie” with the intensity of a battle cry became one of the most talked-about cinematic moments of 2023.

“I’ve never been a part of something so anticipated,” Ferrera said during an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel restaurant. Originally from Los Angeles but based in New York, she was back in her hometown for a screening of the smash hit during awards season.

Relaxing in a comfortable beige sweater, Ferrera, 39, recalled a pre-premiere press stop in Mexico City where 20,000 frenzied people welcomed filmmaker Greta Gerwig and the cast of her pink comedy. “It was like a presidential campaign,” she added.

Ferrera plays Gloria, a mother and Mattel employee whose real-world doubts and unfulfilled aspirations cause an existential crisis for the stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) in Barbie Land. Ferrera’s brave performance has landed her in the Oscar discussion this year.

Although Gloria could be considered a supporting actress in “Barbie,” Ferrera knows that it is her imperfect character that sets the adventure in motion. The performer, who broke through in “Real Women Have Curves” (2002) and won an Emmy for her role as the title character in “Ugly Betty” (2006-2010), deeply admires how Gerwig dared to infuse a seemingly empty concept with a lot of meaning.

“It’s huge that something that is so commercially successful and culturally dominant also deals with many things at the same time, which is not easy to execute in the biggest movie of the year,” Ferrera said.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Have you been surprised by the enormous success of “Barbie”?

I started reading the script without any attachment to Barbie. I didn’t grow up playing with Barbies. I was more curious about what Greta would do with him. It wasn’t just fun, subversive and delightfully strange. It was also about femininity. When I finished reading the script, I felt giddy knowing that this was the Barbie movie that no one asked for, but that we were going to have. I felt like it was going to be huge from the beginning.

Why didn’t you ever play with Barbies when you were a child?

We couldn’t afford Barbies. She was very expensive along with all her things. [Laughs] I had a cousin who had Barbies and played with them at her house, but they also seemed very far away to me. I didn’t necessarily feel represented in Barbie’s narrative. It felt like a world that was not accessible to me.

Since you didn’t have a personal attachment to Barbie, how did you come to the character of Gloria and this world?

One of the things that really gave me insight into this character was the documentary called “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” that showed when Barbie expanded to many different sizes, shapes and colors. The woman [Kim Culmone] who led that as Barbie’s lead designer, a very cool progressive feminist woman, was getting backlash from all sides: from legacy holders saying, “Barbie can’t change.” And from her progressive friends, angry because she cared about Barbie. “Why would you care about something that has been so bad for women?”

But she had her own deep personal connection from playing with Barbies with her mother. He fought for this idea that he knew was imperfect but still meant something to her. That gave me the insight she needed to play Gloria as a real adult woman and understand why she plays with Barbie and wants to be in Barbie Land.

What did you think the first time you saw Gloria’s now incredibly popular speech?

It definitely felt like a big moment, but Gloria shined from the start. She represents this search for permission to express herself. She has to play the role of mom and responsible career woman, while she hides everything she loves beneath the corporate suit, being what she thought she should be. From the moment we found her in her pink sneakers until she drove off on that car chase, there were so many wish fulfillments and release for someone she had been repressing so much.

The monologue seemed very good to Gloria. Yes, she takes the Barbies out of the moment for her, but it’s also the natural breaking point for Gloria, where she has to say what she’s discovering on this journey. I recognized that it was a big moment and that it needed to work, but it also didn’t work independently of her total quest for more freedom for herself.

Did the speech change at all?

The text evolved a bit. Greta asked me, “Why don’t you tell me what you would say? Write it in your own words. What would you add?” Not all directors start by inviting actors to rewrite their work. Some of what we talked about was included in the script. The phrase “Always be grateful” came from that conversation with Greta. She explained it and added: “But never forget that the system is rigged.” There were many versions that we made. We ended up crying. It ended in laughter, it got big, it got small, and I was able to do it because I really trusted Greta to know what was going to be right for the movie.

What do you think about the speech that some people think Gloria’s speech oversimplifies feminism?

We can know things and still need to hear them out loud. It can still be cathartic. There are a lot of people who need Feminism 101, entire generations of girls just emerging who have no words to describe the culture in which they were raised. Also, boys and men who may have never spent any time thinking about feminist theory.

If you know feminism well, it may seem like an oversimplification, but there are entire countries that banned this movie for a reason. To say that something that is perhaps fundamental or, in some people’s minds, basic feminism is not necessary is an oversimplification. Assuming that everyone is at the same level of knowledge and understanding of the experience of being a woman is an oversimplification.

Gloria’s story is deeply intertwined with Barbie’s. How do you think you help each other overcome your struggles?

Greta, Margot and I talked about Gloria and Barbie’s relationship as a love story. Not necessarily romantic, which some people on the Internet have pushed to read, but we talk about it like Barbie and Gloria needing each other to be complete and to be the pieces of a puzzle that each of them are missing. The trip frees Gloria from the impossible task of being the kind of woman she believes she needs to be in the real world. And Barbie is freed from having to be an idea that she will never satisfy all the things she must satisfy by choosing to be human.

What was your reaction when you first saw the doll made in your image for the Barbie collection inspired by the movie?

Surreal. In fact, there were some similarities with me in facial features. She is the first Barbie doll created from a Honduran-American woman that ever existed. That’s really special, knowing that no one had a Honduran Barbie doll to play with until now.

Do you feel like your career has always been marked by firsts, like being the first Latina to win an Emmy as a lead actress? There is a lot of pressure to be first.

I just took any opportunity that came my way to do the best job I could in the hope that there would be another opportunity after that. Looking back, it’s much clearer to see that my career has been shaped by how the culture viewed someone like me. The opportunities that came my way were ones that kept me in very specific boxes. What I saw as my job as an actor was to inject as much complexity into those characters as I could, and not just play characters that thwarted an expectation.

Have things improved for Latinas in Hollywood since “Real women have curves”?

It took Josefina López, who wrote it, 11 years to make that film. And when the film was successful, it wasn’t a watershed moment for Latina writers, directors, and actresses to have tons of opportunities. Like you said, I’m the first Latina to win an Emmy in a major category. I’m still the only one and that doesn’t bring me any joy. While I would love to think things are different today than they were 22 years ago, when “Real Women Have Curves” was made, the data shows that it largely hasn’t changed.

That makes me think of Lupe Ontiveros, who played your mother in “Real Woman Have Curves” and who made a career out of small roles that she managed to turn into screen gold.

She was a huge force, an incredible talent. [Ontiveros died in 2012.] I often think about all the incredible performances that were stolen from us and that Lupe was never able to give because those opportunities didn’t exist for someone like her. And she still did her job. She would take all the fragments that came to her and fill them with humor and make them memorable. I think about her often and about all the Latin actors who came before me, who did everything they could with what they had.

How do you see the ideal future for Latinos in the industry?

The hope is that we can have outlets for the immense talent that exists among Latinos. And that we can go beyond fighting just to be visible and that we can truly create and exist as full human beings, as artists, with things to say beyond “We are here.” But it’s hard to find those opportunities. There are a lot of things that are very transactional in terms of checking boxes to claim diversity. One of the most exciting things for me about this movie was, as a Latina woman, being asked to be a part of something so adventurous, joyful, and fun. Gloria is Latina, but being Latina was not her reason for being in this story.

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