America Ferrera Reflects on Her Journey From Disney Channel to ‘Barbie’ to the Oscars

TheWrap magazine: The actress tells TheWrap that her 17-year-old self would say “What the hell took so long?”

Photo by: Jeff Vespa

If you were to go back to 2002 and tell 17-year-old America Ferrera, fresh off of starring in ‘Gotta Kick It Up’ on Disney Channel, that she would receive an Oscar nomination in 2024, her response would be blunt: “What the hell took so long?” At least, that’s what present-day America Ferrera thinks.

“Seventeen-year-old America thought she was getting nominated for ‘Gotta
Kick It Up,’” the actress told TheWrap with a laugh in January, just hours after getting her first nomination. “Seventeen-year-old America thought she could get nominated for an Oscar for a Disney Channel movie. She did not quite understand the rules of the game.”

In reality, the actress picked up a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Gloria in Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie’s critical favorite and box-office smash, “Barbie.” Gloria is not a Barbie herself, but rather a human working for Mattel who’s struggling, as all women do, with figuring out how to exist in a male-dominated world, especially as she’s raising a teenage daughter.

Ferrera drew acclaim for the role thanks to an emotional monologue concisely detailing that exact complicated struggle—a monologue she immediately knew
from just reading the script was “a gift.”

But, lying within Gloria’s struggles is still just a young girl with an eagerness to play with her Barbies. When Barbie herself (Robbie) shows up to seal the rift between their two worlds, Gloria is thrilled to know she is the one Barbie came for.

When Gloria and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) go to Barbie Land, the older woman fawns over Barbie’s many outfits, most of which she had herself
growing up. And, according to Ferrera, that childlike excitement was easy to harness.

“That still very much exists in me,” she said. “I feel so close to my childlike glee, particularly around getting to do my work. As an actress, or when I’m directing, it feels like play. And I feel very close to that kind of ecstatic energy when I’m getting to do what I love.”

She continued, “That was also so much the energy that Greta brought to the project — that everyone brought to the project, but because of Greta, it all felt
like child’s play. And so that wasn’t really hard for me to tap into.”

What was harder and more “involved” for Ferrera was striking a balance between the imaginative side of Gloria, who would readily believe Barbie came for her, and the fact that she is an adult woman in the real world who would likely have some skepticism.

In preparing to reconcile those aspects of the character, Ferrera was inspired by the documentary “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie,” which told the story of Kim Culmone, who led what Ferrera called “the Barbie revolution” and expanded the doll’s look to include different races, body types, abilities and more, despite facing criticism and questions from virtually everyone in her life.

“For her, on a personal level, it was about her childhood memories — playing with Barbie with her mother and what that imagination meant and what that connection meant. And she never let that go,” Ferrera said. “Even though Barbie was imperfect, it still had value to her, and she held onto that value. And because she was a real woman in the real world who believed in what Barbie could be, I felt like I could see Gloria.”

America Ferrera in ‘Barbie’ (Warner Bros. Pictures)

She continued, “I thought, yes, Gloria is not afraid to love what she loves. She’s a little afraid, because she’s hiding most of it, and she’s pretending to be whatever people need her to be in any situation. But this journey gets to be one where she unabashedly gets to revel and love what she loves. And that felt like a really important journey to see an adult, grown woman go on. To just give herself the permission to value what she values and to love what she loves.”

Her performance culminated in the year’s most celebrated cinematic monologue when Gloria details how impossible it is to be a woman in today’s culture. Ferrera knew she had to do the monologue justice, but she didn’t know that it would go viral and prompt cheers and tears from audiences everywhere.

She got to experience that firsthand when she watched the film at its Los Angeles

“It was a premiere audience, so it’s always a friendly audience, all the laughing and the clapping and whooping and hollering,” she said. “But there was a wonderful reaction to the speech. I actually took my 3-year-old daughter with me and she sat on my lap the whole time. I was sure she was going to fall asleep and she didn’t.”

Ferrera continued, “Just having my daughter in my lap and getting to experience that moment and everyone’s reaction to it was a very, very special moment. [It was] really wonderful to see the words and the work land with people.”

To get an Oscar nomination for playing out this journey on screen is just the cherry on top for Ferrera. That said, she’s acutely aware of what her nomination means for Latinx actors, who are historically underrepresented when awards season comes around, particularly at the Oscars.

“I grew up watching the Academy Awards and looking for proof that I could one day be there,” she said. “And I found that in any woman of color or a person outside of the dominant stereotype of movie star. And so I think it really makes an incredible impact when people see people who reflect them in these cultural moments that are about celebrating and valuing people’s voices, people’s
stories, people’s work, people’s artistry.”

She added, “For too long, so many of us have had so little to see ourselves in. So to get to be in that room and represent millions of people who maybe feel like it’s more possible for them to be valued and celebrated in our culture, it means everything to me. It’s truly, to me, the real power of the moment.”

This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.

Down to the Wire, TheWrap Magazine - February 20, 2024
Illustration by Rui Ricardo for TheWrap


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