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EXCLUSIVE: Why America Ferrera Wants the Freedom to Play Whomever She Wants

by Stacy Lambe 7:33 AM PDT, June 29, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

“As an actor of color, I really, every now and then, would love the freedom to play a character that doesn't have to represent every single Latina out there,” America Ferrera tells ET when asked about her decision to play Brigida, the dim owner of a Spanish restaurant in Netflix’s Special Correspondents, who, at times, struggles to communicate with Ricky Gervais’ character because English is her second language.

“That's not a freedom, as actors of color, we feel the right to take, because there is so much pressure on every single role that does represent people of color or women that we put a burden on those roles to say something or to represent us or to stand for us,” Ferrera continues.

MORE: America Ferrera Finds Her (Comedic) Voice on 'Superstore'

The role is not overtly offensive but it straddles a line, which Ferrera says is part of a larger farce and social commentary. “The way that I looked at that character was in that context of diving deeper into the ridiculous stereotypes to kind of comment on,” she says, explaining why such a role was both appealing -- “I was really thrilled to work with Ricky Gervais” -- but seemingly at odds with her career.

The 32-year-old actress first became popular for playing the titular magazine employee on Ugly Betty. The show, which premiered 10 years ago, was celebrated for its portrayal of the Latino community on American television. Ferrera was recognized for defying stereotypes, which she has continued to do throughout her career, especially as producer and star of the NBC comedy Superstore.

Photo: Netflix

Superstore, Ferrera’s first full-time commitment to a TV series since Ugly Betty, appealed to her because of creator Justin Spitzer’s point of view. He wrote the characters without a specific ethnicity in mind; “He was just casting the best actors for the roles,” Ferrera says. “That awareness was already there.”

And as a producer on the series, Ferrera is constantly having conversations with her team about diversity. “How do we defy expectations? How do defy stereotypes? Where are the opportunities to undercut what people expect?” she says. “Those are questions we're asking all the time and that's very important to me.”

In recent months, Ferrera has become even more outspoken about diversity and, in particular, tokenism on TV. “Tokenism is about inserting diverse characters because you feel you have to; true diversity means writing characters that aren’t just defined by the color of their skin, and casting the right actor for the role,” she wrote in a guest column for Deadline. “Diversity is on everyone’s agenda today, but it’s something I’ve had to think about my entire career, because, in a way, it’s like the tax you pay for being a person of color in this industry.”

MORE: America Ferrera Talks 'Powerless' Feeling as an Actor of Color in Hollywood

“As an audience member, I find myself wanting roles that are female or roles that are women of color to represent a certain thing," Ferrera explains to ET. "But as an actor, an unequal burden falls upon actors of color to have every role say something and represent something.”

That pressure, it seems, isn’t only on Ferrera. Aziz Ansari, star and co-creator of Netflix’s Master of None, says that “when you're a minority and have a voice, it can be a little daunting sometimes because there are so few voices of your kind because you're a minority.”

His critically acclaimed series tackled issues of diversity, calling out Hollywood for its ignorance in using brown face and examining what it means to be Indian-American.

“Your voice is amplified in the community and there's this pressure to handle that in a certain way,” Ansari says. “You know, what can you do? You're not going to please everybody.” 

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