Listing some of the many perils of womanhood in a still patriarchal society, the monologue that the actress America Ferrera delivers in “Barbie” with the intensity of a rallying cry, became one of the most talked-about movie moments of 2023.
“I’ve never been a part of something so eagerly 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 an awards-season screening of the smash hit.
Relaxed in a cozy beige sweater, Ferrera, 39, was recalling a prerelease press stop in Mexico City where 20,000 frenzied people welcomed the filmmaker Greta Gerwig and the cast of her pink-soaked comedy. “It was like a presidential campaign,” she added.
Ferrera plays Gloria, mother and Mattel employee whose self-doubt and unfulfilled aspirations in the real world prompt an existential crisis in Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) in Barbie Land. Ferrera’s plucky performance has landed her in the Oscar discussion this year.
Though Gloria might be considered a supporting player in “Barbie,” Ferrera knows that it’s her flawed character who sets the adventure in motion. The performer, who broke through in “Real Women Have Curves” (2002) and went on to win an Emmy for her turn as the title character in “Ugly Betty” (2006-10), deeply admires how Gerwig dared to infuse a seemingly vacuous concept with plenty of meaning.
“It’s huge for something that is both so commercially successful and culturally dominant to also be about many things at the same time, which is not easy to execute in the biggest movie of the year,” Ferrera noted.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Has the massive success of “Barbie” come as a surprise to you?
I went into reading the script with really no attachment to Barbie at all. I didn’t grow up playing with Barbies. I was more curious about what Greta would do with it. It wasn’t just funny and subversive and delightfully weird. It was also about womanhood. When I was done reading the script, I was just giddy that this was the Barbie movie that no one asked for, but we were going to get. I felt it was going to be huge from the beginning.
Why did you never play with Barbies as a child?
We couldn’t afford Barbies. She was very expensive along with all of her stuff. [Laughs] I had a cousin who had Barbies, and I would play with them at her house, but they also seemed very far away from me. I didn’t necessarily feel represented in the Barbie narrative. It felt like a world that wasn’t accessible to me.
Some critics took issue with her monologue as an oversimplification, but Ferrera countered, “We can know things and still need to hear them out loud.”Credit…Amy Harrity for The New York Times
Since you didn’t have a personal attachment to Barbie, how did you find your way into the character of Gloria and this world?
One of the things that really gave me a glimpse into this character was the documentary called “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” that showed when Barbie expanded into many different sizes and shapes and colors. The woman [Kim Culmone] who led that as the head Barbie designer, a very cool feminist progressive woman, was getting backlash from all sides: From the legacy holders saying, “Barbie can’t change.” And from her progressive friends, angry that 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 to playing with Barbies with her mother. She fought for this idea that she knew was imperfect but that still meant something to her. That gave me the insight I needed to play Gloria as a real adult woman and to understand why she plays with Barbie and wishes herself to Barbie Land.
What did you think the first time you saw Gloria’s now incredibly popular speech?
It definitely felt like an important moment, but Gloria was shining from the very beginning. She represents this quest for the permission to express yourself. She has to play the role of Mom and of responsible career woman, while hiding everything she loves underneath the corporate suit, being what she thought she needed to be. From the moment we meet her with her pink sneakers on to her getting to drive in that car chase, there was so much wish fulfillment and release for somebody who has been repressing so much.
The monologue felt so right for Gloria. Yes, it breaks the Barbies out of their moment, 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 independent of her entire search for more freedom for herself.
Did the speech change at all?
The text evolved a little bit. Greta asked me, “Why don’t you just tell me what you would say? Write it in your own words. What would you add?” Not every director starts out by inviting actors to rewrite their work. Some of what we talked about made it into the script. The line, “Always be grateful” came out of that conversation with Greta. She expounded on it adding, “But never forget that the system is rigged.” There were many versions that we did. We ended in tears. It ended in laughter, it got big, it got small, and I was able to do that because I really trusted Greta to know what would be right for the film.
What are your thoughts on the discourse that some people believe Gloria’s speech oversimplifies feminism?
We can know things and still need to hear them out loud. It can still be a cathartic. There are a lot of people who need Feminism 101, whole generations of girls who are just coming up now and who don’t have words for the culture that they’re being raised in. Also, boys and men who may have never spent any time thinking about feminist theory.
If you are well-versed in feminism, then it might seem like an oversimplification, but there are entire countries that banned this film for a reason. To say that something that is maybe foundational, or, in some people’s view, basic feminism isn’t needed is an oversimplification. Assuming that everybody is on the same level of knowing and understanding the experience of womanhood is an oversimplification.
Gloria’s story is deeply intertwined with that of Barbie. How do think the two help each other overcome their struggles?
Greta, Margot and I talked about Gloria and Barbie’s relationship as a love story. Not necessarily a romantic one, which some people on the internet have pushed for that reading of it, but we talked about it as Barbie and Gloria needing each other to be complete and to be the pieces of a puzzle that’s missing for each of them. The journey releases Gloria of the impossible assignment of being the kind of woman that she thinks she needs to be in the real world. And Barbie releases her herself from having to be an idea that is never going to satisfy all the things she’s meant to satisfy by choosing to be a human.
What was your reaction when you first saw the doll made in your image for the Barbie collection inspired by the movie?
Surreal. There were actually some similarities to me in the facial features. She’s the first Barbie doll fashioned after a Honduran American woman to ever exist. That’s really special, to know 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 a lead acting Emmy? There’s a lot of pressure in being the first.
I just took any single opportunity in front of me to do the best possible work that I could do in the hopes that there would be another opportunity after that. Looking backward, it’s much clearer to see that my career has been shaped by how the culture saw somebody 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 those characters with as much complexity as I could, and not just play characters that were a foil to an expectation.
Have things improved for Latinas in Hollywood since “Real Women Have Curves”?
It took Josefina López, who wrote it, 11 years to get that movie made. And when the movie was successful, it didn’t result in a watershed moment for Latina writers and directors and actresses being given tons of opportunities. As you stated, I’m the first Latina to win an Emmy in a lead category. I’m still the only one and that brings me no joy. While I would love to think that things are different today than they were 22 years ago when “Real Women Have Curves” was made, the data shows that in large part, it 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 tiny roles she managed to turn into screen gold.
She was such a force, an incredible talent. [Ontiveros died in 2012.] I often think about all the incredible performances we were robbed of, that Lupe never got to give because those opportunities didn’t exist for somebody like her. And she still did her work. She took whatever scraps would come to her and she would fill them with humor and make them memorable. I think about her often, and all the Latino actors who’ve come before me, who did whatever they could with whatever they got.
What does the ideal future for Latinos in the industry look like to you?
The hope is that we get to actually have outlets for the immense talent that exists among Latinos. And that we can move beyond fighting just to be visible and that we can actually create and exist as full humans, as artists, with things to say beyond, “We’re here.” But it’s hard to find those opportunities. There’s a lot out there that is very transactional in terms of checking boxes to claim diversity. One of the most exciting things to me about this movie was, as a Latina woman, being invited to be a part of something so adventurous and joyful and fun. Gloria is Latina, but being Latina was not her reason for being in this story.