"To stay around as long as I have, it takes chutzpah, cojones. I mean, look at me; I ain't no American beauty rose," said veteran actor Lupe Ontiveros during a recent interview.
True, Ontiveros may not be the first person you think of when picturing the mainstream, or Hollywood, ideal of beauty, but when you meet her in person or see her on-screen, there is an abundance of splendor to be found, particularly in her latest performance in Real Women Have Curves. There she vividly embodies the role of Carmen, a tough, stubborn matriarch of a lower-middle-class Latino family in Los Angeles. Though far from glamorous, the role is a beauty of a part for Ontiveros. Indeed, the film could be described as a celebration of all women's beauty, no matter the shape or size.
Though Ontiveros has been working in the entertainment industry for 25 years, Real Women Have Curves marks her first leading role in a motion picture. In January at the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Ontiveros and her 18-year-old co-star, newcomer America Ferrera, were awarded a special jury prize for acting. The film also walked away with the festival's audience award for best drama. HBO, which financed the film, initially planned to debut it on TV, but following Real Women's overwhelming success at Sundance, HBO will release the film theatrically this week—a first for HBO.
Real Women marks the directorial feature debut of Patricia Cardoso. It's playwright Josefina Lopez's first script to be made into a feature. And the project also introduces audiences to the talented Ferrara, who was 17 years old when she did the film. Ferrera's character, Ana, is an intelligent, confident, strong-willed teenager who rebels against her mother's wishes that Ana follow in her footsteps—to marry and bear children. Instead, Ana dreams of furthering herself by going to college and getting a degree. As Ferrera told Back Stage West recently, she could certainly relate to the conflict between Ana and Carmen, though not in the way you might think.
"My mother decided to come to this country for the sole purpose that my siblings and I could get an education, could have every opportunity in the business world, and whatever we wanted to pursue would be at our fingertips. I certainly appreciated the fact that my mom had given up her life in her home country for us; you feel an obligation to fulfill that," shared Ferrera, whose mother has, for the most part, raised her six children on her own since immigrating to the United States from Honduras. They settled in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Not surprisingly, Ferrera's mother was not exactly thrilled to learn that her daughter wanted to be an actor. Ferrera, who was getting a taste for acting in school plays, decided at 15 to try to pursue acting professionally. After a year and a half of rejection, Ferrera was cast in a supporting role in the Disney Channel movie Gotta Kick It Up. Soon after landing her first job, she was hired as the lead in Real Women Have Curves.
Continued Ferrera, "When I was doing this film, I was in the same year of high school [as Ana], applying to colleges, fighting with my mom about what college I was going to. It was close to what was going on with Carmen and Ana, and my pursuit to be an actress and my mom's hesitation to support me in that. I don't think her fears came from thinking that I couldn't do it; she knew I had a passion and I really wanted to act. I think her fears came from her not being sure that I could make it in such a cruel business. It's such an uncertain job. I think every morning my mom waits for me to wake up and say, 'I think I'll be a doctor,' because she wants security for me; she wants me to have a good life, and what I have had to do is prove to her that this is what the [good] life is for me."
Though she has every intention of sticking with acting, Ferrera is also a serious student. She graduated from high school earlier this year as a class valedictorian. She has chosen to attend college and recently accepted a full scholarship to the University of Southern California, where she'll begin her freshman year in spring 2003.
Ferrera is not sure how she got the acting bug at age 8. She does not recall seeing very many role models that looked like her on the big or small screen. "When you're young," she said, "you search for people you can look up to and say, 'Hey, if they can do it, I can do it,' but it was so rare for me to turn on the TV and see normal-sized Latina girls."
Though she recently started to shed some of her baby fat—which is still evident in Real Women—Ferrera is far from skinny. When you see her on-screen, and especially in person, however, she's got a twinkle in her eyes and a heart-melting smile that make her a natural beauty. Audiences who have seen the film at Sundance and more recently the Toronto Film Festival agree: Ferrera has helped redefine the film industry's notion of beauty.
Still, Ferrera remembers a time not that long ago when she was not a hot commodity. "There was a point I was getting to in the audition process where I auditioned for a year and never got a single callback. I started to question, 'What is wrong with me? Why don't they want me?' Either it breaks you completely or it makes you stronger." Thankfully it made her stronger.
That strength was apparent the moment Ontiveros met Ferrera. At that point, three young actors, including Ferrera, were up for the role of Ana. Ontiveros, who had already been cast in the film—and had a long association with the project, dating back to 1994 when she played Carmen in San Diego Repertory's stage production of Real Women—was brought in to read with each of the candidates.
"There was that little ounce of rebelliousness in her face and her eyes," recalled Ontiveros. "She's got a little attitude when she is communicating certain things to you. She's got a look. I knew what she was saying with her expression, because I had been there as a kid. I knew her rebellion, and it needed to be there for the character of Ana. I read with two other girls, and, of the three, she was the best. But secondly, she had that subtext, and I knew she was it."
Worth the Wait
Ontiveros knows a thing or two about rebellion, though she did not fully act on her rebel spirit until her mid-30s, after having completed college, earned a Ph.D., married, given birth to three kids, and fallen into a career as a social worker. Between jobs, Ontiveros decided, on a whim, to try to get work as an extra in movies and, in the process, fell in love with the idea of acting.
"It seemed like something I felt I knew I could do," Ontiveros explained of her late-blooming passion for acting. "As time passed, I worked less and less as an extra. I started to take a little class here and there and went to the Nosotros organization. They had excellent teachers at the time. I put myself in workshops. I would work during the day, go home, make dinner, and then go to my workshops. Then I started getting calls from friends and got into plays and, again, I'd go to work, make dinner, and then go to my play."
Her early screen credits were mainly in stereotypical roles depicting Latinas as either maids or whores. Still, those early acting jobs and her many rejections did not dissuade her. Said Ontiveros, "Every time somebody rejects you for a part, you want to know why. Is it because you suck as an actor? Is it your looks or because you're too old? All those insecurities come with the territory of the business. But I was never really discouraged; I never allowed that to be part of my vocabulary. The more they told me I couldn't do it, the more I knew that I had to do it. 'I'm not going to go away,' is what I say."
It took years, but Ontiveros' perseverance and dedication paid off. In 1981 she reprised her stage role in the film version of Zoot Suit. Two years later she acted in El Norte. In 1993 she was cast on the short-lived sitcom Dudley, starring Dudley Moore. A series of film roles followed: Selena, As Good as It Gets, Luminarias, Chuck & Buck (for which she won an Independent Spirit Award), Todd Solondz's Storytelling, and the upcoming Adaptation, made by the creators of Being John Malkovich. With the exception of As Good as It Gets, in which she broke the stereotypical mold of her character—a housekeeper who goes head to head with her boss' neighbor, played by Jack Nicholson—Ontiveros essentially built her career in independent film.
"Without independent films I would have no career," she said. "A lot of us would have no careers. Independent films allow [actors] the opportunity to truly perform, to work."
Earlier this year Ontiveros got a call from Peter Murrieta, an executive producer/writer she did not know but who knew her work well. He offered her a job as a series regular in his new sitcom, Greetings from Tucson, airing on WB this season. It was the first time she did not have to prove herself for a part. "It's about time somebody said, 'We want her and nobody else.' That is what I think every actor prays and dreams for."
Still, if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn't have wished for a different life. "It was worth the wait," she said. "I think I know what I'm doing now, whereas before there was a lot of insecurity as to how I came off [as an actor]. In the case of Real Women Have Curves, the experience has definitely placed me on very solid footing."
Grounded for Life
Ontiveros is also happy to pass down her acquired wisdom to the next generation. Ferrera not only found the role model she had been searching for all those years, she also found a willing mentor in Ontiveros. Though their on-screen characters in Real Women are divided by friction, in real life these two actors strongly bonded, both during the making of the film and throughout this year, as they've traveled together with the film to North American festivals.
"She takes on everything and makes it amazing," said Ferrera of Ontiveros. "She makes the smallest parts beautiful. I think she is a true actress. She definitely takes what is given to her. Her favorite saying is, 'I take chicken shit and make it into chicken salad.' I learned a ton from her, and I am still learning a ton from her."
Above all, Ontiveros has helped keep her young protégé grounded. Ferrera has come to realize that even with the early success of Real Women, she can easily become yesterday's news.
Continued Ferrera, "Lupe has always been there to bring me back down to earth. [She says,] 'Always remember that you are doing a service to them and that is the only reason that these people are being nice to you, and the day you can't provide them with what they need, it is all going to go away.' She just really helped me remember what I was there for, which was to support this project."
Ontiveros is confident Ferrera's priorities are straight. Said the veteran performer, "America can only get better as she gets older and matures a little bit, but her focus and her mental direction are very much where they should be. All she needs is to continue to be supported and reinforced by those of us who are older and more experienced and who care about her enough to say, 'Don't get your hope up so quickly because you've got to earn it. You've got to work for it. You've got the ability and talent, but don't get the wrong conception of what [this business] is.'"
Ontiveros may be a pragmatic realist when it comes to the business of acting, but she still has high hope for Real Women Have Curves. "I think it is going to make a lot of noise. It is going to make a difference. It is going to open the door to a lot more [Latino-generated and -themed] projects. It is telling the powers that be, 'Hey, in spite of all this BS that you have perpetuated, we are still able to create magic through our own stories and our own experiences, and looking the way we do. We can't all look like Jennifer Lopez.'"
Amen to that, sister. BSW