America Ferrera on What She Added to Her ‘Barbie’ Monologue

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Greta Gerwig’s smash hit “Barbie” created many viral moments, including a stirring monologue from America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, about the expectations placed upon women—both real and plastic. That moment of feminist catharsis garnered critical buzz—and an Oscar nod for best supporting actress—for Ferrera, who made her name with lead roles on the comedy series “Ugly Betty” and in the coming-of-age film “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Here, Ferrera unpacks life in Barbie Land.

How did you create a grounded character in Gloria while still having fun with the fantasy world of “Barbie”?

I was inspired by this documentary on Hulu called “Tiny Shoulders, Rethinking Barbie,” which was one of the movies I watched in preparation [for the role]. There [is] a Mattel employee [Kim Culmone], and she’s the lead designer on Barbie. She’s leading the charge for Barbie to expand into many shapes and sizes and colors. 

I was so moved by her personal childhood connection to what Barbie was to her when she was a little girl playing with Barbies, and how the value of that seemed worth fighting for. And even though Barbie was imperfect, wanting [her] to become better and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because [Culmone] was a real-life, cool, progressive, smart woman, I felt like I could better understand how Gloria—as an adult woman, mother, wife, employee—could still find so much value and escape in [the dolls]. 

And in a way, that’s the journey Gloria goes on. She does go on the journey to essentially evolve and improve the narrative of Barbie to literally become more human, to include more of the imperfections of it, and really to just acknowledge how perfection is such a useless goal in life for humans and also for the objects we create.

How did your “Barbie” monologue develop from script to screen?

Greta and I spent months talking about the ideas of the monologue. It was definitely a collaboration, and that was such a gift from Greta. From Day 1, she wanted me to personalize it. One of the first things she said to me was, “What’s missing here? What would you say? How would you say it in your words?” I don’t think necessarily [to] rewrite the monologue, but because she wanted to understand what my connections to it were.  

One of the things that came out of those conversations, that I added, was the line, “Always be grateful.” That really resonated with her, and she took that sentiment and then added on: “But never forget that the system is rigged, so find a way to acknowledge that, but also always be grateful.” We were just rolling off of each other’s ideas and thoughts. We did that for months, which is crazy, to spend that much time thinking about 300 words. 

Barbie

Which role shaped you most as an actor? 

Betty [on “Ugly Betty”]. That was my first job on a television show where I had to play the same character for years. I didn’t go to acting school. I was on Season 2, and I’m like, Oh, my God, I don’t really know what I’m doing…. It was the first time that I thought, Oh, I have to find a process. I have to find a craft to be able to sustain living in this character and evolving this character.

What performance should every actor see and why?

One of the performances that compelled me to so deeply want to be in show business is Bette Midler [playing] the role of Mama Rose in [the 1993 TV movie] “Gypsy.” Bette Midler is Bette Midler. She’s an icon. There was so much freedom and permission and humor and gravitas and fluidity—how she could go from a monster-type character into a vulnerable, childlike victim. It’s one of the great roles of musical theater history. But her interpretation of it sparked something in me. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

You’re doing great. Go easier on yourself, and trust yourself. Also, don’t seek perfection, because that’s not what we’re here to do as artists. We’re trying to seek honesty and truth and human experience.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.