Jeweled Cady shift dress, $3,195, by Dolce & Gabbana at Neiman Marcus
“This is my day off,” announces a smiling Gina Rodriguez as she arrives for our interview at the Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa in the L.A. neighborhood of Culver City. It’s just after noon, and the star of Jane the Virgin, the new hit show on The CW (which in mid-December received two Golden Globe nods for best actress in a TV series, musical or comedy; and best TV series, musical or comedy), is running a few minutes late. “I woke up at 4:15am, went into hair and makeup... I mean, no woman should go into hair and makeup so early,” she says, laughing, her velvety brown eyes twinkling. The 30-year-old actress looks adorable, all dolled up in a figure-hugging red and black floral cocktail dress, heels, full makeup and perfect hair. She is definitely a head-turner in this little coffee shop where most patrons are clad in their Boho-style, just-woke-up best.
“I would be a hot mess if not for my glam squad,” notes Rodriguez, almost apologetically. “I did Access Hollywood and then went over to Universal and taped with Mario Lopez,” she says. Then leaning in close for emphasis, adds, “I started reading this script on the way here to meet you, and then I go and talk about the script next.”
It’s been a nonstop ride for Rodriguez since her new show premiered just a few days before this interview—to the highest ratings The CW has seen in years for its Monday night time slot. The much-buzzed-about dramedy, inspired by a Venezuelan telenovela, tells the story of 23-year-old Jane, who is saving her virginity for marriage but accidentally gets artificially inseminated during a routine visit to the doctor. The critics have praised the new Miami-set series and its star, with Los Angeles Times critic Robert Lloyd calling them “the best things to come out of the fall season.” Other critics have called Rodriguez everything from “the next big thing” to the “grounding” and “refreshing” force behind the show. Clearly, she is having a moment.
“It’s the most ridiculous blessing,” says Rodriguez of her fresh fame. We settle at an outdoor table with a mug of steaming almond milk cappuccino as she explains. “The prayer I had asked for on Tuesday morning was that Jane did well so that on my day off I’d be doing press. So, on my day off… ‘You wanted this blessing? 4:15am! Wake up and put on that makeup!’”
If she is fatigued, it’s not obvious. We talk about the show and her own rising star, but it’s clear that Rodriguez is looking to the future. “Fame comes and goes. People will forget my episodes. People won’t remember that I was on Ellen. ... So how do I make change with my art that’s going to be substantial?” she asks thoughtfully. “How do I, as Latina, female and single in the industry, change the social norms that restricted me as a kid?”
Unlike many actors who seek to portray characters radically different from themselves, Rodriguez strives to play women similar to herself: strong, comfortable in their own skin, but not perfect and certainly not stereotypical. “I want to play roles that I see in my reality,” she explains. “My sister is a successful investment banker; my other sister is a doctor. I want to see those roles. I want to see Latinas play roles that are empowering, that are strong, that break the norm!”
Rodriguez got an early crash course in what it’s like to be a strong woman. She was born in Chicago to Puerto Rican parents—her dad was a teamster and a referee for professional boxing; her mom was in charge of court interpreters at the Cook County Courthouse. “At a very young age, I would go with my father on picket lines and fight for people’s rights,” reminisces Rodriguez. At home, her dad, whom she compares to inspirational personalities like Zig Ziglar and Joel Osteen, would encourage his three daughters to “look in the mirror every morning and say, ‘Today is going to be a great day! I can and I will!’” Her mother, on the other hand, was a more cautious cheerleader. “My father was like, ‘You can fight for it!’ and my mother would be like, ‘But remember, it takes 10,000 hours to get somewhere,’” she recalls.
“It’s just this idea that if you put your mind to something and you never give up, you will see the fruits of your labor; the garden will grow from the seeds that you’ve planted,” Rodriguez says. “Except, [my father] also had an idea [about] what he wanted me to plant. And that was definitely not acting. That was definitely law.” For a few seconds, her articulate, free-associative conversational style deserts her as she tells a story of her father coming to see her perform in New York after she had graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and begun working off Broadway and in regional theater. “It was on my birthday... and he said after the play, ‘Wow. You are good! You could do this.’” She sits back and finally takes a sip of coffee, her cup still almost full. “To have that acceptance in his eyes. To have him turn to me and say ‘You can do this...’” she says, her lips quivering.
At that pivotal moment, she says, “I started to discover what I wanted to do for me. I wanted to change social norms. I wanted to change this fear I had of myself. I wanted to know my dreams were possible and to help others feel theirs were possible as well. Because I was living too much for my parents. I was living too much for the validation outside of myself, and when you do that, you are never fulfilled.” She pauses. “And that’s when I started to work on my character, the Gina character, that hadn’t been worked on quite yet.”
She moved from New York to L.A. and, after a few small roles, nabbed the lead in an indie film, Filly Brown, a gritty story of a young woman fighting for her dream of a music career. The movie not only became the talk of Sundance in 2012 but also put Rodriguez on the map. “I was named the ‘it’ girl, and then I thought... boom! I will be the next Jennifer Lawrence. And then that didn’t happen!” Still, her drive was undeterred. “It was just another reset button. It’s interesting because you think to yourself: This is it; this is it. But then you always get reminded: No, no, you are not writing this story; you are making decisions and choices in this story, but you are not writing this story. And it’s having the patience and the faith that this story is going to look even more beautiful than you ever could have imagined,” she says philosophically.
So when Jane the Virgin came along, Rodriguez said she knew the show was the answer to her prayers. “The reason the role means so much to me is because [Jane] is breaking norms in our culture and bringing up conversations. ... [The show] doesn’t comment on life. It does not judge life. It’s just... let’s talk about virginity; let’s talk about interracial couples; let’s talk about sex; let’s talk about this Latino story that you will realize is no different than yours,” she declares.
Most importantly, it gives Rodriguez the platform to talk about her passion: empowering young girls and women. “An artist doesn’t do brain surgery, but if I can liberate one girl from feeling bad about herself, from looking in the mirror and saying, ‘I don’t belong because I’m not this, this and this,’ then I’m done. I’ve done what I came on this Earth to do.”
But Rodriguez is just getting started. Refusing to conform to Hollywood’s expectations of size, beauty and ethnicity is her first stop. “When I was a little girl, my father would whisper in my ear when I was sleeping, ‘You can be anything you want to be. Don’t ever give up on yourself,’ and I would wake up and go, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ and he would be like, ‘I’m talking to your subconscious. Go back to sleep.’”
When asked what’s whispering to her now, the breakout star looks up and suddenly gets emotional. “It’s so scary. It’s so excitingly scary. Because there is a lot of pressure.” And when a single tear falls from her eye, she continues: “Don’t stop working hard, Gina. Don’t stop dreaming big.”
Hair by Paul Norton using John Frieda at Tracey Mattingly
Makeup by Jenna Anton for NARS