In the six years since America Ferrera appeared off-Broadway in Dog Sees God, the actress, now 27, shot to TV fame in Ugly Betty, scooping up copious awards along the way. Ferrera is now back onstage through New Year’s Eve playing Roxie Hart in the London production of Chicago and is eyeing a Broadway debut next spring in a revival of Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest. Broadway.com caught up with the bubbly performer early one recent evening to discuss both those ventures and more.
There’s a long and illustrious list of women who have played Roxie Hart. How did you come to join their ranks?
They approached me at the end of September. I had finished two films back to back in Los Angeles and was expecting to be in New York for the holidays, but I’d always wanted to spend some proper time in London, so this seemed a great opportunity to do that. For now, the plan is for me to be here until the end of the year.
It’s interesting how malleable Roxie is, in terms of the sorts of women who have played the part.
Yes, maybe I’ll do it again in 60 years—well, probably not 60 [laughs]. It is amazing how women from all ages and backgrounds can do this role. I think one of the reasons why so many people are attracted to the part is that she’s very easy to adapt to your own skin, so it becomes about discovering and figuring out who you are as Roxie and not trying to be anyone else.
How do you cope with a line like Roxie’s “I’m older than I ever intended to be,” when you are 27?
With conviction [laughs]! That always gets a great response from the audience, and it’s a funny line for anyone of any age to say, really; it’s funny how ironic it is and also that Roxie truly believes it. But I could imagine it being said by a bratty high school student. You don’t have to be any particular age to think like that.
What did you do to prepare?
Chicago was the second show I ever saw on Broadway, at the end of 2001—a matinee of Beauty and the Beast was the first—so I did know the piece. But for this, I watched Kara DioGuardi play the role on Broadway. I began working on the part in New York, and once I got to London, I had a week to meet the cast and have the whole show come together. What was good was that everyone else was re-joining in some form; it wasn’t like jumping aboard a moving train. [The musical had been on hiatus for several months prior to re-opening at London’s Garrick Theatre.]
Are you enjoying performing the amazing musical number “Roxie”?
That’s daunting but also fun and exciting. I’ve found, even after doing it for 15 episodes—not episodes, performances! [laughs]—that you’re always going back and finding new ways to keep it alive, because it is a long time to be on stage with just Roxie and the audience. The song is the one chance she gets to be herself, and she knows it; everything else is bullshit, really.
How does it feel playing foxy Roxie after playing “ugly” Betty?
It’s fun, because who doesn’t enjoy sex and being sexy? That’s where Roxie is 95% of the time—no, 98%. This wasn’t a conscious decision or any kind of reaction to getting away from Betty, although I can see how it looks that way from the outside. Anyway, Betty for me was about two years ago. It’s not the last thing I’ve done, and it’s not what I compare everything to.
I remember seeing you in Dog Sees God six years ago, and it’s lovely that you are keen to come back to the theater.
I got Ugly Betty while I was on that show! I grew up doing theater. One of the reasons I fell in love with New York, having grown up in Los Angeles, was being exposed to theater in a way I never had before. Since [Ugly Betty] is over, theater is able to be a big part of my passion for acting and performance, and living in New York, I was and am very excited to see what is available.
You did a reading of Extremities with Katie Holmes and have been reported to be coming to Broadway in the spring in Beth Henley’s [1984 play] The Miss Firecracker Contest.
This is sort of turning out to be my season of theater! As always, it comes down to timing: Miss Firecracker is not 100% [set] yet.
On Ugly Betty, of course, you were surrounded by theater people, including Vanessa Williams, Judith Light and Michael Urie.
It felt as if all of us came from theater backgrounds, which was good because it made us very prepared for what was going to happen in the moment. It was about people who relish the process. People always want me to compare the two disciplines [film and stage], but they are really apples and oranges; it’s like comparing skiing with basketball. They both require a lot of you and take up a lot of energy.
London critics are apparently not going to weigh in on your performance in Chicago. How do you feel about that?
It’s nice not to worry about that pressure and to just settle into the character. Chicago is such an exciting and wonderful show; the quality of the material takes a lot of the pressure off whoever’s coming in because it is so surefire and so well done. I imagine my best performance will probably be my last: I’ll wake up the next morning and think, “Can’t I do it again?”