Determined not to let her Golden Globe–winning role on Ugly Betty define her evolving career, actress America Ferrera ventures into foreign terrain with X/Y, a telling and titillating indie drama written and directed by her husband of four years, Ryan Piers Williams. Playing opposite Williams in the lead role, Ferrera is cast as one of many rudderless, romantically troubled New Yorkers searching for happiness. In a recent conversation with Vulture, Ferrera discussed her personal attachment to this project, the conversation she hopes to ignite with X/Y, and why loneliness persists in the age of “connection.”
How autobiographical is X/Y, especially since you and Ryan are together both on- and offscreen?
It was certainly influenced by our friends, our environment, and Ryan’s observations of the relationships people in our generation are having and the challenges that those relationships face. When he wrote the script, it wasn’t intended for either one of us to act in it. He wrote the script and showed it to me, and for a few months I helped him develop the script and the characters. After a few months of diving into the characters, I found myself really compelled towards Sylvia and her story. Then we got the idea of, What would it be like if a real-life couple played this couple onscreen? What would that buy us in terms of the innate history and intimacy that’s there for us already?
Since you both were so engrossed in the project, did either of you have any difficulty distancing yourself from these characters?
My personal experience is, I dive in at the start of the film and I don’t really come up for air till it’s done. That’s my experience on any film I do, but especially on this movie, where Ryan and I were in it together. That’s what we were living and breathing, all day, every day.
It’s been nearly 15 years now since you started your professional career. How much has your craft and creative process changed over the last decade?
There have been massive changes in my creative process. When I started working, I was 17. At that point, my experience was in community theater and in public-school drama classes. I didn’t have any official training, and then I didn’t go to school for acting but [for] international relations. What that meant was I had to learn and create for myself a process that worked for me. Thinking back to when I was a teenager, I was going purely on instinct and sheer will, not really having any compass for how to do my job. Over the years I’ve gotten to go from acting to producing, and I’ve dabbled with directing, and I realized what I love about my work is present in all these aspects of storytelling. And I’ve really honed my mission and what’s important to me.
What is important to you?
The specifics of the stories I want to tell are always changing, but I’ve learned to trust my instincts about what I connect to. It’s important to me to find something in the material that is having a conversation that feels relevant. Even back when I was starting in my career with Real Women Have Curves, that experience set the bar very high for me. I got to be a part of this film that showed me what a film can do, starting a conversation about shared experiences. We traveled the world with that film, and all kinds of people saw themselves in a 15-year-old Mexican girl from Los Angeles, California.
So what’s the conversation you hope to begin with X/Y?
What I was really moved by in reading the script was a real sense of loneliness that connected these characters. It’s something I felt very familiar with in my own life and my friends’ [lives]. There’s a stark contrast to the experience that the culture is having with connection and contact and immediate gratification and a constant dialogue, with the world, with your peers, with reporters, with whoever you want to have a dialogue with on your cell phone, computer, iPad, laptop. You can stand in an elevator and watch the news and know what’s going on in the world. There’s more exposure to what’s going on in the world, and even what’s going on in your friends’ lives, than ever before. And yet, what persists about the human experience is that there’s a loneliness that can’t be avoided. I wouldn’t go as far to say that technology created that experience of loneliness. Loneliness has always existed [for] humans.
But you think it exacerbates it.
It really illuminates it. It makes it hard to ignore that we’re really bad at being intimate with ourselves. In this culture that’s increasingly fast-paced and “connected,” that loneliness can feel like you’re the only one who feels it. Everything around you is telling you that we have every opportunity to feel connected. So then you think, What’s wrong with me? This cultural direction is not filling that elemental void that personally I believe is about intimacy with oneself. I’ve been taking note of my own habits, and how I couldn’t sit in a cab for five minutes and just breathe and digest from where I was coming from before I got to the next place because I was pulling out my phone to answer emails or checking Facebook or checking Twitter. There was a mania that once gets going is so hard to pull back from. It does more effort to do nothing than to stay on the treadmill and keep going.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about how the film is about oneself, considering each character is struggling to manage their relationship with another person.
It’s about that, too, but it’s common to talk about what’s right and what’s wrong about a relationship between two people. We don’t often pull back and say, “What’s wrong with this person’s relationship with themselves that’s causing the conflict between these two people?” For me, when I see the scene with my character Sylvia with her best friend Jen at lunch and they both have so much going on in their lives, neither of them are listening to each other. Neither can be present for the other one because they’re so wrapped up in in their experiences. Which is why I believe our relationships with one another are completely informed by our relationships with ourselves.
When you’re in the thick of a relationship, it’s so easy to blame the relationship or whatever is not going right. It’s not fulfilling these things that you want. And then so often we get alone and all of those things are still present. The beauty of relationships is that they give us the opportunity to see these things in ourselves, but we so rarely take responsibility for who we’re being in our own lives. To bring it back to the conversation about technology, I can rail against Twitter or Facebook or emails and the world that’s making me live this fast-paced life and making me unhappy, but I’m an adult who can take responsibility for the way I choose to interact with these things.