Nina Terrero
October 17, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Jane Villanueva, the heroine of The CW’s new dramedy Jane the Virgin, doesn’t resemble the majority of Hispanic characters in prime time — she isn’t a cop, a sex kitten, or a cook; she doesn’t accentuate her curves in skintight dresses or speak with a sultry accent. All reasons that Gina Rodriguez had to say yes to the role, which she calls the most ”realistic” portrayal of Latinas on TV.

”I think that our society has a perception of what American Latinos are like,” says Rodriguez, who was raised in Chicago by Puerto Rican immigrants. ”We’re not talking about her weight, we’re not talking about her looks, we’re not talking about her ethnicity. We’re just following her story.” And what a story it is: Jane, a type-A twentysomething, is intent on earning her teaching degree and staying a virgin until she marries. But those plans could go awry when she discovers she’s pregnant — through an accidental artificial insemination. (Did we mention the show’s based on a popular Venezuelan telenovela?)

If Rodriguez is compelling in her portrayal of Jane, it’s because, to some extent, she is Jane: a college-educated millennial who simultaneously embraces the Latin culture she inherited and the American landscape she was born into. And the 30-year-old can even attest to the frustrations of an abstinence-minded sweetheart.

”The crazy thing is that I used to date a virgin,” she says. ”He was a 32-year-old virgin, saving himself for marriage. That just blows my mind…dating a virgin who’s literally so like Jane, and now I’m playing Jane. It’s the best character study ever.”

Though the actress doesn’t indulge in Jane’s love for Latin soap operas (growing up, she watched The Cosby Show and Full House, which ”were telenovelas in their own right”), she does share her character’s ambition. After graduating with a theater degree from New York University, she racked up guest roles on dramas like Law & Order and Army Wives before landing the lead in the 2012 hip-hop drama Filly Brown, which earned her accolades at the Sundance Film Festival. ”Filly Brown single-handedly changed my life,” she says.

Offers soon followed — but nothing quite clicked. She signed a talent-holding deal with ABC (”I couldn’t find a home at any of their shows,” she says), then agreed to play a ”badass aviator pilot” on a Fox show that didn’t get picked up. She even turned down an opportunity to test for Devious Maids because she wanted to play characters who were more like the women she knew. ”I’m sitting here with two older sisters [an investment banker and a pediatrician] who are killing the game in their industries, and I don’t see that on TV,” Rodriguez says.

Jane came along two years later. No matter what happens with the series, Rodriguez is happy she held out. ”I’ve had to wait, but it was worth it,” she says. ”I wasn’t afraid to say no in the meantime. This is a journey that will take a lifetime, and that’s something I told myself at a very young age.”

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