America Ferrera is on — or rather, in — Cloud Nine these days: The 31-year-old Ugly Betty alum has returned to TV in the NBC comedy Superstore as Amy, a seen-it-all floor supervisor toiling in a Walmart-like emporium named Cloud 9. “It feels like a heightened, bright world which you can’t get away from when you’re setting it in a big box store,” she says of the series (which was sneak-previewed on Nov. 30 and premieres in its regular time slot Monday at 8 p.m.). “Everyone and anybody has walked into one of these stores, so the possibilities for who walks in and what happens in the store are endless.” Her character, meanwhile, is not exactly full of wonder and possibility. “Amy is in a lot of ways the opposite of Betty,” she notes. “She’s had hard circumstances, to the point where she’s not really expecting anything wonderful to happen on a day-to-day basis or really in her life. It’s a complete 180 from the go-get-‘em optimism of Betty.” Read on to see how a series of best-worst-most-least questions register with Ferrera.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What question do people ask you the most?
AMERICA FERRERA: “Is America your real name?” That’s the only name I have, so yes. It’s my only-iest name.
What was your weirdest fan encounter?
A fan that tattooed my initials on them felt very weird. It creeped me out a little. I just said, “Oh, okay! Bye!”
What is the impulse buy that you regret the most?
With my first big paycheck, I went and leased a BMW, and literally two months later I couldn’t afford to put gas in the tank. And so very quickly, I went in and exchanged it for a Toyota — and still have that Toyota, by the way.
What is the line of dialogue from a movie or TV show you quote the most?
I quote Steel Magnolias all the time. It’s the scene where she’s having a fit, and then Sally Field says, “Drink your juice, Shelby!” And I have to say it in the accent, too. My husband and I quote it to each other all the time. We always say, “Drink your juice, Shelby,” before we drink something. It doesn’t make any sense.
Who is the person you’re mistaken for the most?
These days I would have to say Gina Rodriguez. [Ed. note: The Golden Globes Twitter account made the same mistake after this interview.] It’s fun to be able to say, “Nope, sorry, not her!” and I keep walking. Weirdly, I got mistaken for Michelle Rodriguez [in the past], which doesn’t make any sense, because we couldn’t be more different. Once, I got Selena Gomez. Basically anyone who’s Latina. People just look at me and go, “I think she’s vaguely famous — she’s definitely the one famous Latina who I might know.”
What is the red carpet look you wore that you regret the most?
Anything before I had a stylist. Everything before I paid someone else to dress me. … My biggest fashion regret has something more to do with comfort. One time, I wore a jumpsuit to a premiere. When I tried it on, it fit me, and when I put it back on for the premiere, it was a little bit big up top. And a jumpsuit has to be held up by something. I went ahead and wore it anyway, and the whole time, I’m breathing out — doing the opposite of sucking it in — so that my jumpsuit does not flip down and expose my breasts. That was a very stress-inducing fashion decision. So I do regret that. Lesson learned: Wear stuff that fits you.
What kind of viral video makes you laugh the hardest?
Dogs acting like humans, anything dogs do that is vaguely like a human trait — it’s wearing glasses, or it looks like it’s reading something or watching TV. I recall one of a dog who waits until his family’s gone and then he incessantly slides down the pool slide over and over again. I feel like I could watch that forever and laugh.
Which movie makes you cry the hardest?
I remember having a headache for literally days after I watched Hotel Rwanda. Literally for days, I had a headache from how much I cried watching that movie. The truth of the movie was so devastating, and I just wasn’t expecting it. Sometimes you go in and you can keep your wall up and your guard up. I feel like I watched 12 Years a Slave but kind of with one eye closed, and I didn’t let my guard down. But there was something with Hotel Rwanda that I just got caught off-guard.
What was the worst job you ever had?
I cleaned up after my neighbor’s pet pig for probably $5 an hour, which I’m not even sure is legal. I don’t know that you can employ a 10-year-old to clean up your pet pig for less than minimum wage.
What was the most nervous you ever were for an audition?
It was a singing audition. They were going to turn In the Heights, the Broadway musical, into a movie. And then the movie fell apart. I had to sing for director Kenny Ortega and for Lin-Manuel [Miranda]. I was trembling and sweating. I was thinking, “How could I hurt myself in a way that would keep me from the audition but wouldn’t put me in the hospital?”
What was the best piece of acting advice you have received?
Just to go moment to moment and to throw away plans and expectations.
What was the toughest time you’ve had with a single line of dialogue?
Well, this was a really hard line because it was just a terrible line. It was the very first job I ever did; it was a Disney Channel movie called Gotta Kick It Up. Look it up. I played Yolanda, the chubby but enthusiastic member of the dance team who also was bad at math. And we were having a car wash to get enough money to get a bus to semifinals, and Yolanda wasn’t doing good in math class, so the coach said she could only go if she correctly tallied the earnings at the car wash. And so Yolanda’s line was as follows: “Collecting’s the easy part. It’s the counting and adding that’s tricky.” I may be misquoting Yolanda; I apologize if I am. It was probably the line I regret the most ever having to say in my career because it’s absolutely absurd.
What was the most vulnerable you ever felt during a scene?
My first feature film role was Real Women Have Curves. At 17 I had to undress, and dance, and have a good time — in my bra and underwear in front of a crew. That was incredibly scary. But by take 2, I didn’t even need the robe anymore. I’m like, ”I’m cool. Let’s just go.”
What was the role you lobbied hardest for but didn’t get?
Oh my God, that’s like, every day of my life … Oh! I remember, I was still 18, and I wanted to be on The George Lopez Show. I wanted to play his 13-year-old daughter, and I wore a sports bra to flatten my chest and everything, because I so desperately wanted to play his daughter. I didn’t get it, and that was very crushing to me.
What is your greatest weakness as an actress?
I am the worst at keeping a straight face — the worst. I break all the time. Ask anybody who’s ever acted with me. It’s terrible. And also, to the point where it’s, like, not funny anymore. Because they’re just like, “Okay, America, it’s 3 in the morning. Can you stop laughing so we can all go home?”
Which costar made you laugh the hardest?
I did just work with Ricky Gervais on his film Special Correspondents, and one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was act with Ricky. As previously stated, I am very bad at keeping a straight face, and he’s just so funny. And little secret: Ricky Gervais breaks up more than anybody. He laughs all the time, which is wonderful and generous, but also, he laughs on your coverage, and you’re like, “I’m glad you thought that was funny, but now you can’t use it, because you’re laughing all over it.”
Which costar taught you the most?
I got very lucky in my first feature role at 17: I was acting opposite Lupe Ontiveros, who has passed away since, and she was such a huge influence to me. She was so professional, she was so warm and respectful, and her energy just made the set an amazing place to be. I couldn’t have had a better example of how to be on a set, and how to set the tone, and how to make for a great, inviting environment, where people can do their best work. So that’s the standard that I hold for all the sets I’m on. I know that it’s possible to make it a warm, wonderful, inviting, safe place, and that’s what I carry with me onto set when I’m there.
What is the Superstore scene that you are most looking forward to people seeing?
When we were shooting the pilot, we were doing a night shoot, and we were shooting until 7 in the morning. We all got so loopy, we were singing and dancing and staging impromptu fashion shows to stay awake. So we just had this loopy, crazy night where none of us were drunk but we felt drunk because that’s how tired we were, and that real-life night shoot actually inspired an episode toward the end of the season called “All Nighter” where the employees get locked in the superstore overnight. It’s such a fun episode where all bets are off and you get to discover who these characters are after-hours; the façade of your work person starts to wear off and you just start revealing yourself to each other. I’m excited for people to see the fashion show scene that was inspired by the fashion show we put on in our night shoot during the pilot.
Who is the actor or actress you most want to work with before you retire?
At the moment, I’m obsessed with Cate Blanchett. I would love to act with her. We are costars in How to Train Your Dragon, but we don’t ever get to work together, which is so sad. I would be anything with her onscreen. I would do anything. If she’s reading this, she should know I will do whatever to act with her. She’s so alive and present in every single moment, and not for one second do you feel like she’s acting; you just feel like she’s living the character and being in the moment. The acting is undetectable, and that is so exhilarating, and I feel like it would be so intoxicating to be an actor around her.
What object have you held on to the longest?
I have a pair of pink jellies that I used to wear when I was 2 years old. When I set up my dressing-room station or a trailer, I bring along my pink jellies. They come everywhere with me. They’re fading, they’re not as pink as they used to be, and they still have a rock lodged in them that has been there since the 1980s. I used to want to get the rock out, but now I feel like the rock is a part of it.
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1397/98, on newsstands now or available for purchase here.