With Netflix Wednesday Addams making waves across social media channels. We have a look back to our interview with the iconic Jenna Ortega [2018: 4th Edition Student Pages Magazine, credit: Gabriella Wieland & Elaine Zheng]. At the time Ortega was 15 years old, and had already amounted an incredible portfolio….
Jenna Ortega: Breaking typecasts and depicting realism.
Jenna Ortega has done much with her career that many of us only experience in our most whimsical dreams. From defying rigid archetypes of fairy-tale princesses in her role as Princess Isabella in Disney series Elena of Avalor, to capturing such depths of emotion in her performance as protagonist Harley Diaz in serial-comedy Stuck in the Middle. Despite achieving so much in such a short space of time, much of Jenna’s success is owed to the devoted standard of realism she portrays in her craft. Truly engaging her audiences through a deeper and more profound style of acting, Jenna is set for even bigger ventures as she continues to grace us with her on-screen presence. Student Pages Magazine spoke to the Disney actress and uncovered what it really takes to stand out from the masses in such a populated industry while balancing the competing challenges of fame and ‘normality’.
Young beginnings – a natural prodigy?
Working in creative industries allows individuals an escape from reality. By activating that emotional trigger in your brain – suddenly, the world can be perceived from a totally new angle. For Jenna Ortega, the appeal of her profession wholly reflects this notion: a craft which allows you to escape the mundanity of everyday life by immersing yourself into the world of another. When speaking of the appeal of acting, the Disney actress told us: “being someone else and seeing the world from a different perspective is so much fun!”
While escaping the realities of the modern world is certainly an appeal for Ortega, her natural attraction to the world of acting doesn’t stop here. Realising her abilities from the moment she fled the womb, Jenna was gifted with the ability to convey genuine and raw emotion from a very early age. Though Jenna often flitted with every child’s dream of becoming an astronaut – she soon realised what she was born to do. At aged just four, her first ever performance offered her that ‘lightbulb’ moment that many of us only ever experience in early-adulthood: “they had the whole class stand up on the staircase,” she recalls. “They placed four microphones for us all to share in front of us. As we started singing, I grabbed the mic and drew it towards myself. I’ve always been an outgoing person and found performing so much fun so I knew who I was from a very young age.”
Although Ortega’s theatrical destiny was affirmed at a young age, her vision to connect with her audience in her early years is something that has stayed with her. Of course, an important ingredient in Jenna’s methodology lies within relaying the message the script is trying to convey, but she places staying grounded and connecting with her audience as the main motivation when enacting any role: “I want my performances to seem as real as possible,” she declares. “As an actress, part of your job is creating a bond with the character because you have to see the world from their point of view. Any actor can pretend to be feeling some type of way, but it is a truly magical experience when the actor is so authentic that you feel everything the actor is feeling.”
Alternative Childhoods: family-life on and off set
Despite having a firm grasp on her theatrical destiny since infancy, Jenna still had to persuade those around her of her true calling. When informing her parents of her dream to become an actress at the age of 6, they thought it was just a phase. Of course, a career in acting may seem whimsical when coming from the vocal chords of a child – but Jenna’s ability to connect with her audience spoke for itself. After gifting a young Ortega a book compiled with monologues, Jenna’s mother was left astonished at what proceeded: “I performed a dramatic monologue for her from the book she gave me – I had tears, I was actually sobbing.” The performance stunned her mother into such a raw emotional experience that she instantly knew she immediately had to assist her child in pursuing the world of acting. “It was crazy. She told me she had to get me an agent instantly, I just had to show them what I could do for them to trust in me.”
After convincing her parents to allow her to pursue a challenging career, Jenna still faced obstacles in a childhood not akin to most. When pursuing dreams of this kind, your support network plays a vital role in your success: “my big family made me who I am today,” the actress tells her viewers. “I couldn’t be more grateful for them. They’ve made so many sacrifices so that I could follow my dream and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for them.”
Of course, the support of loved ones certainly assists with one’s drive to succeed – but Jenna’s familial support wasn’t confined to their encouragement. In an industry which relies on stellar networking and evoking engagement through your ability to adapt to a range of characters, Jenna tells us that her diverse family hurried this process along: “they taught me social skills – they’re all very different from one another. Through them, I learnt how to maintain conversations with different types of people. A big part of being in the industry is being able to network. Engaging in conversations with my siblings supported me in having good meetings with directors, producers and writers.”
While Jenna states that a large part of her success can be owed to the social skills her family imbued her with, her busy schedule and life in the limelight means her home-life drastically differs from that of the average teen: “I don’t get to see them very often, but, when I do get to have a conversation with them, I always try to make it last.” As Jenna spends more time with her on-set family than she does with her biological loved-ones, bonding with her surrogate family becomes paramount: “My life on-set is very similar to my life at home,” Ortega highlights. “Everyone on-set reminds me of my own siblings – we get along really well and I feel that it’s very transparent when you watch the show.”
Such a likeness between her on-set family and her real family allows Jenna to stay true to her vision of relating truthfully to her characters. Describing the similarities between herself and Stuck in the Middle’s Harley, she states: “She’s very supportive of her family. She loves them and is always pushing them to be the best they can be – I’d like to believe I do that as well. Whether my siblings are playing soccer or have a hard test coming up – I’m there.” Jenna’s likeness to her on-screen character certainly attributes to Stuck in the Middle’s success. Having struck such a chord with young audiences, Jenna thinks this is due to the show’s relatability: “it’s a very well-rounded show in terms of having just the right amount of fun and heart-warming moments. It’s relatable and is one of those shows that everybody can watch and enjoy.”
Fame and Normality
Balancing work and studies is a difficult task to masker at any stage in life. Throw in a contract with Disney, a demanding filming schedule or a role that inspires millions of children across the globe and you’ve certainly got a trying task on your hands. Ortega shows viewers across the world that doing exactly that is not only achievable, but you can have fun while doing it, too: “on set, time-management is very important,” Ortega highlights. “I have a certain time reserved for school every day, so I go to school in-between takes. Once I’m wrapped up for the day, I go home and do a few more hours of school to make sure I get all of my work done.”
Being catapulted into the limelight and starring in a series which engages millions of viewers across the world can likewise hinder an actress’ relationship with her ‘normal’ life. When asked how she deals with her growing popularity, Jenna told Student Pages that the important thing is staying true to yourself: “I don’t let it affect me at all. I’m always going to be the same Jenna no matter how many followers or supporters I have.” Ever grateful for her supportive fanbase, she states: “I love them so much and they deserve to know me for who I really am, not a fake persona I put out just to fit society’s idea of ‘cool’.”
While Jenna’s mantra of depicting the purest version of herself to her fans is evident for all to see, dealing with media attention can be a difficult trope for anyone to face. Ortega’s strong mental attitude, however, has allowed her to take fame in her stride and shrug off negativities: “I’ve always had tough skin. I don’t let a lot of things get to me. Being a teenager, a lot of us struggle with self-esteem and it definitely got to me at first but I got to the point where I stopped caring. I came to the realisation that: I don’t know these people so they don’t play a significant role in my life.” With such a wise outlook way beyond her years, Ortega professes a lot of her strength and mental maturity arises from the support of her following: “I am so grateful to my fans. They have been so positive, so supportive and loving that I rarely see the hate comments.”
However, negativity in preliminary stages of life often comes from sources much closer to home. Showing her fans that she is neither immune from the taunts of fellow school children, she ushers them to block out the negativity and focus on the goals ahead: “Some kids at school thought I was ‘all that.’ Some said I was stupid and I felt like a lot of these kids just enjoyed making fun of me. Eventually, I realised that these people don’t care about me, so I’m not going to focus on them. I’d rather focus my attention on those that do love me and care for me.” While this is certainly a philosophy we should all live by, Ortega wants this message to resonate with young girls especially: “you really want to surround yourself with people that build you up, support you, and love you. That’s what I did and that’s what helped me pushed through.”
The volatile nature of the acting industry makes it a trying pursuit which cannot guarantee the security provided by a desk job. In many creative industries, you never know what’s around the corner. You can be working nonstop – then, boom: a huge drought. Despite Ortega taking to the industry faster than a duck to water, she states that she is not immune to these trials and tribulations of the acting industry: “you could be working on one project after another then everything comes to a halt. Before you know it, you might not have work for months!” Despite the inconsistent routine of work sometimes unsettling the actress’ flow, a main challenge faced by any bidding actress comes in the form of those dreaded pre-show nerves. Whether you’re used to regularly speaking in front of large crowds of people or you happen to be Angelina Jolie, when it comes to overcoming nerves: nobody is exempt. Offering hope to those wishing to pursue an acting career, Jenna advises distracting yourself from what it is you’re nervous about until those butterflies have subsided.
Once you’ve managed to battle those flitting butterflies in the pit of your stomach, established yourself in a career of showbiz and affected audiences across the world, you may still have to deal the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’. In any field, it is normal to have moments where you feel like your chosen career-path is simply not for you. Jenna reassures her audiences that these feelings are totally normal: “there are times when you didn’t get a job or you have too many ‘no’s’ in a row and it’s very easy to be discouraged. There have definitely been times in my career when I have questioned whether I can even act!” In order to push through these moments, it takes a huge amount of mental strength and determination – traits which Ortega wholeheartedly possesses. To carry on after experiencing a dent to your confidence, she encourages: “For me, just praying and believing helps. I’m very religious and believe everything happens for a reason. I feel like I was meant to be an actress so pushing forward, believing in myself and picking myself off the ground has been the key.”
Although it is completely normal to have thoughts of self-doubt when experiencing setbacks, Jenna’s ability to move her audiences denotes the entire opposite: “Some scenes can be emotionally exhausting, leaving you super tired for the rest of the day’s shoot.” Another challenge, Jenna states, is thinking outside of the box when playing an eccentric role: “when you’ve never encountered someone like your character before, you have to rely on research to truly get an authentic performance.”
And yet, despite all this, Jenna proclaims that her longing to draw emotion from audience makes it all worth it.
While defying stereotypical tropes of beauty and extraditing rigid typecasts has been a major trope of the modern era – the media still has a long way to go. Like many children who did not conform to society’s archaic depictions of princes and princesses, Ortega experienced feelings of exile when watching fairy-tale movies as a child. Speaking of her role as Disney’s first Latino princess, she says: “I wanted to do anything I could to say I can look like ‘this’ princess or be ‘that’ princess. I’m so honoured to be part of a project that finally gives this to young Latinas. It’s so amazing that young girls now don’t have to go through what I went through. They now have a Disney princess that they can say ‘hey, that looks like me!’”
Though Ortega has offered an important and relatable aesthetic to a once overlooked minority, the actress herself still experiences a sense of ethnically-motivated ostracization: “I’ve been turned down for roles, not because I couldn’t act, but because my colour did not fit the role.” While such knockbacks based entirely on something you cannot control can be discouraging to most, Ortega’s incredible mental strength once again allows her to perceive setbacks in a positive light: “I try to turn every negative into a positive. Instead of being discouraged, I realise it wasn’t meant to be and know that there is something better in the future to look forward to.”
We all have major influences that motivated us to follow the dreams we uphold today. For Ortega, her influences mainly came from actresses starring in the movies she watched as a youngster: “acting mainly caught me because of Dakota Fanning. I watched a lot of her films and she really influenced me. I wanted to be in her position so started practicing. She was a very big part of starting my career.”
After entering the world of showbiz, Jenna continued to be influenced positively by those around her. When starring in Jane the Virgin, the Disney actress was in awe of her co-stars: “The women on the show are incredible. They’re all such strong, powerful women. They influence me in a way that they stand up for what they believe in. As a teenager, it was amazing for me to be on a set run by these women. They shaped my values and encouraged me to speak up for the things I believe in and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.”
When achieving one goal, it’s always important to stay focussed and strive for the next. Despite Ortega making a success of herself as an on-screen actress, she has her eyes set on future pathways which allow her to strive for more: “Short term, I want to reintroduce myself in the film industry. Middle term, I want to be working as a director, producer, writer, or actress!” In light of her naturally expressive face, Jenna is often cast in comedies which have a tendency to exaggerate reality for comedic effect. In the future, Ortega hopes to be involved in more dramatic projects: “I definitely want to work on something dramatic. I don’t know if I want to take on film yet, I’m still building my career. A short would certainly interest me so I could familiarise myself with the directing world.”
Though Ortega’s passion lies within earnestly engaging with a character and depicting a heart-wrenching performance on-screen, she aspires to have more artistic control over her projects: “It’s the director’s project, so it goes in the direction they want it to go. Part of me wants more control on what I put out there. Being able to work with new directors every week, I’ve asked them what it takes to become a successful director and feel more motivated to become one myself.”
With Jenna’s strong ‘can-do’ attitude, we have no doubt that she will put her plans both on and behind the screen into reality. For those longing to follow in her footsteps, we asked her what it takes to materialise theatrical dreams into reality: “work on your craft all the time”, she told us. “Don’t just spend 5 seconds on a script even if you feel like you’ve memorised it. Work on your networking skills: casting directors are used to people coming and performing for them. They’re not used to people engaging with them and being interesting!”
And with such wise words to ponder upon, we have no doubt anyone who chooses to follow Jenna’s hard-working mantra can achieve every success she has.