Rodriguez's new TV show, Jane the Virgin (which premieres this fall on the CW), covers multicultural issues with humor, an open mind, and a full heart. Yep, you can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can't take the Midwest out of the girl.
What are some of your favorite memories of growing up in Chicago?
"Oh, Chicago was incredible! Some of my favorite memories are snow fights, Chicago food and smells, and Montrose beach. Pretty much all of my favorite memories are doing all of the free things in life."
It's no secret Chicagoans know and love their food. Any favorite homemade dishes from your childhood?
"I love her so much, but my grandmother can't cook to save her life — maybe we shouldn't put that. Actually, she only speaks Spanish, so that's okay! Anyways, the one dish she could cook was Greek chicken. Let me tell you, she got that Greek chicken on lock, so that was definitely one of my favorite meals growing up."
As an accomplished salsa dancer, what's your favorite move/dance?
"I was actually just riding horses with my choreographer from when I was a kid. I was saying how I wanted to get back into dancing because it was such an amazing time in my life. Salsa dancing is definitely my favorite. I don't really know if there's a particular move, but there's something about two bodies joining in one beautiful movement that is kinda nice."
Name a song that gets you going on the dance floor.
"'Turn Down for What.' That song makes me feel like I can make the earth shake. I was listening to 'Turn Down For What' in the car when we had our last earthquake [in L.A.] I was dancing and getting into it when I noticed that the buildings I stopped next to were shaking. It was like they were shaking because of me. But, of course, I don't have that kind of power."
How did you make the transition from a dance/theater background to TV and film? What was your first big break?
"I was a dancer all the way until I finished high school, but I was also involved in theater. So, doing theater was about getting my feet wet and getting excited about that type of performance art aside from just dancing. I definitely did a few plays in high school that helped me decide that I wanted to go to theater school. But, most of the students at NYU feel that it's all about "theatah," and you can't do TV and film — that would be a disgrace. Then they all get out of college and they realize that they're broke, so the idea turns into something else. For me, I always wanted to do TV and film. There was no part of me that ever felt like I was limited to one medium of performance art.
“I think my big break was when I went down to Florida, and I played Frida Kahlo in a show. After I performed, my father said to me, 'Yeah, you can do this. You can act.' Done. I made it. Like, nothing else mattered after that. Money couldn't have bought that moment with my pops. Everything else has been peaks and valleys that have changed my life and my opinion. Obviously, everything happens for a reason, but I feel really blessed to be where I'm at right now."
We love that your father was the turning point in your career and not some bigwig!
"Oh, yeah! A bigwig person doesn't validate what I'm doing. But, a man who has seen me grow up and has seen my hard work is the person to me who matters the most. He is my be-all and end-all. He is my bigwig."
"It's very much like my own upbringing. I wasn't just multicultural, I was multi-religious, too. It was interesting growing up with sisters who looked vastly different from me even though we were from the same parents. My eldest sister is blonde with green eyes, my middle sister has super curly dark hair and skin, my father has blue eyes and super dark skin, my mom is French and Puerto Rican and has freckles all over, so it was just like this hodgepodge. And, I look Asian, so it was like, 'Are you sure we all had the same parents?'
“Also, my grandma spoke Spanish; my parents spoke English. My mom could cook like a monster and made ethnic meals left and right, and then I would go out and eat, like, pizza and hot dogs. So, for me, those are the stories I've always tried to choose. And, in all honesty, if you go back and look at your ancestry, we're all from somewhere else. So, I think telling multicultural stories helps to take away racism and ignorance. I think it's our job as artists to share the message to other people."
What are some of the most rewarding/impactful projects you've worked on with Inspira and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts?
"I have to say that working with Jenni Rivera who is no longer with us. I'll never not remember every moment with her. It's like a reminder to never forget the moments with the people who we still have with us. I feel blessed that we participated in the exposure of Latino talent in movies like All She Can that put Latinos on the map. I am grateful not only for all my amazing memories with Jenni, but also for what it did for my career, as well as so many other Latino actors' careers. So, now going on with Jane the Virgin, it's a whole other kind of pride and blessing. I'm living a dream, girl!"
ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said that "shows now that seem to lack diversity, they actually feel dated, because America doesn't look like that anymore. People want to see what they live, and they want to see voices that reflect the America that they know.” How do you feel Latino entertainers are changing the shape of television and movies today?
"I love that Paul Lee said that because I think things do feel dated. You watch these TV shows, but then you go outside your front door, and they don't reflect reality or society. I don't know any show where Caucasians have a lot of ethnic friends. That just blows my mind. I mean, I have all kinds of friends in different colors, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. I think the old ways of life are moving out, and it's generational. It's an evolution, but it's been too long. So long that it's almost preposterous.
"I know that there are other ethnic groups that feel the same way. The Asian-American community, the Middle Eastern community...they don't want to play the stereotypical roles anymore. Nobody wants to play the stereotypical roles anymore, because they don't reflect reality. But, I think the old way of thinking is moving out, so there's going to be room for more opportunities that are more progressive.
“I also think the Latino community understands that they have to work in all aspects of the industry to see their faces not only on the screen, but behind the camera. At the end of the day, we all like to laugh, we all love to cry, and we all love to be successful. It's not different stories; it's just different faces. We want to be invited to the same party — and we should be. This is the human party, man!"
Your character in Jane the Virgin is a driven young women who has "big dreams" while working her day job. Do you think it’s an accurate portrayal of what many working women go through these days?
"I think that what's great about Jane the Virgin is that there are so many different story lines and perspectives going on — and not just about life, culture, and the subject of virginity and the child that Jane is going to carry. It's magical because Jane the Virgin reflects reality. So many cultures, so many ethnicities, so many religious backgrounds are all told in this awesome TV show."
What are some ways Jane's life mirrors the telenovelas that you and your TV family love?
"What's interesting is that my parents didn't really watch too much television growing up, so I didn't grow up on telenovelas. I was more the Cosby Show , Family Matters, and things like that. But, I could definitely relate to the joy of a multi-lingual household. That feeling of acceptance to the point that I envied crisis for a while when I was growing up. What's great is that you meet Jane, and she has no identity crisis. She accepts herself fully, doesn't feel excluded from the world, and knows what's right and wrong for her life.
"I feel like I fight a similar battle myself as an artist — and trust me, it's not pretension because I wish I had that bone in my body where I'd take any job under the sun. You want me to show you my titties? Yay! I'll do it. But, I just don't have it in me. Maybe it's my grandmother, but every project I took was always a moral dilemma because I want to do art that creates change, but then it's also about practicing what I preach."