Jenna Ortega Says Latines Carry the Horror Genre & Now It’s Her Turn With Wednesday

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Jenna Ortega is only 20 years old, but in many ways she feels as grown as her older colleagues. Whether she's discussing family life or growing up in the entertainment industry, the Wednesday star has both a Hollywood veteran's outlook and the distinct enthusiasm and vulnerability of a Gen Zer — because she's both.
"Stand your ground, know your limits, protect your characters," Ortega tells Refinery29 Somos, sharing her philosophy as an actor. 
Ortega’s expansive résumé proves that following these words of wisdom can pay off. She got her big break in 2012 in the CBS comedy Rob, which chronicled the life of a bachelor who married into a Mexican-American family. The California native soon began booking steady television and film work in kids' and adult programming, including appearances in Elena of Avalor, Jane the Virgin, Iron Man 3, You, and Insidious: Chapter 2
Her back-to-back breakouts in The Fallout, where she played a high schooler traumatised by a school shooting, and the fifth instalment of the Scream franchise, helped set the stage for Netflix’s Wednesday. Both showcased Ortega’s ability to lean into a character’s intermingled complexities and fallibilities, ultimately signalling that she could transition out of child stardom.  

"Stand your ground, know your limits, protect your characters."

"There's hesitance [with The Fallout] because you don't feel like it's your story to tell, and you want to do it justice because it's real and an issue,” Ortega says. “Some people aren't brave enough to speak up, and it's great if you can touch people with a film [and] fight for a different perspective for another generation."
Ortega’s casting in Wednesday marks a turning point in her career. Not just because it is her first project as the sole female lead (opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays her mother, Morticia Addams, and Luis Guzmán, who plays her father, Gomez Addams), but because it challenges her limits. She’s evolving her craft in such a way that she’s more aware of what she can handle mentally and physically. 
"I learned [how to use] my voice in a way that I had never had to before," Ortega says. 
Doing that degree of intense character work alone in a foreign country — the series was filmed last year in Bucharest, Romania — forced her to dig deeper than she’s ever had to for a role. 
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
"Running on no sleep after working for eight months straight was a really big job," she says. "I've never had a job that requires this much of me before. I'm a lot more assertive and decisive." 
Previous iterations of Wednesday positioned her as a secondary character to the point that she remained anonymous in the 1938 comic strips. For Ortega, Wednesday has long been viewed as "the end of the joke," whereas Tim Burton's adaptation aims to focus more on her personal growth. We see her navigate significant firsts of teenage girlhood, like having conflicting feelings about her emotions when she sees the world through strict binaries, all while wrangling her newly discovered psychic powers.
"She comes off a little bit sweet at times," Ortega shares. "There's something really special about that because initially, in the comic strips, she's described as this sweet, sorrowful girl who just likes gore." 
While audiences do see a little bit of that, she says, they also experience more of her self-doubt and insecurity. Throughout the series, Wednesday battles someone who seems to always be one step ahead of her, which has never happened to her before 
"It's a bit of a challenge — a fun, competitive game they have," Ortega says. "You get to see that she's human and makes mistakes."

"I learned [how to use] my voice in a way that I had never had to before."

jenna ortega
She talks about Wednesday fondly, like a close friend. As it turns out, spending this much time with someone makes you pretty bonded, through the good and the bad. 
"All the qualities that make them human — [it] may be a bit of social anxiety, disdain, or frustration with someone — you see that when Wednesday interacts with other people," she says. 
Ortega admits she and Wednesday have a unique bond; she’s been compared to the character for just about her entire life. They share interests and a similar dark, dry sense of humour. She pauses and gives a quick, introspective look. It’s reminiscent of the kind of glance that Wednesday, also a deep and investigative thinker, might give. 
For Ortega, it was vital to bring parts of herself and new qualities to the character. But she had to be deliberate in figuring out what, exactly, triggers Wednesday’s vulnerability.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
"We both love our families very much," Ortega says. "I'll do absolutely anything for them, but we're very rough on each other. It’s very common for Latine families to kind of be aggressive with one another, but you know the love was there, and respect is there, and that plays into my Wednesday." 
Taking on the iconic role also deepened her understanding of how her portrayal affects the Latine community. Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá, who played Gomez Addams in 1991 and 1993, accentuated his speech patterns and accent to play up his character's theatricality. Yet, Wednesday has only been played by non-Latine actors on film and TV, like Christina Ricci in the 1991 film The Addams Family and its 1993 sequel, and Lisa Loring in the 1960s series. 
"As someone who struggled to see themselves represented in film and TV growing up, anytime I can take the chance to do a character like this and have her represent my community like Raúl Juliá in the ‘90s, that's really empowering," she says, adding that she can’t think of another Latine horror character who reaches such a vast audience. "We kind of carry that genre.”

"As someone who struggled to see themselves represented in film and TV growing up, anytime I can take the chance to do a character like this and have her represent my community like Raúl Juliá in the ‘90s, that's really empowering."

jenna ortega
Playing characters like Wednesday, who is relentless about issues she cares about, and Vada in The Fallout may spark assumptions that Ortega's pursuits as an actor go hand in hand with her advocacy for reproductive rights, gun control, and the current revolution in Iran. But that has been coincidental. She’s still learning how to navigate being vocal about issues she cares about on social media.
"Whatever I post on my social or what I do, it's something that ignites something in me," Ortega says. "The way I carry myself professionally — if it does come off as more of an activist route — it's not intentional. It's just something that means a lot to me, and I would like to share that."
Even knowing her portrayal of Wednesday Addams is bound to be dissected by those who have cherished the character for decades, she remains confident. She’s coming to understand that the creative process, her assertiveness, and self-compassion — not the reviews — need to drive her. 
As she takes stock of her experience, she sees it as a wayward journey that’s included everything from taking cello and fencing lessons to learning how to walk and talk a certain way.
"Wednesday is a cool girl, and this has been a wonderful opportunity,” she says. “I fully committed to this role, but I know where I stand now about how far I can go, when to speak up more, and when to listen with new projects. I am grateful.”
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