‘Jane the Virgin’s’ Gina Rodriguez isn’t your typical starlet.
Don’t be fooled by her new status as one of The CW’s leading ladies: Gina Rodriguez isn’t your average on-the-rise actress. Sure, she might be the star of “Jane the Virgin,” a campy comedy that centers on a young, religious Latina who, during a routine visit to the gynecologist, is accidentally artificially inseminated the same day her long-term boyfriend proposes. But Rodriguez is the first to lovingly poke fun at the show’s far-fetched plot.
“The premise is totally crazy. It’s adapted from a telenovela from Venezuela,” she explains, then jokes, “Are you kidding me? All my friends get artificially inseminated accidentally!” But the 29-year-old Chicago native has the unique capacity to both embrace and look past “Jane the Virgin’s” off-the-wall storyline to see its underlying heart. “Because of [the show’s] heightened reality and all the twists and turns and the ‘Oh my god, you’ve gotta be kidding me’ moments, [the rest of the plot] is all very grounded with a beautiful family story,” she says. “Those real moments in life that matter aren’t laughed at, but it allows us to go on really crazy roller coasters in between.”
That lighthearted sense of humor — plus a healthy dose of perspective — is part of what sets Rodriguez apart from many of her Hollywood peers. As a teen growing up on Chicago’s northwest side, Rodriguez spent time touring the country with salsa dance companies like Los Soñeros de Swing, but felt caught between two cultures. “My grandmother just spoke Spanish in the house, I responded in English — actually, just like Jane. I was doing this traditional Spanish dance, but listening to hip-hop and hanging out with my friends who had no idea what salsa was,” she says. “It was a very interesting dichotomy for me — it’s my culture, but I’m an American kid.”
That feeling of displacement inspired Rodriguez to give an impromptu speech during July’s Television Critics Association press tour, for which she made national headlines. “The way I grew up, I never saw myself on screen,” she explained. “And I realized how limiting that was for me. I would look at the screen and think, ‘Well, there’s no way I can do it, because I’m not there.’ And it’s like as soon as you follow your dreams, you give other people the [opportunity] to follow theirs.”
Rodriguez kick-started her own career at age 16, when she was one of 13 students chosen from a nationwide pool of 900 to participate in Columbia University’s Theatrical Collaboration Program. That experience was enough to lead the fledgling performer to NYU to pursue acting. From there, Rodriguez spent years on shows like “Army Wives” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” before she landed “Jane the Virgin” in early 2014. “I dreamed of being on billboards when I was like, 11 years old, so seeing my dreams come true is like, ‘Oh my god, someone pinch me, someone punch me in the throat, this isn’t making any sense,’ ” she laughs.
But even as her profile rises, Rodriguez makes sure not to lose sight of the bigger picture. “The idea of success for me isn’t equated to my jobs or my face on a billboard — those things are amazing, those things are blessings, those things are outrageous, but those things also come to an end,” she says. “I’m trying to change the image for Latinos in the media and trying to open doors for young girls and change the idea of beauty. Those are things I have to do. And they’re just as important and just as big — if not bigger — than that billboard.”
Watch “Jane the Virgin” Mondays at 8 p.m. on The CW.
“One of the biggest shocks for me was booking ‘Jane,’ but there have been so many other shocks. I’m going on ‘Letterman,’ I’m gonna be able to do talk shows with people I’ve watched since I was a kid. Every day is a shock. Every day has been like, ‘What? No! Really? Don’t lie to me!’ ”
“I have so many! I would love to play Wonder Woman; I think that would be so stellar. I want to play a stealthy hitman; I want to do an action film that has me rappelling off the side of a wall. I want to do a biopic — it would be a dream to play Lolita Lebrón (left), a Puerto Rican nationalist. She was my grandmother’s ultimate role model.”
“I love red velvet cupcakes — red velvet anything, really. But I play pregnant, who cares! I get to wear a belly, back off. I feel like if you find it guilty, then it puts the weight on. If you don’t find it guilty, it doesn’t, because you’re like, ‘Be good to me, go right where I want you to: my buns. Make my curves even better.’ ”
Main photo courtesy of Lesley Bryce