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America Ferrera on Directing ‘Superstore’ and the Next Step in Amy and Jonah’s Relationship

The second time may be the charm for America Ferrera as a director.

The star and producer of NBC workplace comedy “Superstore” made her directorial debut in the second season and is now back behind the camera. And this time, she came armed with lessons from her first time to ensure an even richer experience.

“I think primarily being in front of the camera and directing at the same time, the first go around, was the biggest challenge for me,” Ferrera tells Variety. “But the second time, I knew what I needed and I was able to do that — namely really lean on the people around me that I trusted and could help me feel great about when I was in front of the camera. Just having one under my belt helped me really know what was ahead.”

Ferrera admits that when she first started directing, she was concerned about “holding everyone up,” so she didn’t always want to stop the flow of a scene to watch playback and adjust. “I sort of tried to charge ahead,” she says.

But for her second episode, she developed a system that would allow her to take the time she needed. This included using her stand in more and leaning on her director of photography to tell her which of the first few takes they did weren’t worth watching in playback. It also included a lot of prep before production began at all.

Here, Ferrera breaks down her latest directorial effort, including allowing room for improv and staging a pivotal moment for her character Amy and Ben Feldman’s Jonah.

Were there specific story elements or types of scenes you were eager to direct this time around that you didn’t get to in your first episode?

I had multiple scenes with many, many extras. This episode is called “Video Game Release,” so we had [about] 60 extras dressed up in cosplay. There are live babies in this episode, which is a challenge, and there were new sets. And Amy and Jonah discover new parts of the store that people have never been in, so shooting brand new parts of the store and sets was a challenge.

How did you plan coverage so you got a lot of material but still made your days?

It was a lot of prep with my DP and my AD and my writer about what mattered the most to us. Really the acting scene at the end of that montage is the goods in terms of what we wanted to see — Amy and Jonah really connect in that moment. That was priority. But in terms of the montage, we talked a lot about the different kind of shots we wanted and the different games they were playing and toys they were playing with and then it was just about having fun — letting go a little bit. There was a mix of locked off and still shots and chasing them around the room shots. We just mixed it up. There’s a little more control you have as a director when you’re also the actor and you know exactly what you’re looking for. So there is a little bit of an advantage when you know exactly what you want and you have to move quickly and it’s on you to deliver. I think it’s about trusting myself. And I smile when I watch that montage because we had so much fun making it. It’s one of my favorite parts of the episode.

Saying that Amy and Jonah connect in a new way in your episode sounds like it has to set up an advancement of their relationship arc. What were you most focused on in that scene so that you could tease what was to come but still leave room for the next episode’s director to come in and run with what you set up?

It’s largely about, I think, performance and how much it feels earned. I feel like we’ve been laying the groundwork for Jonah and Amy for almost three seasons now. For me, this wasn’t about finding romance so much as watching them really enjoy each other and understanding why these two people really do have this chemistry. They bring the playfulness out in each other — they enjoy being around each other. When they tease each other there’s still a sort of love underneath that. And that has been, for me, the whole season one of the big evolutions of Amy and Jonah’s relationship. Watching them be friends and show that they’re not just completely googly-eyed for each other or lustful for each other [has been important]. They like being around each other, and they have other complications, but that underlying friendship is really there, and that’s why you want them to be together.

How did you strike the balance of that weekly story element of the video game release with the ongoing character arcs?

I actually love the Amy and Jonah story in this episode. It’s a really great episode for their relationship. Getting that right was a big priority. Being in front of the camera and having to be fully present for it but then also having to step back and direct it was one of the challenges for me. But I really, really enjoyed it. I’ve gotten to a great place with Ben where we trust each other as scene partners and have a fun time with it. Amy’s usually the more guarded one, but she’s really kind of caught off-guard by how open she is with him and how much fun she’s having. It is a sort of momentous occasion for her to admit there’s any sort of feeling beyond, “Oh he’s an annoying coworker.” We have been building to this, but there are more momentous Amy and Jonah moments to come by the end of season 3.

The interstitial moments with customers always offer unique looks at the store and the people in it. What was one from your episode that you were particularly excited to shoot, and was it scripted or just something you asked actors to improv?

One of my favorite interstitial customer moments was not planned — it was at the very beginning, outside the store, where we’re just watching the gamers who are all dressed up in line. Shooting them in line, they seemed like they were really in their natural habitat. It was quite early in the morning, and one of them was entirely passed out, drooling, and then another one had a sword in his hand, dressed up, and he was stretching and doing lunges. You can’t script this! So the writer and I had a lot of fun capturing these moments.

How much room did you allow for improv, either with those extras or with the cast?

The rhythm of the show, as we’re making it, is we’re always starting with what’s so wonderful on the page and then throwing out improvs that just entertain us. [We] know most of them won’t make it into the cut, but every now and then there’s a few. Mark McKinney, in the last scene with Lauren Ash, had me dying. I couldn’t even keep my eyes open, I was laughing so hard. We’ll have take after take after take of incredible improv where everyone was rolling on the floor, but at the end of the day it comes down to what makes sense for the story and what do we have time for. And oftentimes it lands back where the script was because we have the greatest writers [but] there’s definitely room for incorporating really funny improvs. [Showrunner] Justin Spitzer and the writers are always open to them because they just want it to be the funniest it can be.

Have you already discussed directing again in season 4?

Justin and I have already talked about it, and he’s on board if I’m on board for me to direct again in season 4. We’re just starting to talk creatively about what season 4 might look like. I’m very, very excited about Justin’s vision for season 4 and where that’s going to go, but I have zero idea where those stories are going to break out and where it would make sense for me to direct. I’m just excited about the season as a whole.

Superstore” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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