Gina Rodriguez on Her ‘Jane The Virgin’ Directorial Debut: ‘I Found It Very Freeing’

After starring in 73 episodes of “Jane The Virgin,” Gina Rodriguez is stepping behind the camera. “Chapter Seventy-Four,” which airs Feb. 9, marks Rodriguez’s debut as a director.

“I found myself enjoying directing and acting [simultaneously] so much because I feel so instinctual with Jane and because as a director you’re given direct access to Jennie’s brain and what Jennie wants and what Jennie’s looking for and the tone,” Rodriguez tells Variety about collaborating with creator and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman. “Usually it goes from Jennie to the director to then us, so the director is translating what Jennie told them. I had the direct connection, and because of that, I was able to go out there and know that I was giving exactly what Jennie wanted.”

Collaborating with her creator was key for Rodriguez since she wanted to put her own stamp on the episode, although the show already has such a distinct look with its color palette and a unique tonal blend.

“We do magical realism, we do fantasy, we do crazy costume changes, we do green screen. For my episode I had a wolf, a stunt, green screen,” Rodriguez says.

Here, Rodriguez talks with Variety about how she prepared for her directorial debut and the challenges that arose.

Often when actors direct an episode of the show they’re in, the writers try to give their characters fewer scenes, but that doesn’t seem possible when you’re playing Jane in a show called “Jane The Virgin.”

Jennie was definitely like, “Just so you know, I’m not writing you lighter, but I know you can do it, damn it.” And I was like, “OK, thank you for the challenge.”

How did you balance being in an actor’s frame of mind and a director’s on set?

I know every nuance of [Jane’s] behavior, and it’s so instinctual — it’s so ingrained. If somebody on the street told me to turn into Jane, I could. She’s just so much a part of me. And I discovered a system for directing. What ended up being the best flow for me was I would do one take, I would go to playback, I’d watch it, I would fix everything either technically with the camera or with acting or staging [or] blocking. And then we’d run into a sequence where we’d take three takes — not only to get into a groove but also to do different levels. I felt like I was so free in not having to interpret someone else’s interpretation of what Jennie wanted. I was just doing exactly what my creator wanted. And so there was a lot of confidence in my performance — more so than I think ever before. I actually found it liberating, which was a discovery I didn’t know I was going to have. I thought I was going to find it overwhelming and difficult, but I found it very freeing.

What kind of extra preparation did you do so that you didn’t get overwhelmed on the days of shooting?

Because I am so heavy on all episodes, [Jennie] set it up so that I directed the one right after break, and so that gave me Christmas break to go to town. I not only watched every single episode we’ve ever done, but studied what directors I really enjoyed and seeing what’s possible and [planning] where we were headed and what I had to set up. I’ve always been a pretty studious human being when it comes to preparation as an actor, but I went ham. By the time it was time to direct, I knew every single line in the script. Maybe I went a little next level in preparation, but that’s what I think allowed me to fly. And when I was doing it, I said to my boyfriend, “This is a lot of work, why did I take this on again?” And he said, “Because you can, and all of the work you’re doing now is going to allow it so that when you’re on set, there will be less work.” He was not wrong, and I knew [that], and it was great to have someone reminding me that the reason why you work hard now is so that when you do it you’re going to fly — or at least you’re going to feel like you can have fun because you’re not going to feel like you’re playing catch up.

With all of that preparation, was there still a moment that caught you off-guard and required a major adjustment on the day?

We shot at a sex shop, and I’m balancing the legal — which is like, “You can’t show x, y and z,” but then if I can’t show that, how do I show where we are? There was a lot of restrictions I had to navigate around. Originally when I scouted the shop it looked a certain way and then we had gone for the second tech scout it looked a different way, and then when we got on set it looked a different way.

How did you handle that?

I was, luckily, about two hours ahead of schedule on that day. When we did the location move and I walked into that space I was thanking the heavens I was ahead because I needed all of the time in that store. So I started moving things around to make things look a little bit more like what I had imagined. That was definitely a curveball, but we have things on “Jane” that I call landmines, and they will be like, the page says, “And the books fly off this shelf.” So it may look like the scene’s only an eighth of a page, but it’s visual effects, it’s seven different set-ups. So we had a few of those, but I was definitely looking out for them. There’s always so many challenges on “Jane” that you just have to be decisive and go with your gut.

Who were some of the previous directors who inspired or influenced you?

Brad Silberling and Melanie Mayron are two of my favorite directors. Brad Silberling is very poetic with the camera — the way he sets up blocking and the way he tells a story is very poetic, where it’s a reflection of the script and it’s telling a story inside of the story. Melanie Mayron sets up really stunning shots — whether it’s a really big wide where you have somebody running through the scene or it’s inserts of a hand moving a chair, or it’s a cut between a look and a look.

How did you balance the usual look and shot design of the show with your own ideas?

Because I’ve lived in this world for so long I really thought about the whimsical that I love and what I find romantic. You do a block meeting with Jennie and you go over your blocking and what you want for the episode. So you are living in the confines of the beautiful tone that both Jennie and Brad Silberling set up together and made this beautiful world, but you do have the ability to get in and tell her, “Here’s a funny thing that I was thinking about.” You can actually, before shooting, get your ideas in there with her and discuss new, maybe riskier things you want to do. I was able to do that with a few different shots.

What shots made it in that you’re particularly proud of?

There’s this one shot with Petra where I pop out from behind her, and I was so excited to try that funny angle and make it like Jane is literally Petra’s shadow. [And] when I have all the women against all the men in the kitchen scene where they’re talking about male postpartum depression, I wanted to block that in a way where you have all of the women against all of the men. It happened organically, but you have this battle between the men being like, “This is what male postpartum depression is like” and then the women being like, “No, no, no, no, no.”

What was your technique for getting reaction shots out of the baby?

The writer for the episode, Micah [Schraft], who is a phenomenal writer and also a phenomenal director, was on set, and it was like having a godfather on set, as well. After a while it became kind of like a joke that he didn’t have any notes. And so then we had the little baby, and we’re getting reaction shots, and as a joke, I said, “You got any notes, Micah?” And he said, “Actually, can you get the baby to make a sour face?” So Jaime [Camil] was dancing around and trying different things, and he snapped his finger, and the baby was like, “Huh?” Like, “What was that?” And I was like, “Great, we got it.” It felt fantastic because we did it and then I got to use it. It was just so awesome. What luck! I got lucky that day.

“Jane The Virgin” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on the CW.

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