America Ferrera had directed before, but not like this. She and her crew were shooting scenes from a massive burner party — think a miniature Burning Man, complete with drugs and costumes and bad dancing — for Netflix’s upcoming series “Gentefied.” Though she wouldn’t appear on camera, Ferrera was dressed for the occasion in a sheer robe, her face and chest covered in glitter and plastic stick-on jewels. The shoot presented the most significant logistical challenge she had faced behind the camera. The party, which takes up much of the fourth episode of the show was meant to give the impression of hundreds of people packed into a small Los Angeles warehouse. But Ferrera had too much soundstage and too few extras.
“I had to tell the story and do it really, really fast, screaming through a megaphone at the extras,” she says. “We only had 75 extras that had to look like hundreds. But working with my production designer, my DP and the wardrobe people — and trying to figure out how to make this look as epic as we wanted it to with our very limited constraints — was so much fun. And it was nerve-racking.”
Best known for her on-camera work in broadcast comedies “Ugly Betty” and the recently renewed “Superstore,” Ferrera took on a fresh set of challenges with “Gentefied,” a show very much of both the Peak TV era and the Peak Trump era. The series, which premieres Feb. 21, deals with long-simmering social issues drawn into the foreground by President Trump’s open war against immigrant communities, and does so via a form — the half-hour serialized comedic drama — that didn’t even exist before the streaming revolution. The program is bilingual, with characters and scenes moving seamlessly between Spanish and English as people do in real-life places such as Boyle Heights, the changing L.A. neighborhood where “Gentefied” is set, in a way that is unapologetic and has been unseen before on TV.
But more than that, the show is a story about a family in a particular place at a particular time, featuring characters that Ferrera recognized from her life. It’s for that reason that she came aboard. Now, having helped shepherd the show from a short-form project that no company wanted to distribute to a television series that Netflix had to fend off six other bidders to land — directing two episodes along the way — Ferrera has earned her executive producer stripes and entered a new chapter of her career.
“America is such an incredible force to be reckoned with, and we’re so grateful for her,” says Marvin Lemus, who co-created “Gentefied” with Linda Yvette Chávez.
Ferrera came to the project in its early stages, just weeks before it was set to begin shooting as a short-form digital series. Charles D. King, who was financing the project through his company, Macro, had mentioned Lemus and Chávez’s scripts about first-generation Mexican Americans in Boyle Heights to Ferrera in passing at the end of a general meeting. The multihyphenate was looking for projects to produce featuring Latino voices. King, exec producer of Netflix’s “Raising Dion” and films such as “Harriet,” “Just Mercy” and “Sorry to Bother You,” was looking to expand the scope of Macro as a company that would work with creators of color from all backgrounds.
“It was a Friday meeting,” King says. “It’s so rare in this town where people respond and look at something so quickly, but on Monday morning, she and her team reached out and said, ‘We love this. Is there any way that we can directly get involved?’”
Ferrera, a first-generation Honduran American, fell in love with the writing.
“I just laughed and cried and felt so represented in a way that I had never seen before,” she says. She came on as an exec producer and took a small speaking part.
The short-form iteration of “Gentefied” premiered in 2016 at Sundance — the same festival where Ferrera first gained industry notice for her breakout performance in “Real Women Have Curves” 16 years earlier. But distribution was not forthcoming.
Quibi didn’t yet exist. The anticipated rise of premium short-form programming on YouTube never materialized. Platforms such as Verizon’s go90 would soon vanish.
“There were no short-form digital content distributors who saw the value and worth in this audience,” Ferrera says. “They were like, ‘Well, sure, we’ll let you be on this platform, but we’re not going to pay for it.’”
Ferrera credits King for doubling down on his investment as Lemus and Chávez redeveloped “Gentefied” as a half hour. The show tells the story of three cousins, each with a different relationship to their Mexican American identity and to Boyle Heights. Karrie Martin’s Ana is a queer artist torn between loyalty to her home and her desire for recognition; Joseph Julian Soria’s Erik wants to stay put but finds himself being pulled away from his comfort zone by new responsibilities; Carlos Santos’ Chris, an aspiring chef raised in a white community, left Boyle Heights at a young age and has returned for what he intends to be a brief sojourn. The three are bound together by Joaquín Cosio’s Pop, the grandfather who helped raise them and whose taco shop is a neighborhood and family hub.
The competitive bidding for “Gentefied” is indicative of how much has changed in the scripted market. It wasn’t that long ago that any network would have run screaming from a show in which characters drift back and forth between Spanish and English.
Netflix won the rights in part because it was one of only two networks where the development executive hearing the pitch was a woman of color — something that resonated strongly with King, Ferrera, Lemus and Chávez. The streaming service also assured the producers that, while an experienced showrunner would be brought in to work with Lemus and Chávez, the creators would not be cut out of the process.
“When someone has a good idea, everybody wants to be a part of it,” Ferrera says. “But not everybody’s willing to give those voices real power in the conversation and say, ‘This is your story. This is your vision.’” In bringing aboard a showrunner, the producers wanted to join forces with someone who understood the first-generation experience — even if that person was not Latino. Monica Macer, a veteran of Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar,” was tapped. Together, she, Lemus and Chávez broke the first season, with Macer paying their writer’s assistant out of pocket.
Macer’s father is African American; her mother is a Korean immigrant. “I definitely felt the unique kind of combination of being a black woman walking through the world with brown skin and also being first-gen Korean,” Macer says. That’s a different experience from the one that Ferrera, Lemus and Chávez share. But it informed the series nonetheless.
Macer recalls being in the writers’ room, working on Episode 7, and proposing a scene in which Pop would realize for the first time that the word “brunch” was a combination of “breakfast” and “lunch.” When another writer expressed skepticism, Macer proposed a $100 bet that her own mother didn’t know the origin of the word — then called her mom. “I said, ‘Mom, do you know what brunch is?’ and she said, ‘Of course. Brunch is when we go to the restaurant on Saturday afternoon.’” Macer then asked her if she knew that the word was the combination of the “br” from “breakfast” and the “unch” from “lunch.” “It was shocking to her,” Macer says. “She just found so much joy in that.” Brunch became a story point.
When someone has a good idea, everybody wants to be a part of it. But not everybody’s willing to give those voices real power in the conversation.”
Lemus and Chávez were first connected through Film Independent as writers with similar backgrounds whose work shared core elements. “Our parents come here and they chase the American dream, go after all the capitalistic things that were taught here in this country,” Chávez says. “But as you do that, you get pulled away from your culture and from your family ideals.”
For Ferrera, who has been a famous actor for most of her adult life, those concerns also weigh heavily. She thinks a lot about what she gave up on the path to success.
“My life is the issue of gentrification,” she says. “Where I grew up, I went to pretty decent public schools in the San Fernando Valley, because we had relatives who could help us do that. Left on our own, my mother would not have had the means to send me to decent public schools.” Most of Ferrera’s classmates were white, and she taught herself how to fit in. “I had to become a version of myself there that could be accepted and could find success in that world. I don’t know what parts of myself would have come through or come out had I grown up five miles east.”
Ferrera is pleased with how Netflix has supported “Gentefied.” “You’re as successful as your network wants you to be in terms of what they’re investing in you, and how much they’re making sure you’re part of the conversation culturally,” she says. She’s also aware of the criticism levied at the service last year when it canceled another show about a Latino family, “One Day at a Time,” which was later picked up by the cable channel Pop. “As a Latino person always looking for more representation, that show really moved the needle for so many of us,” she says. “But what I hope for is that the cultural mentality can shift from the tokenism of only having one Latin show or one Latin character or one Latin success to a much more complicated and multidimensional view of who the Latinx community is. Everyone’s got a long way to go on that one.”
As she expands her reach as a producer, Ferrera is looking for projects that will represent progress toward that goal. That means doing more than just helping to get things greenlit.
“That doesn’t solve for the fact that certain people don’t pursue a career in an industry that is very unwelcoming or where they don’t see themselves succeeding or represented,” she says. “That doesn’t solve for the young kid who can get into college but can’t stay in college because they’re working at the same time to pay their tuition and help support their family. It doesn’t solve for all of the moments throughout the process where someone’s creative voice or vision is disempowered. As a producer, my goal is to create space, but it’s also to understand truly what the actual obstacles to those spaces are.”