'Ugly Betty' Hopes for Swandom
With actress Salma Hayek among its executive producers, ABC's adaptation of the Latin American telenovela "Yo Soy Betty La Fea" is nearing its premiere with some of the most positive critical buzz for any new show. As a result, it's been given a more promising time slot than it first had: The comedy-drama debuts Thursday, Sept. 28, right before the proven hit "Grey's Anatomy" on its new night.
As the Betty of the title, America Ferrera proves as poignant and relatable as she was in the movies "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and "Real Women Have Curves." Hired by a publishing tycoon (Alan Dale, "The O.C.") to assist his playboy son (Eric Mabius), who has just been made editor of a top fashion magazine, unglamorous Betty Suarez seems the antithesis of someone suited to the job.
She's determined to make the best of it, despite the input of others: a forceful rival (singer-actress Vanessa Williams) who wanted the editor job; Betty's father and sister (Tony Plana, Ana Ortiz), who fear the only result of her new job will be heartache; and a beau (Kevin Sussman) who broke up with Betty but won't stop trying to re-enter her life.
The new My Network TV is adapting telenovelas, too, but Hayek -- who also makes a cameo appearance in the pilot episode -- says the source of "Ugly Betty" was "a phenomenon in Colombia. I think it was groundbreaking. Usually, telenovelas are a lot more melodramatic, and this one was dramatic but had an amazing sense of humor.
"It's about the fish out of water, the person who is not conventional in the way they look or the way they talk ... but they are incredibly smart and hard workers, and they get ahead in life using that. Everybody wants to see these kinds of stories. I really am sure that the American audience is very thirsty for something like this."
And Ferrera is happy to be the young actress on whom it rests. "I wish that one day, I as America can feel the way I feel when I'm Betty," she says. "There's a light that shines from the inside, and it's so wonderful to be her. It takes away the pressure on me as an actress. I never wanted to be a model; I set out to tell stories. Betty is the most beautiful opportunity that's ever come across my path to represent a whole generation of young women who don't recognize themselves in anything they're watching. It's an honor to take on this role."
Appropriately, the message Ferrera hopes to convey through Betty goes beneath the surface.
"She knows who she is," Ferrera explains. "There are insecurities in her, but she forgives the people who don't understand her. She doesn't resent them; she's not angry toward them. She forgives people who don't deserve to be forgiven. She gives them a chance and sees them as human beings, even though they won't give her the same benefit."
Another executive producer of "Ugly Betty," Ben Silverman ("The Office"), likens it to "Cinderella" and "My Fair Lady." He reasons the premise "has worked a thousand times in a thousand places in a thousand ways. It was a story we really wanted to tell, then layering in the first-generation immigrant experience and saddling Betty with other issues that exist within American culture was very important to us.
"Salma and the whole team really wanted to bring back to television," Silverman adds, "through emotion, through characters and through conversations about race, about class, about differences and distinctions through our everyday life. We found the element and opportunity to potentially bring Norman Lear back through a soap opera. We're very, very passionate about it. Every person here embraces this and identifies with it and is proud to be associated with it."
Co-star Williams hopes "Ugly Betty" finally will let her score with a series that has a fashion backdrop.
"I did a pilot and played a boss within the fashion industry, and it didn't get picked up," the former Miss America 1984 reports. "I just came off a show called 'South Beach,' again surrounded by models. The difference is, it's all on the page here. As an actor, it's delicious when you can see it and it leaps out at you, because it's much easier to be direct and successful as an actor when you're playing an intention that's there."
The makeup job on Ferrera is quite pronounced as "Ugly Betty" begins, and it may or may not stay that way.
"She is going to go through a transformation," Hayek explains. "It might not be exactly what you are thinking, or maybe it is. We want to keep it a little bit of a mystery. If we are very successful, we might get people not to notice whether there is a physical transformation. They'[ll] just really [be] into the characters."