The following contains spoilers for Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.”
As a kid with a precocious mind for make-believe, America Ferrera never felt like a Barbie girl in a Barbie world.
She didn’t have Barbie dolls at home — her family couldn’t afford them, Ferrera says. She played with them only while visiting a cousin’s house. So co-starring in a summer blockbuster about the enduring American symbol of girlhood, in all its bubblegum-pink glory, wasn’t wish-fulfillment for her.
“I don’t really remember the Barbie world ever resonating with me,” Ferrera says. “I imagine that’s because I didn’t feel very represented or reflected by it. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be part of a Barbie movie. I was the little girl who didn’t see myself in the mainstream culture around me, and I know how important it is to feel seen.”
Ferrera may not have grown up turning to the 11½-inch doll at playtime, but her role as Gloria, a lifetime Barbie lover and assistant to the chief executive of Mattel in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” is pivotal to the film’s existential examination of the complicated icon. Gloria, a working mother struggling to find purpose as her teen daughter grows older, finds herself on a parallel journey of self-discovery with Barbie (Margot Robbie) as the doll journeys outside of Barbie Land into the real world.
And now, as an adult, Ferrera finally has her first Barbie: A number of collectible figures were created by Mattel to celebrate “Barbie’s” release, including one in the likeness of Ferrera’s character, complete with flowing black hair, hoop earrings and an all-pink power suit.
“It felt so like surreal, I don’t even know what it means,” says Ferrera, who has made a career out of playing “real girl” characters who challenge Hollywood beauty standards. “I couldn’t really wrap my mind around it. There’s a Honduran Barbie doll now. That really matters.”
In a conversation last month, steps away from the pink-filled Barbie wonderland created for the film’s press junket at a Los Angeles hotel, Ferrera discussed being part of the highly anticipated summer blockbuster, the powerful monologue she delivers at the heart of the movie, and what it’s like being directed by Gerwig. The interview, which took place before the SAG-AFTRA actors’ strike, has been edited and condensed.
Tell me how this project came to you, because seeing those images that leaked last year — you and Margot Robbie rollerblading on the Venice Boardwalk — are what got me excited.
It was kind of a miracle. Things like this have rarely, if ever, happened in my career, where you just get a phone call from some fabulous director who says, “I have a part and I want you to play it.” That kind of thing doesn’t often happen for Latinas in this industry. There are so few roles created for us, and it’s not in $100-million movies that are about cultural icons.
Exploring it through Gloria’s eyes just felt like a magical gift that we never get in our culture — and if we do get it, we have to make it, we have to create it and we have to push for why it matters. So to get the script was just unexpected. Really, my first thought was, “They’re never gonna let [Gerwig] make this.”
It’s just so tickling that this is the version of the Barbie story we get, because it could have been so many things. If it was just glossy and pretty, and you just looked at Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, that would have made money. It didn’t have to be this version.
I’m curious to know how Gloria was described in the script. What struck you about her?
She shows up on, like, Page 30, and the way Greta introduced her on the page was with her shoes. I believe it said something like, “This is Gloria, we love her immediately.” And I was like, “I do love her immediately.” She’s wearing these pink shoes under her desk, in this incredibly male, sterile corporate environment, and you know she’s got this vibrancy and enthusiasm that she has to hide away.
Gloria is an adult woman who feels this deep connection to Barbie, something that made her feel aspirational, optimistic, but that she feels she’s not allowed to have, because she’s grown, because it’s complicated, because she’s complex: I love this thing, but I’m going to hide it. It feels very resonant with the whole [theme] of all of us getting to be more of what we are, without apology.
Gloria and Barbie are on similar journeys. And they’ve been conditioned to present as if everything’s OK. As an actor, or even as a mom, do you understand that impulse to give the appearance that everything is fine?
What they do for each other is release each other from an impossible assignment: to be a thing. And we need to hear that. Men, women, all genders — we’re given roles. And because of our nature, or whatever it is, I’m not a psychologist, we do the assignment. And to get to a place where you’re like, “This is an impossible assignment, and I’m sick of it,” that’s the deeper invitation for the audience.
I feel like that’s what resonated with me the most, this permission to be unapologetically all of the things that we are. That’s what Greta is. She’s this Academy Award-nominated director, who probably feels all this pressure to make the next big thing. And she’s like, “I’m gonna go do f—ing ‘Barbie,’ and watch me. Watch me do ‘Barbie.’ That’s the guts, to claim the permission to love what you love, to be all of the things you are, without having to equivocate or explain.
Greta is known for putting thoughtful monologues about girlhood and womanhood in her films. Your Gloria is given one, clocking in at almost four minutes. There’s the line where she says: “I’m just so tired of watching myself, and every single other woman, tie herself into knots so that people will like us.” How did you feel when you read those words on the page, knowing that it would be you, not Barbie, who would be delivering them?
When I first read it, it just hit me as the truth. There’s no woman in my life who those words aren’t true for. Not a single one. So it felt like a gift. And it felt very intimidating, because Greta was like, “I hope you enjoy the script. Also, there’s a monologue that Meryl Streep said she’d like to do, but it’s for your character. So, enjoy.” And I’m like, “What?”
Actually, what Greta said to me was, “Meryl Streep said that this was the kind of monologue she has been waiting her whole career to say” — something like that, which put the pressure on early. All that’s said in the monologue is just the truth. And when we hear the truth, it hits in a certain way, and you can’t unhear it, right?
It definitely got a rousing reaction in the early screenings I attended. What was it like performing those words?
I felt like I did it 500 times. It’s rare as an actor to get the opportunity to get to play a moment like that, to really swim in it and love it and try it out a million different ways. Greta never gave me a target. We talked about it, but she wasn’t like, “I want you to laugh here. And I want you to cry there.” Even when I was like, “What’s the tone of this?” she said, “I don’t know, let’s just do it and find out.”
She had so much trust in me, and I had so much trust in her. They were really intense days on set for me. And I felt like they were intense for the crew too, because they were listening to it. I had a lot of crew members come up to me and say, “Wow, I really heard that.”
What is like being directed by Greta?
She is an encyclopedia of film references and cultural references — literature and poetry and music. One of the first things we did in prep, she gave me a list of movies to watch, to just get in the feel and the vibe of “Barbie.” I’d text her about it, and she’d text me about and we’d have a conversation.
There was nothing flippant, nothing dismissible. Everything mattered. And that was a gift to everybody on the project. Everyone got the invitation to to work at the height of their craft, but for the purpose of play, for the purpose of joy-making imagination.
When I first walked onto the set — again, I did not play with Barbie, so I didn’t have this, “Oh, my God, the Dream House!” reaction — I remember seeing this incredible shot that Rodrigo Prieto, Martin Scorsese’s [cinematographer], was doing of these incredible sets, and the hair and the makeup and the wardrobe and the colors and the lights. And I gasped. I got a little bit emotional. And I thought, “Why? What is this evoking?” And for me, it was just a nostalgia for imagination, a nostalgia for unapologetic play in the most artful and beautiful way.
Not to sound superficial, but obviously, the wardrobe is a significant part of this film. How is Gloria telling us a story with her clothes?
Gloria had this desire to express, but it was very hidden. So the shoes are under the desk, and when you first meet her, waist up, she’s exactly what she’s supposed to be in that space. Everything that’s fun about her is hidden. She’s wearing a sparkly pink belt, but underneath the blazer. And this is the moment that blew my mind, because I said to [costume designer] Jacqueline [Durran], “I love that moment with the shoes under the desk. How do we bring that more alive?”
Then she just came back with a shirt mullet. It was business out front and party underneath. In the scene, you see the blue lapels, but in the next scene where the blazer comes off, it’s white and pink pinstripe. And you find a glittery belt. And it was like, “Yes!”
Those were questions with Greta: When we go to Barbie Land, are we Barbies? Are we a Barbie version of us? Or us? And she was like, “You’re not a Barbie, but it’s like you’re having your best day.”
Did you want to be a Barbie?
No. Not at all. I think I said to Greta after I read the script, “I’m so honored that you would have thought of me for Gloria. If I’d had my pick to play anyone in this movie, it would be her.”
What was it like stepping onto those Barbie Land sets? Just seeing it on screen, as someone who grew up playing with them, it was euphoric for me. I wanted to climb in and play in it.
It’s like a shot of dopamine. It’s like a candy shop. It’s like I ate a cake and I want more cake. It’s so beautiful. It’s the sets, but then it’s the clothes. All of it. And the wig room was unbelievable. It was just hair everywhere. Barbie has a lot of hair.
Many of the characters you’ve played during your career have tried to show a new representation of beauty, or the breadth of it, whether it’s “Real Women Have Curves” or “Ugly Betty.” Is this a specific goal of yours?
I just wanted to be an actress. I just wanted to have a career, I just wanted to make my dream come true. I didn’t set out to challenge stereotypes or represent anybody. I wanted to live my dream. And it’s been a part of my career because of who I am, and because of what people see when they look at me. I think that resonates so deeply with people because it’s still a battle we’re fighting.
I’ve had to spend my whole life challenging stereotypes, but I’m also just a person trying to figure it out for myself. At the time of my career starting, I was a 17-year-old child trying to figure out how I felt in my body in this world, in this culture, with the beauty standards that existed and what that said about me and what my value was. And that was 22 years ago.
The day that Greta sent me the “Barbie” script was also a day that I signed a CoverGirl contract. And I remember [Ferrera’s voice cracks] having to go sit in a very hot shower because I was trying to understand it. I never set out to be a CoverGirl. I didn’t ever think that the “Barbie” story would come knocking for me. And yet, here we are in this moment, where something has shifted enough where this is happening.
I’m a woman in this world and I have deeply struggled with my own sense of worth. And as much as I want to say that I escaped that, that I’ve evolved past that, those stories are so deeply ingrained. And it’s not easy for me because it can’t shift in the culture until it shifts inside of us.
The film introduces some unconventional Barbies: Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie, Crippling Shame Barbie, Depression Barbie. What’s a Barbie you’d like to see created?
Healing Generational Trauma Barbie. Like, where is she? Give me her. She’s tired. She’s exhausted.