MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You may remember America Ferrera from her role as the quirky, spirited Betty Suarez in ABC's "Ugly Betty," a role that led to an Emmy award for comedy for Ferrera, which was a first for a Latina. Now she's back in a new network comedy, and she also produces the show. It's called "Superstore," and it's on NBC. Now, NBC has earned a reputation as the home of the workplace comedy from hits like "The Office" and "Parks And Recreation." But "Superstore" has already made itself stand out with material about hot button subjects like religion, abortion, the Black Lives Matter movement and racial stereotypes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPERSTORE")
NICO SANTOS: (As Mateo, speaking Spanish).
AMERICA FERRERA: (As Amy) Right.
SANTOS: (As Mateo) I cannot stop playing the role.
FERRERA: It's not a role. It's a stereotype. How would you feel if I was handing out Asian food, and I was all, like, oh, (unintelligible). Eat most honorable teriyaki chicken. (Unintelligible).
SANTOS: (As Mateo) That would be messed up.
MARTIN: That would be messed up (laughter). That was Nico Santos and America Ferrera, two of the stars of "Superstore," and America Ferrera is with us now. Welcome. So glad to have you with us.
FERRERA: Thank you. I'm so glad to be talking to you.
MARTIN: How did the idea for the show come about and how - about sort of dealing with topics like this in that context?
FERRERA: Well, our creator-writer is Justin Spitzer, and he's a fabulous writer who came off many of writing and producing on "The Office." And so when I got the pilot script, I really responded to all those things - the elements of, you know, dealing with real life issues - and through the lens of comedy. And I think that it's really time that we see another working-class comedy on broadcast television.
And our cast is so diverse, as you heard. We all come from such different experiences of life. And what that does - you know, it's not just about diversity for the sake of diversity. This diversity gives us the opportunity to approach topics like race from a place of experience, not just from a place of, you know, intellectualism and having conversations, but about - hey, this is my experience, and it's messed up. And no one's right, and no one's wrong. And that's what I really loved about this episode - is there was a conversation had about how everybody views their different racial experiences.
MARTIN: But, you know, I read in an interview with Remezcla that this was the first time you were offered a character that was not specifically written for a Latina. Is that right?
FERRERA: It is right. I realized after the fact that - wow - this is the first time that I had been offered a role that wasn't written specifically for a Latino actor. And all of these characters were written with no specified ethnicity. And usually what that means is you cast white actors because that's the default, but what they were doing with this casting was so new and interesting. And they went out and found the actors that were right for the roles, and they happened to be Latino, black, Asian, Jewish. And I thought that was really revolutionary for television casting.
MARTIN: I just wondered if you feel that you opened the door. Or - it's a tricky question because, you know, "The Cosby Show" was a hit show and, you know, dominated primetime for years. And yet, what came after was very little. And I'm just wondering what role you think "Ugly Betty" played in the universe that we're seeing now.
FERRERA: Well, you know, I think it's very similar to what you just said about "The Cosby Show." You know, "Ugly Betty" came on the air, was a massive hit. And when we went off the air, it was years before there was another TV show starring a Latina with a family back on TV. And it's not a coincidence that it was from some of the same producers - Ben Silverman, who produced "Ugly Betty," then went and produced "Jane The Virgin."
But it wasn't like people saw "Ugly Betty" and thought, oh, wow - there's opportunity here. There's so many people out there starving and hungry to see themselves represented. It's amazing how hard it is to actually move the dial. And unfortunately, you know, there's one big success, and we all get super excited. And it very rarely results in, you know, a watershed moment for Latinos on television.
MARTIN: Are the conversations at least different now, or are they not?
FERRERA: I think they are. I think they're absolutely different. I'm now a producer in television, and to be a part of the conversations is heartening 'cause you do see that people want to understand it. People want to know, you know, what does this mean for our audience? How do - what is the content they want to see? How do they want to be represented? And so I know the conversations are being had. It - it's about execution, and it's about, you know, also, a shortage of Latinos in creative positions. And I think that's true for all ethnicities. I think that's a much bigger conversation for how to do we - how do we get the next generation of people of color to be inspired enough to enter these fields where they feel like there is opportunity for them to succeed.
MARTIN: I want to talk about one of the other things you're known for, which is your activism. I mean, you've been an ambassador for Voto Latino. This past summer, you penned an open letter to Donald Trump in The Huffington Post Latino Voices blog entitled "Thank you, Donald Trump," in which you called him out on some of the comments that he's made about Latino immigrants that many people consider offensive. I'd like to ask - how do you balance that? How do you decide when to step in and when to not?
FERRERA: Well, I - it's not as calculated, as planned as I would like it to be. You know, part of what I love so much about the work I do as an actor and as a producer is I believe in the power of media and art and storytelling to be a part of that conversation and to really move those conversations forward. And so I don't think that my voice is, you know, more entitled because I'm a celebrity, but I'm as entitled as anybody else in this country to use the platforms that I have to talk about the things I care about.
MARTIN: You know, to that end, though, you wrote this letter to Donald Trump in July, but months later, Donald Trump is leading in many polls. He's become the Republican candidate to beat. But I just do have to mention that the network which hosts your program - shows your program - also offered him a platform on "Saturday Night Live," hosting. And many people were very uncomfortable with that, very upset about that. But I just have to ask if you have some thoughts about that?
FERRERA: Absolutely. I mean, I was - I was very uncomfortable with the decision and didn't agree with the decision. And the truth is that Donald Trump isn't going away. But I do think that it's up to all of us to, yes, be angry, but harness that energy where it matters and show up to vote on election day and to use that anger that we feel when Donald Trump hosts "SNL" and organize our communities to show up where it really, really will make a difference.
MARTIN: Sounds like you're going to be busy this year.
FERRERA: Yeah, it's going to be a very exciting year.
MARTIN: You think we might see an election story line in "Superstore"?
FERRERA: Oh, I - not in this season. Season two - who knows? I mean, I'm sure it's possible.
MARTIN: That is America Ferrera, who stars in and is one of the producers of NBC's new comedy "Superstore," which airs Mondays at 8 p.m. Eastern time. We spoke with her at our bureau in New York. America Ferrera, thanks so much for speaking with us.
FERRERA: Thank you so much, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.