Two years ago, Gina Rodriguez revealed in an Instagram post that she struggles with anxiety. The Jane the Virgin star has spoken further about mental health in interviews since, but on Tuesday evening, she is set to address the subject for the first time in a public forum — specifically, the Kennedy Forum, a mental-health advocacy group founded by former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy. The 34-year-old Rodriguez, a Chicago native who grew up in Hermosa, will appear in conversation with NBC News correspondent Kate Snow at the Harris Theater; singer-songwriter Elle King and author Heather Armstrong are also on the bill.
It marks Rodriguez’s first trip to her hometown since the premiere of Jane the Virgin, which is currently airing its fifth and final season on the CW. “Which is crazy,” she told me on the phone last week from Los Angeles. “I’m going to go back to the old ’hood where I grew up, see what it looks like, because I haven’t been back in forever.”
We spoke about her mental-health journey, the pressures of playing Jane, and other plans for the long-overdue visit.
You’ve spoken openly in the last couple of years about dealing with anxiety. The theme of the Kennedy Forum this year is about managing mental health and well-being in the workplace. How has anxiety affected you on the job?
It’s funny, because the second you said that I went right to the strongest memory, which was having a panic attack on set and having to shut down production. One thing about working on television is that there is no getting sick, there is no getting a cold; your health is so vital, especially when you’re playing the lead. But to stand in front of the camera when you’re dealing with any kind of illness is really difficult. The compounded work that you’re doing — the work as an actor, and then the work of being a human being underneath — that can be such a difficult balance, one that I definitely didn’t know how to handle when I first started Jane. About two or three years into Jane, the workload, the lack of care, and the lack of knowledge of how to handle that really came to a head. I was hit with the reality that I had a chemical imbalance that I couldn’t deal with alone and couldn’t ignore.
Growing up in a predominantly Latinx community and Latino household, mental health isn’t a conversation at all. At first, because so much shame surrounded it, it was so hard to have a conversation about it. But there’s a responsibility that I feel as a public figure to share, so it’s not so uncomfortable for somebody else. I’m still working on it.
Your part of the program is titled “Rewriting the Manual of Living Out Your Dreams,” and I know that echoes some of your comments to Cosmopolitan earlier this year. You said, among other things, you had made a promise to yourself as a teenager in Chicago that you would star on a TV show. How have you had to adjust those dreams?
Coming from a lower socioeconomic class growing up, I was saying I wanted it all, saying I wanted more and more, because there wasn’t “plenty” where I came from. But the dial has adjusted to what I want my destiny to look like. For so long, it was to be in a TV show for four to five years, do movies in between, produce my own stuff, and then start directing. And as I have created this, I’ve thought to myself, “Wow, this wasn’t in the Apple contract.” You know the Apple contract? Where nobody looks, and you just scroll to the bottom, like, “Agree.”
I never thought I would put my mental health ahead of these big, culturally desired successes. At one point I would’ve said, “Yeah, let’s do more movies and be this big-time empire mogul!” Now I’m like, “I want sanity, and love, and health, and mental health, and calm, and family.”
As somebody who grew up in Chicago, what do you make a point not to miss when you visit now?
You know, I haven’t been to Chicago for, like, six years. I do want to go and eat some really bomb pizza and some really bomb Mexican food, because I really feel like Chicago has the best. I know others are going to get mad at me for saying that, but it really does.
Details The 2019 Kennedy Forum Annual Meeting: Spotlight Series. Harris Theater. June 11 at 6:30 p.m. $125. Loop. harristheaterchicago.org