When you’re the ingénue on one of the season’s most talked-about new shows, accolades come from the oddest places. “I was walking my dog, and these two burly guys in a pickup truck stopped and yelled, ‘Hey! Are you the virgin?’ ” says Chicago native Gina Rodriguez, the lead in the CW comedy Jane the Virgin. “I smiled and nodded and was like, ‘Yep, that’s me.’ ” She laughs. “They were like, ‘Our wives love your show!’ ”
Loosely based on the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, the series tells the story of Jane, a 23-year-old virgin whose world is upended when a distracted doctor artificially inseminates her by mistake. A tonal descendant of the ABC dramedy Ugly Betty (executive producer Ben Silverman helmed that show, too), Jane is a sharp, snarky tangle of multiple love triangles, murders, and more plot twists than a Dickens novel. It works, though, largely because of Rodriguez, 30, whose earnest Jane grounds the series with warmth and charm. “With Gina, I found an actress who brought to life a character that was worlds better than what I had in my head,” Jennie Snyder Urman, the show’s creator, writes in an e-mail. “She bursts with life and vulnerability.”
It’s a formula that’s creating results: The Hollywood Reporter dubbed Jane the Virgin the fall’s best new drama, and the October pilot was one of the most watched CW freshman premieres in the last three years. Rodriguez even earned an unexpected Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a comedy, while the series also got a nod.
The show’s immediate success heartens Rodriguez. The youngest of four, she was raised in Belmont Cragin and always wanted to be a performer. Though she grew up salsa dancing (her group, Soneros del Swing, opened for Marc Anthony when Rodriguez was a preteen), Rodriguez discovered acting when she played the storyteller in A Chorus Line at St. Ignatius College Prep. “I felt like [dancing] was limiting,” she says. “I wanted to speak.” She credits seeing Gary Sinise in Steppenwolf’s 2000 production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as an inspiration: “I wanted to be Gary Sinise. Then I realized that was going to be a little difficult because I don’t look like Gary Sinise.”
At 16, Rodriguez was accepted into a prestigious summer acting program at Columbia University. (Not that she didn’t go rogue on occasion. As a teen, she competed in drag races on 69th and Pulaski to make quick cash. “I definitely had that immortal, nothing-can-touch-me feeling,” she says.) Rodriguez decided that Columbia was too uptight, so when it came time to apply for college, she chose New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts instead.
After graduating in 2006, Rodriguez picked up odd jobs and performed wherever she could. (“I did a lot of theater, and I did my Law & Orders.”) Three years later, she was cast in the Chicago-set dance movie Go for It! The film was forgettable, but it gave her enough momentum to move to Los Angeles and hire an agent. Her starring role as a determined rapper in the dreary Filly Brown got attention at Sundance in 2012, and Rodriguez nabbed an ABC holding deal as a result. Before anything could come of that, she was offered a role in Lifetime’s campy TV drama Devious Maids. She turned it down because she felt that it played too much to stereotypes.
“Growing up, I didn’t see too many Latinas in roles that were progressive toward Latino culture,” says Rodriguez, whose politically active parents—her father was a Teamster organizer, and her mother ran for alderman when Rodriguez was in high school—instilled in her a strong sense of civic pride. “I constantly saw us in realms of life in which the story had already been told time and time again.”
For Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin is a departure from how Latinos are usually represented: “We’re communicating in multiple languages. We’re talking about being Latino without having to wave a flag in everybody’s face. I have waited so long for a role like Jane. This is such a payoff.”
Only a few months in, it’s too early to determine if Jane the Virgin will encourage more networks to cast Latino actors in starring roles or if the show can maintain its tricky dance between outrageous story lines and fully realized characters. Ugly Betty attracted similar critical attention and fan support before ABC canceled it in 2010 after four seasons of dropping ratings.
Still, Rodriguez is cautiously optimistic about the future. Jane has been renewed for a second season, falling in line with Rodriguez’s ambitious five-year plan: “Get on an awesome TV show that I love and support for the next four or five seasons and, in between, do blockbuster films, labors of love, something for my production company, and help expose new talent.” (She has a supporting role in the forthcoming Ray Liotta indie film Sticky Notes.)
For now, though, she’s taking her newfound fame with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. “I got stopped by a cop who gave me a ticket the other day. He was like, ‘You can afford this ticket. Good luck with season 2!’ ”
If you don’t already know these five comics from their time in Chicago, you soon will.
By Jason Heidemann
Chicago connection: Grew up in Austin
Style: Observational and full of incisive, uncanny details
See him . . . play the dryly funny dentist Lincoln on Comedy Central’s Broad City
Chicago connection: Spent much of his 20s performing improv and standup around town
Style: Laid-back with a stoner ethos and an improv-like agility
See him . . . as the ego-raging but bighearted entrepreneur Erlich Bachman on HBO’s Silicon Valley
Chicago connection: From Lincoln Park and graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep
Style: Studious, upright, and charming
See him . . . play a fictional version of himself on Fox’s Mulaney
Chicago connection: Got his start in the mid-2000s at such venues as the Lincoln Lodge
Style: Unabashedly nerdy
See him . . . cohosting Comedy Central’s The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail and playing a neurotic programmer on Silicon Valley
Chicago connection: Born on the South Side and raised there and in Evanston
Style: Snarky and acidic
See her work . . . possibly soon. Waithe coproduced the 2014 cult hit Dear White People and created the web series Twenties, which she is shopping to networks