Jenna Ortega, Future Icon
Jenna Ortega smiles at me from somewhere in Romania, her effortless dark waves filling my Zoom screen. As we discuss her film The Fallout, which is now streaming on HBO following its award-winning premiere at South by Southwest in 2021, the Latina actress is gracious, thoughtful, and poised. Though she's been a working actor since before she hit the double digits, appearing in films as varied as Iron Man 3, You, and Insidious: Chapter 2, the California-native is poised to be Hollywood's next megastar. She recently nabbed the titular role in Tim Burton's Wednesday series (which she's currently filming) about the famously deadpan Addams daughter, alongside a legendary cast including Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia. She also appears in the latest Scream film, the fifth in the blockbuster franchise, and A24's forthcoming X, out in March. But Hollywood doesn't seem to have gone to her head: I can't help but return to the word "grounded" when recounting our brief conversation together.
Did I mention she's also wickedly talented?
In The Fallout, Ortega plays Vada, a student traumatized by a shooting at her high school. Rather than focusing on the shooter, the film explores what happens to Vada's mental health and relationships after bearing witness to a horrifying act of gun violence, and the ripple effect of such terrorism. "One guy with a gun can fuck up so many lives in six minutes," Vada says toward the end of the film. The line captures The Fallout's thesis succinctly while showcasing a performance defined by ease, no doubt a main reason writer and director Megan Park (an actress herself) was so eager to cast her.
Ortega, 19, came onto Park's radar after effusive praise from the director's friend and former Secret Life of the American Teenager co-star, Francia Raisa, who arranged for the pair to meet over coffee. "I knew I wanted somebody who was actually the age of this character," Park explains, "somebody who just really embodied the qualities of what I feel like makes this young generation — Gen Z — so special and so interesting; somebody who was really honest and brave and bold and smart and unafraid." Park adds that Jenna's mom accompanied her to their first meeting, since the actress was only 17 at the time.
"I just fell in love," Park recounts. "I remember calling the producers from a parking garage being like, 'She's the one, I just know that she's the one.'"
Park says she gave Ortega a "fun" take for each scene, allowing the actress to do whatever she wanted. "Getting her to just do what was so special about her inherently was really magical to watch. Hopefully I helped guide her a little bit, but she is just such a raw talent that it's like, I can't even take credit for it."
Here, Ortega unpacks the process of executing such a delicate and sensitive subject, what it felt like taking on the responsibility of Wednesday Addams, and much more.
So The Fallout — I want to hear your first impression upon reading the script.
Jenna Ortega: I was really, really impressed because it was actually the first script, full feature-length film, that Megan [Park, writer and director] had ever written. For a first-time writer, I think that dialogue is really hard to master and make sound natural. Especially with a younger generation like Generation Z. So I was really impressed by how organic and genuine it was — but then also it's moving.
I go through a lot of scripts. It's really important to me that I tell stories that need to be heard, or that will make some sort of impact. And with a script as heavy but also as important as The Fallout, I knew that it was something that I wanted to participate in. I fell in love with the character immediately because I noticed our similarities, but I also noticed our differences. And I've never really had the opportunity to show such range or get to know a character so well. So this is my opportunity to do so and I was really excited that Megan reached out.
There are so many intense scenes, and you're also doing ecstasy and all these different drugs in the movie. Were you intimidated to take on the part?
I was definitely intimidated. One, because fortunately [a school shooting is] not an experience I share. Although it is a very, very real concern for my generation, and even something that I experienced going to school, public school, going on lockdown and situations like that. I was really worried because I didn't want to tell a story that I didn't have the right to tell. I didn't want to overstep and insert myself and make somebody else's pain my own, because as of now, I have no understanding of that trauma. But the way that it was pitched to me was ... an apology note to my generation and an understanding that, although this is incredibly painful, and something that [Gen Z] is dealing with and shouldn't have to deal with, you're not alone.
I think that that's a really important message to share, especially in an era where social media creates such awkward relationships and interactions with people. Maddie Ziegler's character Mia [a social media-famous dancer] ... nobody ever really understood her [in the film]. The position she plays on social media makes people distant or shy. I think when we're connected to our phone so much, we're lacking human connection. I hope that's something that people take from the film, how important it is that we connect as humans and aren't so married to our phones. [I hope people] understand how important it is that we listen to one another.
That first scene with the shooting — can you let us into how you approached that? It's such an intense, emotional scene when you're in the bathroom with Maddie Ziegler's character.
Yeah. Filming is so strange because typically, or a majority of the time, things are out of order. So that was actually one of the last scenes we ever shot.
So we had already gone on this emotional journey with these characters and dealing with the aftermath of the scene that we had never really gotten to [shoot]. That built up tension contributed to the performance, or contributed to the spontaneity of the scene. Just because it was, oh my God, it's finally happening and this is real. I think that ... any project that I've done before has never touched a topic like that. For me, it was really important that I approached the scene with care and caution and I was respectful towards it.
We had such an incredible time shooting, but I know between me, Maddie Ziegler, and Niles Fitch [who plays Quinton, a fellow student] ... it was so weird being on set because nobody really talked to each other that day. We were just acknowledging that what we were shooting was something that was very serious and real. We had people clapping wooden planks in the corner to make gunshot [sounds] so we didn't really know when they were going to come. There was improv going on with the lines. Our positions changed every time. It was kind of new.
Wow, that sounds really intense. You had a great cast that you were working with: Maddie Ziegler, Shailene Woodley, Julie Bowen. Were you a big fan of these other actresses beforehand? And is there anything you feel like they taught you about the process as you went?
I've always had a lot of respect for Shailene Woodley. All of my therapy scenes were done with her at the beginning. It was a really intimidating way to start off the process, just working with somebody that you admire so greatly and just want to impress and do a good job in front of. It was a lot.
And those are really important, crucial scenes. But it also was a great start because she was just the loveliest, kindest human, and was so attentive as a scene partner, even when [the camera] wasn't on her face and they were getting my coverage … she gave her full performance every single time and was very, very attentive. I think sometimes when you're an actor, you know when scenes feel right. You know when you feel connected, when things are going your way and it feels natural and you almost don't even have to think about lines or what you're going to do next because it's just known and you're just existing and that's such a beautiful feeling. And it's so rare. And as an actor, you're constantly chasing that. And any scene that I shot with Shailene was that, which is so wonderful. I had never seen Modern Family, but [Julie] is one of the funniest people ever.
She's great. I love her on Modern Family.
Yeah, and then Maddie, I had known Maddie. I randomly did a photo shoot with her a couple years ago.
And then before we started this job, Maddie wanted to hang out and break the ice and I did as well. So she came over to my place for the first time and we sat and talked for 13 hours. She was getting calls from her mom and boyfriend like, "Are you okay? Is everything all right?" [She] just set the phone down and talked and talked and talked. So that was really great for me because our characters have such an intimate relationship, but it's really nice when you have chemistry. I had known who Maddie Ziegler was for such a long time, and you never really know how somebody who's earned that much respect or has worked so hard and climbed that far in the industry … I just didn't know what to expect. And I was nervous. But she is, I mean, I love her. She's the coolest and so talented.
One of my favorite parts of the movie was that big monologue you have at the end — there's a line: "One guy with a gun can fuck up so many lives in six minutes." I want to hear about preparing for that.
The speech was the second day of shooting. That scene was actually the one that I was most nervous for. I remember we were going to shoot the film and then the pandemic happened. So it got postponed for a few months, and randomly at night before I would go to bed I would refer back to the script. I would scroll all the way to the bottom of the script and read those lines to myself or say them in the mirror. Sometimes that helps, just to get the words flowing. When I shoot a scene, I kind of black out … I can't tell if the take [went well] or not, because I have no idea what just happened. I remember feeling great relief when it was done. But it's also hard because it's, OK, I can wipe that scene off and forget about it and other people [who have experienced gun violence] can't.
Is there anything that you learned about yourself taking on this role that you're going to take with you into the rest of your life?
I honestly don't think I've ever learned so much about myself on a job. I think that it's insane how much pain forces somebody to mature. And for someone like Vada, who's just your normal everyday teenage girl, to deal with something so traumatic so early on and so rapidly is so frightening. But I think that it makes you more grateful for what you have.
I knew that I was a guarded person, but I didn't know how guarded. Growing up, I prohibited myself from experiencing certain things, or maybe nurturing relationships or friendships to the best I possibly could because I put up such walls and I was so protective of my heart and my spirit that I never really let anybody in. I wasn't comfortable crying. I never cried during movies, never cried in front of other people. And after spending a lot of time with Vada, and exploring that vulnerable space and seeing how her guarded personality or her instinct to not show too much emotion around other people affected her and hurt her, I think it forced me to take a look at my own life and wonder, maybe this is why I was struggling with certain relationships or scenarios like that. And it's quite insane how much I've cried since. It's become like a very healthy, consistent thing that I never saw myself being open to or experiencing. But I allow myself to feel emotions as intensely as I always have. I've just been a lot more open about it and it's been so freeing.
I really want to touch on Scream, and just briefly, if you can speak to the experience of filming that.
I don't know if it was because the pandemic and the cast and I were forced into this small space where we couldn't really engage with anybody else, but they were the loveliest, or are the loveliest, coolest, kindest, most genuine people I've ever met. We still talk every day in a group chat. I've never experienced an environment on a set like that before. It's probably my favorite set I've ever been on. And also horror is … you can't help but have a good time because you're just creating pure entertainment. It's really exciting when the blood splats the right way. And just watching everybody get visibly excited, it's very different from something like The Fallout, where people are upset about what they just filmed rather than, "Oh my god, look, we're doing something and we're giving people a good time."
And then Wednesday Addams — what was it like when you found out you had booked that role?
Really nerve wracking, honestly. I've never played such a character before. So I think it was really important to me to establish a difference from performances that I've done in the past. But then also, she's been done so beautifully by people before me that it's really important that I do something fresh and different. We've never seen Wednesday as a teenage girl. If someone's 15 and they say something nasty, they sound like every other 15-year-old. So it's been a little bit of a challenge, or a fun challenge for me, I guess, to stay true to the character while also giving her some sort of… it's so interesting giving range to a deadpan character. Because you can't have the lead of a story not being receptive at all to the world that's going on around her. That's been interesting as well, where it's like, "Oh, well, how do I make people agree with her but then also feel her struggles or feel her triumphs while showing no real emotion?"
If you have one, who is your Hollywood fairy godperson?
I've always been in love with Viola Davis. If I could just have a conversation with her, I think she's one of the most talented people ever.
Would you kill a bug or save a bug?
Save a bug.
Low rise jeans. Yes or no?
Last thing you do before you leave the house?
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Paris, Texas, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and … oh my god. No, I'm trying to think. What's another good one … Oh, let's do — I don't want to be like an annoying film person, but I want to say 8 ½.
Worst audition you've ever had?
Oh my god, worst I've ever had … I don't know why [I kept messing up] — I knew the lines. I think I was just nervous because it was a job I wanted and there was this long monologue that I was supposed to say and I kept stumbling at the same part every time. And when I would stumble, I would say, "Sorry." And I did that like two, three times. It was so embarrassing. And the casting director told me "Oh, don't worry about it. You don't have to say, sorry." And then I did it one more time, apologized again. And then she snapped at me. Like, "You don't need to say sorry."
Oh my god.
And I said, "I'm so sorry." And then I ended up booking the job. I don't remember what job it was, but I remember crying to my mom in the car after telling her, "Oh, it did not go well, there's no way that's happening." And then it did.
Go-to nail color?
Oh, well, right now, since I've been shooting, black. But typically, I go with a nude-ish, a brown nude or like a pink nude sometimes. Brown french tip is nice.
Final one. What was the happiest you felt in the past year?
That's such a good one. What even happened last year? Maybe when I flew to New Zealand to work on a project and it was my first time out of the country alone — I think it was a nice period of self growth. I don't know, I just learned a lot about myself because I had almost three full weeks of quarantine because they had their first big Covid outbreak in months at the hotel that I was quarantining in. So I had to do overtime. So I spent a lot of time with myself and I feel like somebody would typically feel like they were losing their mind, but I just got to watch more movies and write a lot. I love writing. I love to read and I don't — my schedule's been busy recently and I don't necessarily always get that time. So it was really nice to just sit with myself and I felt very independent walking around New Zealand once I was out, and getting my groceries and going on adventures. I was driving on the other side of the road. It was nice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photographs by Jonny Marlow. Styled by Enrique Melendez. Hair by Clayton Hawkins. Makeup by Allan Avendaño. Booking by Isabel Jones. Creative Director: Jenna Brillhart. Art Director: Sarah Maiden. 3D Designer: Leana Macaya. Visuals Editor: Kelly Chiello.