It's hard to believe that Ugly Betty, the winner of two Golden Globes for Best Comedy Series, as well as Best Actress in a Comedy for America Ferrera, barely made it on the air. And yet, that's what happened.
The now incredibly successful show based on the Colombian telenovella, Yo Soy Betty la Fea, wasn't the easiest show to market. Its subject matter (an unattractive girl from Queens navigates her way through the shark-infested waters of high fashion) and its star America Ferrara, a relatively unknown actress with only a few credits under her belt, wasn't exactly typical primetime fare.
Thanks to the star power of Salma Hayek, however, and some major convincing by dedicated studio execs, Betty did manage to land on ABC's fall schedule. The show's problems were hardly over though. It was originally slated to air on Friday nights. Had it not been for the critics who rallied around the show, forcing ABC to move the show into the primo Thursday night timeslot, Betty surely would have succumbed to TGIF crucifixion.
In this interview with the show's creator, Silvio Horta, at the Winter TCA press tour, we learn more about Betty's incredible rags to riches story, Horta's own personal investment in the show, and what TV shows inspired him as a kid.
What made you decide to take on Betty?
It's one of those things where we just came together. I loved the idea, and the idea loved me. It was just one of those things I felt like I could run with, and make my own, and have fun with it.
What inspires you about Betty in particular? Do you identify with any of her or any of the characters on the show?
Completely! I identify with everybody on the show. I think especially with Betty. There isn't a single person that doesn't feel like Betty at one time or the other. Everybody, regardless of how you look or how much money you make – there is a little bit of Betty in all of us. I feel that, I think everybody feels that. You can't help but relate to someone like that.
What are the differences between Betty and the other telenovela "Bettys"? How did you "Americanize" her?
The biggest thing is making her a first-generation Latina-American. I'm first-generation Cuban-American, and I don't think we've seen that story told before. I think this is about the way she looks, but I think it's also about economic disparity, and race issues. It was a story that I understood. [The Columbian version] was specifically about appearance. I think it's obviously an aspect of the show, but we set out to do a lot more.
Ignacio, Betty's father, faces problems because of his immigration status. Is that issue one that has affected you personally?
Well, just to a little bit of a degree. I have aunts and uncles that came from Cuba that were in Guantanamo for a certain point, and dealt with it. When I wrote the pilot, it wasn't the story I saw for [Ignacio]. But then when I sat down and we started talking, we were like, "This is really interesting and so topical, and it would be interesting to play out. How would a family respond to this? How would Betty respond to this?" It just seemed like an organic way to shape the character.
How did you get started writing and producing for television?
I got started in features. The first thing I ever did was a movie called Urban Legend. I was right out of college and got into the feature business, and that was the first movie that got made. I sold a few other movies, but none of them got made. Then I sort of shifted to television.
I had a couple of series which aired and were very well received, but nobody saw them. The first show was called The Chronicle, which was on the Sci-Fi Channel, and then a show called Jake 2.0 on UPN. Anyways, [they were] shows that I loved and nobody saw. So that was my first TV experience. Then I wanted to shift into stuff that was less "genre-y," with more character and comedy. I did a pilot last year on ABC which we shot, but didn't go forward. And now Betty, which has worked out [laughs].
Has it been a whirlwind for you? You must be pretty exhausted.
It's kind of crazy. I've only recently really started to enjoy it, because, you know, it's so hard. I can't even describe the process. It kills you! It's endless and relentless. Even after the show premiered, people would ask, "Aren't you happy?" "Are you excited?" I was like, "We've got a script to do! We have a cut to make! We got a note about this!" Now we are finding our groove, and I think things are just gelling. It's nice.
Have any of the notes you've received from the network been especially interesting?
Notes can be very good or they can be not so good. Sometimes you get a note and you're like, "That's obvious. Great. Thank you." Sometimes you just go, "Come on!" I had a note at one point [about] Amanda, the receptionist. When we see her in some scenes, directly with other characters, who is answering the phone? [laughs] An intern? I don't know! [laughs] Are you kidding me? Who is thinking that? Then we had to take up screen time to explain: "Oh, they got Julia the intern…" No [viewer] is going to ask that question.
Have you ever been asked to change something that you felt really strongly about?
Every day! [laughs] No, I think ABC is being really good about that. All the characters have been who they are, and [the network has] always been very supportive. Sometimes we get challenged a lot. We get asked, "Is this too much? Is this too broad? Is this too this and that?" You just sort of have to articulate it.
The move from Friday night to Thursday night probably saved the show, by exposing it to a much wider audience. How did that happen?
I think the critics responded to the show. You know, you put these things out in a vacuum, and you don't really know what people are going to think. It was really just satisfying and gratifying the audience.
So it was us!
Yeah, you. Really – it's true! Given the buzz after the TCAs, [ABC] just said, "We're going to move it to Thursdays, and take what is there and save it for later." I was thrilled. It was a much more competitive time slot, but I thought at least we have a real shot, as opposed to Fridays, which are kind of the graveyard of TV.
What shows did you watch growing up, that inspired you to get into the business?
I watched Dynasty. I watched Three's Company. I watched The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son. I watched Spanish television, that I was forced to watch. You could put all that in a blender, and I think you got [Ugly Betty] [laughs].
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