‘Diary of a Future President’ creator on empowering women and LGBTQ writers: ‘Every voice is valuable’

Gina Rodriguez, left, stars as future Elena, while Tess Romero is young Elena Cañero-Reed in Diary of a Future President. (Credit: Disney/Christopher Willard)
Gina Rodriguez, left, stars as future Elena, while Tess Romero is young Elena Cañero-Reed in Diary of a Future President. (Credit: Disney/Christopher Willard)

Most people don't want to relive their early teens, but if you’re the President of the United States, going through old diaries could probably help you get a better sense of who you are and what you believe in. Sounds like the premise of a really good show, right?

That’s the idea behind Disney+’s hit family comedy, Diary of a Future President, which premieres its second season on Wednesday, Aug. 18, continuing the origin story of Cuban American and future President of the United States Elena Cañero-Reed (Gina Rodriguez) as she enters seventh grade. Told using the narration of excerpts from Elena’s diary, the coming-of-age series follows the future leader as her younger self (Tess Romero) goes through the ups and downs of middle school in what is the show's present day.

Loosely based on the childhood of showrunner Ilana Peña — who joined the show's stars recently for a day of press interviews promoting the new season — Diary of a Future President has been praised for its authentic portrayal of a Latinx tween and her larger-than-life supportive family, including her mom Gabi (Orange is the New Black’s Selenis Leyva), brother Bobby (Charlie Bushnell) and best friend Sasha (Carmina Garay).

Peña, who earned her stripes as a writer’s assistant on the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, knows the power of storytelling and how this particular show is impacting new generations of women, Hispanic Americans and other minority groups.

Those stories are beautifully woven in the second season as young Elena and Bobby find their voices — when Elena navigates developing friendships and when Bobby makes the brave decision to come out as gay to his family.

“We always wanted this to be the journey for Bobby,” Peña tells Yahoo Entertainment of the introverted and lovable student and son. “We always wanted him to find his voice, in his identity and sexuality, but also in being able to share with the people he loves.”

Developing Bobby’s journey required a village of support, something Peña knew was vital in doing it justice.

“Our writers room has a lot of queer writers, and we really tapped into their own experiences, and how [coming out] is not a homogenous journey, either,” she explains. “Everybody had sort of different experiences. We looked at this character we'd created and we thought, ‘What does he need to learn? Who does he need to become? And what did he really need to learn to be vulnerable and be open and share himself with others?”

Their work paid off. After filming Bobby’s emotional coming out scene, Bushnell recalls that a number of crew members "came up to me and shared with me their coming out stories.”

“I just wanted it to be truthful and meaningful and honest,” he continues. “I wanted to make it as realistic as possible. We definitely had a lot of conversations beforehand with Ilana and the directors and the producers. I mean, hopefully, we achieved that.”

Beyond its growing LGBTQ storyline, Diary of Future President is making its mark by inspiring a new generation of future women leaders — perhaps even a president.

“It's really cool that people are seeing the show and are inspired,” Romero tells Yahoo Entertainment, adding that it’s been encouraging to witness “more women in different positions of power.”

Still, even though she just plays one on TV, Romero has a piece of advice for future leaders: “Make sure your motivations are in order and that you're running to help people,” the 15-year-old says. “Keep that in mind. Keep in mind why you're choosing to be a leader. Make sure to be selfless and help other people. Follow your dreams.”

Romero certainly has a mentor in Peña, who learned invaluable lessons on leadership and “paying it forward” from Crazy Ex-Girfriend creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna.

Creator Ilana Pena, Tess Romero, Charlie Bushnell and Selenis Leyva at the premiere Of
Creator Ilana Pena, left, with stars Tess Romero, Charlie Bushnell and Selenis Leyva at the 2020 premiere of Diary Of A Future President. (Credit: Faye Sadou/MediaPunch /IPX)

“Alina and Rachel changed my life,” Peña says. “They saw me as a writer and they saw me as someone with stories to tell and they nurtured my voice. So when I got my own show, I sort of made it my mission to do the same. It's something that I've always believed globally. But now, being a boss, it's like, when you empower others and recognize that every voice is valuable, you get a better show. You just do.”

She continues, “I feel very lucky that I'm able to pay it forward and that I'm able to promote assistants and give people episodes and watch people rise. But I also feel lucky because it's making the show better. They're genuinely adding more to the show. That is something I learned from Alina and Rachel and something I will take to my future jobs and I hope that the people that I'm empowering will take as well.”

Peña’s leadership is felt universally on set, according to Leyva, who went from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black — a groundbreaking show that built the framework of “binge worthy” television — to Diary of a Future President, a family show with a totally different type of camaraderie.

“We have to be extra careful of what we say,” Leyva quips with Yahoo Entertainment, noting the importance of clean language when you have a bunch of kids around, something she never had to worry about while filming OITNB. Of course, keeping it clean helps her get into the role of mom. So it's all for the better.

“I came from a show prior to this where there were no boundaries,” she adds. “We were just a bunch of adults. So having kids around you, being careful what you say, it kind of plays into being parents where you just gotta be careful what you say in front of your kids.

Leyva wouldn’t have it any other way. “When I finished Orange, I said to my team ‘I don't care if I talk to puppets, you have to get me on something lighter,” she jokes.

“Being on a show that was so intense was crazy,” Leyva says, adding that going from Netflix to Disney+, another “streaming giant” has boosted her confidence in a profound way. “I’m part of the beginnings of streaming in many ways,” she quips. “I'm just like the good luck charm I guess. You want to start a streaming company? Come to me.”

When asked if they had any advice for their younger selves, there were certain themes that arose: Don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t be afraid to try new things.

“I would definitely tell my younger self it's going to be all right,” Leyva says. “ It really is. It'll take time, but it's gonna be all right. It'll work itself out.”

“I would probably say be more outgoing, be more open to trying new things and talking to different people and just experimenting,” Romero adds. “That's what being a kid is about.”

“Just enjoy those years, man,” Bushnell says. “Just enjoy being innocent and not having to worry about anything. Have fun, make friends, go on adventures.”

Peña took a different approach. “Hold on to that spark,” she says, “Tapping into my past self, my 12-year-old self, has been really huge into creating this kind of unapologetic, unabashed [character]. So honestly? I would look to my 13-year-old self for advice. Not the other way around.”

Diary of a President season 2 premieres on Wednesday, August 18, on Disney+.