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Sitting in a beige-colored hotel room in New Zealand, Jenna Ortega’s 2021 looks shockingly normal. Despite being across the world from her home and family (she was born and raised in La Quinta, California, in the Coachella Valley), the 18-year-old actress is in the middle of shooting a movie, and being on a set is something she’s been doing since she was a kid, when her mom posted a video of her on Facebook and it got the attention of a family friend who knew a casting agent.
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So the work is very been-there-done-that. But in a bigger-picture sense, the world feels more pre-2020 over there too. Because New Zealand has done such a better job of controlling the COVID-19 situation than the United States has, Jenna says people can now actually hug one another. (The day we spoke in late February, New Zealand had reported three new COVID-19 cases nationwide. The U.S. reported 78,885.) That means they don’t have to wear masks all the time. She’s been going to the farmers market lately. And dances. And nightclubs, crowded nightclubs. Remember those? Remember having fun?
Sure, it was a bit bizarre for the former Disney actress to celebrate her 18th birthday in the weirdest year on record, but she did that on a film set too. Last fall, she was working on the Scream revival in Wilmington, Delaware, and her fellow cast and crew set up a surprise birthday party for her in a hotel conference room. “I wasn’t really expecting anybody to go out of their way and do that for me. But they did, and that was really nice,” she says now, while sitting in front of her generic hotel bed (which is made, of course). She’s wearing a white pullover, her hair perfectly curled to that “Oh, this? My hair just does this” level of wavy. And even though she doesn’t act like an 18-year-old, she has the glowing skin of one, which is to say it’s frustratingly and annoyingly perfect.
Jenna’s been in front of a camera for half her life. You probably know her best from You, where she played Joe Goldberg’s take-no-shit younger neighbor Ellie, or Jane the Virgin as the younger version of Gina Rodriguez’s Jane. But with new films Yes Day, The Fallout, and the aforementioned Scream, she’s ready for a new chapter.
I want to talk about your movie Yes Day, which hit number one on Netflix last month—tell me about working with Jennifer Garner and Edgar Ramirez.
I’ve looked up to Jennifer Garner and Edgar Ramirez for such a long time, so the opportunity to call them Mom and Dad just sounded like an amazing one that I couldn’t pass up. Jennifer would bring up stories about things she learned when she was growing up in the industry and relate them back to me or would say, like, “Oh, you have no idea. You know what this is going to be like, and this is going to be crazy for you.” And she kind of had a plan for my future, which I thought was funny.
You’re also in the Scream revival, which people are so excited about. How’d that part come your way?
I auditioned for the project in the very beginning of quarantine. And I didn’t really expect anything out of it, because I don’t know if you noticed, but they tend to cast 30-year-olds to play teenagers. I remember my mom asked me about it, and I told her, “Yeah, there’s just no way they’re gonna cast a 17-year-old girl.” Five months later, I got a callback to meet with the directors.
Such a legendary cast: Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell, David Arquette. Was that a totally surreal experience?
David taught us how to do Bob Ross paintings because he’s, like, a certified instructor, apparently. Courteney invited us all to a dinner. Neve invited us to breakfast at this beach house she was at, and she loved to give us the keys or leave the doors open so we could go take the surfboards out. I don’t think I was expecting that kind of hospitality, especially considering they are the Scream franchise. You never know what to expect when you’re meeting people of that standard, but they truly were just the most down-to-earth, sweetest people.
Okay, I know details about that movie are very much under wraps. Can you tell me anything about your character?
I kid you not, two seconds ago, I was like, Did I say too much? Like, I’m not even kidding. So when it comes to this part, I’m keeping my mouth shut because I’ve been feeling pretty dangerous right now.
Fair, fair. People are also desperate for more details about the future of Netflix’s You. Is that show one you’d go back to?
I love that set. The team behind it, the writers are so witty and so funny, and then also just to work with Penn Badgley again. I had such an incredible time there that if they would like to have me back, I’m more than happy to take a few digs at Joe again.
Ellie could be the one to finally take Joe down!
Imagine if she took down Joe and Love. Insane.
I know you turned 18 this year. Have you had any moments where you reflect on how bizarre it is to become an adult during all this?
I’m luckier than most kids in the sense that I haven’t really lived a normal lifestyle. And I’ve been working. I’m fortunate to even be working during a time like this. I feel for the kids who are missing their prom or missing the opportunity to graduate or can’t have that high school experience they typically would or go to the birthday parties that they wanted. Because I think that’s such an important part of life that I missed out on and wish I had had. And not to say that I’m not very fortunate for everything else that I’ve experienced, but I think that it’s got to be weird for people who are unable to work or go out or do what I do.
You’ve said in interviews before that you don’t want to take roles that are disrespectful to your Latinx heritage. Tell me more about that.
I feel like the Latinx community, first of all, they’re not often shown on camera in general. But they’re also oftentimes not shown in a positive light. I never want to play a maid and I never want to play a cartel leader’s daughter. I would much rather play a person of power, a powerful character in a positive way.
As you think about adulthood and the next few years of your career, what’s on the bucket list?
I really want to be doing indie films or passion projects. The thing about being a Disney kid, though, that’s always going to be in my past. So there’s no point in trying to hide it. I do want to do projects that challenge me a little bit more and put me in situations that I may not necessarily be able to initially relate to, just to push myself and see what I can do.
Photographer: Felisha Tolentino. Fashion Director: Cassie Anderson. Hair: Dimitris Giannetos for The Wall Group. Makeup: Sir John. Manicure: Thuy Nguyen at A-Frame Agency. Fashion stylist assistant: Enrique Melendez. Production: Photobomb Production.
All clothing and accessories by Dior.
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