Anyone looking for the breakout star of the upcoming fall TV season found the answer in "Jane the Virgin" leading lady Gina Rodriguez. When you can charm a room full of grouchy, sleep-deprived critics at the 2014 TCA summer press tour -- as Rodriguez did, with ease -- you can probably win over the world.
The panel easily could've gone the other way. "Jane," inspired by a Venezuelan telenovela, has one of the new season's most absurd premises: Jane (Rodriguez), a young college student Miami and avowed virgin, is accidentally artificially inseminated during a visit to her OB-GYN and winds up pregnant. The father, Rafael (Justin Baldoni), is the owner of the hotel where Jane works. And that's where the insanity begins.
In the hands of showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman ("Emily Owens, M.D."), "Jane" adopts the same heightened mix of comedy, romance, sentimentality and unique, relatable characters that defined the best of "Ugly Betty" -- a series, along with "Gilmore Girls," that Urman and executive producer Ben Silverman proudly point to as inspirations.
"I have a very specific tone that I'm trying to hit, sort of a fairy tale whimsical quality," Urman explained. "At the same time this is a telenovela. I want to take advantage of the fun and license that comes with adapting a telenovela and all the tropes that come with it -- an evil twin -- I want to do big things."
And none of that would work without a star like Rodriguez, a fresh face whose biggest credit to date is the lead in the Sundance premiere "Filly Brown." As the 28-year-old told the TCA crowd, the Sundance buzz led to an opportunity on Marc Cherry's comedic soap "Devious Maids" but that wasn't what she was looking for.
"When I was presented with 'Devious Minds' I found it limiting that that was the one that was available to me ... I wasn't going to let my introduction to the world be a story that was told many times," Rodriguez explained, pointing out that the options for Latino actors generally begin and end with "a maid, a landscaper, a pregnant teen -- mind you I'm playing a pregnant teen!"
Rodriguez sees the role and the show as an opportunity to inspire viewers, especially young girls who don't often see themselves reflected on network television. "I didn't become an actor to become a millionaire or wear Louboutins. I have to give this dress back when we're done! ... As soon as you follow your dreams you give other people allowance to follow theirs. Every role that I've chosen have been ones I think are going to push forward my culture, women, and young girls who feel like they have to be a specific beauty type. I don't have to be a perfect size zero, I just have to be a perfect size me. I wanted my story to be a one that was going to liberate young girls."
And she believes she's found exactly that in "Jane the Virgin": "I waited for her patiently and now she's here. Jane is strong, independent, striving to make her dreams come true."
Rodriguez is also proud of the way the character bucks certain pop culture trends, as demonstrated by the title. Both Jane's decision to remain a virgin despite a passionate and steady relationship with a loving boyfriend (Brett Dier) and her choice to keep the accidental pregnancy are presented as thoughtful, specific, personal decisions without moral superiority or judgment. "I think that's an awesome thing to put out into the world right now when we're bombarded by twerking and those images," Rodriguez enthused. "I see what they do to my niece and nephew who are four years old, I see what they do to my cousin who are 13. If I can do anything to change that perception that's the goal."
As for people who might hear the title -- and the show's premise -- and assume the show is either a "family values" screed or an insult to a certain kind of morality, Silverman suggests tuning in before making any snap judgments. "I would say to anybody, 'Watch it.' ... The moment you see the show you know it's about thoughtfulness and morality. Once you watch it you recognize that it's very deep and broad and appeals to all different people going through things in their own life. If [conservatives] want to react to the title without seeing it, as many groups do, maybe they'll generate some noise and attention..."
There's still the challenge of getting audiences to tune in to the CW, a network with a low ceiling in the ratings that typically fares best with supernatural or comic book offerings. "The main thing I keep thinking about in conversations with CBS and the CW is, 'How do we get it sampled?'" Silverman admits.
"The best calling card is the pilot," he continues. "The show itself is so strong and dynamic we just need to get the word out. We're so excited to be hearing anecdotally from people how much they love the show ... I'm also hoping [the CW] will have the patience with the show to allow it to find its audience and grow. I anticipate it hopefully coming out of the gate strong, but it's a show that will appeal to so many people. At the end of the day it's laugh out loud funny."