Do What Women Can Do: America Ferrera on End of Watch

The co-star of the new found footage cop drama also talks about her upcoming film, Chavez.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Here it is, folks. Ugly Betty goes street. America Ferrera plays a policewoman in David Ayer’s latest cop drama, End of Watch. Officer Orozco (Ferrera) and her partner Davis (Cody Horn) often cross paths with officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Pena) on patrol. We crossed paths with Ferrera in Toronto where the film premiered at TIFF and got to chat with her about her very different role, and her upcoming portrayal of Helen Chavez in Chavez.

End of Watch premieres on DVD and Blu-ray on January 22.

CraveOnline: Had you had friends who were on cop shows telling you stories about what it’s like and make you want to get into the genre?

America Ferrera: No, not really. I like a good action film when there’s good characters involved. When I read the script, I was really drawn to the way the characters were drawn and I felt like I could really tell that David had written it with a lot of extreme love and thought for these characters, for all of them. In fact, my oldest sister was a cop for many years in California. Part of that was maybe, I don’t know, I’m not sure if it’s why I did it but it was certainly an incredible thing to put myself in those shoes, even hypothetically.

Do you consider End of Watch an action movie then?

I don’t. I think there’s action in it but I think it is about these characters. It’s mainly about Jake and Mike’s characters. I think it’s about them being friends but I think it is also a big part of the job of a police officer and while it seems like a short amount of time for them to go through so much, I think it captures well the sorts of emotional and physically dangerous and sometimes rewarding situations that they have to confront, so I find it a lot more about a character journey than the action that happens.

What did you learn about the daily job of police work?

One of the things I learned, especially from the female cops, is that it takes a lot of intelligence. It can’t be underestimated how their lives are on the line at any given time, especially when we were working with cops in some of the most dangerous areas of Los Angeles to be a cop. Any situation could turn physically dangerous, to themselves, to others, and so many of the cops I spoke to talked about how at the end of the day, what you want is to be able to go home and you want your partners to go home to their family. So if you can avoid pulling out your gun, if you can avoid physical contact, if you can avoid the “action,” it’s your best chance at staying alive. So you need to use your brain and I think that’s probably something that’s maybe not widely known, that it’s not just shoot ‘em up. Some cops, even in incredibly dangerous areas, may never be in a shooting if they’re lucky. The other thing I learned from the female cops that we spent time with was many of them echoed the same feeling of as a woman cop, you can’t try to be a man. You have to do what women can do well. Even the male cops said women are incredibly talented at de-escalating situations where sometimes male cops, or just the presence of a male cop can escalate the situation. So it’s interesting to realize that it’s not just as a female go in there and try and man up. It’s not about that. It’s about coming in and doing what women are uniquely very good at doing. That doesn’t mean that it’s not the physical part but that they actually bring an added element of a different way of problem solving. A lot of the men cops said some of the best partners they ever had that they would put their lives in their hands were female cops.

Would women generally be partnered together and not mixed with a male cop?

I don’t know that there’s a rule. We saw both. We saw men with women and two women together. We saw both.

Was there a whole other movie going on with you and Cody Horn’s patrol?

Yeah, Cody and I were in our own movie, the spinoff. You know what was so exciting is this movie is so clearly about the two main officers, Jake and Mike. But I think everyone came to it with as much just intention to make it feel as real and grounded as possible and so Cody and I really threw ourselves into it. If we had a six a.m. call on set, we were up at 4:00 working out at the gym together because when we were doing our ride-alongs, we saw the young cops, especially the female cops, were always working out before their shifts to wake themselves up and to come to it alert. I was determined to not be the actor showing up in my pajamas with coffee in my hand on this set because it felt, especially after spending a lot of time with these people, these officers, it felt like  you wanted to do justice. I wanted to do my part to really do justice to what that job requires so we were up working out at four in the morning together and it really did feel like we were partners.

Were you in the best shape ever?

I was in incredible shape. And it prepared me because I actually went straight from this into dancing. I did an eight-week run of Chicago in the West End so it was a whole different type of in shape. I was boxing, I was doing mixed martial arts which was amazing and just doing regular kind of working out but we were all in really good shape back then. I don’t know that any of us could be compared to our End of Watch selves.

How did it feel to wear the uniform?

It felt great. It felt really, really great. I loved the character Orozco. She brought a different level of commitment and she knew what she was bringing to the game. Everybody kind of has what makes them good at what they do. For Orozco, David and I spent a lot of time with her backstory and got the feeling that she was based on either one or many people that he really knew and really loved. She was in it because she came from this hood. She made a decision at some point in her life to wear that uniform instead of fight that uniform. Sometimes in those neighborhood it can feel like those are the only sort of options, to stay in it or just completely go the other way and fight it. So I think that that idea that she came from this place that she patrolled that felt dangerous brought something different for her to the job and putting on the uniform was an enormous sense of pride for that character. She fought and worked hard to wear that uniform so as the character it felt important and it felt earned. I think one of the things just personally that I experienced was the ability to think rationally when there’s fear involved. One of the first things they had us do was an Academy training day and we all had to do this physical test that they make all new recruits and cadets do before they graduate Police Academy. We all had just met each other that day basically. We had just met Jake and Mike and all of us, we were meeting on that day. And then we had to each one by one go through this physical thing and we all had to watch each other and root each other on.

It was intense and that first day kind of bonded all of us really quickly, but one part of it was we all had to grapple with an over 200 lb. [guy who] used to be a professional wrestler. I’m 5’1” and I weight 130 lbs. It doesn’t matter, I’ll never be in good enough shape to fight back a 200 lb. man who’s a wrestler, so the humility that you feel, the physical humility of being in a position where you feel like you physically can’t fight back, what happens emotionally and the thinking just goes away like that and they say that that’s one of the most dangerous things is when you lose the ability to think rationally because it’s, again, your brain that will keep you alive, not always your physical strength. So that being like day one introduction into this, it so quickly put into perspective how real the physical obstacles were and really trying to dig deep and figure out what does it take for a woman who looks like me to stand in that uniform, to stand in those boots and face that sort of situation. The truth is, especially in LAPD, so many of the cops look exactly like me. A lot of them are Latina. A lot of them are my stature and they’re out there doing the same things that all those other cops are and they’re putting themselves in those situations. It was a lot about wow, what kind of character does it take to know your physical limitations but to be prepared to compensate for your physical limitations by your knowledge and what you know and how to negotiate situations up in your brain instead of in your body.

What do they teach you to maintain coherence in an intense situation?

It’s not so much teaching. My personal experience was the more I was confronted by it the easier it was to maintain some sort of calm in it. When you’re out of wind and you’re exhausted and there’s a 200 lb. man sitting on you and you’re losing your breath, the first time it was just panic. It was just panic and I can’t do anything, and then we went through mixed martial arts training and similarly huge men were fighting us. Of course they were going easier on but and we weren’t really trying to become cops. We were just trying to get a feeling of it and I could feel myself getting braver. I could feel myself getting stronger and feel myself getting smarter and [learning] how not to put myself in a dangerous situation where I’m going to be underneath that 200 lb. man. Then if I happen to be underneath that 200 lb. man, how do I not panic but actually find a way to fight back in any way that I can or escape or get out. I have to say just as a woman, it was one of the most, not just physically, but spiritually and confidence-wise one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done was that amount of preparation for being attacked and I started thinking, “How have I not done this before?” As a woman, we don’t think about it, right? We don’t think oh, the first time something happens to you, it’s so shocking you don’t know how to fight back, there’s just panic. Then I wanted my sisters, I wanted my friends, I wanted everybody to feel the empowerment of just knowing that it’s not just about physical strength. It’s about intelligence as well.

Can you talk about playing Helen Chavez in Chavez?

Yes, Helen Chavez was a really incredible experience. I got to meet her. She’s about 85 now, maybe 86. She was 85 when I met her. Just being in her presence was daunting for me because she had such a poise and such a stillness and such a gravity to her that one can only have with experience and the life that she’s lived. I play her younger obviously, when she was in her early 30s and raising her family and being involved in the United Farm Workers movement. But it was really wonderful and exciting to be a part of telling a story that is so huge in our country’s history but at the same time has never been told narratively. There’s never been a narrative film about Chavez’s life and so it was really exciting to get to bring that to life and Diego Luna, who directed it, was just fantastic. He’s just such an inspiring artist and a filmmaker. His intentions for the film was about telling a story about human beings, not some big sweeping heroic epic film that is more of a history lesson than a character driven journey so that was really exciting because he cared the most about the nuances of each character’s journey in this larger picture of the movement. He just held a lot of confidence that those journeys would be enough to paint the picture of the movement. It’s hard because there’s a lot of different ways you could go about telling the story. He lived to be, I believe, 66, very young but he worked his whole life so what part of that life do you tell? What part of the story? What point of view of the story? So I think that can be a daunting task as well because everyone involved will have a different point of view of what version of the story should have been told but I was very taken with what Diego wanted to accomplish. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.