Wednesday Addams is known for her lack of emotion, the same cannot be said about the incredible Jenna Ortega. The actress who plays the iconically morbid character in the hit Netflix series bearing her name may come across guarded, but she’s also a thoughtful, independent, and appreciative person. Her emotion was on full display in New York during a Q&A this past weekend with the actress where she spoke with Highsnobiety’s Chief Editor Willa Bennett, covering numerous topics about her work on Wednesday.
The conversation had the audience intrigued from beginning to end, it was one response that really moved everyone, including a surprised Ortega herself. When asked about the impact of on-screen representation she recalled a moment where everything changed for her.
“So, when I was going to turn five years old, I asked my mom if I could dye my hair blonde, because I really wanted to look like Cinderella. Because that was my representation, you know, that was my princess. That’s who I wanted to look like. And a couple of years ago I did this Disney show called Elena of Avalor – she was Disney’s first Latina princess. Disney flew me out to Disney World for the opening of the princess in the parks and seeing like young, young Latinas (a slight pause she became choked up) running around in little Elena costumes or as my characters in little Isabel costumes was crazy because, also it wasn’t just Latinos, it was young girls of all colors. Sorry. Wow! (gathering herself).
“It was really, really strange because that was such a big deal to me growing up. And for these young girls, that wasn’t even a question. You know, of course, Elena is their favorite or this is why they like or she was empowering and she was strong. I feel like that was a moment where I realized, oh, the work that you do and the representation that is shown in Latinos being shown in a positive light is like such a big deal, especially when we take up a majority of audiences. It’s kind of insane. That was a moment that I still think about to this day and it’s really surreal to me.”
Just before sharing that moment, Ortega had mentioned the sacrifices her mother made for her and some of the challenges of being a Latina actress, which only made her revelation even more impactful, “When I was younger it was really hard getting jobs because a lot of leading ladies weren’t Latina. And, when you’re a child actor, a lot of the jobs that you do, you’re either playing the daughter of someone or younger version of somebody, and there’s just not a lot of opportunity. So it was really weird growing up and not being able to do certain things because of skin tone or just appearance. It was really, really frustrating and confusing.”
She continued, “But what really, really is exciting to me is a lot of the jobs that you see now are open ethnicity, or are strictly people of color. I feel like because we also have a lot more people of color behind cameras now, directors who are making big moves and producers, I think that we are opening up. I still think there’s definitely some people in high positions of power who are stuck in their old ways, but they’ll die off soon.”
Other highlights of the conversation covered a wide range of her contributions and experiences on Wednesday. On the now iconic dance which enchanted viewers and has become a social media craze, Ortega was not just along for the ride, she was in the driver’s seat from minute one convincing to executive producer / director Tim Burton that this was something her character should tackle herself, “They wanted a flash mob for Wednesday, for the dance. And I thought. there’s no way in hell that Wednesday is going to encourage a bunch of people to dance with her and be okay with that sort of thing.”
It did not end there, Ortega was directly responsible for much of what ended up in the scene, “They had offered me a choreographer a long, long time ago, and I told them ‘Oh, no, don’t worry, I’ll do it myself. I know the character, I’ll figure it out.’ And then a week before we shot the dance, I just got the song “Goo Goo Muck” by The Cramps. So excited, I love the song. Great song.”
She researched a selection of dances online from Siouxsie and the Banshees performances to archival footage of goth kids in the 80s and 90s dancing at clubs for inspiration, as well as Denis Levant’s dance moves in Claire Denis’ classic film Beau Travail. “He took his time with it, where he would pause and then do something really violent, and then pause and do something really violent. Bob Fosse was another really big inspiration for me. I had taken all of this footage that I had seen in my head, and then about two nights before I decided, ‘okay, I guess I’m just not going to sleep and I’m going to try to pinpoint things. And then of course, you get there on the day and everything is different and there’s parts of that dance that just had to you just kind of had to wing it.”
Ortega also spoke about what drew her to the role, “All teenage girls are written and not to say that it’s incorrect, but as just total, rude little brats. So you can only do that so many times, and try to make it fresh and different every time. And with someone like Wednesday, we have never seen her as a teenage girl before she’s only ever been a child. So there’s something really sweet and endearing about a little child saying really combative, morbid things because she doesn’t know any better. She just thinks it’s fun.”
It was important for Ortega to bring something new to the role while also honoring the previous iterations of the character’s portrayal before her. “I think working again with someone like Tim and then also just really wanting to do the character justice, because I have so much respect for her while not ripping anybody off. Christina Ricci, nobody had ever seen a Wednesday, deadpan and sarcastic like that previously, she was a happy child who just enjoyed death,” Ortega explained.
“But then you have to slowly but surely add new layers or new emotions or a new expression, just so that this new take, this new version that you’re doing, is kind of like, you’re almost spoon feeding the audience. That was scary, because the power of nostalgia, especially after something like the pandemic, it’s what we crave.”
Check out all of Jenna Ortega in all her Golden Globe nominated deadpan delightfulness on Wednesday, streaming exclusively on Netflix.
(Interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)