Actor Michelle Ortiz Brings It On Punk-Rock Style on Hulu's "This Fool"
There's a bittersweet reality that comes with the life of an actor. There can be seasons where it feels like the roles are just flowing in by the second, and then there are quieter seasons — Michelle Ortiz knows both quite well. Being a Latina with no connections or hookups in the industry, the actor has always worked that much harder at any role she's ever landed. It's that resilience and the commitment she continues to dedicate to her craft that helped her land her latest role as Maggie on Hulu's "This Fool," which released on Aug. 12. Ortiz beautifully marries both her skills as a comedian and as an actor who can deliver drama in a way that really highlights how nuanced Maggie is as a character. She's an independent woman but in many ways also very codependent on her on-and-off boyfriend, Julio (played by standup comedian Chris Estrada). She's super punk rock and moody but also really family oriented in a way that might initially surprise someone. Ortiz is spreading her wings, and her part in the latest comedy series is proof of that.
The Mexican American actor was born in LA and raised in Highland Park, years before it began to gentrify and when it was still mostly made up of Latinx communities. But Ortiz also spent a lot of her childhood moving from one city to another. Something about that experience forced her imagination to always run wild. "Since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be an actor. Even now, I realize that the reason I wanted to be an actor was [because] that was the only time when I actually felt like I was in the moment," Ortiz tells POPSUGAR. "I'm not thinking Michelle Ortiz thoughts. Maybe I realized that in therapy. Since I was a kid, though, that was my escape."
With Ortiz's musical-theater experience, the last thing she thought she'd break into the industry with was comedy. But life tends to have a sense of humor. Her first big job was as a series regular on The CW's revival of "MADtv."
"Ah, 'MADtv' was a dream come true," Ortiz says. "It was just one season and eight episodes because it was like the reboot of the franchise . . . And I mean, that process was pretty intense because you have to come in with your own material. And I never considered myself a writer." But after the show ended, Ortiz found herself struggling to find work, something she didn't anticipate happening after landing such a major gig. It was a dark time. She started questioning if she even wanted to continue pursuing a career in acting. "So it was like, OK, maybe this isn't realistic. Like, maybe it's time to quit," she says.
But after a year of hearing nothing but nos, Ortiz finally started getting some yeses. She scored roles in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson," Netflix's "Gentefied," "Tacoma FD," and "Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn," before landing on Hulu's "This Fool." Ortiz's character, Maggie, is so much more than just Julio's on-and-off girlfriend. She's quite complex. There's a part of her that's deeply attached to Julio and his family, even though you can tell inside it's eating away at her own happiness. But the thought of not being a part of Julio's life seems at the moment so much scarier to her. Who Maggie is without Julio or his family is something she's still figuring out. Ortiz brilliantly brings out all the nuances and paradigms that exist within the character.
"Initially when I read it, I read the character as like this really East LA Cholita that works at weed dispensaries with acrylic nails and you ask them their opinion of like what kind of weed to get, but they really don't know sh*t," Ortiz says. "So then for the callback, they send me a little note that was like, Maggie is a chick that listens to punk rock. And I was like, amazing. Yes, I like it even better now." While Maggie's character fights for the relationship until the very last episode of the season, there's also a part of her that acknowledges that it has become stagnant. There's a part of her that doesn't trust that Julio actually wants to be there. And yet she still can't find it within herself to end things and move on.
"I really wanted Maggie to have that alternative rocker-chick vibe, because I feel like we never see goth rocker Latinas on TV."
"Maggie is smart and independent. We don't know much about her backstory yet. Maybe we will get to it in season two. But she's totally attached to Julio's family. She sees them more as her own than her own," Ortiz says. "She's a paralegal. She's got her own apartment. So she's an independent woman. But she is codependent on Julio for everything since high school." Maggie's fixation on making the relationship work almost serves as her way of distracting herself from her own individual problems. Ortiz was very intentional about how she wanted to present her character. "The most important thing about Maggie for me was the look," she says. "I really wanted Maggie to have that alternative rocker-chick vibe, because I feel like we never see goth rocker Latinas on TV."
In fact, for Ortiz, the character's look pays homage to her middle-school self who also happened to be goth. Her decision to have Maggie rock a thick strip of bright red in her hair was to really highlight that. She wanted to develop a character who doesn't fit any specific mold or label. Someone who really stands out for their uniqueness but who is also relatable in so many ways.
"Here's the thing; at the end of the day, 'This Fool' is a male show. It's all male showrunners. It's Chris's story, so it's centered around him and Frankie," Ortiz says. "So I thought it was really important to try to create this like iconic look — at least. Something that we hadn't seen before. Because at the end of the day, a lot of costume designers, they see that you're Latina and they want to put you in flower print and braids. It's wild to think that, but it's true."
"I feel like this show is gonna resonate with everyone, not just Latinos and not just working middle class and lower class."
After landing the role, it was also important to Ortiz that she was given the creative freedom to really develop Maggie's character and bring her out. "So when I booked this, I was like, OK, we got it. We got to get specific with this, and luckily, Chris and the showrunners were totally open to everything," Ortiz says. "You know, they're guys, so they don't care that much about makeup and stuff. But I'm like, trust me. This is important. People will notice both male and female." Ortiz also wants audiences to note that the series is set in South Central LA, which Estrada himself was very adamant about. "I feel like this show is gonna resonate with everyone, not just Latinos and not just working middle class and lower class," she says. "If anything, I think maybe instead of thinking about it racially, maybe we think about it in this socioeconomic class spectrum, because it's about the rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. So, like, it's flipping the stereotypes. It's what happens afterward, right? How do they assimilate back into society? How does their past inform their future? We never see that."
The show does an exquisite job at life after prison and the reality of what that looks like. It captures the hardships that come not just with finding employment afterward but also readjusting and assimilating back into society. It attempts to humanize them in a way that's not often done, and it's digestible because it's comedy. And even comedies come with nuanced characters with complex storylines. Ortiz is proud to be part of the generation of Latinas who are landing and crafting roles that are so much more nuanced and thoughtful than the roles the Latinas before them had no other choice but to take. To be part of the generation of women of color in Hollywood who can turn down a stereotypical role because they know they deserve better is a very fortunate and privileged place to be in.
This summer, Ortiz starred as Gabby Fuentes in Fernanda Coppel's play "King Liz," which ran throughout the summer at the Geffen Playhouse in West Los Angeles. Whether she's playing in an intense drama or comedy, one thing Ortiz wishes is for her fans to really feel the passion she puts behind every character she develops. She also wants folks to get to a place where they appreciate and praise a show or film with a mostly Latinx cast as a good show or film and not just as a "Latinx show." Our stories deserve to finally be seen as part of the mainstream. Because our stories are just as relatable and just as American as a white person from middle America's story.
"At the end of the day, I just want [people] to be like, 'Wow, what a great comedy,' without any labels attached to it. Without them saying, 'Oh, that Latinx show,'" Ortiz says. "At the end of the day, this is entertainment. Like, this is what happens after tragedies. When you think about an awful thing that happened, what do you do? You go home, turn on a sitcom, [and try] to forget about the sh*t that happened . . . I think we have to remember that this is entertainment and everyone is going to be able to relate to this."