Telenovelas have been good to Ana Ortiz.
“My grandmother, my dad’s mother, watched them religiously,” recalled the actress in a phone interview last week.
“I never had much interest in them — you know, like (a) snarky teenager — but now I’ve grown to appreciate them, and I’ve had wonderful luck with them.”
It was the adaptation of “Yo soy Betty, la fea” that became ABC’s “Ugly Betty” and gave Ortiz her big break — a four-year stint as Betty’s brash but multifaceted sister, Hilda, that took her well beyond what she once referred to as “sassy sidekick” roles.
Starting at 10 p.m. Sunday, Ortiz is out to crack another stereotype as one of the leads in “Devious Maids,” Lifetime’s new series from “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry and “Desperate” star Eva Longoria.
Inspired by a Mexican telenovela, “Ellas son … la alegria del hogar,” “Maids,” which is set in Beverly Hills (but filmed, for the usual tax-incentive reasons, in Atlanta), has already sparked controversy for casting its five Latina leads as servants. Of the employers in the Lifetime version, just one is a Latino.
“I understand the backlash, I really do,” said Ortiz in a phone interview last week. “Because when I first saw the script, I had the same reaction.”
But then she thought about it.
“My grandmother was a housecleaner her whole life,” she said. “(Co-star) Judy Reyes’ mother was a housekeeper.
“For me it’s an honor to be able to bring these women to life, and to show that these are fully realized women and characters and they have drama and humor and sex and love. And they’re, you know, conniving and they’re giving and they’re all of that. And because they’re maids doesn’t make their journeys less” worthy, she said.
“Sometimes the hero isn’t wearing a cape or wielding a scalpel or solving the crime of the century. Maybe it’s the person who captures your heart with their story, and maybe the hero is the person who can just raise a successful family, much like my grandmother did.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Ortiz’s character, Marisol, is something of a maid of mystery, with an agenda that’s only slowly revealed, and a matter-of-fact manner that puts off a prospective employer, who notes that she sounds as if she went to college.
(In one of the pilot’s best lines, Marisol replies, “Thank you.”)
“I think Marisol is the first time I’ve played a character like this ever,” she said. “When I had the meeting with Marc, he asked me which woman I was interested in, and for me it was never a question. It was Marisol or nobody.
“She’s so sort of calm and pragmatic and she’s just very sensible and forthright, and yet underneath there’s this sort of boiling volcano. And for me, I’ve never gotten to sort of play somebody — how do I say it? – a little more subtle?” she added, laughing.
“Believe me, my mother’s so excited I’m doing a part where I don’t have an accent, you can’t imagine,” she added.
Subtlety’s not necessarily a quality that people associate with telenovelas, but, then, that’s not what Cherry’s “Desperate Housewives” was known for, either.
“It’s right in his wheelhouse,” Ortiz said. “That’s why it’s such a good fit.
“What works and why (a telenovela) translates so well is because there’s this sort of campiness that you can bring to it,” she said.
“And there’s definitely this, like, pushing-the-envelope aspect to it, and there’s a great sense of comedy and color and vivaciousness and life. … It doesn’t have to be this sort of reality-based drama where everything has to fall into logical lines necessarily. It can really be a heightened world in a heightened place, based on reality.”
Heightened worlds sometimes lead to heightened emotions behind the scenes, or so it seemed on “Desperate Housewives,” where there were always rumors of behind-the-scenes drama.
Did she worry about that?
“I did, to be honest. We’re all pretty alpha,” she said of herself and her co-stars, who include Reyes (“Scrubs”) and Edy Ganem — who plays a mother and daughter whose employer is portrayed by Susan Lucci — as well as Roselyn Sanchez and Dania Ramirez.
Reyes and Ortiz are members of the same New York theater company, LAByrinth, Ortiz said, adding: “I love, love and respect (all) these women so very much.”
Still, “there were a couple of bumps, nothing major, but definitely things that egos can get hurt and … can really build into something ugly. And I think that we as a group, the five women — because we know each other so well and because I think we realize the opportunity that we’ve been given with the show — we’ve spoken, yelled at each other, but yelled at each other in private,” she said.