When I log on to Zoom to interview Jenna Ortega, I can’t help but have a few stereotypical expectations of the teenage girl I’m about to meet, yet in 45 minutes, the actress defies them all. The second she popped up in the chat, one word came to mind—poised. She smiles at me, her eyes showing the repercussions of a relentless work schedule. Since her starring role in the second season of You, it seems the 20-year-old has been jumping from one noteworthy project to the next, solidifying her status as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand young talents. Even finding time for this conversation proved arduous with her unpredictable pre-production schedule.
On the set of our cover shoot, Ortega was outfitted in glamorous, Technicolor looks designed by the likes of Miu Miu, Versace, and Valentino set against rich, velvety backdrops. During our interview, however, the curtains were drawn and costumes put aside. The actress was ready to show who she is away from the cameras. While decidedly timid at first, Ortega slowly but surely opened up, sharing some of her fears and the pressures that come with being at the current height of her career. Underneath all the glitz, glam, and success, she’s still figuring things out, and in that way, Ortega offers an essence of relatability. She’s able to admit when she’s afraid or intimidated, but she is also ready to put in the work required to get to where she wants to be.
Among her slew of angsty teenage roles, her part as Wednesday Addams in Tim Burton’s new series for Netflix comes as no surprise to those in Ortega’s circle. “I’ve been compared to Wednesday Addams consistently all throughout my life,” she tells me simply. As he’s a gothic visionary, it’s no wonder that Burton sensed this and reached out to Ortega about his interest in her for the role while she was on set of the A24 and Ti West horror film X. After Ortega’s long day of intense filming and wearing prosthetics, the email request felt like it came out of nowhere. At the time, Ortega had pivoted her focus to film, but as she grew up with immense respect for Burton, she gave herself the okay to speak with him. “Just hearing his passion for the project and what he had in mind visually to make the series was enough to get me interested,” she says of her thought process at the time.
It only took one audition and meeting with Ortega for Burton to decide that she was his leading lady. For Ortega, it wasn’t as obvious. “I hadn’t slept for over 24 hours,” she recalls. “I was literally dozing off before the call, so I remember thinking I had not done well.” Perhaps it was the lack of sleep that helped her conjure up Wednesday Addams’s classic deadpan look. While acting in any leading role comes with an obvious amount of pressure, playing a character that’s so nostalgic for many comes with added attention. “I was incredibly intimidated,” she says. “Nostalgia is immensely powerful, and it’s also part of the reason why superhero and horror films are so well respected and attended to today.” She describes Christina Ricci’s work in the beloved The Addams Family franchise 30 years ago as “flawless” but was excited to take on the character in her own way.
Coming to Netflix on November 23, Wednesday intensifies the supernatural elements that were always a part of the Addams family story and fine-tunes them for a new, younger audience. “You have to consider that this is a slightly different world, a slightly different reality,” Ortega explains with focus. The show is unlike anything she has seen before and offers the realm of fantasy, which is new to her acting palate. “The action will surprise the audience and the new characters [too] since they’re all unique in their own ways. It’s funny because, in the story, they’re all outcasts, and Wednesday comes in and feels like [even more of] an outcast.”
To be fair, the industry is saturated with reboots, but Ortega was determined to do what she could to bring Burton’s creative vision to fruition. While saying “all good things take time” may sound like a cliché, it stands as the truth, especially in art. It wasn’t easy to perfect the modern version of Wednesday, both in appearance and personality. Ortega admits that navigating the role emotionally was something she struggled with. “It’s hard to lead a story and have a full emotional arch with a character who’s essentially emotionless,” she tells me. Creating the updated physical appearance for Wednesday was another bump along the way. The original character is known for her strikingly tight-knit braids and conservative black dress, but Burton wanted to add a spin to Ortega’s portrayal. “We were doing hair and wardrobe tests in London at Tim’s place. We tried everything. We tried short braids, really long braids, thick braids, thin braids, and we even tried a gray streak,” she explains of the lengthy process. Finally, a hairstylist suggested bangs, and that is what finally piqued Burton’s interest. While they went through many clip-on iterations, it was the artificial factor that bothered Burton. But Ortega, always committed to the vision, suggested they chop her hair. “If he doesn’t like it, it will grow back before filming,” she adamantly told the hairstylists. Luckily for her, the hairstyle had Burton’s seal of approval. Thus, her portrayal of Wednesday Addams was born.
Wednesday is not a character you might describe as lovable (at first or at all), but Ortega still finds relatability in her, as she does with a lot of her dark and angsty roles. “I was actually talking about this the other day. My job is to pretend, so I’m not saying this always applies, but … if a script is meant for you or if it’s a project that you’re meant to be doing, it will approach you at the right time. When I was shooting You, I related to Ellie a lot during that time. It’s the same with Wednesday. I never really considered it because a lot of what I do is horror, and they all have these moody and nasty qualities, but what I love is that they also have a sassy teenage nature.”
While Ortega has found a beautiful story within each of her characters, she implies there’s still work to be done in terms of how teenagers are portrayed on-screen, and she’s proud to be among a generation that’s working toward that change with a vigorous force. “I really see my young generation taking more control of themselves in the industry—whether it’s learning to write sooner, direct sooner, or produce sooner. I think it’s really empowering and important because, right now, teenage voices are still being told in the majority by older white males,” she tells me with a hopeful look on her face. She’s starting to see a change, and that’s special to her. “The more that happens, we’ll acknowledge that girls are much more than a lame stereotype,” she adds. Although I’m in my early 20s, Ortega’s statement eases the teenage girl inside of me who was often ridiculed with expectations and fickle stereotypes. This is a feeling that strikes me throughout a large part of our conversation. It’s like she’s the adult, and I’m the teenage girl listening to the wise words she has to comfort me.
At the time of our conversation, Ortega was nearing her 20th birthday and contending with her complex feelings about entering another chapter in her life. “It’s weird because I’m having that internal existential crisis because I’m turning 20 soon, and I’m no longer going to be a teenager,” she says. “It’s freaking me out because I do partially feel like I wasted my teenage years or could’ve been better about them—to be completely vulnerable and honest.” Those close to Ortega also refer to her as an ornate perfectionist. As a young star, there’s an unspoken feeling that there’s no room for error. But as she grows into her own, Ortega isn’t letting the past stop her from moving forward. “Sometimes, I took myself too seriously or was unable to relax, and it’s part of the reason why I’m a very quiet-minded individual. I need to be better about that, but I think that’s the beauty of growing up because you’re going to make a lot of mistakes and do a lot of things wrong. I’m definitely a pessimist, but I’m trying to be more optimistic about the fact that there’s much more to be learned, and I want to learn it all,” she adds with a casual level of confidence. There’s an admirability to Ortega’s honesty. People tend to idolize the teenage experience—so much so that they face this made-up dilemma that life is over as they know it when they reach their 20s. Instead of shutting down with regret, she’s proud that she’s always acted in a way that has felt true to herself and is ready to start the next chapter of her life open to a plethora of possibilities.
Ortega’s 20s will be full of possibilities both on- and off-screen. The actress’s résumé is filled with a lot of horror, but she has no interest in being typecast. “The thing about horror is that it’s become a second home to me at this point. I’ve been on enough of those sets [that] I go and I know what’s expected of me. It feels like a typical 9-to-5,” she says. The comparison feels stark to me at first, but it quickly clicks in my brain. Just like one may feel like they’re on autopilot as they sift through a day of meetings and emails, Ortega carries the same feeling as she works through another script.
As she’s ready for more, Ortega’s path into the industry has prepared her for this exact moment. A lot of young actresses get their start playing the younger version or daughter of someone else, but there weren’t many roles the Puerto Rican and Mexican American actress fit into. “I also had no connection to the industry, so it was really random that I ended up here honestly,” she states incredulously. “I was taught that this industry is so finicky that you can be working, working, working and then never work again. I had twice as fewer job opportunities as other girls my age, so I took what I could. I did that for a while, but I’ve finally come to a point where I can be more selective or more precise about jobs that I would like to do, which is really exciting for me.” Ortega shows a sly smile as she lets me in on the gratitude she feels at this moment in her life.
For the majority of our interview, Ortega struck me as poised, mature, and wise beyond her years. She’s still all of those things in spades, but in this moment, Ortega is also just a girl who’s happy to be here. “Again, I’m a really fortunate girl right now. I’m reading scripts that I genuinely like, and they ignite a passion in me. I want to expand my muscles as an actor, and I want to grow. I also want to focus on making my characters as different as possible, if I can. I don’t want any to resemble the other, and that’s something that’s been heavy on my mind,” she says.
Though she’s exhausted from a long day of work, there’s a glimmer in Ortega’s eye as she talks about her hopes for the future of her career—like the mere thought of it all acts as a shot of espresso to keep her up. Against all odds, Jenna Ortega is turning the page to the next chapter, and I’m waiting to read it.
Photographer: Janell Shirtcliff
Stylist: Lauren Eggertsen
Hairstylist: David Stanwell
Makeup Artist: Mélanie Inglessis
Manicurist: Thuy Nguyen
Creative Director: Alexa Wiley
Entertainment Director: Jess Baker