America Ferrera is taking Hollywood by storm.


For America Ferrera's first meeting with "Ugly Betty" executive producer Silvio Horta and co-executive producer Teri Weinberg, the three met for a sushi dinner in New York. "She, at one point, got very excited about something and knocked over the sake glass," says Horta. "Teri and I looked at each other like, 'That was such a Betty moment.' She's very effusive and so intelligent and wise beyond her years, and then she did this funny, clumsy, very real, human thing."

As gorgeous young starlets with their own television shows go, Ferrera ranks among the most relatable and accessible. This everywoman charm explains why she's currently starring as the titular ugly duckling on the popular ABC sitcom "Ugly Betty," why her first commercial role was that of the full-figured Carmen in 2005's "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and why her big break was that of a Mexican-American teen with body-image issues in 2002's "Real Women Have Curves."

"I was so lucky to be at the right place at the right time when 'Real Women Have Curves' came along, because I was that girl," says Ferrera. "I was the Latina-American living in two worlds. At the time, every time I went on auditions, I don't think people knew what to make of me. They couldn't cast me as an all-American white girl. And again, I wasn't the typical, sexy, bombshell, spicy, hot J. Lo-Salma Hayek Latina. Thank God there was something that accommodated everything that was 'wrong' with me -- every reason why no one thought I would ever make it into the business and things that I myself thought may be barriers."

Raised in the San Fernando Valley as the youngest of six children born to Honduran parents, Ferrera was always the family ham. "I got cast in a junior high production of 'Romeo and Juliet' when I was 7, because my sisters were in junior high, and I followed them to their audition," she says. "I knew from then on that it was what I wanted to do."

Even though she landed "Real Women Have Curves" when she was finishing high school, she decided to continue her education and study international relations at USC. "I didn't want to avoid just having a normal experience, so I moved into the freshman dorms," she says. "And on the first day that I was moving in, this girl who lived on the other side of the hall came running down the hallway, screaming and gushing. She was like, 'Oh my God, I saw your movie! Oh my God, I saw you on "Oprah"!' I avoided her for months, and then she became my best friend in the whole world, and she's still my best friend."

Ferrera shot "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" during a summer break from USC and recently wrapped its sequel, which will be released next August. "Her story in the sequel of 'Sisterhood' is really a romance," says producer Andrew Kosove. "We all felt it was important to move away from what, stereotypically, people perceive of America." But even though the story lines have changed, the dynamic between the four actresses has remained sisterly in the best and worst senses. "America and I consistently pick on Blake (Lively), because she's the youngest and prettiest," says co-star Amber Tamblyn.

"(On location) in Greece, we ended up splitting apartments, (and America) roomed with Blake. I wanted it to be a reality show, them living together and me living right next door, hearing them screaming and getting in fights. But then I'd come over, and they'd be laughing about something or having a food fight."

Although Ferrera spends 10 months out of the year working on "Ugly Betty," she still found time to shoot "Hacia la oscuridad" ("Toward Darkness"), an indie film seeking distribution that is based on a kidnapping in Colombia, and Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Co.'s "La misma luna," in which she plays a second-generation Latina who smuggles a young Mexican boy into the U.S. "I actually wanted to cast her in a bigger role in the movie, which was the friend of the (boy's) mother," says director Patricia Riggen. "But unfortunately, America doesn't speak Spanish, and it was a Spanish-speaking role. I think

the time will come very soon, if not now, when she will not be seen as a Latina. She's simply a great person to work with and a great actress."

For Ferrera, that's the whole point. "The goal is to have options that aren't limited by being a Latina and by being a nontypical Hollywood beauty," she says. "It's progress that there are characters like Betty on TV. But at the same time, the real progress is when she can be on TV and it's not a big deal, when it's not extraordinary to see someone who's not a 6-foot model on a television show."


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