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The cast of Ugly Betty reunited Saturday on closing night of the ATX Television Festival to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the show’s debut, but it felt like no time had passed at all when they took the stage.
Joined by showrunner Silvio Horta, the stars brought their fashion A-game, and their best runway walks, for the lively panel about the ABC series set at the fictional fashion magazine Mode where Betty worked.
However, Horta kicked off the panel by revealing that he originally envisioned Betty not as a writer but as an FBI agent working undercover at the magazine.
“I’m met with just crickets,” Horta recalled of his pitch to adapt the Colombian telenovela to executive producers Ben Silverman and Teri Weinberg. “They said, ‘Look, we think what was done originally worked and stay with that. Don’t shy away.”
Star America Ferrera, who won an Emmy for her portrayal on the show, said she was “all in” on the show from when she first heard about it. However, it wasn’t a phone call from her agent or the network that first drew her attention to the project, but executive producer Salma Hayek, whom Ferrera ran into at a Los Angeles hotel.
“I hadn’t heard anything about the show and she ran up to me and said, ‘You are my Ugly Betty!'” Ferrera recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know what that means but I’ll be your whatever.'”
When asked whether she had hesitations about playing an “ugly” character, Ferrera responded, “we never ask men that,” she said. “I think it’s sad when, as a woman, the bravest thing you can be is ugly.”
And Ferrera wasn’t alone. Ana Ortiz, who played her sister Hilda, said she auditioned to play Betty originally. “I knew as soon I read it that I wanted it bad,” Ortiz said. “It was just a fight to death.”
Michael Urie, who played Mark, also to fight for his role – or so he thought. The story had long been that Wilhelmina’s assistant was supposed to be different every week, either because they quit, or were fired, or were murdered. However, Horta revealed that was only what they told the network and studio because “they only gave us a certain amount of money,” he said. “Once you came in, there was not going to be another assistant.”
Horta also revealed that before the show’s premiere, ABC originally changed the title to Betty the Ugly without telling him about the change. Instead, he found out in the newspaper when he saw the show had been scheduled for Fridays. (It was later moved to Thursdays, at the strong suggestion of Ferrera.) Horta refused to accept the name change. “On every script we kept putting, ‘Ugly Betty, Ugly Betty,'” he said.
Although the dramedy was written by many writers from half-hour comedies like Will & Grace, there were plenty of heavy moments during the show’s four-year run as well.
One of the storylines that generated a lot of discussion was the coming out process of Betty’s younger brother Justin (Mark Indelicato), which reflected not only Horta’s own experience growing up but also Indelicato’s journey, coincidentally.
“The best part about playing Justin for me is we were going through this process at the same time, I was discovering myself and my sexual orientation at the same time as he was so we really helped each other,” Indelicato said. “What you see on screen was so so personal and so real to me. I don’t think I had the understanding to understand the impact that story would have on other young people.”
Horta remembered wanting to handle the story “delicately” because of Indelicato’s own journey offscreen. “For me, I didn’t you to put you in a place where you weren’t ready to go,” he told the actor. “I always felt like you handled everything in a very adult way.”
The show is also responsible for being first to introduce a trans character, played by Rebecca Romijn, who joined in episode 13. Horta admits he was “hesitant” about pitching the network but the casting of Romijn made it “palatable” as the actress said. “It opened up some minds,” she said.
The idea of perception and “being true to your authentic self,” as Romjin said was a major theme of the show. “Their beauty comes from someplace else that has nothing to do with the way they look or the way the culture tells them they have to look,” Judith Light said. “We end the bigotry and we end the shunning of the other and I think that’s been a big message of Betty.”
Tony Plana also praised the show for its portrayal of Latinos and particularly Latino families. “[It] set a new paradigm for how Latinos should be written and portrayed,” he said.
Flash-forward to the finale, which also famously showed the word ‘ugly’ faded from the title. “The reality is: look beyond the title, the name,” Horta said. “The word fades because it never really should have been there if we’re talking about who she is.”
In regards to the final scene of the show between Betty and Daniel (Eric Mabius), Ferrera squashed any idea of romance between the two. “I do truly think that it was a special, new kind of central relationship on a show. It was about a different kid of love,” she said. “If anything, betty showed him that he was good enough. … I always thought of that last scene as Daniel coming back to say thank you.”
Mabius shared her sentiment and explained that Betty taught Daniel to love unconditionally for the first time. “The end was really the beginning.”
Although it was a happy ending on screen, Ferrera opened up about her sadness off screen. “I went into a deep depression because it was like losing a family,” she said. “There’s still a piece of me that doesn’t want to let Betty go.”
As for where Betty is now, Ferrera say she’s given him a lot of thought. “I think that Betty has been in London for six years and now she’s coming home,” she said.
After last year’s closing night reunion for Gilmore Girls led to a Netflix revival, talks naturally went to a possible revival of Ugly Betty, which Ferrera pitched as a possible two-hour movie for Hulu, which owns the streaming rights to the entire series.
“If we were to do something, it would be a dream, but everybody on the stage would have to be involved, including Becki Newton,” Horta said of the cast and the actress, who was unable to make the reunion. “There’s a lot more stories to tell.”
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