America Ferrera sits next to Professor Luis Alfaro on the Bing Stage, having a lively discussion.

“Storytelling Matters”: Oscar nominee America Ferrera accepts School of Dramatic Arts’ Multihyphenate Award

Oscar nominee America Ferrera and Professor Luis Alfaro held an energetic discussion about being a multihyphenate and the importance of representation in Hollywood. Photo by Reza Allah-Bakhshi/Capture Imaging.

USC alumna and Academy Award nominee America Ferrera knew from an early age that she was destined to be a multihyphenate. Though she felt pressure growing up to “pick a lane” and conform to society’s expectations, she knew she wanted to tell stories but also wanted to change the world.

“I said to my mom: I’m going to be an actress and I’m going to be a human rights lawyer,” Ferrera recalled, laughing. “I was only five and I already knew that there was more than one lane, one path and one title. So much of my career has been embracing that and resisting the cultural pressure to conform to a lane.” Ferrera shared this story to a packed theatre of USC students on February 11, as she accepted the School of Dramatic Arts’ Multihyphenate Award. The award, presented by USC President Dr. Carol Folt, celebrates artists whose career embraces versatility and innovation in the multifaceted landscape of the entertainment world.

America Ferrera (l) accepted the School of Dramatic Arts’ second annual Multihyphenate Award from USC President Dr. Carol Folt (r). Photo by Reza Allah-Bakhshi/Capture Imaging.
America Ferrera (l) accepted the School of Dramatic Arts’ second annual Multihyphenate Award from USC President Dr. Carol Folt (r). Photo by Reza Allah-Bakhshi/Capture Imaging.

An Academy Award® -nominated and Emmy® -, Golden Globe®- and Screen Actors Guild Award-winning actor, director and producer, Ferrera’s career has spanned many facets of the entertainment industry, including authoring New York Times Best Seller American Like Me, directing episodes of and executive producing Netflix’s hit Latinx dramedy, Gentefied, as well as Superstore. In 2016 Ferrera co-founded HARNESS, a community of artists, influencers and grassroots leaders leveraging art and storytelling to power change and create a more equitable world. She also launched the digital lifestyle community, Poderistas, in 2020 alongside nine other prominent activists, leaders and businesswomen, including Eva Longoria Bastón and Christy Haubegger. 

Ferrera accepted the award with characteristic energy and candor, then sat down for a conversation with the head of USC’s Dramatic Writing program, Luis Alfaro. A distinguished Chicano playwright (Electricidad, Oedipus El Rey, Mojada) and associate professor, Alfaro is also a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant.”

Ferrera shared that while she was a student at USC, a longtime internal conflict raging inside her finally came to a head. The question she had been asking herself was this: In a world full of so many problems, how could she commit to life as an artist? While she considered quitting the career that she loved, mulling over becoming a lawyer or a senator to make a difference in the world, the answer finally came from one of her favorite professors. “He told me: ‘Storytelling matters,’” Ferrera said. “Storytelling creates the culture that creates our possibilities. You are changing the world through storytelling.”

America Ferrera speaks to students from the Bing Theatre stage.
America Ferrera encouraged students to create their own opportunities: “You can find a friend or two, grab your iPhone, and find some creative way to keep trying and failing.” Photo by Reza Allah-Bakhshi/Capture Imaging.

It’s the failing that keeps you growing

Professor Alfaro pointed out that Ferrera’s place in the spotlight was an enormous step forward, not only for her, but for the generations of Latinx actors that came before her.

“You are our biggest success. You are our big dream,” Professor Alfaro said. “When you walk into a room, our ancestors walk in with you. You’re in a very crowded room.”

Ferrera said that she understood the responsibility that came with her success and keeps it top of mind whenever she walks into a room with powerbrokers in the arts and entertainment industry.

“I can’t just get into a room and be happy and grateful to be there,” she said. “I have to show up with my whole self, and remember that if I’m not representing and speaking up for the millions of people who have also never been in this room, then I’m not doing what I’m here to do.”

Ferrera acknowledged the tremendous benefit of an education in acting, noting that in her second season of Ugly Betty she recognized the need for a more formal approach to studying the craft. She sought out the help of School of Dramatic Arts alumna and renowned acting coach Kim Gillingham (BFA Acting ’85), with whom she has worked for nearly two decades.

“I realized I needed help, I needed to find a creative practice,” Ferrera recalled. “It’s been 17 years of working in this creative practice with her and with a wider community of actors, writers and directors throughout the industry. It’s a spiritual practice, it’s a deeply internal practice. And there’s a lot of faith involved in it.”

Ferrera encouraged students to not wait for other people to create access to acting roles for them, instead making their own opportunities to practice their art.

“The dirty secret is that you don’t need permission to do your work,” she said. “You can find a friend or two, grab your iPhone, and find some creative way to keep trying and failing. It’s the failing that keeps you growing.”

Ferrera returned again and again to the spirit of the Multihyphenate Award, encouraging students to resist pressures to specialize only in certain fields and to find a way to bring all of their varied interests, passions and skills into their lives and careers. She spoke with Professor Alfaro about the importance of art, storytelling and creativity, which are sometimes overlooked outside of the arts but often serve as the basis for the creative impulse in many other disciplines. “To be pregnant with possibility—that is the foundation of art,” Ferrera said. “That’s the foundation of every discipline you will ever encounter. The foundation of math, or science, or planetary exploration. To have vision, you have to have an imagination, you have to be connected to your artist self to be anything in the world.”

(l to r): Luis Alfaro, USC President Dr. Carol Folt, America Ferrera and Dean Emily Roxworthy.
(l to r) Professor Luis Alfaro, USC President Dr. Carol Folt, America Ferrera and Dean Emily Roxworthy. Photo by Reza Allah-Bakhshi/Capture Imaging.

All the things you love

Students repeatedly cheered as Ferrera interacted with the crowd, recalling memories from her time at USC and connecting with theatre majors as well as students from other backgrounds. There was no shortage of fans in the crowd—including Dean Roxworthy and President Folt, who remarked that they had each seen Ferrera’s turn in Barbie multiple times.

Ferrera left the crowd with her sincere conviction that the future of the arts and entertainment industry, and perhaps the world more broadly, rested with artists who dared to embrace a multihyphenated path.

“That’s my path. And I would have never gotten there if I had succumbed to the cultural pressure to abandon parts of yourself that don’t make sense to a structure or an institution,” she declared.

She encouraged students to not limit themselves and to pursue multiple passions, insisting that it would come together with courage and conviction.

“What you have to uniquely contribute to the world will come from embracing all of the things you love.”