“Jaaaaaaaay!” By now you’ve surely heard it, the penetrating Modern Family beckoning that could come only from Sofia Vergara. It’s her character, Gloria’s, not-so-subtle way of calling out to her husband (Ed O’Neil), and her preferred register to get her point across. Gloria’s shrill holler, in fact, has become such an essential part of the ABC hit comedy that New York magazine’s Vulture blog compiled a YouTube tribute, “Shouting With Sofia Vergara.”
If she’s frustrated, Gloria screams. If she’s angry, she really yells. Even when she’s feeling joy, Gloria can’t help but shout. It’s a shtick, but as hysterically funny as Vergara can be screaming her heart out, critics—and even her fans—are wondering whether she is on the verge of pigeonholing herself into a stereotype for the rest of her career. With two Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations under her belt, four movie roles since Modern Family premiered in 2009, a Kmart clothing line, and Diet Pepsi and Cover Girl deals, Vergara is poised to become the first Latina comedic actress to truly cross over. But will she, or is she destined to go the way of icons Ricky Ricardo and Charo, very successful in their own right, but never truly accepted by Americans as one of their own?
Part of Vergara’s bottomless charm and bombshell persona is that she doesn’t apologize for making the most of her beauty or her accent. She has always owned her femininity and massive sex appeal. A former model and Univision TV host, discovered on a beach in Colombia when she was a teenager, Vergara didn’t set out to be an actress. But director Barry Josephson spotted her at an awards show and cast her in Big Trouble, which led to other movie roles, and eventually a relationship with ABC. The network gave her a deal and cast her in two failed sitcoms before executive producers Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd created the two-time Emmy-winning Modern Family.
“When you compare her to other women who have the same body type that she has, it’s an amazing accomplishment that so many women love her,” Levitan said. “Usually, women resent women like her. But it’s a real testament to her personality. She’s amazing at the self-deprecating thing, but then she will also say, ‘I am beautiful.’ It’s the most amazing thing, to see a woman who looks like that and who is so feminine and voluptuous and carries herself with such freedom, and women love her. I think it’s because she’s very smart, she is in control, and she has known how to use that power.”
The casting process for Gloria, a divorced mother of an eccentric 11-year-old boy who is prone to wearing a burgundy dinner jacket and drinking espresso, was brief. Levitan and Lloyd planned for Jay Pritchett, a divorced grandfather, to marry a younger woman who had a son and was either Latina or African-American. ABC suggested they meet Vergara and when they did, it was over, Levitan said.
“If you say you want a really funny, gorgeous, sexy, hot Latina who has killer timing, it’s a very short line in Hollywood,” Levitan said. “So she was our first and only choice. The character is very true to Sofia’s personality. We’re not going to try to represent every version of the Hispanic person in the world. It’s impossible and would be offensive to try to do so. Sofia didn’t help us write Gloria actively, but you just pick up on things, funny little quirks. The way she says things, the way she walks, the way people respond to her. She’s her own walking cyclone of story ideas.”
Of course, no one is more aware of how much Gloria yells than the woman doing the screaming, and she thinks it’s a riot. Gloria is deliberately passionate, and above all, a very protective mother, said Levitan, explaining he fashioned her after Vergara, who gave birth to her son at 19 and raised him alone after she got divorced. For all of the Modern Family characters, Levitan says, “the stronger the attitude, the better. She makes us laugh when she’s got a strong attitude, when she’s not just demure.” The writers have gotten to know Vergara so well that Gloria’s mispronounced words are now written into the script, she said.
“I love Gloria,” Vergara said. “I don’t think I will ever have a role as perfectly suited and as special for me as Gloria because I don’t have to be thinking about my accent and I can sometimes speak in Spanish. Since they discovered that I can scream like a crazy person, they ask me to scream in every episode. In my own life, I have no problems letting out a good scream. I always try to remember how my mom used to scream, and my aunt, and how women were in Colombia to make the character as funny as possible.”
A breakout TV star, Vergara had a big year in 2011. In addition to her critical acclaim in Modern Family, she played a cosmetics executive in The Smurfs, voiced the temptress penguin Carmen in Happy Feet Two, and was Katherine Heigl’s sidekick in New Year’s Eve. That latter turn made the blogosphere wonder if Vergara was heading toward the “Charo Path,” a term coined by Vulture about the “worrying trend” of feeding Vergara language jokes that require her to yell while wearing revealing attire. Latina magazine had already chimed in about loving Vergara though “it gets a little under our skin how she seems to embrace some stereotypes about us Latinas.”
It is an image that is everywhere these days—Vergara in a suggestive blue cocktail dress dancing for Diet Pepsi; or in a black gown strutting down a runway for Cover Girl with Ellen DeGeneres; or in a leopard dress touting her own fashion line at Kmart while urging women to be more like her: “I’m not afraid to work with what I’ve got. I say, if you got this, show this. You’re a woman so dress like a woman! Be proud. Be sexy.”
It’s a mantra she lives by. Whether Vergara’s kidding backstage at the Emmys about her figure and her Kmart underwear, just minutes after Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) was offended by a similar question about her shape, or she’s celebrating her show’s first Golden Globe by yelling backstage so loudly that reporters couldn’t interview Morgan Freeman next door, she always seems comfortable in her skin. It’s a quality that DeGeneres poked fun of recently in a behind-the-scenes video for their first Cover Girl shoot, calling Vergara’s accent “phony” and claiming “to be sick of” Vergara’s struggles with the English language.
That was all in affectionate jest, but is there legitimate concern that those who seek to make money through working with Vergara will continue to exploit her sexy, perky characteristics until she’s forever perceived as a one-note actress? On Modern Family, Levitan says the writers have already begun discussing how to expand Gloria’s world beyond worrying about her son, Manny, nagging Jay, and being jealous of their new French bulldog, Stella. Or as Gloria would say, “Estella!”
“Maybe when you add up everything in the outside world, maybe someone could say that there’s a danger of that for Sofia. But I don’t think that’s true of our show because I don’t think it’s any different from Cam being Cam,” said Levitan referring to Eric Stonestreet’s flamboyant portrayal of Cameron, who is gay. “We’re playing to the center of her character and to us, Gloria is fiery, emotional, and fiercely protective, and sometimes that comes out in a way that’s big. But that’s her natural way of playing it, and it’s funny.”
There is no doubt that Gloria Pritchett is singular among TV characters, and Vergara is capitalizing on that. She’s amused by criticism that she might be too loud or somehow her personality is too much. In many ways, she is playing a version of herself.
“In our culture, people always think we’re fighting,” Vergara says with a laugh. “When we have a family lunch, people think we’re killing each other and all we’re doing is telling stories and gossiping. It’s not something that American audiences are necessarily used to, but that’s something that Gloria brings out. We are very colorful. And I think that people who like the show and the character take great notice of that because we just have a different flavor and way of being.”
Vergara knows all about stereotypes since early in her career she was asked by movie executives to color her naturally blond hair darker so that she would look “more Latin.” As far as any Charo comparisons go—and those emerged again when she helped Levitan accept the show’s Golden Globe in Spanish on Jan. 15—Vergara replied: so what?
“I don’t see anything bad about being stereotyped as a Latin woman,” Vergara said. “We are yellers, we’re pretty, we’re sexy, and we’re scandalous. I am not scared of the stereotypes. I also don’t see anything wrong with being compared to Charo. She made tons of money being the way she wanted to be. People are always looking for something.”