On TV, Ana Ortiz plays Hilda, the older sister and straight-talking single mom in the Golden Globe-winning show, “Ugly Betty,” about a fashion-challenged young Latina woman determinedly carving out a career for herself at trendy “Mode” magazine in Manhattan. Ana’s performance has added to the show’s candy-colored mosaic of extreme personalities. But off screen, she’s tackling a much different role. In June, Ana and her husband, singer/songwriter Noah Lebenzon, became parents to baby daughter Paloma. As Ana settles into taping the fourth season of the show—the premiere is slated for October 9 on ABC—she’s also adjusting to life as a new mom, juggling the demands of parenthood with the hectic life of a TV actress. On a recent Monday morning, Ana, like her character, Hilda, is effervescent, sparkling in the sharp sunlight of her open Dumbo loft. But unlike Hilda, Ana doesn’t swagger; there’s rarely a chin tuck or waving index finger when she speaks. She’s warm and relaxed, whether she’s folding laundry (as she is when I arrive too early for our interview), or cradling Paloma before an invasion of eight for an hours-long photo shoot. Ana is a tried-and-true New Yorker, a woman who values work, commitment, and family—maybe that’s why she, like Hilda, draws you in.
Tell me a little bit about your
background and your path to “Ugly Betty.”
Oh my gosh, I was born
and raised here in the city. My dad is Puerto Rican, my mom is Irish. My
dad is a politician, my mom works with autistic children. I was always
artistic—I went to Laguardia High School for the Performing Arts then to
the University of the Arts in Philadelphia—and after college I was in
New York trying to make my way. It was really difficult. I was
bartending, working late hours, pretty much just working to live. Then a
friend of mine said, “I’m driving out to L.A., would you be my driving
partner?” I did and I ended up staying there for a while. L.A. was a
great city for me, and it wound up being perfect timing. A lot of the
shows that are shot in L.A. are supposed to take place in New York. So
they’re always looking for authentic “New Yorkers,” and I’m nothing if
not that! I got a lot of opportunity. Being Puerto Rican, being a Latin
actress, everything was sort of opening up for Latinos out there, and I
got to work a lot.
So you were gaining experience?
I was. During that time I
also joined a theatre company in New York, called the LAByrinth, so I
was always coming back here to do plays and workshops. Then one day, my
agent called and said: “Alright, there’s a project, it doesn’t have a
script, but Salma Hayek is producing it, it’s called ‘Ugly Betty,’ it’s
based on a soap opera.” And I was like, “Oh, ‘Betty, La Fea’”— it’s just
such a famous soap, everybody knows about it. So he said, “OK, they
want you to go in and audition for Betty…” I thought the role was way
young, that it wasn’t really my part. But he said, there’s no script,
they’re just sort of seeing a lot of people, just go in and audition. So
I did. And about a week later they called me back in to audition for
the role of the sister. I probably auditioned six times for Hilda. They
called me a few minutes after my last audition to tell me I’d gotten the
part. I was in the middle of the street screaming in my Hilda outfit!
How do you relate to the character of Hilda?
Oh, in a
million ways, actually. She’s sort of everybody I knew growing up. The
first year of the show, my cousin Francesca would call me after watching
and say, “I know you were imitating me! That’s me! And I want to borrow
those pants!” Hilda is a compilation of women in my family that I
cherish, and girls that I grew up with. She’s definitely someone I know.
And I relate to her in the sense that Hilda is all about her family.
Everything [she does] is fiercely protective of that. And everything is
in service to that. I love her ability to speak her mind. That’s not
something I always have, but I’ve kind of learned it from her in the
last four years.
Do you like the kind of mother Hilda is to
Justin on the show?
I do, that’s my favorite thing about Hilda. She’s always been his
biggest fan, his strongest advocate, his cheerleader. She’s never told
him to be anything other than who or what he is. She encourages him to
be himself, all the time, no matter what. I think, for young people,
it’s so important to have that. Especially for someone like the
character of Justin—who’s played so amazingly by Mark Indelicato—who
potentially could run into so many problems with self-esteem, and run
into so many problems with bullies. This season is going to be
phenomenal for his character—and for mine.
Ugly Betty is
such a smart and wickedly funny show. Do you think the show has reached
its full audience or is it still growing?
I think it’s still
growing. Especially when we got to NYC, it was a huge step. [The show
was previously filmed in Los Angeles.] Last season we were finding our
footing here in New York. This season I think it’s very “no holds
barred.” We’re also moving to Friday nights at 9 p.m., so we can push
the envelope a little bit, we have a little more freedom.
What do you wish you knew about acting before getting into the
I wish I was a little better
prepared for the rejection and the constant pounding of your
self-esteem. You’re just not prepared for it when you start. If I could
talk to the 20-something that I was back then, I would say: “Don’t
worry. It’ll be okay.”
You’re such a new mom. What kind
of transition has this been for you?
It’s been awesome! I
waited so long, so I was really ready for it. I’m also really lucky to
have my mom so close and so involved and so there. She comes to the set
with me and the baby. So the transition has been pretty good. I have a
lot of support from the people at work. We started work probably a
little too soon—Paloma was just 2 weeks old when the season resumed. I
think I was a little freaked out, and I had a slight meltdown on set at
one point. But I couldn’t be in a better situation to be overwhelmed in.
Everybody gave me space. When I told the producer who’s also the
director, “I’m sorry, I know I had an attitude,” he said, “Hey, it’s
family first. We’re family first here”—and he really meant it! The other
producer said, “Paloma is part of the team now, she’s part of the crew.
You let us know what you need.” We worked out those kinks really early
on, and it’s really been wonderful, it’s been smooth sailing!
What do you wish you knew before giving
birth, before becoming a mom?
I was super lucky, because I got to be in on
two of my friends’ births—I was each of their birthing partners. One of
the births was really easy, and one of the births
was a little bit more difficult. So I felt really well prepared, and for
the most part, I was. One thing I knew was to stay open and flexible.
think for my poor husband—I have a huge, huge family and we’re all
really close and everybody was so excited, this being the first
grandkid—we sort of got bombarded right after she was born, so it was a
little overwhelming for him. So I think if I had known, I would have
asked them to spread it out a little bit.
And the loss of sleep? There’s no preparation for that!
How have you and your
husband adjusted to moving from a couple to parents?
I think we’re still
adjusting! I remember falling asleep one night, closing my eyes and
saying, ‘Alright baby, it’s still you and me right?’ And he said, ‘Yes
baby, it’s still you and me.’ I worry about getting lost in her and
losing one another. When I was pregnant, both of us were like: We have
to be sure to stay each other’s number one. And it’s adjustment still—to
make sure we stay connected with each other. Like tonight, my mom is
babysitting, and we’re going out on a date!
You must have a
lot of energy!
Well, we had the opportunity. But also, the energy here, living
in New York—you never stop moving. I found it the absolute best city to
be pregnant in. I was constantly walking, constantly moving. I got tons
of exercise. People are really cool towards pregnant women. I got lots
of help, lots of respect from strangers. It’s really hard to be
How do you think your daughter’s life will
be different from yours?
going to grow up with two parents in the house, which is nice. I’m very
close with both my parents and they’re wonderful, but they weren’t
together. So I had two homes. She’ll have one home. We struggled
a lot, just financially and in every way possible. Because of “Betty,”
it’s really great not to have to worry about that right now. I always tell my mother: I
don’t know how you did it. My husband went away for two nights and I
was going to lose my mind. I just don’t know how single parents do it.
They are just my heroes, now more than ever.
What are some
of your favorite parts about living in the city?
Have you been able to enjoy the city with Paloma yet? It
changes. It fluctuates. I mean New York is such an incredible city.
Right now my favorite part is the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m obsessed. Also
Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s so beautiful and fun. I’m just loving our
neighborhood. And the Brooklyn Flea Market is one of my favorites. Right
now, we’re on foot, I can’t bring the stroller on the subway, so we’re
doing a lot of walking. We walk across the bridge, over to Soho for a
cup of coffee. It’s a great city.
What’s the biggest
surprise about parenting so far?
Definitely how your instincts really do kick
in. I was worried that I wouldn’t know what to do. There is that nature
thing that happens. That was a wonderful surprise. The love and the care
you have for this person—I feel like I’ve known her forever.