Welcome to Zoom Date, our feature series where we get up close and personal (via Zoom screen) with our favorite celebs. They'll be giving us an honest peek into what their "new normal" looks like—from new rituals they've adopted since quarantine, to work projects in the age of isolation, to the beauty and health products they've been using to self-soothe.
Jenna Ortega has been living much of 2021 in something of an alternate reality. Let me explain: just after New Year's Day, the 18-year-old boarded a flight to New Zealand to film one of her (many) new projects. The island nation famously banished COVID back in June, swiftly squashing any new outbreaks. The result is like a time capsule of the Before Times, allowing Ortega to indulge in some moments of sweet, sweet normalcy. That said, as glad as she is for a pandemic reprieve, one gets the sense she'd trade it all for some family time back home in the California desert, in the Coachella Valley. Ortega, who's been a working actress since she was just eight years old, has a calming, even-keeled voice that picks up an excited pace and extra half-octave when she's on a roll about what she really loves: work, and being with her castmates; her home, and her family that she cherishes above everything; and social justice, particularly for marginalized communities. Ortega, who's also fascinated by writing and literature, film, music, and painting, has cultivated the rich interior world that usually takes decades (and potentially a few therapists) to grow but that's utterly unsurprising if you've spoken to her for any amount of time.
With a slate of new projects ahead (she's starring in the new Scream remake) and more than a few high-profile ones behind her, like runaway hits You and Jane the Virgin, new movie Yes Day out now on Netflix, and the 2021 SXSW Grand Jury Award-winning The Fallout, expect to see a lot more of Ortega in the very near future. And really, based on her vocal passion for her craft, wealth of compassion for her fellow humans—and the casualness with which she drops Emerson quotes into conservation—I'd venture to say you can expect to see a lot more of Ortega for many years to come.
How has your 2021 been so far? I know we're just a few months in but how is it compared to the end of last year?
It's been pretty incredible so far. I flew out to New Zealand within second week of January so I've spent a lot of time in a COVID-free world, working on this job that I can't even believe is my job. I really do have such an incredible time filming and working. I love being busy, I don't like being stagnant, so it's kind of cool because I've been able to explore this world and have real-world experiences like go to live concerts or eat at restaurants where there's tons of people and have it be normal and safe. I think it'll be weird making the adjustment going back to America soon but in the meantime, it's been a really nice break from everything that's going on in America and the craziness that's there.
I keep seeing TikToks of packed clubs in New Zealand having massive sing-a-longs and I desperately want that. Speaking of COVID, I know your new movie Yes Day, out this week (congrats!), was filming when the pandemic first hit. What was that experience like?
It's kind of weird looking back on that experience, and I think it feels a lot further away than it actually was. It really was this time last year that we were filming that but it was the last time the world was really normal, it was last time I was on-set where I could interact with everybody and there weren't Zone As and Zone Bs and I couldn't interact with certain crew members or and nobody was wearing masks. I remember that shooting experience was very jam-packed and there was a ton going on all the time so it was pretty hectic but I was also with the most sweet, loving, caring cast and crew that I think I've ever really been with. Jen [Garner] and Edgar [Ramírez] being the leads of the film, I truly believe that number one on the call sheet, and even number two and number three, they really do set the tone for what the energy will be like on-set. It was a very family-friendly set, very loving. We became a family ourselves very quickly, which I think is a really beautiful thing to experience and also makes the chaotic moments a lot less chaotic when you have people there who are calming you down, with you by your side the entire time.
It's awesome how you guys did become that real-life family like the one in the movie. Do you have any favorite memories with your co-stars?
It happened very quickly. It's easy when you have someone like Jennifer Garner in the mother position because she is so naturally born to be a mom. She's very nurturing, and she really fast-forwarded the process of getting comfortable with one another. I remember Jen and I had a lot of sweet conversations on the night we were shooting the concert festival, when we go to the music festival and perform with H.E.R. which was also insane because I was a huge H.E.R. fan even before we filmed. The moments I appreciate the most were the down times when we all opened up to one another.
You said you're super go-go-go and I know you're very involved in different philanthropies and charitable initiatives. Are there any causes particularly close to your heart right now?
Growing up, my parents always emphasized the importance of philanthropy—and my mom didn't want me to act originally because she was scared of the industry and all of the horror stories she'd become familiar with. She told me, "If you get a platform, you have to use this platform for good or else I'm pulling you out, it's not happening, you can't do it.' Something that's always at the forefront of my mind: I'm an ambassador for UNAIDS and as somebody who's lost their grandfather to the disease.... I never got to meet him but I'm constantly told by people how much I remind them of him. If I can prevent other people from experiencing something like that, but also diminishing the stigma that comes with it. People don't realize that it doesn't just affect drug users or members of the gay community—[some of the] highest [new infection] rates are girls ages 15-24. That's something that I probably talk about the most.
Anything that empowers women in a sense is also something I'm really, really passionate about. I could go on about this stuff because there's also racial injustices, and so much more work to be done, and what haven't we solved yet, when will people of color feel safe in their homes and with their identities? It's so awful to see the Asian hate recently. It's really discouraging and really upsetting. Our country was founded with such racist intent and injustice that for some reason, we're still holding on to our old ways. It just goes to show that a lot of people in power positions just say things to save face and don't really mean what they're putting out, which is so incredibly frustrating when so much of their community, a majority of it [is suffering]. I know people of color are minorities but at this point, we're the new majority, you know? Power to the people, somebody please do something impactful, especially for our Black community!
I fully agree, and can tell you come from a place of such empathy. In addition to your activism, what has life looked like for you outside of work during this pandemic?
Honestly, I don't know that it's changed that much. I've never been a social person, I get really bad social anxiety and crowds freak me out. My life outside of the pandemic has changed in the sense that before, I didn't get to spend as much time as I'd like to in-person with my family. I talk to them all the time over the phone but I remember when lockdown first hit... As soon as I'm done working here, I'm gonna fly back and be back home in the desert, in the Coachella Valley, spending time with them. It's really just getting to know my siblings as they've grown up, watching and seeing the individuals they're becoming. I have two nephews, who are eight and four, you know, watching them learn how to speak, watching them learn math and English and going through that whole process. Growing up, I felt very guilty missing out on so many exciting aspects or storylines occurring in my siblings' and nephews' lives but with lockdown, I've really had the opportunity to reconnect and strengthen relationships which is important working in the industry that I do. [I value] my family so much, they're my favorite people ever and are so supportive of me, I want to relay that same energy. I will say that: with everything being locked down, I've really gotten to know my family more, which I think is really cool.
When you do get some time off, are there any self-care rituals you're into? How do you like to relax and unwind?
I love to write. I write all the time, I'll write about whatever. I'll write essays or I'll write scripts, it doesn't really matter but it's a great way to unwind. I'm also obsessed with film. I love watching films, it doesn't matter the language or time period or genre, I'm with it all and want to see and consume all that I can. I'm always looking for new music because I also really love music and am trying to expand my palate in that sense and just be really eclectic with things I listen to. But also, something I told my parents, I'm like, "Listen, as soon as I get back to America, I'm learning how to crochet." And I've never really painted before, but I'm going to start painting. With this given time, I really just want to be able to pick up on new skills I think are secretly cool but I've never had the time or committed enough. Also you spend so much time on-set not doing anything, like sitting around waiting for your coverage or waiting for your scene or whatever so I want to be able to have stuff I enjoy doing.
You're going to crochet for the entire crew, I can already see it. Switching gears slightly, what's your favorite makeup like these days? Is there a particular look that makes you feel the most "Jenna" or are you more of a barefaced girl?
Hmm. When I was younger, I used to be super into makeup. I was 14 and doing a full face because that was therapeutic, like alright, I have a busy day today, I'm going to sit with myself and just listen to music and do this. These days, I feel like I've gotten to a point in my life where I just don't care [LAUGHS]. I don't know how to do my hair, I'm not that fancy with my makeup. If I'm feeling fancy, I'll throw on some brown eyeliner and maybe like a darker lip color and that's my way of branching out. But for the most part, I try to play it a little more natural-faced or sometimes no makeup at all if I can.
For sure. And what is your skincare routine looking like these days? Even through the screen your skin is luminous.
Thank you! My skincare is pretty simple. I have two older sisters so I grew up watching them and wanting to be them, as I feel younger siblings tend to do. So I'd always practice their skincare with them. It's crazy because I grew up using Neutrogena products from a very young age because that's what my sisters use and it always worked for me and now I'm an ambassador [with Neutrogena]! I'm promoting these new products but also staying true to products I grew up using. For the most part, every morning and night, it's the same routine: I wash my face with the Pink Grapefruit Cleanser, then I use the Pink Grapefruit Moisturizer. Any time I have problems spots or acne, (I even have some spots right now on my forehead because any time I work with stage blood, my skin always freaks out) I use the On-the-Spot Treatment which literally overnight works for me so well. But then also something I'm trying to incorporate is sunscreen. Growing up, I was always like, "Nah, I'm gonna go out in the sun and get tan, I don't need sunscreen, I never burn." And now I'm like, 'Ohhh, it's not preventing a tan, it's just preventing skin cancer so maybe you should get on that!' So that's something I've started doing as well, every morning I'll try to put some sunscreen on.
Yes, by far that's the most mentioned thing in every beauty or health interview I've done—sunscreen always comes up.
I didn't realize how essential it was, how crucial! I thought it was so trivial, I didn't see the point!
And speaking of the sun, I know you're in the southern hemisphere now but when back in America, what are you excited about for spring and warmer weather?
I do not do well in the cold. As soon as it hits 75 degrees, I'm shaking—I'm definitely a desert rat, it doesn't do well for me. So finally seeing the sun more often, things getting warmer! Also, I love flowers, I think flowers are beautiful, the earth laughs in flowers. I'm excited for that too, when everything starts blooming and the world gets very colorful again.
We were talking earlier about how important it is for people in power to use their platforms and how crucial representation is. I know you've said you look up to your old co-star Gina Rodriguez for speaking up about Latina representation. Where do you still see room for improvement in the industry, particularly when it comes to seeing Latinx people on-screen?
It's still a very small percentage, I think three percent of casts are members of the Latinx community. Something I haven't really seen done right is...yes, Hollywood is gradually becoming more diverse. You have incredible films like Black Panther winning Oscars, and Crazy Rich Asians getting the attention it rightfully deserves. I don't think our community has found a slot to have a breakthrough moment like that. And the other thing about the Latinx community is we're not often shown in a positive light. It's like, y'know, you're going to be the maid or you're going to be the cartel leader's daughter. I haven't really seen Hispanics in positive lights or positions of power in film which is really discouraging to see. Especially growing up as a young actor, a lot of the roles you're going out for are somebody's daughter or the younger version of somebody so it's constantly getting a door shut in your face. That's another thing too, we're still not leading characters—we're side roles, we're comic relief, we're not taken as seriously as we should be or can be and that's obviously something I look to change. I think a really important thing is us just getting our foot in the door because the majority of characters I've played, most of them, were written for white people. So it's like a matter of taking every opportunity we possibly can to get ourselves out there.
You've mentioned giving your on-screen siblings advice on career and life and you got the same in return from your older costars. You started in the industry so early in your life. If you could give some of your current wisdom to that very young girl just starting out in Hollywood, what might you say?
[EXHALES DEEPLY] There's just so much that I have learned. I think be more protective of your heart and thus who you allow in because there have been some rude awakenings in that department. I would also say do not put all of your energy or all of your happiness in your work. That's something I did and continue to struggle with to this day. This industry that we work in, it's very high highs and very low lows. You could be working constantly and then just one day stop working and not work again for five years. Or never work again! I think as somebody who enjoys what they do so much and feel so fortunate to do the line of work I do, I was too excited about working and not excited enough about taking breaks or allowing time for self-discovery.