LOS ANGELES — America Ferrera learned a little about the life of Cesar Chavez while growing up in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles. But it was nowhere near the depth she needed to feel comfortable playing Chavez's wife, Helen, in the new feature film "Cesar Chavez."
Because she knew so little about the role Helen played in the farmworker movement and her husband's efforts, Ferrera was afraid the role would have her doing little more than standing around and nodding in support. She soon learned that Helen played a critical role in the formation of the United Farm Workers and the day-to-day activities of the union.
Ferrera started preparing for the role with any material she could find.
"There isn't that much out there about Helen, partly because of her own choosing," Ferrera says. "She wasn't — and still isn't — a public person. She never wanted to be a public person and refused that aspect of the whole situation."
Because she was playing a real person, Ferrera wanted to use the right regional accent. That proved a challenge because Helen's determination to stay out of the spotlight meant there weren't many recordings of her at a young age. Eight seconds of Helen talking was found the day before Ferrera started working on the movie. Ferrera repeatedly listened to the segment to get the accent as close as possible.
Ferrara's acting path prepared her for the emotional and physical challenges of the role. But after playing young roles in films ("The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") and TV shows ("Ugly Betty"), she was concerned about movie-goers believing, at age 29, she could play a mother of eight children. That concern passed when she realized that by the time Helen was 29 she had eight children.
Eventually, Ferrera did get to sit down with Helen.
"I had the privilege of spending some time with her and getting to experience her presence and her essence. She's incredibly strong — in a very still and quiet way. She's warm and emotional and wears her emotions on her sleeve," Ferrera says. "That was invaluable to get to spend time with her and hear her talk about some of her memories and some of her stories."
Through the film, Helen's shown as an organizer, willing to go to jail to help make a legal point. She's not afraid to go to battle for her family while remaining the main support for her husband during the his 35-day hunger strike.
Ferrera admires Helen for how she was willing to go back into the fields to earn money after the family moved from rather good conditions in Los Angeles to the farming community of Delano. She did this so that her husband could continue his volunteer efforts helping the farmworkers.
"That spoke volumes about this woman and how she felt about the cause," Ferrera says. "She supported Cesar because he was her husband, but she also had an intense connection to this cause. She worked in the fields from the time she was 7 years old. She was in this cause for the rights and dignity for herself and her family.
"This wasn't a woman just standing by her man — she was fighting for her own experience."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter.