Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez on her role in Jane The Virgin

Gina Rodriguez’s portrayal of the titular character in Jane The Virgin (above left, with Andrea Navedo) led to The Hollywood Reporter naming her The Next Big Thing. -- PHOTO: CW NETWORK
Gina Rodriguez’s portrayal of the titular character in Jane The Virgin (above left, with Andrea Navedo) led to The Hollywood Reporter naming her The Next Big Thing. -- PHOTO: CW NETWORK
Gina Rodriguez’s (above) portrayal of the titular character in Jane The Virgin (with Andrea Navedo) led to The Hollywood Reporter naming her The Next Big Thing. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Gina Rodriguez’s (above) portrayal of the titular character in Jane The Virgin (with Andrea Navedo) led to The Hollywood Reporter naming her The Next Big Thing. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Gina Rodriguez, who won a Golden Globe recently, became an actress to change preconceived images

A year ago, barely anyone knew who Gina Rodriguez was, apart from fans of daytime soap operas.

Then she was unveiled as the star of the new television series Jane The Virgin - about a virgin young woman who is artificially inseminated by accident - and everything changed.

Even before its October debut, the romantic comedy was one of the most buzzed-about shows among American TV critics, who loved its whimsical humour and stereotype-busting depiction of a Latino family. The highest praise was reserved for its 30-year-old star, whose portrayal of the plucky Jane led to The Hollywood Reporter crowning her "The Next Big Thing".

Last week, Rodriguez took home the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Comedy, beating heavy- hitters such as Girls' Lena Dunham and Veep's Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and giving a boost to her show, whose ratings have been flagging in the United States.

The Chicago-born actress of Puerto Rican parents tells Life! and other reporters that as a Hispanic American, she could not be prouder of the series, which has just been renewed for a second season.

Her character's relationship with her family - including a devoutly Catholic, Spanish-speaking grandmother, who is the reason Jane is still a virgin at 23 - captures perfectly how young Latinos are torn between their traditional culture and modern American life, she says.

"The idea of my grandmother speaking Spanish to me and me responding in English, and of being Latino but having this dual identity - you know, eating arroz con gandules in the house but eating hamburgers and hotdogs outside - is very much a culture for Latino Americans," she says at a press event in Los Angeles, referring to a Puerto Rican dish of rice and pigeon peas.

"You feel this pull between the culture of your ancestors and the assimilated culture that you grew up in. It's a very interesting dichotomy."

Rodriguez, who appeared on the soap opera The Bold And The Beautiful in 2011 and 2012, has also been open about the fact that she turned down a chance to appear on another TV show, Devious Maids, because she felt it reinforced the stereotype of Hispanic Americans as "maids, landscape gardeners or pregnant teens".

Although she has said, on another occasion, that been "being a maid is fantastic - I have many family members that have fed their families doing that job", she feels that "there are other stories that need to be told and I think the media is an avenue to educate our next generation".

So it is vital for young Latinos to find themselves depicted in other ways too - not just as a domestic servant or manual labourer but also as a doctor or investment banker, as Rodriguez's own sisters are.

"I grew up in very humble beginnings but I have two very successful sisters, who really made gold out of nuggets. For me, I always watched television and Latinos were never perceived as heroes, and that was very detrimental to my upbringing because I didn't think that I was capable," she recalls.

She believes images from Hollywood often teach young people "how to be capable or how to dress or what's cool, and what is our idea of beauty".

And Rodriguez became an actress to change some of those images.

"I just really wanted to change those things that had restricted me as a young girl - 'I'm not pretty enough', 'I'm not strong enough' and 'Oh my God, they're going to follow me in the store because I'm brown-skinned'. This is a real thing, you know?"

In Jane, she finally found a Latina character who was multi-dimensional and strong: She is shown dealing with her unexpected pregnancy and the ensuing love triangle - involving Jane's fiance Michael and the involuntary sperm donor Rafael - with wit and aplomb.

Rodriguez insists that the show is not trying to preach to viewers on what to do about premarital sex or unexpected pregnancies.

"To each his own when it comes to his sexual journey and what happens in his life. I'm not saying everybody should be a virgin until they get married. But I think Jane is really awesome to look up to. She's strong, she's confident, she's not afraid to say no, she sticks up for her decisions in life.

"She's not a saint. But she is somebody who I think is a great role model. And with the images that we have nowadays, it's nice to brighten it up once in a while. It was my dream role, and it's allowed me to fly," gushes the clearly grateful star, whom Jane The Virgin creator Jennie Snyder Urman says is one of the hardest working and most gracious cast members on set.

Still, Rodriguez is aware that this moment in the sun may be fleeting, so she is determined not to get caught up in the hype surrounding her career and the show.

In 2012, her portrayal of a struggling hip-hop artist in indie drama Filly Brown, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee, won her the Imagen Award, which is given to performances that encourage positive portrayals of Latinos in the entertainment industry.

"I did a film that went to Sundance and it was an awesome success, and I was like, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to be Jennifer Lawrence, I'm going to be a superhero tomorrow'. But that didn't happen. So my favourite saying is, 'If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.'

"In this industry, you can get caught when you've had a beautiful blessing like this. You can get caught up in the 'yes', in the nobody- holding-you-accountable-anymore and your life changes very quickly.

"I really thank God for that last experience helped me realise the kind of woman I wanted to be while being in this industry. And I started working on my character and my soul and realising that the posters will come down.

"Because Jane, I love her and I want to be with her for life, but she will end."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Jane The Virgin returns on Sony Channel (SingTel mio TV Channel 316) on Sunday at 8.50pm.