"When I was younger, I was very outgoing and very bubbly and just this ball of energy," Jenna Ortega tells People CHICA. "I was discovered on Facebook by an acting agent. Weirdly enough, my mom had posted a video of me doing a dramatic monologue. That was around when I was 9, but I had been begging my mom to act since I was 6. I knew that's what I wanted, and I worked toward that." That natural work ethic paid off, and now, at just 18, the Mexican American actress has appeared in everything from the beloved dramedy Jane the Virgin to Netflix's psychological thriller You.
Ortega describes her parents and five siblings as more introverted than she is, but she does think she may have inherited the acting bug from another member of her family — her Puerto Rican grandfather, to whom she feels very connected even though he died before she was born. "I'm completely fascinated by him because he was an entertainer as well," she shares. "He loved to sing, to dance, and perform, so my family thinks — because everybody else is super shy and quiet — that I get it from him. Through hearing stories of past experiences he had, I find myself relating to him very much."
With Judah Lewis in The Babysitter: Killer Queen.
She was around 10 years old when she landed the role of young Jane Villanueva in Jane the Virgin, and though she only appeared in flashback sequences, the part helped skyrocket her career. "I wasn't prepared for all the attention that show ended up getting," she says. "Everyone on that set is family to me in a way. To be part of a show that not only represented the Hispanic culture so well — but also embraced that culture on set — was really nice. You were comfortable when you stepped on that set. It was like we were home."
After Jane the Virgin, life-changing parts started rolling in. She starred in her first lead role in 2016, as Harley Diaz in the Disney Channel series Stuck in the Middle. "I told my parents when I first said I wanted to become an actor: 'I'm going to be on a Disney Channel show one day.' And they were like, 'OK, calm down, we'll see!'" she recalls. "They didn't know how this was all going to pan out, so to actually have my own show on the Disney Channel was an amazing experience."
Getty Images "I don't take enough time to stop and really appreciate everything around me," she says. "Quarantine has helped me with that. I’ve gotten to know myself better."
Lending her voice to the character Princess Isabel in the Disney animated series Elena of Avalor was also groundbreaking. "When I was little my favorite princess was Cinderella, and I asked my mom for my fifth birthday if I could dye my hair blonde so I could look like her. The fact that younger Latina girls finally have a princess that they can relate to and look up to and say, 'There is someone out there that looks like me' — to be a part of such a movement is one of the things that I'm most proud of. I'm very glad that the characters that I have played are empowering women with strong voices."
Bringing even more Latino representation to the screen is Ortega's mission. "Hollywood is slowly opening up to the idea of more diversity, which is amazing, and I'm so blessed that I'm able to work in the industry at a time when that is happening," she says. "A lot of times the Latinx community is painted in not the most positive light, and it's tough to see because we are so much more than that. You never really get to see the full spectrum of what we can do."
"It was nerve-racking going into it because I had never done a project like it before," Jenna says of You. "I went with my gut feeling and did what felt comfortable."
She's also bringing inclusion to the beauty world, as a brand ambassador for Neutrogena. "To be part of this company that is so influential in how young girls look at themselves when it comes to beauty is everything to me," she says. "They emphasize the importance of inner beauty. The brand is about taking care of yourself, and making sure you feel good and feel confident, which I love."
Next up, the young star will return to the screen in the upcoming thriller Songbird starring Demi Moore. "I don't know how or why this has happened to me, why I’ve been so fortunate," she says. "Part of it is having an amazing family and people genuinely looking out for me in this scary industry. I've worked very hard. Hispanics have to work twice as hard as the rest to make themselves known. It's weird to sit back and think about the things I have accomplished. I am very proud of myself, and I think that's the first time I have really said that aloud."
For more with Jenna, look for the November issue of People en Español, on newsstands now.