Amid all the shenanigans on ABC's "Ugly Betty"-- Amanda's search for her father, Christina's search for money to pay for her estranged husband's medication, Wilhelmina's search for a surrogate to carry her late husband's child -- something got a little lost: Betty!
No more, assures the show's star, America Ferrera, hanging out in her trailer after shooting a scene for the show's third of five new episodes. The first, airing Thursday (8 p.m. ET/PT), finds Betty once again the center of attention as she celebrates her 24th birthday. She fantasizes about what her special day will be like, only to be faced with a different reality.
Ferrera, who celebrated her own 24th birthday Friday, faced disillusionment, too, with the direction her show was taking. "I've always loved the show, but we went through some creative shifts," says Ferrera. "Because so much was happening in each episode, there wasn't enough time given to certain story arcs."
But back to work after the writers' strike, this Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG, NAACP Image and ALMA award winner says, "I couldn't be more happy."
Entering her trailer, Ferrera is welcomed with slobbery licks from her Great Dane, Lucy, who has been known to do her business on the lawn in front of the writers' office. "Lucy lets them know how she feels about the scripts," Ferrera jokes.
The man in charge of those scripts is series creator Silvio Horta, who acknowledges that "the strike gave us a moment to step back and look at the things we did well, and not so well. It was getting a little sitcom-y, and we started to get a little off the tracks. As fun as the stuff at Mode (magazine) is, it needs balance with the family. We felt we were short-changing that part of Betty's life, and those characters and actors are so terrific. It's going to get back to the heart and to Betty's point of view."
No longer will the show try to give a story line to everyone in every episode. Now, Horta says, "You'll find there'll be two or three story lines -- the biggest one being Betty's. And when we get into Marc, Amanda and Christina, there will be a little more interaction with Betty and her point of view."
Ferrera agrees. "I think the show's journey is Betty's journey. There's a lot going on in these five episodes, but it's very focused. An arc begins and kind of ends for Betty, specifically concerning her love life."
Thursday will see the return of boyfriend Henry's pregnant ex, Charlie, leading to "ultimate highs and ultimate lows" for Betty, says Ferrera. "Rough days" lie ahead. And by season's end, Betty will choose between Chris Gorham's Henry and Freddy Rodriguez's Gio.
Ferrera describes Betty's two-year romance with Henry as "the type of love that makes you sick." Gio represents "the type of relationship where everything seems so easy."
Rodriguez surprised Ferrera by returning with a buzzed scalp. But Ferrera has nothing but praise for him. "When Gio's character got introduced, I found a whole other side of Betty," she says. "He brings out the side of her that is the street-smart girl from Queens and dares her to be her most stripped-down, raw self."
As for Betty and Henry, Ferrera says, "They definitely have obstacles. And that's definitely going to be confronted in these five episodes." (Horta refuses to reveal if both actors will return next season.)
Talk of real-life, longtime filmmaker beau Ryan Piers Williams is off-limits. "We're still together" is pretty much all she'll say, but she does add that they traveled in Europe over the holidays. "We took the train through Germany, Italy, France and the U.K."
While most tourists gain weight on their European excursions, Ferrera lost weight. "I ate lots of food in Europe, and during the strike, I maybe attempted to exercise twice," she says. So why the weight loss? Ferrera credits rest and relaxation. "That changes everything."
She acknowledges her appearance has changed since shooting Betty's pilot at age 21. "My face looks different. My body looks different. I definitely feel like I'm growing up, which … means Betty will have to grow up, too."
Horta has mapped out Betty's physical transformation, but all he'll say is "there'll maybe be a little something next season and down the line something more."
Ferrera has a couple of films coming out this summer -- "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" (Aug. 8) and the art-house "How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer" (in limited release starting May 16). And she has committed to squeezing in another film, which will require her to drop even more pounds. "It's a role that calls for a completely different physique," says Ferrera. "She's a runner in a very different emotional space, which calls for me to make physical changes."
After she warned her producers ("I do not want you to think that I'm anorexic"), they agreed to pad their Betty, if need be.
"They've been completely respectful of what I want to do with my body," she says.
But her body has taken a bit of a beating now that she is in most every scene. Fortunately, her TV family has provided a helping hand. "We truly look out for each other's well-being all the time," says Tony Plana, who plays Betty's papi, Ignacio. "We do this with America mostly. She was (recently) jet-lagged from flying from back East while campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania. She was low in energy, so we got her some tea and headache medicine. … We're very much like a Latino family -- always asking each other how we feel."
Campaigning for Clinton has proved inspiring. Ferrera raves, "She has such incredible warmth and energy in person." And in Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, Ferrera has found a friend. "Her parents are literally changing the world, yet she's so grounded."
And now, so is Ferrera. Being on the campaign trail and talking to people outside Hollywood, she says, "put my life in perspective. It makes me 10 times more grateful for the life that I have, and a reminder to enjoy it. No one is going to war over who wins the Emmy. No one's going to lose their home if we don't get the ratings we want. I just need to enjoy this."