Ugly Truths: The Dry Land
This article is from 2010.
Eddie Harrison speaks to Ugly Betty star America Ferrera about her role in hard-hitting psychological drama The Dry Land.
‘I’m not a professional expert in post-traumatic stress disorder,’ says Ugly Betty star America Ferrera. On the strength of the popular fashion-industry sitcom, few would have any expectations that the LA-born actress would have much flair for examining the personal cost of war.
But America Ferrera is no one-trick pony; since her eye-catching debut in Patricia Cardoso’s 2002 sleeper Real Women Have Curves, Ferrera has been a darling of the indie film-making circuit, now flexing her creative muscle as executive producer and star of The Dry Land.
‘The character I play in The Dry Land could not be more different to the one I play in Ugly Betty,’ says Ferrera. ‘The big challenge for me was that I only had four days after wrapping series three of Ugly Betty; four short days to prepare me to shed my Betty skin and dive into the part of Sarah. Sure, seeing me in a film like The Dry Land might be shocking for people who have only know me as Betty, but the truth is, I try not to worry too much about how other people see me. What I do is my own personal journey, made for my own personal reasons.’
Written and directed by Ferrera’s boyfriend, Ryan Piers Williams, The Dry Land is a serious drama about the problems of war veterans, realised specifically through the character of James (Ryan O’Nan), who returns home from Afghanistan to a reunion with his wife Sarah (Ferrera). But although The Dry Land doesn’t contain a frame of combat footage, the film’s focus is sharply on the damage that prolonged exposure to warfare has caused James.
‘It’s very important to me that people don’t see The Dry Land as a political movie; they might expect it to be some liberal, left-wing story, but we were looking to make something that would transcend such expectations. This is a character story, and it’s relevant however you might feel about the war,’ says Ferrera. ‘The process of making it was exciting, firstly because Ryan’s script was a great piece of material, but also because we spent a long time talking to veterans and their families who were able to describe their own experiences to us. The chance to put a story about them onto the screen was a big, but welcome responsibility for us; our film is dramatic, but not overdramatic when it comes to depicting the psychological condition of a war veteran.’
The Dry Land premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah this year, winning applause for its matter-of-fact handling of a subject rarely tackled onscreen. Since then Ferrera has taken the film on the road, screening The Dry Land in US cities with high concentrations of military and ex-military personnel.
‘There’s a tricky issue about this film, because it has been suggested by some experts that watching a film about post-traumatic stress disorder could be beneficial as part of the treatment of veterans. Exposing them to things which are reminiscent of their experience of combat may provide useful triggers for them, and help them with the process of retraining their brains,’ says Ferrera. ‘And yes, for some people, it’s just too much for them. The other night, we had a man walk out after the first ten minutes, he wished us luck, but said that he couldn’t watch the film. That’s fine. It’s not for everyone, it’s intense, and it stirs up emotions. That’s what we wanted it to do.’
The Dry Land’s authenticity may be in contrast to the braces and bonhomie of Ugly Betty, but her commitment to touring with the film marks out Ferrera as an actress who is most interested in stardom for what she can then do with it.
‘The bottom line is that what happens when you come home from war is a hard thing to understand, and we wanted to tell the truth about that. Soldiers who make it back alive may often have problems with depression, alcohol, or divorces, while others have brain injuries that are even harder to deal with. We wanted to present that kind of story, and do it in as honest a way as is possible,’ says Ferrera. ‘I’m looking forward to bringing the film to Scotland, and to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, to see what kind of a reaction we get there. I’ve never been over there, and my mental picture of the country is just that it’ll be very green, so we’ll see how the experience lives up to my expectations!’