Less than year after retiring her signature braces and colorful poncho to bid adieu to Ugly Betty, America Ferrera is back on television, trading in the love triangles, murder trials and Meade family drama for a story line closer to reality — and Ferrera's heart.
"I certainly didn't expect to jump into anything on TV that shortly after being off Betty," the Emmy-winning actress tells TVGuide.com of her guest stint on The Good Wife as graduate student and illegal alien Natalie. "For me, the appeal was just how [creators and executive producers Robert and Michelle King] were really interested in addressing this topic and having the character set in the world of these hot-button issues of immigrants in this country. My heart is very close to those issues."
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Making her Good Wife debut in February, Ferrera's character got caught in the campaign crossfire when Eli (Alan Cumming) discovered that Natalie was Wendy Scott-Carr's undocumented nanny — and biggest political liability. Ripping from the headlines is common practice for the sophomore legal drama, but Ferrera says it was specifically the Kings' different approach to this widely covered issue that persuaded her to take the role.
"[Natalie] is sort of the anti-stereotype of what people imagine when they hear those labels," she says. "It felt like the Kings would be really great people to explore that world in ways that could show their audience an alternative to general preconceived notions about illegal immigrants."
Because of her personal interest in the issue, Ferrera was able to contribute to the conversation about the character as well, such as the inclusion of important relevant topics like the DREAM Act (a proposed piece of legislation that would grant residency to select illegal aliens who entered the U.S. as minors and graduated from American high schools).
"It's a very different vibe than what I did for four years on Betty. We were in a very heightened world and it was kind of silly," she says. "What I think is so great about [The Good Wife] is that so much of what they're talking about is based in reality and so you always have that grounding you. You know that what you're doing and the scenes you're portraying are real life."
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Ferrara says a big challenge was filling the role of an "incredibly intelligent economics major."
"I realized that involved me learning a lot of economics jargon that I didn't quite understand," Ferrera says with a laugh. "It's a lot harder to memorize lines that are full of big and intelligent words than it is in a fun comedy about a fashion magazine."
Her next appearance on Tuesday's episode will call upon her legal terminology rather than her economics know-how. After Eli outed her as an illegal immigrant to take down Wendy in the polls, he decides to help her in court. "It's more Eli's conscience getting the better of him," Ferrera says. "He realizes that his political agenda had real-world impacts on someone's life and not in a good way. He reaches out and tries to get her the help she needs to achieve her legal status."
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That means Eli calling on Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Lockhart Gardner to help defend Natalie and her family in court. Although he burned her once before, Natalie's not in a position to turn him down. "It's important to remember that Natalie's case is a rarefied case," she says. "It's not every illegal immigrant who gets politicians and high-profile lawyers coming in and saying we really want to help you."
She may accept his legal help. But will Natalie ever be able to let in Eli on a personal level and reciprocate the feelings he seems to have for her? It remains to be seen before her third and final appearance on the series April 12.
"Natalie, for some reason, brings out this more human side of him and I think she gets to see that, but she's still very conflicted with who she can trust," she says. "When her life and her livelihood is at stake, it's harder to make herself vulnerable and accept him as being generally a good person when he's proven that he's a little bit of a ruthless politician."
The Good Wife airs Tuesday at 10/9c on CBS.