When Gina Rodriguez stepped behind the camera to direct her first episode of Jane the Virgin, she immediately felt at home, and she made it her mission to make her co-stars feel as comfortable onscreen as she felt off.
Rodriguez's directorial debut, which aired Friday, features the first sex scene between her character Jane and Jane's on-again, off-again love interest Rafael (Justin Baldoni). Although the characters share a 5-year-old son (thanks to the miracle of an accidental artificial insemination) and have dated in the past, viewers have never seen Jane and Rafael as intimate as they were in the closing moments of "Chapter Seventy-Four," which means it was a new experience for the stars as well.
"I think that what I get so blessed about is that [creator Jennie Snyder Urman] chose this particular episode for me because of the sex scene," Rodriguez tells TV Guide. "She said that it would be really great for me to be able to direct something that is so intimate and could be very uncomfortable. It could be very scary to not only shoot, but also to be in that environment. ... So there were a lot of layers of challenge and then it ended up being so beautiful."
Adding to the beauty of the moment is the way the episode builds an emotional foundation for the couple's first serious sexual encounter. Jane and Rafael don't just jump right in bed after they make the decision to secretly explore a relationship together (although Jane did try to do just that in the backseat of Rafael's car at one point early on). Instead, Jane and Rafael decide to take a step back and start by going on a date — one that doesn't end well, with Jane begrudging Rafael for shutting down rather than discussing his feelings, and Rafael begrudging Jane for being judgmental of his choices. But then Jane did what Jane does best and showed its characters openly communicating their feelings in empowering and, yes, a little bit difficult conversations. Only after that do Jane and Rafael feel as though the time is right to have sex for the first time — no dramatic build up, no roleplaying, just the two of them exposed, unfiltered and (more importantly) totally connected in the shower.
In approaching her first sex scene as a director, Rodriguez made it a point to showcase not only the beautiful moment between Jane and Rafael, but also create a safe and affirming environment for her co-star Justin Baldoni, who has been very vocal about his own struggles with body dysmorphia and the pressure he feels to always be to in shape.
"I think that the male gaze on the female body is very different [than] when you have a female gaze on this kind of scene, because I knew what was going to make me feel comfortable. I knew how it was going to make me not only comfortable, but make me feel beautiful, make me feel confident, make me feel sexy," Rodriguez explains. "I was able to give that to my male co-star when, stereotypically, people wouldn't think that men go through this experience. They don't feel confident in front of the lens all the time. They don't feel manly or buff or ripped. I was able to show Justin just how handsome and masculine he was and could be and really wanted to feel."
"So I was able to protect my co-star in a way that women don't often get the opportunity to be protected should there be a male director," Rodriguez adds.
Although female directors are still a rarity in Hollywood (only 11 percent of directors were women on the top 250 grossing films of 2017 and women accounted for a mere 17 percent of television directors in a recent study), on the set of Jane the Virgin, they're the norm. Since The CW telenovela's inception in 2014, creator Jennie Snyder Urman has made it a point to have 80 percent of the directors and writers be women. And so when Rodriguez told Urman she was interested in directing during the first season, Urman told us her answer was a "no-brainer." The challenge was figuring how to make this work.
"It's a huge job! It's five days a week, 14 hour-days," Rodriguez says of her Golden Globe-winning starring role. "Jane is all over every episode so I seldom have much time off."
But while Rodriguez was dubious as to how this might be able to work, Urman kept the possibility of Rodriguez directing in the back of her mind until the perfect opportunity arose. "When we came on for our fourth season, Jennie was like, 'Great. I figured it out. You'll direct Episode 10. You'll have Christmastime to prep so that you actually have time off to do that.' I was like, 'Oh shit. We're doing this! This is great!'" the actress recalls. "So Jennie Urman, it's all because of her. And so many people have her to thank for their first directorial debut opportunities. ... She's kind of a next-level angel and no one really talks about it or I don't think people talk about it enough. But it's because of her that I've been afforded this opportunity."
While "Chapter Seventy-Four" marked Rodriguez's first time directing, the actress has always been a natural leader on the set of Jane, making the transition from star to director fairly seamless. "I have always been a vocal actor when I think somebody may be struggling or there's a communication problem between a director and one of my cast mates that I know how they like to be spoken to or I know their strengths and how they could be highlighted or optimized, so I've kind of always been vocal, with respect, of course. Respectfully vocal," she says. "So moving into that position was, to me, very liberating because I was being told I was being allowed to talk and I was being told I was allowed to contribute my thoughts and my creativity to Jane and this world that I was so familiar with, this world that I've been living in. And I live, eat and breathe Jane so it felt like a very comfortable move for me."
Rodriguez's deep history with the show and her co-workers proved to be an incomparable asset in her first directorial outing, particularly in an episode that saw so many characters exploring a side of their sexuality they had never considered. In addition to Jane and Rafael's first sex scene, Jane's rival-turned-friend Petra (Yael Grobglas) realizes that she's attracted to her female lawyer JR, played by guest star Rosario Dawson ("It was really about studying their relationship and the episodes prior and then really picking the moments that I can have JR look at Petra in a way we haven't seen JR do before and Petra look at JR in a way that we have been accustomed to seeing her do when she's with her male counterparts," Rodriguez says). But the emotional core of the episode lies in the arc of Jane's grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll), who admits to Jane that the real reason she turned down a recent marriage proposal was because she was nervous about having sex for the first time after 30 years of celibacy.
Jane takes it upon herself to help Alba reconnect with her sexuality, taking her to a sex store and buying Alba a vibrator and lubricant despite her insistence that self-pleasure is a sin. And while many of these moments are played for comedy, the series never reduces Alba's struggles to cheap laughs, instead equally exploring how this Catholic-influenced sexual repression has tragically impacted Alba's life — an issue Rodriguez felt particularly honored to help the series explore. "We seldom see women of her age and definitely Latino women discussing temptation or pleasure or desire or sexuality, and so it was a really big episode for us and I think it was an opportunity for me to talk about something that I know so many women would love to talk about," says Rodriguez, who notes how Coll's strengths as an actress allowed her the freedom to play with this conflict.
"I think that I wanted to approach that whole scenario [delicately] because Ivonne Coll is a magnificent actress. I mean, really next level," says Rodriguez. "The fact that she's able to convey and emote storytelling in a way that you don't even need to know what she's saying, you don't even need to know the language, you don't even half to look at the subtitles! I think that's what makes her so phenomenal. So to have that tool in front of me, I was able to play with levels of embarrassment, of shame, discomfort with the comedy of all of us [having] felt this. ... With her, I was able to get so many different levels that allowed me to really play with it in the editing room and decide what was going to that comfortable balance."
The end result is a moment that is so quintessential Jane, with Alba using a vibrator for the first time in a scene that is as heartfelt as it is humorous. This tricky tonal balance is what again and again sets Jane apart in an increasingly overcrowded TV landscape, but it's also what makes directing the telenovela such a challenge, and one Rodriguez was more than happy to rise to.
"It was definitely a lot of work," Rodriguez says. "And as a director and lead in the show, I don't know how I got through the whole thing — with very little sleep and not much food and really comfortable gym shoes — but it was exhilarating. I felt like I was fully flying, fully using every part of me that I've been collecting on the way. Every experience, every time I've watched a director move or talk or make a decision or bring peace or bring leadership. I've just kind of pulled from every memory I have."
"And I just don't know why I'm acting now. I just want to direct all the time," she notes. "I'm like, oh, I remember this passion. I remember why I wanted to do this. And I get to use so much more creativity and so much more of my brain. It feels great."
Jane the Virgin airs Fridays at 9/8c on The CW.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)