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America Ferrera has had quite a year so far – her comedy Our Family Wedding opened last week, she produced and starred in the movie Towards Darkness, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival, and next week she begins shooting the final episode of her successful TV series, Ugly Betty.

In her new animated movie How to Train Your Dragon, she voices the role of Astrid, a young Viking girl who longs to fight and kill dragons, who shows an interest in Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), another young potential dragon slayer in her class. The character doesn’t exist in the novels by Cressida Cowell, and was added because the producers felt a strong female character was missing, which I asked her about.

Did you relate to your character in a particular way? She was trying to prove herself in a group of men; did you ever find that in your own life?

How to Train Your Dragon - America Ferrera
America Ferrera voices “Astrid” © Dreamworks

I was always a girl who, when I was younger, I played baseball with the boys; I did not want to play softball.  I wanted nothing to do with it. I wanted to play baseball with the guys and I wanted to be as good as them, so I think I definitely related to Astrid.

I thought it was so cool that Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (the screenwriters) cared enough to amp up Astrid’s character, because before she wasn’t a big part of the world, and they made Astrid and Hiccup’s relationship stronger.

So I totally related to the character, and I was super happy that now girls can go watch this movie and say, ‘I can train a frickin’ dragon too!’

What was it about this project that interested you in doing it?

How to Train Your Dragon - America Ferrera
After falling off of Toothless mid-flight, Astrid (America Ferrera) clings to a branch and hangs on for dear life © Dreamworks

I didn’t really care what the movie was about. When DreamWorks called and said, ‘Do you want to be in a DreamWorks animated film?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ They told me what the character was, and showed me the world, and I would have said yes to any of it.

When someone recently asked me what movie character in the history of movies that I related to the most, what I came up with was the Little Mermaid, Ariel. And this was like wish fulfillment for me.

Something that’s really fun about this is being a very small part of a huge result. It’s so satisfying to show up and be a part of something so cool, that you were just a tiny part of really. The amount of hours we put in compared to the amount of hours everyone else on this project put in, it’s incomparable, and I just wanted to do this because it seemed like so much fun, and I feel very lucky I fell into something really fun and good.

How did Astrid change throughout the arc of doing the voice?

How to Train Your Dragon - America Ferrera
America Ferrera (Astrid) in the recording studio at DreamWorks Animation © Dreamworks

The story has really changed since we started it. I started on it three years ago, and the story has changed a lot and progressed. It took awhile I think for the filmmakers, at least with my character, to figure out what my character was and who she was.

How tomboyish was she? Did we want her to be softer, did we want her to be rougher? How much did she like Hiccup, and how much didn’t she? Over the course of three years we really played with that, and I didn’t feel like I knew who my character was until I got in the booth with Jay Baruchel.

I don’t know if they got a lot of stuff out of those (sessions), because it’s hard to talk with each other, because they needed (the sound) to be so clean. But it certainly informed everything when I got back in the booth and was by myself, because I knew Jay’s energy and knew who our characters would be with each other.

I just loved getting to work with Jay. I was terrified, I’d done one animated film before, (Tinkerbell for Disney) but this was kind of my first feature animated film, so getting to work with him, he’s such a pro, made it easier for me.

I know you have a lot of admiration for the animators.

How to Train Your Dragon - Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and TJ Miller
Hiccup’s fellow classmates in Dragon Training are: Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Astrid (America Ferrera), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Tuffnut (TJ Miller) © Dreamworks

And it’s proof when you see (the movie) in the different stages, because I saw a version of the movie where a third of it was animated, and then the other scenes were in different stages, like stick drawings and others were half-animated and some were animated but not lit, I don’t know how many versions.

I felt like in the scenes where it wasn’t fully animated, where it was a voice to a stick figure, there wasn’t that emotional connection as when the animators do their work and create the humanity in the characters through their animation. They’re more than half of the performance I would say.

Can you talk about the end of Ugly Betty?

It’s hard for me to even imagine what my life is going to be like after that last day because I’ve been doing the same thing for the last four years, five days a week, ten months out of the year. In between I’ve squeezed in a movie here and a movie there.

Now I’m just excited to sleep and not feel like I have four weeks to find something that is worth doing and do it. I think what I’m doing next is relax and just have that exciting feeling of anything’s possible.