Arts, Culture & Entertainment

Gabriela Ortega’s trial and error journey

How the USC alum pushes for diverse storytelling in entertainment as she navigates her career as a filmmaker.

Headshot of Gabriela Ortega with her head in her hands, surrounded by greenery and sitting in a woven chair.

Hands clap, hips swing and heels kick through a generational curse in Gabriela Ortega’s short film she wrote and directed, “Huella,” that just finished streaming at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The short film follows Daniela Garcia’s (Shakira Barrera) journey through the five stages of grief after being forced to face her female ancestors when her grandmother dies. It’s filled with Flamenco and a boiling past that touches on the feeling of loss.

Ortega created the film as part of Lena Waithe’s Rising Voices program this past year, a triumph that set her eyes on her future as a filmmaker. However, the USC alum is not just a filmmaker, but a multi-hyphenated artist dedicated to sharing authentic Latinx stories.

Amidst the constant reports on the lack of Latinx representation in film, Ortega represents one of many artists part of the Latinidad demanding more out of the film industry, from supporting diverse voices to creating opportunities for Latinx storytelling to shine. As an artist who has pushed through barriers to make opportunities for herself, she hopes to inspire others and help them see their bright futures ahead.

“If I can be an agent of change for that, then I can’t be selfish,” Ortega said. “I have to think outside of myself.”

Ortega began her journey as a BFA Acting major at USC, graduating in 2017. Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, coming to Los Angeles offered an opportunity to pursue her dreams as an actor. However, her plan changed over time as she discovered her calling for filmmaking.

“I’ve been working so much I lost out on things with family and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices with my time to be able to do what I want to do,” she said. “But I think it all comes down to asking yourself, ‘What are you doing for yourself? Is it because you will love it and not because other people expect you to do it?”

After graduating from USC, she worked three jobs: one in retail and the other two at restaurants. She went through a bad breakup and felt the stresses of everyday life as an adult thrust into the world as many college students may feel after graduation. It was difficult, Ortega said, but she kept going.

“I kept trying to sort of keep busy and try things to see what I really liked,” she said. “I failed a bunch. I’ve applied to so many grants that got rejected. I’ve done so many auditions and got rejected. I’ve tried to collaborate with people that didn’t work out. I’ve had to let go of certain dreams but now I’m not looking at it with regret or anything, I’m actually really grateful for the trial and error journey.”

Now she has multiple awards and credit lines under her name, from the NewNarratives grant with WarnerMedia 150 and New Filmmakers LA to being a 2021-2022 Sundance Institute “Art of Practice” fellow. Her first short film “Papi” has even been acquired by HBO and is set to premiere this year. Ortega’s journey wasn’t easy, but it’s one she will never regret.

LIFE ON STAGE AND OFF

Ortega arrived at USC in 2013 excited for the future and open to opportunities, just as many freshmen do. However, as she got to understand the politics of the entertainment industry, she started to see how the media treated and portrayed Latinas on screen.

“I started seeing that the industry hadn’t caught up to what I thought the industry could be,” she said. “I didn’t want to put myself in a box.”

Back home in the Dominican Republic, she felt like she could be herself, even in theatre. While in the U.S., she noticed how her adolescent idea of Hollywood changed. She said she was grateful that she got representation quickly, but still noticed issues in the roles she got auditions for.

“I did feel that the stuff that I was getting to audition for — I was more critical of Hollywood, SAG and professional projects in that way — felt a little limited, and felt a little stereotypical,” she said.

Even in 2013, she said she felt like conversations of diverse representation in film and television were still very new. Instead of getting caught in the loop of conversations, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“This is such a long road into changing the landscape of this industry and who’s making decisions,” Ortega said. “I started writing for myself because I wanted to create the world I want to see. I want to create the world I want to be in. I wanted to show how I grew up.”

She turned to mentors like Oliver Mayer and Luis Alfaro, two Latino playwrights in the dramatic writing program at USC. As she learned from them and started developing her own work, she said she felt herself grow as an artist, not just an actor.

By Ortega’s junior year, she wrote a one-woman show titled “Las Gracias” that premiered at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2016 and was nominated for “Best Solo Show.”

“It reframed this idea that I don’t have to wait for someone to give me a job or give me an opportunity because I felt like I have a lot to say, and I feel very embraced and encouraged to do that,” Ortega said.

She looked up to creators like Issa Rae, Lena Waithe and Phoebe Waller-Bridge who were unapologetically themselves and created their own roles s when they didn’t feel represented in the media. Ortega said she was glad she followed her gut and started writing and creating her own roles.

“Between day jobs and auditions and all this stuff, I always managed to not wait for just someone to give me a ‘yes,’ she said. “I started putting myself into plays and as I started producing stuff with friends, I started writing short films.”

Gabriela Ortega reaching to the left, providing direction as the writer and director of her short film "Huella."

LIFE BEHIND THE CAMERA

In 2017, Ortega gathered a few friends together to film “Un Acto de Rebeldia al Dia,” a short film that highlighted the acts of violence against women in the Dominican Republic. Ortega, Isabella Breton and Nicole Coiscou let the film depict how femicide starts with the microaggressions against women that society ignores.

The film centralized on a poem Ortega wrote in response to the murder of Emely Peguero.

“It [the poem] was about freedom and about all the things you sort of rob someone of when you take their life,” she said.

They fundraised to help cover the costs of production. In the end, it was a success that even got the attention of the government. Ortega said it not only premiered in the Dominican Republic but was actually played 10 times because of people’s continued interest in the short film. The film also had an art installation associated with it that allowed people to add wooden blocks to a larger stack, showing how each microaggression can add up.

“It got picked up by the last vice presidency to create events that would facilitate how to raise your boys in a feminist household and women from other communities were leading workshops about empowerment and about their natural hair, and how to not be apologetic about the way you look and racism in the workplace,” Ortega said. “It became bigger than us.”

“Un Acto de Rebeldia al Dia’' continued to impact communities all over the world. It was then that Ortega realized the impact she can have through film.

“I love theater and I will always return to the theater — I’m still an actor — but there’s something about being able to create film and the reach it can have that I think is something I just started tapping into.”

Since then, she’s been working in film, honing her craft as a writer and a director, especially in the past two years. At the beginning of the pandemic when everything went to a standstill, Ortega wanted to take the time to continue exploring her artistry.

She pulled together footage from a past road trip with her father. She wanted to document their time together and put it aside for a project later down the line that she still hadn’t fully conceptualized.

“It’s like I’m re-meeting my dad and this stage of his life and he sort of became like this friend, as well,” she said. “I just started documenting that and I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what it was yet.”

She brought together a couple of friends who also wanted to use their time in quarantine to keep creating and started editing everything. In the end, she created “Papi,” a short film dedicated to her father. The film was completely filmed on her phone and pieced together like a documentary. HBO later acquired the film and is scheduled to release on Father’s Day.

Things started to pick up even more when she became part of the Rising Voices program. The program chooses 10 up-and-coming BIPOC filmmakers and grants them a $100,000 production budget to create their own short films. She used the opportunity to create “Huella,” continuing to put Latina voices at the forefront.

“I did it with an all-Latina cast, super intentional, and it’s about grief and generational curses,” she said. “And I’m proud to say that I got into Sundance.”

While exploring directing, she noticed how her experience in theatre informed her directing. She looks at film from a different perspective.

“I really don’t like movies that you see and you’re like, ‘Oh, I hated the movie, but I loved Meryl Streep in it,’” she said. “I think that’s not a good movie.”

Instead, she lets the beauty of the film shine through the storytelling, from the story to the visuals.

“What I learned was that I want to be a director for actors too,” Ortega said. “I’m also so grateful that I didn’t go to film school either because I’m not so tied to making something just pretty. I want to do both. I want it to look beautiful, but I want it all to go back to the story.”

She pulls her inspiration as a director from all over. She looks towards theatre, visual arts, music and cinema. Although she may not be acting, directing provides a similar satisfying feeling because she sees the whole picture and speaks to her actors the way she would want to be spoken to onset.

“It’s wonderful to be able to oscillate between the two,” Ortega said.

From working three jobs to being an artist full-time was a long time coming for her, and it’s a privilege she doesn’t take for granted. Ortega said she feels like she is in a transitional period, leaning into her film pursuits.

“Now I’m really focusing on writing and directing,” she said. “I’m not mourning the loss of acting, because I’m still gonna do it, but I am sort of at peace with the fact that I need to focus on this thing right now.”

LIFE

It’s taken Ortega about four years of constantly creating to get to a point where she feels like she knows where she wants to go in her career. But this may not be the case for everyone. Everyone reaches that feeling in their own time.

“That could take 10 years, it could take five, it could take two,” Ortega said. “I think being able to tune in with who you are and your spirit and what really tickles you and makes you sort of catch fire.”

As an actor, she knows how every decision, every rejection, may feel like a career-making moment. However, it took time for her to break that cycle.

“Everything feels larger than life,” she said. “One audition could change your life and it destroys you when you don’t get it. I’ve had to sort of hone in my character and not take things too personally and not let them affect who I am as a person.”

Ortega is using the upcoming year to continue exploring her passion for film. Along the way, she pushes for diverse representation in film.

“When you give a person of a certain background the power to tell their own story, and the power to really tap into what they know, and the humanity and the reality and the specificity of their experience, the more universal the stories become,” she said.

She’s taken each opportunity to tell her story as a Latina. As she continues working in the entertainment industry, she wants people to not hire writers of color as a token voice, but as a powerful one that deserves to be supported.

“It’s so important to not just hire writers from diverse backgrounds,” she said. “We’re not a consolation prize, but here to serve the story because you’re the right person to tell it and because you’re good and talented.”

She said part of the problem is the demographic divide between executives and the creative team.

“They need to really listen to us with the disposition that we know what we’re talking about, there needs to be that trust,” Ortega said.

Ortega started her journey demanding more than just another stereotypical Latinx role. She took it into her own hands and started making her own stories and roles. By following that intuition, no matter how difficult, she found the support she needed to make her dreams a reality.

“Follow your intuition and try stuff because we live in a world where everyone is sort of being pushed into so many things at the same time that the more you can be open and let your life surprise you, that journey unfolds as you’re working towards it.”