If the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Station 19 had happened 10 years ago, you might have been looking at a completely different actress playing the lead role of firefighter Andy Herrera. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t have been Jaina Lee Ortiz, who stars as Herrera, but she would have looked completely different and gone by another name.
Born Jessica Ortiz, the second-generation Puerto Rican thought she needed to blend in with the prevalent blond-haired, blue-eyed (read: white) aesthetic of Hollywood in order to be taken seriously. For her first set of head shot photos, she went so far as to dye her hair blond and even contemplated getting blue contacts. “I thought, I have to fit in,” she tells us. “Now I know differently. I am what I am, and I’m going to own it and scream it out the window: ‘I’m Puerto Rican. I’m from the Bronx. I can play these roles, and that’s it. Period.’”
While the blond hair didn’t last, her decision to change her name professionally did. “Everyone in New York still knows me as Jessica, but for so many years I just felt like Jessica was the most common name,” she explains. “I didn’t connect artistically with it.” After looking up other names that start with the letter J—and taking on the middle name Lee because “Bruce Lee is my dad’s favorite guy”—Ortiz settled on Jaina. Ironically, as soon as she did she booked her first national commercial.
Since then, she’s worked regularly, but it wasn’t until she began playing Annalise Villa on the Fox drama Rosewood that the door to Shondaland Productions opened. “Most people don’t know this, but when I first met Shonda, it was for another show,” Ortiz says. “That show didn’t work out, so she ended up throwing me into this Grey’s Anatomy spin-off about firefighters. But at the time, there wasn’t even a script.” In fact, there wasn’t even a story or any specific characters. “All I knew for about three months was that I was going to be on a Shonda Rhimes show about firefighters, and that was it.”
So, during that time, Ortiz met with two female firefighter captains to get a glimpse into what her fictional life might look like. “It was incredible,” she says. “This is a male-dominated industry, and they want nothing more than to succeed and be the very best because they feel like they have more to prove. That was a huge lesson.” Ortiz notes that of the reported 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, only 7 percent are female. That statistic gave her an even greater appreciation for what it takes to succeed in that field.
Of course, if you’re a fan of Shondaland, then you know it’s that kind of working environment—and role—that would make sense for a spin-off. And while Ortiz was definitely aware of Rhimes’ track record of showcasing “powerful, incredible, fantastic” female characters, she never expected to be one of them.
“Once I read the script and saw I was doing the [narration] and I was sort of a reflection of Ellen Pompeo’s role on Grey’s…that’s when it hit me,” Ortiz says. “I just freaked out. Acting is such an unstable profession, but I just thought, OK, they’ve given me responsibility, so now I just have to show up and do my best. That’s the only thing I have control over.”
“Whoever fits the role best, gets it. It’s not about race; it’s about talent. I love that.”
Well, that and the ability to use her platform to spread the message of gender and racial equality that Rhimes and her shows share. “I have to give Shonda, her team, and her casting director, Linda Lowy, credit because she does the best color-blind casting. The breakdowns for roles will say open to all ethnicities, and she’ll have Asian, African American, Caucasian, Latina, everyone come in. Whoever fits the role best, gets it. It’s not about race; it’s about talent. I love that.”
Ortiz learned those lessons at a young age, starting with her dad, who is now a retired homicide detective from New York City. “He taught me a lot of street smarts and to be a few steps ahead in every situation,” she explains. “I feel like I channel him in every one of my roles. That’s why I always say, ‘Know your own strength and own it.’ What do you want to show this world? How do you want to contribute to the diverse shift that’s happening in Hollywood now?”
For that very reason, Ortiz has a moment of gratitude whenever she sees a billboard or a poster of Station 19 plastered on the streets of Los Angeles. “That first time was very surreal,” she says of seeing her alter-ego in suspenders and full uniform. “I didn’t see me up there. I saw a woman that I looked up to, like I finally have a role model. Especially in this political climate with the Time’s Up movement, this is not a woman who is afraid to stand up for what she wants. It inspires me. We need more women, both onscreen and behind the camera. We need more female producers, writers, and directors. This role is just another door opening.”