TV & Radio

Jenna Ortega’s criticisms about Wednesday weren’t ungrateful – they were refreshing

You have to watch what you say if you’re famous these days. This week, Wednesday star Jenna Ortega has been both lauded and criticised for an interview she gave with Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast. Speaking about Netflix’s record-breaking Addams Family adaptation, she described aspects of the original script as not “making sense”, claiming that she “became almost unprofessional” and “started changing lines” while on set. “I can’t watch my work, but I can go home from set and say, ‘The scene that we shot today felt good,’” Ortega said. “[On] Wednesday there was not a scene in that show that I went home and was like, ‘OK, that should be fine.’”

Her comments drew the ire of some: suffice to say, she is not the most popular figure on screenwriting Twitter at the moment. Pushing back against others’ work on set is one thing. Discussing it on a podcast surely salts the wound. But in this day and age, when actors are usually so neutered in interviews by rigorous media coaching and PR obligations, there’s something undeniably refreshing about Ortega’s candour. The 19-year-old’s expertly deadpan turn as Wednesday Addams turned her into one of the world’s buzziest young actors more or less overnight. (She’s hosting Saturday Night Live this evening and can currently be seen in Scream VI, out in cinemas.) No one would have forgiven her for taking the road of bland wide-eyed gratitude. But a bit of frankness is exactly what the industry needs.

Wednesday is not a bad TV series. Ortega’s performance has rightly been unanimously praised. However, its immense popularity on Netflix – as the third-most-viewed season of TV in the streamer’s history, behind Squid Game and Stranger Things 4 – feels somewhat disproportionate to its modest creative successes. (Wednesday can’t hold a candle, for instance, to 1993’s Addams Family Values, still the best adaptation of the property ever put to screen.) Acting as if Wednesday is some hallowed or culturally significant work of art is simply not justified.

Too often, actors and creatives buy into their own mythos, speaking about their work as if everyone cares as much as they do. This is doubly true when something is a hit. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In 1977, Alec Guinness gave an interview to Michael Parkinson in which he discussed the recently released Star Wars, admitting to some hesitancy when first accepting the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Describing George Lucas’s dialogue as “pretty ropey”, he said: “People are gonna read too much into [Star Wars]. It’s simple stuff for all ages.” Can you imagine anyone involved in Star Wars talking that way now? It would be career suicide. Instead we usually get declarations of piety, and fatuous rhetoric about the wonders of joining the “Star Wars family”, with actors prostrating themselves before the mighty franchise like Goneril and Regan before Disney’s needy King Lear. Guinness – more of a Cordelia with his honest, unbarbed assessment – had a far healthier approach.

Obviously, Wednesday is fighting in a different weight class to Star Wars. But the tone of inflated self-importance abounds in the modern TV industry. It is something that is exacerbated by social media, of course: who can blame a TV writer for thinking their every creative decision carries cosmic weight, when every trivial “update” about a popular series is spun into 50 different news stories and a handful of viral tweets? Ortega could be forgiven for thinking that Wednesday’s “prom dance” scene was a TV moment for the ages, such was the blizzard of superfluous attention that swirled around it following the series’ release.

It may be true, too, that Ortega was borderline “unprofessional” in requesting last-minute changes to the script – but on the spectrum of celebrity diva behaviour, it’s hardly a cardinal sin. Actors are usually celebrated for throwing themselves into their characters. For many viewers, there’s nothing more risible than a Hollywood luvvie collecting a paycheque and “phoning it in”. Again, it requires a bit of perspective about the source material. She wasn’t rewriting Ibsen.

I imagineNetflix’s PR team will probably have a word with Ortega about her podcast appearance, if indeed they haven’t already. Unfiltered honesty will only get you so far in Hollywood. But for the time being, let’s just enjoy the fact that someone, for once, was able to treat an interview for what it is: a discussion, not a sales pitch.

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