Jenna Ortega has been locked in a basement with a corpse in “X.” She has shot a serial killer to death in “Scream.” She has shredded a satanic cult member with a boat propeller in “The Babysitter: Killer Queen.”
She also slept with the lights on until she was a teenager.
“I was a massive scaredy-cat,” said Ortega, who plays the title character in the new Netflix murder mystery series “Wednesday,” based on the pigtailed and pessimistic Addams Family character, which debuted — when else? — on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, here she is, the star of a series that, for all its icy humor, features at least one dismemberment and one disembowelment in the pilot alone. (Tim Burton directed the first four episodes.) But for Ortega, the interest lies in the character’s deeper layers.
“My Wednesday has this concealed confidence,” Ortega said on a bright Sunday afternoon earlier this month, her long, dark brown hair whipping in the breeze on a video call as she strolled through downtown Salt Lake City, holding her phone in front of her. “She’s on a mission, and she won’t let anyone get in her way.”
Unlike the “Addams Family” films of the early 1990s, in which Christina Ricci played a 10-year-old Wednesday Addams, the new eight-episode series, set in the present day, features Ortega as a 16-year-old version of the character, who is sent to a boarding school for outcasts after an incident gets her expelled from her public high school. (It involves piranhas and a pool full of bullies; Wednesday does not regret it.)
Even in a school populated by vampires and werewolves — her parents, Morticia and Gomez (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzmán), met there as students — Wednesday is a freak among freaks, a frequent subject of gossip because of her and her family’s rumored-to-be-bloody past. But Wednesday is also the latest in a long line of teen roles for Ortega, a former Disney star who was in some ways anxious to move on.
“I definitely had hesitations about doing it,” she said. “I’d already been there and done that with teen shows,” she added, and there was the added pressure of taking on her first role from a known franchise.
Still, it’s not every role that requires you to immerse yourself in learning a half-dozen new skills, including fencing, canoeing, archery, German and twice-weekly cello lessons.
“I was pulling my hair out over that one,” she said. “Everyone in my close circle knows what that cello did to me.”
At 20, Ortega has already been performing in front of cameras for half her life, and she has the self-assurance to match. She grew up the fourth of sixth children in a Mexican neighborhood in La Quinta, Calif., in the Coachella Valley, where she caught the acting bug as a young child.
“I saw Dakota Fanning in ‘Man on Fire’ and told my parents, ‘Guys, I’m going to be the Puerto Rican Dakota Fanning,” she said, trees flashing past as she walked through the city in a green turtleneck, big black headphones wrapped around her neck. (Her father is of Mexican descent; her mother’s heritage is Mexican and Puerto Rican.)
She spent the next three years “begging nonstop” to be an actor before her mother, an emergency room nurse, bought her a book of monologues — and posted a video of her performing one to Facebook when she was 9. A casting director saw it, and within a year, Ortega had booked her first TV role, on the short-lived sitcom “Rob,” with Rob Schneider.
A cascade of roles followed, including young Jane in “Jane the Virgin” when she was 10 and, when she was 12, a lead role as Harley Diaz in the Disney Channel sitcom “Stuck in the Middle” (2016-18). A month later, she withdrew from her eighth-grade classes to pursue her Disney dream.
“Stuck in the Middle” lasted three seasons, after which Ortega was eager to book more mature roles. But her Disney experience, she discovered, came with limitations.
“There’s a huge stigma that comes with being a Disney kid,” she said. “People automatically make the assumption that it’s all you can do, or all you were meant for.”
She experienced a crisis of confidence: She felt, she said, as if she had forgotten how to act.
“You use a different set of tools,” she said of non-Disney roles. “And mine were all dusty and shoved in the corner behind pink and glitter and mouse ears.”
But things soon picked up: In 2018, she was cast opposite Penn Badgley in the second season of the psychological thriller “You,” then landed her first of several horror roles in “The Babysitter: Killer Queen” in 2020.
Her breakout role came in “The Fallout,” released in January, which focuses on the aftermath of a high school shooting. It was Megan Park’s directorial debut and Ortega’s first time leading a film. It was also widely acclaimed.
“Her ability to know when to give her all and when to hold back — to have that understanding of herself as a performer at such a young age — is really rare,” Park said in a recent phone conversation.
When the creators and showrunners of “Wednesday,” Al Gough and Miles Millar (“Smallville”), began developing their lead character, they didn’t want to follow the typical shy-to-confident arc of teenage female protagonists. The two men each have two teenage daughters. They knew better.
“Wednesday starts strong and stays that way,” Millar said. “She’s unapologetic, fearless, smart, weird — it’s very rare to see a female teen character who’s that sure of herself.”
After writing the first four episodes, they had only one director in mind: Burton, who had passed on the “Addams Family” movie in 1991 because of a scheduling conflict.
“We thought he probably wouldn’t even read it,” Gough said of Burton, who hadn’t directed a television series since the 1980s. “We thought we’d have higher odds of winning the Powerball.”
To their surprise, Burton called them four days after receiving the script for the first episode.
“It brought up memories of my school days,” Burton, who also served as an executive producer, said in a recent video interview from Los Angeles. “The characters were the reason I wanted to do it; I didn’t have the burning desire to do, necessarily, television.”
But bringing their collective vision to fruition was going to require the perfect Wednesday. They auditioned hundreds of actresses, but Ortega brought to the character the empathy they were looking for.
“She’s like a silent film actress,” Burton said. “She emotes with her eyes.”
Burton, the director of classic horror-fantasy films like “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands,” got to work putting his stamp on the series, which was filmed in Romania over eight months in 2021 and 2022, taking inspiration, he said, from the original drawings of the New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, who created the Addams Family in 1938. Burton was involved in even the smallest details, styling Ortega’s bangs himself with a comb before a hairdresser sprayed them into place and instructing Ortega on how Wednesday should stand.
“Tim wanted someone to walk by and think I was a mannequin,” Ortega said. “He told me to act like I had a stack of books or a teacup on my head. I got great posture out of it.”
But he was also remarkably hands-off when it came to other elements, Ortega said, allowing her the freedom to arrive at her own interpretation of the character.
“She had very good instincts,” Burton said.
Zeta-Jones said she was impressed by Ortega’s assertiveness in protecting her vision of Wednesday. “She was not intimidated by Tim,” she said. “He’s this great director, but she’d question him — ‘I’ll do it that way, but can we also try it this way?’ — and that’d be the take they took.”
Ortega said it was impossible, though, to completely overlook the pressure of stepping into a role immortalized by Ricci, who plays a newly created character in the series, that of the most “normal” teacher at the school.
“With a character that iconic, you want to do her justice,” Ortega said.
Is she worried she’ll be pigeonholed as a horror queen, especially after “Wednesday”? “A little,” she said. But she still finds it hard to turn down a horror script.
“Horror is very therapeutic,” she said. “You’re screaming bloody murder — you don’t get the chance to do that in your everyday life — so it’s a way to excavate all the unnecessary, pent-up stress.”