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Joey Nolfi
October 18, 2017 AT 03:33 PM EDT

Patricia Cardoso’s coming-of-age drama, Real Women Have Curves, opens on an elderly woman gleefully singing under an early morning sunrise — one that coats her luminous, weathered, storied skin in picturesque beams of light. It then quickly cuts to a shot of a young woman washing away soot from a heavily soiled window. The sentiment guiding the film is clear: beauty exists all around us, but we must polish our perspective to find it.

If Hollywood history is to be believed, visual splendor is most often found solely within the confines of white America, but Real Women Have Curves, a breakout Sundance hit with a predominantly Latin-American cast, expanded an entire generations’ concept of beauty, an impact that’s still felt 15 years after the film’s original Oct. 18, 2002, release. At a time when most films set in East Los Angeles chronicled gang life, Real Women Have Curves instead struck a poetic chord of authenticity with its warm portrayal of a lived-in, culturally rich, cinematically underserved side of the nation. The film foces on Ana (America Ferrera), a full-figured high school senior who liberates herself from societal standards and her family’s traditional values on a journey of sexual and cultural awakening, weighing the pursuit of higher education in New York City against fulfilling her mother’s (Lupe Ontiveros) stifling pleas for her to settle down with a man and abandon professional ambitions to work at her sister’s textile factory.

The film contrasts original playwright Josefina Lopez’s vision for both the new and old guard of women in Mexican-American culture, creating a space where progression is only achieved through respectful compromise in the film’s haunting final frame, which acknowledges a girl can still walk like a lady if she reaches back and leans forward as she commands center stage in her own narrative. “Turn on the light, I want you to see me,” a naked Ana instructs her boyfriend, Jimmy, toward the conclusion, shortly before they have sex for the first time. “I want you to see me. This is what I look like.” In that moment, as Ana comes into her own, it’s not difficult to imagine an entire audience seeing themselves reflected on the big screen in the pale glow of the lamp on the nightstand — the universal struggle to “fit in” melting away as the air of acceptance washes over every fold on Ana’s body and into the collective consciousness of moviegoers waiting to do the same.

On the film’s 15th anniversary, read on for EW’s full behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film with Ferrera, Cardoso, co-star George Lopez, screenwriter and producer George LaVoo, and the woman who started it all, Josefina Lopez.

In 1988, a formerly undocumented playwright literally wrote the next chapter of her life into a groundbreaking play about five Latina women trapped in a sewing factory

JOSEFINA LOPEZ: I was undocumented for 13 years. I wanted to write a play to affirm my humanity because I felt so dehumanized being undocumented… I’ve always had issues with my weight [and one of my teachers] told me, not in a mean way [that] she thought I was a great actress — that I had the ability to play Juliet and Lady Macbeth — but no one was going to cast me as the ingénue if I didn’t lose weight. Because only thin girls get the lead. Men write the roles and direct the movies [so I had] to adhere to those standards; otherwise, I’d always play the side character. I thought, ok, if I lose the weight, then I’m going to be told by casting people that I should change my name [to] a white name, change my hair color… if I do this, I’m going to have to give up who I am to be an actress. I refused to do that. The problem isn’t that I’m undocumented, Mexican, working class, or overweight; the problem is society.

Nicola Goode/HBO

Soon after, offers poured in from Warner Bros. to Norman Lear, who approached Lopez about translating her work to screens big and small

JOSEFINA LOPEZ: It took 11 years for the movie to get made. I worked with Norman Lear to turn it into a sitcom, and even he couldn’t get it on TV! He went to the presidents of the three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC — they said it wasn’t interesting or original. I said, “Yes it is! It’s about Mexican-Americans, where else are we seeing real Mexican-Americans on TV?”

Lopez then gave writer George LaVoo a shot at pushing the story in a new direction, shifting the story’s perspective to the youngest character, Ana, a curvy L.A. teen with dreams of attending Columbia University despite familial resistance

GEORGE LAVOO: Josefina was willing to meet with me, but she asked, “The Norman Lear version didn’t pan out, so how could you get this made when he couldn’t even sell it?” [Laughs] But, I had the idea of shifting the story, so she gave me options and a very small amount of money, and I worked on a draft. One of the big changes was that in the play, the older sister, Estela, is the main character, but the younger sister, Ana, had more potential for growth and change. That shift made the story more accessible as a film.

JOSEFINA LOPEZ: [Ana] is the entry point for an audience, she endures the most courageous [evolutionary] act of loving and accepting herself while challenging her mother’s old-fashioned views. George guided me as to how to open it up and how to make it simple too and made universal and acceptable to a white audience and a male audience… we [didn’t want to alienate men], but wanted to reveal that machismo and sexism in Mexican-American culture are often passed through the mother, that she’s the enforcer of machismo… [so] she became the antagonist [in the movie].

Everett Collection

Finally, a female executive at HBO changed everything

JOSEFINA LOPEZ: HBO’s Maud Nadler had the power to say yes. It came down to a female executive saying women’s stories matter. Stories about mothers and daughters are important to me because I love my mother, and I remember asking Maud, after we made the film, why she said yes. She said: “Because I love my mother.” It took a woman in a position of power to find value in this story.

LAVOO: I wasn’t expecting every door to be closed in my face… [Every studio head] said, “I really like this script, but there’s no audience for it.” Luckily, I connected with what they called the art house division of HBO, and they felt like this project came at the right time for them, because they were going to do what the networks weren’t: reach the Latino audience… other people said they couldn’t finance it because there were no stars to hook the audience on. At that time, 17 years ago, there were almost no known Latino stars in America that were financeable, but I wanted to create a new star.

Nicola Goode/HBO

Colombian filmmaker Patricia Cardoso was hired to direct, and the cast soon fell into place, fronted by a then-unknown 17-year-old with only a single TV movie under her belt

AMERICA FERRERA: I’d just shot a Disney Channel Original Movie called Gotta Kick It Up; that was the first time I’d booked a paying job. With my first check, I bought a car and paid for a summer drama program at Northwestern University before my senior year of high school. I was away at drama camp [when] I got a call from my manager that HBO was casting for a character I fit the bill for. They wanted me to come back and audition, but I was so set on drama camp that I refused. I said, “I’m going to finish drama camp, and in six weeks if they haven’t’ found someone, I’ll go in.” That was a bold thing to do for a 17-year-old with no credits to her name. Six weeks later, they [still] wanted to see me.

I was excited that there was a with a Latin-American girl in the lead, one who came from a background that felt similar to mine. I’d never seen a movie like it, and I’d never seen a character like this portrayed in film before… What’s special about the film is that so many people can watch it and see in themselves and the dream they have for themselves that their parents, family, or friends didn’t see for them. The specificity of it made it feel universal.

GEORGE LOPEZ: It was like watching a rose open up. There was a lot at stake with the movie and the part, and America had to carry that. It was tough on a girl who was almost 18 years old. Every time I saw her in our scenes, I could see the flower open up a little bit more. I remember the look in her eyes; You can’t hide that look, that little bit of insecurity that all actors have, but then the confidence she brought, it made me feel tears of joy.

Nicola Goode/HBO

Casting Ana’s conservative mother, however, was a challenge. Studios suggested major stars who weren’t right for the part, and an international search yielded no results, so Cardoso came full circle and cast the play’s OG head-mama-in-charge

LAVOO: Earlier that year, there was company that said if I could get Raquel Welch to play the mother, maybe they’d finance it. But she’s not right! She’s an extremely glamorous, beautiful person, not the earthy mother we needed.

CARDOSO: I didn’t want to cast Lupe Ontiveros, because she’d played the character before, and my concept for the movie was very different. I looked everywhere. I had a casting director in New York, another one in Texas, and one in Mexico City, but Lupe really was the best actress for the role. When I realized that, I called her and asked if she’d be willing to meet, and we did. I told her upfront that I love her work, but I was concerned she’d play the character she played in the stage version because my concept was completely different from that character — and she liked my concept more!

Nicola Goode/Lavoo/Shutterstock

A cast had been finalized, but Cardoso found another character during production: the city of Los Angeles, lensed through a warm, vibrant perspective in contrast with the gang-related stories often filmed in Boyle Heights

CARDOSO: I wanted to show a part of Los Angeles we don’t usually see, in a beautiful way, not a seedy neighborhood filled with stereotypes of East L.A. It was important to expand the concept of beauty for women [with this film], but also for the city and the neighborhoods. When I hired the production designer and cinematographer, I was looking for people who had that same sensibility. I interviewed some cinematographers and they told me, “Oh yes, we’re going to make sure we make East Los Angeles look very tough,” and I’m like, “No, that’s not what I want!” It was definitely a breakthrough. There’d been other movies about East Los Angeles before, but many of those stories are about the poor, illegal immigrant struggle, or gang members and drug dealers — which is still a reality of the Mexican-American world in Los Angeles, but I chose to tell a different part of that reality.

LAVOO: It’s based on Josefina’s experienc. She’s curvy, and so much [about embracing that] is told through the soft, warm, humorous tone of Josefina’s experience… Hopefully that’s what you’re seeing when you see the city as different from the gangs and the grittiness [from other films]. Josefina wanted to show the city as a vibrant place where women can have full lives and grow.

GEORGE LOPEZ: The house in the movie, the factory, and the locations were the foundation we needed to be able to talk about this movie 15 years later. Not only do the actors connect with each other, they connected to the area. It’s not a studio, it’s not a stage; you don’t walk into the stage and see the back of a house, you walk into an actual house [in Boyle Heights]. That means a lot! We were all in there, all in the backyard, all in the house, and it plays real because it was real.

Nicola Goode/HBO

The film’s climax, which sees Ana and her factory coworkers stripping down to their underwear during a heat wave, plays as an empowering surge of sisterhood and body acceptance, though Ferrera almost didn’t participate  

CARDOSO: In the version of the play I saw, the underwear they wore [in the scene] was big and exaggerated, so it played as if people were laughing at the women, so I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted the actresses to choose the underwear they liked and felt comfortable in. Everything was done to make them look good and feel beautiful how they already are. Each actor showed the costume designer pictures of underwear they liked, then she went to the store and bought many different things, and they all chose from what she bought!

FERRERA: I was 17 years old, and it was only my second job. I’d never had to take my clothes off in front of a 200-person crew — most of them men. I’m sure I was incredibly intimidated by that. I remember wearing a robe between takes, and as the day went on, it was too much of a hassle to get the robe on and off between takes, so I was like, whatever, I’ll stand here without the robe!

CARDOSO: America didn’t want to take off her pants! When we rehearsed, she was completely fine, but when we shot it, she didn’t want to. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but she was only 17. She came to me and told me she felt the character wouldn’t do that. She said it was unnecessary, but I knew that by contract she had to do it, but I didn’t want to force her. She came back 20 minutes later and told me, “Ok, I’m going to do it, but I’m only going to do it for you.”

LAVOO: We had dividers up so that the area of the set [we were shooting] was blocked off; only a few people were allowed there. We were getting ready to shoot, and Patricia comes up to me and says, “America doesn’t want to do the scene the way it’s written; she only wants to take her top off, not her pants.” This was the first we were hearing this, and it’s what’s done in the play and it’s a crucial turning point in the story. We had to do it. So, I made an excuse. I said, “Let me call Colin Callender,” who was the head of HBO Films at the time. I said, “Let me see what he wants.” So, I took my phone outside, and I pretended to call Colin. I came back and said, “Colin said you have to do it.” And she said, “Ok, we’ll do it.” I didn’t know what we were going to do. I couldn’t imagine the movie without that scene. Hopefully they’re happy it happened that way. [Laughs].

CARDOSO: America was mad at me the whole day! It took two days to shoot that scene, and she was so mad, she wouldn’t even look me in my eyes! The next day, she came running to me and said, “You know, now I understand why it was important for the character to take off her pants. Can we please shoot the scene again?” I said, “No, you did it perfectly!”

FERRERA: I clearly see how this film empowered others to feel seen, liberated, and beautiful, but I was a child playing everything but a typical child. More than saying, “Oh, that’s my body,” people watched it and said, “Oh yes, that’s how my mom responds to my body, that’s how my culture responds to my body, that’s how the world responds to my body.” For me, being a young woman going through my own journey with my body, having it seen and talked about and projected upon by people watching this movie, if anything, sort of stunned me for a while, because that in and of itself sent a strong message about how I should feel about my body, and it was a much longer journey for me to get to a place where I felt empowered about my body the way that film helped others feel.

Nicola Goode/HBO

HBO took the film to Sundance the following year, where its runaway success began

FERRERA: I remember the premiere at Sundance, with 500 people in the audience. Very few of them were Latino — it was Sundance, so it was mostly white — but it was still people from different backgrounds and walks of life, so it wasn’t necessarily playing to a specific audience. There wasn’t a screening in Boyle Heights with Mexican-American community members, so I think there was a feeling of oh, are people going to get this? When an audience of 500 industry insiders rose to their feet and gave us a long, standing ovation, it became clear that it transcended the specificity of the film.

JOSEFINA LOPEZ: When I saw it at Sundance, I knew it was a hit when I heard men crying in the audience!

Fifteen years later, the film has inspired a generation of body positivity

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JOSEFINA LOPEZ: It became a story about asking: what’s the value of a woman? You’re a masterpiece by God’s design, and you should feel proud of yourself, and that’s the story I wanted to tell the world because that’s what I wanted to tell myself. Growing up in this country, you’re constantly shown that being white and thin is beautiful… society tells women we only have value if, somehow, we have value to men. If men value us, if we have a function to them, then we have value, [but] I wasn’t put on earth to be somebody’s servant, to be someone’s supporting character; I’m here to be the protagonist of my own story.

FERRERA: It’s a story about relationships, people, and human beings. What was so surprising to people was that they’d never seen this mother-daughter, coming-of-age story told through the lens of a young Latina woman who happens to be in a body that wasn’t [considered] ladylike. The film is about a young girl with dreams, and a family and a culture that couldn’t give her what she needed to [achieve those dreams], and that’s a story about the human experience. I can’t imagine that it doesn’t still resonate on a personal, human level.

GEORGE LOPEZ: I don’t think you have to be Latino to have dreams. Every kid says something like, “My dream is to be a teacher!” Well, that should be a goal, not a dream. A dream is maybe you want to fly around the earth three times or stand on the sun. That’s a dream… my grandparents didn’t encourage me to be anything other than a carpenter or shipping-and-receiving clerk. So at some point, you’re going to have to break with family, and that’s what this movie is. If Ana stays home, nothing good happens, and when she does leave, she sees her sister’s broken dreams in her eyes when as she says goodbye. It’s significant to everyone; it’s not even racial. Everyone has a dream. It’s what all the great movies are about. 

FERRERA: Having Real Women Have Curves as my first large film experience set the tone for the career I wanted, and what I sought out in projects afterward. I realized I could do what I love and tell stories that had the power to make people feel seen. While that’s by no means what I set out to do at 17 years old, it set the tone for what I saw as possible [for myself]. The next big movie I did was Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, then Ugly Betty. Obviously the similarity [between the parts is there in terms of] questioning what we consider traditionally beautiful. When any woman is onscreen, that theme feels present to me. I don’t think I equated the two [projects], except to say that, for me, when I heard about Ugly Betty and the character, I had the same feeling there that I did when I read Real Women Have Curves: I’ve never seen the world through this woman before, with this experience, with this family, with this background.

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