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Gina Rodriguez, star of 'Not Dead Yet' says becoming a mom has made her look at death differently

The award-winning actor returns for Season 2 of the ABC sitcom, where she stars as an overwhelmed, ghost-seeing journalist tasked with writing obituaries.
ABC's Not Dead Yet stars Gina Rodriguez as Nell Serrano.
Gina Rodriguez, the star of ABC’s “Not Dead Yet," says playing a woman who regularly encounters the newly deceased has changed her outlook, despite her worries, especially as a mom. Sami Drasin / Disney

Gina Rodriguez doesn’t know why Hollywood has continued to tap her to play writers.

After five seasons of playing aspiring novelist Jane Villanueva on the acclaimed CW romantic dramedy “Jane the Virgin” and portraying a New York sports writer in the new Netflix romantic comedy “Players,” Rodriguez has stepped into the role of an overwhelmed, ghost-seeing journalist in the heartfelt ABC sitcom “Not Dead Yet,” which returns for its sophomore season on Wednesday.

“The other day, I was like, ‘I think I’m being typecast into being a writer.’ But actually, I don’t write at all,” Rodriguez, 39, told NBC News with a laugh. “I’m a terrible writer, but I can identify good writers. A skill I think I have is I can identify when somebody’s going to write very well for me.”

For her first leading TV role since wrapping up “Jane” in 2019, Rodriguez chose to team up with “This Is Us” co-executive producers David Windsor and Casey Johnson. Adapted from Alexandra Potter’s novel “Confessions of a Forty-Something F**k Up,” the comedy series follows Penelope “Nell” Serrano (Rodriguez), a 37-year-old self-described disaster who, after having uprooted her life five years earlier for a London-bound ex-fiancé, moves back to Southern California and returns to her old newspaper job. Tasked with writing obituaries, Nell soon discovers that she can see her subjects — and they don’t hesitate to give her advice from the afterlife.

Lexi’s father and owner of the SoCal Independent, Duncan Rhodes, comes into the office and forms a bond with Nell, much to his daughter’s dismay.
Lexi’s father and owner of the SoCal Independent, Duncan Rhodes, comes into the office and forms a bond with Nell, much to his daughter’s dismay.Temma Hankin / Disney

“When I got the script, it made me laugh and cry; it made me think about how flawed I am and how much growth I need to keep working on, and how you’re constantly evolving and shedding,” said Rodriguez, who also executive-produces the series. “I just found that to be really relatable.”

The first season of “Not Dead Yet” ended with Nell choosing to focus on herself and deciding to break things off permanently with her ex-fiancé. The new season will find Nell, who is still struggling to tell her loved ones about her ability to see ghosts, learning to set her own boundaries and make less self-centered decisions, Rodriguez teased.

“The shedding of things that don’t serve you anymore has been a wonderful thing to learn on this show because it’s very much a part of Nell’s journey and all of our journeys," Rodriguez said.

Motherhood, grief and a new outlook on things

The offer to play Nell arrived at a particularly transformative time in Rodriguez’s own life. Around the time that she shot the “Not Dead Yet” pilot, in the spring of 2022, Rodriguez became pregnant with her first child with her husband, Joe LoCicero, and the production team had to find increasingly creative ways to hide her growing baby bump during the first season. A few months later, she lost her maternal grandmother. During a Television Critics Association panel last January, Rodriguez shared that she had never felt the presence of her late grandmother more than during her pregnancy.

Becoming a mother while playing a woman who regularly encounters the newly deceased has also completely changed Rodriguez’s outlook on grief and mortality. Like many parents, she said she feels an “overwhelming” sense of wanting to protect her child at all costs and struggles with intrusive thoughts about “losing your child and you leaving your child too soon.”

“Prior to having Charlie, I used to always say, ‘Today’s going to be a great day to die.’ I always felt really, really full. Death was never something that was frightening to me, and that has changed immensely,” Rodriguez said of the impact of having her son.

But playing a character who learns important life lessons in a more lighthearted story about life and death “has definitely contributed to looking at it in a way that doesn’t have to be as intrusive,” she added.

Nell holds a dinner party at her house and Dennis has to make a potentially life-altering decision.
Nell holds a dinner party at her house and Dennis has to make a potentially life-altering decision. Scott Everett White / ABC

How ‘Jane the Virgin’ changed everything

For Rodriguez, “Jane” set the standard against which she has held all of her subsequent projects. “We were a majority cast of Latinx artists, and it was a big deal for us, so it just felt good to be making that kind of art,” she said, using a gender-neutral term for Latino.

“There was never going to be another ‘Jane.’ It was so special. What I’m finding in my life is you don’t try to re-create something. You just love it for what it was, thank God that you had that experience, absorb in the present moment everything you possibly can, and everything will be a delight,” said Rodriguez, who won a Golden Globe and other awards for her performance as Jane.

When she started her career, Rodriguez said, as a Latina, she did not have a particular strategy for her career beyond wanting to “play pretend” and “make art every day of my life.” She gained invaluable experience working as a director on “Jane,” but she quickly realized that in order to challenge people’s perceptions of what she could accomplish in this business, she would have to take matters into her own hands as a producer.

“For so long, I was still sitting in gratitude and in fear that I did not belong in those rooms of executives. The difficulty to have our stories bought didn’t help that fear and insecurity in me,” said Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “It had to shift very intentionally to not a sense of entitlement of belonging there, but a sense of confidence that if I just continued to keep trying, every little win was going to be a massive win, and eventually the ball was going to get rolling.”

In recent years, through her I Can and I Will production company, which is now under an overall deal at 20th Television, Rodriguez has had varying degrees of success but has made good on her promise to help shepherd more diverse stories. She recurred in and executive-produced “Diary of a Future President,” a Disney+ series about a Cuban American girl who goes on to become president of the United States, which was canceled after two seasons.

Though “Not Dead Yet” remains her top priority, she’s still attached to star in and executive-produce an Apple TV+ series adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” as well an Amazon live-action adaptation of the mystery-thriller podcast “Last Known Position.”

In 2019, Rodriguez debuted as the new voice of the title character in Netflix’s animated reboot of “Carmen Sandiego,” a popular children’s computer game franchise from the 1980s. A year earlier, the streaming giant announced that Rodriguez would also star as the red fedora and trenchcoat-wearing villain in a live-action film.

Though it’s been stuck in development for almost six years, the live-action version is still in the works, Rodriguez confirmed. “I will never give up on that project — but neither will Netflix — and we’re still in it. That one was just a difficult one to crack, but I think we recently cracked it, so that one’s going to be super cool.”

Although the CW chose not to move forward with a planned “Jane” spinoff, which was described as a “telenovela-inspired anthology” based on her character’s novels, Rodriguez said she never considered revisiting and retooling that idea with creator Jennie Snyder Urman — until this interview with NBC News.

“I should actually go back to Jennie and see if there’s a world in which we can live in that life,” she said. “I hadn’t thought about that, so I’m glad you planted that seed back in my garden.”

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Navigating fame — and scrutiny

After winning a Golden Globe for her work on “Jane” in 2015, Rodriguez became one of the most prominent Latinas in Hollywood. Rodriguez has openly discussed how the life-changing amount of visibility she had on “Jane,” while a blessing for her career, exacerbated her anxiety. She has had to learn how to say “no” to offers that don’t suit her.

Rodriguez has also weathered her fair share of criticism over the years; she has faced backlash over her comments about pay equity, been accused of being anti-Black, and apologized for using a racial slur on Instagram. A few years removed from those comments, Rodriguez said she has learned that she can’t represent everyone — and she has attempted to take a step back to better educate herself.

“No one person can represent an entire community,” Rodriguez said. “But for those that feel represented by me, I will do everything I can to create a positive environment for them to step into. I’ve gotten more comfortable in my flaws, and I’ve gotten more tenacious in learning and doing better. So when it comes to scrutiny, I’ve learned how to accept and grow and learn from it and not let it shame me. There’s no growth in shame.”

In the last two decades, Rodriguez acknowledged, there has been a gradual shift in attitudes toward Latino-led stories — and minority-led stories in general — but she will always have a never-ending desire to widen the lens to ensure that “everyone gets to see themselves on screen.”

“In the spaces of executives, the more we populate those areas, the more projects we’ll have. We need to also be the decision-makers, and that just takes time,” Rodriguez said of the next step in Latino representation. “The best thing that ever happened for me as an artist was having patience and faith, all the while working hard, so I continue to have that perspective. I’m excited about the new young executives that I now see on these Zooms that are going to one day take over, and we will see more stories being told. It is bound to happen.”