“Jane Fonda is the original trailblazer,” America Ferrera told PEOPLE at the 2023 Women in Film Honors
America Ferrera is paying her respects to the trailblazing women who’ve come before her.
The Barbie actress, 39, accepted the Jane Fonda Humanitarian Award at the 2023 Women in Film Honors in Los Angeles Thursday. As she exclusively told PEOPLE, the award’s namesake is one of her biggest inspirations on and off screen.
“Jane Fonda is the original trailblazer who didn't have an example of what it meant to be a woman in film who had a platform,” she says. “She had to figure out how to use her platform, and she blazed that trail for somebody like me to get to follow in her footsteps.”
The Emmy-winning Ugly Betty star continues, “To be seen and to be acknowledged by someone who's such a legend and who has done so many of the things that I too am doing and aspire to do as a producer, a director, an actress, and an advocate, it really is an incredible moment of just being seen by a woman that I admire and respect so much.”
It’s multihyphenates like Fonda, 85, who “keep me brave and keep me doing the work,” adds Ferrera. “It's all about other people. And for me, in particular, it's other women.”
Accepting the award from Fonda onstage later in the evening, Ferrera addressed her fellow actress and advocate: “I know I speak on behalf of so many women in this industry when I say how grateful we are to you for modeling the courage that we aspire to embody as an actress, as an advocate for peace and justice, as a producer, as an entrepreneur."
“Like you, I believe that storytelling is not just something that we do in film and television and books and entertainment,” she continued.
“We tell stories all day, every day in every single room we walk into. We tell and believe stories about who and what matters, who and what has value, and who has the right to live and to work in safety, in peace and dignity.”
The Superstore producer-star added that Fonda “showed us how” to own such narratives. “When we go to make our art as women in film, we are either upholding the stories that have shaped our lives historically, or we are challenging them with new stories that compel us toward a different and more just reality.”
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The Jane Fonda Humanitarian Award, per advocacy org Women in Film’s website, recognizes “women who have used their prominent entertainment industry profiles to effect radical change and shed light on issues using their powerful voices.” Last year’s recipient was writer-actress Michaela Coel.
Ferrera, who this year starred in Barbie and Dumb Money, has used her platform to speak out in support of women’s rights, voting rights and charity organizations like Save the Children. In 2020 she founded nonprofit organization Poderistas, a digital community created by and for Latinas, with Eva Longoria and other activists.
Longoria was also among the honorees at the Women in Film event, receiving the Crystal Award for Advocacy along with Greta Lee, Celine Song and Linda Yvette Chávez. Yara Shahidi accepted the org's Face of the Future Award.
Asked how she stays motivated to keep supporting causes she cares about, Ferrera tells PEOPLE, “It's all about community.”
“It's the women in my life. It's the other activists. It's the other advocates. It's the people who we show up alongside... I know that if my friend is showing up in a moment that is deep and dark, my people are going to be there, and I'm not going to let them down.”
That’s true in the film industry and in life, she adds. “You need people to remind you of your strength and your courage and to hold you up or to tuck you in bed and say, ‘Take a nap. We got you.’
“It's not a marathon, it's a relay. Sometimes you can rest and let somebody else take the baton and when you're ready, we'll be here for you."
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