Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (2024)

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (1)

Dress, Simone Rocha, $1,670. Hoop earrings, Paula Mendoza, $195. Pumps, Roger Vivier, $1,150.

“I’m definitely the actress who’s like, ‘More blood,’” Jenna Ortega deadpans. “If I’m going to speak up about anything, or put my two cents in about anything,” she says, it would be that: Let a scene be as gory and crimson as possible. Gore has always fascinated Ortega; she wanted to start acting, at all of six years old, because she watched a movie that scared her. It’s fitting, then, that Ortega is Gen Z’s reigning scream queen: The star of Scream VI commits to the bit.

This morning, though, it’s the day after Friday the 13th, and there’s no blood. Ortega and I are thumbing through crates of rock and disco records at Superior Elevation, a vintage record store in Brooklyn. Outside, the sidewalks are dusted with snow, and it is folklore degrees. Inside, the decor is artful-sparse, with dozens of crates of music—good, bad, old, older, very old—lining three row of tables and a lot of floor space. Ortega lives in California, and doesn’t make it to Brooklyn very often (she was in New York for the ELLE photo shoot). A few days before, she’d presented the award for Best Original Song at the Golden Globes; music, she says, is her preferred language. “I listen to absolutely anything. I know everyone says that,” she says, “but sometimes I’ll listen to stuff that I don’t even think is good because I just need to understand.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (2)

Hooded dress, Ferragamo, $2,400.

In her day job, Ortega plays the titular role in Wednesday, the Addams Family spin-off directed and executive produced by Tim Burton, which quickly became the second-most-popular English-language series on Netflix to date. “You have to kind of ‘be’ Wednesday, and that’s what Jenna is,” Burton says. “Whether she likes it or not, she’s got that in her soul, and as a person.” (About a month after the show’s premiere, a fan’s botched tattoo, which looked like Samuel L. Jackson-as-Wednesday—the shading was all over the place, the nose was scrunched in a scowl, the forehead was the size of North America—went viral. “Oh my God,” Ortega says when I ask her if she’s seen it. “I almost made it my profile photo.”)

In March, Ortega will reprise her role as Tara Carpenter in Scream VI. The actress who was introduced to Hollywood as “young Jane” in Jane the Virgin in 2014 now has over 39 million followers on Instagram. From Jane the Virgin to Disney’s Stuck in the Middle to her current slate of films, Ortega has been working constantly, at an almost frantic pace. She kind of likes it that way: “From ‘Action’ to ‘Cut’ is the only reason I like my job,” she says. Between those two directions, she says, “It’s like I pass the f*ck out.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (3)

Dress, Prada, $4,000. Necklace, Harry Winston.

In the rebooted Scream franchise, released last year, Ortega-as-Tara was stabbed seven times at home, attacked again at the hospital where she was recovering, and then attacked again at her friend’s house. “On our first day of shooting with her on Scream, about an hour in, we all turned to each other and said, ‘Oh, she’s great. We are underutilizing her in this movie,’” recalls Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, one of the movie’s two directors.

“In the last one, I was screaming and crying the entire time,” Ortega says, straight-faced. “This time, I actually had to create a personality for her. I actually had to decide, What does she wear? What’s her favorite color? How does she wear her makeup? What’s her sense of humor?” The Scream directors wanted Ortega because she has a good scream, obviously, and because she can perform the horror and comedy tones they want. “She’s genuinely one of the most hilarious people we’ve worked with, and I think that just comes from being really grounded,” adds executive producer Chad Villella.

Ortega has shaken off the nerves of joining such an iconic film series. “I have so much respect for the franchise that I didn’t want to do it wrong,” she says. “I wanted to do it justice, but I also didn’t want to be ripping anybody off.” In this movie, for the first time, Neve Campbell won’t reprise her role as Sidney Prescott. Campbell walked away, she told Variety, due to a salary negotiation that she felt undervalued her contribution as star of the 25-year-old franchise. “It was really unfortunate,” Ortega says of Campbell’s absence, “especially because Neve is the coolest, sweetest, most talented lady. The franchise wouldn’t be what it is without her.”

Ortega is naturally introverted. For the two hours we’re talking and flipping through records, in a totally empty store, she keeps her coat on and tote bag tucked under her arm and speaks softly. She has a small circle of friends, most of them fellow cast and crew members. She knows exactly how to perform on camera, but the networking side of acting—the red carpets, promos, and appearances—she seems less certain about. “If I want to make films so badly and I want to play characters or I want to direct and write film scores, I could do that all in my backyard. I don’t have to be doing it on a grand scale like this,” she says. What pushes her forward is the chance to work with the best. “But ultimately, all the other side stuff that comes with my job, sometimes it makes it feel like it’s almost not worth it. I don’t want to feel like a walking billboard, which is a really, really scary feeling because then you feel less and less in control of your life. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people or know people who have succumbed to that pressure. I don’t want to belong to anyone or anything.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (5)

“Hooded dress, Ferragamo, $2,400. Elsa Peretti cuffs, Tiffany & Co., $1,700 each.

She’s still figuring out what that give-and-take means. On her off days in Montreal, while filming Scream VI, she’d go on runs or hang out in parks: “Sometimes I’d just rot in bed. Somedays I’d go out, and it was good to be surrounded by friends, because they pulled me out.” She gravitates toward antique stores, record stores, bookstores—shops that are the same in every country, but also places that don’t necessitate a lot of prying eyes, where she can feel sort of anonymous and just observe. “I’ll see someone on the street, and it’s kind of annoying because I feel like I’m infected. My job [has given me] a virus where I can’t function without picking up on what everyone is doing.” The way someone walks or sounds can go into a character. Her Wednesday costar Gwendoline Christie picked up on Ortega’s watchful eye. “She has an inquisitive nature,” Christie says. “It almost feels like a paradox in her character, where she seems to consume life seriously, but she also appreciates all of its absurdity, and she has this unabandoned imagination alongside of it.”

I’ll see someone on the street, and it’s kind of annoying because I feel like I’m infected. My job [has given me] a virus where I can’t function without picking up on what everyone is doing.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (6)

Dress, JW Anderson. Elsa Peretti cuffs, Tiffany & Co., from $1,700. Pumps, Roger Vivier, $1,150.

Though she grew up in California’s Coachella Valley (the fourth kid in a family of six), Ortega had no connection to Hollywood. Her mother is an ER nurse, and her father, a former sheriff, works in the California district attorney’s office, “imprisoning child predators and all that,” Ortega notes. She wanted to be an actor after watching Man on Fire, the Denzel Washington kidnapping thriller marked by Dakota Fanning’s standout performance, when she was maybe a little too young. Fanning was so believable that Ortega had nightmares for months. But her curiosity was piqued: How had Fanning managed to scare and inspire her in equal measure?

“I was happy sitting and dissecting that movie over and over again. I couldn’t fathom how someone so young could do something that would scare me so aggressively. But I also loved the way that it made me feel,” she says. “I decided that’s what I was passionate about.” When she told her mom she wanted to be an actress, she laughed, but only because just two weeks before, her daughter had told her she had a huge crush on Barack Obama and wanted to become the first female president. “I had phases where I clung to something and then made it my entire personality,” Ortega recalls. (Though, she says, some have stuck: “To this day, I’m still obsessed with Obama.”)

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (7)

Dress, Dolce & Gabbana. Pumps, Roger Vivier, $1,150.

Ortega says that her parents’ jobs made them “very strict” and “very, very paranoid.” Her mom, having once watched a program on Macaulay Culkin and the toxicity he experienced as a child in Hollywood, went into “panic mode” and tried to distract her daughter with other things, like soccer and school. But after “three or four years of begging,” Ortega, who admits to having a stubborn streak, wore her down, and her mother posted a video of Jenna doing a monologue on her Facebook page. “Someone found it and tried to get me signed with an agency,” Ortega says. “And my mom agreed because she thought I might hold it against her for the rest of my life” if she didn’t.

Her mom started shuttling her to auditions in Los Angeles, sometimes driving for six hours round trip. Ortega was happy to be working, but felt the strain on her family. “To do that four to five days a week and still raise your other children was absurd,”she says. “My family made a lot of sacrifices.” The prospect of building her career was exciting—and daunting. “It was the guilt of, Okay, well if this doesn’t work out, I’m screwed, I guess,” she says. “I just put my entire family through this because that’s a lot of money and time that we did not have.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (8)

Top, skirt, Alaïa. Ring, Van Cleef & Arpels.

She mixed up some words in her one-line Jane the Virgin audition—“Fortunately enough, I look like Gina Rodriguez, because I don’t think I did anything overwhelmingly special in there,” she says—and started living in two worlds. She’d work in L.A. for days at a time, then be back in school, in the desert, with her friends. When she starred in Stuck in the Middle for two years, she was willing to put in the hard work. “I wanted so badly to be in this industry that I was willing to be extroverted and big”—more expressive than she usually is, or wants to be, in her work. It was the first move in a larger game: “If this is what I have to do right now, I completely understand, and I’ll commit to it as hard as possible.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (9)

Dress, Valentino, $4,200. Hat, Jo Miller Studio, $1,050. Boots, Courrèges.

Maybe some version of that is playing out for her today: Horror helped her break out of the Disney-kid mold she very consciously wanted to shed. But now she’s conscious of over-indexing on the gore scale. “I feel very conflicted in what I’m interested in or what I’m passionate about, because there’s apart of me that always feels like the girl in the Coachella Valley,” she says.

When she was starting out, she’d do anything to keep working. A decade into an acting career, she’s big time: streamed, followed, in demand. She can choose projects based on what she wants; she doesn’t have to settle for, she says, “being the sidekick who carries the Puerto Rican flag on her shoulder and makes it her entire personality.” She has a starring role in director Brian Helgeland’s forthcoming crime thriller Finestkind (coincidentally, Helgeland also cowrote Man on Fire). “I would always describe her on set as a Navy SEAL. When it was time for Jenna up on to come on, I’d be like, ‘Get the Navy SEAL down here!’ She just delivered and nailed it in two takes,” Helgeland says. “She’s like a knife thrower at a carnival. You might say, ‘A little to your left’ or ‘A little to your right,’ but you’re not ever gonna tell her how to throw the knife, because she knows how to do it.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (10)

Top, skirt, Alaïa. Ring, Van Cleef & Arpels.

Ortega also produced and starred in her first romantic comedy, Winter Spring Summer or Fall (no release date yet), but she doesn’t like romantic comedies herself. “I hate being googoogaga over a boy,” Ortega says. “I think it’s secretly a pride thing. It’s a problem with a lot of female characters, that a lot of them are guy oriented or what they’re expressing or emoting is based on a guy’s position and a guy’s story.” The same is not true for Ortega, who says she isn’t dating. “Maybe I am too obsessed with my work, but the idea of relationships stresses me out,” she explains. “And also being that vulnerable with someone and having to get to know someone that well and having someone see you for all that you are...” She trails off. “My brain knows that I don’t need to think about that right now.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (11)

Dress, Coperni. Headpiece, Brent Lawler for Batsheva. Socks, Falke, $25. Pumps, Roger Vivier, $1,150.

Instead, she’s thinking about the familiar early-twenties anxieties: “I am so fearful of disappointing the people in my life, or even people in public,” she says. “I want to live up to people’s expectations, which is something that I need to get over, but I’m also scared that, I don’t know, maybe someone will get to know me too well and realize that I’m not all that.” Which is why when people compliment her, she sometimes feels disbelief: “The kind words that I hear that they say about me through other people are unbelievable to me. I feel like just the people in my life see me in a way that I don’t really see myself.” The compliments are also encouraging as she’s figuring out her own voice.

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (12)

“Hooded dress, Ferragamo, $2,400. Elsa Peretti cuff, Tiffany & Co., $1,700 each.

For now, Ortega is gearing up for Wednesday’s second season. Her dream growing up was to work nonstop; now she’s giving herself time to relax. “There’s a month of this year that I want to take off, and I’ve made it very clear that I’m going to take this month off. I’m going to travel, I just got a flip phone, I’m just going to be hidden for a while,” she says cheerfully. “I have to work things around my schedule to make sure that that month stays open. There’s a part of it that’s stressful because it’s like, ‘Oh my God, can I tell this director that I don’t want to work these two weeks? Can I?’ I don’t know, but I am also making the rules.”

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (13)

Top, skirt, $2,100, Loewe.

Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (14)

Hair by Ward at Home Agency; makeup by Marcelo Gutierrez at Bryant Artists; nails by Honey at Exposure NY; set design by Andy Harman at Lalaland Artists; produced by Heather Robbins and Mary Goughnour at CLM.

This article appears in the April 2023 issue of ELLE.


Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega is Gen Z’s Reigning Scream Queen (2024)


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