NEW YORK — There have been few opportunities for Israel, Latin America, and the United States to converge onscreen — that is, until Yael Grobglas. Grobglas is an Israeli actress co-starring in “Jane the Virgin,” an American dramedy loosely adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela.
Its plot is intentionally soapy, a devoted salute to a genre largely unappreciated outside of non-Spanish speaking communities. The typically convoluted storyline revolves around a Latina heroine Jane Gloriana Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) who finds herself accidentally artificially inseminated by the gynecologist sister of Grobglas’s husband Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni). Grobglas plays Petra, the “other woman.”
The series recently began airing in Israel, and its American network, The CW, picked up a second season of the surprise Golden Globe winning program in January. It returns to the small screen on March 9.
“It’s been pretty wild,” says Grobglas, a relative Hollywood newcomer, though by no means a novice in the field.
Israeli audiences are already familiar with Grobglas’s work, from her breakout performance on the successful Israeli sci-fi teen program, “Ha-Iy” (2007-2009, The Island), her supporting role in Israel’s first horror film, “Kalevet” (2010, Rabies), and her comedic turn on Israeli sitcom, “Ha-Shualim” (2012, The Foxes). She also starred in the 2011 MTV Music Award winning music video for “Say You Like Me” by American pop rock band, We the Kings.
It was Grobglas’s recurring role on The CW’s historical teen drama “Reign” — her first role on an American series — that caught the attention of “Jane the Virgin” creator and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman, who had a challenge on her hands: casting the role of Petra Solano.
“We couldn’t quite figure out who this person was,” says Urman of the character. Petra, for all intents and purposes, functions as the show’s villain, the stunning and cunning wife of the titular Jane’s love interest.
“I just didn’t want her to be this sort of ordinary trophy wife. I wanted her to be a little deeper and more interesting, and suddenly I remembered Yael. I knew she was going to be amazing in the role, and she’s just been better than I anticipated,” explains Urman.
Although Grobglas relocated from Israel to Los Angeles for the show, she doesn’t see her move into American-made entertainment as a fundamental shift.
“To be honest I don’t really consider it a transition, I consider it more an expansion in a way,” says Grobglas. “I don’t feel like I’m replacing my work in Israel. My dream eventually is to do both.”
It took some gentle prodding from her father to discover that dream in her youth. While working as a model — “a very brief career,” she says — Grobglas first demonstrated her command of the stage by spontaneously taking a bow on the runway during a fashion show.
“I got yelled at, because that is not what I was supposed to do,” recalls Grobglas. “But my father was in the audience, and he told me, ‘Yael, you need to start acting. Because you obviously love the stage.’”
Grobglas enrolled in an acting workshop to appease him, she says. “I was going, ‘Okay Dad, fine, for you,’ but I took one class, and I fell in love with it.”
She soon landed a lead role on the sci-fi series “Ha-Iy,” which, as the first on-camera job for Grobglas and much of its young cast, yielded a terrific education.
“Learning how the cameras work, and how to aim your face to where the light is, and all the most basic things that now you think are pretty simple, for us that was when we learned it, while doing it,” she says.
Once the first season of “Ha-Iy” ended, Grobglas did something that most working actors avoid once they’ve begun securing professional gigs: she enrolled in drama school.
“I was left with no way to keep acting until the next season [of “Ha-Iy”] started, or until I got another job, and I wanted to be around it 24/7,” says Grobglas.
Entering the Yoram Loewenstein Performing Arts Studio in Tel Aviv proved the perfect solution, providing Grobglas with both advanced training while on hiatus, and a fix to satisfy that deep-rooted — and newly unearthed — desire to perform.
Along the way, Grobglas also discovered a deep-rooted desire to seek out challenges. In taking on diverse, genre-heavy roles — from sci-fi and horror, to comedy and historical drama, and now high-concept melodrama punctuated by humor on “Jane the Virgin” — Grobglas’s versatility proves that she’s not only adept at pushing herself out of her comfort zone, she seeks out the opportunities to do so, too.
“I feel like if I consider myself comfortable in something then that’s not exactly where I want to be,” says Grobglas. “And in ‘Jane the Virgin’ specifically, I feel like I don’t have to choose. […] We get to do drama and comedy sometimes within the same thirty seconds.”
‘I feel like if I consider myself comfortable in something then that’s not exactly where I want to be’
In true telenovela fashion, “Jane the Virgin” oscillates between high-stakes drama and deep, catharsis-inducing tragedy, while simultaneously managing to maintain a sense of overarching lightheartedness and warmth, as well as a sense of humor about itself. Urman always planned for Jane to showcase such a range, but she didn’t initially know that she could call on Grobglas’s Petra for laughs.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how funny Yael was until we started,” says Urman. “That’s been the biggest surprise. […] She’s got this very dry, understated comedic presence on the show. It’s a totally different tone than our other characters, and I just love it.”
Grobglas’s secret may be her full commitment to whatever Urman and the show’s writers throw her way. The plot itself may be extreme and heightened, but Grobglas takes the drama seriously, remaining confident that the humor will shine through if she plays the scenes as real as possible.
‘Okay, how would I react if this woman were impregnated with my husband’s sperm?’
“As an actor,” she says, “you really have to try to think, ‘Okay, how would I react if this woman were impregnated with my husband’s sperm?’”
Grobglas’s Petra has her own harrowing backstory, her own heartache, and her own pressing needs. Calling her a quote-unquote “villain” feels inauthentic and minimizing to the complex character Grobglas and Urman have crafted. She’s not pure evil; she’s trapped. She’s too relatable to be a true villain. “Foil” may be a more accurate term.
“I feel like she’s forced to do things that she normally wouldn’t want to do,” says Grobglas. “I do respect her, because I think she is such a strong person. I would’ve broken down a long time ago, but she keeps fighting, and she’s not giving up. I feel like she would like to live a more quiet life, but life happens to her, and she just has to deal with it in the way she deals with it.”
Villain or foil, this is the first time Grobglas’s parents have seen their daughter play a character so conniving.
“Actually they told me that once in awhile they forget that it’s me they’re watching,” laughs Grobglas. “Which is the best compliment an actor can get. If your own parents forget it’s you, great job.”
Don’t worry: there’s no chance that “Jane the Virgin” will forget about Grobglas. Says Urman, “You’re talking to the hugest fan of Yael right now. […] We’re going to keep giving her a lot of good, juicy material.”