Interview with "Ugly Betty'"s Silvio Horta

Silvio Horta with cast of Ugly Betty (Photo credit: Film Magic/Matthew Imaging)

When Silvio Horta, the future executive producer of ABC’s Ugly Betty, was a high school student in Miami, he used to earn extra cash helping out his fellow students with some of their homework assignments. “There was a creative writing class,” Horta told in an exclusive interview conducted during the Television Critics Association Summer Tour. “And people … would give me ten bucks to write one of their stories.”

Thus began the career of a man who would go on to help create a show that not only became a cultural touchstone, but is also one of the most gay-friendly to ever air on network television.

As was the case with Justin Suarez, the Ugly Betty character he would so memorably create, the teenaged Horta most definitely wasn’t into sports. “I was more artistic,” said Horta. “Though I watched a lot of television, I loved to write. It’s what I was always good at in school.”

Even though the young Horta enjoyed writing and wrote well enough to get paid for it, he didn’t initially aspire to write because as a boy he

didn’t realize it was actually possible to make a living at it.

Fortunately, that was something he would figure out in time.

Horta describes his childhood as modest. His parents, immigrants from Cuba, divorced when he was six and his mother still only speaks Spanish. She worked at a grocery store while his father played guitar at a restaurant to support Horta and his sister

Horta first came out to himself at age eighteen. “At that point I started to tell people. By the time I told my family, my mom was prepared for it. I had the typical conversation with her and she was supportive and about a week later she freaked out and had another reaction … but she accepted it and we’re fine.”

After high school, Horta initially wanted to be a director and went to NYU film school to study the craft. After graduation, he took a day job to pay the bills and set about writing during his free time. When he decided to leave New York for Los Angeles in 1996, he wasn’t giving up much more than a “crappy job” spritzing perfume, a futon and a halogen light. He figured it wasn’t much of a risk to head to Hollywood to make it as writer.

Jared Leto in Urban Legend

The move turned out to be a smart one. Horta’s first big break came when he sold his screenplay Urban Legend to Hollywood. The horror film featured Jared Leto and was a modest surprise hit pulling in nearly $40 million at the U.S box office and $20 million more overseas. After writing the sequel, Horta made the jump to television writing for the SciFi Channel series The Chronicle (also known as News from the Edge). Less than two years later the now defunct UPN gave Horta his own show, the science fiction themed Jake 2.0.

While Jake 2.0 only lasted 16 episodes, it captured the attention of ABC who decided Horta was just the man to bring the adaptation of the Colombian hit Yo Soy Betty, La Fea to American viewers.

The U.S. version, titled Ugly Betty, made an immediate splash quickly becoming the most watched new series of the fall 2006 season. A slew of awards followed including Emmy, Golden Globes, and Directors Guild of America awards, each cementing Horta’s reputation as a writer and producer. But Horta wasn’t just any writer/producer – he was also a representative of the gay and Latino communities both of which took special note of his inclusive series – so much so that both the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the American Latino Media Awards (ALMA) showered Horta and the show with honors.

Horta posing with his ALMA and GLAAD awards

Photo credit: Getty Images

Gay viewers were taken not only by the show’s very gay sensibility, but by the character of Marc St. James played by Michael Urie as well as pre-teen Justin Suarez (Mark Indelicato) who reminded many gay men of their much younger selves.

Then in the second season, the fussy, fashionable Marc acquired an unlikely boyfriend in the form of Cliff (David Blue), a decidedly unfashionable gay man. Unfortunately, due to the writers’ strike which shut down Hollywood for 100 days, Marc and Cliff’s relationship didn’t receive the screentime initially planned. But Horta assures gay fans Cliff will be back. “We have a couple of episodes we want to start using him again. We really want to use him and see him with Marc when we devote more than a couple of lines to him in the background. David Blue is great and I love that character and the writers and the audience love him. We want to play out that relationship in a real way. We want to push things again and see how far we can go with the two of them.”

David Blue and Michael Urie on Ugly Betty, Mark Indelicato

Photo credit: ABC Studios/Wire Image/Gary Gershoff

What does Horta mean by “push them” exactly? “How do I portray this relationship really honestly? We have a sort of unlikely fairytale where these two guys have found each other and they’re an unlikely couple and now they are together. Then what? What are going to be the pitfalls, the dangers to this relationship as they grow and evolve?”

Horta also plans for Marc, thus far mostly Wilhelmina's conniving henchman, to grow and evolve. “One of the things we’ve been talking about is getting to Marc’s goals and ambitions. We’ve played him as Wilhelmina’s lackey and sycophant and he’s always at her side. Then we started to dimensionalize him when we brought in his mom and we brought in Cliff. Now part of it is what does Marc really want to do with his life? There are going to be bigger ambitions than just giving Wilhelmina foot rubs. There has to be more that he wants to do. We’re really delving into that.”

Might Marc’s growth include the return of his homophobic mother played so memorably by Patti LuPone? Horta hinted there might be. “There is an episode I want to write at some point in the season where she comes back. I don’t want to say anything for sure.”

Michael Urie and Patti LuPone

Photo credit: ABC Studios

Ugly Betty’s second season wasn’t received quite so rapturously by either critics or viewers, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Horta. Nor does he entirely disagree with them. Said Horta, “A lot of people say ‘that first season was so nice, it was so great’… [but] there were some episodes that weren’t my favorite. They said the second season there was a slump and it started to veer off – yeah, I agree to a degree, but we also did a lot of really great stuff. I don’t think it’s black and white.”

And the writers’ strike certainly didn’t help. As Horta explained, “You start off a season, you put these plots in motion and you knock this out and you go. You can’t stop. There are shooting dates coming and there are production dates and you have to see things through it.”

But the writers’ strike put an abrupt end to that, only to suddenly be settled thereby forcing shows to rush back into production to salvage what they could of the season. But Horta doesn’t make excuses and acknowledges that Betty somewhat lost its focus due in part to its large cast of characters.

“We are very ambitious," said Horta. "You go in a writers’ and room and you start putting these stories down for these characters and you realize you only have forty two minutes thirty seconds in an episode to tell all these stories. And so Betty, who is the leader of the show and this is her point of view and suddenly she only had two minutes of screen time per act and it became much more truncated and we had way too many storylines and she wasn’t part of it.”

Possible missteps aside, Horta’s handling of Ugly Betty has been so strong that at this summer’s Television Critics Association tour, ABC chose Horta to appear on a showrunner’s panel alongside Desperate Housewives’ Marc Cherry, Brothers & Sisters and Eli Stones’ Greg Berlanti, Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes, and Lost’s Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, creators of some of the most influential television shows of the past five years.

How did Horta feel being included amongst their august numbers? “It’s strange,” he said. “It’s bizarre. I can’t believe I’m here. I feel very lucky to be invited. I never equate what I do in the same league as many of them. But I guess I’m one of them. I don’t know.”

Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes, Silvio Horta, Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse and Marc Cherry

Photo credit: Getty Images/Frederick M. Brown

Working in an industry that is relatively white and straight, does Horta feel any pressure to represent either the gay or Latino communities? “I don’t feel any pressure," said Horta. "I feel more pressure to deliver a really good story from week to week. I don’t feel the pressure to carry this ‘we are the ringbearers’ or ‘we are carrying the torch for the gay community’ or ‘we are carrying the torch for the Latino community’. God, I wouldn’t even come out of my bedroom – I’d be hiding if I felt that. I want to carry the torch for the show and the best thing for the show.”

And Horta doesn’t think in those terms while writing his characters either. He explained “I don’t go into the writing room and start breaking stories and think ‘what are we going to say to our gay audience’ or ‘what are we going to say to our Latino audience’. I think whenever we approach something that way it ends up being a little contrived and feels like we are making a statement or sending a message and it feels very forced. When we approach it a little more realistically and just have it come from the characters honestly, I think it ends up speaking to these groups and it represents something.”

As for a personal life, the hours involved in producing a show are long and intense making it difficult to have time for a private life. “You have to literally carve it out,” said Horta when asked how he finds free time. “My first year doing this, people would constantly ask me ‘Aren’t you happy? You must be thrilled. You’ve got a hit show. You must be having the time of your life.’ Well, no, I’m not. It’s all consuming. I was so exhausted by the time I got home on Friday night, I was just paralyzed. I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to socialize and I had so much work to do. That was it. That was my life. Now things have gotten easier. We have found our groove in many ways and we have a great support team and staff.”

In fact, though he doesn’t divulge any details, Horta is dating someone. “I’ve been seeing someone. It’s fairly new.” When asked if he would ever get married, Horta paused for a long moment, then said, “Potentially.”

What might come after Ugly Betty? Is there a dream project Horta would like to do one day? “I get too tired to think that far out. I started off doing features. I’d love to go back to that world in some way. Television is sort of so all consuming. It’s really difficult. But I would love to do some more in the feature world and just do more in TV and I – there’s a lot of ideas that I have and a lot of things I want to do and yet the biggest limitation is time. In order to pull it off correctly, I need to devote myself exclusively to it. There are certain people like, I’m always so impressed with Greg Berlanti who just – he has three shows on the air and he’s found a way to make it work and it’s great. It’s hard enough do to one and to do three is, it’s like a feat and I am impressed with him by what he does so much. I hope to do more.”

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