Jenna Ortega Does Wednesday Addams Her Way

The actress, much like Wednesday herself, just wants to make audiences squirm a little.

A portrait of Jenna Ortega wearing a dress with frills
Photograph by Ben Cope

Jenna Ortega had an idea that was too dark, for even Wednesday Addams. The actress, who plays the iconic character in the new Netflix series Wednesday, wanted to pretend to hang herself, Harold and Maude-style, during an early scene in which Wednesday’s parents Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán) are canoodling in a car. “I was going to strangle myself in the backseat and just be thrashing around while this really sweet serenade was happening. You could see me kicking and punching in the background and then I would just freeze and stop,” Ortega tells me over the phone. “It’s within the first couple of minutes of the show and I thought it would be good—and I was shot down immediately. ‘We cannot make jokes like that.’”

In the past year, Ortega has emerged as the queen of the new generation of scream queens. She began 2022 getting attacked by Ghostface in the latest Scream sequel, was a member of the crew of pornographers victimized by a horny old lady in X, and she’s now taking on the Goth girl all others aspire to be in Wednesday, a teen-centered take on Charles Addams’s morbid cartoon character. Of course, Wednesday is not doing any screaming—she’s hoping others react that way to her presence. The braid-wearing menace is a natural fit for Ortega, for whom the Wednesday comparisons started long before she got cast in the role. “I think it’s because I can be pretty deadpan sometimes, and very, very sarcastic,” she says. “I have a darker sense of humor and I’m interested in darker things. I’m into gore.”

Her love of all things horror took root when she was around 13 years old—when she started watching the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Halloween. But the Coachella Valley native decided to get into acting at age six, when she saw the Denzel Washington thriller Man on Fire and declared she wanted to be the “Puerto Rican Dakota Fanning.” (Why was a 6-year-old watching a Tony Scott movie? “Yeah, my mother asked me the same question,” she says. The story goes that her older sister was watching; Ortega sat on her lap and became entranced.)

When director Tim Burton reached out to Ortega about joining Wednesday, she was a little hesitant. She’d been moving away from TV—one of her first big roles was playing the younger version of the titular Jane on Jane the Virgin—but the opportunity to play someone like Wednesday and work with Burton ultimately drew her back to the small screen. The series finds Wednesday being shipped away to Nevermore Academy, her parents’s alma mater, after she unleashes some piranhas on a water polo team when they bully her brother, Pugsley. At Nevermore, she finds herself an outcast among outcasts, her macabre nature off-putting even to werewolves and sirens.

She took the work of playing Wednesday very seriously, just as Wednesday would. Ortega watched the two Addams movies from the 1990s—the Wednesday from those, Christina Ricci, plays a teacher in the reboot. She read Addams’s comics and watched the ’60s TV series. She learned to play the cello and took German lessons. With Burton, she perfected her captivatingly unemotive face. “One time, I did a take where I didn't blink at all,” she recalls. “He loved it so much that he gave me the note to not blink again. If I did blink, we’d restart the take.” When she moved onto her next job, a thriller called Finestkind, she had to remind herself not to readjust her visage into Wednesday’s unforgiving stare.

When it came time for a dance sequence in which Wednesday lets her freak flag fly at a school function to The Cramps’s “Goo Goo Muck,” Ortega took it upon herself to choreograph, despite not having a technical dance background. She took inspiration from ’80s Goth club kids, Lene Lovich music videos, and Bob Fosse. The actress also was sure to throw in an homage to the extremely memeable clip of Wednesday from the TV series getting down. It’s hilarious and very impressive, but Ortega says she’s still a tad embarrassed by it. “I’m no dancer,” she admits.

Ortega infused as much of her own opinions into Wednesday as she possibly could. One of the reasons she took the job, she tells me, was to give girls like herself a Latina heroine on a major series; she ensured that experience was respected by the writing staff. “It’s weird, because the writers are not young Latina women. I just expressed concerns about telling this coming of age story about a young person of color and it not being told accurately,” she says. “The inability to relate: I just didn’t want that to translate on paper.”

Jenna Ortega and Christina Ricci at the Wednesday premiere in Los Angeles, November 16.

Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Beyond Wednesday’s heritage, Ortega also stood up for Wednesday’s weirdness. “Nobody wants to see her in the middle of a love triangle,” she says. “They want to see her torturing people.” But I have to acknowledge that, being a Netflix teen show, there is something of a love triangle in Wednesday—featuring a moody Nevermore boy and a townie that works at the local coffee shop. “I will fight that to this day,” the actress says after I point it out, adding: “That was one of the things the writers told me, too: ‘Don’t worry, it’s not going to be a love triangle.’ Then when we were shooting I thought, Hm, this is a bit suspicious.” She decided to do it her way, reasoning that people are obsessed with Wednesday, and she humors them if they don’t annoy her too much.

After she finished shooting Wednesday in Romania, Ortega jumped to Finestkind, then returned to the role of Tara Carpenter for the next Scream movie—where, this time, she’ll do more than get attacked by a deranged killer. “She has a personality this time around,” the 20-year-old says about jumping back into that franchise. She wants to do more dramas like The Fallout, released on HBO Max earlier this year about two girls who bond in the aftermath of a school shooting, but she also is interested in material that aligns with her cinematic passions, which include David Lynch’s Eraserhead and 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (the latter of which she watched twice in one sitting).

Not unlike Wednesday Addams, she just wants to make audiences squirm a little. “If I could do a film that made people feel weird or was a bit off—not even horror necessarily, but just something that was wrong,” she says, “That would be really, really interesting and exciting for me.”