Ilana Peña elects to look at family, culture in ‘Future President’

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Tess Romero (right) plays the title character in the DIsney+ series “Diary of a Future President.” Gina Rodriguez (left) plays the adult version of the same character. (Photo courtesy of ABC/Disney)

There were several areas Ilana Peña wanted to explore with her Disney+ series “Diary of a Future President.” She wanted to make sure the tale of how a young girl’s documenting of her middle school years helped form her as the leader of the country touched on family, culture and the idea that it is OK to aspire to greatness.

The major key was telling the story from a young girl’s perspective.

“I had seen a lot of stories about boyhood and I have seen a lot of these origin stories where you have this messy, complicated adolescence. But, I had not seen a lot with girlhood and giving girls permission to be messy and flawed,” Peña says. “I wanted to show that they can achieve great things and the messiness is part of their superpower.

“Their failures are things they can learn from. I wanted to create a show that was inspirational in a lot of ways but also was realistic.”

How inspiring the mess is to future leader Elena Cañero-Reed (Tess Romero) can be seen with the launch of the second season on the streaming service starting Aug. 18. The story of the Cuban-American seventh grader is told using the narration of excerpts from her diary. Elena occasionally gets some coaching from her future self as played by Gina Rodriguez (who also serves as an executive producer).

Peña most recently served as a writer on the critically-acclaimed CW series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and co-writer of “Her Shorts” with Rachel Bloom. In the past year, Peña was listed In Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List, as well as on Variety’s Inclusion Impact Report.

All that success would not have been a major surprise for the teenage version of Peña.

“I think teenage me was confident. I think if you had told teenage me you are going to have a TV show, she would have been like ‘Yes. On Disney? Of course. And we will be on Broadway on the side and we will be in movies and I will have a column in the Miami Herald’,” Peña says. “But, if you had told that to 20-year-old me, or even 25-year-old me, I would have been like ‘Oh no. Not me. I couldn’t.’

“I think it has been really meaningful to connect with my younger self and get that unapologetic-ness back.”

Peña has shown with “Diary of a Future President” how the people, places and things around young people can be very influential in the person they become. The importance of adults is something Peña and her team worried about from the start of the writing process.

They wanted to make sure the series gets across information to the young viewers that the writers, producers and more mature cast members wished they had when they were young. It goes a step further as the young cast gets to see this is a show created by a woman and there are often female directors.

The influence on the cast and the characters includes the major impact parents can have. The roles of the future President are played by Selenis Leyva as Elena’s mother Gabi and Michael Weaver as Gabi’s boyfriend Sam.

Leyva says, “We feel like the second season has opened it up to be a true family show where we see how important it is to have the mother, a father figure, a family unit. Whatever that unit may look like it is still important to have that unit.

“I love that our voices are heard and so important in power this season. The biggest lesson for me once I became a mother is how you always have to be mindful of how you move about your daily life. Your children are always watching.”

The world has been watching Leyva for years particularly with her work on “Orange Is the New Black.” Leyva also had a guest-starring arc and recurring role in “Dietland” as well as appearing in “Maniac.” In 2018, Leyva was included in Time magazine’s TV MVP list.

Weaver’s seen his role change over two seasons of the series. The relationship between Gabi and Sam was kept secret from her children. Once the news came out, Sam started taking a more active role as the father figure.

“I haven’t seen Sam overwhelmed with the responsibility of fatherhood yet but I don’t know if it has completely hit him. I think that is something to look forward to,” Weaver says. “Hopefully he will approach it with the sense of humor he brings to everything.”

“Diary of a Future President” is the latest acting work for Weaver who first rose to prominence on the big screen as Officer Smy in “Super Troopers.” His other work includes “Club Dread,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” “Ouija 2,” “The Mullets” and “SEAL Team.”

“Diary of a Future President” also stars Charlie Bushnell, Jessica Marie Garcia, Carmina Garay, Sanai Victoria, Harmeet Pandey, Brandon Severs and Nathan Arenas.

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