Most know Sofia Vergara for her role as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett on the long-running hit ABC comedy Modern Family. But many don’t know that Vergara, the highest-paid actress on TV, is also a survivor of thyroid cancer. Diagnosed at 28, Vergara had her thyroid removed, developed hypothyroidism and has been on medication ever since. Vergara is now a spokesperson for the Follow the Script campaign, which aims to raise awareness about hypothyroidism.
TIME sat down with Vergara to talk about surviving cancer, that controversial Emmys skit and how actresses can lean in.
TIME: You were criticized this year for your Emmys skit in which you were placed on a pedestal. Were you surprised by that?
Sofia Vergara: Yes, I was. Obviously it was a joke. It was something that was staged. It wasn’t like I was tricked into it. So we were laughing about how some people have to bully others for no reason.
I’ve read that the character of Gloria is based on you. How similar are you two?
I play her the way I see my mother and my aunt behave as Latin women. And now the writers know more about the Latin culture than when I started doing the show, and they know me better, too. So at this point, I pretty much follow the script.
But before you would improvise more?
Well, not improvise. I would talk to them and tell them, “We wouldn’t do this.” One time we were at a party with Colombians, and the Colombians were dressed like Mexicans. So I went to the writers and was like, “Colombians don’t dress like that.” Little things like that, but now they’re really good about it.
Latina women are underrepresented in Hollywood. Do you feel like it’s gotten better since you started your career?
Yes. There’s more scripts now. But it takes time. I cannot blame the writers because when you’re a writer, you write about what you know. So you cannot tell an American writer to just write about some other culture and think it will be as natural as writing about an American person.
Do you hope to see more Latin writers working for TV shows?
I think that would be ideal, because there are plenty of Latin actors out there. We just need a little bit more material.
So what do you look for in a movie or show?
I started acting so late in my life, I’m still just trying figure out what I do right. I realized when I started doing auditions that I was good for comedy. Growing up I always tried to make my friends laugh, but I didn’t know I was going to be able to make a living out of it. But then I got really good feedback when I was doing comedy, so that’s what I do.
Gloria is very protective of Manny, her son. Do you have a similar relationship with your son?
Yes, of course. I’m a Latin mother, so it’s like we never let go of our kids. My son is almost done with college now, and I’m already like, “So you’re coming back home, right?”
Obviously one of the hardest parts of getting diagnosed with thyroid cancer and then hypothyroidism is talking to your family about it. How did you discuss it with your son?
It was scary, because I was only 28 years old. When they tell you you have cancer, you don’t know that much about it and think you’re going to die immediately. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself. When I told him, I tried to not panic him, because it’s your kid and you don’t want him to have a horrible time dealing with it. I tried to make it as light as I could.
What have you had to change about your lifestyle since you had your thyroid removed?
I take a hormone pill every day. The only way to know exactly what amount of hormone I have to take is by doing a blood test, so I’m very religious about that.
You are the most well-paid actress on TV. Do you have any tips for young women or actresses about negotiating for what they want?
You really don’t have anything to lose if you are in the entertainment business, because it’s not like we’re doing brain surgery where you can actually kill someone. The worst thing that will happen is nobody goes to your movie. So I try to take risks and have fun with it.
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