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How Petra Solano Became Jane the Virgin’s Most Lovable Villain

6 minute read

Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez told TIME last fall that the CW’s charming and groundbreaking new series — which was just renewed for a second season — wouldn’t be a clear-cut story about right and wrong. “There is no black and white, there is definitely grey,” the recent Golden Globe winner said of the show, about a young woman who’s accidentally artificially inseminated during a hospital mix-up. “You start to see how every character, ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ gets redeemed.”

No character on the show, which returns from its winter hiatus on Jan. 19, embodies those words better than Petra Solano, the cheating, soon-to-be-ex-wife of Jane’s love interest, played by Israeli actress Yael Grobglas. Between Rodriguez and Justin Baldoni’s pecs, Jane the Virgin has plenty of breakout talent, but Grobglas’ role as the scheming yet sympathetic foil to Rodriguez’s Jane has turned Petra into one of television’s most amusingly complex comic villains. Fans love to hate her, yet as Jane delves deeper into Petra’s backstory — and shows off her lighter side — they’re starting to love to love her as well.

“I was expecting so many hate tweets, but all I’ve gotten was, ‘She’s so evil, but I really like her and don’t know why!’” Grobglas says. “You never know if you want her to find true love and live happily ever after, or if you want her to be a complicated villain.”

Grobglas became part of the CW family in 2013 after starring in an unsuccessful pilot (The Selection) and several episodes of the network’s historical drama, Reign — one of which had been written by Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman. The next year, Urman was having trouble finding the right actress to play the part of Petra when she decided to look up Grobglas, who was still living in Israel at the time but happened to be in Los Angeles for pilot season. Grobglas had some reservations about stepping into the role of a villain for the first time.

“I remember calling her up and telling her, ‘Trust me, I’m going to take care of your character,” Urman says. “She didn’t want to be just an evil villain — she wanted to know: ‘Do I love Rafael? If I love him, why did I have an affair?’ All the smart questions actors ask. Once I explained that to her, she lost her skepticism and came in. Honestly, the minute she did her read, I was like, ‘That’s the one.’”

Jane the Virgin is very loosely based off a 2002 Venezuelan telenovela, and evil, gold-digging wives standing between the heroine and her true love are common in that genre. But Urman didn’t want to import a one-dimensional TV trope — she wanted to make Petra as layered as all the other characters in the show. She points to a scene in the second episode — when Petra tells Rafael (Baldoni), “Yes, I did something terrible, but you know what? You did something terrible too” — as being crucial to understanding the character. “I always tell Yael, ‘Petra is the hero of her story,’” Urman says. “She loved this man so much — she stood by him when he had cancer — then all of a sudden, he has this change of heart and didn’t give her a chance to change with him.”

Jane the Virgin also added Petra’s even more villainous and dependent mother (played by Priscilla Barnes), who gives viewers insight into Petra’s upbringing and the pressures she faces. “When you’re cutting a pilot, you’re always looking for where I can take out time. There was a moment when we were thinking, does Petra’s mom need to be there?” Urman says. “I thought she does, absolutely — or else you can’t find any sympathy for this character.” (Despite all that sympathy, Grobglas says fans who recognize her on the street are surprised by the ways she differs from her character: “They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re so friendly!’” Grobglas says. “They seem relieved. It’s a great reaction.”)

When fans last saw Petra, her cover had been blown: Petra Solano isn’t really Petra Solano — she’s actually a woman named Natalia who fled the Czech Republic with her mother to avoid a violent ex-lover. When the man who helped her escape showed up demanding money, Petra accidentally knocked him out and kidnapped him. Ever since, she’s mostly been holed up in a hotel room with her mother and her hostage, riding out her divorce. That over-the-top, telenovela-like plotline was written especially for Grobglas. “I didn’t know until we started doing this show how excellent Yael is at comedy — she has this very subtle touch,” Urman says. Adds Grobglas, “The fact that [Petra] takes everything so seriously is exactly what is so funny.”

Urman is incredibly secretive about the show’s many twists and turns, so Grobglas doesn’t know what’s in store for Petra outside of what she’s already filmed. “Every single table read, I will never give up trying to get information out of her,” Grobglas says. “We have a group chat between the cast members, and the group chat goes wild the minute we get the script.” But as for the immediate future, Grobglas can reveal that Petra will get some power back in a surprising way, though her unlucky streak is far from over: “Things will get worse with Petra before they get better.”

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com