The star of "Ugly Betty" had her coming out party at Sundance in 2002 with "Real Women Have Curves," the tale of a Mexican-American teen caught between her parents' traditional working-class values and her own desire to go to college.
The film won the audience award as the festival favorite chosen by Sundance fans, earned Ferrera an acting prize, and became a calling card for a Hollywood future with "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and its sequel, along with her TV show.
It was the first professional acting job for Ferrera, who was 17 at the time and struggling for a toehold in a town where curvy Hispanics tend to get cast in working-class ethnic parts while wafer-thin blondes score the best lead roles.
"What's so kind of beautiful about the whole thing was that everything that made me not right for all of those hundreds of commercial auditions that I went on and no one ever wanted me for is what made me perfectly right for 'Real Women Have Curves,'" said Ferrera, 25, who is back at Sundance with the Iraq War homecoming drama "The Dry Land."
"There's not really a choice about, am I going to pursue a typical career? Because I'm not the typical standard, so that's not even an option," she continued. "I just have to be who I am and seek out things that fit me, are right for me. I was just so lucky with 'Real Women Have Curves.' At that point, I would have done an insurance commercial. I would have done anything."
Written and directed by Ferrera's boyfriend, Ryan Piers Williams, "The Dry Land" features her as a troubled wife dealing with the violent mood swings of her husband (Ryan O'Nan), a soldier afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder from combat in Iraq.
Ferrera, whose TV show was canceled Wednesday by ABC effective next season, had her doubts that Williams would get the film into production, given how other war-on-terror movies have failed to find an audience. Yet her boyfriend was determined, and Ferrera eventually signed on as an executive producer as well as co-star.
"She pushed me so hard to just make the script better and better and better and to just never settle for anything less than the vision I was setting out to make," said Williams, who also made a short film with Ferrera and now makes his feature debut.
Ferrera got in touch with some old friends, including Melissa Leo, who had played her mother in an episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" six years ago.
"America called out of the blue and asked, would I read her boyfriend's script? About 12 pages in, I got back in touch with her and Ryan and said, 'I will do this at any time. Just tell me when and where. I will be there and join you,'" said Leo, who plays Ferrera's ailing mother-in-law in "The Dry Land."
Leo said she knew when she first met Ferrera that the young actress had a great future ahead.
Early on, though, Ferrera faced casting directors who could not get a handle on her Hispanic looks but all-American voice and bearing.
"I realized how Latina I was, and then also, at the same time, how not Latina enough I was, because I'm born and raised in Los Angeles. I speak Spanish, but I don't speak perfect Spanish, not like a native speaker. So I'd go into an audition, and they'd ask me if I could sound more Latina," Ferrera said. "I was like, I don't know what you mean. I was born, I was raised in the San Fernando Valley. I've been to 35 bar mitzvahs. What do you want from me?"
Ferrera does get to play against type in the upcoming animated comedy "How to Train Your Dragon." She provides the voice of Astrid, a blonde, blue-eyed Viking warrior.