Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Very little fazes Sofia Vergara. In fact, she'll gladly discuss plastic surgery, or fat rolls, or dealing with older ovaries.
"It's not a big deal. It's not a mystery," she shrugs, embracing the topics that make other actresses blanch or huffily walk away.
That disarming candor and confidence, coupled with killer comedic timing and an oddly relatable provocativeness, has led Forbes to annoint Vergara the highest-paid actress on TV; she earns a reported $30 million. She's coy when asked about that figure, demurring that people shouldn't believe "everyteeng" they read. But decimal points aside, Vergara has emerged as a show-business behemoth, co-starring on ABC's Emmy-winning Modern Family and getting maternal rage off her chest in Robert Rodriguez' Machete Kills, opening Friday.
Oh, and she's got a fragrance, simply called Sofia, launching in March. This month, in time for Halloween, she's unleashing a furniture collection with Rooms to Go. She sells sexy, affordable attire at Kmart and shills for Diet Pepsi. Behind the scenes, her production company is producing Killer Women for ABC in January, with Raising Mom also in production, and Speak American for Fox.
"This year, I'm very greedy. I'm taking a lot of stuff. I have to take advantage now. I'm 41. I don't want to be in 10 years working as hard as I am now," says Vergara. "Once Modern Family finishes, you can be on top and then suddenly no one remembers you. I want to be realistic. I do all my endorsements during the weekend. My hiatus week I always come to New York. I'm the only one of the whole cast who is working. But I have to do it now."
So what's the secret to Vergara's ascendancy? She breaks it down.
1. Play to your strengths. Vergara, always aware of her copious physical gifts, started out posing in calendars, eventually spending a lot of time oozing sex appeal on Univision before deciding to break into Hollywood with her longtime producing partner, Luis Balaguer, with whom she runs Latin World Entertainment. The two met with networks in Los Angeles, but kept striking out. "I remember we were about to leave ABC five years ago because after doing four different pilots that were not picked up, we have not found success," Balaguer recalls. "(An executive) calls us into a meeting and tells us that it took George Clooney seven pilots to find ER. Sofia interrupts him and says, 'My (breasts) are about to hit the ground and I don't have the luxury to wait for nine pilots, I need something now.' Two weeks later, I get the script for Modern Family." As for Vergara, she's well aware of her physical attributes and how to best showcase them. "They're already too saggy," she laments about her breasts. "It's exhausting, believe me. I always say I wish this had happened to me 10 years ago."
2. Have a plan, and then a backup plan, because the success could all go away. And that's why Vergara isn't banking on having a long-term acting career. It could end tomorrow, and she'd still be set for life. "I always wanted to do a makeup line and now I have CoverGirl. I wanted to a clothing line because people are always asking me what I'm wearing. ... In five or 10 years, I don't have to be there working - I can do it from my house," says Vergara. "When you have back pain or have a cold, you can be home. I will keep doing behind the scenes," including producing, which she says is "something new" for her. "I will always want to keep my Kmart line because it's something I super enjoy." But, she says, "I never went to acting school. I never thought I'd be an actress. If the acting went away, it wouldn't be as bad for me."
3. Diversify when possible - which means going from saucy-but-sweet Gloria on Family to playing a mentally unstable mother avenging her daughter in Machete Kills. Anyone who's seen the trailers knows exactly how Vergara's character, a brothel owner, mows down her enemies. "I'm doing action and shooting and it's funny at the same time. I'm sure I'll come out looking crazy. My son saw me in the trailer in the movies and said, 'You look scary.' My son and my fiancé always tell me that I have to play the role of some psychopath because they say I am scary when I get mad," she says. "This role had a lot of anger and I love the role because of that. She's supposed to be this brothel owner but also a little bit of a psychopath but is doing everything because of the love of the daughter. A lot of things make this woman be completely out of control."
4. Be blunt, especially in an industry where lying and dissembling are an Olympic sport. "Sofia has always embraced who she is. It's very genuine," says Modern Family creator Steve Levitan. "Sometimes it's just amazing to me the things that she says that are so charming coming out of her mouth that might not be if someone else said it. It comes from a very good place." Indeed, ask Vergara about some of Hollywood's most verboten topics, and she happily expounds on them. Has she had any work done on her face? "Not yet. I can't really do Botox because of my faces I make on the show. They don't want to mess with that.," she sighs. "I haven't been in the sun in years with my face. My body, that's another age. No one told me to put sunblock on!"
5. Have your priorities in order. And for Vergara, that means her family: son Manolo, 22, and fiancé Nicholas Loeb. "If you want to meet Sofia, you should meet her son first. That's what Sofia is about," says Balaguer. "She's always, always put motherhood in front of the business woman and the actress. She's incredibly involved in the day-to-day development of anything having to do with his world. That's her full-time job and everything else she does in her spare time." And she might have more kids, despite a diagnosis of and treatment for thyroid cancer in 2000, as she had her eggs frozen. "I thought I was done because my son is 22 and I am 41. My fiancé is younger than me by three years and he doesn't have kids. So it's always an option," she says, though she acknowledges that it would be "hard to start again ... at 41 - I know what all that means. ...You never know at this age. It can go bad very easy. We'll wait and see what happens when we have time. I had cancer 10 years ago and I had a lot of radiation and that changed me. That's why the doctor said it's better now."
6. Know that the red carpet matters - a lot. So much so that Vergara's penchant for low-cut frocks by Vera Wang and Zuhair Murad, skimming her derrière and showcasing her dècolletage, has launched an entire fashion empire. For years, she says, women would walk up to her asking who made her clothes, which inspired Vergara to give them what they wanted, based on her own very firm sense of proportion. "I can't wear skimpy things without a bra. Everything has to be structured, like a good bra. If I wear something too loose, you don't know what's going on here," she says, gesturing to her chest, "because of the boobs. I learned to dress for my body. When I was younger, I would wear a miniskirt and (show) cleavage. Now if I wear a miniskirt it's with dark tights," she says. "Of course I'm not a real designer. The designers came with me to my closet and I showed them everything, what I like. I wanted to do things I would wear. That was the point. They have to be affordable. They have to be comfortable."
7. Don't let any of this go to your head, because there's always someone younger and hotter and thinner on the way up. "I've known I'm pretty but I've known there are prettier girls behind me," says Vergara. When asked if people have trouble taking her seriously, she says that even though she can play down her smarts in interviews, focusing instead on her love of eating - as she chows down on cookies - and her appreciation of her new "baby," a Givenchy tote, "I have to say, I've never had a problem being stereotyped." Maybe, Balaguer says, it's because she's always kept her eyes on the prize. "The last six years before Modern Family, it was always between her and Jennifer Lopez or Jessica Alba, and they would always win. It was really challenging," he says. "It was humbling for her. You go from being the best-paid woman in Hispanic television to auditioning with 30 other girls. Sofia never complained to me."
8. Take your jobs seriously, but be able to let loose and laugh at yourself. After the Emmys, Vergara tweeted a photo of herself shaking her posterior and jokingly teaching pint-sized twerker Miley Cyrus the move's origins: her native Colombia. And when she came to Austin to shoot Machete Kills, Rodriguez told Vergara he wanted her to sound like his mother, who has a very shrill, very non-sexy scream. Vergara was happy to vocally oblige. And she had no qualms about some of her, ahem, other hardware. "The bra that fires, she just went for it. She could channel anything you wanted," he says. "She's very likable and personable. But she turns it on for the camera. Oh my god, I don't think she knows how hot she is. People love her. Everyone comes up to me and tells me they love her."