How ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Prepared Ilana Peña for ‘Diary of a Future President’

Danielle Turchiano

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At first glance, the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and Disney Plus’s “Diary of a Future President” could not be more different. The former centered on a woman with borderline personality disorder who overturned her life multiple times for a chance at love but who still struggled in relationships because she didn’t fully love herself, while the latter follows the trials and tribulations of coming of age as a middle schooler, who will one day grow up to be the President of the United States of America. But they do have one very important thing in common: Ilana Peña, who started as an assistant on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and worked her way up to staff writer there, and now created and runs “Diary of a Future President.”

“There’s a quirky humor of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ that I learned how to hone there and was able to bring into ‘Diary,'” Peña tells Variety. “It was a crash course in making television. Especially watching Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom, I learned so much about creating a show, putting your whole heart into something and being a successful female boss telling a female story.”

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Looking more closely at the shows, despite being for very different audiences, Peña does see parallels: “They’re both stories with a strong woman at the center, and they’re both comedies that also have something else to say,” she says.

The titular character in “Diary of a Future President” is played by Gina Rodriguez (who also executive produces) in the opening sequence of the show. All grown up, Elena now holds the highest office in the country. As she’s getting settled into her new home in Washington, D.C., she receives a package from her mother, which includes her childhood diary.

“In Season 1 we really are treating it like ‘The Princess Bride’ in that the diary’s our in,” Peña says of the story. “We see this woman as a successful leader, we get a sense that she’s somebody the country is adoring and she’s bringing something positive to the country, and then the show is, ‘Well, how did she get there?'”

Although Peña says the show may return to see adult Elena and therefore Rodriguez “a little bit more,” the majority of the show lives in Elena’s impressionable tween and teen years. There, she is played by Tess Romero.

“‘Diary,’ at its heart, is an origin story,” she explains. “Originally when I first came up with this idea, I wanted tell a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up. In a way I feel we see a lot of boyhood stories, and I wanted to see my own experience onscreen.”

Peña pulled from her own adolescence not only for the “good, hardworking” kid Elena is (“My coming-of-age was much more ‘Wonder Years’ than ‘Euphoria,’ and that’s what I brought into the show,” she says), but also for the pivotal mother-daughter relationship between Elena and Gabi (Selenis Leyva).

“My mom is a strong lawyer and like Elena, I grew up raised by a single mom,” she says. “Seeing somebody not only overcome adversity and tragedy and pull through, even with grief, but be able to live her life, that was always just something I was able to see growing up that I put into the show.”

Since the focus of the show is on Elena’s origin story, “it was always conceived as a family comedy — a show that was about kids for kids,” says Peña. But, she never wanted it to be ONLY for kids. Therefore, Gabi, a widow who is just starting to date again, will have her own stories in each episode, some revolving on the complications of introducing a new boyfriend to her two children, and some more focused on her work.

Still, Elena is front and center in every moment because everything she is experiencing is a step in getting her closer to her ultimate destiny of becoming president — “whether or not she realizes it,” Peña says. “It’s laying in that message of, ‘No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, everybody’s capable of doing something great.'”

Similar to real-life politicians such as Hillary Clinton, who has stated that she had no idea she’d end up running for president someday when she started getting involved in activism and politics in her late teens, Elena has no idea what her future holds for her either. She’s not setting out on a path at age 12 with her eyes or heart set on such a lofty goal, “she just wants to do her homework assignments in time and wants people to like her,” Peña says.

There will be episodes where Elena dabbles in activism and “seeds are planted so when she ultimately makes the decision, we understand all of the things it took for her to get there,” Peña continues, but for the most part the show is following a normal 12-year-old girl’s life, and her immediate concerns are such things as family, friends, crushes and grades.

Puberty, self-esteem issues, mean girls/bullying and cultural ignorance come up, as well. Elena deals with a friend abandoning her, while her brother gets made fun of for having a tilde in his last name, which they call a “worm.” It is a teachable moment for some of the characters, presumably as well as some of the audience, which Peña says is “super important” because the kids that watch the show can “see somebody going through something they’re experiencing and see how they deal with it and see what lessons they can pick up from it.”

Peña preferred to lean into these more universal stories about adolescence over anything, such as social media or cyberbullying, that would root it too firmly in a specific time period.

“We wanted to exist in a timelessness. We call it the now-ish,” she says. “If Elena needs to call her mom from school, she has a cell phone, but we weren’t interested in having a story that existed entirely on a screen. We wanted it to feel like they were talking to each other instead of talking on Snapchat or TikTok or whatever the kids are on these days. And also, we didn’t want to put it in this minute because we didn’t want to say we’re waiting so long for this president to exist.”

“Diary of a Future President” is streaming now on Disney Plus.

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