Ellen Gray | 'Betty's' Ortiz relishes show's hit status

UGLY BETTY. 8 p.m. Thursdays,

Channel 6.

PASADENA, CALIF. - After years of short-lived series and one-shot guest roles, Ana Ortiz thinks her mother may finally be able to stop sending her graduate-school applications.

This season, the University of the Arts grad's landed a job that appears to have a future: playing Hilda, the single-mother older sister to Betty (America Ferrera) on ABC's "Ugly Betty."

"Her idea was that I would go home, do theater and get a degree," said Ortiz, during an ABC party Sunday night.

" 'They don't get you in L.A.,' that's what she always says to me. 'They don't understand you in L.A.' "

Yet "suddenly they do."

"That's really the crux of the show, don't you think? All of us are sort of misunderstood, and all these misfits have come together. And I think a lot more people can relate to that," she said.

And while a lot has changed for Ortiz in the months since "Betty" became an instant hit for ABC - including a recent engagement to musician Noah Lebenzon - much of it hasn't yet sunk in, said the actress, who's also the daughter of former Philadelphia City Councilman Angel Ortiz.

"The schedule's really intense," she said, "which I think is actually kind of nice for me and for everyone around me, because, you know, you worry about becoming too much of a jerk, and worrying too much about things that really don't matter. And right now, we're working so much, and are just sort of really focused on it and just having so much fun . . . The only thing is that I don't get to spend as much time with my fiancé."

Besides, "people don't ever recognize me," she said, laughing. "But if I walk around with Mark [Indelicato], who plays my son, Justin, he gets mobbed."

The two spend a lot of time together, she said. "I just love him. It's a little piece of home. I mean, they're from Philly, and I can talk to his mom, and she says 'Coke' and 'hoagie' [Ortiz affects a Philly accent] and . . . I'm like, 'Oh - home.' "

Work hasn't left Ortiz much time for the wedding she and Lebenzon have scheduled for the show's hiatus, so her father's stepped in, she said. "He's so great. He has taken upon [himself] planning my wedding singlehandedly."

They're getting married in Puerto Rico, and "he's been there on business a couple of times, and so he sort of multitasks and goes and looks at places and takes photographs" for her.

"Angel Ortiz, wedding planner," she said, laughing. "Who knew?"

What's more, "he's doing a fantastic job. He's schmoozing, he's getting people down on prices," she said, something that could end up mattering.

"I'm trying to keep it small, but my father is fighting me on that," she said. "You know my father. My father's the kind of guy, like he'll be in Puerto Rico scouting [locations], and he'll go out to dinner and he'll make friends with everybody and then he'll be like, 'Come to my daughter's wedding!' He's known them for two hours and they're coming to the wedding."

Ortiz last night was headed out to one of Hollywood's equivalents of the prom - the Golden Globes, where both the show and its star, Ferrera, were nominated.

She was wearing a Badgley Mischka dress, lent by the designer.

"You know when you were little and you played dress-up with your mom's stuff? It's like that, only if your mom is Jackie Onassis," said Ortiz of the process in which actresses get to choose from a selection of free loaner gowns.

"They bring clothes to you. It's insane," she said.

"It's like nothing I ever experienced . . . and I'm wearing like this crazy diamond-and-pearl Fred Leighton - God, I hope I got that right - bracelet, a matching hair clip and these diamond earrings."

To put all this into perspective, "I was doing pilot season" a year ago, Ortiz said.

"It's just so hard to do that because it's constant rejection and [being] nervous and testing and are you not going further or you are going further, and four auditions a day and four different characters," she said.

When she got the role on "Betty," "I had a sense that I loved it, but everybody thought we were just going to be the Friday night throwaway show . . . I didn't know that it was going to be so huge."

One reason "Ugly Betty" might have resonated, she thinks, is that amid the comedy, it addresses real-life issues. In the show, "we can't afford to keep our father [Tony Plana] healthy" even though the household's adults are working full time, she said.

"But who isn't dealing with that? If I wasn't working, I wouldn't have insurance. My mom was helping me pay my insurance up until like three years ago," said Ortiz, who's now insured through the Screen Actors Guild.

"I'm really blessed. Thank God, I have insurance," she said. "Half of my friends don't." *

Ellen Gray (graye@phillynews.com) is attending the Television Critics Association's winter meetings. Read more on her blog at go.philly.com/ellengray.