Jaina Lee Ortiz, Star of 'Station 19,' Tries Her Own Stunts

April 23, 2018

The 31-year-old actress plays a firefighter in the rare prime-time series with a Latina lead.

The actress Jaina Lee Ortiz isn’t normally drawn to high-adrenaline pursuits. Her favorite hobby: flower arranging. Her idea of bliss: neatly folded towels. Her dream job: personal organizer.

And yet on a snowy Wednesday, Ms. Ortiz clambered 40 feet up in the air, clutching handholds and scrambling onto footholds as she climbed the rock wall at Chelsea Piers.

“It’s fun, it’s really fun,” she called out. Then she reached the top and dared to look down. “Oh wait,” she said. “It’s scary.”

Ms. Ortiz, 31, has been scaring herself a lot lately. She plays a firefighter named Andy Herrera — the series lead — on “Station 19,” which had its premiere on March 22. The show is a spinoff of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and the latest from the creative force Shonda Rhimes.

Andy risks death in pretty much every episode. A trained salsa dancer and a natural athlete, Ms. Ortiz has usually done her own stunts for other roles. But the punishing heat, the 70-pound turnout gear and the bodily risks mean that in this show, she mostly leaves the leaping-out-of-the-window action to the professionals.

“You go do your thing,” she tells her stunt doubles. “I’m going to be over here drinking my water in this air-conditioned room.”

Andy, no towel folder, goes rock climbing to relax. So this is one stunt that Ms. Ortiz wanted to try herself. After a busy morning making the publicity rounds, she arrived at Chelsea Piers Fitness Center in glitzy makeup, glossy ponytail and black boots with lollipop heels.

Ms. Ortiz hadn’t packed workout gear, but at the front desk she bought a no-nonsense Under Armour set — black shirt, black leggings.

Andy moves through the world with confidence and dignity, “like Wonder Woman,” Ms. Ortiz said. Ms. Ortiz didn’t move so differently as she strutted in those heels past the weight machines, the basketball courts and the beach volleyball sand pit, until she arrived at the climbing wall.Matthew Carter, a fitness instructor and a climbing guide, handed her a pair of thin-soled red shoes.

Once Ms. Ortiz had switched them out for a larger size, Mr. Carter helped her into a climbing rig that looked a little like an S-and-M harness (“We are in Chelsea,” Mr. Carter said with a deadpan) and watched as she tightened it around her waist and thighs. Then he tied on a woven pouch filled with gymnastic chalk.

After all that firefighter gear, the harness felt like nothing. “It’s soothing,” Ms. Ortiz said.

The wall looked like a hunk of moon face topped with sprinkles. Ms. Ortiz studied it warily while Mr. Carter used a carabiner to hook her to a rope anchored at the wall’s top. She gripped the first handhold, and a minute and seven seconds later she had reached the top. “That was too easy for you,” Mr. Carter said after she descended.

Ms. Ortiz said, “You think so?”

He had her go up using only the green holds and then only the blue ones. She was brisk and methodical, her ponytail swinging as she maneuvered for each new hold. Mr. Carter shouted approval as she moved her legs into a wide split. Later she switched up her feet and rebalanced herself on the wall. “Stylish,” he called.

“Now I see why my character would do that,” Ms. Ortiz said, having bounced back down to earth and chugged some water. “It’s like therapy. It’s like meditation.”

“Moving meditation,” Mr. Carter said. He pointed out that it also built up forearm strength.

Strength is what Ms. Ortiz projects, on the climbing wall and off it. It’s what casting agents see. Still, it’s not always what she feels. She has played a rookie cop, a detectivea Marine and now a firefighter — “public-service, badass characters,” she said.

She often wishes she had more of their confidence, more courage. “I am afraid sometimes,” she said.

But even though she is a self-described “girlie girl,” Ms. Ortiz is also a woman who signed herself up for the firefighter’s Candidate Physical Abilities Test as soon as she landed the “Station 19” role, running up flights of stairs in weighted gear, dragging a 165-pound dummy out of a building. So she’s a girlie girl with muscles and guts.

She is especially proud to play Andy, because “she’s not a sidekick or the friend, or the mistress. She is this strong, independent, passionate woman who will overstep any man just to get to where she wants,” Ms. Ortiz said. Andy is thrill seeking, volatile. Her love life “is a hot mess,” she said.

That’s not Ms. Ortiz. She doesn’t smoke, she barely drinks, she eats sensibly. A few mornings a week she wakes up at 3 a.m. to fit in a workout before she is due on set. “Discipline, discipline, discipline,” she said.

Yes, she married her husband, Bradley Marques, after dating him for only two months, but they did it so that she could have health insurance. Eight years later, they’re still together.

But what’s good for life is bad for TV. “If it’s not messy then it’s not worth watching, right?” Ms. Ortiz said. If Andy stayed home with a devoted husband and folded towels, ratings would tank, “end of story,” Ms. Ortiz said.

But maybe she and Andy aren’t really so far apart. Maybe Ms. Ortiz likes the occasional adrenaline rush, too. After her climb, she rested on a red mat and looked back up at the wall she had just conquered. “I can see how that could be addicting,” she said.

Rock Climbing
Rock Climbing

Learn about Chelsea Piers Rock Wall: CONNECTICUT NEW YORK