(Photo courtesy of Ilana Peña)
UC Riverside

Meet Ilana Peña, the creator behind the Disney+ sensation

Ilana Peña is no stranger to the magic that occurs when hard work and a dream come together to form a reality.
Peña is the creator of the Disney+ original series titled “Diary of a Future President,” which details Elena (Tess Romero) and her adventures through middle school. The following Q&A was conducted through email.
“Diary of a Future President” centers Elena, the future President of the United States. Before she becomes President, the show depicts her adventures through middle school and the joys and challenges of growing up. What inspired the choice to depict Elena in her middle school years compared to her role as President years later?
I’ve always wanted to write a coming-of-age story centering on a young girl. I’ve seen a lot of shows and movies that center on the experience of boyhood, but not nearly enough that celebrate my own experiences. As I was trying to crack the show, I thought about the idea of making it an origin story — the audience can take the journey with a girl we know becomes something extraordinary.
So I thought, why not shoot for the stars, make her the president of the United States, and then we can see the pieces of her life that led her there? We still get to see glimpses of Elena in the Oval Office, so we know her future is bright, and can have fun seeing the lessons she learns in her journey to the White House.
The show features characters from diverse backgrounds and with unique personalities! When you were writing the show, was there a character that you particularly related to the most? Were there any characters that it took longer to understand who they were than others?
“Diary” is inspired by my childhood, so in that regard, much of Elena’s character is inspired by my own coming-of-age. I really relate to her passion, her tenacity, how much she fiercely loves her family and friends. Because Bobby’s so internal, sometimes I had to work harder to get inside his head. He doesn’t have a diary and isn’t as talkative as his sister — so it’s a bit tougher to know what he’s thinking! But I was so lucky to have such an incredible writers’ room. Thanks to their brilliance and personal experiences, we were able to imbue each character and their journeys with so much honesty.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about the show is that de-stigmatizes getting your period for the first time. Instead of it being something that girls are ashamed about, it becomes almost like a bragging right for adulthood. Was this choice intentional, and if so, what inspired it?
When I was growing up, I never thought of periods as something negative or taboo. But I do have friends who did, who felt ashamed, lied to their parents and their friends… I never want anyone to feel in any way ashamed of such a natural part of life!
What was the process like seeing your written script evolve into a filmed show?
I’m still pinching myself! With each part of the process, I have felt so grateful every step of the way. And it wasn’t just about the thrill of seeing my dreams come to life. There were so many brilliant, hardworking people who made this show possible, and it was so incredibly rewarding to see their visions come to life as well. We had such a phenomenal cast and crew, and it was so rewarding to see my dreams become so much bigger than me.
Did you have a favorite behind the scenes moment as the show was being filmed?
There are so many fun moments, but I loved the table reads. It was so exciting to hear the words spoken out loud by our extremely talented cast, and to experience gut reactions to the scripts we’d worked so hard on. Whether it was Selenis and Michael making everyone cry, or Charlie and his pals cracking us up, or Tess being superhuman and pulling double duty reading diary voiceover and her own lines… it was so special seeing everything jump off the page.
 
How did you get started as a show creator and writer? Was there a definitive moment when you realized this was something you wanted to pursue?
I’ve been writing and telling stories my whole life, so I can’t think of one particular moment – it’s just always been something I knew I was going to do in some capacity. I grew up acting, and studied theatre in college, so I thought for a while that would be my path. But once I took my first playwriting class, I was hooked. From there I was able to take other writing classes, including TV writing, and everything clicked. It felt like the perfect medium for me — I loved how character-driven and collaborative it was.
I moved out to L.A. and worked as an assistant on a number of shows. I landed on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and found my mentors, Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom. I feel so fortunate that they believed in and nurtured my voice. They promoted me ultimately to staff writer, and championed my own projects every step of the way. You can catch Rachel as “Mrs. Wexler” in episode 4 of “Diary!”
What advice do you have for students who might be interested in pursuing their passion of writing in a TV environment?
Your voice is the most powerful thing you have. Don’t try to fit into any sort of mold of what you think others want to hear — tell the stories only you can tell, that you’re passionate about, that you can’t not write. That’s what this industry and audiences respond to: that passion, that singularity of voice and vision.
 
Season One left us on a bit of a cliffhanger! What themes are you most excited to explore in Season Two?
If we’re lucky enough to get to do this again, I am so excited to keep exploring these characters’ journeys. Of course, we want to continue to see the steps of Elena’s journey that lead her to the Oval Office. But we’d also love to explore the coming-of-age of the rest of Elena’s family. Bobby’s just beginning his own journey of self-discovery as he’s learning more about who he is. Gabi and Sam’s relationship will continue to evolve. As our characters grow and change, I’m excited for the world to hopefully have a front row seat!
Season one of “Diary of a Future President” is available for streaming on Disney+. You can follow the series along on Instagram @DisneyPlus.