Driven, creative, and determined, Ilana Peña has found that her success as a television writer grows from her ability to trust the process, remember her roots, and use a loud and specific voice to advocate for herself. As the showrunner of “Diary of a Future President” on Disney+, she often reflects on her past in order to look toward the future.
A former “theater kid,” Peña has always been interested in the arts. She spent her childhood acting in plays, but she first became interested in directing at age thirteen when she took a video class at Belvoir Terrace, a summer camp that “nurtured all aspects of the arts.” While creating her first short film at camp, she discovered a passion for creating stories and working on multiple aspects of them to bring them to life. Then, as a theater major at Northwestern University, Peña explored various interests within her field and soon fell in love with playwriting. It was only after taking a course in writing for television during her senior year of college, however, that Peña found the area of work that most excited her and best suited her interests.
“Everything that I loved about theater and everything that I started to really love about film and … running around with a camera at camp clicked with TV. It was collaborative; it was character-driven,” Peña said. She knew then it was what she wanted to dedicate herself to.
After graduation, Peña sought to continue the momentum she had built in college. She was used to creating and leading projects and she had the experience and skills for it, but “nobody cared.” While she struggled to find a job at first, she used the extra time she had to develop her craft and find her footing.
“This time allowed me to write my not-as-good drafts of things that luckily nobody saw, but also take a beat and figure out what I wanted to do,” Peña said in reflection.
Breaking into the television industry, Peña worked her way up by verbalizing her goals. She worked on a handful of shows before becoming the showrunner’s assistant on The CW series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Still, she was determined to be a writer and was unafraid to ask for the role. By the fourth season of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” her tenacity had paid off: She was promoted to a staff writer position on the show.
“You have to be loud and specific about what you want,” she said of her success strategy.
Drawn by her success, agents soon approached her seeking a new comedy. She was tasked with creating a story that was fully her own. Having grown up watching “Boy Meets World” and “Lizzie McGuire,” Peña knew she wanted to create a coming-of-age show with a protagonist similar to herself, a Cuban-American girl from Miami. And so she began writing “Diary of a Future President,” a comedy-drama series currently streaming on Disney+.
“The image I had when I was coming up with the idea was of a young Latina girl like ‘this’ on the side of a bus,” said Peña, smiling and displaying a folded-arms, shoulders-back, confident power pose.
With “Diary,” Peña had the opportunity to create stories in the way she sought to since making the short film at camp. As a showrunner, she accounted for details across all aspects of the show — including working with the costume designer, writing new scripts, deciding how loud a phone sound effect should be — and she loved working with the crew of “passionate, motivated experts.”
Peña believes that storytelling through television is “literal magic.” “I have not lost the stars in my eyes,” she said of her enthusiasm for the craft.
Even still, she encountered challenges while working on the show.
“Diary” was widely perceived as a “Latinx show,” a label that Peña resists. She felt pressure to represent an entire culture, even though the story was simply inspired by her own childhood. The show follows a young Latina girl, yes, but at its core it is a story about growing up: having a first crush, forgetting about homework, and fighting with one’s siblings.
Even though it was canceled after only two seasons, Peña wouldn’t change much if she had the chance to go back in time to work on “Diary” again — she would only encourage her past self to have more confidence in her abilities and instincts.
“I actually do know what I’m doing. And the stuff I don’t know, I can learn and will learn,” she said. “But being confident in my own skin, owning the fact that I’m a creator, owning the fact that I’m an executive producer, and owning the fact that this is my story… if I could go back in time, I would own that a little bit earlier.”
“Diary of a Future President” thrived when Peña’s confidence thrived, which she compared to her memory of filming at camp. She cites “unbridled confidence” and belief in herself as necessary qualities she continues to channel after her work on the show ended.
“You have to own what you want; you have to proclaim it,” said Peña. Especially in the television industry, people are often willing to help but cannot read minds. She advised, “people have to know that you want something, and they have to know what it is that you want.”
Peña’s outstanding career is fueled by her ability to ask for what she wants — and she is not done yet. She has much ahead of her, including two potential shows and a few feature films. “I want to make things, I want to keep writing, directing, and producing, but I also want to use my little corner to empower other voices as well,” she said. Inspired by the encouraging mentors and supportive bosses who helped her in her own journey, she is committed to nurturing the talents of emerging writers going forward.
“I feel so lucky to finally be in the room and finally be at the table that I’ve been dreaming of being at since I was thirteen years old and running around with a camera. I hope that from my little corner I can make access a little bit easier for people who are trying to break in [to the television industry]. I want to elevate voices that aren’t just mine,” Peña said. “I’d love to empower people the way that I was lucky enough to be empowered when I was starting out.”