"I never thought that I'd have anything to do with a show like that," Sofia Vergara tells PEOPLE about joining America's Got Talent as a judge

By Karen Mizoguchi
June 01, 2020 03:45 PM
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Tyler Golden/NBC

After nearly 11 years of memorizing lines for Modern Family, Sofia Vergara is diving into the unscripted world of reality competition.

As the newcomer judge on America's Got Talent, the star, 47, is taking a break from acting to help contestants, such as danger acts, contortionists, animal acts and singers, win the $1 million grand prize.

"They're different worlds, completely different," Vergara tells PEOPLE about Modern Family and AGT. "It's entertaining but it's very different. You're learning lines when you have a TV show. Here, you're judging people. You have an audience, which I didn't have before in Modern Family. It's different, but it's fun."

The star shares how lucky she was to find massive success on the beloved ABC series  — and how anxious she was about finding another success after the show wrapped on April 8.

"I mean what are the odds?" she says. "A successful show like Modern Family — we won awards, we won Emmys, everything — to find something like that again, that was not going to be easy."

These days, Vergara continues to keep in touch with her TV family in their group chat. "We're always commenting on each other's lives and posts," she says.

Trae Patton/NBC

In late 2019, NBC approached Vergara with the opportunity to join AGT's 15th season after season 14 judges Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough exited their seats from the panel. (Veteran judge Heidi Klum has returned to sit alongside Vergara, Simon Cowell and Howie Mandel.)

"It never even crossed my mind ever. I mean, I've seen the show, but I never thought that I'd have anything to do with a show like that," she recalls thinking when she was asked to sign on as a judge.

"I got a little nervous because I thought, 'What am I going to judge? I don't know anything about anything. I mean I'm not an expert on anything. How am I going to do this and be a good judge?' " she says. "I was thinking of how different it is going to be now. It's new people. 'Am I going to like them? Is it going to be fun?' Then I realized, 'You know what, this show you don't have to be an expert on anything. You just have to say what you think.' "

And the nerves disappeared when she taped her first episode. "The moment I got there, we really had a great time. I fell in love with all of them," she says. "Simon is the best. Heidi is so beautiful and she has been doing this for so long. She's like a pro."

Tyler Golden/NBC

Executive producer Cowell tells PEOPLE that he thought Vergara was the perfect choice to join the show.

"I spoke to her initially when NBC said that Modern Family was coming to an end so the timing might work. We had a brief conversation. I said, 'How do you feel?' She said, 'I feel absolutely terrified, and am I qualified to judge this show?' " he says.

Cowell advised Vergara to just be her authentic self: "I said, 'Well, the thing about this show is you don't have to be necessarily an expert.' It's just about having an opinion, and we all have different opinions. You know what you will like, and you'll know what you don't like."

The British judge adds, "She watched the show for years, so she understood what it was all about. She was really, really nervous on the first day. But I really think she enjoyed the whole process. It is nerve-racking. Even when I came on the show in 2016, my first day, I was absolutely terrified even though I'd been doing this for years."

Trae Patton/NBC

Now, Vergara is more comfortable as a judge of talent.

"What I try to do is to be as honest as I can, to just say what the contestant makes me feel because I try to be the voice of people that are watching TV. None of them are experts either," she says. "So that's what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to have fun and be honest with the stuff that I like and that I don't like."

Though the audition episodes were filmed before the coronavirus pandemic, the rest of the season remains up in the air as the live shows are scheduled to take place in August.

"It was kind of a little bit upsetting at the beginning. I felt like I was robbed of the opportunity to experience and learn the whole thing," Vergara says of production being shut down due to stay-at-home guidelines. "I only had two weeks of actually shooting in the actual venue with the contestants. And then, they had to take away the audience. So that was different for me. I was already getting used to the whole thing, and how it was supposed to be. It was difficult for me a little bit."

But overall, Vergara is happy about the new chapter in her career. "I thought I made the perfect decision joining AGT," she says.

America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays (at 8 p.m. ET) on NBC.