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In the Heights’s Justina Machado on Salsa, Sotomayor, and Her New CBS Show

Best known for playing Vanessa, the tough-but-tender wife of mortician Federico Diaz on Six Feet Under, Justina Machado is in town playing Daniela, the beauty salon owner, in In the Heights (she's filling in for Andrea Burns for eight weeks). And her new CBS pilot, Three Rivers, just got picked up for the fall. Machado spoke to Vulture about singing and dancing on stage for the first time in years and the one daily ritual she's had time for in New York.

So you're living in the West Village right now, and this is your first time living in New York since you left for L.A. in '95?
I was here for six months. I lived on the Lower East Side, 2nd Street between B and C. It was a little grungier back then, but it was great. I used to go to the Copa a lot, a salsa place.

Speaking of that, you perform salsa steps in In The Heights. Did the choreography come easily to you?
It's one thing to dance at a club and another to have choreography. I think I'm finally getting it right now, or I just know how to fake it. I've never been the kind of girl to be precise, and in the show, everything is choreographed except for my walking and talking. There's no room for error, no second takes. If I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time, I could get kicked in the head. I saw somebody get kicked in the head the other day on stage!

Tell us about Three Rivers.
It's with Alex O'Loughlin, and with Kate Moenning, who played Shane on The L Word. It's based in a hospital in Pittsburgh, about doctors who do organ transplants. Every episode tells the story of the donor, the recipient and the doctors. It's called Three Rivers because there are three rivers in Pittsburgh. I'm the head nurse, the main doctor's right-hand woman. I was originally supposed to be a guest star, then they asked me to be a series regular. It premieres sometime in the fall, I think. My character's really smart. Very — uh, I guess I can't get away from "sassy"!

Have you had any time to enjoy New York?
I'm in the West Village, which is great, but I haven't really had much time outside the show. I've had a lot of people in town to see it. I don't even get up sometimes until 12. Oh, I always get coffee from the Mud truck. That's the only thing I do on a regular basis. And after the show, I've gone to Joe Allen's a lot, or Thalia on 50th — this great little oyster place away from the madness.

Finally, most important, a topical question: Are you a "wise Latina"?
Oh my God, yes. I'm a wise Latina woman. Whatever, man. Thank God I'm not in politics, because the fact that you have to explain everything — I'd kill myself. I can't take all those little things they dissect. I'm like, "Oh my God, get a life." I don't have time for this.

Do you like Sotomayor?
I'm not one of those actors that knows everything about politics. I saw maybe 30 minutes of her answering questions yesterday and I thought she was incredibly poised and really smart. But if I say "Woo-woo," it would only be based on the fact that she's a Latino woman.

Photo: Getty Images