On Netflix’s One Day at a Time, an excellent reboot of the Norman Lear original, Rita Moreno stars as 70-year-old Lydia, the grandmother in a multigenerational Cuban-American family living in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Moreno herself is a living legend. The star of West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, and countless other films and TV shows, is one of the few talents to have an EGOT, and we wouldn’t be surprised if she took another Emmy home this year for her scene-stealing work on One Day. She recently joined the Vulture TV Podcast in studio to discuss why she asked for her character to be sexual, doing her first-ever scene sans makeup, and how Marlon Brando was an “absolute lunatic” about keeping their eight-year-long affair private. Listen to the conversation, and read an edited transcript below.
Gazelle Emami: On One Day at a Time, you play Lydia, the spunky grandmother.
Is there a grandmother that isn’t spunky on television? Is there such a creature?
Matt Zoller Seitz: You don’t seem that spunky to me, you seem fierce to me.
Oh, I love that! She is fierce. That’s me. And I’m doing my mom’s accent so it’s really all of the family. I’m sorry, you were saying?
GE: Your character is so genuinely funny …
Well, because she’s so unreasonable! I love playing people who don’t have a sense of humor for instance, there’s nothing funnier to me than a person with no sense of humor.
GE: Do you think she knows that she’s funny?
Oh no! She thinks she’s charming. She thinks quite a lot of herself. She’s vain, she’s theatrical, she’s dramatic, she’s big. I can’t imagine why they gave me this role. Who would have thunk? Every actor in the world would kill to have this part.
GE: Can you tell us about how you got this role? It sounds like they had you in mind from the beginning.
Apparently, when Norman got the idea of doing the show, the first thing he said was “the first person I want is Rita Moreno.” Which is interesting because I believe that in the original show, the grandmother did not have a great deal to do. I ran into him at a political fundraising dinner and we sat at the same table and he said, “I want you in this show I’m going to do, I’m coming back to television.” You know those are the two magic words: Norman Lear, he’s going to do television again. You bet your ass I’m going to be interested.
MZS: It’s really great just to see you give this performance that is such a performance. You don’t just enter, you enter. And some of these pauses before you reply to people …
I always sort of try to digest what they’re saying. The character does.
MZS: When you’re sitting on the couch with your granddaughter and you tell the story about how you left Cuba in 1958 — “not speaking English, no money, without your family” — and she says, “How many times are you gonna go to this well,” and you say…
“They took my well!” I mean that is political and it’s passionate and it’s emotional, and those things come seemingly out of the ether. You don’t expect a lot of what you hear in this show, do you?
Jen Chaney: How much of the backstory about Lydia came to be once you were attached to the project? She’s a dancer, for instance, and clearly that is tailor-made for you. Was that always on the page? Or did you bring that to the table?
Well, Gloria Calderon [Kellett], a Cuban woman, and Mike Royce are the two head writers. Gloria’s mother was a dancer and to my absolute astonishment, she played castanets. So when Gloria had this part, she had a particular episode in mind about how Lydia came to this country, and there’s a little bit where I’m supposed to dance. I said, “You’re not going to believe this but I play the castanets, I still do.” Her mother almost peed in her pants! I play her mom, and I’m playing my mom because the accent is definitely my mother’s. Things like, “Oh, I found it on the YouTube” [in a heavy accent]. I love that accent, it makes me laugh.
GE: You’ve talked in the past about how you had to do a lot of accents in the past in a way that felt degrading. How different did it feel doing it this time?
Well, this time I’m playing a legitimate character. I’m not playing one of those stereotypical Indian maidens, what I used to called the “dusky maiden” roles that I played in so many films and TV in the past. I adore playing this woman. She brings out the crazy in me and the dramatic and the theatrical. If two characters we ever made for each other, it’s Rita Moreno and Lydia. And I love her unreasonableness. Because she’s so convinced she’s right, it’s ridiculous.
MZS: In her mind she’s completely reasonable, and everyone else is off their rocker.
Oh, of course. You know what I did ask for — I asked the writers when I was talking to them on the phone initially, before there was even a script, I said I’d like her to be sexual. Because you don’t see that. Once people turn a certain age, that gets completely ignored by writers, and it’s a shame. I’ve always been a very sexual person. That doesn’t mean I’m going around feeling my breasts and pressing myself against men, but I’m a sexual being. I’m 85, and I’m still a sexual being, or a sensual being. And that appealed to them, and of course the audience loves that. Including, by the way, the younger people because I think unconsciously they see there’s hope that it doesn’t all suddenly go away, your ovaries just turn to dust overnight simply because you can longer conceive. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have sexual allure or yearnings. And in Lydia’s case, of course she goes so far — this woman is shameless. She will flirt with a fence post. Oh, it’s fence post? I didn’t know that. It looked like a guy to me.
MZS: The presentation is different than when other characters over 60 or so are presented as being sexual, where it’s a joke. But that’s not what this is. This is more just a character trait.
Oh, absolutely. She thinks she’s swell. I love that about her!
GE: And you are even more than just a sexual character, you are the sexual character on the show.
Oh, I know! And that’s what’s so delicious! I represent sexuality on the show. When Isabella says to me, “Do you really want to put out that ad?” And you know the writers found this picture of me, this sexy pin-up picture of me when I was much younger, which she’s spreading around the neighborhood — remember that episode? I love that.
GE: One of the running jokes on the show is how you always wear makeup, you even sleep in it.
Oh, yes — she’s Cuban!
GE: And there’s an amazing scene when you don’t wear makeup and you bond with your granddaughter. I’m wondering if you could talk to us about filming that scene — have you ever done a scene with no makeup on?
No, I never have, and I was actually very happy to do it. Maybe it’s my age, but I know I look good, so I’m not going to look like another person suddenly because I don’t have makeup on — same hair, same person. I found it so touching. But here’s where a very moving and touching scene turns into comedy at the end when the granddaughter says to her, “Wait a minute, you said you’re not wearing makeup?” “Yes.” “But aren’t you wearing mascara?” “No!” And she runs out of the room — so it’s still a cheat! Oh, I love her. I love her because of her vanity and all that — she’s really very vulnerable. She victimizes herself sometimes. Everybody on the set loves her, as her. They talk about her as though she actually exists, because she does — there’s Rita and then there’s Lydia.
GE: You have this really powerful scene where you talk about coming to America and leaving your sister behind in Cuba …
Well, let me tell you something. I couldn’t stop crying. First one writer came to me, and then Gloria came to me and said, “You’re peaking to soon, you’re almost sobbing.” I said, “I can’t help it, this is so moving to me.” Suddenly it’s Rita listening to Lydia and getting moved by it. I really had to control myself.
GE: I had read that you came over from Puerto Rico when you were 5 on a boat, and your brother was …
My brother was left behind. With the intention that he was supposed to come at a later date, because my mom couldn’t afford two of us. And I never saw him again.
GE: Was that something you drew on for this scene, or were you fully Lydia in that scene?
I was fully Lydia. I was listening, as Rita, to what Lydia had to say and how painful this was for her and her sister. I mean, that’s the killer — when her sister says, “Well, you know I’ll be there in a few months,” and then she dies. And Lydia never quite understood how that happened. I know a couple of the reviewers said they hope to see a little more of that part of her life because that’s what makes a Lear show so extraordinary. It’s touching moments. It’s Chekov.
MZS: Yes! Between very broad and almost farcical at times.
Right, it’s absolutely silly sometimes, like All in the Family was. The other thing that is extraordinary is we do very long scenes. That’s very deliberate — Norman doesn’t want these choppy, ha-ha jokey scenes where you’re chopped from one scene to another, scene to another scene. He loves the one set.
MZS: It’s like theater, a lot of it.
He adores theater. And let me tell you, more than one director who’s come onto our set will say something like, “Oh my God, that’s a 20-page scene!” And they’ll suddenly think, “Alright, wait a minute, I have four cameras …” They really have to do some thinking about how to shoot this. But it’s the continuity that I think engages people.
MZS: Yes, and it’s the emotional continuity. Not just of time, but of the feelings of the characters.
Also I love the idea that the entire 13-episodes are all based on the eventual episode where the quinceañera comes to fruition.
GE: It’s such a good through-line.
MZS: On most sitcoms you get 22 episodes and they’re all somewhat self-contained. Here, because of the Netflix model, they’re releasing it all at once, and so they can plant the seeds of the finale in the first episode, rather than waiting a year to experience it. It might just be a few days, if you’re binge-watching.
But you know, as a person who’s not watched much streaming stuff, I was appalled that this thing wasn’t going to go on the air as soon as we were done. I kept saying to Norman, “Don’t you understand the little boy’s voice is gonna change?” And he said I really worried him. He said, “Oh my God, that’s right, I never thought of that.” I said, “Well, think about it! Talk to Netflix, we need a second season.”
MZS: I suspect you’ll get one.
Well, I sure hope so, my God. I can’t imagine not. And you know, I want to get my character involved in politics. Local politics. Can I explain this a little bit?
JC: Yes, please!
During the shoot of this first season, I read a story about a Hispanic woman who tried to get involved in very local politics, like city council stuff. She was insulted for her accent and they made fun of the way she dressed and all that kind of stuff. As we know, Lydia is a little theatrical in the way she dresses. I brought this idea to the writers and to Norman and they loved it. We could do that literally as a through-line for her whole second season when she’s trying to get involved in local politics because she’s upset about something. And because of her theatricality and the way she mispronounces words sometimes, it’s very easy to make fun of someone like that. When she sees that she’s not taken seriously, it can turn into one of those amazing, dramatic moments that occur in every single episode of this series.
MZS: And if she’s a natural politician she can turn that to her advantage.
I can see her flirting, and maybe at the wrong guy — getting sexual with a guy who’s maybe a closet gay or a very religious guy.
JC: I’ve always admired that you seem like such an optimistic, energetic, joyful person. And at this particular point in the country, a lot of people are having a hard time feeling optimistic. I was wondering if you could talk about what keeps you optimistic? How do you maintain such energy and joy for life?
You nailed me. You’re absolutely right. In fact, Marlon Brando said to me one day, “You are the most… you are so optimistic – it’s ridiculous. I’ve never known anyone as optimistic as you.” He said, “You conjure a picture of a man, a park attendant with a stick in his hand and a nail at the end of the stick picking up stuff, only you go around picking up hope and putting it into your little brown paper bag.” Which is rather sweet. And he’s right, that’s my nature. I am joyful, and with my career and my life going this way at 85 — my God! I don’t dare complain about a hangnail! It’s spectacular.
MZS: I gotta say, I didn’t know how old you were and I looked it up and I went, “That can’t be right.” It’s like you and Clint Eastwood.
Yeah, I don’t have as many wrinkles. Thank god. [Laughter.] It’s them Puerto Rican genes. To continue with this: I’m so happy. I’m one of the happiest people I know. I truly am. And it’s genuine. Well, you can tell that.
MZS: The air is humming.
[Singing]: “The air is humming … something great is coming … who knows …”
MZS: Do you ever get tired of talking about West Side Story?
No! Of course not. My gosh. That gave me world fame. It got me these two astonishing awards and a kind of legacy. Long after I’m gone, that film will always be very special.
GE: One thing you’ve been openly critical about over the years is how on West Side Story, they had you, and everyone who was Latino, wear brown makeup.
Oh, we all had one shade. All the sharks had one shade.
GE: And that debate is such a big part of the conversation right now, where people are talking a lot about whitewashing and yellow-face — and these are ideas you’ve been critiquing for years. Are you engaging much with the debate that’s happening right now?
With respect to what?
MZS: Existence, really. That a transgender character should not be played by biologically straight male actors that you shouldn’t have a Korean person playing a Japanese person, you shouldn’t have a white person playing a Cuban …
That’s a very knotty issue. I’ll tell you an interesting little story that’s apocryphal. I did The Ritz on Broadway, a play by Terrence McNally which takes place in a gay Turkish bath. Before we opened, we had a gay person playing a gay person, and he just wasn’t working out. And they had auditioned a lot of gay people at that time. Because obviously, Terrence McNally wanted it to be as accurate as possible. And they finally had to fire him. And they couldn’t find a gay person to play this gay character and I remember, I think it was Terrence who asked me, “Why is this happening?” I said, “Gee, it’s so obvious to me — he’s been in the closet for so long, he doesn’t know how to be gay in a public way.” And I think that happens with people. If you have the right transgender person, who’s a good actor, go for it! But I don’t know how many transgender people there are at this moment in time who could pull it off.
MZS: The situation’s improving.
But again, it’s a very knotty issue.
MZS: It is. It’s more of a political and ideological point of view, and it even extends to things like — a good friend of mine recently wrote about this, he’s handicapped. He was saying, “Look, there’ve been some great performances by able-bodied people playing people with handicaps. People in wheelchairs and so forth. But let’s stop and actually have actors who use wheelchairs play these parts. Why are we continuing to have people who are not handicapped playing handicapped people?” And of course, much controversy ensued as a result of the piece. I go back and forth about it, but ultimately, I’m on his side on this.
Oh, I agree. I agree. If you can find someone who is a terrific actor/actress, who is transgendered, or who is handicapped — absolutely. I think we need to open … these doors are barely ajar!
MZS: You’re Puerto Rican and you’re playing a Cuban person.
I mean, you can take it to the nth degree.
MZS: You could, and I wonder if that ever came up.
No, of course not. I’m an actress, and I am Latina.
MZS: You’re closer than Al Pacino.
[Doing Al Pacino impersonation]: Oh, yes. I think so. I think so, definitely … His accent was not thrilling, I must say. It was a good effort, but no. No, thank you very much.
MZS: I never thought I’d see Rita Moreno doing Scarface. This is the highlight of my life. I just want to go on record and say that.
As a great actor, I do want to make it clear, I just adore him.
GE: Going back to Brando, you’ve been very open about your private life in your memoir — you wrote about your eight year long affair with him. I’m curious how you think about celebrity culture and how it’s changed, because everything is so public now. Just how much easier was it to keep things private back then?
Oh, much easier. People for the longest time didn’t even know that Marlon and I were seeing each other. He was an absolute lunatic about that. Absolute lunatic. And we went out very little. We were always going to little obscure restaurants. It was always meals. I remember we went once to the theater and he never wanted to do it again because the press just … there’s an amazing photo of me and Marlon sitting next to each other and Marlon sticking his middle finger in front of his face so they couldn’t publish the picture.
JC: That wouldn’t stop them now.
And the look on my face was absolutely shocked. I was shocked and I was offended. I was a very innocent young woman. And there’s this picture, and you know what they did? They retouched it, and the picture was there in the newspaper the next day. And someone found the photo for me with his finger showing, and my eyes were as big as saucers looking at him, saying, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
GE: Who was your crew in Hollywood at the time? Did you have a group of people that you tended to spend most of your time with?
Not at all. I had very, very few friends. I never had an easy time making friends in the past, for many reasons. I didn’t go into therapy for nothing. I grew up as a child who felt she was very inferior to everyone else. My early experiences were of a very young child, being called spic and garlic mouth. And even at a time when I didn’t understand the language, I knew it was bad because of the looks on their faces. Usually young boys, gangs and stuff. So, I did live in those mean streets. And I grew up thinking I had very little value. It’s not something I felt I could share with my mom so it was all inside me. And it wasn’t until I went into therapy, and the wacko who told me I needed therapy was Marlon. I love the irony in there.
MZS: He was always very open to this idea that masculinity was kind of a facade. I actually read some interviews as early as the ‘60s when he talked about that. He was so macho, but also so vulnerable.
Yeah, he had real macho problems, absolutely. I had a scene with him in a movie called The Night of the Following Day, where we played lovers. This is after the fact, by the way — I already had my daughter, my little girl. It was a scene where my character jealously confronts him because she thought he spent the night with some other woman. We both wore blonde wigs, and I had to slap him. And I couldn’t … I have a very hard time hurting people. I just … it happened with Faye Dunaway, too. I was supposed to slap her and I couldn’t do it until I was goaded into it. And Marlon said, “You gotta do it. I’ll be fine. Look at your size. Look at me. You’ve gotta do it.” So we rehearsed it, we improvised. And finally I was ready to do it, and I whacked him a good one like I was supposed to. His hairline went back an inch.
He looked feral. He looked like an animal. He looked threatened and absolutely frightened. And he put his arms up in front of his face and he slapped me back so hard that I now know what they mean when they say, “I saw stars.” I mean, he really just punched my face. It was an open hand, but it was strong. And he used to work out. When that happened, all the pond scum came to the surface of our relationship, even though it had been over for years. And I attacked him back. It’s on film. You can see it. The director just loved it, of course. I was screaming and crying.
MZS: So that part of it is not acting.
No. And my husband was with me. We were in Le Touquet, France. He said, “How did it go today?” I said, “Oh … it was bad.” And I told him what happened. When the dailies came up, to see the scene, I said, “I can’t go see that. I’m just too embarrassed.” I said, “Would you go?” And my husband, this wonderful man, went to see it. He came back, and I said, “Well?” And he said, “Wow, you two are such good actors.” How about that for a husband? What an amazing guy, Lenny was. But how did we get started on this?
GE: I don’t know, but that’s an amazing story.
It is. But you started talking about all of us sharks in West Side Story having to have the same color makeup. And this is another interesting anecdote. One day, I got so sick — it’s hard to put very, very dark makeup on lighter skin. I’m not saying white, but lighter. Because you get streaks. You can see the lighter skin underneath. So he would put it on really thick and I said, “I just hate this color.” You know, Puerto Ricans are many colors — we are Spanish, we’re French, we’re Thai, Indian, we’re almost black, some of us. And he said, “What’re you, racist?” Isn’t that amazing? I was so taken aback, I had no answer.
GE: I also have to ask before we go: You starred with Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, and I’m curious what you remember about working with her?
Well, she was a kid! She really was a kid. I was a kid. I was, what, 18? And I think Debbie was 17. We were contract players and she got the plumb role and we became kind of friends. She was darling. But you know, life happens. And I just saw an interview with Fisher Stevens [who directed the HBO documentary Bright Lights, on Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher], and apparently, it was this dreadful love-hate relationship. I don’t know if it was love as much as dependency. Codependent people. And I don’t know how much love actually had to do with it, more need. It was so sad. So sad. She had been ill this year. I heard an interview with Terry Gross on public radio — this was a month ago! Carrie was talking about how ill she’d been. She had several strokes, and when her death took place, Debbie was in very, very bad shape. I imagine that’s the last thing she needed to hear. It’s horribly tragic. Who knows what kind of mom Debbie was?
MZS: I interviewed her about 20 years ago and my most vivid memory of it was I wore a suit and tie to the interview, and as soon as I got into the room, she said my tie was crooked. And she insisted that I fix it before the interview continued. I said, “It’s not a big deal.” And she said, “Honey, I know it doesn’t bother you, but it’s going to bother me.”
When you look back over the long arc of the entertainment world that you’ve experienced, are there any particular lessons that you’ve learned that really stuck?
You know, there’s one lesson I learned, but it was in group therapy, interestingly enough. But it’s one I think is very valuable, that I’d like to impart and share with people. Particularly for people like myself, who are … essentially there’s always some narcissism. C’mon, we’re actors. We love the attention. We love the applause. We sure don’t like to be rejected. The one thing I really learned, and learned well, in group therapy was that you don’t die if someone doesn’t like you. Because there’s always someone in group therapy who’s going to hate you. And there was such a person. It was a woman who didn’t like me. I thought I would die. She humiliated me in front of the group. This was very early on, too, like the third meeting we’d had, and she just spewed utter dislike of me. I really thought I was going to die. I even thought seriously about not rejoining the group the next week, but I did it. And it was the best thing I ever did. I found out that you don’t die from being disliked. For me, that’s very important. I’m in a very narcissistic profession.