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One Day at a Time’s Justina Machado on Getting Her First Leading TV Role, Fidel Castro, and Her Low-Budget Quinceañera

Twenty-six years after she became an actress, Justina Machado has landed her first leading role on a TV show, playing a single mother and military veteran on Netflix’s reimagined Norman Lear comedy, One Day at a Time. Machado auditioned for the role of Penelope Alvarez while still working on USA’s Queen of the South, hoping to work with Lear on the Latino iteration of one of his legacy shows, which originally aired from 1975 to 1984.

In the original, the late Bonnie Franklin played a newly divorced mother of two teenage daughters (Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips) in Indianapolis. In the new version, available today on Netflix, Machado plays Penelope, the newly separated mother of a teenage girl (Isabella Gomez) and tween boy (Marcel Ruiz) whose mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), moves in to help them. The Cuban-American family lives in Echo Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood where the first wave of Cuban exiles settled in the ‘60s. Machado, best known for her role on HBO’s Six Feet Under, fell in love with Penelope, a hard-working mother, nurse, and military vet who struggles with depression but is also ready to date and build a better future for herself and her family. 

“I feel like I just reached the mountaintop,” says Machado, 44, who was born in Chicago to Puerto Rican parents. “I know I still have many years to go but the show feels right and it feels timely. I’m like, finally! I’m not arrogant about it. I’ve just been working towards this for a very long time, and I’m really happy that it’s here.”

Machado spoke to Vulture about working with Lear, the nuanced way Cuban-American culture is presented in the show, and her very special Puerto Rican quinceañera.

Have you seen the original One Day at a Time? 
I never watched that one. I watched All in the Family, the reruns, and I watched Good Times, The Jeffersons, and the reruns of that. I have so many girlfriends that swear by that show. I was a little too young for it.

Were you drawn to this because it was a remake of a Norman Lear show?
I was drawn to it because of Norman Lear. I didn’t know [co-showrunner] Gloria Calderon Kellett yet, I didn’t know what a powerhouse she is and that we would be like sisters. I have always been a huge fan of all of his shows. And it was really well-written.

Do you know families like the Alvarezes?
Oh, yeah, I mean, definitely. There’s aspects of the Alvarezes, I would assume, in every Latino family. It’s a family anybody would be really lucky to grow up in. My family was a little bit more hardcore, a little bit more like tough love and consequences. But even my family has a lot of the same aspects. I grew up with my grandmother in the house, and my grandmother is very colorful and funny and she’s also a nurse. And my mom was really young when she had me. So there are a lot of similarities.

Did working on this show teach you a lot of things about Cuban culture that you didn’t know? There are so many little details that they present, like the offended reaction to a Che Guevara T-shirt and Operation Pedro Pan (a mass exodus of Cuban minors in the early ‘60s). A lot of Americans will be learning some of these things for the first time.
I happen to have a Cuban boyfriend from Miami whose family left in 1961 because of Castro. So, yes, I knew a lot about it because a lot of my boyfriend’s family came over. His uncles came over in Pedro Pan. And the Che thing was something I learned when a friend of mine walked into another friend of mine’s house who had a Che Guevara — this is years ago — portrait and he was Cuban and he was like, What? And I was like, What? Like, I didn’t know what was going on. And then he broke it down. I had no idea, because you know how they sell those T-shirts everywhere? They glamorize this man. None of my Cuban friends can walk into anywhere where there’s a big-ass Che Guevara. They’re like, What? And I’m like, Oh my God, you can’t go in there! Don’t go in there people, there’s a Che poster somewhere. That’s one of my favorite episodes. What I love about the show is they don’t bang anybody over the head with any information. We don’t try to push our agenda on anybody; we don’t have an agenda. We’re just putting it out there — this is this family’s story. We dealt with the Che Guevara shirt and we moved on.

So you have a Cuban boyfriend. What was Thanksgiving weekend like when Fidel Castro died? I was so bummed I was not in Florida.
In front of Versailles like everybody else?  [Laughs.] My boyfriend’s mother was there with a big old smile. That’s a tough thing because that man that caused so much distrust and pain in these people’s lives and just changed the course of this little island. I guess it’s satisfying, but then it’s also like, what is changing? The Castros are still there. It’s very interesting. I’m a quarter Cuban, but that Cuban part I really don’t know. That was my paternal grandmother. She died before I got to know her. So I grew up in a Puerto Rican household and, of course, I remember the older people in my family, they always spoke ill of Fidel. But you don’t really understand it. I didn’t really get to understand everything that happened until I started dating my boyfriend. It’s a complicated situation.

I felt very lucky that my parents lived to see it ‘cause I have my abuelos and my tios that have passed away already. My dad was in prison there, so to wake him up to deliver the news was unforgettable. 
Oh my God, you’re giving me goosebumps. I swear to God because that’s the thing too, my boyfriend’s grandfathers were both put in prison. And they got out by the grace of God. I don’t know how that happened, and they were able to move their family to Miami. It’s a lot.

What does your boyfriend think about your Cuban portrayal?
Loved it! I’m very Cuban, by the way. [Laughs.]

You are, actually.
So I’ve been told. It’s so hilarious! I love it. That’s the biggest compliment I get from the Cubans. I’m like, Okay, okay. I love it!  It’s really not a big difference, I mean, we’re Caribbean people, we’re Latino people. Of course, as Latinos when we portray other people, the biggest thing is when we speak in Spanish, to try to have that kind of accent. And the Puerto Rican accent is not that far apart. As long as I keep my R’s in line, I’m good. Instead of saying “puelta,” I’ll be like, Oh shit, we’ve got to do that again, “puerta.”

It’s interesting how the show uses Spanish, too. Rita Moreno has a lot of little things she says that that don’t get subtitled.
Yeah, I think that’s great because sometimes jokes get lost with the subtitles. It loses the essence of it. That’s another thing that’s really brilliant about this show and the Norman Lear kind of thing: We don’t have to explain everything to you. We assume that you are intelligent people and you will catch on and pay attention.

Did you have quinces?
I did have a quince. I had a big old quinceañera.  I have some really tacky pictures to go along with it.

Tell me about it. Paint the picture of your quinces.
Oh my God, it was in Chicago. It was great, it was something that my parents, of course, my mother and my stepfather were like, You’re not having one. They couldn’t afford it. And I was like, Yes, I am having one. And I went and I asked everybody in my family for money, so awful. My cousin made my dress and I organized the whole thing myself. And of course, everybody else paid for it, but I organized it. But I do remember that the hall that we had was in Chicago in an area that used to be not so good near North Avenue and Pulaski. The ballroom was in the basement and then there was a hotel for hookers right on top. So it was a very classy quinceañera.

How many people?
Jesus, I had like 14 girls and guys, so probably like 100 people at my quinceañera. And my mom made all the food with my tias and my grandma.

So you did the full-on party with the court and the dances and everything?
Oh my God, we did a merengue and then in Chicago, the thing to do was to come out and dance to “Always and Forever,” which is weird. And then we did a waltz. It’s the weirdest thing. I just thought it would be so much fun to dress up. Literally, that’s all I thought about. I didn’t care. To me, it wasn’t symbolic. I didn’t even care about the church ceremony. I was just like, Yes, a party and I get to wear a big white dress. That’s all I cared about. And then when we actually had it, I was like, This is not as fun as I thought it was gonna be. Because, of course, you’re the center of attention and you can’t go have fun with your friends because you’re taking pictures and you’re walking around. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. But I’m glad I have the pictures, I really am, ‘cause they’re hilarious.

What was your grand entrance like? I remember going to some of them in Miami where like, the girl would come down on a moon from the ceiling or ride in on a horse.
Okay, you did hear that above my ballroom there was a hooker hotel? [Laughs.] So there was no grand entrance. I walked in, that’s what I did, and this is like, a girl from the inner city. I literally put that all together myself.

The show spoke to me because neither my sister nor I had quinces. My parents didn’t really push for it. They were more like, “Let’s go on a big trip with the money.” But my sister did want those tacky pictures, so she took the pictures. Then because she had them, my mother was like, “You have to have it, too.” You should see my pictures because I am miserable in every single picture.
How do you take pictures without having a quinceañera? You just get a dress or something? I don’t get it.

Yeah, you just rent a dress. And I refused to wear the tiara.
That is hilarious. Oh my God, like Elena, my daughter on the show. She refused to wear it and then she’s like, I want to wear it, yes. I love that.

Except I feel like she has very intellectual reasons for rebelling against the whole thing. For me, it was just like, Oh no, tacky. It’s a really crazy ritual.
I know, right? It’s one of the things that we keep doing — all Latinos, which is interesting. When we were shooting that episode, somebody was like, Oh, I didn’t know Cubans did that. I thought it was just a Mexican thing. No! This is a Latino world thing, people. This is all over Latin America.

That reminds me of the fifth episode, “Strays,” which deals with immigration and has a conversation about the different experiences of immigration that exist in the U.S. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that discussion on a fictional show before.
Totally! And it’s brilliant, that little monologue that they wrote. Just like you said, immigration is not the same for everyone, so you understand that the Cuban people that came over are political exiles. That’s something completely different. They’re still immigrants, but you know, it’s just everybody has a different story. Puerto Ricans, they’re American citizens from birth. Everybody has a different immigration story.

That was one of the episodes where it felt like the writers were trying to say something.
I think we try to say something in every episode, but I think you’re right. That and the Pedro Pan one [“Viva Cuba”], those are closer to our hearts, you know what I mean? Those immigration stories are really close to our hearts so, yes, that had a little bit of a message.

The genre of comedy is changing a lot. You see a lot more of these shows that are embracing profound stories and not going for jokes every minute.
Which is what Norman Lear’s shows were all about. That’s what was so great about it is that there was always something that tugged at your heart in his shows. Look at Good Times. There was an episode where JJ’s girlfriend OD’s on heroin. You know what I mean? In All in the Family, there was a rapist in the house in one episode. So I think they are kind of going back to this kind of television that Norman Lear created.

How involved was Norman Lear on this show?
Oh my God, he was there for the read-throughs. He was there for the run-throughs. He’s there on show night.

What was that like?
It’s surreal at first but then once you get into it, it’s just real work. He’s very smart. Sometimes he’d be right in the front for every run-through and, you know, in the beginning it was a little bit like, Oh God, there he is. I’m so scared. And then after that, it’s like he’s the most gentle and giving man, because he’s always complimentary, always asks smart questions and leads you in the right direction, and is incredibly supportive. It was the most amazing work experience, and I think anyone on the show will tell you the same thing, because it was really a bunch of people in love with each other, creating great art.

Do you remember any note that he gave you that really helped you?
I remember a comment that he makes all the time. He tells me that I am a rock. You are the rock of this family. You are a rock. Every time, through every episode, and to me that’s one of the biggest compliments.

One of the episodes brings up diversity issues when Elena applies for a writer’s program. I remember when I was first starting in my career, that was the buzzword and there was a lot of resentment from other people if you got a job. They quickly pointed out you were the diversity hire. What’s been your experience with this?
There have been times when I have maybe been right for something and, you know, the project is wonderful and it’s great but they’ve already hit their quota of people of color. And that is incredibly frustrating. But those were rare. I have to be honest, I have been really, really blessed. And, yes, things have to change, but I have not really been put in a box in my career. And I think that’s mostly because I have an incredible team behind me who believe in me and who understands when I don’t want to do certain things or who fight for me to get in the room even if they don’t think I’m that person. I don’t get hung up on that too much, you know? I take each case as it is.

What do you think is harder: for an actress of a certain age to land a role like this, or for a Latina to land it?
I think they’re both equally as hard, to be honest. I don’t even think about age. Maybe because I’m Latina, I really don’t think about age because honestly, I’ve been playing a mom since I was 28 years old, okay? [Laughs.] On Six Feet Under, I had kids. I don’t really think about the age thing. And I think that’s changing too, because everybody looks so good right now and all these women are in their 40s and they’re thriving and looking great and doing all these things. But I think they can be equally as difficult. Most of the time, these types of parts go to men, not women, let alone women of color. Like if we get a sitcom, it’s usually the wife.

Let’s end on an uplifting note. I have to tell you that America is very jealous of you because you’re going to be Rogelio’s baby mama on Jane the Virgin.
He’s the greatest, isn’t he? Jaime Camil is the greatest. I think he’s such a wonderful guy. I’m soooo excited to be the baby mama. That’s a wonderful set, too. Life is good!

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Justina Machado on Her First Leading TV Role