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One Day at a Time Star Isabella Gomez on Elena and Syd’s Groundbreaking ‘First Time’

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In its first season, One Day at a Time broke ground with Elena Alvarez’s coming-out story, dealing with it not just from the perspective of a teenager raised in a Latino home but also of her mother, Penelope, who wants to be supportive but doesn’t know the best way to go about it. In the new season, the Netflix series and actor Isabella Gomez are trailblazing yet again, with an episode all about Elena’s first sexual experience, depicting all of its awkward angst in an open and honest way that’s atypical of TV sitcoms.

In “The First Time,” the show once more delves into an issue from both the adolescent and parental perspectives in a half-hour that’s sure to leave viewers wishing they could have a mother like Penelope (Justina Machado) and a romantic partner like Syd (Sheridan Pierce). In a scene that is equal parts uncomfortable, sweet, and loving, Elena (Gomez) and her nonbinary partner Syd rent a hotel room. Syd is a perfect match for Elena, who is already nervous but gets even more anxious when she realizes it’s only her first time — not Syd’s. Their conversation is candid and sensitive and clumsy. The episode is enriched by Elena’s conversation with her mother, who admits she really doesn’t want to talk to her daughter about sex, but does a great job of it anyway.

The episode was co-written by Michelle Badillo and Caroline Levich, who were nominated for a Humanitas award last year for their second season episode, “Hello, Penelope.” “I wasn’t out in high school and it was sort of wish fulfillment for me to be able to do it,” Badillo told Vulture. “And also, I didn’t have that on TV growing up, by any stretch of the imagination — particularly not a teenager and particularly not somebody who I could identify with culturally.”

As the youngest writers on staff, Badillo and Levich related to Elena’s point of view and felt that the character losing her virginity at 17 wasn’t a big deal. “But hearing the parents in the room saying they would freak out because this is a huge thing for your child to go through and you want them to be okay, that helped us with Penelope’s side of it,” Levich said. “Of course [the showrunners] gave us the lesbian sex story and we have a beautiful lesbian here that shed a lot of light on that.”

Vulture spoke to Isabella Gomez, who plays Elena, about her character’s adult turn and what it was like to film #Sylena’s big moment, as well as Elena’s anxiety issues, her newfound relationship with her father, and dishing about her TV brother Marcel Ruiz.

Were you surprised when you got the script for “The First Time?”
I had heard about the idea a few months after we wrapped season two, and then I heard that they didn’t want to do it yet. And then we came in for production for season three and they’re like, “Oh, never mind, yes, you are.” And I was like, “Here we go!” Michelle and Caroline are my dear friends. Michelle sent me the script before so that I could read it and understand it. I really wanted to do it justice because intimacy can be weird for everybody, so I just wanted to make sure I knew what was happening.

It was an episode that we talked a lot about. [Co-showrunner] Gloria Calderón Kellett was so lovely. I had a lot of questions. My experience was nothing like [Elena’s], so I couldn’t completely relate or understand it, so we talked a lot about feelings. Gloria was basically my therapist the whole week.
And then we shot it. We had a really intimate lovely set. Sherry Pierce was wonderful.

What were your biggest concerns about the story line or filming it?
Um, everything? Especially for the LGBTQ community, when it’s women being with women or a woman with a gender nonconforming person, it’s always sexualized and heightened for the male gaze. And I didn’t want that to happen, obviously. Also, you know, Syd and Elena are underage and it’s Elena’s first time. I just wanted to make sure that this was truthful to the experience of two 17-year-olds being awkward and funny, not knowing exactly what was going on and this meaning a lot to their relationship. Syd and Elena have been together for a very long time, so how that changes them and how it affects them is important.

There’s so much sex in media and from a young age, we are taught that it’s a certain thing. Especially women, we are taught that we have to be sexy and we have to use our sexuality for something. And if we’re not, then we’re less valuable. I wanted to make sure that none of that was in play — that it was two teenagers in love, sharing a beautiful intimate moment, and that it was truthful and had its awkwardness and its weirdness and a talk. I think so many young kids jump into sexual relationships without understanding it or having an ability to communicate with their partners, which could really hurt them psychologically. So I thought it was really important for them to have that conversation.

You’ve been able to do so much with Elena. Her coming out story from season one was also a big moment. How are you feeling about the character now?
I adore Elena Alvarez. She’s my pride and joy. I’ve grown so much because of her and I wanna be like her when I grow up, even though she’s younger than me. Three seasons in, it’s so beautiful to see how much she’s grown. She’s just so mature and intelligent and not at all what kids are portrayed as on TV, but very much like a lot of the kids I know in my life.

One of the other big hurdles Elena faced this season is anxiety. We’ve seen her mother struggle with it and now she’s dealing with it, too. 
I was very excited about that, in the sense of playing it and acting it and making it truthful, because I also think it’s a very taboo subject, especially in the Latinx community. Elena has a lot going on this season, studying for her SATs and for her driver’s license test. And as we know, she’s a perfectionist, so she gets very stressed out about those things and starts becoming overwhelmed. That’s when her anxiety starts acting up.

Do you have any personal experience with that?
I don’t know what it is about artistic people, but I find that a lot of us have mental health issues. Most of my friends have anxiety and/or depression or something along those lines. In high school, I started getting a lot of anxiety, so this was very important to me because I myself have seen the resistance in the Latinx community toward speaking about it, how it is made fun of and treated like a joke. It’s not taken seriously at all, and that makes it so much harder to deal with.

How do you feel about how the father-daughter story developed in the finale? Victor and Elena finally got their dance, but it was hard-won.
I really enjoy that it hasn’t just been fixed immediately because that’s not the reality for a lot of people. In fact, the reality is that a lot of people won’t be fixed at all. We can see that Elena still has a lot of emotional troubles because of it and is still hurt, and we can see Victor changing and becoming sober, so it shows a lot of growth on both of their parts. I think it could really help a lot of people going through the situation, especially more so from the side of the parental figures, of watching how their actions affect their kids and how much it’s gonna cost them in the future.

You and your TV brother Marcel have a lot of fun on set. I see you dancing and joking around a lot. Are you close?
There’s nothing to do, so we might as well dance. We’re like siblings. We’ll be dancing and fooling around one minute, and two seconds later we’ll be at each other’s throats. It’s amazing. But it, honestly, helps the show a lot. I can talk as much crap about him as I want, but as soon as anybody says anything about him, it’s like, Oh no, don’t do that.

What do you fight about?
He’s a boy, so he’s rough and likes to hit things and do freakin’ pranks. He takes my phone and it drives me nuts. And now all of a sudden, he’s sprung up. He’s tall and his voice got deep. He’s handsome. It’s torture on all of us.

ODAAT Star Isabella Gomez on Elena’s Virginity Episode