Justina Machado (‘One Day at a Time’): Our show ‘brought back the middle class hero’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Justina Machado stars as Penelope Alvarez, Army veteran and single mother of two, in Netflix’s reboot of the classic sitcom “One Day at a Time.” Machado explores some relatable themes on the series, including PTSD, racism, sexism and homophobia, balanced with the hijinks that come with a traditional sitcom. Before “One Day at a Time,” Machado won a Screen Actors Guild Award as part of the cast of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.”

Machado spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery and contributor Tony Ruiz in May about the second season of “One Day at a Time,” the dynamic on-set with her cast and the audience, and what’s next for Penelope. Watch the exclusive web chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby (Daniel Montgomery): Justina Machado, you star in “One Day at a Time,” which premiered its second season earlier this year. Interestingly, it’s in this new climate where what it means to be Latino in America just seems to have changed since last year. Did it feel different making Season 2 under the current political climate?

Justina Machado: I don’t think it felt different. I didn’t even think about it because the truth of the matter is, these are stories that have always been important in our community and so I think because of what’s going on in the world it has become more important to maybe other people outside of the community. But absolutely I was more worried about doing as well as we did the first season. I was more worried about the sophomore year more than anything, ‘cause I knew that it was gonna be great, I just was like, “Wow, it was so great the first season, let’s hope that it stays on that level.”

Gold Derby (Tony Ruiz): And along those lines, when you start getting those scripts for the second season, is there something that you coming into the second season were hoping for? Is there something that you wanted, or was it just about going along for the ride with you?

JM: It was about going along for the ride, because they kept telling me the second season, the first half, was going to be very light, but it’s gonna be light because then we’re gonna get into some heavy stuff. So I just had to trust the ride because the first season was serialized, so we were all leading up to quinceañera. Second season I felt we had a lot of different topics going on, which was awesome. The show grew and it was elevate in another kind of way and you got to see Penelope be a little sillier, have a little more fun, and then you got the sucker punch at the end of the second season, so I went along for the ride.

GD (Daniel): And some of those sucker punches hit quite hard, like the one episode where Penelope goes off her meds and has those depression symptoms relapsing. What were you thinking when you read that script and how did you think about preparing for that emotionally?

JM: I was so excited (laughs). I love stuff like that. Are you kidding me, I’m an actress! I get so excited when I see something that I can get into. I think it was not that difficult to prepare for it. I don’t suffer from depression but I certainly have days where I’m down and I feel like I’ve gotta stay inside and just regroup. But I just think life prepared me for that. I know a lot of people that suffer from it, and just life prepared for it.

GD (Tony): You talk specifically about the second half of the season being much heavier. “One Day at a Time” is a multi-cam show shot in front of a studio audience. Does that experience of shooting it in front of a studio audience, particularly when it comes to the heavier scenes, does that feel different? You’ve done a lot of single-camera shows in your career. Is there a different feeling to doing that?

JM: No, because I’ve done a lot of theater. So it doesn’t feel different to me. Making them laugh or making them listen, it doesn’t feel different. They’re listening both times. What’s interesting about doing this sitcom and of course they’re laughing, they’re having a great time in a multi-cam, but when we get serious and when things get serious, you can almost feel the audience move forward, listening so intently. It didn’t feel any different. I just think about doing a good job. If I do a good job, that’s all I think about. I just think about that, “I gotta get this in.” So it doesn’t feel different to me, no, not at all.

GD (Daniel): What’s interesting is that having a multi-camera show with a live audience, whether or not the subject matter is light or whether it’s more serious, you’re getting that immediate direct feedback. Does that almost help in a way to figure out how your performance is going, how the story is going, what the audience is picking up on?

JM: Oh my god, of course it helps. Absolutely. You know when something works right away and you know when it doesn’t, and then you have to go back out there when it doesn’t (laughs). But the great thing is when it doesn’t, we have these incredible writers that have all these alts, so they run in and they give you something else to say. Sometimes they just need a minute to catch up on what’s going on, the audience, but yeah, it’s interesting. It’s immediate gratification and you immediately know what’s happening, and also the audience is like part of the show. We feed off of that energy so we’ve been lucky to have amazing audiences. It elevates everything, having them there.

GD (Tony): One of my favorite dynamics particularly in this season is the dynamic between Penelope and her children. She’s such a mama bear in the best sense of the word and to see you with those two actors, Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz, who play your kids, has your relationship with them taken on that motherly dynamic offscreen as well as on?

JM: Oh yeah. But I’m like the crazy mommy. I’m more like the mommy/aunt. They come to me a lot and talk to me a lot about things and even Marcel’s mom says, “Oh my god, I’m so glad that you’re around, so that you can talk to him about the things that I don’t want to talk to him about.” So yeah, we have definitely taken that on and Rita [Moreno] is like a grandmother. The kids really do call me mom sometimes and call her abuela so it’s a real family, and we do feel very protective of these kids. I even call them my son and daughter all the time and I have to go, “No, my television son. My television daughter.” ‘Cause people are like, “You don’t have kids,” and I’m like, “Oh yeah, you’re right. TV.”

GD (Daniel): That family dynamic must make an episode like the season finale when Lydia has a health scare all the more closer to home as an actor, and you have that beautiful scene by her bedside. What was it like preparing for that one and shooting that one?

JM: We wanted to make sure that we only did it once or twice in front of the audience, because it was so heavy, ‘cause we are multi-cam. We’re like, “We don’t wanna kill them with this episode,” you know? And also for us too, the actors, it was great. It’s really like doing a one-act play. I love theater so much. I love when people are listening. I love when people are engaged, so preparing was not so much tough. You know what was tough was the table read. Everybody was crying so much at that table read that literally the producers were like, “Guys, we can’t do this. We gotta pick and choose where we’re gonna cry, where this is gonna be funny,” because we were just all bawling ‘cause it was all written so beautifully. I think it was also really exciting because you got to know a character a little bit better with their monologues, so it was exciting for all of us, I would say. For me, I was really excited to do it and preparing was fun. I had a lot of fun preparing for that. Believe it or not, I had a lot of fun preparing for it (laughs).

GD (Tony): Another aspect that really leapt out at me this season was the physical comedy that you got to do, whether it’s the stuff with the getting in and out of the car that break down, getting locked in that little house where you’re trying to hide the boyfriend—

JM: Oh yes! Oh my god, that was funny. I liked that (laughs)

GD (Tony): Do you see those moments in the scripts and just go, “Yes”?

JM: Yes, because because I love “I Love Lucy,” so when I see those kind of things yes, I get so excited. Like in the first season when I had to go through the little doggy door, that’s so much fun. I love that. I love that screwball, physical kind of comedy. I love doing it all. I love the fact that Penelope is so layered. There’s so many aspects to her and I get to do it all with this character, so it’s so much fun.

GD (Daniel): Your love interest in that second season was played by Ed Quinn and the show has some fun with height difference between the two of you, but it’s also a very sweet and tender relationship also between them. What was it like working with him and developing that new relationship for her?

JM: Oh, Ed was great. It was funny ‘cause when he walked into the audition and he walked out, I was like, “Come on, guys. Really?”(Laughs.) I was like, “He’s so big! I’m so little!” They’re like, “No, it’s gonna be great.” He was great, he was fantastic. Obviously that’s why we cast him, but the height thing, I was a little worried about that. I thought I would look silly, but people really, really liked it. He’s great. You see he was totally engaged. He’s a pro. He’s from “2 Broke Girls,” he was on that for a while. People love him, he’s super handsome, he’s very funny, he’s the full package. So it was great working him.

GD (Tony): One of the overarching stories of this season was Penelope going back to school and her struggles, and the fact that it wasn’t easy. So she’s going back to school to be a nurse practitioner. Are we gonna see more of her in school or are we gonna go right to her being a nurse practitioner? Where do you see that storyline going?

JM: I think we’ll see her in school. I don’t think we’ll see her going straight to a nurse practitioner, but I don’t really know, actually. They kind of give us an overall thing of what the show is gonna be. They let us know like a skeleton of it, so like I said, I trust them so much that I’m not sure how much of that we’re gonna see, but I know we’re not gonna go straight into her being a nurse practitioner.

GD (Daniel): Another relationship for Penelope that’s been off and on since the beginning of the series is with her ex-husband, who she has a complex relationship with, to say the least. He returned in Season 2 for a period. Where do you see that relationship going or where do you hope it’s going? Do you actually root for them to get together or do you think maybe they’re better apart?

JM: No, I don’t root for them to get together. I root for them to be great parents, and I root for it be honest. For them to get together, they’d have to go through a lot and the one thing about our show is that it’s pretty honest. We’re not jumping, we’re not tying things up really pretty so that it’s just, “Oh, that was nice.” Like the first season, we could’ve easily tied it up where Victor comes and dances with the character of Elena and we didn’t, because unfortunately sometimes, that is real life. More often than not it’s real life. So I think for them to get together the third season would be unrealistic for a show like ours, but I definitely think I’d love for them to get along, to reconnect and to become friends again and to be great parents. That’s where I’d like to see it go.

GD (Tony): One of the things that, of course, at the heart of the show is the relationship between Penelope and her mother, between you and Rita Moreno. But one of the additional layers we really got to see this season was the flashback episodes, where we got to see more of Penelope interacting with her father, the great Tony Plana. Would you like to see more of that interaction, because you hear a lot and we’ve only seen little bits of him so far?

JM: I would love that because I love Tony Plana, and I love the relationship that Penelope and her father, Berto, have. I love it, and yes, I would love to see more flashbacks. I think we need more episodes for more flashbacks, but we love Tony so we always try to find a situation for Tony to come back.

GD (Daniel): And speaking of flashbacks, there’s one in Season 2 that goes back to 9/11 when Penelope and her husband decided to go back into military service. So much of her military service has shaped who she is as a character, her emotional issues and also her strength, her resilience. Do you think we’ll ever seen more of that directly, like maybe some of her service in maybe flashbacks or in some other context?

JM: I don’t know, but I like that idea. That’s a good idea. I’m gonna sprinkle it around them. That’s actually really good, I’d like to see that, too. It would be interesting to see more of that, it really would. I’m gonna pitch it.

GD (Tony): We’ll take cash or debit cards.

JM: (Laughs.)

GD (Tony): So let’s talk about the fact that the third season, the announcement of the third season was kind of a tightrope walk. I don’t know how it was for you but those of us that are fans of the show it was certainly like we were crossing everything we could grab, practically. Now that it’s coming back, when do you guys start? What’s the future looking like?

JM: Well we start actually June 11th, and then pretty much we’ll probably be out around the same time next year, 2019. I know, right? Even when I said it I was like, (crying). Because I don’t wanna wait that long, but we start again June 11th.

GD (Daniel): Most shows are weekly and “One Day at a Time,” of course, you shoot the season and then it all goes up at the same time. What is the schedule like? How long does it take to shoot a 13-episode season from beginning to end?

JM: I don’t know how long, let me see. Like three or four months, because we do three episodes, then we have a week hiatus so that the writers and producers can get whatever they have to get together, so we do three weeks on and one week off, three weeks on, one week off. We literally have three to four days to learn a whole episode. That’s what we do. We have a new schedule this year, so we’re starting on a Monday and then we’ll be shooting on that Friday. That’s how we do it. It’s gonna be fun (laughs).

GD (Tony): So one of the things that is I think so fascinating about this show is that this show shows us a family that oftentimes we don’t see, and it’s not a question of race. It’s just a question of struggle, so do you ever go to the writers and pitch them ideas? What do you do when a moment doesn’t work for you?

JM: When a moment doesn’t work for us, we actually go to them and we talk to them. A perfect example of that was in the first season, the second episode we had about the sexism. I don’t know if people know about multi-cam but scripts change constantly, so we get a new script until we’re about to shoot it. So one of the things that didn’t sit well with Rita and I was that every single one of us, Elena, me, and Lydia’s character, all had the same reaction towards sexism. So we had to sit down and we said, “We really believe that it’s generational, so we would have different reactions to certain things.” It was the second episode of our first season and they were so open to it and that’s exactly how it’s been. This is a true collaboration. If something doesn’t sit right, we actually can go to Mike [Royce] and Gloria [Calderon Kellett] and talk to them about it, and if they say, “No, I understand but this is why you have to do it,” then you do it. But most of the time it’s like a beautiful dance. It just all comes together because every single one of us wants it to sit right with us, and I think that’s part of the show’s success.

GD (Daniel): What are you most looking forward to in Season 3? Have you started getting scripts, like full scripts yet?

JM: No.

GD (Daniel): So what’s on your wishlist for Penelope?

JM: I love the physical comedy, I love that you brought that up because that was a lot of fun to do. Explore a different relationship or relationships period (laughs). And just grow, just like the second season did, just expand, just to see a little bit more of everybody’s life and what they’re doing. I want it to just be as good as the first and second season. I trust them so much, I’m just waiting to see what they give us to do. That’s the wonderful thing about our show is that I think it kind of brought back the middle class hero. You root for these people. You go, “Oh my god, I’d love to be a part of this family,” and you don’t think about, “Well, they don’t have a lot of money, they’re struggling.” You think about what a beautiful, loving family it is, and how not all of us agree one everything but we all listen to each other. We are all compassionate with each other and at the end of the day we all love each other, so I just want the show to continue in those footsteps.

GD (Daniel): Well I wanna thank you so much for joining us today and congratulations on the first two seasons of the show and best of luck on the third. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

JM: Thank you guys, thank you so much.

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