“One Day at a Time” is a family sitcom — and a vital part of any family comedy is the children. Not only do they get the quotable lines and broadest catchphrases, but they can be the focal points of the adults’ stories. In Netflix’s amazing “One Day at a Time” reboot, the entire first season’s narrative revolves around lead Penelope (Justina Machado)’s daughter, Elena (Isabella Gomez).
Elena’s 15th birthday quinceanera celebration provides the spine of the season’s story: The leadup, the preparation, the debates — budding feminist Elena protests even having a quinceanera, calling it a sexist tradition — and finally the big day in the finale. Ultimately she does it for her mother and grandmother (Rita Moreno), but the return of her estranged father (James Martinez) complicates matters… In ways we weren’t expecting.
The power of Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” comes from its relatable, subtle intersectionality: These are not just three Cuban-American women in a tiny apartment — they’re also dealing, often in very different ways, with various iterations of feminism, immigration, religion and politics. Penelope is a veteran dealing with PTSD, her mother is a fiercely religious — and fiercely sexual — grandmother, and her teenage daughter Elena is a lesbian.
The unfolding of this story, alongside the quinceanera, is a stroke of genius that throws so many issues into such new, vital, fascinating territory: What does it mean to be “of marriageable age” and gay, at the same time. How does Elena’s romantic future line up with the future envisioned by these rites of passage — what future are her mother and grandmother able to even imagine for her, in that rigid context? Does her queerness invalidate the entire (if mostly unspoken) purpose of a quinceanera, or make it in some ways more honest: A truly personal and private celebration of her own womanhood?
We loved every second of “One Day at a Time,” and Elena’s powerful storyline resonated on many levels, bringing up a lot of questions for all of the characters — even Schneider (Todd Grinnell)! — from unexpected, affecting and usually brilliant directions. It’s so rare to see a show with such an all-encompassing mandate to represent a world like the one we recognize all around us, and even more so to do it so intelligently and with such compassion.
We were very proud to speak to Gomez about portraying Elena through her coming-out storyline. She was also with Marcel Ruiz, who plays her younger brother Alex on the show. Both young actors are great discoveries by producers Norman Lear, Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce. Edited for length and clarity.
Screener: Both of you are relatively new to the industry. How did you get “One Day at a Time”?
Isabella Gomez: Pilot season started — this was, I believe, the second show I auditioned for… — I auditioned for this, and I didn’t hear back for a month. Then I got a call back, and after that it just happened really quick. We met Norman, we met Rita, we met Justina and we chemistry read. A week later we were booked.
Marco Ruiz: All my acting career, I would just do commercials. I told my parents that I really wanted to audition for a TV series, and so I auditioned for two or three. This was my fourth audition, and I was getting comfortable with the character. I really liked this part. I found out Justina got the main role, and I knew her before this TV show, so I was really happy. In the chemistry read, it worked out pretty well, because we had good chemistry. When I got the news that I got the part, I was really, really excited — this was my dream!
Had either of you seen the original “One Day at a Time”?
Gomez: I hadn’t, no, but I saw clips of it after I booked it.
Ruiz: I saw a clip on YouTube of the character Alex when he was on the show, just to get inspired and get to know my character.
Did you feel Elena and Alex are very modern teenagers?
Gomez: Yeah, I think especially Elena. When I read her breakdown, I actually had a little Skype meeting with Gloria and Mike. I was like, “This girl is so Tumblr.” This is kind of what Tumblr is all about, the political correctness and being informed. I think she’s super modern.
Ruiz: I think both of our characters are modern — I see characters like ours at school every day.
Even before Elena comes out, how did it feel to represent these modern gender issues, even protesting the quinceanera?
Gomez: It’s a lot of pressure but in a good way. We had a live audience, so I got to see how my character affected these people. For example, we had a choreographer who is gay and he saw one of these episodes and he came up to me. He was crying and said, “It’s crazy because growing up, I never saw this on TV. I never saw myself. I never had anything to relate to.”
So it’s really incredible to be able to represent that. It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m glad I get to do it.
And to struggle with an unsupportive father, how did you approach that?
Gomez: It was actually really interesting, because as of right now, I identify as straight, so I never had to deal with that. I also grew up in the theater world where a lot of people are gay. So I never understood why that was an issue, or why people reacted badly to that. So I didn’t get it. It actually hit me the first time at an after party. I was talking to Gloria, and she told me what happens in [episode] 13, how my dad doesn’t support me. I started crying at the after party! Ever since then, every table read, every rehearsal, it hit me so hard. When we finally shot it, I feel a little bit of me understood what that’s actually like.
I think my approach was really just living it. Also because James, who plays my father, came in very late in the game so it was also genuine how we didn’t really know each other. It was like, “Who are you?” — so I think feeling it was what worked out, for me to approach that.
What are your favorite episodes from the first season?
Ruiz: Oh, that’s hard.
Gomez: I do, I do. Episode 105, the immigration episode hit really close to home. I really love that one.
Ruiz: My favorite episode was when I find out that she’s gay — it’s just a great scene between us, that we’d never had in the show [before] and I really had fun doing that.
Was it valuable to learn the positive side of makeup from Rita’s character?
Gomez: I think it is. I think in our day and age, there’s a lot of struggle: If you’re wearing makeup, is it because you don’t like yourself? Is it because you feel the need to look beautiful? I think it was a really important topic to touch on and also see both sides of the spectrum, see how someone can feel really empowered by it and someone can feel like they’re not themselves with it. I think it was good to show both sides.
How much fun were the quinceanera dances?
Ruiz: It was fun. I’m not used to people telling us how to choreograph, but in the end it was just really fun that the cast was all dancing together. At the end, I was proud. I was amused at what we could do. The best is that at first, when we were practicing, we couldn’t even get one step. Then we learned it.
Gomez: It was crazy because obviously they hired professional dancers for background and then… There’s us. So our choreographer was teaching us and they would know it in the first try. It would be two days later and: “I still don’t get it, I can’t do it, make it something else.” So it was really cool to learn and finally get it.
Did you have a quinceanera?
I didn’t — but this was actually my second quinceanera on TV! I had a quinceanera for Robert Rodriguez’s show “Matador.”
Were you happy you got so many funny lines, Marco?
Yeah, I was happy. The cool thing about having funny lines is when you have the live audience there and you say a funny line, you know you’re doing it well if they’re laughing. That’s just a great feeling.
Did you improv any lines?
Well, sometimes if I had an opinion, I would tell Gloria or Mike. Kind of, I would help a little. I would try to make it my own line.
Isabella, did you feel Marco stole any scenes?
Gomez: You know, he’s a great little actor. My character more sets up jokes than punches them, so I had to step my game up. Also, look at this face. He’s a natural, he’s hilarious. So I was like all right, Marcel and I are in this scene, game on. Let’s do it.
Did either of you get any good advice from Justina, Rita or the producers?
Gomez: Constantly, every day. It was really cool. Everyone says this, but our show feels like a family — there was never any judgment, or feeling like, “I can’t let them know that I don’t know how to do this…” If we were struggling, it was so easy for us to go to any of them like, “Hey, can you help me with this? Mike, Gloria, these lines don’t feel right coming out of my mouth. What can we do?” Every day I asked for help.
Ruiz: We would all talk to each other and ask what we needed, because we’re like a real family. You can see the growth of all of our acting between the first episode to the last.
What were some specific pieces of advice that helped you?
Gomez: I think this was actually from director Phil Lewis, but I might be wrong. We were talking about comedic timing and a joke wasn’t landing, I believe it was mine. And he told us a story about how there was an actress that was trying to land this joke. It was asking about tea, like, “Oh, can I get a cup of tea?” It wasn’t landing — and somebody told her that it was because she wasn’t asking for tea, she was trying to tell a joke. That still strikes me today. You can’t be saying a joke. You have to be meaning a line.
Ruiz: That’s a good one. Every time the audience comes, I get a little nervous. Rita would always tell me, “Being nervous is normal. If you’re not nervous, you’re not human.”
Do each of you speak Spanish?
Ruiz: I speak more Spanish than English. It’s my first language.
Gomez: It’s both of our native languages.
So did you like speaking Spanish on “One Day at a Time”?
Ruiz: Yeah, I like that. I really like that.
Gomez: It’s really cool. Elena doesn’t get to speak very much Spanish, but it’s cool.
Are you ready to be recognized as the kids from “One Day at a Time”?
Ruiz: Kind of. I don’t really like watching myself on TV but it’s been a great show. I’m just proud to be part of “One Day at a Time,” so I’m really happy for people to know me.
Are you both on social media?
Ruiz: She’s the Twitter god. I’m the Instagram master.
Do you have lots of behind the scenes pictures from One Day at a Time?
Gomez: Those will be coming out once we’re allowed.
“One Day at a Time,” Season 1, is streaming now on Netflix.