Justina Machado is a television legend, known for dramatic and emotional appearances, devastating sharp wit, and a compelling soft side. Best known for her longest role — Rico’s (Freddy Rodríguez) wife Vanessa on “Six Feet Under” — Machado’s also made memorable appearances on “ER,” “Private Practice,” and more recently “Queen of the South” and Screener fave “Jane the Virgin.”
While she’s always been funny — “pragmatic and exasperated” could be on Machado’s headshot, and while that’s a tricky trope for a Latina actress, in her hands it’s always elevated: Played with layers, wit, and charisma — this is the first time she’s really being called upon to stay there, with her new sitcom.
In this modern revamp of the classic sitcom, Machado plays Penelope — not just a divorced mother of two, but a military veteran still dealing with the stress of returning from service. She works in a doctor (Stephen Tobolowsky)’s office dominated by men, and spends much of the season talking daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) into having a traditional quinceanara for her 15th birthday.
Screener met with Machado in Los Angeles to talk about her transition to comedy, her career, and the hot-button issues that define her new show. (Edited for length and clarity.)
Screener: We know you mostly from drama. Have you gotten much chance to do comedy?
Machado: No — just in my life! I did some comedy pilots — and I think most of the things I’ve fone, even when they were dramatic, there was always humor in it. But nothing like this — it’s a sitcom, a comedy! No, I hadn’t done it before.
Were you looking to show this side of your craft?
I think so… After a while — I love all the shows I was doing — but more than anything, it was the type of character, and the type of show that it was. I just love the character. I don’t think I really cared if it was comedy or if it was drama, and I still don’t care. It’s just the fact that it was so good, and I really wanted to do it.
Did you research the military, and the struggles of returning veterans?
We did — we actually spoke to this wonderful veteran, Priscilla, who came in and told us things. We had meetings with her, I had lunches with her, so I did a lot of that kind of research. That was really fascinating, because I’ve never even thought about being in the armed forces.
One of the things she said was really difficult was adjusting to civilian life. I look at it like wow, what they do is incredible — heroic and difficult — but it’s difficult to adjust to civilian life. So that was really interesting.
Was standing up to a mansplainer satisfying?
[Laughs] I never even heard that word! Swear to God I was like, “What the hell is a mansplainer?” I love it!
I think it was satisfying to call out a mansplainer, and I think it was great for the character. What I really like about it too is that he’s not a bad guy. He’s just misinformed. We didn’t make him this horrible person. Scott (Eric Nenninger), who I say is a mansplainer, I really love the way they handled the sexism and I love the way they handled it with three different generations of women, how each woman reacts to something like that.
[In real life] I’m more like Penelope, where I avoid confronting people — but it’s important to, isn’t it? It is important with those kind of things, the bigotry, the racism, absolutely. Instead of staying quiet it’s important — and do it in a way where it’s noncombative, hopefully, so people can really listen to each other — because once you get into that thing of yelling, and insulting, then no one’s listening to each other anymore.
Had you heard of Tinder dating?
Doesn’t it sound like an absurd sitcom topic?
Yes, it does. I can’t even believe that people really do that. I’m not single but I can understand getting into something like that and meeting people. It could be exciting. I’ve never done it ever but I had lots of friends who did it. I have friends who got married off of Match.com, and all of those things.
Had you practiced your Oprah voice?
No, but I’m originally from Chicago, so I grew up watching Oprah. I remember it, at 10 years old, when her show came to Chicago — so that was easy to do.
How many episodes did it take before Rita Moreno was just your castmate? How long to get over “Rita Moreno’s playing my mom!”?
I think it happened immediately — and that’s a credit to what an amazing woman she is, because once we all start working, it’s just kind of like a bunch of artists creating something together. That’s really what it feels like working with her. I had worked with Rita before… I think the first time I met Rita I was 19 — she doesn’t remember, of course, because she’s met everybody — it was in Chicago, we did a radio play together. It took me years to get over the fact that I worked with her. It was amazing. So by the time I got here, I was still nervous — because she’s her! — but as soon as we started, it was great. Everything was great.
Do you have memories of the original “One Day at a Time”? Was it significant to see a single mom on TV?
I really don’t have memories, because I was too young for it — and I grew up with a single mother, so it was kind of the norm for me. By the time I got around to watching the reruns or whatever, that didn’t affect me as much — but I could see the significance of it in the early ‘70s when the show started.
Did you ever have a quinceanara?
I did, yeah! I had one. Actually, the pictures are not too different — except I didn’t have any braces, and I had a bad dye job. Yes, I absolutely had a quinceanara.
What was yours like?
Mine was huge. It was at this hall in the northwest side of Chicago. I had 14 girls, 14 boys. We did a waltz, we did a merengue and we danced to “Always and Forever” — because for some reason that was the thing to do in Chicago. It wasn’t as fun as I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be great, but really I was taking pictures all night. My friends were having fun, I was having no fun. Looking back, it’s hilarious. I look like a child bride, just like my daughter says on the show. That’s what I look like. The dress was humongous and white, and I have a tiara and big poofy sleeves…
What do you think about questioning the validity of a quinceanara, to a modern teenager?
It’s interesting, because I never questioned it before. I always wanted one — but I can understand Elena’s point of view on the show. That’s the great thing about this show, because really I don’t feel the way she does. Even in real life, I don’t feel that way — but she probably feels this way in real life. This is what I love about the different generations, and the different ways, the different things that tick them off. I love that we deal with things differently.
In the way that all sitcoms have heart, was it nice to update that to things families deal with now?
Yeah, that’s what’s really great about this show is that it’s so current. It’s so modern, just like the original “One Day at a Time.” A lot of my girlfriends who are older than me and watched it, they related so much to Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips, because it was the stuff that was happening at that time. I think our show is doing the same thing. They’re dealing with millennials, mansplaining, immigration… It goes on and on.
Are you a fan of Porto’s bakery, like Penelope is?
I love Porto’s! I love Porto’s. I always go!
“One Day at a Time,” Season 1, is available now on Netflix.