Justina Machado On Her Quinceañera, Rita Moreno's Abs And 'One Day At A Time'

Feb 2, 2017
Originally published on February 2, 2017 5:33 pm

In the 1970s and '80s, the TV show One Day at a Time pushed boundaries with the story of a divorced mother raising two teenage daughters in Indianapolis. Now Netflix has rebooted the show, and their 21st-century take pushes boundaries in its own way: The family is now Cuban-American, they live in Los Angeles and its mom, Penelope, is a veteran who served in Afghanistan.

Penelope is raising her two kids without their father, and sometimes money is tight. Actress Justina Machado, who plays Penelope, says the show's portrayal of middle-class life is more realistic than what you'd normally see on TV, and it's also more in line with her own experience. Penelope's family isn't struggling to eat, but they also can't afford a vacation.

"I never went on a vacation until I was 21 years old and I was able to afford it," Machado tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "I went to five different schools before I was 10 years old because we were moving to where it was cheaper to live. So, yes, this is more of what I grew up with."


Interview Highlights

On her memories of trying to have a quinceañera on a budget

My mother did not want to give it to me ... because it's expensive and we didn't have a lot of money. And so I went to every family member and I asked them to buy stuff for me: the cake, the invites, my cousin made my dress. ...

I had no idea what the heck it was about. I didn't even know there was a church ceremony to it. I was like, "Oh, I have to go to church?" I had no idea. To me it was like this big party where you get to dress up and look like a child bride. ... It's so funny because I really wanted a quinceañera and then when I had one, I was like, "Man, this is so lame." Everybody had fun except me because I was constantly taking pictures with family members.

On working with EGOT-winning actress Rita Moreno, 85, who plays Penelope's mom

She is still playing, she's still discovering. She's an incredible partner. She's never bored. She's so smart. She's always involved. And I think that's her zest for life — she's in it 150 percent. That's why she's still around; that's why she's so fabulous. The woman has a six pack, you know that, right? ... I'm talking about her abs, OK? ... She's 85 and looks amazing. I have never been in her kind of shape my whole life. And she is just — she defies everything.

On how Moreno's success as a Latina actress influenced Machado

I remember watching her in West Side Story. ... I had never seen anything like that. I had never seen a story about Puerto Ricans, this wonderful woman singing this song, this incredible character. I was in awe of her, and, yeah, she actually made me think and realize that I, too, could do it.

On how Penelope serves as a bridge between her mother's attitudes and those of her kids

When the sexism episode came about, it was important for us to show the levels. ... [Penelope's] daughter being this millennial and, you know, black and white, that's how it is; and [Penelope] kind of being like, "Well, I've dealt with it. It's not that bad. It depends;" and [Penelope's] mother just being in another world. And I think that's super representative of how it is with certain generations. ...

What we do on the show is we talk to each other. There's a lot of compassion; there's a lot of listening; there's a lot of learning from each other. And that's what I love the most about this show. I think [Executive Producer Norman Lear] said it either in his documentary or in his book: People don't want to be around people who disagree with them anymore; they don't want to have those conversations; they don't want to be uncomfortable. And I'm guilty of that, I was guilty of that. And now I'm starting to get out of this bubble and realize that ... we've all got to talk to each other. We all have to understand sometimes we're not going to change people's minds, but we're not going to get anywhere insulting.

On what the show gains by telling the story of a Hispanic, working-class family with a military veteran

Representation on so many levels, storytelling on so many levels and people being able to relate to one part or many parts of Penelope or all this other family; people being able to see themselves and their stories being told.


Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS IT")

POLLY CUTTER: (Singing) This is it. This is it.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the 1970s and '80s, the TV show "One Day At A Time" pushed boundaries. It was about a divorced mother raising two teenage daughters in Indianapolis. Netflix has now rebooted the show, and this 21st century version pushes boundaries in its own way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS IT")

GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing) So up on your feet - somewhere, there's music playing.

SHAPIRO: As you might guess from the Gloria Estefan cover of the theme song, the family is now Cubin. They live in Los Angeles, and the mother, Penelope, is a veteran who served in Afghanistan. She's still raising two kids without their father. And even though the show is set in the now, it still has a very '70s sitcom sensibility.

It's mostly filmed on one set and in front of a live studio audience just the way legendary TV producer Norman Lear intended. He is the executive producer on this reboot as well as the original. And as Justina Machado, who plays Penelope, told me, the Lear stamp goes beyond how the show looks.

JUSTINA MACHADO: I always loved that about his shows. They had so much heart, and they had so much humor. And they dealt with things that were important. So it was easy. It was good. It was great to get into that kind of classic Norman Lear storytelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONE DAY AT A TIME")

RITA MORENO: (As Lydia Riera) And how dare you keep a secret from me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Lydia, take it easy. You have a history of stroke.

MACHADO: (As Penelope Alvarez) You had a stroke?

MORENO: (As Lydia Riera) I kept it a secret from you.

(LAUGHTER)

MACHADO: (As Penelope Alvarez) You kept it a secret from me.

MORENO: (As Lydia Riera) It was nothing. You were pregnant with Elena. I didn't want to bother you.

MACHADO: (As Penelope Alvarez) This was 15 years ago. I can't believe you.

MORENO: (As Lydia Riera) I have a hammer toe that needs to be shaved.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: OK, so the show was created by Norman Lear, who is 94. And it also - as long as we are talking about elder states people of Hollywood...

MACHADO: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Your co-star Rita Moreno is 85. It is safe to say she's one of the greatest living performers - Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony, Presidential Medal of Freedom - I could go on. What did you learn from working with somebody who has been at this decades and decades longer than you have?

MACHADO: My God - endurance, her incredible artistry. She is still playing. She's still discovering. She's an incredible partner. She's never bored. She's so smart. She's always involved. She's in it 150 percent. That's why she's still around. That's why she's so fabulous. That woman has a six pack. You know that, right?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: What?

MACHADO: Oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: You're talking about her abs.

MACHADO: I'm talking about her abs, OK?

SHAPIRO: I mean I know she's a great dancer, but she is also 85.

MACHADO: She's 85 and looks amazing. I have never been in her kind of shape my whole life. And she is just - she defies everything.

SHAPIRO: The family in this show is not just Latino but Cuban, like...

MACHADO: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Capital-C Cuban.

MACHADO: Right, yes, yes.

SHAPIRO: Your family's Puerto Rican I think. Is that right?

MACHADO: It is, yes. My family's Puerto Rican, yes.

SHAPIRO: So is Rita Moreno.

MACHADO: So is Rita.

SHAPIRO: What did you do to learn about the Cuban stuff?

MACHADO: Well, our showrunner - one of the showrunners - she's Cuban - Gloria Calderon. A lot of this is based on her family and Mike Royce's family. And I also happened to date a Cuban for many years.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's convenient.

MACHADO: (Laughter) It's very convenient. So it wasn't as difficult. And Gloria had her eye on that. I mean it was - she was the authentic police - little things like this, the specificity of how Latinos will store sometimes leftovers in butter things (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Oh, you mean like a Country Crock Tupperware-type container.

MACHADO: There you go.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah.

MACHADO: Right, like, we'll use everything. We'll use everything and anything. And so that was something that she was very stern about. She was like, no, we need that. It - just little specificity...

SHAPIRO: Like, none of this fancy Tupperware. You got to get an old Country Crock butter tub.

MACHADO: That's right. That's exactly right. Let's have that cafetera right there on top of the stove because...

SHAPIRO: The little coffee maker, yeah.

MACHADO: There you go - the little coffee - sorry - the little coffee maker.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MACHADO: So things - I know. I'm getting bilingual on you. Things like that is what she was really hardcore about.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONE DAY AT A TIME")

MACHADO: (As Penelope Alvarez) So you want to crush my heart into pieces...

(LAUGHTER)

MACHADO: (As Penelope Alvarez) ...After I worked so hard to give you an opportunity in this land of the free and home of the brave.

(LAUGHTER)

MACHADO: (As Penelope Alvarez) That's not me. That's her.

(LAUGHTER)

MORENO: (As Lydia Riera) And you make me sound like I have an accent.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: In a way, it feels like your character, Penelope, is sort of a bridge between her mother's generation and her daughter's generation, kind of between traditional values and feminism - straddling that.

MACHADO: Absolutely. I think it's because how a person of my generation actually feels. One of the things that - when the sexism episode came about, it was important for us to show the levels of, you know, my daughter being this Millennial and, you know, black and white - that's how it is - and me kind of being, like, well, I've dealt with it. It's not that bad. It depends - and my mother just being in another world. And I think that's super representative of how it is with certain generations.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONE DAY AT A TIME")

ISABELLA GOMEZ: (As Elena Alvarez) Mom, I'm not talking about old people sexism. It's much more subtle now. Men assert their power through microaggressions and mansplaining.

MORENO: (As Lydia Riera) Oh, mansplaining - is that like man-scaping? I just learned that, and I love it.

GOMEZ: (As Elena Alvarez) No, mansplaining is when a man...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's when a man explains something to a woman...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...That she already knows, but he acts like he's teaching her. Does that make sense?

SHAPIRO: What happens episode after episode, though, whether the issue is women being paid less than men or immigration, is that while your mother's character may have attitudes that are outdated, they're not just dismissed or mocked or treated as totally unworthy.

MACHADO: Exactly. What we do on the show is we talk to each other. There's a lot of compassion. There's a lot of listening. There's a lot of learning from each other. And that's what I love the most about this show. And I think Norman said it either in his documentary or in his book. People don't want to be around people who disagree with them anymore. They don't want to have those conversations. They don't want to be uncomfortable. We're not going to get anywhere insulting. We're just not going to get anywhere that way.

SHAPIRO: The big story arc of the first season is whether your teenage daughter will have a quinceanera, the big party celebrating her 15th birthday. Did you have one when you were a teenager?

MACHADO: I sure did (laughter).

SHAPIRO: OK, tell me about it.

MACHADO: Well, mine was - Oh, my God - please - my mother did not want to give it to me.

SHAPIRO: Why not?

MACHADO: Because it's expensive.

SHAPIRO: OK.

MACHADO: And we didn't have a lot of money.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MACHADO: And so I went to every family member, and I asked them to buy stuff for me - the cake, the invites. My cousin made my dress.

SHAPIRO: So it was really important to you to have one.

MACHADO: Yes, but...

SHAPIRO: Why?

MACHADO: I didn't - because it was a party. And I get to dress in a white dress. I had no idea what the heck it was about. I didn't even know there was a church ceremony to it. I was like, oh, I have to go to church. I had no idea. To me, it was, like, this big party where you get to dress up and look like a child bride.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Did you have flashbacks as you were filming this season and this was, like, the focus of the debate in the family?

MACHADO: Oh, yeah because I was the one that - 'cause - it's so funny 'cause I really wanted a quinceanera, and then when I had one, I was like, man, this is so lame - it was so - I mean 'cause everybody had fun except me 'cause I was constantly taking pictures with family members.

SHAPIRO: OK, Justina Machado, I'm going to ask you the most difficult question of this interview.

MACHADO: OK.

SHAPIRO: Will you share your quinceanera photos with us and let us put them on the NPR website?

MACHADO: Of course.

SHAPIRO: Really?

MACHADO: Of course.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) that's great.

MACHADO: Are you kidding me?

(LAUGHTER)

MACHADO: They're tragic, and it's hilarious.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, Justina Machado, it's just been great talking with you. Thank you so much.

MACHADO: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Justina Machado stars in the Netflix reboot of the sitcom "One Day At A Time." And yes, she did send us her quinceanera photo. It is just as awesome as you would think. And you can see it for yourself at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.