Broadcast TV is ready for a Latino family. Justina Machado is here to prove it.
Justina Machado has never felt this exhausted. It's late September, just a few hours before she heads off to another three-hour rehearsal for "Dancing With the Stars," and the actress is at her home in Silver Lake fueling up on lunch when she reveals the unusual piece of equipment that has been a life saver — or rather, a feet saver — since joining the current season of the prime-time dance boot camp.
"I literally have this big caldero that you make arroz con gandules in," she says, referring to the Puerto Rican rice dish. "I can't even make any arroz con gandules in there anymore because it has become the pot for my feet. Gross, right? Every day when I come home, my routine is dunking my feet in there with ice. The first week and a half of rehearsals, forget about it — I was crying. I was like, 'Oh, what did I do?' Everything hurts me, why did I do this?'"
So, why did she do it?
For one, it was a much-needed quarantine distraction for the "One Day at a Time" star that required neither the patience of making sourdough bread nor the quirkiness common to viral sensations. "It sounded exciting, the idea of learning things I've never done before," says Machado, 48. "Like a lot of people right now, I was feeling very depressed, and there's so many things happening in the world and so many things we wish we could do and can't — this couldn't have come at a better time. And I love old Hollywood — love, love, love old movies and old musicals. And I'm always like, 'Oh, I wish I was acting in that time.' But if I was, I'd be playing Lupe the house maid. I wouldn't be dancing with Fred Astaire."
That gets at the other reason: visibility.
"The thing about 'Dancing With the Stars' is it reaches so many more homes than my incredible show ('One Day at a Time'), that should reach everybody's home. I know they've had Latinas on the show, but they need a whole lot more. And so I was like, 'I'm going to do that. I'm going to be that Puerto Rican woman that's on that show.'"
Make that two shows: On Oct. 12, the pandemic-halted fourth season of Machado's sitcom began a three-week run on CBS, in the Monday time slot immediately following ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."
For the actress, who plays single mom and military veteran Penelope Alvarez on "One Day at a Time," the broadcast spotlight is long overdue: Her career has never quite positioned her front and center, despite strong supporting turns on "Six Feet Under," "ER," "Queen of the South" and "Jane the Virgin."
Speaking over video conference, Machado convincingly masks any aches and pains she may be feeling with her usual vibrant energy. Her distinctive laugh still bounces through a room even over a Wi-Fi connection — just as it does when she recalls the "Dancing With the Stars" cameras catching her scanning her phone during the live show as a ping-ping-ping of encouraging texts arrived on the "One Day at a Time" group thread.
In a perfect storm of exposure, her strong showing on "Dancing With the Stars" so far should help bring attention to the comedy's broadcast airings, which will likely play a role in the series' chances for a fifth season. Its survival has deep, personal resonance for Machado, who has long been vocal about Hollywood's shortcomings when it comes to Latino representation.
Originally set up at Netflix, the Latino-fronted reboot of Norman Lear's classic sitcom was canceled in 2019 after three seasons. Sony Pictures Television, the studio that produces the series, shopped the comedy to other networks, eventually landing the Cuban American family sitcom at Pop TV, which gained fame with cult favorite "Schitt's Creek."
Its run on CBS, which was the home to the original series, is part of the deal ViacomCBS sister network Pop TV made in rescuing the series. It is the only series with a Latino family airing on broadcast television this season.
The role of Penelope Alvarez has provided Machado an opportunity to reveal dimensions atypical in a traditional sitcom. Penelope is a hard-working single mom dealing with the complexities of raising two teenage children, while also caring for her strong-willed mother, played by screen legend Rita Moreno.
Over the show's four seasons, viewers have watched Penelope, previously a medic in Afghanistan, struggle with depression and anxiety — addressing a subject that has often been taboo within the Latino community. They've watched her grapple with her Catholic upbringing as she processed her daughter's sexuality with honesty and openness. They've watched her go back to school to become a nurse practitioner. And they've watched her try to fit romance into her jam-packed life.
"She's the best," says Machado, who had been slated to make her directorial debut on the series before the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted those plans. "This is why it's so important when women are in the writers room. So many times, you see these sitcoms, and the mom is just a throwaway character and the dad gets all the jokes and the mom looks like she's been shopping at JCPenney. It's, like, all of a sudden you turn 40 and you can't be cute anymore? I don't get it. And that even if you're a mom, you're still a woman."
She gets high praise from costar Moreno, whose career helped blaze a trail for Latino actors in Hollywood.
"She is one of the best people I've worked with in my life — bar none," says Moreno, who affectionately refers to Machado as "nena" (sweetie). "She moves me. She makes me laugh. And she's a terrific scene partner, because we have great chemistry and an enormous respect for each other. There's something about her that is so true as an actress. And you can't buy that."
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