Isabella Gomez on Playing Queer in ‘One Day At A Time’

Isabella Gomez

The upcoming third season of One Day At A Time was the most difficult to date for Isabella Gomez, the young Latinx actress who plays the queer Elena on the Netflix comedic drama.

“I struggled most with this season acting-wise because it’s such personal topics that Elena deals with,” she said in an interview with Out. “But I’m proud of the work we did … on such a beautiful collaboration.”

Hitting the streaming platform Friday, the series inspired by Norman Lear's 1975 show of the same name follows Penelope (Justina Machado), a single Army veteran, and her Cuban-American family, as they navigate life. The legendary Rita Moreno plays the grandmother while Gomez and Marcel Ruiz play the kids.

Gomez says that after three seasons, the show is still “full of the heart and soul” that early fans and critics enjoyed. But, they’re allowing all of the characters to grow in very important ways. Of note, this season the show further explores Elena’s relationship with Syd who is gender nonconforming.

Ahead of its Feb. 8 premiere, Out spoke to Gomez about the show, representing Latinx queer people, and what it’s like working with an icon.

I have to start by saying that my favorite episode to date is from season one, when Elena is abandoned by her father at her quinceañera.

I remember that so clearly because it was so heartbreaking to me. This was the first time that I really empathized with what the LGBTQ community has to go through. I remember [showrunner] Gloria [Calderon Kellett] telling me the storyline, that Victor was going to walk away from Elena and she's going to be left alone on the dance floor, and I was so crushed. I couldn’t believe that’s what people have to go through, and worse. That made it really easy, in the sense of having to carry it emotionally, because every single time we did that take, I was sobbing, thinking it was the worst thing ever. But I also really enjoyed getting to have that representation on screen and show people that they're not alone and that this happens and maybe one shitty person will be in your family, but the rest of your family or your chosen family will be right there to pick you up.

Over now three seasons playing Elena, what have you learned about her?

I think Elena is so resilient and determined to be the best she can be, which is something I admire so much. And that goes for every aspect of her life. She wants to be the most politically active but also really good at relationships and be a giving partner.

This season, we get more depth into the relationship between Elena and Syd. What’s the importance of having Elena come out in season one, but also exploring this type of relationship on screen in season three?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that on TV, and representation matters. I know it’s a hashtag and everybody says it so I feel like sometimes we gloss over the meaning of it, but there are young LGBTQ members who have never seen themselves represented on TV. And if they do see their relationships on TV, they’re extremely toxic or they’re sexualized and just for the purpose of somebody’s fantasy. So, to be able to take these two young people who are falling in love and are part of this community and don’t have to focus on that aspect, the sexuality of it, I think is so important. It humanizes them and shows they’re just like us, that love is love.

As someone who isn’t queer, what steps have you taken to ensure you can not only be an active ally for the community, but present something that feels authentic to queer people on screen?

I realized from the beginning that if I want to tell this story accurately, I was going to have to take in as many experiences as possible and learn from them. And I also think it’s that the fans are so incredible and I get messages from them about their own journeys daily and I read all of them. That’s given me so much insight into what their lives are like, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m constantly learning, but most importantly, the writers that write Elena are LGBTQ and have had these experiences. That’s why people can relate to it so much. I can’t make that up and tell that story. It’s not mine to tell. But I can be the vessel for these writers.

What’s been the one thing that’s stuck with you most about being part of this show?

The best part is that [the characters are] fully developed humans. This is a show about minorities, really, and minorities are so often seen in the media as one thing. For Latinx, we’re seen as either a sexy-something or a drug addict, and LGBTQ people are seen as one thing. So for Elena to be a Latinx member of the LGBTQ communtiy, none of those things define her — and that goes for everybody in the cast. They’re full, layered humans that can’t be put in a box. It’s important for people to see minorities as more than the stereotypes that have traditionally been shown.

What do you find to be the most real part of the show?

I think the mental health aspect of it is very real. Especially in the Latinx community, the stigma and taboo of it and how little we know about it and how much we shut it down is so real to our community, and apparently to a lot more too. I’ve had so many people reach out who aren’t Latinx and say that’s exactly how it is in their household. So, showing that, and someone like Penelope, who is a badass and has it all together and so capable, be debilitated by this condition and know, rationally, that it’s not her fault … I love how we get to see her work to move past it.

How has it been working with the legend that is Rita Moreno?

She is fantastic and she’s a legend for a reason. I always say that yes, she can help with acting because she’s a genius, but sometimes we’ll be in the middle of a scene and she’ll say, “Hm, the lighting is off,” or “You need to fix this.” Also, all the old school Hollywood gossip is amazing.

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