Isabella Gomez is unlike any young actress out there. Her eloquence in interviews indicates a woman acting for several decades, and yet Gomez burst onto the scene just three years ago playing the outspoken Elena Alvarez on One Day at a Time. Gomez sat down to discuss her journey, avoiding the pratfalls of typical young celebrities, and working opposite a living legend.
How are you doing in the current crisis?
Isabella Gomez: I’m doing okay. I’m obviously in a very fortunate position so it feels a little silly to complain about not being able to see my friends. I’m also an introvert, so it took awhile to get used to it and now I’m like, “I love being home.”
Is acting something you always wanted to do?
It is actually. I started saying I wanted to be an actor around five or six years old. I don’t remember that [but] my parents said I just randomly came up to them and was like, “Hey, this is what I want to do.” I was an only child so TV and movies were kind of my babysitters. I was around them all the time, especially Disney Channel, Hannah Montana, and the High School Musical films, all of that was super entertaining for me. I was definitely one of those kids that gathered my cousins and was like, “we’re doing a show for the family and here’s your song, and I’m always Sharpay and let’s do it.” So I’ve definitely been interested in it my whole life.
As a young woman of color wanting to be in the industry did you notice the lack of representation with regards to Latinos?
Actually I didn’t. I always talk about how One Day at a Time really opened my eyes up to representation, and what it means and why it matters. I grew up in Colombia and as we talk about on the show I’m white passing; I’m super light skinned. In Colombia all the shows were dubbed into Spanish and everybody looked like me so I just assumed that the shows were about people like myself. It wasn’t until I got to the U.S., and saw Jane The Virgin, and was on the show [One Day at a Time] talking about representation. But I was like, “that’s the feeling people talk about,” that feeling of not only do these people look and sound like me but they’re talking about the things my family talks about and their abuelos are like my abuelos and they speak Spanish. It wasn’t until that moment it all started clicking.
Do you remember the audition process for One Day at a Time?
Oh my god, yes! I was actually testing for another show and it was the first time I had tested that pilot season. I had just moved to LA six months earlier so it was a big, big deal. My coach from back home – I used to live in Florida – had sent me an article about Norman Lear remaking one of his old shows and telling me I would have been perfect for the daughter. But I was in the middle of another test and I was very focused on getting that show so I didn’t think twice about it. Obviously, that show didn’t go my way and then I got an audition for Elena Alvarez.
I remember the audition was at Sony; anytime you get to go into a studio to do an audition it feels magical. My dad came with me and I was still under age. He would bring me to auditions, but he would never come down and for some weird reason he went with me and sat in the waiting room with me. I remember when I came out of the audition he said, “Oh my God, you’re actually kind of good!” My dad hadn’t seen me act in forever and it was so reassuring and the audition was so fun. I never saw myself as a comedic actor so I let myself go in and have a good time, and then I didn’t hear back for a month which, usually, in show business time that means it’s done and move on.
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 28: Honoree Isabella Gomez attends the 23rd Annual NHMC Impact … [+]
Getty Images for National Hispanic Media Coalition
A month later I was asked to come back, at that point I was already 18 so I got to go to Sony all on my own. I’m definitely old school in that I wear the exact same outfit I wore for the audition through the whole process. I remember I was wearing this light blue shirt, and I parked and I was so anxious that I had sweated through my light blue shirt, so I took it off and put it on my vent and sat in my bra in the Sony parking lot waiting for my freaking pit stains to go away. Then I went in and it felt so right from the beginning, which is such a rare thing to see in this industry. I felt so comfortable and the producers were so lovely to me. I think within a week, a week and a half, I was signing contracts.
Is there pressure working with the live studio audience?
Oh my God, totally. But I came from theater and live stuff in Columbia. I did a couple of live things and then my freshman and sophomore year of high school I went to a theater magnet. I only did one show but we have to do all of our auditions in front of each other so I was very used to being in front of people. In fact, it sort of brought me comfort.
I will say, with COVID-19 happening, the last two episodes we got to film we didn’t have an audience and it is so bizarre. It feels like a different show because the audience becomes another cast member, so the pressure is on in the most wonderful of ways and we’re in season four now. Rita Marino’s an EGOT and Justina Machado is a genius. This is a cast full of very incredible working actors and we all stand back there before every show with our hands cold from nerves, looking each other in the eyes and kind of giggling about “we have to go in front of 250 people again. Crap, let’s go!” and it’s magical. It’s such a rush and it brings an energy you can’t replicate.
Speaking of Rita and Justina, what is it like working opposite them at this point in your career and how has that changed over the last three years?
I don’t think I really understood what it meant to stand 50/50 across from Rita Moreno and say lines to her. I don’t think that registered in my brain. It was my first series regular and I had done a little recurring when I was 15 and said a one-liner on Modern Family but other than that my experience on sets weren’t really extensive. So I was very hyper focused on “don’t get fired. Just say the lines and make sure everybody likes you and you’re doing this justice.” Justina and Rita and Todd [Grinnell] and Steven [Tobolowsky] were so helpful, which, I realize I’m very lucky because in Hollywood there’s a lot of fighting and a lot of cattiness and a lot of “I am the boss” or “I am the star”and that was never the case with these two. They were so willing to help.
Marcel Ruiz who plays Alex, it was his first series so the kids are brand spanking new and it would have been so easy for them to be dismissive of us, and just make their TV show. Instead, they were so willing to help and I remember Rita was like, “anytime you need me just come knock on my door” which, back then, I was like, “Oh, cool.” Now in season four I have access to an Oscar, Emmy-winning actor if I need her and that is so special and something I’m sure I’ll remember for the rest of my career.
Have Justina or Rita provided you any advice that you’ve employed in your career going forward?
Something I never even thought about that Rita talked to me about in season one was finding your light. It never occurred to me that was part of my job and there are people there to light you but when you have Ed Quinn, who is a million feet tall, and you’re standing across from him he’s covering your light and you got to shift your weight because if not you can’t use that take. That’s something I never ever thought about.
For Justina, it’s not so much in words, but watching her process and watching her work. She has so much trust in herself and her abilities and that is why she can take you from laughing so hard you’re bent over holding your stomach to crying in point five seconds because she has so much access to her emotions and to her truth because she believes in herself. That sounds so simple but it’s such a hard thing to do as an actor and watching her work has really taught me to take that leap, and throw myself into it, and trust that my body will take me where I need to go.
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 28: (L-R) Honoree Isabella Gomez and Gloria Calderon Kellett … [+]
Getty Images for National Hispanic Media Coalition
Did you or your parents have reservations about you being in the spotlight?
Not anymore. My parents never told me about any reservations. My parents’ philosophy raising me was “you can make your own decisions and we trust you.” I remember, growing up, they never even checked on my homework. They’re like, “that’s your job and if you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it, and if you’re not going to do it the consequences will fall on you.” So they’ve always been very relaxed and, of course, provided me support and insight when I needed it. It’s never been about me going crazy, going the child star route. It’s always been about believing in myself and making sure I am doing this for the right reasons.
I’ve definitely had a journey with it. I started doing this when I was five or six because I loved it, and I wanted to tell stories, and I thought humans were so interesting, and I wanted to step into their shoes. Especially as you get a little bit of quote, unquote, success, you start holding on to that more and you start going into auditions thinking, “this is the next step in my career, and I need this job to advance myself, and how great would it be to have this success from this movie or from this network?” It’s show business and the business part is totally valid. As an artist it’s important to me that I keep myself on track of “this is art” and this is a release, and this is my escape and is my way of adding to the world and I want to make sure I stay there.
How do you separate yourself from your acting?
The feeling that I have when I’m acting I only have one I’m acting. I guess that’s why I went into this career is that feeling is a high I’m always trying to chase and as an introvert most of my time I spend either by myself or with my very close friends. I don’t have super crazy stories to tell you [laughs]. I’ve been kind of a goody two shoes so getting to step into other characters who have lived other stuff allows me to feel those experiences without me having to go and try drugs, or run away, or have siblings. I remember when I was younger I tried to do method acting and the acting teacher who was trying to teach me did not do it in the right way and threw me into the deep end with heavy stuff when I was really young. It was horrifying. It was so scary. I did not like feeling like I didn’t know where I was. So I’ve kept separate and it’s relatively easy for me to do that.
Can you talk about growing with the character of Elena Alvarez?
She is such an interesting character because her brand is she’s obnoxious in her information giving but, for me, she’s the opposite. She’s such an easy way to understand things and at first it started more so with her sexuality and the LGBTQ aspect because most of season one was about that. But it’s opened me up to conversations I would never have had in a way that feels accessible and easy because I get to do it through her. I get to be like, “Hey, what do you guys think about this” because my character is going through it.
It led me to seek information I would have never known about, that would have never been in my radar. I now listen to podcast about the news which if you had told me that when I was 18 I would have been like, “never ever.” She’s interesting, and engaging, and passionate. I always want to know “is Elena passionate about this thing?” [because] then it matters and I want to know more about it, which is such a blessing to be the vessel for a character who genuinely makes you want to grow and it doesn’t feel like homework.
Is there room for input from you with regards to the writing of the character?
We have brilliant writers so we never try to touch anything they do because they do it so well. But it is an artistic collaboration in that our writers and producers are open to our thoughts. Not so much in pitching storylines, per se, that feels kind of huge but if certain words don’t feel right, or if like this throughline of the episode feels a little wonky and not grounded, or if there’s a joke that’s funny but it feels insensitive or unlike our character they’re open to us coming to them with our concerns and are open to changing things so that we feel right about what we’re doing which is not the norm in Hollywood. I think that’s one of the reasons our show resonates with so many people. It’s because it’s not one person being like, “this is my view of the show and everybody’s going to go along with it because I’m the boss.” It’s so many eyes on the material and making sure it feels right, and so many opinions and thoughts that makes it real.
Why do you think One Day at a Time is so vital at this point in time?
One Day at a Time and it’s journey has been special. I’m biased because it’s my first series and I love the show but, first, it being a Norman Lear show. Norman has dedicated his life to representing the underrepresented and, as a white man, being the ally those communities need, because allies are so important. It being switched over to a Latino family is so special and what it means to have Rita on. Rita has been a pioneer for Latino representation in the industry. She broke down barriers that, if she hadn’t done so, there wouldn’t be a One Day at a Time, there wouldn’t be a Gentified, there wouldn’t be a Party of Five. And then everything we went through with Netflix.
Netflix, allowing us to make the show we wanted to make because once you have a series full of Latinx people and especially Latinx women who aren’t getting naked and aren’t maids and aren’t the typical idea of what you think of a female woman is. And trusting us enough to say, “Make your art and tell the story you want to tell.” And people connecting with that and people all around the world having access to it. It’s so trippy that people come up to us and go, “We’re not Latinx but we love your show” just tells you how much division there’s been, and how many false narratives there have been about our community, because I don’t go up to my favorite Caucasian actors and go “I’m not white, but I love your show.”
We’re all humans and we’re all living this experience together but there’s been all these stories told about our community that once they see the average family there’s a weird thing that clicks in people’s brains going “They’re just like us.” And then, of course, the journey with the cancellation and coming back. We’re the first show ever to get cancelled by a streaming service that then goes to network and for that to be a show that’s about people of color, about LGBTQ people, about people with depression and anxiety, about veterans, about immigrants is huge and it means there is an audience for us. It means that all of those communities mattered and we’ve known that, but in this industry it hasn’t been shown that way. Most of the stories that are told are about the white experience which is valid and important and now we get to tell another side of the story in a way that represents us positively and accurately, and opens doors for all these other shows.
Can you talk about branching out beyond the show and your future projects?
I did have my horror film Dembanger going into SXSW and I’m not sure what’s gonna happen with that now. But that is also a story that is saying something. The producers have been working on it since they were in college. They made a short and then they finally got to make the full feature. I don’t know how much I can talk about it but it’s hidden in the horror thing. It’s a story about powerful women and it’s also about what’s right and what’s wrong, and the way we say boys will be boys and college culture. Right now I’m in a very privileged position where I can be a bit more selective about the stuff I want to do and as long as I have the privilege of being selective I would love to play roles that have something to say, especially something to say that hasn’t been said before. There’s a lot of conversation about who can play what which means that even though I’m white passing, most of my opportunities are for Latinx roles and as long as that’s the case I want to make sure it’s empowered and smart and intelligent.
What advice would you give to young women of color who want in the industry?
I would say realize you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far and that is just, unfortunately, the truth right now, and only do this if you love it. This industry will tear you down if you let it and it’s a tough place to be. If you want to be famous, or if you want to be in the public eye, there are easier ways to do it, I promise. Also, always, always, always, continue honing your craft because acting is a craft. It’s not just you get your makeup done and you say your lines. Even once you start getting success remember the way that you get success and you get better and you’re able to tell stories is by training those muscles. So take acting class anytime you can.
One Day at a Time airs on Pop TV Tuesdays at 9:30pm.