‘I’m making white-man money now’

By Zack Stanton

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The conventional read on “One Day at a Time,” the critically beloved sitcom that recently jumped from Netflix to Pop TV, is that it’s a political show.

No, it’s not set in Washington. No, it’s not about the governing class, the wealthy or well-connected. But it is about about a Latinx family led by an Army veteran single mother raising her teenage children (an out lesbian activist and a politically aloof boy) in the same household as her devoutly Catholic Cuban immigrant mother. It’s a show that grapples with acceptance, mental health, faith, gentrification, alcoholism and bigotry. And that makes it political.

Unless we’re thinking of this all wrong.

“Honestly, we don’t think this show is political,” series executive producer Gloria Calderón Kellett said in a recent interview for POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast. “It really is what is a Latinx family dealing with right now. It’s very disheartening for me to hear from my brother that he’s at the beach with his children, and somebody tells him to go back to Mexico. And he’s like, ‘First of all, I’m not Mexican, but don’t say that to anybody.’ We really just talk about things that are happening.”

Calderón Kellett and actress Isabella Gomez, who plays Elena on the series, joined POLITICO’s Anna Palmer at the Women Rule Summit in Washington, DC, to talk politics, representation in Hollywood, the stereotypes they’re tired of seeing on screen, and “cancel” culture. What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and readability. For more, listen to the interview on the newest episode of Women Rule.

Anna Palmer, POLITICO: “One Day at a Time” is a remake of the 1970s Norman Lear series that is centered on a Cuban American family in Los Angeles. Gloria, tell us a little about how the show got made.

Gloria Calderón Kellett, co-showrunner, “One Day at a Time”: It was. Norman’s producing partner had read a study about the lack of representation for Latino women, specifically single mothers. Just truth be told, I wanted to sit with Norman Lear.

What we do, Isabella and I, we make culture. And culture is entertainment, of course. But it’s also really hitting at the hearts and minds of our country. And taking a snapshot in this moment of the Latinx community, it’s at an all-time low of on-screen representation. About 5 percent of what you see on television are people that look and represent us. And of those 5 percent, they are largely still very stereotyped characters — gangbangers, drug dealers, and whatnot.

Favianna Rodriguez does a talk that talks about cultural relevance, and how it takes about 10 years for that to affect policy and change, and the hearts and minds of the American people. And she talked specifically about Ellen DeGeneres coming out, and Will & Grace, and how that led to marriage equality.

I’m a first-generation American. My parents are Cuban immigrants. They came in 1962. They were so welcome here. And I thought, “What was happening in 1952 in this country?” The number one television show was “I Love Lucy,” where there was a Cuban American in your homes. There wasn’t anything to fear, because you felt like you knew who those people were.

Palmer: Norman Lear’s shows — “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude” — regularly deal with some pretty heavy political topics. How do you decide what topics you’re going to tackle? How do deal with that and make sure you’re being honest in representation and respectful, but also, I mean, you’re pushing boundaries. You’re talking about things that not a lot of shows are necessarily talking about it.

Calderón Kellett: You know, honestly, we don’t think this show is political. It really is what is a Latinx family dealing with right now. It’s very disheartening for me to hear from my brother that he’s at the beach with his children, and somebody tells him to go back to Mexico. And he’s like, “First of all, I’m not Mexican, but don’t say that to anybody.” We really just talk about things that are happening.

Isabella Gomez, actress “One Day at a Time”: What she said. When people are actually writing real stories based on the truth they see around themselves, it’s easy to tap into that. There’s not a ton of work, per se, that we actors have to do, because we know what it’s like for our parents to say, “Maybe don’t speak Spanish out in the world.” And we know what it’s like to be affected by shootings. We know what it’s like to be around all of that. So it’s very easy to tap into those emotions and make it really realistic.

Palmer: I think it’s interesting because you become really an icon in the LGBTQ world. [Ed. Note: Gomez’s character, Elena, is a young woman who came out as a lesbian at her quinceañera.] How did you approach that?

Gomez: We got to do season one in a bubble and I did not realize what it would mean. I also grew up doing theater, so a lot of my friends were LGBTQ. I never knew that it was anything different or shameful. I had, obviously, a vague idea that there was a lot of hate out in the world, but within my world, there wasn’t. To me, it was never a big deal, per se, until I realized how much it would mean to people.

Palmer: When you started this show, this country was in a very different political place than it is now. Has the show changed because of Donald Trump?

Calderón Kellett: Has the show changed? I mean, the truth is, sexism, women being marginalized, the Latinx community being demonized — these are things that, unfortunately, have been going on for a long time. They’re certainly amplified now, and there are things that we have to deal with now as a result of that.

Palmer: There are stereotypes in many Latinx roles in Hollywood — whether that’s the gangbanger or that’s the housekeeper. Have you tried to stay away from that as you’re auditioning?

Gomez: Yes. It’s difficult because as an actor, you never know when your next job is coming. Right now, I’m in a position of privilege, where I am a series regular in a show and I get to say “no.” And I realize how much these narratives affect the way people view us, because people learn through television and movies and books. For me, I don’t want to represent my community that way. I don’t want to be a gangbanger girlfriend, or a drug addict, or any of that. It is true that there are those people in our community, but that story has been told hundreds of times. So if I can be a badass activist Latina instead of being that, I will always go that route.

Calderón Kellet: I don’t know anybody in a gang.

Gomez: I’ve never seen cocaine. Never seen it.

Kellett: Never. It looks like powdered sugar? I am so … kind of blindsided by how “liberal” Hollywood has presented the Latinx experience. And so, for me, it’s about correcting that. It’s about showing people that we also look like this. We also sound like this. I’m first gen. My parents have thick accents, and came here, and worked five jobs, and figured it out. My dad has the flag out almost every single day of the year. He is so in love with what this country promised him, and he’s seen the fruits of that. So, for me, it’s not just one issue. I think it’s about really the totality of who we are as women.

Palmer: The one thing I most want to know, that I haven’t asked you: Rita Moreno. Tell me everything.

Calderón Kellett: Incredible. Goddess, icon. You know, she’s 87 years old, Rita.

Palmer: But, man, she’s bounding on that set like she’s 20 to 30 years younger than that.

Calderón Kellett: There was one day where she had to reach something out of a cabinet, and her sweater went up, and she has abs. [Laughter]

Gomez: She wore a crop-top season one. I was like, “Cool.”

Calderón Kellett: It’s aggressive, Rita. We get it: You’re gorgeous.

Gomez: You’re hot, cool.

Calderón Kellett: Then we all go do sit-ups.

Palmer: Was it intimidating going on stage? Now you know her; you’re several seasons in. But originally?

Gomez: Well, I wasn’t born at the time where she was what she became. Of course, I knew, like, “West Side Story” and whatever. But they were like, “Oh yeah, Rita’s 87,” and so when I went in for the first table read, I was like, “Hello, Ms. Rita. Nice to meet you.” And she’s like, “Hello! How are you!?!” Just a ball of energy.

I got to meet her as a person instead of an icon. She’s so lovely. I was not intimidated at all because she is the most giving, helpful person. I had never been a series regular. And she was the first one who’d be like, “What do you need? How can I help you? Come to my dressing room whenever. Let’s do this thing.”

Palmer: One of the things I wanted to talk about with this show in particular is it’s been basically universally critically acclaimed. But it’s had a bumpy road when it comes to finding a home. Netflix canceled it after three seasons, but Pop picked it up three months later. Why do you think it’s had such a tough go of it?

Calderón Kellett: To be frank, there is money put behind certain shows. And we were not given a significant budget to put us out there in the same way as big shows, like “The Crown” and “Stranger Things.” There’s a lot of content out there. People don’t know what to watch. It feels like homework now to watch television. So if you’re not in that initial zeitgeist, you’re a little bit forgotten.

At the time, there were two Latino shows on all of television. In 400 shows, it was us and “Jane the Virgin.” There were too few for me to let it go away without a fight. So I just really tried to engage the community. And I said, “This is a story about family.” People find this show, and then tweet at me later, “Oh, my gosh, I’m Irish Catholic, but your grandma is just like my grandma,” or, you know, “I’m Russian…” or “I’m Chinese…” It’s just incredible to see the universality of the human experience and about family.

Palmer: You’ve been in a lot of different writing rooms. You’ve written for a lot of famous shows, been involved with them. How have you approached this writing room? It feels like you’re trying to have a little bit of a different experience than maybe some of your previous experiences?

Calderón Kellett: Yes. Well, I’m really fortunate that Norman Lear and [my co-showrunner] Mike Royce were both incredible white-male allies. These are men who have been in it when it was all just white men, and they would also like to see a change. And so they were really incredibly supportive of me. At the beginning, when people would ask them questions, they’d say, “Ask Gloria.”

Mike was very open to it being a very inclusive room. So our room is more female than male. We are a gender parity production, a whole production, how many people you see on screen, the men and women behind the scenes. It is all gender parity. Our directors are mostly women and people of color. It’s great.

Palmer: Did you call BS on the whole notion that so many people say: “Oh, well, there’s just not a pipeline. There’s not enough people that are doing this?”

Calderón Kellett: No, they’re out there. There are so many women that are crushing it right now in Hollywood. They just need to be given the opportunity to do so.

Palmer: How do you both approach politics? Do you get involved? Do you not?

Gomez: I will be the first one in any sort of circumstance who will be like, “I don’t know enough about this. Please teach me more.” But I like to do that more privately, especially right now. There’s very much in Hollywood — but also everywhere else — a “cancel” culture, where if you say one mistake, like one bad thing, or one thing ignorantly, or you said something eight years ago that you didn’t mean, or whatever, everything goes down the drain, and you’re canceled, and nobody will give you work anymore, which is horrifying. So it’s a little scary right now, which I think is a huge issue because I think the way that we learn is by being allowed to make mistakes. So I do that privately. It’s a little scary to do that publicly right now.

Palmer: Gloria, How about you?

Calderón Kellett: I mean, I’m pretty public. I’m, right now, very invested in having conversations outside of my Hollywood bubble. I really want to engage with people that are on the other side. I want to know why they think and feel the way they do, and where we can find common ground. And as a writer, I want to write about that. That’s what makes good storytelling. My storytelling is not just for liberal Latinos that live in California; my storytelling is for everyone. And I want to hold out an olive branch. I want to understand why people vote the way they vote.

Palmer: You have some exciting news: You recently signed with Amazon. Congratulations.

Calderón Kellett: Thank you. Prime members, you’ll get it for free.

Palmer: I was reading some of the press around that, and you specifically said one of the reasons why you’re excited about going to Amazon was because it was a good place for women content creators.

Calderón Kellett: Yes. Well, I think that we see every year, based on what’s on network—network television is what reaches most people. So I haven’t written it off because it’s ad-supported, free television that goes out to all the homes. That’s interesting to me. Unfortunately, it’s sort of a homogenized type of storytelling that we’re seeing. And it seems that all of the accolades tend to go to streamers or cable because they allow the creators to be a little bit more free with their storytelling.

So as somebody who doesn’t really like to be told what to do — you know, Netflix was really wonderful with us when we made the show. They would only support us, and allowed us to make exactly the show we wanted to make without really having a ton of notes for us. Amazon is doing the same thing.

I mean, I’m making white-man money now, y’all. Yeah. And, like, good, rich, white-man money. So they’re putting their money where their mouth is.

Palmer: We know who’s taking us out to dinner next.

Calderón Kellett: That’s what Lin Manuel said: “You’re paying for dinner next time.”

To hear more from Gloria Calderón Kellet and Isabella Gomez, listen to the full podcast here. Women Rule takes listeners backstage with female bosses for real talk on how they made it and what advice they have for women looking to lead.