Celebrities

One Day at a Time: What Playing Elena Taught Isabella Gomez

When Isabella Gomez was invited to audition for One Day at a Time, the call came with an unusual instruction: don’t wear makeup.

The directive makes sense to those who know and love Gomez’s character on the series. Elena is an activist who cares little about her appearance—much to the chagrin of her vain abuela, Lydia (Rita Moreno). “What really stood out to me is that she was such a real, layered character,” she says. “When you’re 18, [and a] girl, a lot of the characters you go out for is ‘cheerleader,’ ‘pretty girl in the hallway.’” Elena, on the other hand, is defined more by her intellect than her looks—an appealing change of pace for 19-year-old, Colombia-born Gomez, who has been acting since she was 5 years old.

Though she never saw herself venturing out of dramatic work, she‘s now got a pretty decent comedy mentor on set. Moreno, Gomez raves, is “just so brilliant; she knows everything about everything. She will casually talk about dating Elvis like it‘s not a big deal.” And she‘s taught Gomez several valuable new skills. “Comedy was never my strong suit,” the actress explains. “It was never what I thought I would do. So to be able to have a comedic genius on your side, and be able to go knock on an E.G.O.T.’s door and be like, ‘Hey, can you help me with this joke?’ It’s amazing!”

The show as a whole has opened her eyes to the possibility of being an actress who juggles both comedy and drama. “So I never want to say no to anything now,” she says. “I would try anything once, at least.”

One Day at a Time does give Gomez’s dramatic chops plenty of moments to shine as well. Last season, Elena’s coming-out story was a particularly resonant arc—perhaps because, as Gomez notes, the story comes from an authentic place; Elena is based on co-show-runner Mike Royce’s daughter, who came out just a few months before the series started production. This season, the fallout from that revelation continues—and comes to a head when Elena tearfully tells her father that she’ll be fine regardless of whether he’s in her life. Gomez’s prep process was simple: “What I did was, I stood outside of the door and listened to their conversation as if Elena was trying to gather up the courage to go in there,” she says. She’s also so invested in Elena that she got angry just thinking about anyone daring to hurt her like this.

Sometimes, Elena’s struggles hit closer to home. There’s a thread running through One Day at a Time about the character’s complicated relationship with her heritage—including the fact that, as Elena discovers in the season premiere, she is white-passing, which means that strangers often don’t even know she’s Latina. That story line led Gomez to her own epiphany. “Ariela Barer, who plays Carmen in the first season, and I are really good friends, and we always talk about the industry, and she’s told me horror stories about the racism that she’s encountered because she’s Latinx,” Gomez said. “I was like, ‘That’s funny! I’ve never encountered that.’ And then I got this script, and I was like, ‘Oh my god. This makes so much sense.’ . . . It’s so good to be aware of your privilege that way, and I absolutely identified with Elena.”

That moment was typical for One Day at a Time, which offers one of the most hyper-specific representations of Latinx life on TV—a fact Gomez is particularly proud of. Much like Jane the Virgin—the first series with which Gomez really identified personally—One Day at a Time feels distinctly rather than generically Hispanic. “It makes you connect with the characters in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise, if they didn’t have those very specific things,” Gomez says. “And it was also very important to Gloria [Calderón Kellett], who’s one of our show-runners—she’s Cuban, and so that’s why the family’s Cuban. She’s writing about her family, and she wanted to make sure people felt identified.”

The L.G.B.T.Q. community has also found a home on One Day at a Time—particularly those who haven’t seen themselves represented on television much before. This season introduced Syd, Elena’s romantic partner, who identifies as non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns. And while Syd’s identity confuses most of Elena’s family, their conversations unfold in an organic, genuinely kind way that avoids making Syd or their identity a punch line. Gomez said she often finds herself doing research to keep up with her own character’s level of awareness: “Elena knows everything, and so I should if I want to play her right.” Some of her castmates, particularly those of previous generations, found it difficult at first to grasp the concept of gender-neutral pronouns; Gomez remembers just thinking to herself, “Oh my god, I just really don’t want to fuck this up.”

The show’s queer fan base, she continues, is “fiercely loyal, and they’re so passionate about it because they lack representation. And the representation they do get is so shallow—we always see the gay man story line, and we never see young lesbians. And when we do, we see it for the benefit of men and we sexualize them,” Gomez says, sounding every bit like the character she plays. She’s received an outpouring of positive feedback from fans, who say things like, “If I had had Elena when I was 15, my life would have been easier.” It’s a lot of responsibility—but Gomez is up for the challenge. “It is so cool to be a vessel for Elena,” she says. “And it’s so mind-blowing that me having fun and getting to do this character that I love can do that for somebody.“

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Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com. She was formerly an editorial assistant at Slate and lives in Brooklyn.

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