Isabella Gomez always knew that she was destined to become an actor. Born in Medellín, Colombia, Gomez was only five years old when she began acting in commercials after being introduced to the industry by a family friend. “I was an only child, I was the first granddaughter, so I loved attention,” jokes the 22-year-old over the phone from her Los Angeles home.
After spending most of her childhood in Colombia, Gomez was 10 years old when her family moved to Orlando, Florida, where she learned English. At 16, she secured her first television role on El Rey Network’s suspense drama Matador—a role that ultimately drove her parents to relocate to L.A. in 2015. After landing a small guest spot on Modern Family a year later, she found out about the revival of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time, a show that follows a Cuban-American single mother and Army veteran that lives with her mother and two teenage children.
Despite considering herself more as a dramatic actor than a comedic one, Gomez decided to drive with her dad to Sony Pictures Entertainment and audition for the part of Elena, the intelligent but inexperienced teenage daughter of the Alvarez family. After a month of radio silence, she received an unexpected callback from Sony and landed her first series regular role.
It was around that time that Gomez and her parents sat down with co-showrunners Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce to talk about the first season, where they discussed the idea of exploring Elena’s sexuality.
“I had no idea when I first auditioned,” Gomez says, regarding the character Elena eventually coming out. “Glo and Mike have told the story that they were actually super nervous to talk to us about the idea of possibly playing with Elena’s sexuality because the Latinx community is still so close-minded when it comes to that subject. Mike’s daughter was coming out at the same time that they were making Season 1 and it sort of made sense. Lucky for us, nobody had any qualms about it and we just got to bring this incredible representation to the screen.”
Over the course of the show, Gomez has masterfully portrayed every step of Elena’s coming-of-age story. From coming out to her family, including her traditional father, to navigating sensitive conversations about first relationships, Elena’s journey has resonated with audiences around the world. Following Netflix’s decision to cancel the show after three seasons, fans launched a #SaveODAAT campaign on social media, eventually leading to a revival on Pop TV earlier this year. This month, the six-episode fourth season has been re-airing on CBS, the same network that aired the original 45 years ago.
After the broadcast premiere of One Day at a Time on CBS, Xtra caught up with Gomez to talk about the importance of authentic representation, the uncertain future of the show amid the ongoing pandemic and the overwhelming online response that saved the show from its initial cancellation.
With any role that represents a marginalized community, there is a tremendous sense of responsibility that you must feel when portraying a character like Elena. How did you prepare for this groundbreaking role?
I actually had no idea what Elena would mean to people. We made Season 1 in a bubble because we were still at Netflix, so we got to make 13 episodes and not have any input from the audience until it all came out. For me, I grew up doing theatre and [was] around a lot of LGBTQ2S+ people who were so unapologetically [themselves] that it honestly didn’t click in my brain that there was any lack of representation.
I also feel like my generation is so free with sexuality, so I didn’t feel like Elena was any different from me at that point. Luckily, we had so many LGBTQ2S+ writers in the room. I got to do a lot of talking with them about their experiences, and a lot of my friends were also LGBTQ2S+ and already out. I was already immersed in that world. I think it was really helpful that I didn’t think it would be anything special because I got to just portray her authentically instead of trying to portray her in this way where I was like, “Well, people are gonna see this and it matters, so let me try to do all of these things that I wouldn’t normally ever do for [any other] character.”
You’ve mentioned that you didn’t realize that there was such a lack of Latinx and LGBTQ2 representation on television until you booked your role on One Day at a Time. Why do you think that representation is so important?
There are so many aspects of One Day at a Time that I think are so special. Just detaching myself completely from the project, I think comedy is such a fantastic way of educating people. Norman Lear [who serves as an executive producer on the reboot] is a master at doing that because he never shies away from difficult topics. He makes sitcoms and makes all of this information so much more accessible to influence people because people don’t feel like they’re being lectured. They just think it’s a fun show that shows different perspectives. We’re trying to change people’s minds; we’re not trying to tell them this is the only right way to look at things.
Right now, we’re the only Latinx family show on network television, which is atrocious. A study [of diverse TV in the U.S.] just came out that says only 5 percent of TV roles are Latinx when we make up 18 percent of the U.S. population and are quickly growing. So having a Latinx family that is hard-working, invaluable and has something to say and getting to see a different perspective is so important. Lies about these communities have been proven to be dangerous and deadly at times, and that is because you can’t expect people to know anything else about these communities when they live in Middle America, have never actually met a Latinx or queer person and all they see of them in the media is that they’re evil or dangerous. Showing them that we’re human and that we’re more like them than we’re not is so important, just to get us back on the same page. This country is so widely divided right now and it’s really sad and unfortunate.
After Elena came out in the first season, we began to see the development of her first relationship with Syd (Sheridan Pierce), who also identifies as non-binary. Together, they have been at the centre of some of the most important discussions in the Alvarez household, which have touched on topics like consent, sexual harassment and first sexual experiences. Looking back, is there a storyline that you’re most proud of?
Obviously, the fans love the Syd and Elena relationship and I do, too. I think it’s been so interesting to play with a relationship for that long and to watch it evolve.
I think one of my favourite storylines and subjects that we touch on in the show is sex and how we deal with sex, not only with Elena’s virginity storyline but also in Season 4—the “Boundaries” episode—where we talk about masturbation and having those talks with your family. It’s interesting because in my life, I was raised to talk about sex very freely, and I have no real shame around it. I think that’s just a sign of how taboo these subjects are in our culture, and I think the way we talk about it makes it disarming, funny and accessible, and starts conversations.
Specifically with Elena’s virginity storyline [where they did not sexualize her first experience and focused more on her emotional intimacy with Syd], I had never seen virginity represented in that way for people my age. I think it would have been really, really good for my soul and for my brain to watch a couple deal with it in that way.
One Day at a Time made history when it became the first cancelled streaming series to be rescued by a cable network, in large part due to the overwhelming fan support. What does it mean to have that kind of support from fans?
It means everything! When you’re an actor, you just want to be working and you just want to be on a set. So, to be on a show that’s gathered this amazing group of people who are so wildly passionate about the show is super flattering.
I also think it speaks to how much stories like this are wanted. I think the show has a cult following because there are these untapped markets that would kill to watch themselves represented. So, when they do, they’re going to fight like hell to keep that representation on the air. It’s kind of bittersweet: I’m so glad that we can be there for them and I feel so lucky to be that vessel for Elena, but it’s also disheartening that they have to fight this hard for a show that is, by the way, really good. It’s Norman Lear and Rita Moreno, and it has 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. We all still have to fight like hell for it, but we’ll fight for it until we’ve exhausted all of our options because we realize how important the show is.
Assuming that the show will be renewed, what are your hopes for Elena and One Day at a Time going forward?
Justina Machado [who plays Penelope, Elena’s mom] always says this, but she doesn’t think a lot about storylines in the sense that we have such brilliant writers that we don’t even have to worry or mess with the storyline.
I think no matter where [Elena’s] relationship with Syd goes, it’ll be a really interesting perspective. At the beginning of Season 4, Syd and Elena are talking about whether it’s right for them to stay together or not because they’re thinking of going to different colleges, which is such a mature conversation for two kids that young to have. Whether they end up staying together like they decided or they decide to call it quits, I think it’ll resonate with a lot of young people, and I know we will do it in a way that is charming, relatable and layered and will do justice to these two humans that we have grown to love. I’m very excited and I really hope we get to see that through.
One Day at a Time will air on CBS on Oct. 26 at 10 p.m. Season 4 can also be streamed on CBS.