Rita Moreno Is Playing a Dream Role 70 Years into Her Career (Exclusive)

Rita Moreno
Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait

The 'One Day at a Time' star opens up about her post-'West Side Story' heartbreak and how Hispanic actors need to take 'some very much-needed lessons from the black community.'

After West Side Story won her a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her lead role as Anita in the 1961 musical, Rita Moreno was sure she'd end up in film after film, thwarting Latin stereotypes in Hollywood. But even as the first Hispanic woman to earn an Oscar, the work offered to her was scarce and conventional, leaving the legendary actress crushed when the promising rush of stardom proved not so promising anymore.

Now, at 86, Moreno is having the last laugh, as the adored and very funny abuelita Lydia on Netflix's multicam family comedy One Day at a Time. The timely Latina-led update of the classic sitcom, which premiered in 1975 on CBS, is helmed by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, while the series' original creator, the now-94-year-old Norman Lear, executive produces.

The show is centered on a Cuban-American family living in Los Angeles, the Riera-Alvarez clan, including Lydia's daughter, Penelope, played by Six Feet Under alum Justina Machado, and her grandchildren, Alex (Marcel Ruiz) and Elena (Isabella Gomez) – as they work through a variety of hot-button issues relevant to today's gender paradigm and sociopolitical climate. Penelope is a divorced single mom and Iraq war veteran with PTSD, for one. But with plotlines including Elena's coming out, depression, gender stereotypes, immigration and religion -- and that's just season one -- One Day at a Time isn't afraid to speak its mind with ample heart and humor. Season two furthers its topical commentary by broaching gun control, nonbinary queerness, racism and Lydia's lack of U.S. citizenship.

One of only 12 performers with a coveted EGOT (an Emmy, GRAMMY, Oscar and Tony), Moreno recently opened up to ET about playing the kind of authentic Latina role she could only dream of after West Side Story. During the conversation, Moreno also reflected on how the beginning of her career left her "heartbroken," the current state of Latinx representation on screen, and how One Day at a Time is helping to break ground for Latinx actors.

ET: Why does a Latina-led One Day at a Time feel particularly important right now?

Rita Moreno: Norman Lear seems to have a clock in his head or something. It just seemed the right time. And it’s interesting, because there have been some other Latino-based shows, but there have also been some not-so-good Latino-based shows. Obviously, I'm not gonna mention anyone, because everyone needs their job.

What makes one Latinx show better than another?

Ours is authentic, ours is so respectful of the culture. We don't mess around. And my character could very easily be a Looney Tune and, in fact, we're always very, very mindful of that -- I'm certainly very mindful of that. And she can be theatrical and she can be dramatic, but Looney Tunes is definitely not a part of this series. I think it's extremely important to stick to what Latinos as Latinos recognize and laugh at.

The other great part of this show is that a lot of people who are not Latino are loving it. It's so universal -- that's the word that Norman keeps using. It's a family. And though some problems are strictly related to being Latino, many other issues are not. I mean, in the first season, we had a marvelous show about the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. It really took the VA to task without pointing fingers in any way, and it was hilarious. It was also very serious -- [Penelope] had her shoulder injury from the war and she couldn't get anybody on the phone. I thought it was a tour de force for Justina.

How did this season's racism-centric first episode resonate with you?

Oh, are you kidding? We loved it. One of the most wonderful touches that nobody has ever addressed in these kinds of shows is the fact that Alex is getting picked on because his skin is darker than his sister's, and their mom points out the difference in hue. I don't think anyone has ever even touched that.

The second episode addresses gender neutrality both in terms of the Latinx community and the LGBTQ community. I imagine that's been a lesson for a lot of people the way it was for Lydia.

Oh, absolutely. And you know, I love that there's just a bit of racist in Lydia. When she says, "Oh, no, no -- we're Spanish," and her granddaughter says, "Mom, we are all colors." But I say, "We're mostly a Spanish." Which to her means white. So, I love that she has this prejudice, because it makes her very real.

What are some of the hot topics covered on the show that have been personally important to you?

Last year, we talked about Lydia’s citizenship and her lack of citizenship, and the whole family was absolutely shocked that she was not a citizen. This time, not only does Lydia become a citizen, but also Schneider [the family’s Canadian landlord, played by Todd Grinnell] has become a citizen, which I thought was kind of neat. And, oh, God -- there are so many hot topics and I can't remember half of them because I'm 86.

The show challenges many stereotypes. After West Side Story, you were seeking to do the same, but studios were offering you a lot of stereotypical Latina roles.

Actually, I wasn't offered a lot of them -- I was offered some. There was such a dearth of roles. After winning those two awards, I was absolutely heartbroken. I couldn't believe it. I really thought, "Wow, an Oscar and a Golden Globe, what could be bad? My career is made."

The lack of roles -- what do you chalk that up to?

Oh, the same usual kind of thinking: "She's Latina, she played a Latina, and here are some gang movies if you want to do that." And I said, "No, I do not." Nothing came. It was just really, really absolutely devastating. It was hard to believe. I mean, how naive of me, but who knew?

So how did being cast on One Day at a Time feel?

Oh, my goodness, I can't even find the words for it. I'm so proud to be a part of it. I feel privileged to be working with Norman, whom I dearly love. He and I have a creative love affair going on, in the sense that he just thinks I'm the bee's knees and I thinks he's the cat's meow. We're the two old farts on the show, and I call myself the "fartette."

I wanna be a fartette when I'm 86.

No -- a fartette is a girl.

Oh, I don't care. We're all about gender-nonconformity here now, aren't we?

[Laughs] That's great. You've learned from the show!

This season's finale was really emotional. Was it a difficult day for you on set?

Not at all. No! It wasn't difficult. I did nothing but lay down!

Emotionally, though?

It was very hard to listen to some of the monologues -- it was hard to listen to Justina. But you know, she always kills me under any circumstances. She's just one hell of an actress and probably the best acting partner I've ever had. She's just sensational. And the granddaughter, Isabella Gomez -- her thing was very sweet and sad and moving.

Do you think this show will hopefully open the doors for more Latinx actors?

I think it will, it absolutely will. Gloria Calderon is doing her own show for a network [the upcoming History of Them on CBS with On Your Feet! star Ana Villafañe]. And you know, we can use two on the air! That would be nice.

We could use Rita Moreno on both, too.

I'll be sure to tell her that! [Laughs] So, it's terrific. Whenever we can we use Hispanic actors -- not just Hispanic, but black actors, East Indian actors, every kind of nationality, whoever is good for something gets the part, no matter what the nationality.

What are your thoughts on the diversity reflected in this year's Oscar nominations?

Viola Davis put it so succinctly when she said as long as there aren't roles for us -- meaning all nationalities -- there will be no awards possible for us. A lot of people say, "Well, why aren't you getting awards?" Well, you have to have the roles first. It's not just one-sided. You have to get the roles. And now I think the Hispanic community has to really start pushing and taking some very much-needed lessons from the black community. They really did it up. They did it up just fine. We have to start doing it, too. We have to unite more and we have to pull for each other more. Did you happen to read the very angry piece that John Leguizamo [creator and star of Latin History for Morons currently on Broadway] wrote for Billboard? He's one angry Puerto Rican. He was talking to his own people, [saying that it's] nice to say, “Well, I’m lucky to get this part,” but you’ve gotta do more than that as a Hispanic person. So I'm hoping that's gonna start to happen very, very soon.

At the SAG Awards in January, when you presented Morgan Freeman with the Lifetime Achievement honor, you were given a standing ovation.

That was so moving; I started to cry. That was astonishing -- who would expect something like that?

What's it like to be acknowledged in that way by your peers 70 years into your career?

Oh, that's why I started to cry, because they are my peers. And it was also my peers who helped vote for me when Morgan presented the award to me [in 2014]. It's just fantastic. What went around came around.