Rita Moreno Aims to Hit the Right Accent on ‘One Day at a Time’


A report by Monica Castillo for The New York Times.

Rita Moreno sits among rare company. In addition to her memorable roles — “West Side Story,” The King and I,” “The Electric Company” — there’s the EGOT. Ms. Moreno, 85, has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony (hence the acronym). Only about a dozen people have done so.

Yet even the most decorated stars have those they look forward to collaborating with. “That’s the magic name,” Ms. Moreno said in a recent interview. “Norman Lear. I always wanted to work with him. And we just kept getting older.”

The two have paired up in “One Day at a Time,” a reboot of a sitcom created by Mr. Lear that originally ran from 1975 to 1984. The new version, which had its premiere on Netflix on Jan. 6, follows several generations of a Cuban-American family living in Los Angeles — a military veteran and single mother (Justina Machado), her two offspring (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz) and the dramatic family matriarch, Lydia (Ms. Moreno). Ms. Moreno discussed accents, filming a particularly emotional scene and why she would like her character to get involved in politics. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Despite Lydia’s being a big and broad character, you’re careful to keep her from becoming a one-note character or a trope.

Whenever you’re playing a character that big, you really have to be on constant alert. I love when Lydia says things like, “Oh, jes, I found it on the joo-tube.” But you have to be very careful or you can turn into a caricature.

This is a Cuban-American family, but you’re Puerto Rican. Did you try to do a Cuban accent?

The accent is all my mother’s. It’s much closer to a Puerto Rican accent. That was easy. Here was the fun part: Justina Machado and I looped in our voices for [the dubbed versions for] the Spanish countries. Our own voices. Otherwise, they go to Mexico and find voices there.

What kind of Latino stories would you like to see more of on television?

I’ve been talking to the writers about the trajectory for Lydia, because of a story I read in the paper. It was about an older Latina woman wanting to get involved with local politics who was given a hard time because of her accent and the way she dressed. I would love for my character’s second season to have a running thread of wanting to get involved in local politics.

Would Lydia be a Cuban Republican or Democrat?

Ah, I haven’t decided. I have a feeling she’s both. I think she’s very traditional, which is not necessarily political, it’s just emotional.

One of Lydia’s biggest moments on the show this season was when she revealed she left her older sister behind in Cuba.

Oh my God! I could barely get through that speech. I kept crying! The director said, “You’re peaking too early in the scene.” I said, “I can’t help it!”

I’m a very emotional person anyway. I’m not an 85-year-old Puerto Rican female for nothing.

I read in your memoir that you had to leave a brother behind in Puerto Rico when you came to the United States.

That’s right. I never saw him again. It was very sad. I finally found out what happened to him after the book went to print. He died in New York, it turns out. One of the saddest parts is, I think he went to his death deeply saddened and disappointed by my absence. It’s not something you get over.

In “Singin’ in the Rain,” you played a friend to the movie’s bad-girl character, played by Jean Hagen. Did you ever spend much time with Debbie Reynolds?

Debbie and I became sort of girlfriends during the filming, and every now and then we would get together to go see a movie or something. One time, she invited me over to her house. I was in her bedroom while she was changing, and then she said, “Let’s go, I’m ready.” We get to the door when she says, “Wait a minute, I almost forgot.” She went and opened a drawer, took out two giant powder puffs and stuck them in her bra. Without even thinking twice. She just put them there and said, “O.K., I’m ready.”

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