To hear her tell it, Otmara Marrero was destined to play the leading part in Lara Gallagher’s Clementine. And while that may sound like hyperbole, her behind-the-scenes story about how she landed the role of the mysterious, heartbroken Karen bears it out. When she first got the audition call she not only fell in love with the twisty script but she was ecstatic that Nicole Arbusto was casting the film; she’d been a fan of her work and had been dying to read for her. Sadly, despite nailing her original audition — “I felt like I killed it,” she told Remezcla — and having a great chat with Gallagher, she was told they’d gone in a different direction. “But in my heart I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is not the end. This is my job. I know it,’” she remembers thinking at the time. And, just as she’d imagined, she got a call a few weeks later. She’d gotten the part.
For the StartUp and Vandal actress, the role of Karen was a blessing. It gave her the chance to really dig deep into a character who is, for all intents and purposes, defined only by her heartbreak. Reeling from a disastrous break-up, Karen takes up residence in her ex’s lofty lake house in the Pacific Northwest. She’s looking to regroup now that she’s adrift but soon her leisurely days by the lake take a turn when she meets a young woman named Lana (Sydney Sweeney) who becomes fixated on Karen. Their relationship, which goes from friendly to flirtatious in mere days is as much a mystery to Karen as it is to viewers. Both women remain emotionally guarded but are clearly drawn to one another, but the line between erotic attraction and sensual rivalry soon becomes thinner and thinner. For Karen begins to see her interactions with precocious Lana mirror her own relationship with her ex (an older woman and an established artist). Only this time it’s she who’s got the upper hand. Though, the more she learns about Lana, the more she realizes she may not be in control at all.
Marrero confessed that the first time she read the script she’d originally imagined Karen dealing with an ex-boyfriend, not an ex-girlfriend. “It just goes to show that love has no gender,” she shared. “Like, everyone feels the same thing when they’re in love. And they feel the same thing when they’re heartbroken. I thought that was really beautiful, how it wasn’t really about, you know, a woman to woman relationship. It was everything that comes with relationships in general.” The ethereal feel of the film, which echoes Hitchcock and Bergman, encourages such a reading even as it’s particularly attentive to the way same-sex relationships are rife sites for explorations about power.
The same is true, though the film doesn’t draw attention to it, of the fact that Karen is a Latina getting over an older white woman and getting infatuated with a younger white girl. There’s an added friction to those encounters, coloring the way she’s looked at by the young man her ex sends to check on her lake house, or in the way her darker skin sets her apart from anyone else she interacts with. “I think that being a woman of color always adds something,” she noted. “Just because of the struggles that we have to face in life, not even just in relationships, but in general. So I think that always add something.”
Yet Marrero was quick to add that such issues were far from her mind while working on Clementine. “But in this story — I know it’s crazy — I will say that this is the first time that I didn’t see gender, I didn’t see race. I just saw a story about love, about heartbreak, about a rebirth.” She also saw strength. Even as Karen is unraveling, she ends up finding the kind of zeal and strength that Marrero’s own characters in StartUp and Vandal have shown. If there’s anything in common with these women is that sense of power they find from within, an admission that speaks to Marrero’s own heritage. “I come from a family where they’re very resilient. And I think that from a very young age that’s all I’ve seen, a lot of strength. I think that maybe subconsciously, that’s what I’m drawing from. These characters are just strong women, even though they’re rarely in positions of power. But they know what they want and aren’t afraid to go for it and get it.”
Clementine premiered as part of 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and opens in virtual cinemas May 8, 2020.