To say Rita Moreno is the MVP of One Day at a Time is to sell her short. For, not only is every member of that sitcom’s ensemble an MVP in their own right, but the Oscar winner is in a league of her own. As Lydia, the vain, devout yet rather raunchy matriarch of the Alvarez family, Moreno is a delight, relishing her gloriously theatrical entrances and savoring the many comedic possibilities of Lydia’s thick Cuban accent. Considering Moreno has been in the industry for more than six decades — I mean, she won an Oscar for West Side Story in 1960! — she doesn’t take lightly her current good fortune of starring in such a beloved family comedy.
When I visited the set of the show (back when social distancing was a vague term we weren’t quite used to hearing every day) Moreno was giddy when talking about returning to play this feisty character. “This is just like the best time of my life,” she shared. “I wish my husband were here to see this. And my mom. I miss my mom terribly now. The older I get the more I miss her. I mean, I just think they would be so they’d be popping their buttons with pride. I love this show.”
Part of what she loves is the chance to play a character so broadly drawn. “I love being funny. I love being absurd — it is one of my favorite things in life. And I particularly love playing a character who is vain. I love playing her vanity. She is shameless. The woman thinks she’s God’s gift to men. And you know, the woman will flirt with anything. She just she doesn’t care as long as it responds. What fun it is to play that character. I can go anywhere with her.”
And she has; whether playing Lydia getting accidentally high while at the opera, sharing chismes about her Tía Chuchi in bed with her daughter Penelope (Justina Machado), accidentally mispronouncing English words like “beach” or being territorial over her ‘Papito’ now that he has a girlfriend, Moreno has imbued Lydia with the kind of slapstick broad humor that you don’t see too much nowadays. “I also wanted her to be a sexual person,” she shared, commenting on the other key aspect of Lydia she loves playing up. “I said just because she’s old, and she’s a grandmother doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have sexual feelings.”
But Moreno knows that it’s a fine line to tread. “I have a very heightened sense of comedy, that’s for sure. And I love being absurd. But here’s the thing, you gotta be careful. It’s a trap to play a character that big and obvious. You have to be very careful that she doesn’t turn into a caricature. And you’d be surprised how sometimes we have to catch ourselves. And I as an actress, have to pull back — much as I hate it. I’m such a hambone! But you have to be really, really careful. That’s why this series is so beautiful in the sense that they give you very moving and touching stuff to do.”
When we chatted, Moreno and the rest of the cast was still rejoicing in the fact that the show was able to come back for a fourth season. She even had some ideas of what she hoped to see in future episodes. While she was excited about an upcoming storyline about Lydia having a religious crisis, the actress had a very concrete wish for what else this firecracker of a character could get up to.
“I’ve been wanting to get her involved in local politics and opening her big mouth and getting in trouble. I don’t think we’ve got an episode for that. But I’m always working on that. I would love it if, you know, maybe the trash isn’t collected when it should be. Like she gets into very, very tiny local politics, and shoots off her mouth and gets in trouble. I mean, I’d love to see her in the slammer. Mm hmm. I would love to see it! Well, just overnight. Yeah, she’s shooting off her mouth. And then the only thing that upsets her is that her makeup kit isn’t with her.”
One Day at a Time airs weekly at 9:30 PT/ 8:30 CT on Pop TV (and TV Land).