Above Ground with Justina Machado
LatinoLA interview with the costar of Six Feet Under
Chicago-born actress Justina Machado has been steadily working on stage, film and theater ever since getting the acting bug as a teenager at the Latino Chicago Theatre where she impressed. After high school she moved to New York where she continued to shine, and upon arriving in Los Angeles found work in a wide variety of roles in film like Steven Soderbergh's "Full Frontal", Nick Cassavetes "Isn't She Lovely" and television roles on "ER" and "Angel". She also continues her stage work, is a singer, and looks forward to one day appearing on Broadway.
Published on LatinoLA: July 5, 2004
Her most notable role is that of Vanessa Diaz on HBO's "Six Feet Under". As the wife of Fisher and Diaz' partner Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), her post-partum depression of last season and marital infidelity issues this season are giving Machado an increasingly important and complex role on the show. In an exclusive interview with LatinoLA, she discussed "Six Feet Under" and her life as an actress.
Mark Sotelo: What got you interested in acting?
Justina Machado: Well, at the time I was living in Chicago and working in a bank, which I hated. I had a friend involved with the Latino Chicago Theater and I was invited to check it out and it just clicked with me, I was really hooked and I never looked back.
MS: You done a lot of work, but I'm sure you would agree nothing quite like "Six Feet Under". What did you think about the script when you first read it?
JM: Well, I wasn't in the pilot but, as they developed the Rico character they decided he should have a wife and my agent sent me out for it. I didn't want to do at first. I read the script and I was like 'This is really weird'. But as I read more I learned how amazing it was. I'm really surprised that when I go back home so many people like it that I didn't think would. It's been great.
MS: Last season Vanessa had a baby and suffered a deep post-partum depression. It was a very realistic performance on your part. How did you research or come to understand the intensity of those feelings?
JM: I have very dear friend of mine who had post-partum depression and I really modeled myself on her. What you saw was exactly what she went through. She stayed with me for a few months and was hospitalized because she was really, really, depressed, so I thought about her when I was playing that part.
MS: Let me ask you about this season, because as opposed to the first season where the Diaz family was by far more normal then the Fishers, this season with the infidelity and communication problems they seem to be falling apart. What are your thoughts as this shift is happening?
JM: Well, we were the most functional family but that's changed and it's good drama. As an actor it's more exciting because if were good all the time it gets boring. Shit happens and the Diaz family is not immune, the Fishers aren?t the only dysfunctional family in town anymore.
MS: But at least no one is being mailing you 'Poo' as keeps happening to one character
JM: (Laughs) That's true! Isn't that nasty?
MS: There is a theme of jealousy and fidelity on the show this season and not even necessarily of a sexual nature, for example the relationship between Arthur and George (the receiver of the before-mentioned unwanted gift). Was there a conscious decision to dig deeper into relationships as opposed to being as fixated on death this season?
JM: That's tough to answe,r because though I read the scripts, it doesn't really come together for me 'till I see, it but I suppose if there is a through-line in the stories, relationships might be it, as there is more of a focus on that this season.
MS: You're actually part of TV histor,y as you were in the episode of "ER" that was broadcast live. What was that experience like?
JM: It was fun, but it was nothing for me because I had done five years of live theatre before that show. "ER" also played it safe because if you remember, they filmed that episode as a documentary so any mistakes could be explained away.
MS: You mentioned in an LA Times article that there are some things about being Puerto Rican that are different then being say, Mexican, and that you help the writers fill in some of those details. Could you elaborate?
JM: There was an episode where Vanessa and Freddy came into money from someone who died and one of the writers, who happens to be a great, wrote a line that said "Wow, and all we had to do was make her tamales". I said, "We don't make tamales." I'm? from Chicago where there is a huge Mexican population but I never tasted a tamale 'till I was 15.
MS: Tell you what: Some of the best Mexican food around is on those little trucks, especially the burritos!
JM: Really? But everybody calls them roach coaches!!
MS: It was a roach free meal the last time I indulged
JM: I love Mexican food; Chicago has the best Mexican food! Getting back to the show, they are great because they weren't like 'Too bad, were going to make you Mexican and that's it.' Then again, I also have Puerto Rican friends who say 'If you guys are Puerto Rican, how did you end up on the west coast?"' and I say 'I don't know, but it doesn't matter this is who we are playing.'
MS: You and Freddy Rodriguez have such great chemistry together as Rico and Vanessa. Why is that?
JM: Freddy and I have known each other forever. We grew up in the same neighborhood in Chicago and when we were there we had the same agent. We understand each other; we come from the same background. He's such a great guy, that even if we had not known each other before I can tell you that he is one of the most generous, nicest, talented guys you could ever work with.
MS: "Six Feet Under" of course centers on the funeral business and naturally death. This is an uncomfortable subject for many Americans as death has much fear and mystery attached to it, yet in the Mexican and Mexican American culture it is more accepted as a passage and natural event, even celebrated as in Dia De Los Muertos. Is this the same in the Puerto Rican culture?
JM: I think it is, and I think in the Latino culture in general we are more accepting of it. When someone dies there is no holding back of grief but it's also not bizarre for someone to be laughing right in front of the casket but It's not disrespectful. But you know, and this is strange, I have never been to a Caucasian wake in my life!
MS: I try to avoid those whenever possible regardless of race, but sometimes they happen.
JM: I don't like them either, but that's another thing that's funny about Latinos. We will go to anybody's wake. Its like 'somebody's cousin died, ok, let's all go!! I say, 'I'm not going over there!' (laughs) I only go if I really knew the person.
MS: They have an amazing Dia De Las Muertos event every year at Hollywood Forever Cemetery with music, art, offerendas and great food.
JM: Really? I love Dia De Las Muertos and Hollywood Forever is really beautiful. I will have to check that out.
MS: Let me ask you about Latinas and stereotypes, particularly what you might go through in the casting area. Is there any one stereotype you would change if you could?
JM: I don't watch a lot of TV and I was really, really lucky that when I came to L.A., I got some really great parts, but if I had to choose I would say what bothers me are the breakdowns, which is what gets sent off to the agents when they say what kind of character they are looking for in a show or film. When I was coming up it was 'We want a Rosie Perez type'. I like Rosie, a lot but that's all you heard. But I swear to God, the one thing that's been going on forever, and they really need to find a another term, is 'She's a spitfire!!! And a hot tamale!' and I'm like, 'Oh my God! She's a fucking spitfire!! AND a hot tamale?"( laughs)
MS: As a Latina actress are their certain things you won't do?
JM: If somebody wants me to speak Spanish just for a cheap laugh, I won't do that. What is so funny about somebody speaking Spanish? You ever notice in sitcoms somebody breaks out in Spanish and everybody starts laughing? I have no problems speaking Spanish but sometimes writers just want to throw it in for prove authenticity. But I am authentic, and first generation. I walk around busting into Spanish with my friends, but not just for effect.
MS: I'm still trying to get over the "Spitfire" line. I thought that died out with Lupe Valez about 50 years ago. What do you think is the state of Latinos in television and films?
JM: Well, I know there's not enough, that's for sure. It's great that there's the 'George Lopez' show but that's about it. It's really sad because it kind of looks like it's going backwards.
MS: Why do you think that is?
JM: I don't know.Well first ,of all its lousy right now anyway because of those stupid reality shows, that are ruining a lot of things. There is really very little out there because the producers know they make these shows cheap. I can't even believe the shows that I'm seeing now. Even great channels like A&E have a reality show on, something about airline stewardess, I thought 'No! You have to be kidding me!'
Six Feet Under airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO and is 100% spitfire free.
Mark Sotelo is a freelance writer and has interviewed Gregory Nava, Paul Rodriguez and written various articles for LatinoLA including a feature on Los Lobos. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org