Isabella Gomez Says Her Character Elena On ‘One Day At A Time’ Will Navigate Teen Sex And Gender Identity In Season 3

credit: Netflix / One Day at a Time

Fans of the hysterical Netflix reboot One Day at a Time have a busy weekend ahead of them.

The series, which follows the Alvarez family, a Cuban-American single mother, her teenage children and their grandmother living in Los Angeles, returns for its third season on Friday, Feb. 8.

Closing with an intense finale to season 2, where family members grieved the possible death of abuela Lydia, played by Rita Moreno, before she awoke from a coma, Isabella Gomez, who plays Elena, tells us new episodes are as lively as ever, with laughter inevitable and family bonds strengthened.

“The whole family is affected by what happens. I think it’s that instance of realizing that your parents and your grandparents aren’t superheroes and they’re also getting older and are going to eventually die, as we all do,” the Medellín, Colombia-born actress told FIERCE.

Gomez, 20, reveals that her own character, a queer teen and student activist, also matures, both as a person and as a partner in a relationship with a nonbinary character named Syd. Throughout the 13-episode season, Elena and her family explore issues pivotal to her teen romance, like gender identity and sex.

We chatted with Gomez about the importance of showing teenagers navigate LGBTQ relationships on television, why One Day at a Time, which tackles modern-day social and political matters with family-friendly humor, is critical right now, why Latinxs in particular should be supporting this series and so much more.

FIERCE: So that season 2 finale was intense, to say the least. Amid the tears and laughs, one of the things that stuck out to me was what your character Elena tells Lydia, played by Rita Moreno, as she’s lying in the hospital bed. She’s applying lipstick on her grandmother and apologizing for forgetting Spanish and, as a result, losing that connection to her. This is the case for so many second- and third-generation Latinas, and it really is heartbreaking feeling like you can’t communicate or, in this case, more intimately get to know someone you love so much. What is something you think Lydia has taught Elena that didn’t need words?

Isabella: I mean, I feel like Lydia and Elena do talk a lot. Lydia has a lot to say, so if there is anything that she wants to teach Elena, she would definitely say it. But I think Lydia’s pride about who she is, regardless of what other people think, which I think is something Elena touches on in that speech when she’s in a coma. Lydia is so unapologetically herself, even though people have problems with certain aspects of her personality, that doesn’t make her stop being herself or want to change for anybody else. She’s so proud of who she has become and what it has taken for her to get there. I think that is something Elena really looks up to, with a different aspect, obviously. Elena is LGBTQ and has that to go through and she’s also very active in activism so she has that to go through, and it’s very different things, but it’s also hard for her because people don’t like it, including her own family, which gives her crap for it. But I think she looks up to Lydia so much in that, and I think it’s something that Lydia wants to teach her, Penelope and Alex.

FIERCE: Season three, Lydia is back home. Do we see a difference in the relationship between her and her family, particularly Elena, after that terrifying moment?

Isabella: Absolutely. The whole family is affected by what happens. I think it’s that instance of realizing that your parents and your grandparents aren’t superheroes and they’re also getting older and are going to eventually die, as we all do. But because Lydia is who she is, and she’s their superwoman, I think it comes as a shock to everybody and things definitely change because of it. I think it hit Elena, maybe not especially hard because of the way she deals with it, because Elena is not as outwardly as the rest of her family. For them, it’s an emotional thing. For Elena, she tries to make sure that it’s not going to happen again and makes sure that Lydia is OK, and we do get to see that this season.

FIERCE: Another relationship that is developing is the one between Elena and Syd, Elena’s nonbinary partner. This is Elena’s, who came out as lesbian in season 1, first serious relationship, and it’s with someone who is gender-nonconforming. What is this like for her to navigate?

Isabella: I think it’s both hard and easy in the sense of Elena is so open to learning and this is kind of right up her ally in the sense that she always wants to work toward inclusivity and wants to make sure that everybody feels safe, regardless of who they like or how they identify. So it’s definitely a learning process, and, in this season, we see them doing that and having those conversations. We see Elena and Syd thinking about this, because in season 2, we call Syd Elena’s girlfriend, which isn’t correct because Syd doesn’t identify as a girl. And so we see them having those conversations and having conversations about who they are in public and outside of the home, and what this relationship means to other people and how that’s going to affect them. But I think those are hard conversations to have, but I think it’s conversations that Elena loves to have, because it just equips her to educate other people.

FIERCE: It’s also been a bit tricky for Elena’s mom and grandmother. In the season 3 trailer, we watch them trying to come up with a gender-neutral pet name for Syd. But there’s also an episode in the season where Elena talks about being ready to have sex and Penelope struggling with how to help since she’s not familiar with same-sex intercourse. What do you think is the importance of this scene?

Isabella: I think it’s so important. I think the way our society views sex and talks about sex and the images that are in social media, and media in general, about sex can be so incredibly damaging, especially for LGBTQ people because there are so many misconceptions, especially for lesbians and people of non-conforming identities, too. Because it’s always been seen through the gaze of the male eye, and that can’t be the case here, and I think having this conversation will not only be helpful to LGBTQ people but everybody, because sex is so taboo. Schools don’t teach us enough about it. Sex ed, those classes are a joke. I’ve taken them in Florida, and they’re a joke. I’ve taken them in California, and it’s also a joke. And most parents don’t feel comfortable enough to have these conversations with their kids, so then their kids don’t grow up having positive conversations about sex, which means then when they have a sexual partner, most of the time, they’re not having sex-positive conversations with them, which I’ve experienced in my own life and it has been damaging to me. And most of my friends, if not all, have had the same experience. I believe it’s the same for a lot of us that are younger, so I think seeing people have these conversations, you know, between Syd and Elena, and talking about consent, and talking about why are we doing this and are we ready, what does sex mean to us, because sex means different things to everybody, and that’s totally OK, but you have to make sure that people are on the same page. Having these conversations between Elena and her mom, and seeing how they deal with it and showing how, yes, it’s going to be an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but it’s literally the reason there is life and it’s such a huge part of our lives and it’s so necessary to talk about it to make sure that people are being safe, that they’re comfortable, that they’re enjoying it, because it’s supposed to be enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be this stressful thing, so we have to have conversations about it.

FIERCE: One of the things I love about Elena is that she’s so inquisitive. What’s something she learns about herself, or the world around her, in this season?

Isabella: I think Elena has grown a lot in this season. She has always kind of put up this energy where she wants to seem strong all the time, because it’s easier to be mad or attack or really defend your point of view than to feel hurt or let yourself process those emotions of sadness or betrayal. I think in this season she learns that it’s OK and necessary to be able to breathe and get through situations that are hard, and I think we see her allowing herself to have conversations and feelings where she’s uncomfortable with how she feels but is still understanding that it’s OK for her to feel that way and it’s OK for her to talk about it.

FIERCE: For many LGBTQ Latinxs, Elena Alvarez is the first time they feel seen or affirmed on screen. What is that like for you, to offer this long-overdo representation?

Isabella: It’s such a dream. I’ve said this a million times in interviews, but, as an actor, you just want to work, you just want to get a role, but to be able to play Elena and selfishly be able to have this artistic outlet, wow. She’s so fun to play because there’s so much there. She’s so layered. She’s so cultured. She’s so nuanced. She’s so intelligent. I learn so much from Elena, and that’s incredible. But for that to also mean something to people and affect their lives genuinely and make them feel seen and make them feel happy and represented and like maybe things are going to get easier, it is such a privilege. And also to have gained this incredible community, because I’m so lucky to have the LGBTQ community embrace me as one of their own. And I think they are some of the most lovely, caring people there are, and so to have that now, and have all these people help me learn and become more worldly and more educated, to make sure I can be the best ally that I can be, is also a very beautiful thing.

FIERCE: As someone who doesn’t identify as queer, how do you ensure that you are playing this character authentically and respectfully?

Isabella: First, for me, sexuality is a spectrum, and when I was younger, I definitely had instances of “girls are attractive and I think girls are hot, and what is that,” so I can identify with a very small part of that, of like questioning that, but also I try to listen more than I talk. And I’ve realized as the seasons have gone on that I am a vessel for this story, but it’s not my story to tell, so I need to make sure that I am getting as much information from the LGBTQ community as possible. So that means our writers, first off, because we have incredible  LGBTQ writers who write a lot of my storyline and who are always available to me to talk to, which is such a blessing. Also, all of my LGBTQ friends and I have sat down and had so many conversations on what I’m doing and what they think about the script and all of that. And also once the first season came out, it opened up to the audience. And all of us, not just me, the creators, the writer, the cast, we all make sure that we are doing right by this community and that whatever concerns they have we try to address in the next season and just making sure we are telling this story accurately and from their point of view instead of just having it be a fun thing for me to play.

FIERCE: In 2019, why do you think this series, and the issues it brilliantly and hilariously explores, is particularly important?

Isabella: I think we are at a point of a lot of aggression and defensiveness, and that’s understandable, because the world is pretty scary right now, but it’s so hard for people to learn when they’re in this mindset. So for us to put these issues in comedy makes it so that people are relaxed and do not feel like they’re being lectured when they’re watching our show, and then they get to have this information that they otherwise wouldn’t get because they would be trying to fight their political views instead of listening. So that’s why I think it’s so important for not only our show, but for TV shows in general to talk about these issues, if that’s what they want to do, of course, because to each their own. But a lot of people learn through TV, movies and books. That’s how a lot of people get their information, so being able to sprinkle these subjects in and see how a real family will talk about them and see real different points of views, because that’s another thing, we try to make sure that we are not saying, “this is what you should think about this and this.” We are saying, “this is the information from all of these points of views, now you make your own decision, but let that be informed.” So I think it’s very important to talk about these things and it also makes sense, because the Alvarezes are a family of immigrants living in LA in 2019. Of course they’re affected by the world around them, so it only make sense that they would talk about those things.

FIERCE: There was some uncertainty around whether or not Netflix would return One Day at a Time for a season 3, and activists and fans urged the streaming service to renew the show. Considering the role audiences play in series’ futures and the significance of One Day at a Time to so many communities, why do you think Latinx viewers in particular should be watching and supporting this show?

Isabella: I think that the Latinx community needs to be watching because we can’t keep complaining about not having representation and then not supporting the representation that is out there. And that doesn’t just mean our show; that means the other shows that are out there, too, so Jane the Virgin or Superstore. It doesn’t have to be all-Latinx shows. It can be shows with Latinx leads that offer accurate and positive portrayals of us. What a lot of people don’t understand about our industry is views are money, so if the Latinx community is asking to be represented, and then they’re not watching the shows, what they’re telling the studio is that Latinx shows don’t make money. People don’t want to watch them. People are not interested. And that means we’re not going to make another Latinx show, because why would we? Nobody is watching. So it’s so important for the Latinx community to be watching and telling the studios this is exactly what we want, we like this and we like these portrayals of the Latinx community.

One Day at a Time Season 3 hits Netflix on Friday, Feb. 8.

Read: We Talked To ‘Roswell, New Mexico’ Star Jeanine Mason About Otherness And Representation

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