Rita Moreno and Gloria Estefan are doing what they do best — singing and dancing.
On the set of One Day at a Time, the renowned artists are hamming it up on a rendition of “Ava Maria” they arranged themselves, trying to keep track of the key they started on in the previous scene.
Estefan is guest-starring as Mirtha, Lydia’s (Moreno) estranged younger sister. After Norman Lear approached Estefan to record the rebooted sitcom’s theme song, Estefan dreamed of guest-starring, but her mother’s illness and eventual death postponed the idea.
“It’s presenting a very warm, very loving Cuban family — a hardworking mom with the added feature of the grandma because, in a Latin family, the extended family is everything” she says of why she loves the show. “My grandmother raised me because my mom was working and my dad got sick and she took care of him and me, so it’s really representative of a very wonderful Cuban family. It’s important for Hispanics to have positive images out there.”
Her take on “Ava Maria” is just one example of how the role is tailor-made for Estefan. “How can you have an episode with Gloria Estefan without having some kind of song?” jokes Moreno. Estefan admits she’s actually always avoided singing “Ava Maria” until now. “I shied away from singing [it] my entire life. I was afraid of it because it was this daunting thing,” she explains. “At our wedding, Emilio and I, didn’t want the ‘Ava Maria’ and then somebody gave it to us as a gift and they broke out into song in the middle of the ceremony, and [we] cracked up at the altar. So, it has special connections for me.”
The singer, who One Day at a Time star Justina Machado calls “the Cuban Queen,” has guest-starred on several television shows, but she had one wish — to play someone very different from herself. On a break between rehearsals before taping before a live studio audience, Estefan admits she’s impressed by the speed and commitment from the writers and cast — a pace she’s never seen on a TV set. “Those writers work up to the very end. They’re still making it better and better, so they’re throwing lines at you right there at the end,” she marvels.
Compared to her guest-star experiences on Jane the Virgin and Glee, Estefan says she’s relishing really getting to sink her teeth into a comedic character and the unique challenges of a sitcom. “I love comedy. Our family is like a damn comedy. My sister and I are very sarcastic, and [when we’re] together, it’s like a sitcom. Comedy feels natural to me,” she muses. “You have time to really do some acting in there.” It doesn’t hurt that she’s acting opposite one of her lifelong heroes, Rita Moreno, who she also calls a close friend.
“To play Rita’s younger sister? What a great opportunity,” says Estefan. “To me, she’s an idol. I’ve been watching her career my whole life.” The feeling is mutual for Moreno, who says, “We are really two of a kind, which is interesting because the two sisters we’re portraying are also of a kind. They’re vain and have big mouths.”
Estefan’s episode is packed full of surprises, including guest-star turns from two other great actresses, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz. Creators Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce created a vehicle that plays to Gloria’s strengths, which resulted in what Moreno dubs “one of the funniest episodes we have ever done.” She explains, “It turned into farce. It’s people coming in and out of doors and stuff…[Gloria] shoved me aside at one point, which wasn’t in the script, and I wet my pants I laughed so hard.”
If the rhythm doesn’t get you, Gloria Estefan will.
One Day at a Time’s third season premieres on Netflix on Feb. 8.