Interview: Justina Machado Returns to Real Women Have Curves, This Time as Mom

Machado discusses this new musical, running at American Repertory Theater.

Justina Machado first entered the public consciousness in 2011 as part of the ensemble of HBO’s landmark drama Six Feet Under and has since delighted film and television audiences on Desperate Housewives, Private Practice, Dancing with the Stars, and especially, the 2017 reboot of the sitcom One Day at a Time, in which she starred as single mom Penelope.

But Machado’s acting career started in her native Chicago, where at age 19, she portrayed the lead character of Ana in the Latino Chicago Theatre Company’s world premiere of the play Real Women Have Curves. Now, more than 30 years later, she has taken on the role of Ana’s strict mother, Carmen, in the world premiere musical adaptation, playing at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts through January 21.

TheaterMania recently spoke to Machado about why she returned to the material,  dealing with traditional standards of beauty, and her desire to return to Broadway after more than a decade.

7 231205 RWHC Dress NileHawverMaggieHall PRINT 0230 (edited)
Justina Machado in Real Women Have Curves at American Repertory Theater
(© Nile Hawver/Maggie Hall)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you want to return to this material after 30 years,?
Sergio Trujillo, our director, called me and he said he only thought of me for Carmen, which I found odd. I was 19 the first time I did the show, now I’m 51, and back then 51 felt like 1,000. Anyway, I had free time, so I did the 29-hour reading, and I loved the music so much, which really clinched the deal.

Plus, I believe the story we are telling is universal and I am so happy to get to see all these women come together on one stage. It’s very important. These incredible women are just brilliant, and I am finding it so exciting to be around new Latin talent.

It also matters so much to me because we don’t get enough work. I am so tired of people thinking we’re different; it is exhausting to go through life like this. And when we do get work, we see our TV shows being cancelled, like One Day at a Time. As its creator, the late, great Normal Lear said, that show was the story of an American family, and the story we told of immigrants living in America is universal. I was so angry it got cancelled.

Are there similarities to your own personal life in this story?
I come from a working-class family. I was born in Chicago, but both of my parents were born in Puerto Rico. When I started acting in Chicago as a teen, they didn’t know what I was doing or what it meant, but they were supportive enough. However, when I decided to leave Chicago to pursue a career in acting, my mom really didn’t want me to go and was very sad. And that’s a lot of how Carmen feels about Ana.

Let’s talk about the title. Is that a message that you’ve always wanted to share?
I’ve noticed during previews how happy and supportive the audience is during our title number! People are going crazy for it; I’ve actually seen some women in the front row weeping. Everyone wants to be seen and that’s a big message the show shares. The beauty standards for women are not new or old – they’ve always been around – so it’s beautiful to remember that beautiful women come in shapes and sizes.

Did you ever succumb to the pressure of the beauty “standard?”
Not really, but the 1990s were the worst, when I started. Like everyone I put pressure on myself; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, there is never not pressure. In my case, I haven’t always listened to the pressure. I am a regular sized woman. This is just me, take it or leave it. Of course, people always have opinions. So many women have come up to me over the years and say, “you are a lot prettier and smaller in person.” And that’s not a compliment. I am not offended, but sometimes I want to say, “you’re trying to be nice, but you aren’t.”

You’ve appeared twice on Broadway, in In the Heights and Free Man of Color. Would you like this show to be your third outing there?
Absolutely. That part of the reason I am doing it, because I believe it will go to Broadway. I will always be grateful to Lin-Manuel Miranda for letting me make my Broadway debut in In the Heights, but I stepped into the role of Daniela, created by the great Andréa Burns. Now I get to make something new, and who comes after me will follow my blueprint. That is a huge reason behind my decision to do this show right now.

Featured In This Story