There’s a new dish on the Empanada Loca menu, and it’s to die for. “People can’t stop eating it,” laughs Justina Machado of the secret ingredient at the heart of her new Prime Video Sweeney Todd-inspired dark comedy The Horror of Dolores Roach. “If only they knew.” Oh, but they will…
In this urban legend, Machado portrays Dolores, who is released from prison after serving 16 years for weed trafficking. But when she returns to her old Washington Heights neighborhood, she finds her ex gone, along with everyone else she once knew. The bodegas have been replaced by bespoke shops and the sidewalks are filled with people who look like they’ve stepped out of a Lululemon ad. Unemployed, friendless and homeless, she meets one of the few remaining OGs, Luis (Alejandro Hernandez). He has taken over his late father’s restaurant, Empanada Loca, and lets them stay in the basement for free. Out of desperation, she hires a masseuse Shop under the store and starts to get back on its feet. But when their righteous anger and desperation manifest themselves in murderous behavior on the massage table, Luis finds a way to dispose of the bodies that benefits both of them.
Blumhouse’s The Horror of Dolores Roach is based on a Gimlet podcast of the same name and also stars Kita Updike and K. Todd Freeman. Guest appearances are Marc Maron and Cyndi Lauper. For Machado, it’s the latest addition to her other notable television roles, which include Penelope Alvarez on the Netflix and pop-TV sitcom One Day at a Time, Darci Factor on the CW dramedy Jane the Virgin, and Vanessa Diaz in the HBO drama series include “Six Feet Under.” Machado, 50, spoke to The Times about her experience as a woman on the fringes and how there lurks a little part of Dolores in all of us.
In the pilot, Dolores serves as the de facto narrator. She tells the audience, “I’d feel the same as you if everything went wrong.” Is there a little serial killer in all of us?
Justina Machado: It’s funny. I never wanted to kill anyone, and I really mean it. I’ve never been like this I really want to kill this person! I think of consequences. I’m one of those people. But after incarceration do you feel as desperate as they do, come out and have no money, no friends, no family, don’t know where to go, struggle with gentrification, struggle with trying to survive? Yes, she’s like you, but if everything went wrong. And I’ve known people like her. Not serial killers, but they grew up in my neighborhood and everything went wrong, and now they’re in a very different situation. So it’s an extreme, but you can see it.
Cannibalism here is a metaphor for whitewashing a neighborhood. Gentrification cannibalizes what came before. So why not turn the offending cannibals into tasty fried snacks? It’s a darkly funny way that satirizes urban reality.
Machado: Absolutely. But we don’t want to dump anyone with any message. There’s a bigger story at stake, but these are things that people can relate to, gentrification and survival. And you’re right, it’s a form of cannibalism. Creator [and co-showrunner] Aaron Mark always says that the first Penny Dreadful novels were about cannibalism, a society eating itself. And then the musical “Sweeney Todd” was about betrayal. “Dolores” is about survival.
Were you a fan of Gimlet’s Dolores Roach Podcast before you found out about the series?
Machado: [“One Day at a Time” co-creator] Gloria Calderón Kellett and I were thinking about doing a podcast together, so she suggested listening to a few podcasts. “The Horror of Dolores Roach” was one of them. So I started listening to it. And I immediately said, “Wow, that’s a role I’d love to play.” And then I got the script and I started saying the words out loud. I laid in my bed. And I started reading it and acting it out. And the rawness of her, the freedom to play someone like that – someone with no limits, no limits, no box. It’s just someone coming out of prison. And it was important to me that it wasn’t a Latino story. As much as I love telling these stories, it’s just a brilliant story with Latin American leads, so that was a big draw. There were no flat stereotypes; It was just this outrageous, eccentric, phenomenal script. And I really wanted to be a part of it.
But the setting of the empanada shop and Dolores and Luis, who are among the last remaining Latinos in the neighborhood, bring a new perspective to the horror genre.
Machado: It’s so refreshing and exciting as an artist, as an actor, as someone who has been doing this for quite a while, to go into a project like this where my ethnicity is unrelated but enriching at the same time. It is very rare that you not Get locked up when there’s Latino this and Latino that [in scripts]. And it can alienate a lot of people who say, “Well, I don’t know if I understand that.” I have no idea why people think that, because growing up in this country, I’ve had relationships with everyone and on TV everyone was white. I didn’t see a black family until The Cosby Show. So it’s interesting when it’s the other way around, they’re like, “What?! How should I handle it?!”
Did you consider this series a horror story?
Machado: I never found it horrible. I thought it was funny. Really funny. That’s why it was very important to all of us during the shooting that the humor comes out. … And I’m the kind of person who gets scared of horror movies. I contracted PTSD from the damn “exorcist.” I say, “Not anymore!” I know that “Dolores” belongs to the horror genre, but I think it belongs to the fun horror genre.
From “Get Out” to “Swarm,” The horror genre has become increasingly diverse in terms of storytelling, perspective, and talent. “Dolores” seems to be the next step.
Machado: Of course, and it shows you that people want to see themselves up there, or that people want to see stories told from different angles. So it’s fresh, because normally, not only would this probably be a white cast, but my character would probably be a white male. Forget ethnicity, nationality, race, color. A woman in this part is a big deal. I’m not Mrs Lovett. Alejandro is Mrs. Lovett.
There aren’t many female serial killers, let alone serials about them. “Monster” is everything that comes to mind spontaneously.
Machado: And [Charlize Theron] won an Oscar for it. So let’s hope “Dolores Roach” wins big.
This television adaptation of The Horror of Dolores Roach still stays true to its theatrical roots. It’s partly set in a playhouse, and even when it comes out of the theater, it feels very up close and real-time, like a live stage production.
Machado: Aaron, he lives, breathes, loves theater. He went from Texas to New York to write musicals and plays, beginning as a one-woman play with Daphne Rubin-Vega [an executive producer on the TV series]. They developed it and found this character together. Then it became a podcast and now a series, but it still reads and breathes like a play. Because the essence of Aaron is that he’s a playwright.
Dolores is deadly, but you make the viewer empathize with her. How did you find sympathy for this character who basically kills his customers?
Machado: I didn’t really think about the killing part. It also helped me a lot [that] She often dissociates when she kills. So that was a good tool that they put into the script where she distances herself and kind of goes somewhere else. It gave me permission to somehow take it to another realm. I’m not exactly sure how it works. All I know is that I naturally knew how to do it. I don’t know what that says about me. [Laughs.]
But I love how personable she is and how adorable her relationship with Luis is, no matter how twisted it is. They are bound by their shared history in the old neighborhood, and though everything has changed, they still stand together.
Machado: The relationship she has with Luis is interesting. And I’ve seen those kinds of relationships, you know, the back-and-forth banter, encountering each other’s toxicity, being mean to each other but also the inability to be without each other. So there were certain things I could relate to because I grew up with them. … And I know people who have been locked up and come out after many years, can’t find a job and don’t know what to do. Many of them end up back in prison. The system doesn’t redeem itself, so it’s a difficult thing.
One Day at a Time was a groundbreaking show in many ways, recreating the original but with a Latin twist. And you also got to work with the amazing Rita Moreno, who played the matriarch.
Machado: That was a magical, magical show. This is so sad that when it disappeared it went away because it was truly magical. I think we could have done more seasons. It was one of those shows where everyone made love. Do you know how rare that is? Everyone had everyone’s back. We did really important work and told a story about a Latino family and at the same time we entertained people. It was really fun, really heartfelt. And it was a great time in my life.
The Horror of Dolores Roach goes so fast. There’s something wonderfully spontaneous about the brisk pace and fast-paced dialogue between Dolores and Luis.
Machado: I think Alejandro contributed a lot to what we say as Latinos. You know, little Spanish things here and there. And I think that spontaneity that you feel has to do with the tempo. We shot in this small window of time. I mean, we literally shot those eight episodes in two and a half or three months. It was a very tight schedule. And the story of Dolores, from her release from prison to the end of the eighth episode, lasts about three weeks.
The alienation Dolores experiences upon her release from prison is so palpable. Your neighborhood is full of delis and yoga studios.
Machado: When I first read the pilot, it was all there—her coming out, the yoga class, the dog daycare. She says, “What the?!” The dog in the stroller I’ve seen many times in LA. All these things come to her mind at the same time.
The close-ups of unsuspecting customers eating those mysterious empanadas were even cinematically beautiful. I’m still haunted.
Machado: I love that It just does so much, doesn’t it? Watch people bite into the empanadas, the chewy meat, and you’re like, “Oh god!” You don’t need any other blood. I mean, we have a little bit of blood, but it’s more about what we’re teasing. They know they’re eating human flesh and the close-up mouth shots are the greatest because they’re so disgusting.