On Orange Is the New Black, she plays manipulative mama Aleida Diaz, who tried to sell the unborn baby of her daughter (and fellow prison inmate) Daya. On Fear the Walking Dead, she plays devoted mom Liza Ortiz, who made the split-second decision to leave her son behind to go off and use her medical skills to help friends and neighbors in the zombie apocalypse.
Tony-nominated actress Elizabeth Rodriguez talked to Yahoo TV about the joy of playing two such completely different characters, the “abyss” Liza went into in last week’s FTWD, and the “something kind of big” that happens to Aleida in the upcoming fourth season of OITNB.
It’s been fun to see you playing this character who’s completely different from Aleida on Orange Is the New Black.
I’m very excited to play this character. I think Liza’s much smarter than me … she accomplishes a lot more than I do on any given day. I’m really excited and watching it in real time, as viewers have watched it. We shot things out of sequence and two at a time. I never had a sense of beginning or an end, or knowing how much or how little I was in a episode. So watching this past episode, I was actually shocked. I was like, “Oh, wow.” My scenes are the only thing to take me out of the show. Other than that, I’m sort of completely fascinated, intrigued, and freaking out about what’s happening.
How did the role come about, and what attracted you to Liza?
The showrunner, Dave Erickson, offered me the role after the pilot was shot. There was a bit missing in the pilot … they figured they would take care of it later. Which was such a gift to me. I had auditioned for the pilot for the part of Madison, not thinking I was gonna get it at all. But I went in to this audition, specifically because I was a huge fan of [Erickson] and of the director, Adam Davidson. I was thinking, “Well, something might come in the future with this show, or something else, because they were going to continue to work.” I wanted to go into the room and audition for them, show them what I can bring to a role. Then somehow, months later, it worked out in my favor.
Last week’s episode was Liza’s biggest one yet. Liza was treating the neighborhood people as best she could. Then Dr. Exner came in and started asking her all these questions. Did Liza think she was in trouble at first?
Absolutely. Yes, she thought she was in trouble. Any one of us, I think, we find solace in chaos in being able to do what we can to feel like we have a little bit of power. Being able to help others, a neighbor, anything like that. I know that for me, whenever I’m in a situation where there’s death or sickness, my personality is to come in and do whatever I can to ease anything I can, in terms of offering to take care of things. Cooking, organizing, things like that. In this situation, Liza is a nursing student, and she finds a sense of self, a sense of being able to do something with whatever she has learned. Then this person shows up that represents the government and kind of pins me [on not being a certified nurse yet]. I have no idea how that’s gonna play out, but I absolutely think I’m in trouble at that point.
Liza has proven herself to be more than capable at that point, though. She has great instincts, and enough knowledge to even be able to improvise treatments with very few supplies, like Hector’s morphine drip.
It’s amazing what incredible instincts she has and how resourceful she actually is. Moreso than she believes. But it’s one thing to do what you can on your own … then to be in front of professionals, to see what actually is going on, be privy to the reality of this apocalypse, how big it actually is, and how much it’s already affected people … insecurities come up then. But Liza is definitely thrown into the mouth of the dragon, for sure.
Going back to Liza’s conversation with Travis in “The Dog,” he tells her that he always believed in her, but she seems much less confident in her abilities. Is there something in their history that led to that?
I think from the backstory that we talked about, Liza wanted to be a doctor when they were younger, and then she got pregnant. She put family first and put being a doctor on the back burner. When she talks about six years — if she had six more years, she would have been a doctor — it’s because of that. That’s why she didn’t become a doctor like she had planned. I think it’s a statement, maybe, a bit, of regrets, and also knowing that she’s never gonna be that. So I don’t think it was so much a feeling of her being insecure, though there are situations coming up that absolutely make her insecure, being put in certain situations … she’s having to learn to rely on her instincts. To learn things she doesn’t have the luxury of second-guessing.
Liza is also a doer. She’s not someone who is going to sit around and fret about things. She’s going to find a way to do something.
I absolutely think that. Particularly because we’re all in this one house, and it’s not my house … what am I gonna do in that house, Madison’s house? I think Liza gets great solace in doing. Absolutely, she’s a doer. I love her for that.
Another of Liza’s great scenes is in “The Dog,” when Madison asks her to kill her if she ever turns, because it would destroy Travis if he had to do it. Do you think Liza could do that?
I don’t know. What I take from that scene is these two woman find mutual respect. In the scene, what happened to Susan, and knowing and recognizing that Madison doesn’t want to become that. Liza obviously doesn’t want to become that either. They both know Travis well enough to know it would kill him [to have to kill infected versions of them], because he is this very optimistic, somewhat naive, very sensitive man. But I don’t know if she could do it. I don’t know if she even believes that she can at that moment. I think she agrees to it from a place of mutual respect: “Yeah, I won’t let you become that.”
Back to last week’s episode: Liza gets on that truck to the medical facility, with time to do nothing more than mouth to Chris that she loves him and that she’ll be back. How is she able to leave her son behind?
So much happens … when I read that, I had a lot of anxiety and concerns about that scene. Because up to then, you just saw her as a very protective mother. You also saw neighbors that wouldn’t let their kids out of their sight. I think it has to come from what Exner said. I think it comes from, “Where can I help?” And also the guilt of Liza not thinking Nick was going to be taken away. She thought he was gonna get actual help. So I think it was a second of just instinct, her getting on the truck.
I think she also knew that Chris would be protected. His father is there with him. Madison’s there, in an environment that Liza believes is controlled. She knows the factors of that environment. The best thing she thinks she could do at that moment is go and try to take care of Griselda and Nick. She’s the only one who can do both. Exner said, “We need you, you can help … come with us,” and things happened so fast. She also has very little information. She thinks everything is gonna be fine. They’re all going to be fine. “I’ll talk to someone, I can get them back. It’s gonna be fine. I’m the only thing connecting like this,” she thinks. Then it’s just going into the abyss.
OK, just a couple of things about OITNB. What can you say about Season 4? Because there were a lot of cliffhangers about your family.
What I can say is that something kind of big happens where … I think you get to see a lot more of Aleida being unsure of herself. There’s gonna be some changes for her. Good, bad or indifferent, it was written, so that’s happening. I’m excited about what’s coming so far. We are just starting [on Episode 8], and yes, there were definitely cliffhangers. Some are addressed; some aren’t. Some will be, I guess, by the end of the season. It’s so funny, because I don’t know who to ask. When the writers come on set? I feel like it’s already written, so I never have a sense of who to ask. Or is that putting them in a situation, to tell me or not tell me what’s gonna happen? I always want to know, and then I’m always, “Yeah, don’t be that actor.”
She’s one of the characters we still know relatively little about, but who has become more complex and more sympathetic via little bits of backstory.
Yeah, I think that’s true for some people. Aleida is very…. divisive as a character. I think people that are more mature can see that in her. There’s a lot of them that … we only reflect to any human being, in any character in any situation, through our personal experience … I think there were a lot of people, younger people, who thought, “I hate you, you’re such a bad mother.” I had to get to a point of not judging her while playing her early on. My job as an actor is to bring her to life unapologetically, and I think I accomplished that. Regardless of whether or not she was going to be likable.
Luckily enough, in the seasons they’ve kept her on, the writers definitely brought more layers of who she is. We’re all just so complicated as human beings. I was so, so happy with that episode [“Don’t Make Me Come Back There”] in [Season 3] that actually showed more of that with her. She was still, cut back to the present, an a–hole, and I’d be, “Oh no, she’s not doing that!” Or even when she manipulated her kid, but you see that she wanted more, but she’s just not equipped. It becomes about fears, and not really being able to let go. Aleida is definitely a product of her environment.
The backstories: We viewers live for those on Orange. Will there be more backstory for Aleida and Daya in Season 4?
I have not [filmed] any backstory yet. But who knows? Maybe. I’m gonna ask. But I agree, that’s what’s been amazing about this show. You know, we all have to judge; we do that instinctively. One of the most incredible things those backstories really show you is the multi-layers and complexities of each of these women. We all have them, those parts of us that are the greatest parts of us and the worst parts of us. Sometimes we’re put in circumstances, and bad choices are made. Things happen and people end up in prison, but to find the humanity in these characters, I think, is the most incredible thing that has happened from that show, other than being surrounded by a ton of amazing women.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC; Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black will air in 2016 on Netflix.