The actress behind some of television’s toughest characters reveals a passion and softness that just may surprise you.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOSEFHALEY AND JOHN HONG
STYLING BY JORDAN GROSSMAN
MAKEUP BY JEFFREY PAUL FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING TARTE COSMETICS
HAIR BY STEPHEN LEWIS FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING KEVIN MURPHY HAIR CARE
STORY BY KATRINA FROLOV
No nonsense. If that’s not already a trait Elizabeth Rodriguez is known for, then the characters she’s been playing as of late certainly are. Serving on the frontlines of female-driven content with Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and fresh off her walker-fighting days in “Fear the Walking Dead,” Rodriguez is the first to admit that neither Aleida Diaz nor Liza Ortiz, respectively, are to be messed with. As for her, “it must be a part of my upbringing,” she says. “There is something to being born and raised in New York City and becoming streetwise at a young age. It’s still in my molecular structure.” And we believe it — she’s direct in her tone and speaks with the same NYC flair we’ve grown to love in her roles.
Yet behind the seemingly unforgiving facade fans have come to know and love is an incredibly passionate and insightful woman. Rodriguez is protective over imperfect characters like Aleida, who she feels can be misunderstood. As “OITNB” delves into each character through flashbacks, we often see Aleida as a mother who is — to put it nicely — brash and neglectful. After all, she had allowed her boyfriend to run a drug operation out of her kitchen, where she and other women cut and bagged the merchandise, within steps away from her children. She also goes as far as accusing her daughter, Daya, now a fellow inmate, of having sexual relations with the aforementioned drug dealer, for which Aleida later seeks revenge by attempting to seduce Daya’s love interest. It’s a tangled web of dysfunction, but Rodriguez hasn’t given up on the character. “With time you see people getting further and further away from who they are because of their circumstances,” she says. “She’s doing the best she can. It’s so easy to judge, but no one knows how they got there.”
At the same time, she’s equally as devoted to Liza, confessing that she’s come to fall deeply in love with the character. Set in the beginnings of an apocalypse in Los Angeles, “Fear the Walking Dead” — the prequel spin-off to the hit series “The Walking Dead” — first introduces us to Liza in the pilot episode. She is a devoted mother navigating the collapse of humanity along with her son and ex-husband. But — spoiler alert! — in an unexpected and tragic twist, Liza’s life is cut short in the first season after she is infected and surrenders herself to be mercifully executed. “I had to figure out how to play her, say those words, and actually stick through it,” Rodriguez says of the character’s final episode, adding that she projectile cried watching the final product. (And let’s be real — so did everyone watching.) Liza is a character Rodriguez seems to mourn to this day, despite knowing from the start that it would be a six-episode arc. She jokes that her own demise will never be as glorious: “It was a helicopter shot that only made it into the episode for a few seconds. I was like, ‘I’m never gonna have a death this epic in my real life.’”
What remains just as dear to her are the families she has found within each of the shows. Long before Rodriguez landed the part of Liza, she had wanted to work with showrunner Dave Erickson and director Adam Davidson. She was written into the pilot at the last minute, and it wasn’t long until the cast became inseparable. “On the first day of principal photography, I already knew I was going to miss them,” she says. “Sure enough, I do. I still speak to them all the time.” And of the camaraderie on “OITNB,” Rodriguez says it is legendary. “What makes it rare is the combination of being shot in a vacuum, having the trajectory that it had, and looking around and seeing so many women, whether it was the writers, producers, or showrunners. We had more female directors than any other show. We had more women in the crew that were in positions that weren’t just hair, makeup, and wardrobe. That is a rarity that fills you in a different way.”
Rodriguez recognizes that “OITNB” is a pioneer, pivoting the industry and paving the way for a certain type of content. Like others on the show, she understands the importance of a diverse group of women doing fantastic work. “The powers that be can no longer make decisions and say, ‘Oh, this is what the world is interested in seeing: these people, this age, looking like this.’ They can’t say it anymore. The cat is out of the bag,” she says. “People are interested in great stories, human stories, no matter what age, race, or religion they are. That, I think, is a phenomenal thing to be a part of.”
However, film and television aren’t the only game in town for dynamic and powerful female characters. Like many others, Rodriguez occasionally steps away from the camera and goes back to her theater roots. Being able to interact with her audience and see firsthand how her performance had moved them moments ago is the type of visceral experience she holds above all else. “It’s the closest thing I know to anything magical and moving and higher than myself and its parts,” she says. Her portrayal of Veronica in the 2011 production of “The Motherfucker with the Hat” on Broadway is one she cherishes to this day. Centered around the homecoming of her drug-dealing boyfriend, Veronica, who is an addict herself, has to deal with accusations of infidelity upon his return. “She was so raw and so honest, and every day she went through so much. Her heart was broken through every performance,” she recalls, adding, “At the end of the day, different people will be touched by different things, but if the experience really moves you, then it’s like being in church.”
It’s with this type of fervor that Rodriguez delves into each of her projects. She hopes to “chew into some film” in the near future (and shouts to the universe to make it happen). Until then, fans can relish in the return of the no-nonsense, hard-talking Aleida in the highly anticipated fourth season of “OITNB,” now out on Netflix. Because now that we have a glimpse into the woman behind Aleida’s tough exterior, perhaps we can better understand the incredibly warm heart nestled within it. Elizabeth Rodriguez certainly hopes we do.
The fourth season of “Orange Is the New Black” is available on Netflix.