Forest City Film Review: Reflecting Our World – Part One with Marlene Forte
Reflecting Our World: PART ONE of an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW With Marlene Forte
You might not recognize her name, but I guarantee you’ve been watching Marlene Forte on television for many years. With recurring roles on such hit TV shows asTyler Perry’s “House of Payne”, “Crossing Jordan” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and guest spots on“George Lopez”, “Lost”, and “The Mentalist”, among many others, and you’d be hard pressed to find a TV show in which she hasn’t at one time appeared.
Marlene Forte talked to me over the phone about her life, the challenges of being an actress with a late start, and finally appearing in the remake of classic American TV show “Dallas” in her biggest role to date: Carmen Ramos, housekeeper of the Ewing estate.
But if you turned back the clock twenty years ago, the times and circumstances of the veteran actress were very different . . .
FCFR: I think your story is especially inspiring to newcomers to the business. You started a little bit later than most people.
MARLENE FORTE: Well, I’ve known I wanted to be an actress since the age of ten. I am an immigrant, I was born in Cuba, so my mom and dad brought me here as a young girl. I was very well . . . overly protected, and wasn’t really allowed to do things after school. My mom and dad were just scared. So it took me . . . a little bit (laughs) to get involved.
My mom and dad are very funny. They put us in piano lessons, and then dance lessons and then tap lessons, just anything to keep us off the street. Two of three of us were into the arts. They were like, “What are you doing?” It’s like, “Well, you weren’t [exactly] teaching us math.” (laughs) I think the arts are so important, and it’s important that they are not taken away, because of budget cuts and such.
Anyway, I did want to [act] at the age of ten, didn’t start until much later. I married my high school sweetheart, had a kid early, went to college, owned a video store. I just did everything that I thought a good Catholic girl should do for her mom and dad, but never really lost sight of what I loved, you know? I studied English literature in college because I thought it’d be the closest thing to theater, so I really sort of picked out my studies based on the stage without actually pissing off my mom and dad, who wanted me to be a lawyer (laughs).
But, they were always very supportive, and I think I was almost 30, and Blockbuster had hit the scene already and here I am in this little mom and pop video store, and I thought, “You know what? If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it.” And I just sold the shop, which was still VHS, and boy did I see the writing on the wall, because a couple of years later, when everything went to DVD’s, it really would’ve been . . . (laughs). But I sold it and I said to my mom and dad, “I’m going to do this.”
There was a little theater company that was just starting out, it was called The Lab at the time, and I auditioned and got in, in New York. A few years later, it became LAByrinth, which was Phillip Seymour Hoffman‘s theater company, and I was just involved with people like Sam Rockwell, and Phil, and Jon Ortiz, and I just, you know, these people were artists all around me, and I just flourished. It was my launching pad. Now, I’m living my dream — when I say that, I sound so pretentious, but it’s true (laughs)!
I have a wonderful daughter — everything happens for a reason, you know, I had a child early and she was, I like to say, my best production to date. And now she’s a graduate of USC, and she’s a producer and a writer. I’m married to a wonderful man who’s a playwright. My life has just completely turned around in the last twenty years, but you know what, when you really follow your dreams, I think things just fall into place. And it was not an easy run, trust me, I’ve waited tables for eight years, and when I told my mom and dad that I was going to sell the store and go wait tables in New York, they cried. They were like, “What’re you doing? No!” By that time, I was already divorced, and I had a child, and you know . . . the support of my family and a lot of chutzpah that I had. I just thought, “I’m going to do this, because I’m not getting any younger.” And I did, and trust me, everybody thought I was crazy.
I still think I’m a little crazy, but it worked out. (laughs)
FCFR: Sometimes, it’s good to be a little crazy, especially in this business.
MF: A little crazy works in life. (laughs)
FCFR: So what was your very first role? What got you started?
MF: My very first role was a show called “Judging Amy”. Well, actually what got me into the Union was an Alka Seltzer Plus commercial in Spanish, that was my first professional role. My Spanish came in handy and still does, I actually do a lot of them. It’s like another market — you know, I do all my legit work in English, in the American market. I feel blessed because other people, you know, would have to, say, fly to China to do a Chinese language commercial, but I can sit here at home and do a commercial in Spanish.
My first TV role though was a little one day guest star on the show “Judging Amy”. I was just one of the people on the stand, just giving a statement, and I just thought I was the luckiest person on the planet! I was there on the Paramount stages, with my little cubby hole — “Oh my God, I made it!” (laughs)
FCFR: That’s awesome. So did you get to meet the whole cast of “Judging Amy”?
MF: Well, I actually worked with the lead, and you know what? I do a lot of guest star work, it’s my bread and butter. Guest stars are a little different, because you walk in, and — I like to say I’m just there for dinner, and whoever’s there at dinner you get to meet. You’re a guest, literally, so you come in, do your job, and then you leave, so you don’t always get a chance to play with the entire cast. But I got to play with the lead on this particular show, so I was very, very happy.
FCFR: That must’ve been kind of mind blowing, to come from, like you said, a commercial, and be opposite recognizable people.
MF: I know! And on the Paramount lot, which is to me one of the prettiest lots in Los Angeles. It still looks the same — the way it did in the old days, you know? The arches, the outside — I’m sure the inside has been, but on the outside, it still feels like the old days. It’s magical.
FCFR: So was your first multiple episode run on “Crossing Jordan”?
MF: Yes, that was my first recurring role. I was a little scared, a little over my head. Again, TV is not something I’ve studied, but I’ve been so lucky. Hard work has a lot to do with it, luck has a little bit to do with it, you make your own luck of course, but I’ve been blessed in my career to work with really talented people. You’re only as good as who you’re working with. These people elevated me, so I’m sort of blessed in that way.
FCFR: When you appeared — because I believe you actually made your start on that show in the pilot episode, is that right?
MF: Yes, that’s right.
FCFR: OK, so when you were sitting down for the pilot, did you know they’d make more episodes, or was it something where they’d view it and then decide . . . ?
MF: Yeah, I wasn’t sure how many episodes, I didn’t know anything like that. And sometimes that happens. And sometimes that happens, where I’m there to film one episode, but then they’ll bring me back for two or three more, which is always a treat. But no, I was not aware that it would end up being six or seven [episodes]. And that kind of really launched it for me, because that was my first — your recurring roles, they kind of give you momentum. You’ve kind of been stamped by the network, you know? You haven’t been stamped and delivered, because you don’t have a contract yet, but you’ve definitely been stamped. You’ve established that approval, and I think that kind of helps for everything else, for your future.
FCFR: I actually previously interviewed Francisco Lorite, and I saw that you’re in — I haven’t had a chance to actually see it yet, I really want to, but I haven’t seen “Cuco Gomez-Gomez is Dead”.
MF: Oh, yes I have, it’s very funny and he’s a very talented director. He gave me an award — I won this Pioneer award a couple months ago from a film festival, and he gave it to me, he was the presenter. You should check out “Cuco Gomez-Gomez”, it’s very funny.
FCFR: I gather he said he was working on a way to re-release it, so that’s cool, because I’d really like to see it. I saw his most recent short, “Mediation”, and that one was very funny as well.
MF: Yeah. He’s a very funny, funny guy.
FCFR: You’ve done so much guest work on some really high profile shows. Stuff like “Bones”, “West Wing”, “Lost” — these are some major television shows.
MF: Yeah, I’ve been blessed. Every time I book a job, still, today, I think, “Oh wow, they like me still!” (laughs) It’s been going on for twenty years now, so I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away.
MF: Yeah, even though it’s just the one scene, that’d be my biggest . . . studio film that I’ve ever been. I was in a Tyler Perry movie that just got released not that long ago called Single Moms Club. So that was . . . but yeah, just for the magnitude of viewership, Star Trek would be the biggest.
FCFR: Yeah, I think they did a pretty good job with Star Trek. I was impressed.
MF: Yeah, they did a great job. J.J. Abrams is pretty genius.
FCFR: Who also did “Lost”, right?
MF: Yes, yes. Which I worked on. That’s how I ended up in Star Trek. He actually just offered me that role, which is pretty cool to say, that I didn’t get to audition for Star Trek, I just got hired.
FCFR: Yeah! And the fact that he remembered you after such a long running TV show, too.
FCFR: So your first major TV role, would you say that’d be “House of Payne”?
MF: Yeah, I guess that’d be my first major one. I would say that, yeah.
FCFR: You appeared in quite a few episodes of that one.
MF: Yeah. They were thinking of doing a spin off, that’s why we were so popular with that one. He [Tyler Perry] was having so much going on at that time, he was just starting off “Meet the Browns”, so that just kind of fell by the wayside, which was too bad because I would’ve liked to have worked with him, but it came around, since I worked with him again [on Single Moms Club].
FCFR: And now the big one everyone’s talking about is “Dallas”.
FCFR: The TV show. And you’ve been on it since the beginning, right?
MF: Yes, I have. I’ve been on from the beginning, and now it’s season three. it’s just a sweet, sweet show. The cast is amazing. I got to work with Larry [Hagman] before he moved on, and it’s just been a dream. It’s TV, I’m number thirteen on the cast list, so I don’t have any pressure at all (laughs). I’ve been able to go along for the ride, which is fabulous. It’s been very sweet to work with these guys. To be part of — you know, like, it’s not Star Trek, right? It’s legendary American TV.
FCFR: And that’s what I was going to ask you next: were you intimidated at all walking into something that had so much . . .
MF: No. I was just excited (laughs). I don’t get intimidated anymore, I do still get a little nervous, I must admit, I still get a little nervous. I just want to do the best work I can. But no, I was not intimidated. I was . . . anxious (laughs).
FCFR: Now, I’m actually not familiar with the original “Dallas” TV show. Was there a Carmen Ramos on that show as well?
MF: No. There was a housekeeper, her name was Teresa. She had very little to do — she just brought coffee. Carmen is way more involved with the family. I mean, you know, when you open the season, my daughter’s with one Ewing, and then she ends up with the other Ewing. And Carmen has way more say in the family than Teresa ever did. I think it’s just a way of, you know — I mean, nowadays, housekeepers really do have a lot to say with the bringing up of children, people work so much. So I think it does reflect the world we’re living in a little better, and housekeepers really are a big part of people’s lives now, much more than I think they used to be.
FCFR: And it’s way more inclusive as well, too, you know? We’re not going to cut out characters.
MF: No. You’re not left in the kitchen, in the back room anymore.
FCFR: Right. Mysteriously appearing and disappearing at the plot’s indiscretion (laughs).
MF: Yeah, exactly (laughs). “Someone’s at the door . . . ”