Gloria Calderón Kellett
Gloria Calderón Kellett
With Love's Mark Indelicato and Emeraude Toubia
Gloria Calderón Kellett grew up wanting to see herself and her family represented on television.
She couldn't find them then, so she's manifesting them now. With the December 17 premiere on Prime Video of With Love, the first show to emerge from a deal between her GloNation production company and Amazon Studios, Kellett is sharing facets of her loving, spirited, Latinx family with the world.
While she's at it, she also shares a wealth of guidance with disenfranchised writers who could use the assist — because when she started out, she had no such support. "I could've saved myself at least two years," she says, speaking via Zoom from her kitchen.
It wasn't until a few years into her career (which includes How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement and Devious Maids) that she met director Pamela Fryman. "She was like, 'I believe in you, I think you're special, and I'm here for you if you need anything.' And that made such a difference," Kellett says. "So if I can do that for somebody else, then that makes the culture shift in my lifetime, which I would like to see.
She also credits the generous showrunners who let writers produce their own episodes, from casting to the set to the editing bay. She knew she'd want to do the same for her writers when she was in charge. And remarkably, as soon as she felt prepared to run her own show, the opportunity came. "We really need to say out loud what we want to do," she notes, laughing. "The moment I said, 'I am really ready to do this,' I got the call."
On the other end of the line? Norman Lear. Lear, his Act III Productions president Brent Miller and writer-producer Mike Royce (Everybody Loves Raymond) were planning a reboot of One Day at a Time, Lear's pioneering show about a single mother and her two children — with a twist.
"We were sitting around a table, realizing we're about to embark on telling this story about a Latinx family that is female-focused, and we were three white men," Miller says. "We're smart enough to know that we wanted to find a head writer who was Latinx." As soon as they met with Kellett, he adds, "It was love at first sight for all of us." They asked her to come on board as Royce's cocreator and coshowrunner.
"She's a major talent with a delicious personality, and is wonderful to spend time with," Lear says. "And spending time is what preparing for a show is all about."
Kellett told the group about her Cuban-American family and her desire to see the specificity of their experience portrayed onscreen. When Lear asked who she saw as the lead character's mother, she instantly replied with the only person who could play her own mother: Rita Moreno. Lear picked up the phone, and it was a done deal. "Norman is Willy Wonka," Kellett says of that surreal moment.
Kellett was just as successful at bringing on the actress who would essentially play her. Star Justina Machado met Kellett for the first time at her audition. "I remember that when it was over, there was something that needed to be worked out for me to move forward," Machado says. "Gloria DM'd me and said, 'You're the one that we want. How can we make this happen?' That's really unheard of, for a showrunner to reach out to you that way. She was fearless from the beginning."
Through the lens of a working-class Cuban-American family in the L.A. neighborhood of Echo Park, One Day at a Time explored themes of acceptance and its challenges, including those facing gay and nonbinary characters. It also tackled issues involving women and sexuality, girls and empowerment, and boys and responsibility.
By virtue of its 2017 premiere date, the show ended up incorporating yet another underlying issue. "As a creator, you're making snapshots of a moment," Kellett says. "And I feel like One Day at a Time was such a snapshot of what it was like living through the Trump administration as a Brown family. We premiered right as he was being inaugurated and ended right as the baton passed."
A sexy romantic comedy set in Portland, Oregon (Kellett's hometown), With Love centers on twenty-something siblings Lily (Emeraude Toubia) and Jorge Jr. (Mark Indelicato) and their loved ones. The themes it explores are similar to those addressed on One Day at a Time, but the new show is more hopeful.
"These past two years we've all been in collective trauma, especially Black and Brown people," Kellett says, "seeing our bodies in trauma on TV constantly, constantly, constantly. This show feels very much like a snapshot of post-pandemic America and how we are tired and we are traumatized, and we just want to forget all the horribleness that we just lived through. We need very much to heal as a country. People want to see joy and love and beauty and aspiration. Also, I wanted to put forth some generational wealth. We don't see a lot of thriving Latinos, of which there are many, and that really is important to show."
While One Day at a Time had an emotional coming-out story for lesbian daughter Elena, With Love features "two queer people who came out a decade ago — nobody gives a shit anymore," Kellett explains. The other characters are so comfortable with Jorge Jr.'s sexual orientation, in fact, that abuela (grandmother) Marta (Renée Victor) feels free to question Jorge's new boyfriend, Henry (Vincent Rodriguez III), about his bisexuality upon meeting him at a huge family party, and everyone gathers around to hear his answers.
That sweet, funny moment came from a similar one in the writers' room. "What's so beautiful about writers' rooms is that they're places of great enlightenment," Kellett says. "A lot of what made One Day at a Time really special was not Mike and me, but our lesbian writers who contributed so much to the Elena storyline. There is a joy in collaborating with writers from different disenfranchised voices," she notes, and in feeling safe discussing anything.
Kellett, a straight cisgender woman, didn't understand why some of her married friends had started identifying as bisexual. Weren't they already in committed relationships? "And they were like, 'Visibility, Gloria, visibility.' Because they're presenting as a straight couple. But as a bi person they need the world to know that's okay, too.
"I didn't know about bi visibility," she says. "So, can we have this conversation in this romcom? Yeah, let's have it with the grandma. Henry is forgiving because she's actually trying, so he's like, 'Okay, I'm going to do it in front of this whole family that I'm just meeting, and I just want them to like me.'" The Q and A ensues, everyone learns something, and then they go back to partying.
The writers also let her know that her hiring of queer actors to play queer characters was still a rarity on TV. "You want to get to a place where people can play everything," Kellett notes. "But when you're in such a disenfranchised place, you want to get it right first. You want to do the work of actual inclusion."
Two Afro-Latino characters, son Santiago and father Laz, are played by Rome Flynn and Andre Royo, who are Afro-Latino themselves.
"They have played many Black characters," Kellett notes, "but they've never played Afro-Latino. So they were both just bursting, being able to play the fullness of who they are. And With Love has two AAPI main characters — because they are the best actors for the roles. It was funny to hear Desmond Chiam [Nick] and Vinnie saying, 'It's so weird that the two of us are on a show together that's technically about the Latino experience,' but my world looks like that."
One Day at a Time was a matriarchal show. This time around, Kellett made a point to celebrate the men in her family as well, particularly her father, whom she describes as "old school, not emotional. Even my husband says, 'When your dad walks in, it's like, Oh, a man's here.'"
Jorge Sr. (Benito Martinez) is just that man. So an encounter between father and son, in which Junior is worried about whether he's disappointed Senior, is especially moving. "To be able to have a man's man like Benito tell his gay son, 'Oh my God, no, I just want you to be happy,' and wonder, 'Shit, did I fail this kid?' is going to have an impact on the Latino men seeing that."
The spark for With Love came from a family experience of her own. It was December 2020. "My family is real Latino," she says. "My parents live across the street — it's an episode of Latino Everybody Loves Raymond up in here. So my mom has Hallmark holiday love movies on 24/7. There are white people falling in love all over the place, and I'm watching, going, 'Not even an extra is Latino?' We are nowhere. I want us to fall in love over the holidays, too!"
And not just on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), she thought. Then it hit her: "Why don't we follow these siblings over the course of a year, through the lens of various holidays?"
She pitched the idea to Amazon, and execs asked how quickly she could go into production. "Um, tomorrow?" she remembers responding. "They never put something into production so fast, bless their hearts." Kellett didn't even have a script; she assembled the writers' room, "and I was writing the pilot as we were breaking the rest of it and pounding out the scripts."
From those writing sessions, the character of Lily — Jorge Jr.'s sister — emerged with a mix of characteristics that excite Emeraude Toubia. "She's spunky, she's driven, she's focused, she's artistic, she's flawed and she's heroic, which makes her human, right?" the actress says. "Gloria gave me a cocktail of emotions. It was really nice to see fresh perspectives on this Latina lead character. That's what my girlfriends and I want to see — how we're just like everyone else."
But Kellett's not just creating and running the show; she's also acting in it. She did the same on One Day at a Time, playing the new love of Justina Machado's ex-husband. That idea came from the writers' room, because Kellett and Machado have such similar spirits, looks and laughs — "and we're both short," they both note — that they often get mistaken for each other.
On With Love, Kellett takes the juicy supporting role of Tia (Aunt) Gladys. "You've got all those tias that are married, that are older," she explains. "And then you've got the tia that's holding onto her twenties for dear life and should give it up already, but hasn't, and gets too drunk at all the events and flirts with your friends. That tia is very real. And I was like, 'Oh my God, I want to do that.'"
And Kellett's work on both sides of the camera is a plus, Machado says. "She loves actors, and being on the other side, she got a deeper appreciation of what we were doing, and that makes her even more of a badass artist. She doesn't operate from one point of view; she's all encompassing. And that's what makes it so special to work with her. She's confident in who she is and in how good she is, but she has no ego about it. It's about nurturing talent. That's what she does — she nurtures people."
Kellett is also an ambassador for ReFrame, an organization dedicated to gender equity in Hollywood, and her crew reflects that. "I remember when Pepe Serna, who plays my father on the show, had a scene, and Meera Menon, the director, and Sandra Valde-Hansen, the DP, and Marissa Leguizamon, our production designer, and I were all there talking. And he goes, 'I just have to pause for a second because I'm seventy ahem years old and I've never seen all women looking back at me, and it's a joy.' And he gave us a standing ovation. And we were like, 'Oh, yeah, I guess that's a big deal.' It was so sweet."
She mentors everyone she can, any way she can. "When I was starting to get known, I was able to have coffee with writers and to teach at Loyola," Kellett recalls. "I toured, speaking at different colleges and universities. I loved it." As her career grew, she had no time for teaching and talks, so she decided to make all the information accessible.
In a tweet to her thousands of followers, she said she wanted to make a free video series to address everyone's questions about the business but needed a producer and a place to post it. Buzzfeed volunteered to produce it, and YouTube provided the space. They shot eleven episodes of Hollywood 101in two days and put it up on YouTube's Pero Like channel.
"And you know," she says, "it's the least-viewed thing they have. It only has 10,000 or 14,000 views [per episode]. A lot of their stuff has millions of views, so they could take it down. I think they keep it up because they know that it's impactful for people in the community. So Pero Like, thank you, because so many people reach out to me about how helpful it is."
As if that weren't enough, whenever she has a few spare minutes, Kellett jumps on Twitter to see if anyone has any questions, victories or challenges to share. "It keeps me engaged with [disenfranchised people interested in a TV career], and lets them know there are people that really do care on this side, and want to give them a warm entrance into this business."
Machado can't contain her own warm feelings, watching her friend at work. "It is so beautiful to see somebody who walks the walk," she says, "who's a powerhouse, who's appreciated and who's just at the beginning of her empire." Kellett smiles when she hears that. Right now GloNation is comprised of Kellett and her assistant, Abby Guerra. But with several productions in the Amazon pipeline, in addition to a feature at HBO Max, Kellett says, "We're building the empire, you know? We're living in the house as we're building it."
With room for everyone.
This story first appeared in Issue #12, 2021, of emmy magazine under the title "Setting Sparks."
For more stories celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, click HERE.