Actress Marlene Forte Smashing Hollywood Stereotypes About Women, Aging & Success

Actress Marlene Forte

We truly love celebrating Women’s History Month during March, but it should be noted that we are a platform dedicated to celebrating and amplifying the stories of womxn and girls all day, every day! And when we hear about women who are not taking “no” for an answer and refusing to bow to narrow societal conventions, we sit up and take notice.

Actress Marlene Forte has been doing just that, simply with her successful career in Hollywood, defying the unspoken conventions that often relegate women over a certain age, especially non-white women, to secondary or inconsequential roles.

The Cuban-born actress is one of those familiar faces to which you’d have trouble putting the name. Yet you’ve seen her everywhere simply because she is! From the Golden Globe Best Picture nominated film “Knives Out”, JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot; “Real Women Have Curves”; “Our Song” opposite Kerry Washington, Marlon Wayans’ “A Haunted House”, and Tyler Perry’s “A Single Mom’s Club” on the big screen, to Netflix’s “Altered Carbon”, TNT “Dallas”, “The Mentalist”, “Law & Order”, “24”, “Community”, “The Secret Life of The American Teenager”, “The Fosters” and AMC’s “Fear The Walking Dead” (among many others), Marlene has the kind of consistent, successful career most actors go into the biz dreaming of.

Marlene Forte on AMC’s ‘Fear The Walking Dead’

And with each character and role she takes on, Marlene is redefining a formula of proving Hollywood wrong by continually breaking through the industry’s stereotypes when it comes to older women, and carving a niche for the Latino community by tearing down the barriers that often surround “ethnic minorities”.

Marlene decided to become an actress at age 30. That’s a late start for most occupations; in Hollywood it’s nearly unheard of. But for Cuban-born girl named for one of Tinseltown’s brightest stars (Marlene Dietrich) perhaps the journey was predestined.

It started in Havana, Cuba. When she was 9 months old, just as Fidel Castro’s regime began to take hold in the late 1950s, her family moved to New York City. She has experienced motherhood, owned a business (video store) and lived a full life before moving to Los Angeles and becoming a prolific actress.

Today Marlene most definitely provides a shinning example of how women can “make it” in Hollywood on their own terms.

In between takes of the numerous roles she is currently juggling, she spoke with us about starting a new career at age 30, defying stereotypes and expectations, and what advice she would give to other women wanting to carve their own path forward.

Marlene Forte on AMC’s ‘Fear The Walking Dead’

Can you tell us about your upbringing in Cuba, and what makes you move to the United States?

I was born in Cuba, but I was not raised in Cuba. I came to this country just under one years old, and landed in New York City. Once I started school, we moved across the Hudson River to a town in New Jersey called Union City. This was a Cuban enclave. I went to grammar school, high school and college in Jersey. I’m really more of a Jersey kid. But I was always surrounded by my culture. There were lots of Cubans in this area. Second largest Cuban population next to Miami at the time.  My parents left Cuba because of communism. My father loved the United States. So we headed north. 

At what age did you decide to pursue a career in acting?

I got on stage in grammar school for the first time at 10 years old. I remember the moment I looked out towards the foot lights and could barely make the audience staring back at me. I knew at that moment I wanted to be on stage. What I didn’t know is that I could make a living at it. My parents put me in music classes and dancing classes. But this was basically to keep me off the streets. It was not for me to make a career choice! I think my parents would’ve wanted me to be a lawyer, not play one on TV. I didn’t start acting until much later. I didn’t think of acting as a career. 

You are currently juggling roles on three major TV shows: “The Lincoln Lawyer” (Netflix) “The Rookie”, (ABC), and “Power Book 4: Force” (Starz). For most actors, having this kind of regularity is a dream. What was the process of landing these shows?

At this point in my career, I’ve been acting for 30 years. I have a great team of agents and a wonderful manager who I’ve been with for over 15 years. They get  me the auditions,  I go out and book them. Acting in the three shows is the easy and fun part; making the schedule work out is the hard part. I am very happy with the team I have. Ironically enough, I really started to work more after I turned 50. The last 10 years of my career have been amazing and I feel very blessed.

Actress Marlene Forte on TNT’s ‘Dallas’

Hollywood is experiencing a major shift, with a push of more diversity, more women in leadership, and breaking away from the stereotypes and topics wherever possible. As an actress on the inside, what does it mean to see this change happening?

I think that Hollywood’s plan to become more diverse and inclusive has not hurt me at all. There are more parts now than there were 30 years ago. There is more representation. When I first started, there was no Jennifer Lopez or Gina Rodriguez. Now, young Latina actresses don’t have to change their names to be more generic. Forte is my mother’s maiden name. Even my maiden name Machado was too ethnic 30 years ago. That doesn’t seem to be a problem now. 

Although most of the parts I still play are moms, I also get to play Judges and detectives, characters that have depth. The types of moms that I play are way more complex. For example, in ‘The Rookie’, I play the mom to the new Rookie Celina Juarez, played by Lisseth Chávez, but I am also an artist – a painter who is agoraphobic and can’t leave her home. Karla Juarez is more layered. More interesting. More fun to play. 

One of the more inspiring shifts we are seeing is older actresses not just being cast as side characters. What has this meant for your career in the recent years?

I think it’s about time we see older women on TV. Older women are more in charge now than when I started my career. In life, there are more women in positions of power. More women on the Supreme Court. More women working in construction. More women in professional sports. We have a woman of color who is the vice president of the United States! 

Why is it important that we see more older women in prominent and leading roles especially women of color?

I was almost 30 when I started acting. I was told I was crazy. “30 years old is when women are getting out of this career not starting it.” I think it is important for young women to see older women represented. To see women of color in positions of power is inspirational. To see yourself represented on TV is motivating. I grew up with ‘The Brady Bunch’, and all my life I wanted to be Marcia Brady and change my hair color. I remember when the original ‘One Day At A Time’ series came out and I saw a single woman with two young daughters with dark hair! Valerie Bertinelli was the first time I could see a little of myself out there. Someone who looked like me with brown hair! And then later, to see it revamped with a Latina woman as the lead, was so exciting.

The show I’m working on now, ‘Lincoln Lawyer’, has a Mexican man playing the part the Lincoln lawyer, Manuel Garcia Rulfo! I play Judge Teresa Medina, a smart witty, no nonsense professional. This particular show is really diverse and well written. I think it represents Los Angeles. I’m very proud to be part of it.

Why do you think there is such a societal forced to push women out of the limelight after certain age, how have you pushed back on this in your own life and career?

As far as getting older on TV, it isn’t easy to watch. I see myself and wonder, “who is that woman? She looks like my family, but it can’t be me!”

We live in a country that does not value its elders. I think this is a big problem we have in America. We don’t learn from our elders, we want to hide them away. Put them in a home were we can’t be reminded of what’s to come. The irony is we are living longer than ever. And our mind-set needs to shift. Ageism is real. Especially for women but men get it too. I watch Naomi Watts in a new show called ‘The Watcher’ (Netflix). I could not stop looking at her face. Her face looks like mine. Her expressions moved me. Her face moved!

It isn’t easy to watch yourself get older on TV, but what is the other alternative? I want to act until I can’t remember my lines anymore. I want to represent all stages of a woman’s life and for that I must embrace my aging. I don’t mind aging I just want to do a gracefully. I want to be an example for the actresses that are coming up behind me, and represent us in an honest and true way. That is a beautiful thing. An ageless thing!

Although it is becoming less common in more taboo, to even suggested, there has been a lot of pressure on women to choose between career and family in Hollywood. How have you managed to defy the status quo and raise your family while also enjoying a successful career?

In every industry women have been forced to choose between family or career. And even though it is less common now, it does still happen. I was a mom at a very young age. I learned early that I needed a community and I picked my community wisely. No one does it alone and that doesn’t mean it has to be a traditional family unit but you need a “familia.” You just have to keep your eyes on the prize. For me it was to become a professional actor. To make my living doing what I love. It did not come easy and it took me 30 years to get here. But I don’t regret one single day of it.

Early on, I needed several jobs to keep myself and my family afloat. I did everything from waiting tables, to substitute teaching, cocktail waitressing, face painting, and all sorts of different, flexible jobs that still allowed me to rehearse in the evenings, or be able to take time off to do a play, a TV show, or a commercial. For the first 15 years of my career I always had a second job. But I have been blessed the last 15 years and my income only comes from my acting now. 

How has the landscape changed for Latina actors in Hollywood that you have seen throughout your career?

For me, the most obvious change in Hollywood is the fact that we can actually use our names now. Like I mentioned earlier, the Garcia’s and the Lopez’s and the Rodriguez’s were not common names seen on the stage or screen. Not that we weren’t there, we just had to hide our origins. Be more “generic”. Rita Hayworth’s real name was Margarita Cansino. Today Rita could’ve stayed Margarita. Today Jenna Ortega can stay Ortega! Rita Moreno was born Rosa Dolores Alverio Marcano. And Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. They shortened their name but did not Americanize them. They were a handful of women who blazed the path for us.

If you could write your ideal role, what would it be and what would your story be?

My ideal job would be a half hour, 4 camera sitcom. More like, “I Love Lucy”; the old “George Lopez Show”, or even the newer show, “Lopez vs Lopez”. George is someone who has helped break through too. Before him it was Ricky Ricardo. I would love to play a strong, funny woman who takes no prisoners in a sitcom!

You can watch Marlene Forte on your screens right now in “The Lincoln Lawyer” (Netflix) “The Rookie”, (ABC), and “Power Book 4: Force” (Starz). Learn more about her story, and see what it looks like to be a successful working actor in Hollywood, by visiting her website.

Marlene Forte on the red carpet for TNT’s ‘Dallas’ series.

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