“My ovaries may not make babies, but I’m not done for,” said the 87-year-old actress, who stars in the Netflix reboot of “One Day at a Time.”
By Max Berlinger
Rita Moreno took a deep, languorous inhale. “I love this smell,” she said. “Can you smell this? It’s an unusual smell.”
The famed actress of stage and screen had just poured ruby red annatto seeds into an oversize pan. After allowing them to sizzle for a few minutes, she used a slotted spoon to fish them out, leaving a rust-colored oil behind. “Now we can do some frying,” she said, raising her eyebrows with excitement.
It was a mild Sunday afternoon, and Ms. Moreno was demonstrating her kitchen chops at the Midtown Manhattan apartment of Jamie deRoy, a Broadway producer. Around her was a four-person documentary crew, there to film her for a coming episode of “American Masters,” the PBS show that chronicles the lives of artists.
She was making picadillo, a stewlike dish of ground beef, peppers, olives and raisins. “It means chopped up,” she said, surrounded by small piles of diced ingredients. “First, let’s put in the onions and the garlic.”
Ms. Moreno is Puerto Rican, and she was using a Cuban recipe that she’s been making for years. She not only cooks Cuban, but she also plays Cuban, as Lydia Riera, the vivacious live-in mother in “One Day at a Time,” the Netflix reboot of the 1970s and ’80s sitcom whose third season was released on Feb. 8.
“I love playing her,” Ms. Moreno said, pushing the onions and garlic around the pan. “I love her because she’s absurd, she’s vain. She’s a lot of not-nice things. She lies when she has to, but that’s what’s fun about her. I love her vanity, she makes me laugh. She really thinks she’s God’s gift to men.”
“She has an accent, and that’s my mama’s accent,” she added, before demonstrating — “Jess, zhee talks like thees.” (Translation: “Yes, she talks like this.”) She let out a cackle. “She distorts certain words, which, I mean, it’s comedy gold.”
Ms. Moreno landed the gig after being seated next to Norman Lear, the longtime television writer and producer, at the Imagen Awards a few years ago. He told her he was working on a show and he’d like her to be in it. “Just like that I said, ‘O.K.,’ and then about 10 minutes later I said, ‘Wait a minute, what is it?’”
Ms. Moreno is 87, and this is just another highlight in a decades-long career. She is one of just 15 EGOTs (people to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony), and is perhaps still best known for her Academy Award-winning turn as Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story.” Other career highlights include “The Electric Company,” a children’s program in which she starred during the 1970s, and a supporting role on the gritty HBO prison drama “Oz.”
While the reboot of “One Day at the Time” sticks to the classic sitcom format, it’s not only played for laughs. Story lines tackle social issues like immigration, clinical depression, gun ownership and L.G.B.T. identity.
“Norman’s the kind of person who can manage that,” she said. “It’s a hard, hard balance to achieve, to have a show be very funny and, at the same time, sometimes break your heart. He doesn’t want us to just go out and be funny. He wants it to have a base.”
She also called Mr. Lear, who is 96 and on set every day, an “old fart.” “But don’t forget,” she added, “I’m the old fart-ette.”
With the onion and garlic nicely browned, she tossed in a colorful blend of yellow, red and green bell peppers that had been finely diced. “Look how pretty this is,” she said. “It’s a carnival!”
As Lydia, she brings her own spice to the screen. “I did say to the writers and to Norman: ‘I know she’s older. I know she’s a grandma. But she still has to be sexual,’” Ms. Moreno said. “And they were thrilled about that. Getting old doesn’t mean you lose all of that good stuff. My ovaries may not make babies, but I’m not done for — by a long shot.”
Neither is her acting career. Ms. Moreno has a pivotal supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming remake of “West Side Story.” While she was nervous to take the call from Mr. Spielberg, she walked away with a fond view. “He’s just lovely — friendly, warm, unaffected in any way whatsoever,” she said. “A nice Jewish boy next door who just happens to be a genius.”
Ground beef went into the pan, steam started to rise from it, and a mouthwatering aroma began to fill the kitchen.
She also set social media ablaze during last year’s Academy Awards when she walked the red carpet in the same dress she wore to the 1962 ceremony, when she won for best supporting actress in “West Side Story.” A self-professed clotheshorse, she doesn’t use a stylist. “I usually shop my closet,” she said. “I have yet to borrow a dress from a designer.”
Not that she’s opposed to that. “There’s nothing wrong with stylists, it’s just that it’s so expensive,” she said. “I have a huge closet and I buy a lot, and then I just combine things.”
“If Tom Ford ever wanted to dress me, I’d be very happy,” she added.
Finally, tomato sauce, raisins and sliced olives were added to the pan. “We’re using green olives stuffed with jalapeños,” Ms. Moreno said. “It’s not authentic, but I don’t care.”
Moments later, dishes were passed out. “I’m serving myself first,” Ms. Moreno said, “because I’m the star.”