Those who’ve seen the latest episodes of Fear the Walking Dead were surely shocked by the appearance of Celia, the 50-something year old woman who takes Travis (Cliff Curtis), Madison (Kim Dickens), and the entire group of survivors into the luxurious ranch owned by Thomas Abigail (Dougray Scott) in Mexico. Celia can act as either an adorable mother, a witty business woman, or even a ruthless killer; and although it seems that her role in the series concluded along with the mid-season finale, it is not one that will be easily forgotten. So we decided to talk to Marlene Forte, the Cuban actress who brings Celia’s character to life with the dexterity that reflects the abundance of Latino talent in Hollywood. A veteran of both the big and small screen, Forte was recently seen portraying the recurring role of Carmen Ramos in Dallas, as well as other countless guest-appearances on shows such as The Fosters, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, The Mentalist, and House of Payne.
Who is Marlene Forte?
Marlene Forte is actress with nearly 30 years of acting experience under her belt. “I was born in Cuba, I came when I was 9 months old, very young, and was raised in New Jersey, where there were a few other young Cubans like myself. I wanted to be an actress since I was 10 years old, I love singing and dancing and all that. I’m the eldest of three daughters, the only one born in Cuba and like a good Catholic immigrant got married straight out of high school and had my daughter at a very young age. I began acting when my daughter was about 10 years old. When I started my career I opened up a video rental store near my parent’s house and ran the store for 7 years, as a result I couldn’t do any acting because I had no time. In about ’89, Blockbuster began appearing, so I sold what I had; which were the movies, and told my parents to take care of my daughter while I went to New York to try my luck as an actress, I told them I would come home on weekends. I rented a room with a fellow actress who was starting a theater company and there began my career. When my daughter went off to college I said New York, I’ve done all I can here, and came to Los Angeles for a job on My Wife and Kids, after 3 episodes they gave me the boot but hey, I stayed anyway. Since then I’ve had many guest roles and truth be told the only thing I find curious is that I started old in my opinion because I started acting at almost 30, I’m 54 now.
How hard was it to get the role of Celia on Fear the Walking Dead?
Ugh, that was difficult! I think I have a lot of experience, but I had to audition three times and then work with David, one of the show’s writers and creators and only then did I get the role. It’s one of the best roles that I’ve landed during my 20 years on television! Because doing theater and television are two different things, but of what I’ve been doing on TV, it’s the best role written for a woman. I think it has to do with Gale Ann Hurd being one of the producers, as she’s responsible for some of the best female roles I’ve ever seen. That’s why I wasn’t’ surprised when I saw that she was one of the show’s producers, but other than that we’ve had wonderful writers. Acting on television isn’t always so much acting as it is taking what the writers give you which isn’t always necessarily Shakespeare, and making it work. But it’s always easier to memorize the lines when their well written. The truth is I had no idea where Celia’s character was going, because when I first auditioned not even the name matched with the first script, the name on there was Carmen. Coincidentally Carmen was the name of my character on Dallas and that’s why they changed it. It was like winning the lottery. Later on when I saw who the character would be and who I would be working alongside with; with Ruben Blades and Kim Dickens, I couldn’t believe it. Ruben is one of the most considerate actors who I’ve ever worked with. It’s incredible how considerate and nitpicky he is.
Would you call Celia a villain?
No. Nothing that Celia is doing is wrong in her eyes, its actually quite the contrary. The world is changing for Celia and to her death isn’t the end, it’s what follows. Like she tells Daniel, Ruben Blades, the dead have always been here, now they’re just trying to eat us, but it’s a detail! What I’m saying I think I got the character because they needed to show her many faces. Aside from that, I’m a mother. Like I tell everyone, I almost always play someone’s mother. I’ve had more time as a mother than anything else because I had my daughter at 19, and that’s the key to Celia. She’s a mother and the woman of the house. It’s a very different situation compared to starting off by saying “I’m going to kill all these people!” To me the most important part is bringing out her human side and that’s something I try to do with all my characters. No matter how bad a person is still a human being. You have to find the human side and Celia’s human side is that she’s a mother.
When Celia gets locked up, was that the final scene you shot?
Yes. That was the last scene we filmed. Daniel and I have supposedly passed away to the other side but I keep telling the writers that I’m the only one who can save Daniel because this is my house and my cellar. I know how to get in and get out. And it’s that final moment that we talked over a lot with the director and the writers because when Madison slams the door, Celia is not afraid, on the contrary, it’s the moment where Madison tells Celia “You know what, maybe you do have the guts to be a mother”. When she tells me that, I look at her without fear, nor anger, nor anything but the feeling of “Come on bitch!”
I’m sure you’ve been told that you look like Sigourney Weaver before…
All the time!
And did that hurt or help you?
I think if I weren’t Latina it would be bad but being Latina, no, it’s not a bad thing because it’s a whole other market. It’s a difficult subject because I always tell people I’m an actress, it doesn’t matter if I’m Latina or Korean…. I’m an American, I’ve lived here my whole life. But in this case that doesn’t count, to the producers I’m a Latina, not an American, and it’s something that I’ve honestly used to my advantage. I’ve also been told that depending on what I’m wearing I look a lot like Tina Fey. Luckily I look like Americans and not Latinas. If I looked like Sofia Vergara, I’d be screwed, because there’s only one Sofia in our market.
How hard is it to get a role as a Latin actress today?
It’s not so hard to get the role as it is to be seen as more than a Latina. I can be the white girls friend, you know, but necessarily the Latina…. If that problem didn’t exist there would be more roles for non-Hispanic women because of all the talk around diversity, were all in the same boat here. But there’s always an order. For me, first come the African Americans, then come the Asians, and then the Native Americans. In any case, I would be better off if they saw me as nothing more than actress who can play multiple nationalities, not just Latina roles, and what’s interesting is that I almost never play a Cuban. Never. I’ve been offered to play a South American, a Mexican, a Panamanian, and a Salvadorian, but have I ever been offered a Cuban or Puerto Rican role? No.