Clementine, a coming-of-age film starring Otmara Marrero and Sydney Sweeney, was one of the many film releases buried by the onset of the pandemic. Its debut would have been a moment for Marrero, whose character, Karen, is fresh from a breakup when she sneaks into her ex’s lake house. Her solitude is quickly disrupted by a flirty, Lolita-like Lana (Sweeney), who tells a doubtful Karen that she's 19. It wasn’t long after that Marrero became the lead in Connecting…, an NBC comedy about the coronavirus, for which she filmed her scenes herself, from the comfort of her own home. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Marrero shares how she went from dancing for the Florida Marlins to acting, and how she’s handled her career’s twists and curves.
Did you start acting as a child?
No, I thought I was going to be a professional dancer. I danced professionally as a cheerleader with the Florida Marlins for two years, which was amazing. I think that's where I started to find my voice.
I bet training was intense.
So intense. There are so many ways in which I can't believe I put myself through that. The body dysmorphia, the always wanting to be beautiful…and what even is beautiful?
Don’t they monitor your weight?
Absolutely. And I fluctuate all the time. It was brutal. I used to just starve myself and then binge and then not eat. We had to wear a tiny, tiny sports bra and little booty shorts. The baseball players loved it. Good times.
Then you moved to Los Angeles to be an actor. How did your parents take that?
By that time, I had already done all the hard work. I had told them that I wanted to be an actor a long time before that, and they were like, “Hell no, that's not real. One, you don't have like a godfather in Hollywood.” What even is a godfather in Hollywood, right? That's some Hispanic parents stuff. They were just like, “No, you're not doing that. You need a real career. You need to go to school; you can get a degree." That's their idea of the American dream.
Are you bilingual?
I am. In life, it’s good to know as many languages as you can. But as an actor, being bilingual is tricky, because I just don’t want to get put in a box.
Did you time your move to pilot season?
Originally, but I had one job left to do in Miami that moved it to November of 2015. My first audition was for Ray Donovan. I was on the Fox lot in some really big heels and very lost walking around for like 30 minutes, so by the time I got to the audition, my legs were shaking. It was so bad. That was my first audition. I ended up booking my second, which was my first lead. It was a show called StartUp, on a network called Crackle, about a young woman who creates a digital currency. I was working with Martin Freeman, Adam Brody, Edi Gathegi, Ron Perlman. It was a no-brainer to take it. I remember my agent telling me, “I think you should gamble for pilot season. It's not good money." And I was like, “But it's like getting a scholarship to learn.” And then Crackle disappeared, dissipated into the ground. They fucked that one up.
But you still were the lead.
They say that the best acting school is on a set, and that is very accurate. After that, I thought all these doors were going to magically open. And boy, was I in for a fucking surprise, because they didn't. It was so hard to book my first job with all these incredible people who have been doing it for so long, and then come back and just be like, “Am I ever going to work again? Was this a mistake? Did I just get really lucky?” Little by little, I started working on my hiatus [between seasons]. There were three, and every time, I got a little job that led to another door with something bigger.
Soon after, you played Karen, a young woman who breaks into her ex’s lake house after a rough breakup in the coming-of-age film Clementine. How did that come about?
I read that script in an hour in my room, in my old apartment in the boonies of Van Nuys. I fell in love with it immediately. I knew I had to be Karen, but I actually didn't get the job at first. You know, sometimes you walk out of auditions and you're like, "I definitely didn't get that," but sometimes you're like, "I could potentially get that. I got a shot." I thought I killed it. And then I didn't hear anything. Two weeks later, I got a call from my agent saying that they decided to go in another direction. But I kind of didn't let it up in my heart. I was like, “I don't know. It just doesn't feel like the end." And then two weeks later, I got the call that they wanted to offer me the job.
Lockdown must have been hard for you, at such a key point in your career.
At the beginning, it was actually great. I got to sit with myself and address the stuff I was dealing with, the trauma and the demons. And I just tried to make use of the time, doing things out of my comfort zone. I bought bongos, and then I started pulling up pictures of Picassos on the computer and kind of re-creating them. I mean, barely Picasso—that's what I call myself. And after that, I was in a really good place. I felt like my chakras were aligned.
And then you booked a quarantine job.
I booked a show on NBC called Connecting..., which is a comedy about the coronavirus. I was the lead, and it was my first time doing comedy. It was amazing, because I was potentially going to make a very decent amount of money when nobody was working, and I shot it remotely, from home. And then it wrapped, and I hit the bottom so hard. It’s a coronavirus comedy—I didn’t think it was going to go more than one season. But being the lead of an NBC show, I thought, was going to open some doors and introduce me to certain people. And it went radio silent. My instinct was to attack myself. I wasn't living in gratitude, which was a big reality check for me, because I disregarded the fact that when a lot of people weren't working, I had a job doing what I love, and from home and not having to risk my life. That got me back to where I'm at now. I mean, it's divine.
Who was your first cinematic crush?
I mean, this is everyone's—Leo [DiCaprio]. Titanic is the movie that made me want to start acting. My favorite scene was the “Draw me like one of your French girls,” and then the sex scene. I had the two VHS’s, and I used to know how to fast-forward exactly to that scene. But I actually like what Leo looks like now. It was weird that he was my first crush—the only time in my life that I liked a hot boy. I don't really like the cute muscular guys. I like a little chubby and just unconventional cute. Like nerds. I like nerds. That's where it's at.
What was your first date?
I went to the movies, but ironically, I didn't see the movie. It was my first kiss, and I just made out hardcore. I don’t remember which, but it was probably one of the Men in Blacks—probably Men in Black II, because I was in seventh grade. I had gum in my mouth, which I somehow compartmentalized when we made out. He was so impressed. He was like, "Wow." But then he dumped me a little after that.