By CHRIS TRONDSEN and PETERSON GONZAGA
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—As an actress of Filipino descent, Martha Millan dreamed of playing a character who is Filipino. Throughout this Filipino-Australian’s acting career, she’s been cast as Latino characters and Asian characters, but never Filipino.
In the new Fox series, “The Cleaning Lady,” Millan plays Fiona, an undocumented single mother who also is the sister-in-law of the main character Thony De La Rosa, played by Elodie Yung. Fiona’s sister-in-law who happens to be a Cambodian doctor who has to come to the U.S. to help save her son who is dealing with a medical ailment. When the system fails her, she must find other means to help her son, which leads her to become “The Cleaning Lady.”
Martha took a moment to talk about her excitement about being on the groundbreaking series that spotlights the diversity of its characters and feeling like it’s a historic moment for Southeast Asians.
“The Cleaning Lady” airs on Fox Mondays 9 p.m./8p.m. Central.
Chris Trondsen: Congratulations. The show just premiered. It’s been seen by the masses. How has it been for you?
Martha Millan: It’s just incredible. For me, the whole process of doing this is obviously to get it out there to see how people respond and the actual premiere, I was up in the air in a plane. I was flying from Sydney to New York and during that time, I’d already seen the episode. I was able go through Twitter and just seeing the response was so incredible and the fact that everyone was applauding the representation of what they saw throughout the show. I was just so excited.
Trondsen: What about the cast, friends and family? What has been their reaction to seeing that first episode?
Millan: First of all, the cast—we’re all so close. We spent four months in Albuquerque and at the same time, we were in a Covid bubble in January doing the pilot. We developed this really close relationship that we have this ball of energy and positivity that everybody is responding to it really well. It’s incredible. Whenever you bring out a project, you just don’t know how people are going to respond and the fact that it’s positive is even better.
Trondsen: Representation is so important. There aren’t enough roles representing the Asian community in Hollywood. A lot of times, for example, Olivia Rodrigo who is part Filipino, had to play a Latino character. A lot of Filipinos I’ve interviewed have gotten Latino roles. This is a Filipino role and you’re Filipino and got to audition for a Filipino role, how did that feel for you?
Millan: It’s a great way to put it because throughout my career, I’ve played Latino as well. In “Third Watch,” I was a Latina sister there. You’re just trying to find work at this point but right now you see so many things changing and evolving. It’s so incredible to a part of this project, which is groundbreaking on all levels. Obviously, as in representation that you’ve mentioned, off-camera as well as on-camera. To top it off, knowing after the show premiered, it was Fox’s highest rating of a premiere show in two years. There’s sweetness in that but it’s indicative of what people want these days. What people are craving because they’re exposed to so much culture through social media etc., they are educated but they don’t need to stick to one narrative. Now it’s more of an expressive exploration of different cultures through media and it’s groundbreaking to be a part of it.
Trondsen: And your cast, that’s what’s great about the show. It’s so diverse. Tell about what it’s like to look around and have Cambodian actors, Filipino actor and such on set. Let’s be honest, maybe 20 years ago, this wouldn’t have happened.
Millan: That’s exactly what I said in another interview. Twenty-five years ago, there would have never been an opportunity for a series regular or lead to looking for a specific Southeast Asian. We were just Asian at that time. Working with Elodie Young—she’s incredible. Obviously, she’s Electra. She’s very well known and talented and so open. But, for both of us to actually embrace our culture in every way throughout the representation of our characters, for me, it’s so wonderful to live it out throughout the series. Normally, I play a one-day role or a guest starring role, but to actually experience the role and flesh it out in 10 episodes is something I’ve never experienced before. It’s amazing. I’ve got to get new words, I keep saying amazing and exciting. (She laughs.)
Trondsen: I got to correct you in one thing, you said 10 episodes, we’re going for a season 2, 3 and beyond.
Millan: I love you.
Trondsen: Let’s get into your character. You’re Elodie’s sister-in-law. Tell more about Fiona. I know she has her own things she’s overcoming in the series as well.
Millan: You know, Fiona being an undocumented worker in the country and being a single mother, those are already extraordinary circumstances to deal with and her spirit, her fiery spirit, where you see a lot physicality in her, especially in the first scene where she’s punching, I know for me, the first time I read the script, I saw that I got to punch someone in the first few minutes, I was like, “Yes!”
It already said everything about who she was. She is impulsive. She is spontaneous. She’s unpredictable. That stems from her circumstances of what she’s dealing with being undocumented. The fact that there is this huge risk of losing everything at any moment, so I think that lends to responses and the way she reacts.
In all essence, Filipinos are a very passionate people too. We’re very animated. Whatever situation we’re in, we’ll always find a way to sing, dance or eat through it. It’s part of our way of dealing with life and I’m so excited to share that side of our culture with everybody. There’s so many things about Fiona. One thing is that you’ll see the really empowering arc throughout the series because she is trying to find a voice, and dealing with being a single mother and the actions that have caused her to be in the situation, and her family. There are a lot of challenges that are very interesting.
Trondsen: One thing I liked about your character is that she wasn’t flat and already knows what she is going to say. When you read the script, what was that one thing of Fiona that made you say, “I need to play her. This is a role for me?”
Millan: First of all, she was Filipino. So, I was like, “Yes! Finally.” Obviously, her spirit. I think there is so much (of it). I mean many people dealing with pain or the burdens of life. They deal with things in many ways and I love how Fiona dealt with it through her lightness, her optimism, her fire and that’s something I wanted to explore as an actor as well just to see the balance on how to portray the two elements of who she is.
Trondsen: Why do you think audiences should see this show? There’s organized crime and illegal immigration, with so many different representations and layers of the characters, for you as viewer, what would you say to people, why they’ve got to watch the show besides you being in it?
Millan: For me, it’s so exciting. There are so many elements as you mentioned. There is the action, the drama, the mob world and then there are to topical and relevant issues that we are facing today. it’s a testament to the writers, Miranda Quoc and Melissa Carter, the show runners. They have beautifully shaped this story in a way that it incorporates all the elements of entertainment, drama, explosion, etc., yet at the same time, they’re able to cleverly weave the issues we are facing by being relatable through the family dynamic that you see in the show.
With all of that, you’ve got to see a show like that. So many things that can happen. Plus, the fact that this is historic with just the amount of representation that we mentioned and the diversity in the show. That it’s indicative that media is finally opening up and moving forward that we’ve got viewers who say, “Oh, that looks like me.” I’ve gotten so many DMs from Filipinos who have said, “You remind me of my godmother in New York.” It is wonderful for them to relate to characters specifically.