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When Mariel Molino was a little girl, all she wanted was to be on the Disney Channel. “The American dream, for me, was Hannah Montana,” says the Mexican American actress. “I even wanted my dad to be Billy Ray Cyrus, but he had a really thick accent, so I wasn’t sure how that would work.” Now, years later, a different version of that dream is coming true. Molino — who is named after Mariel Hemingway (“My parents were just big fans of hers,” she says) — has landed the lead on Freeform’s marquee winter thriller series The Watchful Eye, which counts Ryan Seacrest as an executive producer and is out Jan. 30. It’s only her second television job in the U.S.
In a story that’s a bit Agatha Christie meets Upstairs, Downstairs meets Only Murders in the Building, Molino plays Elena, a nanny who ostensibly comes to work for a widowed man in the wake of his wealthy wife’s still-unexplained suicide. But she soon is revealed to have her own potentially sinister plans for the residents of the Graybourne, an Upper West Side building.
In quite the Freeformian twist, the building itself, replete with glamorous prewar wainscoting, has dark, spooky secrets. Elena finds herself navigating both a murder mystery and the often disorientingly insular world of New York old-money one percenters, an experience that echoed Molino’s efforts to break into Hollywood. “I grew up in San Diego and my family wasn’t at all familiar with the industry, so we got scammed a couple of times,” she says. “We paid for agents while we were trying to figure out how it all worked.”
It wasn’t until Molino headed to Mexico City to audition for Spanish-language productions that her career flourished — she booked roles on Narcos: Mexico and several telenovelas. “I had such a judgment toward it, but the first time I actually worked on one I realized it was the best technical acting school I could get,” she says of the traditional soap operas. She credits a handful of her own real-life nanny gigs for rounding out her readiness: “I had a lot of exposure to the one percent and a lot of experiencing wearing a mask for them,” she adds with a laugh.
Molino was in the midst of a supporting role on Promised Land, the ABC drama about Latin families vying for power in California wine country, when the call came in to audition for Freeform. She admits to some initial reservations about the gig, rooted both in self-doubt (“I was protecting myself in case I didn’t get the role”) and very real experiences. “I find that roles written specifically for someone with a diverse background can overemphasize the character’s race or ethnicity,” she says. “But after reading the pilot, I saw that Elena was actually a complex character — she’s white-passing and can speak eloquently with these rich characters but has a bit of a duplicity behind closed doors. That was interesting to me.”
Molino is having a blast but, she adds, “it’s still weird to see my face on a billboard.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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