There are times in life when you see an actor at work, and her power and ethereal earthiness confirms for you what you already know: that organic talent in living color doesn’t always find its way to leading articles in mainstream media or to global celebrity. Even when it sorely deserves to.
When an artist is a person of color and a female carving out her career in a period of time in the United States when gender and racial bias (and marginalization) create overwhelming challenges, the fact the artist can rise above conventional male vanilla hurdles, and have the opportunity to be seen and heard is miraculous.
How often have you stated the name of an artist of color and had a White person say, “Why didn’t she try to be like Meryl Streep?” You know while there may be many other reasons at play in the vagaries of such an equation, one of the issues is that mainstream arts and entertainment hasn’t made much space for actors, directors, or narratives about women and/or about people of color. Historically, it hasn’t been a part of the vocabulary. It’s getting lip service now and hopefully those lips are gateways to true social change. So, this is the name I state in this moment: Marlene Forte.
She is a standout actress.
She is an intelligent, no-nonsense, spirited human being.
She is a wonderful mother and wife.
She is female.
She is Cuban American.
She is a good human being.
Watching her work is like drinking a truly good cup of tea.
Born in Santiago De Las Vegas (near Havana), Cuba, Marlene was raised right outside of New York City in West New York, New Jersey.
Lightheartedly calling herself a true “bridge and tunnel gal,” Marlene is a creature of the urban landscape.
“I have never been interested in living in the country or too far away from a city,” she mused. She grew up on the Hudson River with the New York skyline beckoning and “never yearned for the chirping of the birds, even though Jersey is The Garden State.” Blithely referring to herself as a “river rat,” she mentioned two urban landscapes that are home to her – New York and the city to which she moved, Los Angeles.
“I watched the World Trade Center go up and witnessed in horror its destruction from Los Angeles decades later,” she said. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, playwright and professor Oliver Mayer. Like many actors, she thought about working on Broadway, but instead found greater flexibility and opportunity in arts and entertainment in Los Angeles. Her first television credit was on the show, “Judging Amy.”
As an infant, Marlene arrived in the United States from Cuba with her parents.
“My parents packed a paper bag and headed to the USA,” she said. For her, there was a bit of luck in her immigration because she has no memory of that day – a day when her parents were separated at the airport by Cuban authorities when her mother was denied exit from Cuba.
“My mom had not properly resigned her teaching post in Havana, so she was denied exit,” Marlene explained. “The authorities told my dad he could leave and I could leave with him, but my mom needed to stay and properly resign her claim to her country.” The fact that she hadn’t done so caused her officially to be labeled as a “deserter of the revolution… a traitor to her home.”
That day, Marlene stayed with her mother because her father was “scared to leave with a nine-month infant who was barely walking.” Two weeks later, her mother was given permission to leave, and both she and her mother were labeled “qusanos” – worms, she remembered.
“That’s what we got called us as we left the island never to return,” Marlene said. She noted that, at the time, they were not allowed to return, so departure was “quite final.”
Eighteen years later, Marlene’s life experienced another forever kind of change when she gave birth to her daughter, Giselle. She married her high-school sweetheart, her first husband.
“Truth be told, I was way too young to be in love and way too sheltered to know what becoming a mom would require,” she declared.
This important moment in her life was linked to another significant step – attending college. When her daughter was born, she was finishing her first semester of college at Rutgers University while also commuting because the university didn’t have housing for married undergraduate students. Morning sickness and commuting aren’t a good mix (note, the term “morning” sickness must have been created by someone who never experienced pregnancy or they might have called it “all-day” sickness).
“I have a very vivid and visceral memory of driving down the New Jersey turnpike towards New Brunswick in the middle of a huge snow storm,” Marlene recalled, “and I vomited twice… right on the side of the icy shoulder lane. There were very few cars on the road that day, but I had an exam and needed to get to class.” She laughed and added that “this was way before Zoom.” Noting that she had a terrible trimester, Marlene gave birth to Giselle just before her final exams. Unable to take them at the time, she returned in early January, completed her exams, and gained a 4.0, something she maintained for two years.
Because she and her then husband only had one car, Marlene transferred from Rutgers University to Fairleigh Dickinson College in Teaneck, New Jersey, a school where her husband was then studying dentistry, the focus for which the school is known. At the time, the fact that she was the female in the relationship dictated secondary consideration.
“The man’s job was much more important than the woman’s then,” she noted, “and he was the breadwinner so….” As a wife, she was just expected to “hang my pretty (college) certificate on the wall and continue to have children.” After graduating, her then husband wanted two more children, but something else was stirring in Marlene Forte – the desire to pursue an acting career.
These equally challenging objectives led to big changes in Marlene’s life. She and her husband divorced and she launched her acting career – starting her own business as an artist. Her “old-fashioned wonder boy” ex-husband became a cardiac surgeon while Marlene has a thriving acting career, one built against the odds of mainstream hurdles for BIPOC artists and narratives.
“I truly believe I would have never followed my dreams of becoming an actress if I remained married,” Marlene related, “because we were both children and we wanted two very different lives.” In fact, Marlene considers her divorce an important passage in her life. She became a successful independent business person and her ex-husband became a success as a heart surgeon.
The beginning of her acting career wasn’t effortless. A single mother with a three-year-old daughter, Marlene had to be inventive and resourceful. She started a business.
“I loved movies and acting, so I started my very own video rental store… just around the corner from my parents’ home,” she said. Its location was brave because her parents were still mourning her divorce and wanted her to go to law school, not pursue a “crazy and unstable acting career.” However, the fact that she was becoming a business owner pleased them, so they lent her cash that she combined with money from selling her car and started investing in movies. At the same time, she took the first steps towards her acting career, doing extra work. “I needed to get on a set and really knew NO ONE in the business,” she mused.
A blessing Marlene had that helped her was her ability to speak English and Spanish fluently. Her bilingualism helped her get into the Screen Actors Guild. After taking a commercial acting course, she gained her first commercial agent and was booked on her first commercial, what she calls a roundabout way into acting.
As she built her pre-Blockbuster video store, she also was educating herself in film and becoming what she terms as “the Cuban Tarantino.” She owned the store for seven years and, simultaneously with being a business proprietor, did work as an extra on multiple movies coming out in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I did stand-in work for Talia Shire in ‘New York Stories’ and ‘Vittorio Storaro’ with a light meter in my face for the first time,” Marlene recounted. “I had no idea what stand-in work required, but I said yes. The cash was better than extra work.”
By 1990, a Blockbuster Video store opened up near her successful mom-and-pop video store.
“I saw the writing on the wall,” she mused. Her stock of over 5,000 VHS tapes left her with challenges that led to her getting out of the video business. My stock consisted of VHS’s at the time. Over 5000 titles. I decided to get out of the video business.”
“I would like to think that I really knew what was coming,” she said, “BUT, truth be told, I was just getting older and pushing thirty and I thought, if I don’t jump now, I will never become an actress.” So she jumped.
Theatre caught her.
While living with her parents, she heard about a new acting troupe. She joined the company, which became LAByrinth Theater Company. Her experiences there were the equivalent of a graduate education in acting and then some.
“LAByrinth became my MFA in acting,” Marlene affirmed. “There were only thirteen of us and we would meet every Wednesday night. I was the first official intern. I had no acting experience except my commercial class and a few plays. I would take notes and watch all the workshops.”
For a year, Marlene interned and then she was invited on stage. Two major things happened in the life of Marlene Forte.
“The rest is history,” she said.
That “history” includes the birth of a phenomenal acting career and her meeting the man she calls “the love of my life,” her now husband, Oliver, renowned playwright, librettist, essayist, and professor who serves as Associate Dean of Faculty and Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives at the School of Dramatic Arts, University of Southern California.
Marlene’s Cuban heritage is another vital dimension of who she is.
“Culturally, I have ALWAYS identified as Cuban American, Cuban being the emphasis,” she declared. She noted she grew up in a very Cuban community and that “Cubans huddle together.” Her existence as a Cuban was altered when she went to college.
Much to the chagrin of her Cuban family in Florida, Marlene was transformed into a Democrat at college and also converted her parents to her political beliefs, too.
“My parents did not really understand except that Democrats let Fidel win!” she exclaimed. While non-Democratic perspectives haven’t changed much among her Floridian family, Marlene said she believes that growing up in New Jersey away from the Florida fold allowed for clarity.
“The rhetoric was not so loud,” she said. “And an education opened my eyes to the manipulation of politics.”
The fortitude of her Cuban culture is galvanized in part on the fact that the Cuban immigrant story is in her view different from others.
“We are refugees from a communist country,” she explained. “If we could touch ground, we were mostly welcomed, especially in the 1960s. In my family’s case, we were White Cubans. I grew up among many White and a few Black Cubans, but mostly European White (Cubans). She didn’t experience racism directly until much later in life. She remember the day vividly.
“My parents had moved to their side of Hudson County Park,” she recollected. “We dared to move to the Italian side of town. I was about eight months pregnant. I was pulling out of my parents’ driveway and a man stood behind my car. I almost hit him. He was yelling something at me. My windows were shut tight; it was a cold Jersey day. When I opened the window I heard him say, ‘Go back to the other side of the park where you belong.’” She cried all the way home and, “for the first time felt cold and alone in America.” She never told her parents nor husband. “I just cried,” she said, “I still cry thinking about it.”
When Marlene was starting her acting career, white-washing and gender-washing affected the branding of females and people of color who had what then were perceived to be non-US names. Being marginalized and generic were the rules. Women were not actors, but actresses, and if you had a name like Rodriguez, could you please make it more “American”?
“My name was Marlene Rodriguez at the time I started acting,” she said. I kept my married name because I didn’t want to have a different name from my daughter… familia.” However, every representative she met wanted her to change her name to something more “generic”.
“GOD I hate GENERIC!,” Marlene exclaimed. “Lol! They wanted to change my name to Marlene Rodrick. Who the hell was Rodrick?! I said, ‘I was born Ana Marlene Forte Machado, pick one!’” And Marlene Forte it became. She noted that when her daughter Giselle Rodriguez started acting seventeen years later, nobody asked her to change her name.
“Thank goodness for Jennifer Lopez and Gina Rodríguez and Sofía Vergara!” she declared. “Our Latin name was no longer frowned upon.”
However, acting roles for the Rodriguez’s and Lopez’s were still limited, with ever-present stereotypes. Stereotypes notwithstanding, Marlene carried on, seeing them as a part of her job. Rather than trying to get rid of them, she sought to give such roles greater dimension and texture.
“I never became a lawyer who fights for the injustices of this world, but I can represent,” she pointed out. “I can educate. I can make a small difference with my portrayal of a character.” She strives to do this by cultivating the humanity of such roles.
“I will NOT play them one dimensionally,” she stated emphatically. “… my job [is] to make them whole, to present a human being to the world; a mother, a fighter, a daughter, a survivor, a wife, a lover, and partner who happen to be a whore, or a drug dealer, a maid or Mother Teresa! WHOLE human beings, with no judgment.”
Her love for theatre has enhanced her life in many ways – artistically and also because it connected her with husband Oliver. She said she enjoys the community aspect of creating theatre. Even though she makes her living performing on television, she believes it doesn’t give her the artistic value she finds on stage.
“I married a playwright so my personal life is very much mixed together with [theatre],” she said. “I wish I had more time to see my amazing daughter, but she is an adult now and lives in New York. This pandemic has made it more difficult to see each other BUT I do take advantage of all the media we have at our disposal now.”
Marlene uses virtual communication platforms to talk to her daughter and to her aging parents, noting the platforms make it easier to manage distance.
Today, Marlene lives in Los Angeles where she continues a viable acting career in film, television, and theatre; and shares a dynamic and bright life with husband Oliver. Together, they enjoy a creative partnership that encourages the cultivation of greater expression and feeds their personal relationship in a multitude of ways.
All photographs courtesy of Marlene Forte.