Created by Tanya Saracho, the six-episode, half-hour Starz series Vida follows estranged sisters Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada), as they return home to East L.A. after the passing of their mother, Vidalia, to deal with the building she owned and the local bar she ran. Once they’re back home, they meet their mother’s wife, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), and the unexpected revelation about their mom’s sexuality causes them to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, showrunner Tanya Saracho talked about being a first-time showrunner and how it’s like playing a video game, representing an under-represented community on TV, looking at the first season as the prologue of this story, why she didn’t want to do subtitles for the Spanish, how she’s excited about each of the characters, casting the role of Eddy, telling a story with no lanes, her three-year overall deal at Starz, and going from being a playwright to creating a TV show.
Collider: How does it feel to be a first-time showrunner with a series like this, finally getting it out there for audiences to see? Is it exciting to know that you’ll be bringing a community that is still so under-represented to TV?
TANYA SARACHO: No pressure, right?! It’s amazing! We were like, “Oh, my gosh, are we getting this right?” It’s exciting to be representing it. We get to do it right. Starz really was supportive, every step of the way. It started with casting. That’s where you populate the world. My casting director is a Latina, and she’s awesome. Starz just trusted us, from the casting to the way we stacked the writers’ room. It’s just been really exciting to get to do it right. You can’t fake that. You’re seeing something that was built very authentically, by all of the hands that built it, and all of the eyes and ears. My composer is Mexican and was one of the composers of Coco, and my cinematographer is Colombian. It was just built right.
That’s awesome! As the showrunner of a TV series, people will give you credit for all the success, but they’ll also blame you for all of the failures, and they look to you for all of the answers to their questions. What do you remember about your first day, as a showrunner? Did you immediately know it was something you wanted to do, or did you have a moment of panic?
SARACHO: I’ve been panicking since we started. Our big boss, Chris Albrecht, said, “Tanya, today you became a showrunner.” And then, another day would happen and someone else would say, “Today you became a showrunner.” The courage under fire moments have been kind of like a video game, where it’s like, “Achievement unlocked!” We were being protested by Mariachis, and we dealt with that fire. Achievement unlocked! And then, on the same day, school teachers were protesting, just randomly. They weren’t protesting us, but they were gonna use Mariachi Plaza, whether we liked it or not. Achievement unlocked! We figured it out. You’re panicking and going with it, and then you do it.
How did this end up a six-episode, half-hour drama? Were there ever discussions of more episodes, or doing an hour instead of a half-hour?
SARACHO: That was always what Starz was offering. The first season was six episodes. We have a sister show, Sweetbitter, and they’re six episodes, too. All of those decisions are Starz.
Things with this family clearly are not resolved, by the end of the season, so it seems like there’s definitely much more story to tell. How far ahead have you thought about the series and where you could take the story that you’re telling?
SARACHO: Far enough. The way I looked at the first season was as a three-hour pilot. It’s a prologue, where you get an introduction to the world and the characters, and now, at the end of six, you can begin. Now, you can begin the book. That was the prologue.
I also thought it was really interesting that there are lines of dialogue in the series that are in Spanish, but you don’t have subtitles. What led to that decision?
SARACHO: That was in the first meeting, I was like, “I will never have subtitles.” I have 16 plays, and we don’t ever do subtitles. You can’t do subtitles in the theater, so I was like, “I’m not gonna do subtitles.” You’ll never lose the story. There might be a little joke that you might miss, but you’ll never miss the story, even in the Spanglish of it. I was not worried. I have more faith in an audience, that they’re gonna get all of it. The Spanglish is sometimes dedicated to some Latinx that have not heard themselves reflected that way. But the story, a non-Spanish speaking audience is not gonna miss it.
There are so many interesting, complex characters on this show, especially among the women. Was there one character whose story you were most excited to tell, and was there one or more characters whose journey surprised you?
SARACHO: I built this pilot like I build plays, and I just let the characters go, holistically. They just start talking while I’m typing. I know that sounds hokey, but that’s really how I see it. I’m excited about something with each character. Everyone in the show, even the auxiliary, secondary characters that might not have that many lines, have been curated. Their presence has been very much curated. There’s an undocumented queer activist artist, whose name is Julio Salgado, and his art is all over the Vigilante’s Cave, the headquarters of Mari’s (Chelsea Rendon) group. I put him in the show, in the front row for two of the episodes. You might not know who Julio Salgado is, but some people in the movement will, and that populates the world, authentically, which is really important. From the actresses to the world, it has been very carefully crafted.
I love that Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) is a tough character to get a read on, initially, but then we start to learn that a lot of the reticence and the fact that she keeps to herself comes from the sadness that she’s experiencing. What were you looking for, in casting that role?
SARACHO: There’s a lot of prejudice and our own bias, when we first meet this masculine butch that we think is gonna be a certain way, because that’s our experience, and then it turns out that she’s a softie and the heart of the show and the only one truly mourning Vida. I love that because it’s like the joke’s on you. You thought wrong about them. And Ser was the only one that I had known, of the six actors, because they are a playwright and activist, and I’d seen them in that circle. I don’t know if you’ve talked to Ser, but they’re non-binary. And then, I went to see a play at Boston Court because my friend was in it, and they were in it, and I rushed them in the lobby and was like, “Hi, Ser, I don’t know if you remember me, but you’re gonna be my Eddy!” They were like, “What?!” It was a year after that, that we started casting. I just looked like a freak. Non-binary actors don’t get to tell these stories, so I love that Ser is getting this opportunity to showcase their talent.
Because they’re so different and they aren’t who we expect them to be, what are you most excited about, when it comes to the story of these two sisters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera)?
SARACHO: Well, you just said it. We haven’t gotten a chance to tell those stories for Latina women. If you look at what’s in the landscape right now, it’s very stuck in its lane, and I love that we have no lanes. There’s no road. There’s nothing. We start off somewhere and it just detours, regarding the characters. I love that!
Beyond the series, you also signed a three-year overall deal with Starz. What are you looking and hoping to do with the network, along with and beyond this show?