Marlene Forte has probably been on everyone’s living room television at one point or another. Forte has built a 20-year career on guest starring and recurring television roles. From the role of Carmen Ramon on the TNT reboot of “Dallas” to a recurring role as the grandmother of Marianna and Jesus on “The Fosters,” Forte is no amateur to television work. Yet her role as villainous Celia Flores on “Fear the Walking Dead” has been her most chilling to date.
Celia is the former housekeeper and mother figure to Thomas Abigail (Dougray Scott), the partner of mysterious business man Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), and actual mother of Abigail’s right-hand man Luis. The second season of “Fear the Walking Dead” revealed Strand had led the group to Mexico so he could reunite with his lost love Thomas. Joining Thomas means the group must deal with Celia who has her own ideas about the dead who walk the earth.
Celia’s influence is quickly felt throughout the group as she preaches her dead-positive ideology, immediately taking drug addict Nick (Frank Dillane) under her wing. Not everyone is as enamored as Madison (Kim Dickens) grows suspicious of Celia’s connection to her son Nick and Strand battles Celia over Thomas’s death. The growing tension leads to Celia’s death by the hands of Madison at season’s end.
Washington Blade spoke with Forte about the mindset of a villain, working on a zombie show with a zombie fear and her thoughts on the first in-depth gay storyline in “The Walking Dead” universe.
Washington Blade: “The Walking Dead” is such a huge franchise. What was the audition process like for “Fear the Walking Dead” and were you intimidated at all?
Marlene Forte: Well, at this point in my life I don’t get too intimidated in auditions. I was excited as hell just because I knew the thing of it. And it’s really funny because I watched “Night of the Living Dead” when I was like 10 years old by myself. And I woke up one day at like ten o’clock in the morning and it was playing. It scared the shit out of me so much that I have stayed away from zombie things for a long time. I was like, “I don’t want to be cremated, don’t put me in the ground, I don’t want to come back.” My dad who is almost 80 is a humongous fan of “The Walking Dead,” “Fear the Walking Dead” and “Talking Dead.” He has been trying to get me to see it for years.
So I get this audition and now I have to. I had watched “Fear the Walking Dead” because I’m very good friends with Elizabeth Rodriguez who played Liza in the first season. I had seen that season and that was it. But before then, just to do a little more research, I watched the first season of “The Walking Dead.” I was hooked so quickly. Once I booked the job I went down to Mexico. I got down there and I binge watched all the seasons in three weeks. So imagine this, during the day I am shooting “Fear the Walking Dead” and at night I’m going home to gorge on “The Walking Dead.” It was like a drug. I loved these people and I wanted to know what was going on with these people. Now I’m having conversations with my 80-year-old dad who is like “I told you how great this show is! It’s not about the dead people!”
It’s ironic that I ended up getting this character because it took me so long to get over it. The hardest scene that I had to do was when my son comes back like a zombie. And I have to be close to him and the makeup is insanely great. And he’s drooling and there is blood spitting out and I’m like, “I’m going to throw up.” But it was like going to Disneyland on this show. It was so much fun.
Blade: A lot of Celia’s storyline was closely tied to Nick. What was it like working with Frank Dillane?
Forte: He’s mercurial. He’s amazing. I said to my husband, “If Johnny Depp and River Phoenix had a baby it would be Frank.” He’s got all that and more. He’s sweet, generous and polite. He’s going to be a superstar, watch out for him. It was lovely. The whole cast are powerful actors and it was a blessing. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I don’t get excited about a lot of things anymore. I’m one of those actors who haven’t worked with too many uptight people and too many divas. But this was fun. It was like a paid vacation for me because I was delving into this whole new zombie world. Frank is phenomenal. I want to adopt him. What a nice man. And he’s got this great accent. I only knew him from watching the show. And at the table read I heard this London accent and I was like, “What? You don’t talk like that.” He’s very cute with that accent.
Blade: Celia has this cult leader vibe. You want to trust her, but she’s very creepy. In the finale Nick seemed sucked into her spiel about not being afraid of the dead. Do you think that affected his decision to leave his family?
Forte: Absolutely. I think she’s got him. Now of course, Nick’s character is a drug addict. These are people who are vulnerable human beings. Which she sees the minute he walks through the kitchen. She identifies him and goes after him. Like any good cult leader will do, right? She’s like, “Another one of my children, another one of my lambs.” But like he said at the end, “We caused this.” So he can now rightly or wrongfully move away from his family. It’s a pretty powerful moment when you see him walking with the dead like that.
Blade: Did Celia feel like the relationship between Thomas and Strand was genuine?
Forte: Marlene thinks their relationship was genuine. I’m not too sure Celia does. I think Celia thinks that Thomas was genuinely in love with Strand, but I don’t think she’s ever trusted Strand. I try not to judge my villain characters. Because the most warped human being doesn’t think they’re warped. They think they’re coming from a place that’s very logical in their head. In my background story, I don’t know if this is what the writers did, but Thomas was gay and his parents disowned him. So I have been taking care of him from a very young age. I’ve been his mom in my head since he was like 12, when he first realized that he was gay. In my head that’s why he’s my son. I took in him, I take in Nick and I take in anyone who is lost. And that’s how her culture formed; it’s the outsides of society. Her children.
Blade: You’ve also appeared on “The Fosters.”
Forte: Yeah, it’s a very different character. I played Cierra Ramirez’s grandmother. She is also a mom and also very loving, but completely on the other spectrum of Celia. The truth is that in my 20-year career those are really the roles that I’ve played. A lot of weepy moms, a lot of procedurals where I’m crying over some dead thing or another. The role of Celia is such a breath of fresh air because it’s something as an actress I can sink my teeth into. I love playing those other roles, but they’re very one or two-dimensional characters where you fit into a half-hour show. A character like this is almost like a play where there are so many layers. It was a different experience then you would have on a TV set.
Blade: What did you think about having such a large plot device revolve around a gay relationship on a show as big as “Fear the Walking Dead?”
Forte: I loved it. When I saw where it was going I thought “This is great.” Also, nobody made a thing of it which is kind of the way young people today are. Now my 80-year old dad, he doesn’t like it. He’s a good old Catholic Cuban. But my niece who is 21 doesn’t blink an eye. I like that it wasn’t beaten over the head or anything. It’s just part of the fabric. You love who you love. I’d rather them love each other than beating up each other or shooting up each other.