Martha Millan On What To Expect From The Cleaning Lady Season 2 - Exclusive Interview

"The Cleaning Lady" premiered on Fox in January of 2022 to strong ratings, outdoing its impressive premiere numbers twice during its first season, according to TV Ratings Guide. As the network's highest-rated new series of the 2021-2022 season, the outlet also predicted the drama's likely renewal. Fox ultimately green-lit the series' second season, and it premiered on September 19th with new episodes set to air on Mondays this fall. 

Season 2 of "The Cleaning Lady" promises plenty of twists and turns for the show's protagonist Thony De La Rosa, a doctor from the Philippines who seeks out medical treatment for her son in the US. When her visa expires, Thony becomes a cleaner to support herself, but ends up getting involved with mob boss Arman in order to afford her son's treatments. Thony's sister-in-law Fiona De La Rosa is also navigating life as an undocumented citizen, and, while fans will certainly get more of Thony's chemistry with Arman this season, Collider predicts that the show's narrative focus may shift more toward Fiona and her children.

In her exclusive interview with The List, actress Martha Millan — who has appeared in "The OA" and "Succession" — shared what she's learned from her character Fiona, and how the challenges she and Thony experience with the US immigration and healthcare systems have created the high-stakes for this action-packed drama. 

Her character Fiona is facing limitations imposed by the US immigration system

Fiona's story of life as an undocumented immigrant in the US is a powerful narrative throughout the show's first season and now the second season. Have you learned more about the US immigration system's policies or failings through her experiences?

In terms of the story and what we've seen, Fiona has been exposed to many of the injustices that happened during the Trump administration. I don't want to get too political and everything, because I know that Miranda Kwok was heavily influenced to create an episode based on those incidences where children were separated and inhumanely treated. 

Going forward in the immigration process, clearly it's a very controversial subject, and that's something that I try to keep for my own research in terms of the limitations of being undocumented. I watched the Netflix "Undocumented" series, which helped me look into the lives of these people who were forced into situations. In Season 2, we're diving into a different direction, but we're still dealing with a lot of limitations that Fiona, being undocumented, is facing.

I don't want to be political ... but at the same time, I am portraying something that is ... These are extraordinary circumstances that Fiona is facing. However, we also should consider this is still a TV show and there's still entertainment value that's included, but what it does is allow for conversations to be opened in regards to seeing people's situations under those circumstances.

The show tackles the realities of the American Dream

For both of the lead women, how do you feel like their stories represent the experiences of women and, specifically, mothers living in the US without the sense of security that comes from documentation or that comes from security in general? Do you think viewers will see their experiences represented through these characters?

Oh my God, absolutely. The reason why I jumped on this question is that I was flying from New York to LA for a panel, and the driver I was speaking to, we started a conversation and she was a female driver. It was a long drive going from Brooklyn to JFK. She started talking about her life, and it actually mirrored Thony's life, uncanny coincidence. 

She was from Colombia. She had to get away from her family situation in Colombia because of her husband being violent towards her. She ended up living with her best friend in New York, who helped her. At that time, she had a child, and her daughter was only four years old. They lived together pretty much throughout the years, best friends and the daughter. 

She said, "I had to get a job that was flexible for me to be able to take care of my daughter during the day and then drive at night." Her daughter stayed at the apartment many times without her mother, but with her best friend. She raised her daughter by herself, and now she's so proud. She said that her daughter's [attending] Columbia University. The American Dream happened right there, especially under those circumstances where she did have to leave her country under duress and was still able to provide the American Dream.

It hit the core of what our show is about. It  made me feel very proud to be a part of a show that reflects true stories. It was so poignant for me to reflect on that and to realize that the show really is relatable on many levels, especially being a single mother in this country.

Did it put Fiona's children's lives and futures in a new context for you? Do you have any hopes for her children going forward? 

Every mother's intention — I always mention this because I'm not a parent, and I'm the only cast member in the show that is non-parent. I wanted to create an authentic and believable portrayal of a single mother. Every parent wants the best for their children in every way, education-wise. In the last season, we saw Fiona wanting to find a way through DACA, during that time with Chris. This season ... it heightened levels on a different narrative. Every moment is about wanting the better opportunities for your family. That's why most people do immigrate, in order to create better futures for themselves.

Martha Millan is proud of the show's groundbreaking representation

What did you think when you first read the scripts or heard the concept for the show?

For the pilot, when I read that, I was in shock that they were willing to explore such controversial and very relevant topics that we're facing today. I love the fact that they were able to do it in a way that includes the entertainment value of the relationships, the dynamics between all characters, and the explosions of all that. It was an honor to be included in such a groundbreaking project, being the first primetime network show to have Southeast Asian leads at the forefront and explore so many cultures throughout the series. I was like, "Wow, this is something very unique. It's such a unique take on the American Dream."

What was it like when you became attached to the project and you started to introduce yourself to Miranda Kwok's vision? Did you have a lot of interaction with her as you were getting into the role?

Absolutely. Miranda Kwok was there, along with Melissa Carter, our showrunner. They were both there during the pilot. Throughout the season, Melissa Carter was there as our show runner and Miranda Kwok as well, whenever the episodes [shot]... They had real hands-on experience.

Basically, they created such an environment where it was so safe for creativity. At the same time, a lot of the subjects that we were dealing with were extremely sensitive, but it was all about grounding performances in the truth of what the show is about. That's about relationships and family values. It's all about "How far would you go for your loved ones and what would you do for them?"

She was so accessible. Both Melissa Carter and Miranda Kwok were so accessible along with the writers who were on set. It was a privilege to be on such a creative set where everybody was willing to collaborate. There was never a certain hierarchy. It was all about creating a process to tell the truth. With that, it lends so much authenticity to the way the show has been produced.

She understands the challenges of obtaining healthcare as an immigrant

Telling the truth about something as serious as the failings in the medical system in the US — what was your take on that?

Whenever I read the scripts, it was so creative in how they did weave in these  heavy topics that are so relevant where healthcare is necessary. Being undocumented, it's not everybody, but it heightens the situation. It shows how people are still willing to come to this country to find that American Dream, despite the system failing them, because there is still hope. As an Australian, I came to the US with studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then started modeling. I got my modeling visa and then got my green card because of all the acting work that I did.

Throughout that, despite being legal, I still didn't have access to any healthcare that was available to US citizens. I had to be very vigilant of my health, so I couldn't end up at the doctors or anything. I would have to go to Walgreens or whatever pharmacist that I could to deal with whatever situation. 

I commend Planned Parenthood, who allowed for those services at that time when I didn't have access to healthcare. It's at that time too — with Obamacare as well — those were the things that, when I wasn't really working as an actor, allowed me [to feel secure]. Prior to that, the system was really precarious for me, health-wise. I really had to take care of myself because of that. 

[The show] reminded me of those situations, whenever I read about the people who weren't able to have access to the basic needs of healthcare, and I remember I'd be like, "Oh my God, I don't want to go to the doctor because I know I'm going to have pay all this." On top of that, emergency care — you would not get in an ambulance despite how serious this injury was if you didn't have any insurance. Those were the consequences. Despite that, this country still provides hope. Being here 25 years, where I'm at in this situation, in this position, it's possible.

I'm not sure what Australia's healthcare system is like. What was your experience there?

During COVID, everyone in Australia had free access to vaccinations. If they were sick, healthcare was provided. There wasn't this fear of, "Oh my God, I can't get sick because I can't go to the [doctor] ... I can't afford to get sick." That says a lot. I could have gone home to Australia, where things were a lot easier in that way. You come to this country with this dream and possibilities. Despite all the chaos and division that's happening, people still want that American Dream in their own unique way. Honestly, from where I'm sitting right now, it's absolutely possible.

Martha Millan connected to her character through their shared heritage

How does playing Fiona compare to roles you've had in the past? Did you immediately connect with her, or did you have to work a little bit to understand where she was coming from?

This is the first time where I've been able to flesh out a character over 10 episodes. Normally, I go on set for one day and then I'm done. It's a beautiful experience for me to live out the character, but instinctively, straight away, I connected with her spirit. The fact that Miranda Kwok had based this character on Filipinos — she knew our culture as well. 

I believe my character was based on one of her best friends who is Filipino. She's very familiar with the culture and the spirit of Filipinos, who are always trying to find the positive light in life, whether it's through singing, eating, dancing, [or] praying. It says a lot about the spirit. That's something that I could easily connect with.

In regards to her situation being undocumented, I tried remembering... not that I was undocumented or my parents were undocumented in Australia, but immigration itself. It's a process of assimilation and the experiences you have when you are in a new country, trying to be part of the culture and still maintain your identity. They're always the challenges of anyone immigrating or trying [to] find a better life. That's what I connected with.

These women have gone through so much in the last season that they deserve a part of the American Dream. That's why there's the possibility of us operating a business at the end of the season. It's definitely hopeful. There's always hope in this show, but you have to have obstacles. Otherwise, there's nothing compelling, right?

The show's second season will continue to be character-driven

How do you feel the different genres at play interacting throughout the series? It's been called kind of soapy but dramatic, action-packed, and emotional. 

It's amazing. Even when I have to explain what the show is about, it's so hard to pinpoint it because there are so many elements to it. There's the explosive action throughout the show with Arman's world and Nadia's world, and then there are the very family-oriented scenes and scenarios with Thony and Fiona's world, but then you have this steamy relationship. All I can say is that this is a show jam-packed with whatever you want.

It's [also] grounded throughout the relationships and character-driven, and the relationships between Nadia and Arman and Thony and Garrett. Those are all relatable in a sense of... Well, I don't know so much about the FBI and everything. I know that we're living in heightened circumstances, but the relationship dynamics are all grounded in ways that are relatable to everybody and especially the family ... We deal with a lot of conflict in family, and it's about "How do you respond or react to those situations?" The show highlights a lot of that.

It's great that it got a second season, so it can continue to deal with that material. What was it like when you heard that the series was renewed? Did you see that renewal coming?

We were all hopeful because for it was a very incredible journey and process. I know in the De La Rosa side, because I didn't get to cross worlds with Arman and Nadia's world and Hayak's world, I saw our relationship offset as well to be very authentic. That also translates with our performances. I had a good feeling it would be [renewed], but you never know. I found out — I was sleeping, and I got a call from Oliver Hudson. I didn't realize everybody was patched in, and he's like, "Are you sleeping?" I'm like, "What are you calling me for? It's 10:00 [p.m.]." I realized everybody was on the call, and I started yelling. Everybody seemed to be very calm.

That's so funny!. At 10:00 at night, was there a time difference between the two of you?

Yes, I was in New York, and everybody else is based in Los Angeles. For them, the news was discovered earlier on in the evening at 7:00. I'm in bed by 10:00 [or] 11:00 these days. That's why I was like, "What's going on?"

I can't even imagine getting ambushed with really good news on a group conference call.

I was like, "Am I dreaming? Is this girl... Am I really awake?" I was super excited, and everybody had already digested and processed it. I'm like, "Please let me know that this is not a dream, and I'm going to wake up and see that we are renewed."

The rest of Season 2 is still in production

Did you anticipate that there would be such an enthusiastic fan base for this material, or were you a little unsure, even though it's such a quality show?

Absolutely unsure. This was such a risky show in terms of the content, everything about it — being so diverse and representative in every manner that you don't know how any project is going to be received. With this being so unique, it was a huge risk for Fox and Warner Brothers, but they saw something ... [It's] especially a testament to the ratings, it says that this is the content that's being craved out there because of its authenticity and its uniqueness and its representation. It's paving the way and spearheading a lot more shows and content to explore that.

It does such a fantastic job in terms of representation, as well as storytelling and relatability, and then it dramatizes that even further. Without any spoilers, what can fans look forward to for the rest of Season 2? Are there any Easter eggs you can let us in on?

The heightened circumstances have been elevated to another level. Put it that way. If you thought last season was explosive and highly charged, Season 2 is on another level, and I commend the writers who have still maintained the quality of the show and the entertainment factor of the show. This season, you're going to find a darker side of "The Cleaning Lady" in terms of its journey on all fronts. All characters are going to go through extreme challenges of moral grays and world's colliding and new alliances. 

Is there anything else you wish we'd covered?

All I can say is the whole cast and crew are ... diligently working through this season. We're still shooting right now. It's very different from last season where the season finished and then we wrapped and then it aired. At this point, we're still shooting and completing the season, and it's already aired. I'm trying not to watch any of the episodes. Actually, I haven't watched any of the episodes because as an actor, I am scared it's going to get in my mind and affect me in many different ways. That's not going to help Fiona.

Do you like watching yourself in general? Would you go back after?

Oh my God, no. There is a level of you want to know that you did a good job, and you hope that you really live up to what's been created for you and hope that it responds well with the audience. Then, the vanity comes in of an actor, and you don't want to see yourself because it's like, "Oh my God, what's wrong with my face? I'm doing all these facial expressions," and those are human things that you end up nitpicking. I want to stay away from that right now. It's definitely a new experience for me in all aspects. We'll see.

New episodes of "The Cleaning Lady" air Mondays at 9:00 p.m. ET on FOX.

This interview has been edited for clarity.