Martha Millan Opens Up About Playing Fiona On The Cleaning Lady - Exclusive Interview

You may know Martha Millan for her work in "The OA," "Succession," "Entourage," "Madam Secretary," and "The Drummer." But you'll soon know her best for starring in Fox's new crime drama, "The Cleaning Lady."

The series follows Thony De La Rosa (played by Élodie Yung), a young doctor who comes to the U.S. seeking medical treatment for her son. But when the system fails to help her and her child, she begins working as a cleaning lady for organized crime. Millan plays Fiona De La Rosa, Thony's sister-in-law and a fellow cleaning lady dealing with being undocumented while trying to help Thony.

During an exclusive interview with The List, Millan, who was born in the Philippines but moved to Sydney, Australia when she was 4, discussed how exciting it was to be in a show with Southeast Asian leads and to tell an undocumented mother's story. She also shared her favorite behind-the-scenes memories and what it's been like seeing people respond to the season premiere.

How Martha Millan approached playing Fiona

So what can you tell us about your character Fiona in "The Cleaning Lady"?

Fiona is ... She's a lot of fun. She's unpredictable, definitely a lot of passion and fire, and impulsive. But I think throughout the series, you'll find a really strong arc of empowerment in terms of trying to find her voice while being an undocumented person.

Were there any aspects to the character that you related to while you were playing her?

I think her passion, her impulsiveness, her unpredictability. No, I think me as Martha, I love having fun, and I love just kind of just always being in the moment. So, I really related to that with Fiona's spirit, I think. So that was something.

Do you think there are any moments in the show that'll surprise viewers with her character development?

Well, she definitely likes punching people, so that's an element of surprise in itself. But I think just her plight in terms of wanting to be a good mother under her circumstances as an undocumented person. I think you'll see just her journey in achieving that for her family and for her children. For me, that was of what I wanted to base my character on, just to really ground the choices I made as an actor to become that mother who is a strong mother figure, despite the fact [that] she's flawed in many ways.

The Cleaning Lady cast is 'very close'

And what was it like working with Élodie Yung and the rest of the cast on this?

Élodie Yung is an incredible actress, as everybody knows. But not only that, she's funny. She's so much fun off set as well. And that's the thing. We have amazing chemistry, which translates because we've also all become very close.

Sean Lew and Faith Bryant, who play my children, we've all just become very close as a family, even her son, Valentino and Sebastian [LaSalle]. I think that camaraderie translates through on screen because we are like that off screen as well. We definitely tease each other sometimes. But it is. It's just wonderful to work with people that you absolutely adore and love and then really play out these scenes because there's no hindrance in just really going for it. And we're all very passionate about this show and invested in it, that we want to always be connected while we're performing. And so, that, I think, transcends, and you can see that on screen, I hope.

I think so. Do you have any favorite moments from behind the scenes working on it?

Élodie and I, as I said, we have a lot of fun, but I think everybody can agree on the fact that we're both bad drivers. And even off set, we have our Thony and Fiona moments with driving.

She's French, and she comes from France. And I don't know of any ... if that has anything to do with being a bad driver, but I'm from Australia. And I drive on the lefthand side of the road. And I live in New York, so the first time we shot the pilot, I hadn't driven in 10 years. And they just said, "Okay, here's a car that we've rented for you." And I was like, "What?"

So that was the first time that I'd driven in 10 years. And thank goodness I made it to set each day. But those funny moments [are] when we're actually doing those car scenes. And you see us driving, and it's just kind of pulling to the corner. That took a lot of time for us, which should have only taken maybe one or two takes. But our driving skills are definitely one to improve.

Just [practicing] it on camera sounds a little high-pressure.

Yeah. Well, because everybody's like, "You got to make this mark, you've got to stop here." And it's just like, we're moving this huge body minivan, and I haven't driven in ages. But at the same time, it's making your mark as well. It's not just you as a person; you're bringing this car to it. So it was just hilarious how many takes you had to do just for me just to park the car.

She wanted to be 'careful' in her portrayal of an undocumented immigrant

Like you said, in the show, both you and Élodie Yung play undocumented immigrants. Were you excited to bring that kind of story to the screen for people?

Yeah, I think it was an element that I really wanted to be careful in how I portrayed the role. Because I think first and foremost, she's a mother. And I think that is what I really wanted to focus on. But at the same time, what she deals with as an undocumented person really adds to the type of mother that she is. And the challenges that she faces are more extraordinary because of the fact that she could lose her children at any moment because of her situation. So any kind of carelessness can cost her life and her family's. And I think that's what really attracted me to Fiona's character. Because you see her as light and bubbly sometimes, but then she's really dealing with everyday issues. And layering all that was quite a beautiful journey for me as an actor to experience. So that was challenging.

Was it difficult to blend that? Like you said, she's a very fun character, but then she has all these serious issues and stresses that she's dealing with day to day. Was it hard to blend that and make it come alive?

Yeah. I mean, for me, I wanted to also focus on being Filipino. And that is how Filipinos are, in terms of when they're dealing with things, there's always time to still karaoke. If something really bad is happening, it's just like, let's eat. You know? And I think that's part of our culture.

I was speaking to [Hollywood correspondent] Yong Chavez, and she's Filipino as well, and she really highlighted the fact that, yes, no matter what we're going through, we'll always find the time to just lighten the mood up. And I think I really had to connect with my Filipino lightness in dealing with those really tough situations that she's facing every day.

What it was like providing Southeast Asian representation

That's amazing. And then this is also Fox's first show where they've had Southeast Asian leads. How do you feel being able to provide that representation?

It's incredible. I mean, Hannah ... For me, the fact that it's the first show that has ever put a Southeast Asian leading lady at the forefront is groundbreaking in itself. And then to center the family on the Filipino culture is also a first. But it's not just that. There are so many other cultures that are represented throughout the show. And I think representation is the key here.

[Producer] Miranda Kwok created and wanted to make a platform for marginalized voices to be heard but also humanize them in a way that people can connect to them because we're all the same, dealing with the same problems regardless of who we are.

But yeah, I'm completely grateful to her for allowing that. Because 25 years ago, I would never have been able to audition for a leading role, being with my heritage. And this is something that's just been groundbreaking. But the good thing is, after it premiered as well, is that it's Fox's highest-rated series premiere in the last two years. So I think it says a lot about what people are looking for out there. And it's a testament to Fox to actually put this in the forefront and kind of just saying, "We're going to go for it." And it's exciting.

How The Cleaning Lady is connecting with its audience

With the show just premiering, what has it been like seeing people first watch it and react to it?

It's incredible. I was flying ... to Sydney when the show dropped, so I wasn't able to watch the premiere, but I've seen the episode. But I was able to look at Twitter and Instagram. And I'm not a big social media person, so I just checked it. You just kept like ... you just saw the numbers climbing. But the one thing that was wonderful was that each comment was so positive.

Everybody was responding in such a positive way to support the representation that the show is just exploring and putting out there because I think there's an appetite for that now. And it's wonderful that it's actually ... [the] evidence of it is in the numbers. So it's exciting.

Do you think there's anything specific in this show that's really drawn people in right from the beginning?

I think the fact that it's just so different in every way, the fact that this is a multi-cultured show right from the get-go. And the issues, obviously, that we're facing throughout the show are very relevant, but it's all grounded in a way that is humanized and based on family values and the want for better opportunities for your family.

So I think, hopefully, people will invest in these characters so that they're able to step in and walk a mile in their shoes to see what they would do if they were in that situation. And I think that that's quite ... It's provocative, but at the same time, I think it's necessary for us to just ask those questions, but be entertained at the same time, of course. ... And I always do this. There's explosions and drama, and yes. And I think that that's why the show is so different because you have every element in it, but it still is grounded because of the relationships that you see throughout the show. So it's a great dynamic.

Absolutely. And do you think there are any aspects of the show that'll really resonate with people as it goes on?

Again, I think it just goes back to representation because there are so many ... even like the DMs that I get, it's all about, "You don't understand how happy I am just to see someone looking like me." Or the fact that they can relate in terms of how we celebrate each moment during our family gatherings on the show. It's just really a great, positive response. So yeah, again, it's all exciting. I have to find another word in my thesaurus and get more words.

What it was like working with Danny Glover in The Drummer

And then you were also recently in "The Drummer."

Oh, yes. Oh, okay.

What was it like working with Danny Glover on that project?

I was excited because I'm easily ... I thought I wasn't easily starstruck, but I do get that. I mean, even with when Lou Diamond Phillips, when we worked with him [on "The Cleaning Lady"], for me, I couldn't even talk. And I couldn't even say my first line in the scene and we had to do a couple of takes.

But working with Danny Glover, I mean, for me, he is a legend in terms of, well — I loved "Lethal Weapon." So it brought me back. And then to work with him was wonderful. He's so gracious and has very calming energy on set, but at the same time, [he's] so powerful to work with. So that was a really great experience for me. I kind of wanted to say his token, "I'm too old for this beep." Kind of. But I didn't want to be one of those.

And that's another project that kind of has this deeper element to it. Is that important to you — what messages you're sharing through the work that you do?

I think it's funny because someone asked me why do I choose these roles? And first of all, to be honest, I just want to work most of the time. And I'm just so grateful every time that I do, but it just does so happen to be projects that allow for diversity, allow for meaningful, I guess, sentiments on what people are going through as veterans as well.

I don't know if so much it's something that a message that I want to send, but I'm incredibly proud to be a part of them. And it is. I think these are things that we have to allow ourselves to acknowledge. So, yeah. It's just by chance, but trust me, I just ... First and foremost, as an actor, it's always like, when's my next job? But then, I'm just incredibly lucky that my next job is always just a really meaningful project. So I'm extremely grateful.

Why Martha Millan started an online youth drama program

Absolutely. And then I saw that you've also started, along with your own acting, you've started an online drama program.


How did you first get into teaching?

I've always been teaching. I love kids. I don't have any, but I'm a kid at heart. I think that's why. There was nothing for me to do during COVID, and I was teaching programs in Brooklyn. But obviously, once that shut down, I needed a way to still connect and express my art in that way. And I thought, "What better way to do it than online?"

And it was just amazing to see the children who were shut down because of COVID, and the connection that they had online is amazing. And the way you kind of navigate through Zoom was wonderful because they were still open to connecting online and really expressive, which I was so surprised and kind of ... I was put in my place, I'll put it that way. I mean, kids are amazing to work with because there's no filter. There's a game that we would do. It's called repetition. And sometimes you would just be observing behavior and repeats like, "Oh, hi, da, da, da." And this kid started doing repetition with me. And I said, "Just say something that you observe." They're like, "You're old." I'm like, "I'm old."

But I love that. And I think that that is ... As an actor, you have to allow for yourself to be unfiltered that way when you're expressing. But yeah, it was just like, I was like, "Okay, I'm old." And it was constant repetition, but it was hilarious. Like those moments I love.

That's so funny. Do you feel like teaching acting for kids, even if it's not something they're going to go into ... do you feel like it has benefits for them?

Yeah. I mean, that's one of the reasons why I do it because I do see the transition that happens from someone who's super quiet. Most of my programs are three weeks. So the first one is like, you see their personalities and everything and just their curiosity, but then you see their commitment the second week. And then you see them just really trusting their instincts. So that really builds confidence in their process.

And I love what happens in the third week. It's just like, "No, we don't want it to finish," because they have ... They've got this newfound confidence that they can express themselves. And I think it really helps just in everyday life, in how we connect with other people and study behavior. And that's kind of what I teach in a fun way. Because it's just, everything's always about fun for me. It has to be; otherwise, I'll just be like, yeah, I'll just get depressed.

Viewers can tune into FOX on Monday's at 9/8C to watch upcoming episodes of "The Cleaning Lady."