Judy Reyes says no research was required when taking on her current TV gig.
Actors often prepare for roles such as surgeons, detectives and forensics specialists by meeting and shadowing their real-life counterparts on the job.
Reyes did that, in fact, when she portrayed a nurse on Scrubs.
But not this time. Not for the role of Zoila, a sage housekeeper in the insane world of Lifetime’s Devious Maids.
No need to learn the finer points of wielding a feather duster that’s never going to be used.
“There’s really not much cleaning in this show,” Reyes says. “At most, we fold a few towels. We definitely do some hardcore folding.”
Here, the skill required of Reyes and her co-stars is something they already have in spades: extraordinary comedic timing.
Devious Maids, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, is a campy, trashy, politically incorrect prime-time soap created by Marc Cherry, the writer-producer with the wonderfully warped mind that brought us Desperate Housewives.
That pretty much telegraphs everything you need to know about this new show. It’s a broadly played satire of contemporary American life, one teeming with dirty little secrets, illicit affairs and an ugly murder of which an innocent man stands accused.
But rather than being set in the suburbs, this twisted tale takes place in Beverly Hills, where the haves and have-nots wage class warfare poolside.
The heroes are the have-nots, five Latina housekeepers with dreams of one day leading better lives. Much of the comedy comes from the fact that the haves, the rich and privileged employers, haven’t got a clue.
When Reyes was approached about starring in the show, she admits, the premise initially rubbed her the wrong way. As she recalled during a recent publicity visit to the tony W Hotel in Dallas, “I was like, ‘Why does the one show on television with five Latina leads have to be about maids?’”
And if it weren’t bad enough that the show seemed to perpetuate cultural stereotypes, Reyes also expressed this complaint: “And why do they want me to play the oldest one?”
Then Reyes read the script and all of her misgivings evaporated.
“In spite of myself, I really liked it,” she says. “The show is really funny and I love the character I’m playing.”
That said, Reyes wasn’t surprised when there was backlash from pressure groups that hadn’t yet seen the show.
“Yes, it was the source of some instant criticism, just like my instantaneous response to the script before having seen it,” she says. “And yes, it’s heightened and exaggerated for the sake of satire. But at the same time, there are elements of this show that are quite real.”
Co-star Edy Ganem — who plays Zoila’s daughter, Valentina, a hottie who’s constantly scheming to snare her employer’s college-age son — points out that the fancy folk living in La La Land are famous for their excessive, outrageous, self-involved behavior.
“We were doing a panel to talk about the show and there was this one Latina woman there who worked for an executive, a billionaire who ran a huge network,” Ganem recalls. “She stood up and said, ‘I commend you for doing this. I saw the pilot and everything you say here is true. I have witnessed everything that happens in the show except the murder.’”
The other three devious maids are played by Ana Ortiz ( Ugly Betty), Dania Ramirez ( Entourage) and Roselyn Sanchez ( Without a Trace).
The Lucci factor
But it’s Susan Lucci, as Zoila’s vapid, youth-obsessed boss, who completely steals the show.
When we first meet Lucci’s character, Genevieve Delatour, she is cowering beneath her bed after swallowing a fistful of pills. The reason: Her pool-boy lover said she looked 40!
When Zoila quite correctly points out that this could be considered a compliment, given that’s she’s pushing 60, Genevieve bursts into tears.
Eventually, Zoila and Genevieve’s son persuade her to go to the hospital to have her stomach pumped — but only after she fixes her hair and makeup, because you never know who you might bump into in the emergency room.
“Marc Cherry’s writing is so fabulous,” says Lucci, who knows a thing or two about soap-opera storytelling, given her long run on All My Children. “The character he has created for me is an absolute gift. She is so outrageous, and I’m devouring every bit of it with a big old spoon.”