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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In ‘The Horror of Dolores Roach,’ the empanadas are to die for

Justina Machado and Aaron Mark in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, where “The Horror of Dolores Roach” is set. Machado stars; Mark is the show’s creator.

By Erik Pipenburg

You know those days when you would kill for an empanada? Well.

It was a cool and sunny morning last month in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, and actress Justina Machado and writer Aaron Mark had agreed to meet there to talk about their new Amazon series, “The Horror of Dolores Roach.” An eight-part horror-comedy, starting Friday on Prime Video, the show makes the neighborhood a central focus, which was why I took the train uptown. It does the same for cannibalism, though there was nothing like that on the schedule as far as I knew.

But we had all day to talk about eating people. First, empanadas. Grabbing a park bench, Mark and Machado fueled up on the hot, crisp hand-held pastries — guava and cheese, carne de res — from Empanadas Monumental, near 157th Street and Broadway, around the corner from where Mark lived for a decade as what he called a “broke, broke, broke” playwright.

I drooled a little watching Machado and Mark take bites of the face-sized empanadas, which were perfectly golden brown, bubbly in the right spots and oozy, not greasy. They were tasty, Machado said, but she was partial to the chicken-and-cheese pastelillos, fried turnovers similar to empanadas, that her Puerto Rican mother used to make.

“She would make them with a cafe con leche,” said Machado, known best for her roles in the “One Day at a Time” reboot and “Jane the Virgin.” “I could kill, like, four of them.”

Empanadas devoured, we moved to a nearby cafe — this time, to talk over cinnamon buns — and got right to the macabre meat of “Dolores Roach.” Mark, who created the show, serves as showrunner with Dara Resnik. Based on his fictional Gimlet Media podcast of the same name (2018-19), the series itself is an adaptation of the one-woman play he wrote, “Empanada Loca.” A New York Times review of its 2015 off-Broadway production by the LAByrinth Theater Company called it an “exuberantly macabre” show.

Machado stars as Dolores, who returns to a gentrified Washington Heights after 16 years in prison for taking the rap for her drug-dealer boyfriend. Rattled by her new surroundings, she tries to start life over as a masseuse in the basement of an empanada shop run by her old friend Luis (Alejandro Hernández). But after her jerk of a first client gropes her, and she snaps, killing him in a sudden rage, she can’t seem to stop murdering.

To the delight of his unsuspecting customers, the deranged Luis decides to make empanadas stuffed with the kibbled dead body parts of her victims, leaving Dolores to wonder how her life has taken such a monstrous path.

Mark, a self-described “Jew from Texas” and a longtime horror fan, said the idea for a “contemporary gender-flipped ‘Sweeney Todd’” started percolating in 2013, when he and actress Daphne Rubin-Vega developed the idea in New York. (She played Dolores in the play and podcast and is an executive producer of the series.) Mark moved four years ago to Los Angeles, where he had no luck pitching it as a TV series.

But the theater world is small: Mimi O’Donnell, a former artistic director of LAByrinth, was tapped to head scripted podcasts at Gimlet, and she brought the project over as her first fiction podcast. (She is now the head of scripted fiction at Spotify Studios.) In 2019, horror producer Blumhouse Television came aboard to help develop it for TV.

The show features some high-profile names in supporting roles, including Cyndi Lauper as a Broadway usher who moonlights as a private investigator and Marc Maron as the empanada shop’s landlord.

But the series also has two uncredited stars: empanadas and Washington Heights. Mark said the show’s food stylist, Rossy Earle, tapped into her Panamanian roots to choreograph how Hernández rolled out, stuffed and fried the empanadas. She crafted distinct recipes for Dolores’ victims so that each corpse-meat filling had its own flavor.

For Dolores’ first victim, Earle braised pork shoulder and butt in Achiote oil to give the filling an unctuous mouth feel — “Greasy and obnoxious,” like the character, Earle wrote in an email.

Much of the series was shot in Ontario, but parts were filmed in Washington Heights, including on Mark’s old stoop on West 156th Street, where he recalled days spent “listening to what gentrification was doing to the humans who had been here for decades.”

“That’s really what got me to ‘Sweeney Todd,’” he said. “I thought, this neighborhood is cannibalizing itself.”

(Mark acknowledged in an email that he himself had been “very much an interloper uptown”; that awareness, and a growing “sense of culpability,” he said, had fueled his urgency to write about what he had seen and been a part of.)

Machado, who grew up in Chicago, had a personal connection to Washington Heights, as well. In 2009, she made her Broadway debut in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakout musical, “In the Heights,” which is set there.

“I guess there’s something about the Heights that’s calling me,” she said.

As our conversation wrapped up and Machado and Mark eyed their doggy bags of empanadas, they were mum on whether a second season was in the works. But Roach isn’t Dolores’ last name for nothing. “She’s unkillable,” Mark said.

Is she a coldblooded monster? Or a victim of circumstances? Machado and Mark didn’t entirely agree.

“She’s not a maniac,” Mark said. “She wants to be a good person.”

“She’s a survivor,” Machado offered. “But she’s a sociopath.”

Either way, Machado called it “liberating” to be in a show about Latinos that wasn’t afraid to be comically sinister and eye-poppingly gory.

“When we try to tell our stories, we feel a responsibility to make it a happy ending because we want to change the narrative, we want people to know that we have human experiences, that we are human beings,” she said. “But we love horror, too.”

On playing Dolores, she added, with a laugh: “I’m a Latina serial killer, and I’m proud of it. I really am.”

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