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The Watchful Eye's Mariel Molino Talks Finding a 'Challenging Rival' in Kelly Bishop

Series star Molino and showrunner Emily Fox tease what's to come for Freeform's new mystery.
  • Mariel Molino in The Watchful Eye (Photo: Freeform/Kailey Schwerman)
    Mariel Molino in The Watchful Eye (Photo: Freeform/Kailey Schwerman)

    Editor’s Note: This interview contains spoilers for the first two episodes of The Watchful Eye, “Hen in the Fox House” and “Hide and Seek.”

    After making her U.S. television debut in ABC’s short-lived drama Promised Land, Mariel Molino returns to the Disney family in Freeform’s new thriller The Watchful Eye. Molino stars as Elena Santos, a woman who gets a bit more than she bargained for after landing a job as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family in New York City. In the opening minutes of the premiere, viewers learn that the nanny position is just a front: Elena and her boyfriend Scott (Jon Ecker) are after a precious ruby that was hidden in the stuffy apartment building, The Greybourne, decades prior. As Elena searches for the jewel, she discovers dark secrets about The Greybourne and its residents, including the imposing owner of the penthouse suite, Mrs. Charlotte Greybourne Ivey (played by the indomitable Kelly Bishop, of Gilmore Girls fame).

    The first two episodes of The Watchful Eye set the stage for the many twists to come, from Elena’s complicated backstory to the uneasy alliance between Elena and Mrs. Ivey. As showrunner Emily Fox tells Primetimer of the fascinating dynamic between the two women, “Game recognizes game.”

    In an interview, Molino and Fox discuss finding the “humanity” in these deceitful characters, Kelly Bishop’s murderous line-reads, and The Greybourne horrors that would put them over the edge.

    The Watchful Eye combines so many genres into one: It’s a Hitchcockian thriller, a supernatural drama, a YA romance, and also a social commentary. How was the show pitched to you, Mariel, and how did you convey what you wanted out of Mariel's performance, Emily?

    Mariel Molino: At its core, it is a thriller, and that was what was so exciting for me. I love a thriller, so that was the first thing that really attracted me to the project. But there’s a very empowering female at the center of it who’s got an ax to grind. And I think that's what differentiates it from the classic Hitchcockian thriller, where a lot of times, the female characters are led to their own demise, or literally their own death. From my conversations with Emily, Elena is a woman who, yes, is pulling a con and is doing these deceitful things, but it’s out of love and survival and trying to protect her own. And that was the moral compass I really tried to hold on to as the series progressed.

    Emily Fox: What I admired and was so excited about initially when Mariel came on the project was this steeliness that she combines with this ebullience. It’s not steeliness in a fully angry way. It was more a sense of determination and eyes on the prize, but also knowing that part of her journey was going to be realizing that the prize is not all it’s built up to be. That’s where the social commentary really comes in. We all, especially at this moment in time, have been brainwashed to think, “If you have lots and lots of money, then you’ve got no problems.” And to a certain degree that is true, but when Elena enters this world of The Greybourne, she has a very binary view of good and bad — rich people bad. And in opening all of these metaphorical doors and windows inside of this building, she sees the humanity of each individual.

    That’s what we were really excited to explore, both the humanity of all the people she meets, but also her humanity and her capacity to change and grow and start to feel things. This is someone who has deferred her grief for a really long time, and she’s certainly not the first person to try to stuff that void full of cash. It doesn’t work. But that’s for her to find out. She’s a very active character. She doesn’t just let things happen to her. And she’s defiant, and she’s clever. But she also is a young woman in a city meeting other people and dealing with boyfriends. And in that sense, it was a big priority for us to make her feel human and dimensional and rounded and familiar and individualized. She’s a person that you know, that any of us could know.

    Mariel, how much did you know about Elena going in? Did you receive a road map with her arc, or did you have a similar experience to the audience in that you discovered new details, episode-by-episode?

    Molino: Thankfully, I knew most everything about her past. It was incredibly important when crafting this character to know where she came from, what happened to her, what happened to her family, and the relationships she has outside of The Greybourne. Including the relationship that she has with Scott, which is pivotal to why she’s in The Greybourne and why she’s doing what she’s doing. So for me, that was really important. As actors, we always try not to judge the character that we’re doing because at the end of the day, everyone comes from a place of love. And then what happens is the actions that you end up doing really form your character. Knowing where she comes from, what happened to her, the grievances, then I knew very directly where I was going and what my motivation was, and what my objective was. And then all the other obstacles that came through in The Greybourne, with the other characters, with The Greybourne itself.

    Photo: Freeform/Justine Yeung

    Because The Greybourne really is its own character.

    Molino: Exactly. That’s what Elena doesn’t expect. She never expects to come face to face with The Greybourne as this obstacle in her way. Emily and I talked thoroughly about who she was and why she’s doing what she’s doing. So that was really what gave me my through line.

    But that being said, one of my fears was that people weren’t going to understand her or even love her because she was so deceitful, because we didn't really know why she was doing these things. And you really don’t find out about her past until more than halfway through [the season]. There’s so much that hasn’t been explored that we don’t know about yet. That’s what makes it so fun, too, is she’s still this mystery being solved.

    Though they couldn’t be more different, Elena and Mrs. Ivey have an interesting relationship, and they’re often more honest with one another than they are with anyone else in the building. What do you think Mrs. Ivey sees in Elena that allows her to drop her guard a little bit, and vice versa?

    Fox: She sees herself. It’s the unlikeliest pairing. Talk about two ends of the spectrum of types of people in the world. The phrase we always used when we were describing Elena’s relationship with Mrs. Ivey is “Game recognizes game.” These are two people who have almost a decoder ring on human beings. Not everybody has that. Most of the other characters are really taking people at face value. But both Elena and Mrs. Ivey have the shining, and someone who has the shining can tell when someone else has the shining. And also, they are both very determined and they will go to any lengths to protect the thing that’s important to them.

    When Mariel was saying that we want to make sure our audience is along for the ride with Elena and that they are compassionate for what she wants and needs, I never had a concern in the world that the audience wasn’t going to be completely on board with her from minute one. Because she’s a sympathetic character, but she’s also interesting, and she’s not passive. To me the exploration is always the “why.” Why do people do things? There’s always a reason. It might be a bad reason, but there is always a reason. And in this case, with both of these women, it’s, “I have something I need to protect and anything that gets in my way is going to have to be moved out of my way.” There is a common thread with all of our characters — everyone wants something. For some of them it’s a little bit left of the law, and for some of them it’s a little bit more sincere and above-board. Like Matthew [Elena’s boss, played by Warren Christie] his dearest want in the world is to protect his son, and that’s genuine. But for Elena and for Mrs. Ivey, they see each other as, “You could help me but you could also really mess things up for me. And I wonder what’s going to happen.”

    Molino: They are two women that see life very similarly. They’re both very cynical. They both have not a lot of faith in humanity and they understand that life isn’t fair. I agree with Emily, they know that people do what they must in order to get what they want, and it’s just that bullsh*t radar. They just can smell bullsh*t. I think they see in each other a worthy ally and also a challenging rival. There’s these two things that they admire and fear in each other — or at least Elena fears Mrs. Ivey, to a certain point.

    Some of their interactions are so funny, as when Elena shows up with pastries and Mrs. Ivey says, “Oh, great, the perfect gift for a diabetic who lives alone.” Were any of these moments improvised? They feel so off-the-cuff, right down to the small smile that you see appear on Elena’s face.

    Fox: That’s just Kelly Bishop. She brings something to those lines of dialogue that is so tart and so precise. Everybody got murdered every day by Kelly Bishop, where it was just like, “I’m dead now. I’m just going to lie on the floor and be dead.” I didn’t even know how funny that line was. What’s amazing about her is that when the words come from her mouth, it doesn’t feel written. It does have that feeling of improv. And you know that her delivery is so precise and so razor-sharp that anything you give her to say is going to be elevated times 100. She’s such a delight in real life. She’s so much fun. She’s a great gossip and in another world where Mrs. Ivey is nice, I think she would be equally funny. But she really played that role of someone who has spent her whole life trying to guard her secrets and preserve her way of life, and she just doesn’t suffer fools. Some of my favorite dialogue from her is coming up — it involves a beleaguered dress maker.

    Photo: Freeform/Brendan Meadows

    Molino: But also, that is Emily’s dialogue. She said Kelly Bishop makes it feel very improvised, but that is Emily’s really cunning, beautiful dialogue that Kelly Bishop delivers so great. Every time [Bishop] comes up, I am dying. And obviously, you have these moments that are so great. Like when she comes into the elevator and I’m like, “That’s such a pretty suit,” and she’s like, “Oh, Carolina Herrera, she’s a close personal friend of mine.” There’s this moment where she looks at me and just brushes me from head to toe, sees that she cannot compliment anything I'm wearing, and continues. She’s just so great. She’s so good.

    Fox: And that’s basically a documentary. That head-to-toe look is something that my husband’s grandmother, may she rest in peace, that’s what she did to me every time she looked at me. And then she wouldn’t say anything — she doesn’t need to. I could hear her thoughts, and I’d just have to go curl up in a corner and put a blanket over myself and long to disappear. Because there is just something about a certain kind of woman. We all know ladies like that, who have just seen it all. They do not have the time. They will give you a little bit, but all you need to know is that she’s close personal friends with Carolina Herrera. Which, of course she is.

    We see Elena go through so much at The Greybourne, even in just these first two episodes. Would you have stayed there for so long? What would have been the final straw for you?

    Molino: Any time there are spirits messing with me, I’m out! I’m done. I’m out of here, goodbye. Nothing in this world is worth being haunted or followed — especially for that room. If I would’ve had the classic six apartment that Matthew or Tory [Matthew’s sister-in-law, played by Amy Acker] had, then maybe I would be more open to a haunting.

    Fox: I could put aside almost anything for the view that I imagine they have from their living room. But I feel like I would draw the line at finding a dead body.

    So Episode 1, you’re out.

    Fox: I mean, let’s say two dead bodies. Between two and five. After five, I’m out.

    I’m joking, but I’m also serious that there is something so alluring about a castle, right? The Greybourne is a castle. And that fantasy of living in a castle is something that’s so ingrained in all of us from childhood fairytales, and you have this notion that living in a castle must be magical. But it also could be dark magic. I'm sort of into dark magic, so I probably have a pretty high threshold for how much haunting I would be willing to bear to have a really nice apartment. But a maximum of four to five dead bodies. And then I’m just going to find a nice post-war building.

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    New episodes of The Watchful Eye air Mondays at 10:00 PM ET on Freeform and stream next-day on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Watchful Eye, Freeform, Hulu, Emily Fox, Kelly Bishop, Mariel Molino