Freeform is easing into 2023 with an all new mystery thriller. Kicking off on Jan. 30, The Watchful Eye follows Elena Santos, the newly hired live-in nanny for an affluent Manhattan family reeling from a recent family tragedy. The building they live in and its inhabitants are full of deadly secrets and ulterior motives. However, what they don’t know is that Elena has some secrets of her own.
“Elena is a very savvy, but complicated woman who is on a quest to protect her family, the ones she loves. But I think that she's also a woman who holds on to a lot of anger and resentment that, I believe, will end up changing who she is at her core,” Mariel Molino, who stars as Elena, tells Los Angeles Confidential. “She's also someone who is very compassionate, caring and she starts to form a lot of emotional connections within The Greybourne, this building that she starts living in, that will threaten to derail her mission.”
Illuminated by mystery and suspense, the show creators have likened The Watchful Eye to a Hitchcockian tale. Molino agrees, noting the show’s eerie and cinematic nature.
“A lot of the female characters in Hitchcock films were either very daft or were punished and killed,” she points out. “Unfortunately, they weren't really the heroes of the story. And I think in The Watchful Eye, there's a force to be reckoned with Elena and she's this very empowered female at the center of his story who's got an ax to grind.”
Ahead of the series premiere, continue reading for more from Molino about Elena’s life-changing experience at The Greybourne, the fun of performing in a mystery thriller and finding community through television.
What did you enjoy about acting in a mystery thriller?
When I was working in Mexico City, I had really done a lot of comedies. And I think, as an actor, one of your fears is obviously to be typecasted. I remember when I started to do a lot of comedies, I was like, “Oh, I'm never gonna get out of this. I'm always gonna be a comedic actor.” So when I got this opportunity to play Elena, well, first of all, I was a little bit surprised, maybe even shocked that they saw that potential in me. But then I was really excited to tackle a character that had this duplicity and this complication because it was so complex. And for me to get to embody a character that has so much meat to chew off is exciting. She seems to be the hero of the story, but she may live long enough to see herself become the villain.
There are a number of scenes where Elena is in secret passageways and rooms in The Greybourne, and she ends up feeling overwhelmed or trapped. What was it like to portray that sense of claustrophobia?
There was a whole wall where I see the whole crew, where I know that I'm not trapped, where I know that I'm not claustrophobic. But it was really important for me to do a lot of internal work and feel like, “OK, I know I physically don't feel like this at this moment, but what is my character going through in the sense of where else do I feel like I'm trapped?” And also me, Mariel like, “How have I felt this before in my own life and how can I conjure up a feeling here in this moment and make it feel truthful?” So it is a lot of concentration and trying to stay in the moment. I will say that a lot of those scenes I was doing alone. And so there was just such incredible support from the crew. I felt like they always had my back and that I learned so much from them, and even learning to work with the camera and getting to know the cameras almost like a co-star because a lot of the scenes it's just me and the camera. And Tim, my camera operator, was so great. And we would just, in a way, choreograph this dance where we would try and consider the space with the camera and me and that was something I've never gotten to do before. I've never gotten that solo performance stuff, so that was really fun.
Recently, we’ve had a number of movies and TV shows that examine the ultra wealthy. What is something new that The Watchful Eye brings to this conversation?
Well, I think there definitely is this conversation of “eat the rich” and we have that element of the upstairs-downstairs, quite literally. Elena is moved into the 13th floor of the apartment where she quite literally has a Harry Potter room. And there is this conversation of like, “What does it mean when you have all the money in the world and how does it change your perspective on life and other people and what are you willing to do to hang on to your power?”And on the other end of the spectrum, “What are you willing to do to get that power and revenge and reparations?” And I think it's the age old tale, right? Even if you have it all, the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side.
I have to say that for actors like Kelly Bishop and Amy Acker, who had these characters that were the [other] half, and that were on a surface level, very unlikeable or seem to have it all. You start to also maybe understand what they're going through and maybe not judge them as much. I think it's a subject that we love because it's difficult not to maybe want the demise of that one percent, but at the same time, you're in for the ride because you get to see a window into this life that is just so crazy.
What do you hope audiences take away from Elena's journey at The Greybourne?
I really want audiences to be along for the ride. I think there's something so incredibly powerful about this thriller genre that I personally I look forward to when I watch shows— this journey where the stakes seems so real, where your adrenaline is pumping, where it activates that fight or flight, that just really makes you want to crack the case along with everyone else that's watching. I think that that creates a sense of community as we've seen with these shows that have become so popular, like The White Lotus.
We want to talk about it and we want to try and figure out who's the killer and we have these theories and it's just such a great form of escapism and you're able to just lose yourself in this fictional world. And if anything else, I want people to really, really have a good time and root for different characters.
Before filming started, did you know how the story ends?
I knew from day one what Elena's mission was and what her motives were and so I didn't necessarily want to know exactly how it ended because I also had to keep my blinders on in order to suspect everyone. I couldn't just know from the get, “OK, this is the person” because then maybe that would treat my performance differently or maybe even subconsciously, even though I didn't know or wouldn't know maybe subconsciously that would treat my performance differently. So I wanted to know just what was something that I had to know, which is everything about Elena's backstory, which is so rich already.
But everything else, that's what makes it so fun because I have a mission, but then I get to The Greybourne and all of a sudden all these obstacles are being thrown my way. And even the things that Elena suspects are going on in The Greybourne, you can argue is it psychological, is it in my head or is it actually happening? So that was really fun to navigate and, at times, was very challenging, of course.
When you did get to know how everything wrapped up, what was your initial reaction to reading the script for the finale?
Well, I will say that not everything is wrapped up. There's still a lot of mysteries. There's still a lot of unanswered questions, even in the finale. But I think that they do deliver a very dramatic ending, one that I was very surprised to realize that I was implicated in a larger story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Sam Takataka