How ‘The Watchful Eye’ Star Mariel Molino Brought Her Physical Comedy Background to Freeform’s Hitchcockian Thriller

“Everything that you think you might have to play up, actually, you have to be a lot more small about,” Molino told TheWrap

Mariel Molino stars in “The Watchful Eye”(Freeform/JUSTINE YEUNG)

Coming from a background in Spanish physical comedy, Mariel Molino, who plays a nanny with a sinister secret in Freeform’s new Hitchcockian thriller series “The Watchful Eye,” faced a “learning curve” while filming ominous scenes as she transformed big movements into small specifics full of nuance and imagination.

“Everything that you think you might have to play up, actually, you have to be a lot more small about and you have to be more specific and nuanced,” Molino told TheWrap. “I really learned to trust my instinct and my imagination … and use the camera as my co-star because a lot of the scenes were me alone and me reacting to a sound that wasn’t there, or a person that is not there.”

The new Freeform series, which premiered Jan. 30, follows Elena (Molino), a live-in nanny to a wealthy widower (Warren Christie) who moves into a mysterious Manhattan building riddled with old money, lies and haunting supernatural entities. As she untangles the web of deceit crafted by the apartment building’s former and present residents, some of Elena’s own secrets come spilling out as well.

Though Elena’s innocent do good facade is quickly shattered when she sneaks a photo of the building’s blueprints and meets her boyfriend (Jon Ecker) to discuss their plot to uncover a treasure hidden in the depths of The Greybourne, Molino worked with showrunner Emily Fox to ensure her “duplicitous” character was anchored to deep motivations that span beyond the treasure hunt.

“I really wanted to make sure that she was also implicit in this story, and that she had that darkness that we have,” Molino said. “The best characters that I really resonate with are people that have the light in the darkness, and that do sometimes questionable things to get what they want, because of love, fear, resentment or revenge.”

For Molino, that meant developing her character’s backstory further than what was on the page, from imagining what kind of dreams she had — if she had any dreams — to what her relationship with her brother and her parents looked like prior to moving into The Greybourne.

“When you grow up in New York, especially in a lower to middle class family, life is so different, you grow up so much faster — and then on top of that … any type of loss in your family just turns everything up a notch,” Molino said. “Knowing those details and honing in those that minutiae was was really important to kind of give her some humanity.”

The Mexican American actress also brought another aspect of her background in Spanish comedy and telenovelas by dropping Spanish when Elena is with her family or boyfriend and “she’s able to loosen up,” according to Molino, marking a stark difference from the buttoned up Greybourne residents who also keep a watchful eye on Elena.

Though the script incorporated Spanish dialogue to begin with, Molino and Ecker had “free range” to pick and choose when to drop into Spanish during their initial reads based on what felt right to them.

“There’s times where you feel like it’s written just to be written,” Molino said of the Spanish dialogue written into the script. “I would go through and first try the scene as the real Elena, and [see] if there was a moment where it felt necessary.”

Given Elena’s thick New York accent after being raised in the city, Molino’s decisions to drop into Spanish were also heavily impacted by dialect work. “There were times where I would say something in English with the New York accent, but it had that Latin twang to it and so it just felt more comfortable to say it in Spanish and, rhythmically, it was very similar,” Molino said.

When Elena firsts meets Matthew, the handsome widower who employs her to take care of his son, Jasper, she is also introduced to Tory (Amy Acker), Matthew’s distrusting sister-in-law who immediately finds Elena unacceptable as a nanny candidate — an experience Molino says is filled with mixed feelings of empathy, curiosity and distrust.

“With Tory, [Elena] immediately feels like her walls come up and she feels like she has a target on her back,” Molino said. “At the same time, she’s really curious about why she’s acting the way that she does and why she’s [being] condescending towards her. She’s like this puzzle that she wants to figure out.”

As Elena finds her footing straddling a level of nanny perfection that will please Tory while also covertly executing her secret mission, her boyfriend, Scott, is both a refuge from her double life as well as her partner in crime. As two find themselves in over their heads in this hunt, with Elena at odds with a sinister presence in her own home, the truth of their relationship becomes another mystery in itself.

“I do think that there’s a lot of love there,” Molino said, adding that their distrustful and toxic relationship reflects two people in need of “therapy and communication.” “I do think that the root of their relationship there is love, but I think that they both become selfish in their own pursuits and that’s when problems start happening.”

As her demanding day job, commitment to the treasure hunt and feelings for Scott intertwine with new friendships with fellow nannies across town and even deeper family secrets she has tried her best to bury, Elena faces a dizzying plate of responsibilities that she can’t handle on her own.

“She’s pretty focused on her objective,” Molino said. “However, because of The Greybourne and the things that are hidden amongst the walls, I think she she needs to accept that she going to need help … she’s going to have to let her walls down in order to survive.”