‘The Bear’: Liza Colón-Zayas on Season 3 Response, Ayo Edebiri’s ‘Wise’ Directing Note and Acting Opposite Her Real-Life Husband

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for “Napkins,” the sixth episode of “The Bear” Season 3.

Between “Honeydew” and “Forks,” Season 2 of “The Bear” was at its best when it focused on its supporting characters, diving into the inner lives of Marcus (Lionel Boyce) and Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) in ways that enhanced the world of the show as a whole. The same is true of Season 3, which takes a pause from the stress of trying to keep the restaurant open to go back in time and spotlight a foundational member of the kitchen staff: Tina.

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Played by Liza Colón-Zayas, Tina comes off as a hardass in the beginning of Season 1, unbending to Carmy’s (Jeremy Allen White) leadership out of loyalty to his older brother, Mikey (Jon Bernthal), who left the restaurant to Carmy when he died by suicide. But by Season 3, she’s deeply entrenched in the world of fine dining thanks to trust and investment from Carmy and Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who sent her to culinary school and promoted her to sous chef. “Napkins,” the sixth episode of Season 3, gives context to that journey.

Marking Edebiri’s directorial debut — and written by Catherine Schetina — the episode begins as Tina and her husband (played by Colón-Zayas’ real-life husband, “Dexter” star David Zayas) discuss their financial problems, having just had their rent raised. Soon, Tina loses the job she’s given 15 years of her life to, and sets out on a demoralizing odyssey of applying to what seems like every open position in the city of Chicago. After being turned away by a series of millennials with college degrees and little empathy, she reaches a breaking point. After cussing at a receptionist and then missing her bus, Tina wanders into The Beef for a cup of coffee. Richie gives it to her for free, alongside a sandwich that another customer forgot to pick up

It’s enough to make her weep, which drives Mikey to come check on her, as Richie is worried she’ll scare off other customers. Instead of asking her to quiet down, he tells her what’s going on in his own life. Hearing about Mikey’s worries — from the busted restaurant toilet to the fact that he can’t remember the last time he went to bed — helps Tina open up about her own. Noticing how much better he feels after talking to Tina, Mikey offers her a job as a line cook. The rest is history.

Colón-Zayas spoke to Variety about how it felt to lead her own episode — and to learn to deal with Tina’s dirty fridge.

When did you find out you were getting your own episode, and when did you get the script?

I got it while we were shooting Season 3. It wasn’t like we were on hiatus and they were like, “You’re gonna get your own episode.” No, I found out while we were shooting Season 3, and that Ayo was directing, and then I had the ugly cry. It’s just such a phenomenal script, and having Ayo direct was a huge, surreal, beautiful moment.

Tina’s love for Mikey is clear from the beginning of Season 1. Had you spent much time imagining her relationship with him before getting this backstory?

Honestly, I didn’t. Because I didn’t want to lay something into my behavior that would have been a 180. I just trusted the writers. I don’t need to spell everything out. So much can be communicated nonverbally, and I was really happy with our backstory. We’re a loving, struggling blue collar family, but there’s a lot of love.

“THE BEAR” — “Napkins” — Season 3, Episode 6 (Airs Thursday, June 27th) — Pictured: (l-r) Liza Colón-Zayas as Tina, Jon Bernthal as Mikey.  CR: FX.
Liza Colón-Zayas and Jon Bernthal in “Napkins.”

“The Bear” is populated with characters from blue collar backgrounds who are now finding themselves serving a white collar clientele. How do you make sense of Tina’s place in that?

I think the backstory helps to explain some of that. There’s the fear of being replaced in Season 1. She’s gunshy — what will it mean to work for somebody who is much younger with culinary credentials? And now we’ve got two of them. What that meant for me, for Tina, is that we [working class people] tend to get pushed out. And there’s the struggle that happened in trying to even get a job at The Beef, then finding a new home there — and then losing Mikey.

Now, Tina is a little more trusting in the bonds that were created. The goal is for us all to succeed together, but the demons just keep coming back. To listen to Carmy locked in the freezer and talking about how this is all his fault and and why he can’t have anything good, there is some understanding on Tina’s part that he’s just trying to do the best he can. By the time all is wrapped up, Tina is still somewhat optimistic and really trying to not let anybody down. Treading water. Not giving up.

What do you think Tina feels about working in a place that her family would otherwise never be able to afford to eat at?

I don’t think I’ve thought about it in that way. At this point in time, the main concern is making it succeed. Because the reality is that where we were in Season 1, it was going to fail. Period. So not only do we get a second chance, but I, Tina, got a second chance.

So she’s more focused on what’s immediately in front of her.

Yes. Is it scary that these types of places are popping up everywhere around her? The gentrification, and people who look a certain way and don’t have the credentials are just pushed out? Yeah.

But that’s not where she is right now, today. And there is genuine love. We’re all just trying to do the best we can. If it was just about getting the cream of the crop, I would have been let go a year ago.

Since everyone spends so much time thinking and talking about Mikey, how does it feel when Jon Bernthal finally does come to set? What did it bring out of you to shoot your scene with him?

He’s a darling. Before this, we didn’t really have scenes together, but running into each other a couple times, it just comes out of his pores: he’s kind. He’s generous. So it meant a lot to me to give this everything and prepare. That’s what I really focused on: “Let me really get this in my bones so I can play the nuance of the scene.” And to not be held too nervous — like, “Oh my God, Jon Bernthal!”

Did anything change about the way you play Tina now that you know so much more about her history at the restaurant?

Her trajectory overall shows that she is more than what we see at the beginning. I don’t think it’s changed how I play her — I think it grounds how I’ve always played her, which is somebody who is struggling and strong and passionate. She’s the mama bear. And that backstory gives more insight that she isn’t just bitter. This isn’t just about ego and competitiveness. We get to see her doing the best she can, and trying to be there for everyone else.

And I love that it encapsulates why [Mikey] was beloved in this community. Yeah, there’s addiction and trauma, but maybe with Tina and with Mikey we can remind people to take a deeper look at people who are acting out and have a little bit of empathy. Reconsider. We don’t know what this person is going through.

You’ve said that Ayo Edebiri was very confident as a first-time director. Can you tell me more about what she brought to “Napkins”?

Well, Ayo is always confident. Since day one, my girl is confident. Because she’s smart and she’s curious and she prepares. And we’ve had two years of working together, so there’s already a bond and respect. It was so easy. I knew she was ready, but it was like she had been doing this forever. It was very gentle, very easy.

How did it feel different from being directed by showrunners Christopher Storer and Joanna Calo, who helm most episodes?

I’ll tell you how it was the same: They let you do your thing. They let you be, and she’s like that too. There’s trust.

There only one moment that I had a visceral reaction to, and that’s when I saw how dirty Tina’s fridge was. My mom and dad are clean freaks, and I’m kind of that way too, so I started taking stuff out and wiping it. Ayo was like, “No,” and she gently put everything right back. All the mess. It wasn’t until watching it that I understood why, and I was like, “Damn, she’s wise.” Because Tina’s a busy woman. In some ways, she’s traditional, and in some ways, she’s just not. Even though my mother would have had a fit if she came to my house and saw the fridge, that’s the reality. She’s a hard-working, busy woman. She gets up very early to make sure that when she comes home after a long day of work, her family has a hot meal waiting. So maybe you don’t get to have the perfectly put-together kitchen. Don’t judge me! Don’t judge yourself.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 25: Liza Colón-Zayas attends the red carpet premiere event for season three of FX’s “The Bear” at the El Capitan Theatre on June 25, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Stewart Cook/PictureGroup for FX)
Liza Colón-Zayas at the Season 3 premiere of “The Bear.”

How did it come to be that your real-life husband plays your on-screen husband?

He came to visit me in Chicago [during an earlier season], and I brought him to set one day, and they were fans. Chris said, “Do you think he’d want to be on the show?” And I said, “I think so.” I didn’t know know in what capacity — I think somebody said, “your ex,” and then that got me thinking, but I didn’t want to get too deep into it. Then he ends up being written as this beautiful, decent, loving, good man, which I was really happy to see.

I honestly didn’t expect it. It speaks to how even I have been programmed to look at my community. Like, why can’t I have that? Why can’t that be the norm? There’s struggle and there’s mess, but there’s love, and in its own way, stability.

What was it like to act opposite him?

He was so happy to be there, and and got along with everybody. He’s played a lot of villains, and just to be this really, genuinely good man — he was so excited. And we’ve worked together over the last 28 years. I love working with him. Like Tina and his character, he grounds me.

How has it felt to see the response to this season and your episode?

The response has been overwhelming. Overwhelming. There’s some people who miss the frenzy. But I think it’s important to allow yourself to get more internal and quiet, and I just love it. Overall, the response I’m getting is that there still a very hot love affair with the show, and they really love and appreciate seeing Tina’s origin.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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