PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

One of the biggest surprises of this year’s Oscar nominations announcement was “Roma” star Marina de Tavira showing up in the supporting actress category. She gave a sublime, subtle performance, but it did not seem to have the expected traction going into the final stretch. Nevertheless, there she was on Jan. 22, and it was a delightful inclusion for one of the highlights of the circuit, an actress who has paid her dues and continues to work and mount theater productions in Mexico, but had not yet caught on here in the States. That’s sure to change now.

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“I was waking my son up for him to go to school and I was expecting that ‘Roma’ may get some nominations in some categories, but I never expected to be on the list with a personal nomination,” de Tavira says of that fateful morning. “So when I heard it, I screamed and I ran to my son’s room and I was yelling, like, ‘I got nominated! I got nominated!’ And he was like, ‘What? The film? Do you mean the film?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know yet! But me!’ I think it’s the first time that I’ve cried out of joy. I’m just really, really grateful that the Academy took the time to look at Sofía, because it’s not a character that pops out immediately. She’s not on the surface. She’s silent, she hides things. I never thought it would happen.”

De Tavira’s family has long been involved in the arts. Her father was always interested in theater and her uncle is a playwright and theater director as well. She recalls a funny story of crawling out onto a glass ceiling to spy onto rehearsals of a play, and literally crashing onto the scene when the glass gave way. It was a magnetism she finds difficult to fully explain.

“Theater for me was a world I wanted to belong to,” she says. “I come from a family that has a theater tradition, so I was able to go to see some plays that were not even for children and then get to go backstage and see the actresses, and they were my relatives, so I would always think, ‘I want to belong to that world. There’s something that they have that moves me really deeply.'”

With “Roma,” de Tavira had no idea early on that it was an Alfonso Cuarón project. She knew it was set in the 1970s and that her character was divorced, something she says she could relate to, so she put a lot of herself into the audition process. When she got the role, like virtually every person who worked on the movie, she was not given a script and discovered her character’s circumstances on a chronological, day-by-day basis. It was a challenge but a rewarding one.

“Not having a script wasn’t really a problem, it was understanding what Alfonso wanted, which was difficult at the beginning,” de Tavira says. “He would give us the lines, but then he would say, ‘You don’t have to say exactly the same words. There’s some small room for improvising,’ and that means dealing with what you don’t expect. So adjusting to that was difficult. That’s what we did the first week, trying to understand what he meant. Because it’s not improvising, but it’s not sticking to the words and there was no rehearsal. There was no getting to know the other actors, because he truly believed that that would emerge by the way we were working. We never made a rational analysis of the film or characters. It was about surrendering to them in an emotional and deep way.”

For more, including de Tavira’s experiences traveling with the film around the world and being recognized all over Park City at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where she was supporting her new film “This Is Not Berlin,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.

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Marina de Tavira photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety