Before I was an actress, I wanted to be a basketball player. Growing up in Boston, I practiced all the time. I wouldn’t leave the court unless I made 100 free throws and 100 lefty layups. My friend Phoebe and I would hustle men—we would act like we didn’t know how to play, and then we’d play two-on-two with guys and bet money. We would often win.
I went to college in New York, at Barnard, and that’s where I discovered acting. My first job was playing a waitress from Staten Island on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Eventually, I moved to L.A. I was sick of being a broke, struggling auditioner, so I wrote SMILF.
The optics of SMILF are very autobiographical. Like my character on the show, I play basketball, and I, too, have a baby daddy who’s married to a beautiful blonde actress from Australia. But then the show veers off in a million crazy directions.
Your toddler son on the show is so cute.
Those are twin girls playing my son. They’re the most beautiful humans who have ever lived and will ever live.
Won’t it be awkward when you’re in year 20 of the show and your son looks like your daughter?
It’ll be GILF then. Grandmothers! Actually, we may want to say he was really two girls. That would be a great story to tell!
Category: Photo Sessions
I’ve added a new album of Frankie and Zach’s wedding which was featured in Martha Stewart Weddings back in August 2016. The photos are beautiful. Enjoy.
Between the first and second seasons of Frankie Shaw’s single mom Showtime series, “SMILF,” the writers’ offices moved from the Sunset Gower lot in Hollywood to the Paramount lot, a mere mile away. Shaw made it a point to bring with her items that represented not only the inspiration for her show, but also all the hard work that went into making the series so far. “We really did all band together,” she says of her writing staff. “It felt almost like an athletic team — at least that’s how I can relate to it.”
This Isn’t Just Horse Play
An avid rider when she was growing up, Shaw was gifted this photograph taken by Laura Porzak. She hung it behind her desk when she moved into her new office not only because of her longtime love of the animal, but also because of the “dark horse metaphor,” which will be infused in the second season. “Bridgette is faced with her shadow self, and what does that mean if you try to repress the darker parts of yourself?” Shaw reveals.
Designed by Discourse
“SMILF” takes on a lot of social and cultural issues that range from sexual assault to mental illness to race and modern masculinity. Although Shaw admits that her politics are oftentimes “the ones that come through” on the show, she wants to include a lot of different perspectives and voices in her writers’ room to help flesh out the supporting characters. “Our room is really diverse and our stories are very anecdotal from our writers and then also people who maybe think deeper than we do,” she says. Shaw relies on a number of books from writers including Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom she not only reads but also encourages her writers to read.
Color Palette Collage
On the wall adjacent to Shaw’s desk is a collage that she draws from tonally and visually. Photos of Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra” inspired an early fantasy sequence on “SMILF,” a photo of the WNBA “dream team,” who were her heroes growing up, paved the way for Bridgette’s own hoop dreams, and shots from “A Woman Under the Influence, “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love” inform the show’s lighting style. “As we write season two we realize some of this means even more. This season’s all about identity and we actually have an homage to ‘In the Mood for Love,’” Shaw says. A quote about how “language can represent us or not” from Bell Hooks and a key prop from Shaw’s short film “Too Legit” flesh out the space.
Drawing the Male Gaze
Production designer Michael Grasley sketches ideas for the sets he pitches Shaw. A one-off scene in a department store dressing room became a bit more complicated by the fact that the camera had to be able to pan up to see a man hiding in rafters above, spying on and “jerking off to” women as they changed, Shaw recalls. Grasley presented her this sketch, in which the juxtaposition of light, airy movement below and dark cramped quarters above she found beautiful. “I said, ‘I want that framed,’ sort of as a joke, but when we wrapped, this came in the mail,” Shaw says. Now the prized possession hangs in a prime spot right behind her couch.
In the first season of “SMILF,” Bridgette looked back fondly on her youthful passion of playing basketball and decided she was going to go for it professionally. “For a young, single mom to have dreams, aspirations to play basketball, it’s such a far reach — it’s the farthest reach one can have maybe,” Shaw acknowledges. She may not have made the cut, but the plot point informed the framed basketball Showtime senior vice president of original programming Amy Israel gave her when the show wrapped. “You crushed it!” wrote Israel.
Page One Rewrite
The very first line Bridgette was ever supposed to speak was “I need to get undressed,” Shaw says. It was the opening to the television pilot she was working on in 2012 — well before she created the short film version that ended up winning a Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. She keeps this doodle from co-producer Emily Brecht to remind her how far she — and the idea — evolved through the years and how important those first creative instincts can be.
Milo Ventimiglia, Sara Gilbert, Constance Wu, and Other TV Moms and Dads Sound Off
“Our parents are not perfect. Those flaws are what makes them lovable.” From Father Knows Best to Arrested Development, we’ve all loved and learned from a favorite TV parent. The current crop of TV moms and dads discuss what makes playing them so special.
Our first memories of television often involve sitting with our families watching fictional mothers and fathers who may—or may not—resemble our own. Intimate strangers are beamed into our living spaces, leading idealized versions of family life with most of the ugly stuff (financial struggle, impossible expectations, and sour disappointments) airbrushed out of the picture.
TV moms and dads have always been aspirational models as well as fun-house-mirror reflections of changing American realities. The family sitcom started promisingly in the 1940s with some relatively unconventional scenarios. The Goldbergs—created and written by radio colossus Gertrude Berg, who also starred in the show—depicted a Jewish family in the Bronx. Amos ’n’ Andy was a comedy series featuring African-American actors (albeit a deeply problematic one criticized for its depiction of African-Americans and its basis in a radio show that used minstrel stereotypes). I Love Lucy introduced ethnic intermarriage to the small screen when Lucille Ball persuaded CBS to cast as her TV spouse Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, her real-life husband.
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Within a few years, though, this multicultural vision of America contracted to wall-to-wall whiteness. Early sitcoms such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver conjured a midcentury middle-American paradise with a Hollywood-back-lot simulation of suburbia. In these prim domestic prisons, kindly patriarchs usually had the last word while perfectly coiffed wives cooked and cleaned for their mildly mischievous children, surrounded by exactly the same sort of shiny new kitchen appliances marketed by the show’s sponsors. You can just imagine Betty Friedan watching and taking notes for The Feminine Mystique, the second-wave feminist classic that tore the lid off women’s mounting misery in such soul-stifling domestic confinement.
No problem was so tricky that it couldn’t be resolved in a half-hour time slot. The papers teemed with ominous headlines—civil-rights protests, the Cuban missile crisis, wars in Asia—but barely a trace of these real-world threats or tensions leaked into the hermetically sealed homes of these 50s and 60s series. Even when TV attempted to come to grips with a cultural shift, it did so in an oddly warped way. Anxiety about rising divorce rates indirectly inspired a flurry of series about single widowed fathers (My Three Sons, Bachelor Father, The Andy Griffith Show, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and Family Affair) who keep the family afloat, usually with the help of a selfless housekeeper.
Yet there were no sitcoms about divorced moms raising children until 1975, when actress Whitney Blake co-created One Day at a Time with her husband, Allan Manings, and Norman Lear. Lear injected a gritty new realism into the domestic series of the day. Such families as the upwardly mobile African-Americans of The Jeffersons, the white working-class clan of All in the Family, and the inhabitants of a Chicago housing project on Good Times all fought over the fraught cultural issues of that turbulent decade. Since this short golden age of relatively realistic and socially relevant comedy, the family-based sitcom has been repeatedly written off as dead, only to bolt back to life in some new tweaked form that reflects the concerns and anxieties of its era, whether it’s The Cosby Show, Roseanne, The Simpsons, Weeds, or Arrested Development.
The current, decentralized TV landscape has begun opening the medium up again to a more diverse vision of the American family: married, single, multi-generational, gay, straight, trans, suburban, cosmopolitan, strict, bohemian, wealthy, working-class. There are kids with disabilities (Speechless, on ABC) and kids who might be transgender (FX’s Better Things); moms with postpartum depression (ABC’s Black-ish) and dads recently released from prison (TBS’s The Last O.G.). If there is a formula for TV families in 2018, it involves toppling traditional formulas, or stretching them to be more inclusive.
Constance Wu, star of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, recalls that, growing up Asian-American in the 80s and 90s, “there were no TV families that reminded me of my own.” In TV history generally, she says, “there haven’t been a lot of stories that center the Asian-American experience in a way that celebrates it.” Wu believes Fresh Off the Boat’s portrait of a quirky, successful immigrant couple and their three sons plays a serious role in prime time. “A lot of the conversation around immigration and immigrants sometimes has sort of a fear around it,” Wu says. Through TV, “you get to experience the inner life of somebody.”
Although his role as gay dad Mitchell Pritchett, on ABC’s Modern Family, has made Jesse Tyler Ferguson a TV icon (and a five-time Emmy nominee), the actor is most proud of the matter-of-factness with which the show treats its characters’ sexuality: “Mitchell and Cam are spouses first . . . and then they’re lawyers and teachers. Being gay is really kind of far down on the list.” We also see Mitch and Cam negotiating their careers and parenting responsibilities in a way that fathers rarely do on TV. The couple doesn’t have a designated stay-at-home parent, but instead “we switch on and off,” Ferguson says. “I love that we’re presenting . . . that these struggles exist in any family and we have to just make things work.”
Actresses playing contemporary TV mothers are relieved that their characters are far more complex and varied than the ones they grew up watching. Jennifer Jason Leigh found herself embodying maternal extremes in two recent roles: Elsa, the overprotective mom of a kid on the autism spectrum, in Netflix’s Atypical, and Eleanor, the fragile wife of a sadistic aristocrat, in Patrick Melrose, on Showtime. “[Eleanor is] sort of living in this very beautiful prison, and she loves her son very much, but she’s also terrified of the father and . . . does the best that she can do,” Leigh explains.
“The moms on television are actually changing, which is really wonderful,” says Justina Machado, who plays Penelope Alvarez on Netflix’s reboot of One Day at a Time, which Lear himself helped produce for the streaming service. A single Latina working mom and Iraq-war veteran, Penelope openly struggles with depression and PTSD as she raises her two children (one of whom came out as a lesbian in Season One). Machado remembers sitcoms of yore “where the moms were just kind of the sounding board”—marginal figures giggling, “Oh, you crazy kids!” Now that there are so many more female show-runners and writers, she says, they “are writing for women as people.”
Frankie Shaw, the show-runner and star of Showtime’s SMILF, complains that TV traditionally put mothers on ridiculous pedestals. She wanted viewers to relate to “how hard it is to be a good mom and how the pressure to live up to this ideal is detrimental and painful.” Her single-mom character, Bridgette Bird, couldn’t be further from the idealized TV mom in an apron and pearls—she masturbates with her child asleep in bed beside her and struggles with an eating disorder.
SMILF is set in blue-collar Boston, and the class consciousness of the original run of Roseanne was something of an inspiration, says Shaw. It was also important to Sara Gilbert, now serving as an executive producer on ABC’s reboot of Roseanne as well as starring in her original role as Darlene Conner. Back in the 90s, Darlene seemed to be the Conner most likely to succeed. But now she’s an unemployed single mom forced to move back in with her parents. “That cycle of poverty is so hard for people to break,” says Gilbert. “A big theme of the show is having these talents, having these ambitions, and not being able to live out your dream.” What happened to Darlene “felt true to the state of our country for many people.”
What unites so many of 2018’s TV moms and dads, sons and daughters, is imperfection. Jack Pearson in NBC’s This Is Us harks back to the golden age of TV fathers: he’s a pillar of strength and a stockpile of wisdom. As played by Milo Ventimiglia, though, Jack also has the flaws and vulnerabilities of a contemporary dad, including a drinking problem. “Jack really wants to widen the perspective of his kids—he wants them to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how it’s impacting other people,” Ventimiglia says. Jack is not perfect, but “he’s well intentioned. . . . Being a good man goes a long way in this day and age.”
This Is Us flashes between decades, a structural innovation that enables viewers to trace how the mother’s and father’s legacies unfold through the lives of their children. “We are all created by our past,” Ventimiglia suggests, “but we all have a point where we can say, ‘Hey, this is what happened in the past. . . .’ And you have a choice in this present moment right now to do something different.”
“I’m really interested in how people behave when they’re alone versus how they are with other people. That’s something that we get into throughout this series. It was like, ‘Let’s just show how hard it is to be twentysomething with a kid and trying to figure out your life. What’s been so amazing—a lot of men actually have related to some of the things that Bridgette has done. I’ve had men come up to me, like, ‘I’ve left my kid in the car while I went to the post office.’”
“Roseanne” was canceled following a racist tweet by Roseanne Barr. In response, Sara Gilbert tweeted, “This is incredibly sad and difficult for all of us, as we’ve created a show that we believe in, are proud of, and that audiences love — one that is separate and apart from the opinions and words of one cast member.”
Frankie Shaw: “Roseanne” is and was so important to so many people, and I can say “SMILF” is directly inspired by growing up watching “Roseanne” and seeing people who felt like my family on television. I was like, “Oh, those people speak to each other like how my family speaks to each other,” you know, with sarcasm.
Sara Gilbert: And I felt watching “SMILF,” I was thinking this is so amazing that this character is struggling, doesn’t have money, it’s difficult to buy things. Even when people are portrayed as working class on TV, you don’t usually see the real struggle.
Shaw: What is different in filming this new season of “Roseanne”? Are you dealing with different issues?
Gilbert: I never go in thinking these are the issues that we want to take on, but it is just a way to talk about things that we’re experiencing right now through the lens of this family. So we got to talk about how people are divided politically without it being about anyone’s politics specifically, just about how does a family deal with this conflict. Or my son likes to wear skirts and more feminine clothing, so how does that affect the family relationship or how they treat him. I always think our writers do such a great job of doing things that are in current events without making it feel like we’re doing an issue. And I thought you did the same thing honestly with sexual harassment issues between men and women, and power, and just a woman’s place in the world. Was that the main reason you wanted to make this story?
Shaw: Yeah, there was sort of a layered approach while writing “SMILF.” On the surface, what it’s like to be broke and raising a kid and navigating co-parenting, and then underneath that, I wanted to explore feminine identity and the issues we all face. It wasn’t like, oh, how do we directly make this a feminist show. It’s really just like, what is life like for me and other women, who are harassed, who have been sexually abused, who have to deal with objectification or their own identity.
Gilbert: How much of your life influences the show?
Shaw: The way we like to talk about Bridgette is she’s a very exaggerated version of Frankie. We didn’t call the show Frankie for a reason. When we’re stuck in the writers room, what is a true story we can tell here? It always comes back to a kernel of truth. So that’s important to us, but because we want to talk about certain issues, we make Bridgette the butt of the joke. So on one hand, she’s very similar to me, and then also a huge departure and very exaggerated and a lot messier. But there are elements of myself from a long time ago when things were really difficult, when my son was younger, when I was struggling with an eating disorder and residual effects of trauma, that we put into this show very much deliberately.
Gilbert: And she is very flawed and can be sort of self-centered and antihero in some ways. Do you feel like the ways that she’s flawed are the same flaws that you either have or had back then?
Shaw: Yeah, when we’re talking about her in the writers room, we say Bridgette can’t be woke. She hasn’t read the books or had the conversations, so that’s something that felt really important. I’m not claiming to be woke, but I’m trying to be as educated as possible. What about you and Darlene? What’s true about you, and what’s true about the character?
Gilbert: I think over time since I played Darlene originally, I probably have gotten more vulnerable and gotten older so I’ve gone through more hard knocks, and I think I wanted to bring that to Darlene, that kind of humanity so she can still have a sharp tongue and have a tough side but a little wear on the wheels, you know? I wanted to bring that feeling to her.
My goal in general, in any project, is to want to tell people’s stories and have them relate. I think in order to do that, I feel like I have to bring a chunk of myself, probably what you’re saying about being in the writers room and wanting real stories. So in that way, I think we’re the same. I’ve always thought Darlene was a little stronger than me. She just has this fire and this strength that maybe I have, but maybe you just don’t feel it when it’s you. Not when I’m playing it, but I can later watch her on the screen and see this kind of inner strength.
An actress known for roles in Mr. Robot and Good Girls Revolt, Frankie Shaw is one of the more surprising talents working in entertainment today. After all, who but Shaw could get a show called SMILF on the air?
Creating her own opportunities in recent years as a writer and director, Shaw took a short of the same name to Sundance in 2015. Based on Shaw’s personal experiences, the film followed single mother Bridgette Bird (Shaw), struggling to balance her role as a mother with a life of her own. Winning the festival’s Short Film Jury Prize, the short made waves, signaling the presence of an essential new voice.
Teaming with Showtime on her series adaptation of SMILF, Shaw fleshed eight episodes and a broader world out of the short’s conceit, empowered by executives at the premium cabler to make bold choices. Examining certain brutal realities of the female experience, within the context of an idiosyncratic, off-the-wall comedy, Shaw fused moments of bitter reality with surrealism and flights of fantasy. Tackling subjects like mental illness, sexual assault and abuse and the struggles of reentering the dating pool after giving birth, the creator took an unexpected tack in the midst of heavy dramatic territory, crafting a world that is unique amidst the current television landscape.
Seeing SMILF take a Golden Globe nomination as she received her own—in a significant vote of confidence for her singular series—Shaw has taken this feedback in, and is looking to dive deeper in Season 2.
Can you explain the path SMILF took from short film to Showtime series?
Basically, I was a really broke, struggling actress auditioning, so I wrote a pilot to try to get staffed as a writer. I started directing and making shorts, and I decided I would end up trying to develop this pilot as a show, so I directed a scene from it just as a proof of concept. It was me and some friends, a DP I knew; Thomas Middleditch played the guy, and we just shot it in a bedroom for $3,000.
It was never meant to be a short, but because the narrative worked as a self-contained piece, I ended up submitting to Sundance. Then, once it won the award, it ended up helping me then go ahead and sell it as a show.
So the positive feedback you received at Sundance was critical to the project’s new life as a series?
Yeah, completely—I think because it just gave people confidence. It’s one of those things: When someone likes something, it’s okay for other people to like it. I really do credit and owe Sundance for helping me get started.
SMILF is loosely autobiographical. How much of the series is coming from a directly personal place?
If you look at the optics of it, the fact that I was a single mom for a while who was struggling financially and otherwise, and then my son’s dad started a relationship with a beautiful blonde woman—that is all true. It really, on one hand, starts and ends there, but it’s very important when we’re writing the show to stay true to real experiences, and true stories, and issues that I care about, and the network cares about, and the other writers care about. It’s always rooted in truth.
Could you explain some aspects of what the series is exploring, in its depiction of contemporary women?
We’re a show that gets into the female experience. Almost everyone I know has an experience of sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse or violence on one level or another, so just by the fact that the show’s being made by a woman, it’s going to be talking about those things. It’s not like, “Hey, let’s go make a show about sexual violence,” but because this is a show about different women, it’s part of the fabric of the show.
For example, when Bridgette is struggling for money, and we’re going to go on Craigslist and meet a sugar daddy, we’re going to deal with what people think the fantasy of prostitution is, and then what it actually is. It’s important that her and Craig have a moment of true connection. There’s a fantasy there, and then in the next moment when she’s violated, she’s able to punch him in the face, which I think a lot of women always wish that they can do. But the reality is, you’re usually going to freeze because you’re in shock, with your face and body being violated like that. We got to have this wish-fulfillment experience, popping the guy in the nose.
Then, in the very next episode, she’s enacting in a grocery store where her violation happened. We’re acting out the male role of violent sex that you see in porn, experimenting with things, taking control back that way. It’s really staying in the truth of the character. But it’s just because she is this blue-collar woman who’s struggling, and we have this very intersectional, diverse story and cast, that we can go into these storylines that happen to be political. It is political, being any sort of woman who’s experienced whatever kind of oppression.
What informed this series’ tone? It swings from realistic moments to surrealism, or moments of fantasy. One moment, you’re sitting down in a grocery store, and the next, you’re dancing through the aisles as Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
We talk about some darker issues, so it was important to have levity and destigmatize some of the issues. Part of the way to do that is to really get inside a character’s head. So we’ll be really literal, but we’ll also want to be imaginative. I’ve always been a huge fan of surreal moments and absurdity. My favorite show when I was sort of forming my taste was Edgar Wright’s first show, called Spaced.
Just having the ability to go off and be inside a character’s head, or explain the complexity of, why does one fantasize about prostitution? And then juxtapose it with the reality of it. Like, what’s the best way to tell that narratively? It’s probably to have a pussy-worshiping temple, and then have some creep grab your pussy in a supermarket. It’s all about juxtaposition. The show wouldn’t exist—the absurdity and the fantasy wouldn’t exist—if we weren’t also grounding it with the rawer elements of the show.
You made an inspired choice in casting Rosie O’Donnell to play Bridgette’s mother. How did her casting come about?
I credit it to our casting director, Deanna Brigidi, who suggested her, because she wasn’t in my realm of focus in the beginning of who this character was. Then, we had a FaceTime meeting, and she comes from a big Irish Catholic family, and she grew up blue collar. She also really reacted positively to my early shorts that were very feminist leaning, so we just had this mutual trust right away. I could not have predicted what an emotional, grounded and moving performance she was going to give. I think we were all a little blown away by it.
What has Showtime been like as a collaborative partner on the series? SMILF is a series that has been allowed to take plenty of creative risks.
It’s truly collaborative. I have three people that work on the show with me over there—the CEO, the president, and the [SVP], Amy Israel. They are heavily involved, and they also have the lightest touch, so it’s not like any of their notes are mandates. It’s really just what’s best for the story.
Oftentimes, if they’re bumping on something, it’s not like, “Here’s a solution.” It’s like, “Figure out the best way to solve this story problem or this character issue.” I do feel like I’d be happy working there for my whole career because it’s really just a collaborative and empowering place to be, as a creator. They’re so creator-friendly.
Has it been a challenge to balance your various roles on this series, as creator, star, writer and director? Or did this balance come naturally to you?
I really feel like I’m my best self when I am multitasking, so that part of it was really fun and exciting for me. I really loved being at the center of all the creative decisions, it being a collaborative effort, because you’re not making TV in a bubble. I just really enjoy all of those elements. I really, truly feel most at home when I’m directing, so it was such a joy. I felt really lucky to be in that position, to be able to be doing it at that level.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with SMILF so far?
I think every showrunner will say you’re fighting against time. I wish we had more time for episodes; I wish we had more time to write; I wish we had more time to edit. It’s the normal things, but that’s also the thrill of it. You just have to make a decision and go. Sometimes time can thwart creativity if you have too much time to obsess over a choice.
What are your feelings about the current state of representation for women in film and television, operating in front of the camera and behind the scenes?
We’re in this wonderful era of Peak TV, so there’s more opportunities for representation. I don’t think this show would have been made five or 10 years ago in the way that I’m making it.
So there is a certain methodology in mind in the way you’re making your series.
I’m really a huge advocate for representation. My writers’ room has four black writers. There were women and gay men, except for my husband, so it didn’t look like what a lot of rooms look like—and that’s important. We only hire women directors on the show, so being the one who is hiring people, I’m able to implement the [inclusion] rider that Frances McDormand was talking about.
Also, we wrote everything before the #MeToo hashtag was in, and before the Harvey Weinstein article broke, but it was in the air—it was in the zeitgeist. So it was sort of a kismet, perfect opportunity, that our show happens to really resonate with everything that’s going on right now, and this is all happening now for a reason. Now is the time.
Will you take this way of working with you as you develop future projects?
Oh, yeah. I feel like it’ll be in the next contract, that it’s actually mandated, in terms of inclusion. I don’t ever want to be a part of a show that doesn’t have optics, the way this show does. We don’t want to be part of that. So I’ll be part of the new way of looking at things.
SMILF has been renewed for a second season. Where are you in the process with that, and what can you share about where the series is headed?
We’ve broken all the stories and half are written. We’re really dealing with identity, and the masks people wear in order to either protect themselves or to present in a certain way. We go more into some of the supporting characters. I joke that we’re calling it SMILF: The Bad Year, even though the years are always kind of bad in SMILF. [laughs] But they’re still struggling.
Frankie can be seen in these round table snippets. Check out her snippet and all the other different snippets. She is featured in them. I’ve added screencaps of the photo session to the gallery. Enjoy!
Seven of TV’s top funny ladies — Drew Barrymore, Rachel Brosnahan, Alison Brie, Tracee Ellis Ross, Debra Messing, Molly Shannon and Frankie Shaw — open up about pushing boundaries, demanding fair pay and the long, hard battle to keep their clothes on: “It wasn’t until we started having these conversations that I realized I’d been sexually harassed.”
These days, there is a palpable camaraderie when you bring together Hollywood’s highest-profile actresses. At least a few of those who gathered for The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Television Comedy Actress Roundtable have spent recent months in war rooms and on email chains mapping out a plan to change the gender politics that have contributed to a culture of #MeToo accusations and glaring pay inequality. The passion that has fueled the Time’s Up movement was on display during this mid-April conversation, which touched on everything from nudity demands to a yanked episode of Black-ish. Over the course of an hour, the septet — Drew Barrymore, 43 (Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet); Alison Brie, 35 (Netflix’s GLOW); Rachel Brosnahan, 27 (Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel); Debra Messing, 49 (NBC’s Will & Grace); Tracee Ellis Ross, 45 (ABC’s Black-ish); Molly Shannon, 53 (HBO’s Divorce); and Frankie Shaw, 36 (Showtime’s SMILF) — got deeply personal, with at least a few tales prompting spontaneous table-banging and plenty of applause.
Let’s start broad: What’s the most amusing or frustrating feedback you’ve received when trying out for a part?
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS I had a casting director say I need to work on my girls, as they [her breasts] were referred to, because they were too low, which is where God put them, so I think they’re in a really good spot. (Laughs.) But she called down the hall for one of her assistants to bring another bra …
ALISON BRIE During an audition?
ROSS Yes, ma’am.
DREW BARRYMORE Oh no.
ROSS Yes, ma’am. (Laughter.) She was like, “Does anyone have on a 34B?” They come down, and it was a 32 something or other, and I was like, “That’s not gonna fit.” She was like, “They’ll spill out, it’ll be great.”
FRANKIE SHAW One time I was in an audition for House of Lies, and the casting director said I needed to show more skin. She actually took the shirt off her back and gave me her tank top. I still didn’t get the part.
MOLLY SHANNON I remember going to an audition when I was first starting out, and I bumped into another girl auditioning who, right before I went in, was like, “Oh, my God, have you gained, like, a hundred pounds?”
RACHEL BROSNAHAN No!
BARRYMORE That happened to me recently. I’d gained a bunch of weight, and I was in a restaurant, and a woman goes, “God, you have so many kids.” And I was like, “Well, two.” And she goes, “And obviously one on the way.” I looked at her and, for the first time in my life, I go, “No, I’m just fucking fat.” (Everyone claps.)
There’s been lots of discussion lately about whether we can and should be able to separate art from the artist. Where do you stand?
SHAW It depends on how harmful they are.
ROSS And what the harm is.
This has come up in the context of Roseanne Barr and her controversial social media presence, which prompted some to boycott her sitcom [before it was canceled by ABC a month and a half after this interview].
DEBRA MESSING In a perfect world, we take on a different character, one that’s separate from ourselves. The thing that has made Roseanne and Roseanne Barr so …
ROSS Better word.
MESSING … is that, in its day, it was one of the greatest shows ever, and it really pushed the boundaries, but she made it clear from the beginning that this was her — she said, “I’m just being me.” That’s very different from saying, “I’m creating a character.” And then when you have someone who is very outspoken on social media and who says things like “Heil Hitler” or that gay people are pedophiles or …
BROSNAHAN Oh God.
MESSING So, it’s not about having a conversation about health care or about defense of the country, it’s about humanity, racism, sexism.
SHAW And essentially normalizing white supremacy.
I’ve added a bunch of missing photos to the gallery including photos from Frankie’s most recent appearance at ABC’s For Your Consideration Emmys event. Check out the new images in the gallery. Enjoy!
Showrunners from ‘Roseanne,’ ‘The Americans’ and more on the challenges of standing out in the Peak TV era
In an era of too much TV, creating must-see TV is no easy task. The Envelope gathered six TV masters — Whitney Cummings (“Roseanne”), Joel Fields (“The Americans”), Laeta Kalogridis (“Altered Carbon”), Prentice Penny (“Insecure”), Michael Schur (“The Good Place”) and Frankie Shaw (“SMILF“) — to discuss the creative process. The conversation touched on the responsibility a show has to its audience, being unafraid to push boundaries and knowing when it’s time to bring a show to a close.
You guys have explored sexism, classism, morality, sexual assault, mental illness. Talk about being topical.
Michael Schur: “The Good Place” was explicitly about ethics and morality and it was designed before the current administration. But it has been interesting to be discussing this stuff at a time when the front page of every newspaper, including yours, very frequently has the word “ethics” in it. So that’s been interesting, but it’s coincidental.
Whitney Cummings: I am a stand-up [comic] first, so I think that my brain is very attracted to the things that make people uncomfortable, that make people laugh, that piss people off. Anything that I’m conflicted about is usually something I want to write about. When the idea of “Roseanne” came across my plate, I was attracted to how controversial the show always was and how controversial the star tends to be. I disagreed with a lot of the things that the show was going to maybe explore. And after the election, I just had a compulsion to be in a room with someone that I disagree with and see if we could find common ground.
Frankie, at a screening of the pilot, there was a woman there who took real issue with the fact that Bridget, your character, makes a quick run to the corner store while her son is sleeping.
Frankie Shaw: She was demanding to know if I had done it myself. I’m not claiming to represent every single mother who has ever lived. This is a show that takes place in blue-collar Boston. There’s a Latino baby daddy. And, then, it’s very female-centered. A lot of the stories are based on stories that have happened to me or my writers. And so it’s not necessarily, ‘Oh, we’re going to be this issue show.’ We’re just sort of reflecting the world in which the show takes place — and the generational differences when you are in a place where you’re struggling financially.
Joel Fields: On “The Americans,” the whole show [about Cold War-era Russian spies infiltrating America] was designed to not be topical. It was designed to take a look at an enemy that was no longer an enemy and to examine that time.
Schur: You should have just been like, ‘Yeah we knew.’ You should have just claimed you knew it was all going to unfold this way.
Fields: Yeah, I’m getting a lot of pitches that the next show we do should be about world peace because now that’ll happen.
Schur: Like “The Secret.” Just put it out there.
Fields: But it’s actually been irritating to have all this stuff happen. My partner Joe [Weisberg] says it’s bad for the show. I like to say it’s bad for the world too. But it sucks because you’re trying to do something that isn’t about that, that’s about getting people to look at identity and look at conflict and look at enemies and look at marriage in a different way, and suddenly it’s now through the prism of what’s happening in the world today, and it’s no longer universal. But look, none of us can control how the audience is going to experience what we do. And the good news is now the shows we do are around for a long time. So audiences later will experience them in different ways.
Prentice Penny: Yeah, our show went through a weird thing where we started breaking stories during the first season with Obama still in office. And our show is talking about things that people of color talk about privately and then putting those things out publicly. Conversations that we have in our living rooms and with our friends that most of the audiences, you know, certainly mainstream white audiences don’t ever get to be a part of. And then the election happened so the beginning [of the season] is a lot of people of color wanting to talk about things that don’t get heard, and then the election happened and this sort of veil was off. And a lot of white people were like, ‘This is crazy.’[laughter]
Cummings: You guys didn’t know there’s racism out there?
Schur: Welcome white people. Come in.[laughter]
Cummings: In comedies, it used to be ‘How far can we push the envelope, how can we sort of test people, how can we challenge people, how can we make people laugh?’ But then the election happened and it was like there’s this new social responsibility involved where you want to be edgy and you want to explore and you want to push the envelope, but you also don’t want to set a bad example or reinforce stereotypes. There’s this whole new floor of like broken glass that you kind of have to walk around.
Penny: But it has to have meaning behind it, sometimes networks want to have you push stuff as opposed to what is it actually saying? Not just throwing something out there for shock value.
Frankie, this is your first time writing. You took a training course?
Shaw: I did the WGA training program for six weeks. But also you can’t know until you’re doing it. I think maybe the most surprising part was being faced with your worst qualities and your best qualities. I feel like, ‘Oh, this part of my being uber controlling really works here, but it also maybe doesn’t work with this personality.’ So you’re just sort of constantly having to be a little bit self-aware and figure out the best way to manage up here and down there. That’s been a huge thing for me.
Laeta Kalogridis: It is certainly the most intensity to something that doesn’t involve curing cancer. There’s a lot of like real deep panicked intensity.
Fields: I learned a lot from working over many years with Steven Bochco, who today I miss a lot. And it was the opposite with Steven. There was never panic. There was always a sure hand. There was always incredible respect. He always had the writer’s back and the writer’s room was a sacred place. And then we tell personal stories, and he was always efficient and calm. And he knew that he could be a leader and that it was also a team sport. So he found this incredible way of running shows.
Penny: One of the things that I always try to take from it is, how do you get the best? We’re all trying to get to this goal, right? So how do you just try to get the best out of this person’s gifts, that person’s gifts and kind of still shape that into an actual story. And I think that if you hire good people, then you’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting because you can trust them now to do those things. One of the things I learned working on “Happy Endings” under a showrunner named Josh Bycel — he always told me, ‘Your life is your life. The show is not your life. Have a life.’ I don’t always follow it great, but I always go back to it as a benchmark of just being a well-rounded healthy individual because you’re managing so many people, so many circumstances.
Shaw: Right, it’s hard, but it’s definitely also the most fun. If it’s working well, I’ve never laughed harder in my entire life.
Fields: Yeah, I’m with you. It’s fun. It’s joyous. I mean, we all work hard, but we’re not curing cancer. We’re telling stories. It’s great.
Cummings: I feel like we all probably say, ‘We’re not curing cancer, everybody calm down.’ But I remember Michelle Obama did a call to some producers or something. It was a couple of years ago, and she was talking about how the metrics were in for how “Will and Grace” actually affected the outcome of the marriage equality vote because it was putting gay people in the rooms of people that maybe never met a gay couple before, maybe had prejudices around it. And she was basically like, ‘Please put diverse people on your shows.’ We’re not curing cancer, but we kind of are subconsciously helping heal people.
Laeta, you’re in a male-dominated field with this R-rated, sci-fi epic drama on Netflix. Talk about the importance of showing that women can do this.
Kalogridis: For me, the fun is when you get to create these female characters who have all this agency and have all this power in a very dark and chaotic world. The idea that our nightmares — of women and more marginalized people — are just as well explored. We did this sequence that’s probably the most intense sequence in the entire show. It’s two women, and it is an all-out knock-down, drag-out fight. One of them is Latina and one of them is Asian, and they fill the whole screen. They are everything and that is very much what the show is about for me, that representational element. I don’t have control over how people take it, but I do have control over what we were saying, which is ‘Watch the … out because it’s coming.’ I think anything that’s trying to do something different is always going to be hard.
Cummings: Yeah, there’s already what we go through when you make something, ‘God, that wasn’t good enough’ and ‘Oh, this could be better, and we should reshoot that.’ And now you get the added feedback from Twitter and stuff.
Penny: I had an experience last year with it, and I need to figure out how to be better. We had an episode where the character doesn’t use a condom. For the most part, we try to always be responsible. I remember people were like, ‘You’re saying black people get this rate of AIDS, and you’re being irresponsible. You’re showing this.” And I was like, ‘Well, it’s a TV show. We don’t have time to show them go get the condom, cut it open, put it on.’ I got into a big debate with people and I was like, ‘I’m doing so much for black people behind the curtain you guys don’t even know.’ Like I’m tearing down the black community and I want AIDS to get black people. It was just crazy.
Cummings: Still, you guys talk about how fun it is. I have been working on a show where the main character voted for Donald Trump. So our room was very tense and stressful and not a safe space. Very triggering, so it was intense but kind of cathartic at the same time. But there was a really big argument in the room about Dan Connor [talking about] undocumented workers taking his jobs because he’s in freelance construction, whether he would say “illegals.” And I was like, ‘We can’t say that. This is wrong. It’s racist.’ I was so angry. But that’s what he would say. He’s not PC. There’s a kid on the show in a dress. He would not say gender-nonconforming. He’s like, ‘He’s gay.’
Were you shocked by the numbers that the show receives? And the aftermath of things that have come to light?
Cummings: I don’t know what you’re talking about. Yes.
Kalogridis: I think there’s something really valuable about triggering conversation, in getting people to talk about something. Even, dear God, help us all, if it’s uncomfortable. One of the things that worries me the most is the idea that censorship is in some way virtuous. Censorship is never virtuous. Censorship is just censorship.
Shaw: If you are normalizing certain behavior that might lead to the devaluing of human life, then that’s the question that we all have to answer when we are creating and if we can justify it. Everyone should feel represented, but we’re also dealing with a bigger thing here where a lot of people are losing their lives.
Schur: To me, that’s where the discussion about the art and the artist kind of breaks down, because you want to believe as a society that certain things are settled. Like for example, you are not allowed to stand up and say that only white people should be allowed to vote or own property. We ought to consider that a settled issue. The problem is that in the last couple of years guess who’s back? The people who say that. I thought that as a reasonable society we had sliced off the extreme fringe of violent racist, reductive, absurd attitudes. And now sadly it feels like, ‘Oh, look the Nazis are back. That’s fun. Let’s get the Nazis back in.’
Kalogridis: If I present a show in which a man who’s lived for hundreds of years gets off on killing women. Yes, it’s horrible and I’m showing violence towards women. I’m also showing what I think will happen if someone gets into a position of power whose idea of a good time is hurting people and then can’t die and becomes so rich.
Penny: It’s to what you were saying earlier, it’s what is the driving force behind the art? If I’m showing something that’s sort of a cautionary tale about this because that’s my intent versus my intent is to hurt or to be mean or to dismiss.
Cummings: That’s super interesting because my intent in terms of working with Roseanne is I would like a liberal, progressive person to be in that room. And I guess I’m going to have to do it. When you make a show, can you tell the difference between the show’s star and the show they make? I think we’re at a point where you kind of can’t.
Schur: It’s just asking so much of audiences because the show in this case is named after her and it’s based, it was originally based on her stand up, which was based on her real life. And then she goes on Twitter and says all the stuff she says — I just want to say, I believe the question that started this conversation was, ‘What’s the worst network note you’ve ever gotten?’[laughter]
Cummings: The network does say no Nazis a lot to me, I hear that. No Nazis.
Let’s talk about the responsibility to the audience in another way. [To Schur] You pulled off the greatest TV twist when you revealed that “The Good Place” wasn’t in fact in the good place. And how did you move forward from that?
Schur: So the twist at the end of Season 1 was baked into the show from the beginning. It was part of what got Ted Danson to sign on. And because we knew about it so early we had a chance with the writers to look forward. So we’ve been a sort of a season ahead in terms of being able to anticipate what we’re going to do and we decided pretty early that because the twist at the end was so world upending that we didn’t want to try to outdo ourselves.[To Fields] How about knowing when it’s time to wrap things up?
Fields: Joe and I talked from early days about what the end was. And I think we were towards the end of Season 2, beginning of Season 3, when [FX chief] John Landgraf came to us and said, ‘How many seasons do you think you need to tell the story?’ And Joe and I took a long walk and sort of pitched out two versions. It was pretty clear to us that it was going to be six seasons. We tried a version that was five for a day, and it just wasn’t enough room. So we were able to write to that from early on and that was really liberating.
Cummings: In network TV, you just write the finale for every season.
Variety and PBS SoCal KOCE have announced the lineup for the eighth season of “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.”
The Emmy Award-winning series will air in two episodes on PBS SoCal KOCE, the first on Tuesday, June 19 at 7 p.m. and the second on Thursday, June 21 at 7 p.m. Both episodes will stream on pbssocal.org following their premieres.
Frankie Shaw (“SMILF”) with Sara Gilbert (“Roseanne”) is listed.
“There’s no better way to celebrate another groundbreaking season of television than with our ‘Actors on Actors’ franchise,” said Debra Birnbaum, Variety’s executive TV editor. “We’re proud to shine a light on this year’s most remarkable performances with this series of revealing, one-on-one conversations. And we’re thrilled as always to partner with PBS SoCal to share this content with their audience.”
Variety’s “Actors on Actors” issue will hit newsstands June 5 with clips appearing on Variety.com starting at the beginning of June. On Variety and Variety.com, this year’s Actors on Actors will be presented by Shutterstock.
“Southern California’s creative industry inspires and excites our PBS audiences like few others. And this season of ‘Actors on Actors’ is sure to please, with compelling conversations between some of today’s most popular protagonists,” said Andrew Russell, president and CEO of PBS SoCal. “It’s terrific to team with Variety to produce and share ‘Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.’”