Frankie Shaw is coming off a pair of Golden Globe nominations for herself and the show she created and stars in, “SMILF.” The Showtime comedy series about a single mother struggling to pay the bills in South Boston, was loosely based on Shaw’s own life and co-stars Emmy winner Rosie O’Donnell, Screen Actors Guild Award winner Samara Weaving, multiple Emmy nominee Connie Britton, and more. Before “SMILF,” Shaw rose to prominence with a starring role in “Blue Mountain State” and a recurring role in “Mr. Robot,” which helped her gain financial stability while developing “SMILF.”
Shaw recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws on an exclusive webchat about creating “SMILF,” working with O’Donnell, and what’s ahead for Season 2. Watch our video with Shaw above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: So, Frankie Shaw, you are the creator and star of “SMILF.” You’re also a writer and director on the series as well, so this really is your baby. Take us back to the beginning. Tell us where the idea for the show came from.
Frankie Shaw: Sure, so I was pretty much sick of being a broke, struggling actress with a toddler and I wrote a script trying to get staffed on a TV show as a writer, so a spec. And it was a version of what this is, and then as happened, I ended up getting an acting gig that gave me a little bit of financial stability, which was what I was looking for from being a staff writer and so I decided I would try to sell the show as my own development, as my own show. And so I hooked up with a producer and I was reworking it a little bit and I was getting the feeling that people might not understand my tone, just from the script. And so I shot a scene from the pilot which ended up being the short film “SMILF,” which won the Jury Award at Sundance, which then sort of gave me the ability to go pitch it back as a TV show.
GD: Talk a little bit about the concept of the show. Tell us a little bit about the character you play and the situations she finds herself in.
FS: Yeah, so Bridgette Bird is a struggling woman. She’s a single mother. She lives in blue collar South Boston, which is where my family’s from. So there are similarities to my own life, but then also great departures. As I tell people, I didn’t call the show “Frankie.” It is fictionalized. It was also important that through the season we were exploring different themes and each episode I wanted it to feel like its own mini-movie in a way. We don’t have many standing sets, we’re on different locations all the time and we have a very diverse array of characters that we can investigate through the show. So basically, struggling single mom in Southie trying to make ends meet, trying to get life together. It’s sometimes called “a single mom navigating dating and career,” and that’s actually not the show. Bridgette doesn’t go on one date throughout the season. But it can be absurd. It’s definitely a show for men and women, but it is inside a female perspective.
GD: Well you mention the fact people talk about it being a single mom navigating the dating scene, and I guess one of the reasons why people could misconstrue it is that you do take a very bracingly honest approach to portraying female sexuality on the show. It’s something that we don’t see a lot in television or movies. Can you talk a bit about that?
FS: It was important to me that we didn’t have any female nudity that was objectifying women and that the nudity comes mainly from the female point of view, but I wasn’t trying to be daring with her sexuality. I was just trying to be honest to her perspective and her experience and I think that we get conditioned to wanna put mothers in a box but in reality, mothers are complex, multi-faceted people who have desire and have desire to put their children first and they have to sort of balance both. And I think some of the absurdity or the surreal elements of the show, when Bridgette in Episode 3 is sexually assaulted by the guy from Craigslist and then in Episode 4 has sex with a guy from the grocery store, and takes on the role of the man, it’s a direct response to the traumatic experience she just went through the episode before. It’s not like, “Oh, let’s be promiscuous and have random sex.” There’s psychological reasonings behind it. So I think that’s also important.
GD: Right, that leads into something I wanted to ask you about. Going from a short film and a pilot script into a full season, talk about breaking the season down and coming up with those kinds of what you were talking about. The ways that one episode can lead into another. It’s not exactly like a firm narrative through-line for each one. They’re like their own short films in each sense. But talk about finding the emotional through-line for this season.
FS: That’s part of the challenge, too, of when you’re writing about a woman who in some sense is floundering. So there’s this great responsibility to her child, so there’s this through-line of, “Okay, I wanna be a better parent to my child than how I was parented.” So if we have that at the heart, that’s something that carries through. In the pilot, Bridgette goes on an audition and when I started writing the series I’m like, “I do not wanna write about an actress. I will fall asleep trying to write that show because it’s so not interesting to me.” And so we came up with this idea of basketball because it’s such a far reach for a white girl in Southie who’s got a kid. What is it like for a girl to have that dream, thinking that’s the thing that’s gonna get her out of her circumstance and putting that in the show, it allowed us to get into the discussion of who has the privilege to dream? Mothers, poor people, it’s not really something that everyone has the opportunity to participate in, so that was the other sort of soft through-line, because I read about “Atlanta” a lot, and Donald [Glover]’s character, Earn, is talked about as a passive character, like he’s reactive, and in some sense when we’re writing Bridgette, there’s some similarities there. And so that is the challenge of how do we, in each episode, give her a small want, a small drive to keep her active when really she’s thrown around by her circumstance.
GD: You mentioned wanting to be a better parent to your child than your parent was to you, and your mother is a pivotal role in this show, played by Rosie O’Donnell. Can you talk a bit about, first of all, working with her and what made her right for the role, and also the dynamic between those two characters?
FS: Rosie is a dream. I love her so much, and it was completely one of those lucky accidents of you meet someone for 20 minutes, you hear about their life, that they were one of six children, Irish Catholic, blue collar family, and you’re like, “Okay, let’s try it.” And then it couldn’t have exceeded my expectations more and so that’s great, and our dynamic is great. She’s such a pro and I love working with her. And then the dynamic is complicated, because hurt people hurt people, and there’s such love at the core of this relationship and this co-dependency, but she herself has struggled with trauma, with mental illness, and that’s the house that Bridgette was raised in, and so there’s years and years of hard history there. And so, the thing that was important is that Tutu can show up for her grandchild as a grandmother in a way that she couldn’t for Bridgette. It’s highs and lows, but at the core of it, they are there for each other, it’s just not the way in which maybe Bridgette would have her mother behave in an ideal world, but who has that anyways?
GD: Right, I think that’s something that everybody can relate to in one way or another. I wanted to ask you about directing the show. You directed the first episode and the last two. In the first one, what was your visual approach gonna be, setting the style for the show?
FS: Because some of our comedy can get surreal, can get broad, heightened, it was important that the show felt grounded, that the lighting was really soft, that the camera movement was emotional. So I cited Andrea Arnold a lot as the inspiration and her DP, Robbie Ryan. So that was important. When we can go single cam with our operator right up in the emotion and in our faces we do it, even though we’re on the TV schedule, which doesn’t always allow it. “Transparent” too, what Jim Frohna did on “Transparent,” that was another inspiration. It was important that it was on location. It was important that we can go in and out of shadow, that we’re not lighting everything. When I met with all the women for Tutu that was one of the things that I said, I’m like, “I don’t beauty light! It’s not always gonna be pretty!” So that was really clear to me, and then having the right team around me. Our costume designer is a genius, Kamy Lennox. And yeah, our production designer, our DP, so it just was important that we had the right mentality and that everyone was really collaborative. I had a really specific look that I wanted to achieve and feel really good about it and wanna push us even more for this next season.
GD: Well I’m curious. You’ve been acting for a long time before you started directing. So how did you learn to direct from acting?
FS: There’s the visual approach, which for me is just like watching as much as I can, and getting to know what I respond to and learning the language in which to communicate that, so that was one part of it. And then also the other maybe more important is the work you do as an actor, figuring out how to create an emotionally relevant or resonant scene. So figuring out your own technique, which for me, it sort of comes from, there’s a long lineage of this, but that each scene has to have an emotional beat change and that can dictate blocking. And if you know that and you get to a scene and it’s not going well and you can sit down and you’re like, “What’s the core to the scene about, where are we going and let’s move from there,” then you can really figure out any scene, ‘cause you can rewrite it on the spot if it’s not there in the script. So the acting definitely helped me because I learned how to break down a script as an actor, but a lot of it, I will say, you get to the set and you get with your actors and you’re really feeling whether the scene is working or not, and so I think out of all of the skill and all of the prep, being in touch with that gut feeling is probably my no. 1 thing that I lean on.
GD: And in this first season you also are working with two other directors, Leslye Headland and Amy York Rubin. Talk a bit about working with them and what in their past filmography made them right to come and work on this show.
FS: Both of them are friends of mine so I knew them and I knew that it was really important that I had people that I trusted, that I could communicate with, that we could collaborate together. So it was hard for me to imagine bringing someone in and just being like, “Well, I hope they don’t mind me by the monitor with them.” I wanted to be included, so that was just very important to me. And then Leslye is a hero of mine. She’s so smart. I love her plays, I love her movies. She also comes from theater which is, she said to me, “Let’s find it as we go. It’s very guttural.” And then Amy I actually knew ‘cause we had played basketball together and I loved her web series “Little Horribles,” and it was really acerbic and funny and astute and I just wanted to bring that perspective in.
GD: So this first season was critically acclaimed and received a couple of Golden Globe nominations for Series and for yourself. I wanna ask, what did that recognition mean for you?
FS: It was so rewarding and incredible because it made people who wouldn’t have found out about the show learn about it. It was such a surprise. There’s so many shows out there, so to have broken in in that way, it just allowed people to find the show and helped our audience grow. Yeah, it was incredible. It was nothing short of incredible.
GD: You’re working on the second season right now. How far along are you? What are you thinking about doing? What have you got planned for us?
FS: So this season we go further into our supporting characters and we’re dealing with identity and grief and in terms of identity, it’s sort of the masks we wear and who we are when we’re alone, and soul-searching. There’s a lot of soul-searching in this season, and as I said, going deeper into some of our supporting characters now that the world is established, getting into Rafi and Eliza and Nelson and Tutu a little bit more. So I’m excited about that. We’re almost done writing it.
GD: I certainly look forward to it. Frankie Shaw, thank you so much and congratulations on the show. It’s wonderful.
FS: Thank you so much.
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