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'SMILF': Frankie Shaw on the season 1 finale, improv with a toddler, and 'women coming together'

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Frankie Shaw in ‘SMILF’ (Photo: Showtime)

Warning: This interview about Season 1 finale episode of SMILF,  “Mark’s Lunch and Two Cups of Coffee,” contains spoilers.

Frankie Shaw’s nine-minute film based on her experience as a single mom and aspiring actress won the Sundance Short Film Jury Award in 2014, and three years later — before the Showtime series version of SMILF had even wrapped its first season — writer/director/producer/showrunner Shaw is celebrating a pair of Golden Globe nominations.

With the eight-episode first season completing its run on New Year’s Eve, Shaw talked to Yahoo Entertainment about addressing the intense subject matter of her character’s life through humor, the joy of seeing Rosie O’Donnell get positive feedback for the performance as Bridgette’s mom Tutu, and how a bit of improv with the two-year-old actress who plays Bridgette’s son, Larry, led to her favorite moment of the season.

The season finale exemplifies how much these characters rely on humor to get through the darkest of circumstances. 
Yeah, definitely, it’s one of those things [we do] in order to be able to talk about that part of humanity, the things that are harder to look at. I think in general, in our lives, we have to find the humor or laugh within the tragedy when the time is right, but also to make certain subject matter like talking about childhood sexual abuse palatable. It was important that we allow the audience to laugh with Bridgette, with her crazy haircut and her spinning out, because we wanted to go deeper in this episode.

And the relationships between all the women are enviable. They are an incredible support system for each other.
Yeah, exactly. These women, despite their differences, really can be there for each other. And it was important to end the season with all four of them together. This show is really about the women coming together.

SMILF is a comedy, but addresses a lot of serious issues along the way. What was your approach in the very beginning of how you would balance that, and how much you wanted to balance that?
I think it’s just sort of the DNA of the show. And if there’s any sort of thing that we are conscious of when we’re writing and we’re talking about stories, it’s how do we ground it? If there’s comedy that seems too broad, it’s how do we make it seem real? How do we root it in reality? That’s probably, that’s more the mission than how do we get to the emotional stuff. But when we do have some of the harder funnier moments, if it’s not rooted in the circumstances and the character, it probably wouldn’t stay in the script.

The finale addressed in a more specific way Bridgette’s abuse by her father, which had been mentioned throughout the season, as had her mom’s mental health struggles. We got the whole backstory of what happened to Bridgette, but then also, because of Tutu’s struggles, how Bridgette has to be the adult in that relationship at times. Was that the reason you decided to address it most specifically in the finale?
Yeah, though I will say, I wasn’t even that conscious of it. I did know that the season was about peoples’ dysfunction and understanding the why behind it, not just having Bridgette or Tutu making bad decisions without getting into the psychology behind it.

There are labels for women, like even when Freud [used] the word “hysterical.” They were all women who’ve been traumatized, actually. So it’s important that in this episode we do [address] that this is maybe a huge part of Bridgette feeling unrooted, and why life is a little bit harder for her, and why it’s a little bit harder for Tutu.

Because of the topics that resonated with a lot of viewers, I’m guessing you’ve gotten a lot of feedback, a lot of responses from viewers who were touched by what Bridgette and some of the other characters have experienced. 
Yeah, it’s been so fun to see responses on Twitter. We have a screening at my house every Sunday night, and we are watching the East Coast feed while following along to people’s tweets. And so, it’s so nice to engage with the audience in that way. I had no idea that it would be something I’d look forward to so much. I would say people are really responding to how deeply connected Rosie is to her character, Tutu, and how it’s a side of Rosie that they’ve never seen. That’s been really nice, to see the support for her, especially since Rosie’s so out there, so prominent, politically. And there can be a whole hurtful part of social media regarding that for her. But this part is so lovely.

And then also just so many people are saying that they love the tone, the raw feeling of the show, and there seems to be people responding to each part of it. We have people who really love Eliza, Raven [Goodwin’s] character, and they will be quoting her, and people are really identifying with just like how Bridgette can be the butt of the joke and fall on her behind and then get back up and have this optimism. I think there’s something in that people respond to, just the optimism of the show. It’s not like twenty-something cynicism. I think because you can feel the struggle in their circumstances, that there has to be sort of a “get back on your feet” type of attitude.

Photo: Showtime

Does it surprise you that people see Bridgette, or the show overall, as optimistic? 
No, but that was not intentional. It was a TV writer who actually watched the first two episodes and wrote me an email about it. I hadn’t thought about the show in that way. I think it’s just sort of what we ended up writing, so that was a nice surprise. It’s an interesting way to conceptualize the show, that there is this optimism, which I do believe now that I’m looking back… “Oh, yeah, that is maybe who I am also.” But I was not aware that’s what I was doing.

Does that make you even more proud of it? 
Sure. And that’s also related to some of the other themes. We talk a lot about the social commentary, but I was just writing what I and people I know have experienced, or what I know about the world of this young, struggling woman. It was like, before this whole movement of people coming forward about sexual harassment, it was just sort of like, “Oh, let’s write what I know.” And so that’s also been a wonderful surprise, that people have been embracing the show’s themes so much. Because really, it wasn’t trying to be some message show. It was just a show that’s about one girl and her family’s life.

You’ve described the show as an exaggerated version of your life. Does it ever feel more autobiographical or more reflective of your experiences than you had planned?
I mean, that’s a hard question to answer. Part of it is I’m protecting people in my life. There’s nothing that’s exactly the same. We take liberties and we take feelings of stories. Or, you know, I’ve talked about how I got on the subway, and someone in New York City grabbed me, and I jumped off at the next exit. And it was like, what do I wish I could have done? I wish I could have punched that guy in the face. And so that was sort of one of the elements of Episode 3. It’s things like that. It’s like, what are the seeds of stories that are true to me or true to my writers or true to my family, and how do we expand off of that?

Do you have a favorite moment this season?
There are moments in each [episode] that I love, like [Episode 7], the scene where Larry is on Bridgette’s lap on the bus. “Are you depressed? Are you sad? Do you have anxiety? Do you have an eating disorder?” That was improv on the day, and it ended up being so great, because [Anna Reimer, one of the twins who plays Larry] is just answering me, and I thought that was a moment that was totally unplanned and representative of Bridgette’s neurosis and her worries about her kid. And then I’m really excited about the end of the finale, and the four women coming together, and using that song “Louie Louie.” Also the poke at Woody Allen is something I’m really proud of. It was our way of speaking out against him.

And then all the basketball stuff was so fun to do, because it’s a dream. I used to always joke when I was auditioning in my 20s, “Oh, I wish there was a basketball movie that would be my big break,” and then I got to write it into the show.

Speaking of Larry, he is such a smart and adorable character. It’s surprising to learn he’s played by twin girls.
Yeah, Lexi and Anna Reimer, and they’re incredible. I had probably sat with thousands of two-year-olds for the pilot, and they were just the most magical, amazing, smart, funny kids. We really got so lucky, and that’s a credit to Marci Phillips, our New York casting director who found them out of New Jersey.

How do you get these amazing performances from them?
I have a relationship with them, and I’m a mom myself, so there’s a lot of mothering on set. They’re both very different, so knowing which one to use which for what scene is important. Usually it takes a little while if they’re in a bad mood for them to warm up, and then, Anna is the more confident one and just wants to be in the scene always. And anytime [Larry] is being like, “No, I don’t want to do it,” it’s Lexi. So like, with the potty training, that’s all Lexi being obnoxious. A huge part of it is developing a relationship with them. And let me just add, I cannot talk about them without mentioning Jodi, their mom, who is with us in their scenes. If we need something, she’s there; she’s crouching behind the couch, calling their names. She is working just as hard as they are.

We also have to talk about Rafi. Miguel Gomez is fantastic, and Rafi’s character is written just as beautifully as the female characters. If we never saw anything else from his background, that one scene with his mother in Episode 6 was heartbreaking, and said so much about who he is and what his own struggles are.
It’s starting with the theme of how to explain why these characters are so flawed. If we were going to have our character relapse, it’s important to know what leads to that decision. And with Rafi, he’s somebody who doesn’t want to be left. And he thinks if he puts his own needs aside and is there for someone else, then that guarantees that he won’t be abandoned. But in reality, he ends up just ignoring himself until he can’t take it anymore and then the only option he sees is to pop a pill, because it’s too painful.

What can you share about the plans for Season 2? 
Just to go deeper with all of the characters. We had eight episodes to explore a lot, and that was a challenge with so many great characters. I wanted to go deeper; I love Samara Weaving who plays Nelson. She’s so incredible. So it’s like, how do we expand her? I want to get deeper into some of the supporting characters, start where we left off and just keep going. Like, what is Bridgette going to do for work? And how Tutu’s dealing with her mental illness, and Joe, and… I don’t want to give everything away, but we are just going deeper with everyone.

Congratulations on the Golden Globe nominations, by the way! 
It’s surreal and everything you could hope for. There’s so much amazing TV out there — how do we break through, and how do we get people to watch us and give us a shot? And obviously it was a huge opportunity to be recognized like that. It’s really, truly just the greatest thing, a wild dream come true.

Where were you when you found out?
I was doing a radio interview, a morning talk show in Boston called “Matty in the Morning,” and I had a guest sleeping on our living room couch. So, in our driveway, I’m doing this talk show, and someone from Showtime called, and then my publicist called, and then my agent called, all while I was live on-air. So I had to ask them [on the radio] to look up the Globe nominations, and I actually found out while I was on-air. And then I got off the interview, and got on a three-way call with all those people, and everyone was just so excited and sobbing.

Season 1 of SMILF is available to watch on Showtime and Hulu.

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