Hidden heroines

Hidden heroines

By Michael Pickard
July 5, 2024


More than a decade in the making, The Gray House is inspired by the true stories of women who helped win the US Civil War for the Union. Producers Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary join stars Mary-Louise Parker and Ben Vereen to take DQ into the making of the historical drama.

At a difficult time for the television business, with new commissions in short supply and budgets shrinking, sometimes all you need is a little patience. As Academy Award-winning star Morgan Freeman recalls, Clint Eastwood spent more than a decade waiting for the right time to make Unforgiven, his 1992 western in which Freeman also starred.

Now the actor-turned-producer has had to demonstrate a little patience of his own with his latest project, The Gray House, a series that has been 12 years in the making.

Morgan Freeman

“It’s almost impossible to get a project that excites you that you can pass on, but it might be a time before somebody else’s eyes light up on that project. That means for you, patience,” he tells DQ. “That’s the name of the game, actually. A lot of good stories sit on shelves for many, many years. And the lesson is, everything in its own time.

“In many cases it also takes a while to get a proper script, a script you believe in. That’s the next hurdle in creating something. Who’s the writer who can take this to the next level, the level you need to be able to show it to a studio and say, ‘Can you help us make this?’”

In the case of The Gray House, this US Civil War-era drama first came to Freeman and Lori McCreary’s Revelation Entertainment production company via Leslie Greif, who was coming off US cable network Lifetime’s 2012 historical series Hatfields & McCoys and was asked for a female-led period series.

Writer and producer Greif developed an “incredible script” with Darrell Fetty (Texas Rising) and John Sayles (Lone Star), McCreary says. “But we couldn’t get it sold 12 years ago. Lifetime didn’t do any very big projects, and this is a very big project. Sometimes you just need to wait until the right time.”

The story then picks up four years ago, when Greif, who runs Big Dreams Entertainment, got back in touch to tell Freeman and McCreary that Kevin Costner and the Yellowstone actor’s Territory Pictures was joining the project and would help rewrite it.

“So they spent a lot of time rewriting, and we went into Paramount, and [chief content licensing officer] Dan Cohen was standing in there with [CBS Studios president] David Stapf, and you have Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman saying, ‘Please, would you help us get this made?’”

Lori McCreary

Paramount agreed to back the show, and Paramount Global Content Distribution is now shopping The Gray House worldwide following its premiere last month at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. But notably and unusually, the series was produced without an anchor broadcaster, with the producers and Paramount picking up the tab.

“For me, it’s risky, but it is the best way to do this because, ultimately, Paramount and Dan Cohen said, ‘You make this story. I trust you. Make the story you want to tell,’” McCreary says. “It’s very rare in Hollywood to have executives and people who are your partners say, ‘We trust you enough,’ soup to nuts, everything. We’re incredibly fortunate.”

The eight-part series focuses on the true story of the unsung women who turned the tide of the American Civil War in favour of the abolitionist North. A Virginia socialite, her mother, a formerly enslaved sister-in-arms and the city’s most notorious courtesan operate deep inside the corridors of Confederate power, leading them to transform their underground railroad into an effective and even more dangerous underground spy network, risking life and liberty to help win the war and preserve American democracy.

In particular, the series highlights Elizabeth Van Lew (played by Daisy Head), who was commended by General Ulysses S Grant for providing the most valuable intelligence from Richmond, Virginia, during the war. He personally thanked her for her invaluable contributions as a Union spymaster.

Mary-Louise Parker (Eliza Van Lew), Amethyst Davis (Mary Jane Richards) and Ben Vereen (Isham Worthy) also star, while Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields) is the director.

Of course, Freeman is best known for his on-screen roles in films such as The Shawshank Redemption, Seven and Million Dollar Baby, for which he won the best supporting actor Oscar in 2005. He has also fronted numerous factual series for Revelations Entertainment, but the company also has form in scripted television, producing 120 episodes and six seasons of CBS political drama Madam Secretary. The show stars Téa Leoni as a former CIA analyst who is appointed US secretary of state following the suspicious death of her predecessor.

Mary-Louise Parker

The Gray House began life as a six-hour project, and over the years evolved from a film to a longer series and back again. “But the amount of story we wanted to tell [didn’t change] and we actually wanted to give a balanced view,” McCreary says. “We show the Confederate side and the Union side. And to do that in two hours, I don’t think we would have done the story justice.

“We started at six, but it feels like eight hours was the perfect amount of time to get all the stories and really have everyone [in the audience] have somebody to relate to in the story, no matter what background they’re from.”

As Eliza Van Lew, Parker (Weeds, Angels in America) plays the mother of Elizabeth, who leads the underground railroad with her support and from others in the ensemble cast. Meanwhile, Vereen plays Ishum, “a Zulu who was captured and brought to America and was enslaved, and he was a runner so he runs, and he ran so many times the slave owner broke his leg so he became useless, he couldn’t run as fast,” the actor explains.

When Ishum meets the Van Lews, they buy him and bring him back to Virginia, “and they become family,” Vereen continues. “I like to think that, because of him, they wanted to free more black people. And they did just that, starting the underground railroad. He’s the conductor, helping move bodies around, and he also considers himself a member of the family.”

Parker “loves” doing historical dramas, and was drawn to starring in the series because she believes the story told in The Gray House is particularly important. “It’s just gotten lost somewhere, which was kind of unbelievable to me because it’s such a good story. It lends itself to drama, so I can’t believe it hasn’t been made into a drama before,” she says. “It was just the opportunity to play those dynamics between these characters, and especially to work with an actor like Ben. That’s just like a dream. I felt lucky.”

Ben Vereen

Similarly, Vereen signed up for an “adventure,” and to head back in time with a group of people “who are aware or enlightened enough to make it authentic – the set designer, the cameramen, the cinematographer and the director were holding that space for us to come in, to get into this period and take that journey.”

Parker was similarly taken with the production values of the show, which was shot in Romania. “They were so extraordinary, and the costumes weren’t just costumes – they located us immediately in this world and gave us the luxury of feeling like we were walking into an atmosphere that felt authentic,” she says. “It was really an incredible job. The costumes were extraordinary all the way down, every aspect of then, from the hairpieces to the stockings. It was remarkable, and it affects the way you sit, the way you breathe, and that discomfort from all of that is important [for us] to also experience that.”

Parker believes the story will resonate with audiences when the show does find a home. “Whenever you depict people who are taking risks on behalf of others, that’s worthy time for an audience to spend with the character,” she notes. “It gives you a dose of humanity and goodness we all hope we have inside us.”

Vereen adds: “When it lands, it will be the show of the season.”

The US actors’ strike last year provided one final hurdle for Freeman and McCreary to clear, as filming was forced to stop – but just for a little while, as The Gray House became one of several projects to receive an interim agreement from the SAG-AFTRA union to continue shooting. After 12 years, another delay wasn’t going to stop this production.

“We want to tell stories from our own unique points of view,” McCreary says of Revelation Entertainment’s ambitions. “We come from very different backgrounds and these stories 27 years ago weren’t being told. It’s a little easier now, but we started the company with the mission to reveal truth, meaning we could find the truth in stories, whether they’re historical or current, that help us see each other or someone from a different place or time in a way that helps us make a connection, or have an understanding that we might not otherwise have.”

“It sounds very highfalutin,” adds Morgan, “but actually you start small. You know there’s potential but the only way to know that is to keep going. Quitting was not part of our DNA.”

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