Meeting Mrs America

Meeting Mrs America

By Michael Pickard
July 28, 2020


Actors Uzo Aduba and Margo Martindale join showrunner Dahvi Waller and co-executive producer Micah Schraft to discuss period drama Mrs America, which shines a light on the women’s political movement in the 1970s.

Political period drama Mrs America tells the true story of the US movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the counter-campaign led by conservative Phyllis Schlafly to block it. Told from the perspective of women of the era, the nine-part series, produced by FX Productions for Hulu, explores how this battle during the 1970s shifted the political landscape and examines the backlash Schlafly faced for her opposition.

Led by Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, the ensemble cast also features Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. Sarah Paulson, John Slattery, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ari Graynor, Melanie Lynskey and Kayli Carter also star.

At the digital edition of Canada’s BANFF World Media Festival, Martindale and Aduba were joined by showrunner Dahvi Waller (Mad Men) and co-executive producer Micah Schraft for a Mrs America masterclass, during which they discussed telling the story through Phyllis Schlafly, their approach to tackling real-life events and why Mrs America’s subject resonates with contemporary audiences.

Dahvi Waller

Executive producer Stacey Sher pitched showrunner Dahvi Waller a number of historical figures for a new series…
Waller: One of the women she threw out there was Phyllis Schlafly and her campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. I had been looking to do a political drama and I wanted to do one centred on women. This wasn’t exactly what I imagined but I thought, ‘That’s an interesting challenge to make the protagonist someone who’s so ideologically different from me.’ It presented a writer’s challenge I thought would be fun to tackle.

But Waller wasn’t only interested in telling the story of Schlafly…
Waller: I wanted to broaden the idea to include all of the leaders of the women’s movement – that was so important to me. You had so many different women, i.e. characters, to put in your series, versus just the singular Phyllis Schlafly on the other side. That asymmetry led to the structure we developed for the series, where we go into different perspectives week to week, episode to episode, on the feminist side. I wanted to really highlight all the different leaders.

Micah Schraft

FX bought the pitch ‘in the room’…
Waller: That means they bought a pilot script; it doesn’t mean anything more than that. We had a long development period. I wrote the first two episodes and a format that walks you through the entire series, which I submitted to FX. At that point, our producer sent the first two scripts to Cate Blanchett, and that is key to getting a show made. When someone like Cate says, ‘I want to play the lead role,’ that greenlight comes really fast. That was critical to getting the show made and also getting this incredible cast.
I don’t know if everyone would have read my scripts if Cate wasn’t attached. That’s when we opened up the writers room and got to hire a staff, which is the happiest day in a showrunner’s life.

Micah Schraft, co-executive producer: We broke the season as a group [in the writers room] and took ownership over the characters who were going to be highlighted in the episodes. We divvied up characters and did deep dives into the historical figures. We weren’t sure if it was going to be eight or nine episodes and the more we researched and got into it, there was more to this story we wanted to tell.
We went back to FX and pitched the nine-episode version and got to work. When the actors started coming in and had done their own extensive research, we started doing hair and make-up tests and started to see the characters come to life. It was amazing. There’s a little moment you swap out these historical figures and just replace them with the portrayals of Margo, Uzo and Cate. That’s where the historical figure ends and the performance begins.

Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in Mrs America

Uzo Aduba was familiar with her character, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress, but the series helped her realise why she was such a “big deal”…
Aduba: My mum was alive during this time and a very passionate Shirley Chisholm fan. I read [The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country by Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr] when I first moved to New York and there was a chapter about Shirley in it. That was the beginning of my knowledge about her. I didn’t know before then why my mum necessarily liked her and why she was as big a deal as she was, so that was really when I came to know of her and what she had pioneered, and I became a personal fan of hers.
When it came to telling this story, what I was most interested in was the human that is Shirley Chisholm. There are so many speeches she’s given. I’ve read her book and watched her documentary, but the piece in the doc I was most drawn to was the end when she just collapses into her hands and she’s crying. I remember thinking to myself, so often we see this perfect symbol of stoicism but so rarely do we get to see what it’s like for her to go home. I was really interested in seeing and telling that story.

Playing Bella Abzug, a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, was a “giant responsibility” for Margo Martindale…
Martindale: Just learning about her, she was so incredibly smart and such an incredible politician and knew how to politically move things forward. It was a fascinating education for me, learning about her and being on the show. When I came to New York from East Texas, I just wanted to be an actress. I did everything I could just to act and get a job. I was always liberated, but I missed the movement. I feel embarrassed by it and this has really opened my mind. Truly, I feel more political now than I’ve ever felt.

Margo Martindale plays Bella Abzug

Mrs America builds tension through the revolutionary and pragmatic members of the women’s liberation movement…
Waller: What I liked about Bella representing pragmatism is, 20 years earlier, she had been a radical. That is an interesting thing, the evolution of the revolutionary. At some point as they get older, they become more pragmatic once they spend time inside Washington and see what can be done.
When you talk about radical change versus pragmatism, you need the radical person to push you ahead. Even though the radical changes don’t often get adopted by the larger movement, it pushes the movement in a more progressive way. That tension and conflict between [pragmatist] Bella and [radical] Shirley ultimately pushed the movement to a more progressive place. You need that tension for growth, even though it feels, at the time, like conflict.

With the show ending at the point in history where the Equal Rights Amendment is defeated and Schlafly wins, Waller says Mrs America is a “tragedy”…
Waller: The patriarchy wins and there’s no way around that. That’s history. But there’s a lot of hope baked in there. We tried to craft a story where, at the end of it, even though it doesn’t end with the social movement winning, the viewer would feel galvanised and have more of an understanding. We know the ERA didn’t pass, but how we got there and how Phylis played a role in the larger movement was a story I didn’t know until I dug deeper into the research and we got into the writers room. Hopefully it will galvanise viewers and give them some insight they can bring to their activism today.

Mrs America stars Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly

Waller believes every character in Mrs America deserves their own spin-off series…
Waller: We weren’t trying to tell the broad story of the women’s movement. It’s not meant to be a biopic of anyone. It’s just a period of time that tells part of a larger story, so there’s still so much room to cover. We haven’t had a lot of content about women in history or black people in history on television or film, and this is something we need to rectify. I hope Mrs America inspires other creators and writers to do a TV series about the Black Panthers or just on Flo Kennedy [played in the series by Niecy Nash]. Bella should have her own movie. Why aren’t we telling those stories? That’s my hope.

Had it not been for the explosion of different TV platforms, Mrs America might never have been made…
Aduba: One of the amazing things about having so many options, places and spaces for content to exist is it has created so much space for so many voices to be heard. It has helped to level up the entertainment storytelling landscape. We have started to see shows that have different stories and different faces represented – whether it’s Shonda Rhimes, The Handmaid’s Tale or Jenji Kohan and Orange is the New Black – and that has created the space for new stories and people at large have realised they want those new stories too.

tagged in: , , , ,