Red Widow, which follows Radha Mitchell as Marta Walraven, a woman who grew up in the Russian Mob in Marin County, only to find herself pulled back into the world of crime she tried to leave behind after the murder of her husband, premiered on ABC last Sunday. At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, I spoke with Melissa Rosenberg, who created Red Widow fresh off her stints writing the Twilight franchise, about what mothers are allowed to do on television, what parts of sex can and can’t get past Standards and Practices, and what it’s going to take for women to succeed in Hollywood. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you decide that Red Widow was going to be about the Russian mob?
Well my first decision was where I was going to set it. The original is set just outside Amsterdam, and had this sort of suburban community versus in-town, so I was looking for that. And because I’m from Marin County, in NOrthern California, that was a natural place. You’ve got Marin County and you cross the bridge into San Francisco, which has become emblematic of the bridging of two worlds. And so I began to look at what was the organized crime situation in San Francisco. While the Russian mob isn’t the largest group in San Francisco, it’s one of the top three. So then we were fortunate enough to find the former head of the FBI organized crime branch for the Russian mob in San Francisco and he became our technical consultant…So everything we do is checked with him. We do a lot of research on the internet obviously and everywhere we can. But we’re always conferring with him as well.
In terms of that sort of mob tradition, one of the things I’m curious about in that context is how the mob culture interacts with the way that Marta and Evan are raising their children? I thought that sequence in the pilot where Evan tells their son to kick his brother, he gives his daughter the money for the paints, he’s very sort of emotional and undisciplined and she wants to set boundaries. I was curious how that interacts with the larger mob story and the larger mob culture.
What’s interesting is, you know, having come from Marin County, and we all have these experiences growing up. You think you are raised in, you think that is everyone’s reality. And when you finally leave that nest, you realize, oh, the Marin County way of thinking and being is completely different from the rest of the country. It’s a sort of rude awakening. But there’s part of it that’s always living with you. Things that seem very odd to the rest of the world are just the norm to me. I mean, I htink that’s very much the case with Marta. A lot of people would think that having your husband exporting pot, it would be “Are you frickin’ kidding me?” But for her, it’s in the realm of “I don’t love this, I’d rather you didn’t do this.” But it’s not this huge moral violation in the way it would be for anyone else in the world who had a different background than her. So it’s always exploring the line for her, it’s an unclear line, and it’s different from what a lot of other people’s experiences might have been.
I wonder if we’ve had so many of these anti-heroes who are fathers because of TV tropes about men as bumbling dads, they’re not really involved, so their betrayal of responsibility to their kids doesn’t hit as hard?
There is definitely a much higher standard for characters who are mothers. There are a couple of things you don’t do. You don’t kill a dog. You don’t have a mother betray her children. You’ve lost your audience on either of those two fronts. And it’s just something embedded in our culture that we are less forgiving. And that’s always the line we’re going to be riding with her. She’s never intentionally betraying them. She’s never intentionally putting them in danger. She’s doing the very, very best she can. As we all are!
I love the sex scene in the pilot, and I am consistently cranky about sex on television. This looked like people who were having intercourse like real people. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing that scene—and was there anything Standards and Practices wanted you to cut or change?
There’s always a few grinds and pumping, I can’t remember the word—
You can’t thrust! When we shot that scene, it was one of the most intense shooting days of our pilot, because those two have amazing chemistry. You really felt that you were stepping into a very intimate relationship. We had a very closed set. These two actors, both of them, have a lack of vanity, and will just fling themselves into something. There’s a lot of footage that will never be scene, 95 percent of it, because it’s just so outrageous in an incredibly fantastic way. What it got pared down to, you still get, it’s a very sexy scene, it’s not pretend, it’s not “And now we’re doing this for the cameras because it looks really hot.” It’s two actors as directed by Mark Pellington, who’s a very real director, who basically let the room disappear for them and immersed themselves in this moment.
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your work, is that there are a lot of things I think people assume all women want to see in sex scenes, like rose petals, people falling back onto pillows, and you seem to have a sense of what’s hot but not disengaged.
To me, what’s sexy about sex scenes is connectedness and the intensity of connectedness. It’s titillating. And the physical manifestation of it. It’s not about posing, or this move or that move. It’s about two actors and the chemistry that they have. That’s the most attractive thing. And I have to say, as a female viewer, I want to see the men. And I’m not above pandering. You will notice in my show that all the male actors are unusually and particularly good-looking and built. This is secondary to their talent, but I am all about letting our female audience enjoy that beauty. You will see some shirts off. And I have such willing actors.
I don’t think that’s pandering, though! If you look at Magic Mike this summer, which in the plot of the movie acknowledges that women want to look and touch, and also gives us Channing Tatum dancing for our entertainment. It’s as if we’re in a moment where more people realize that.
I think so too! And I hate to bring up Twilight, but the thing about Twilight, when I became aware of Twilight, and one of the things I appreciated about Twilight was it allows and it is about, it allows for a young girl to be sexual. She is the pursuer. She is the sexual aggressor through all five episodes, to the point where she’s threatening. She’s the sexual aggressor. I think so much about what drew all those women to those movies is that it gave them permission to be sexual, to have desire, to be desirous. And I am all about that. I embrace it and celebrate it. Our passion and our sexuality and what we love. And what we love is connectedness, passion, gorgeous bodies, masculinity—for heterosexual women, obviously…That’s why [Bella] agrees to get engaged, that’s why she agrees to get married. She wants sex. I love that, and that’s all Stephenie [Meyer]’s doing but I totally embraced it….If we are aggressive, if we are desirous, we’re screwed-up in some way, we’re sluts or we’re comedic. Or that we’re using it as manipulation, we’re using it as a weapon. When sometimes what we just want is sex.
Could you tell me about the writers you’re working with? Do you have parents?
Yes, we do. It was very important to me to have a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences in the writers. I have my own experience. I don’t need someone else who is coming where I’m coming from. We have a couple of parents. We have a lot of people of different backgrounds.
What’s the balance of men and women?
Half and half.
That’s great. It seems like half and half is a hard hurdle for some people to get to.
We were half and half on Dexter, actually, as well. Lately there’s been more female showrunners, at least in drama in the last five, ten years. We’ve slowly been stepping up. We tend to want a really well-balanced room.
Do you think the pipeline of female showrunners is improving?
Yeah, we’re still only 23 or 4 percent of the Writers’ Guild, 13 percent of the Directors’ Guild. So in some ways I think the pipeline needs to start earlier. It needs to start with women who are willing to help women get the, and this is probably politically incorrect, to get the spine to step into really challenging careers. It’s a scary career. Hollywood is really hard. It’s rejection after rejection. And you’ve got to have a serious spine to try to make a living in Hollywood, especially as an artist. If we can shift the culture so that more women are excited by that challenge, as at this moment I think more men are, they’re used to competition and sports. I think with Title XI, and more women in sports, I am seeing a shift. I’m meeting more young women who are like “Competition? Big deal.” They’re serious. The more we can raise girls like that and bring more women like that into the workplace, we’re going to see more women politicians. So far that has been very slow growth. There’s been no growth for ten to twenty years.
Well and it needs to change structurally. If you’re going to be in the writers’ room breaking story for twenty hours, you need someone who can get your kids to bed.
Casting the show was very difficult because the actresses I looked at to play Marta before I found Radha, they had kids, they didn’t want to carry a show. If a mother had to do what Radha did in these eight episodes, that child would never see her. It would be an orphan child. So there are a lot of women who just don’t want to carry series, which is personally disappointing to me. I was really disappointed by that. I was like “Really? Okay. This is an incredible role and an incredible opportunity.” I mean, I didn’t choose to have children. I guess I understand. But still.
It would tell you something abou the number of female leads on television, and their ages.
It does. I know I thought when I was going to create a role for a mature woman, that there are so few roles [for women that age that it would be easy, but] I had an incredibly hard time casting it. I ended up looking for someone older because the original had someone older. When Mark first brought up Radha, I was like “She’s too young!” She’s 40. She’s not going to agree to play a mother of three teenagers. And then I was like “Wait, that’s a great idea!” She was willing to take on the role. Also, finding women who haven’t fucked up their faces, that’s really hard.