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.