Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative icon and staunch anti-feminist who led the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment,” in the 9-part FX Series “Mrs. America,” which aired last spring.
The star-studded cast, who play leaders in the 1970’s feminist movement, include Margo Martindale (Bella Abzug), Tracey Ullman (Betty Friedan), Uzo Aduba (Shirley Chisholm) and Rose Byrne (Gloria Steinem).
Recently, Variety hosted an awards screening of the episode “Shirley,” about Chisholm’s historic run for president. (Aduba took home the Emmy for best supporting actress for the episode, directed by the terrific Amma Assante.) After the screening, the show’s stars, along with screenwriter Tanya Barfield and creator/screenwriter Dahvi Waller, participated in a virtual Q&A.
Kate Arthur, an editor at large at Variety who moderated the Q&A, asked Waller to respond to critical comments Steinem made about the show during a podcast for England’s Hay Festival in May. Steinem complained the show set the women up in a sort of catfight. “The problem with this ridiculous show is it makes it seem as if women are our own worst enemies, which prevents us from recognizing who our worst enemies are… I’m sure the actors in it are fine. It’s just the thrust of the story that’s the problem.”
“I actually have a lot of respect for Gloria Steinem,” said Waller. “She’s a feminist icon, and I’m really proud of the series that we made… We have the possibility of real radical change and really transforming our society. But we need to understand what we’re up against. We need to understand the reactionary forces, both economic and political, and they always work hand in hand. As we show in the series, they try to stop change, because change while it’s wonderful is also very disruptive. And you know, a lot of people don’t like disruption as we see in this pandemic. It’s scary.”
Blanchett was asked if was it daunting to play Schlafly, a historical figure in recent memory.
“It was daunting in a way I think to play someone who is as polarizing as her. But I think it’s always a pleasure to play someone who actually lived and had an impact, positive or negative on the world around you because there’s so much to draw on, but you have to ask yourself, what is your function in the narrative you’re telling? It’s not a documentary… There’s so many extraordinary characters who make up this tapestry. So you need to work out what your function is in it…And actually I was very pleased, I think, ultimately to leave it behind, because I think a life lived to stop things, to prevent things is a very negative space to exist in. And I was very pleased to check that in, because I much prefer a life that is about listening rather than preventing conversation and preventing change.”
“She’s a polarizing figure, and she continues to be even after her death. And my mother said to when, when I told her about the project, she was really excited about it. ‘Who are you going to play?’ And I said, ‘I’m playing Phyllis Schlafly.’ And she said, ‘How can you play someone like that? How can you give air time to that?’ Because I need to know what makes someone like that tick. And the wonderful thing about this being a series, a limited series is that Schlafly became the through line through which she gave air to a multifarious array of female perspectives of which she was one, and which broke apart, this notion that women are a monolith and we all think the same way, or we should all think the same way.
And I think it’s a very challenging thing for us to realize that there are people who do not think like us, who do not value the things that base that we value. And so I found it very challenging and isolating and lonely and bewildering and frustrating. But the hardest thing for me to do was not to bring my own sense of judgment because I knew that I was part of a series that was giving rise to a really important, relevant, contemporary conversation about the notion of equality. We see right now in the world in which we’re walking out into, is that a mask, people’s personal health has been politicized. And I wanted to know why the notion of equality was so politicized. What was so political about being equal? I still don’t know that I’ve got to the bottom of someone like Phyllis.
I think that the series is a jumping off point for an audience. It’s not the be-all and end-all. I think that it opens a whole array of questions, and that’s the point of making a series like this, is that you say, “What do you think? Where do you stand? Now that you know, this moment of recent history, what are you going to do with this information? And how does that help you dissect the world in which you’re currently living in? Men, women, everyone of all political and gender persuasions, what do we do with this? And I’m still in that space.
And for me personally… playing Phyllis was part of trying to reverse engineer how we’ve got here. And it was wanting to know about the rise of the Evangelical Right, and the immense polarization of discourse in what I thought was a democracy.
And Phyllis is a big part of that, an uncredited part of that actually, ironically, and someone who subscribed to the patriarchy, but yet didn’t achieve what she wanted to achieve by herself personally. So, I found it very challenging to play, but at no point did I think it was my job to place my own political points of view on that so I thought that way would make the series small and that I thought it was, you would have a much more robust and perhaps uglier discussion, but an important discussion, if I didn’t tell an audience what to think.”
What interested her most about Phyllis and “Mrs. America”?
“I wanted to be part of the conversation. I think, like a lot of people, I was reeling from the process and the results of the 2016 election in America, and wanted to understand how we got to a point where people seemed to be, women seemed to be, voting against their own self-interest. I had only heard about Phyllis Schlafly as an elderly woman” who had been a conservative voice in the 70’s and that Trump attended her funeral. “And I thought, who is this person and why is she not in the tip of everyone’s lips? She’s a clearly incredibly important to the Republican party currently and to Trump in particular. And she’s got a massive following. And so I went down that rabbit hole, but was it my desire to be part of it is there’s no reason to delve back into history, whether it’s deep history or recent history of like Mrs. America, unless it reveals something about the times in which we live. And I had this profound sense of living in Groundhog Day, every day we were on set. The word, the phrase is that the situations we found ourselves in as characters seem to be just literally mirroring the things that were happening in politics and society in America generally. So that was my drive.”
How did she find Phyllis, her accent and physicality, even the set of her jaw is so precise?
“Well, I couldn’t probably talk like that. (Mimics her accent.) It wouldn’t really been appropriate, but unlike Bella or Betty or even Gloria, if you go back and try and find lots of interviews with them, they’re very difficult to find, but you search for Phyllis Schlafly and you get this encyclopedic array of interviews. Her archive is enormous. And so I literally trolled through, I think probably every television, radio interview she ever gave. And it was just, it was fascinating for me to watch how loose and fast she was with fact and fiction. And it was sort of at a terrifying speed… But in the end, you want to understand, well, I did anyway, just sort on a selfish level, I wanted to know what made her tick. And I found that there was a terrifying need to be right. And a profound need to make the world in her own image and the fear of change. And I think that, if you look at evolution, the species that have avoided adapting to change, inevitable change, have always become extinct. And, so I was thinking about those things as I trolled through her archive.”