In 2015, actress Frankie Shaw won a jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for SMILF, a short film about a hard-luck single mom. Not two years later, her series of the same name premiered on Showtime to strong reviews with a supporting cast that included Connie Britton and Rosie O’Donnell. Shaw’s brains, talent and ambition were undeniable.
But with the second season of the show set to premiere Jan. 20, SMILF has become a production plagued by allegations of abusive behavior and violations of industry rules. Despite the involvement of several experienced producers and oversight from executives at both Showtime and Disney’s ABC Signature Studios, which produces the show, matters have nonetheless reached a point where one performer is exiting amid claims her contract was breached due to two mishandled sex scenes, numerous employees have contacted Disney’s anonymous tip line about an array of issues and complaints have reached the major talent guilds, including allegations of separating writers by race.
Through an attorney, Shaw denies any bias, and in a statement she says, “I work daily to create an environment in which everyone should feel safe, and in which I can continue to grow as a leader and manager. I am now and always have been open to hearing and addressing all concerns and issues that fall within my control. It pains me to learn that anyone felt uncomfortable on my set. I sincerely hope we can work together to resolve any and all issues, as I am committed to creating a workplace in which all people feel safe and heard.”
In its own statement to THR, ABC Studios, which houses ABC Signature, says it is “committed to a safe work environment, and when we are made aware of issues we address them appropriately. Complaints were brought to our attention after season two production wrapped, and we are investigating. We will take appropriate steps going forward if season three is ordered.”
Showtime declined to comment, though its executives were closely involved in the show’s production and were aware of at least some of the allegations. Questions about SMILF are surfacing as Showtime’s parent company, CBS Corp., is reeling from the downfall of longtime leader Leslie Moonves as well as a series of leaked reports alleging rampant misconduct at the company over the course of years. In October, Showtime CEO David Nevins was named chief creative officer of CBS and is now responsible in part for reforming a corporate culture that appears to have been permeated with abuse.
Toward the end of production on SMILF’s season two in August, sources say O’Donnell contacted Showtime executive Amy Israel as well as executive producer Scott King to express concern about a chaotic and troubled set. Insiders say O’Donnell herself did not clash with Shaw, but the veteran performer became concerned about a number of issues, particularly Shaw’s treatment of fellow actress Samara Weaving.
Weaving played the love interest of Rafi (Miguel Gomez), who is the father of Shaw’s character’s young child. Sources say Weaving is exiting the show after she claimed her contract was breached during the filming of a sex scene in the second season. She is said to have complained to both Disney and SAG-AFTRA after Shaw instructed video monitors to be turned on even though the set was supposed to be closed, with only limited crew present and with outside monitors off. Weaving declined to comment.
O’Donnell’s publicist initially told THR that the show is “in a legal situation” and said the actress would not comment. After being contacted by Shaw, however, O’Donnell requested that THR add the following statement to this story: “I have worked with Frankie Shaw for two and a half years. She is an immensely gifted young talent. I love acting on SMILF, a show that I am extremely proud of.” O’Donnell is expected to return for an anticipated but as-yet-unannounced season three, to be set at least partly in Ireland.
Shaw, 37, remains in charge as SMILF assembles a third-season writing staff, and sources say Showtime is deep in talks to put her at the helm of The Bell Jar, a limited series about Sylvia Plath. In July, ABC Signature announced a two-year overall deal with Shaw.
THR has learned that multiple staffers have made complaints to the WGA about both credit issues and alleged race-based separation, though no formal grievances have been filed. (The guild is said to be encouraging writers to file complaints and possibly to pursue litigation.) Several sources say writers of color were put in different rooms from Caucasian writers and felt that their ideas were exploited without pay or credit.
In her statement to THR, Shaw says she is dedicated to creating a platform for underrepresented voices and felt strongly about creating “an intersectional workplace in which more than a third of writers were women of color.” Andrew Brettler, Shaw’s attorney, adds, “There was never an intention or desire to group the writers based on gender, race or sexual orientation, nor was that ever consciously done by anyone. Smaller ‘breakout’ groups are formed solely based on ability and the strengths of the individual writers.”
At the request of Shaw’s rep, Tahir Jetter — who is black and a college friend of Shaw’s husband, Zach Strauss, but has no writing credit on the show — sent THR an email stating, “I was employed on SMILF for a short while [three weeks] and I found everyone to be largely affable and of good humor. When I was hired, it happened that I shared an office with two other black writers (a female writing duo), but I didn't think anything of it, as it seemed that all of the other available desks/offices had been taken by the time that I had come onboard.”
Though Shaw’s representatives provided statements from Jetter and several others who worked on SMILF, they offered none from any of several black writers employed on the series. Those writers declined THR’s requests for comment.
Sources cite other allegations involving the writing staff. Multiple insiders say assistants were improperly given writing assignments and accordingly did not receive credit or standard pay. The WGA is said to be reaching out to writers asking them to file formal complaints. The guild declined to comment.
Several who worked on SMILF tell THR that they made anonymous complaints about a variety of issues to the Disney tipline. In some instances, they received feedback that the company had taken “appropriate administrative action,” but none knew what that entailed.
Several members of the SMILF crew — including costume designer Kameron Lennox, location manager Ryan Cook and camera operator Abby Linne — emailed THR to say that working on the show was a positive experience. “I've never been on a job where I feel more safe and empowered to do my best work,” Linne wrote, while Cook emailed, “Frankie set a new standard for inclusiveness and equality on her sets that has not been the norm for Hollywood.”
But several insiders on SMILF who spoke to THR on the condition of anonymity say they are extremely fearful that Shaw will try to sabotage them professionally if they speak publicly about alleged issues on the show. They also express great disappointment at what they describe as manipulative and inequitable treatment — with behavior veering from warm to cold and threatening — coming from a rising female showrunner that has been outspoken in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
“She uses this idea of being feminist and a progressive as camouflage,” says one staffer. Says another, “A lot of shows are generally unpleasant. Production is stressful. There are a lot of shows where people are angry at each other and then it’s over and then you celebrate the work. This was not like that. People were really traumatized. It was pretty upsetting.”
The conflict with Weaving followed an incident in season one when Weaving was asked with 40 minutes’ notice to perform a nude love scene despite a no-nudity clause in her contract. (An insider says a waiver had been prepared but wasn’t signed.) When she balked, a source says an exasperated Shaw pulled her into a trailer, yanked off her own top and demanded to know why Weaving had a problem being nude when Shaw had no such concerns. (Shaw’s lawyer says her breasts were not exposed when she yanked up her shirt.) THR inquired how Weaving’s reps responded to this confrontation when told about it but neither her agency, WME, nor her manager, Todd Diener, responded to repeated requests for comment.
In the second season, Weaving was set to do another intimate scene with Gomez, one in which he was nude and she was wearing only a T-shirt and underwear. Sources say the pair asked to meet with director Cate Shortland without Shaw present. They explained the season-one conflict over the nude scene and stressed the importance of having their privacy respected. On the morning of the shoot, the set closed and monitors outside were turned off.
Shaw was not present the day the scene was shot. However, she texted a staffer to ask how it was progressing. When told the monitors were off, she is said to have instructed that they be turned on, and producer Allyce Ozarski carried out the order. More than a dozen staffers were in the room when the unfolding scene appeared on two screens, sources say, with the actors unaware. Weaving learned what had happened from the writers and sources believe she reported the incident to SAG-AFTRA and Showtime.
“It was completely unprofessional,” says script supervisor Kristin Calabrese, who quickly cleared the room. “They should have made it known immediately to our actors and our director. I know there were past incidents that led up to this being such a sensitive situation, but on any show, if an actor is feeling unsafe or uncomfortable with something, it’s our responsibility to make them feel safe.”
At Shaw’s request, co-star Gomez emailed THR that the set feels “like a family” and that while nude scenes are “always weird … Frankie always checks in with me about it beforehand and makes sure I'm feeling comfortable and okay with it. When I told her I didn't want to show my butt this year for a sex scene, she told me right away no problem at all and only do what I feel comfortable with.” Gomez acknowledges that “things could have been handled better" in the first season and that there had been discussions about the importance of a closed set before shooting the scene in the second season. But, he says, “From what I’m being told, the monitor was only for the writer and director.” Gomez did not respond when asked who told him that version of events. But producer Michael London says in an email that Shaw was unaware the set was supposed to have “an additional level of privacy” and that monitors were left on inadvertently as shooting commenced. That is inconsistent with the account of several who were present.
To Calabrese, it was striking to see this incident happen in the context of the Time’s Up movement, when so many allegations have been against men. “I would hope there is a female sensitivity,” she says. “It shocked me because you’re so vulnerable as an actor to begin with. Here’s somebody who does what you do [that is, acts] and is still behaving this way.”
This story also appears in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.