The actresses talk about researching their real-life counterparts, the importance of honoring the hidden legacy of female trailblazers, the relevance of the show to the modern political landscape and the limited series' iconic costumes.
Four members of the most star-studded TV ensemble of the year — Cate Blanchett (as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly), Uzo Aduba (Shirley Chisholm, the U.S.’ first Black female congresswoman and presidential candidate), Margo Martindale (Rep. Bella Abzug) and Sarah Paulson (Alice Macray, a fictional Schlafly supporter) — joined THR’s TV critic Inkoo Kang for the following conversation about the critically acclaimed limited series Mrs. America, which depicts the politically charged fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
What was it like to research your characters?
MARGO MARTINDALE I did two months of research to [understand] the relationships between Bella Abzug and the people that were on her side of the fence, especially Shirley and Gloria [Steinem, played by Rose Byrne]. I knew very little about the other side. But the whole show was a complete education for me. I think I’m the oldest [castmember] and I should have known more, but I didn’t. I’m very, very, very grateful to have gotten to do this show for that reason, and to be with these incredible, fabulous women. And one man. No, there are more than that — two or three.
UZO ADUBA My mom was a fan of Shirley Chisholm’s, so I had a high-level understanding of who she was. I really learned more about her through research and came to understand how outside the lines she was playing. I didn’t know how steep the mountain was that she was up against within her own party. I didn’t know a good number of the women featured in this piece, and I think they all align on that level — to me, anyway — in terms of what they were aiming to accomplish in a time when [those opportunities] didn’t exist.
CATE BLANCHETT It sounds a bit counterintuitive, but for me, the character is strangely the last point of entry. I had heard of Phyllis Schlafly but didn’t really know the details of her life. Sarah and I were making Ocean’s 8 in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and a lot of this stuff came into play for me then. There was this little old woman who had been brought onto the campaign trail for Trump called Schlafly, and then he went to her funeral. And I thought, "Hang on a minute. This woman is a really strong political player for the GOP. I have no idea who she is."
I sort of reverse-engineered it from there. I thought, "She’s so polarizing." There were people saying she’s either the Antichrist or the Mother Teresa of the Republican Party. There’s no point in judging your character — that’s for the audience to do. I read her authorized biography to try to get a balanced sense of the woman. Ironically, she’s a quintessential outsider. She was always trying to get inside the political system.
Sarah, what was it like to play a fictional character on this vastly researched show?
SARAH PAULSON I had been shooting Ratched until 32 hours prior to traveling to Toronto to start this. I felt totally unprepared. But I comforted myself [by saying], "This is a woman who is finding her sea legs and stepping into her own discovery of herself." I was jealous, truthfully, of the work that one can get inside when you’re knee-deep in research. I find that very liberating, when I have a blueprint that’s not my own invention or the writer’s invention, but something that actually happened in history that I can look to. I didn’t have to do any research, but Alice was in the dark.
Was there any sense of irony on set that here was a group of women collaborating on a TV show about women who were destroying each other?
BLANCHETT Were they destroying each other, or was it the system that was never going to let them flourish? I think that’s something that Gloria Steinem talks about a lot — that catfight view of history. It certainly didn’t happen on set, and it certainly didn’t happen within the women’s movement. When you’re talking about subtle nuances in trying to reinvent the wheel — not just replicate parallel patriarchal structure, but to actually imagine a world in which power operates differently — then there are going to be missteps, and people are going to feel excluded. It’s complicated and messy. There will be disagreements and exclusions and people’s pride will be hurt. People will splinter off. That is what the women’s movement was.
Something really amazing about Mrs. America is that it’s a lot about a bunch of older women trying to change the world. We still don’t see that very often. All your characters have these really full lives — even Alice, Sarah’s character, Is a grandmother.
BLANCHETT It’s really important to challenge that it’s not [about that]. People think about feminism as being from a particular age group or a particular racial group or cultural group or gender group or sexual persuasion. It wasn’t — it was truly intersectional and intergenerational. Sarah’s character was a grandmother, but it’s because you got into the process of having children when you were 20. So these women, even though they use a lot of hair spray and they might have looked calcified, we look at people [of previous generations and] we think they look ancient at the age of 22. It’s just that they weren’t given the opportunity to flourish into anything else, or given the opportunity to consider having children in their 30s or 40s or all those things that we associate with being old.
I’m not saying that, exactly — I just think it’s nice to see more stories in pop culture about women past the ingenue age. How did you all try to convey the breadth of experiences that each of your characters came with?
MARTINDALE Well, [Bella] was extremely smart and a real politician, a woman who knew how to maneuver the system of politics and to fight for all the things that she believed in. She believed in a multitude of civil rights and gay rights and anti-war and equal rights, so she had to choose which one to stick. She was smart enough to know that you really can’t have 15 things going at once. You’ve got to choose what you want to go first. That was something through her political career that she learned. She could see it on the other side, too. She was in her 50s, I think, when I became aware of her, though she looked like she was in her late 60s.
BLANCHETT Not the way you played her.
PAULSON Margo, you played her so young.
MARTINDALE I didn’t feel like it was all catfights. I thought that we really were looking for the best in each other. Some of us knew how to get there faster. I think Bella loves Shirley. She really wanted all the things for Shirley, but it was too soon. "Shirley, we’ve got something else we’ve got to do first."
BLANCHETT I found that that kind of professional and personal exchange between those two personas [was] some of the most painful stuff in the whole series. And to your point before, I think that’s part of the system.
MARTINDALE On the other side of this thing, back to the irony of this group of women, this group of actors. We were incredibly supportive of each other and only wanted the best in each other. I didn’t feel that it was completely ironic. I thought it kind of was reflective of what was going on.
Uzo, do you want to speak to all the crazy things that Shirley had been through in her life, and trying to convey that one scene at a time?
ADUBA I started from the thing that rang really clear and/or loudest for me, [which] was the idea of what is possible. More specifically, what is possible for you. That idea lived and seemed to breathe around her campaign. That this idea of someone like herself who’s Black, a woman. This type of Black woman, if we’re going to get really specific.
How would you describe that type of Black woman?
ADUBA A Black woman who is not at all Eurocentric-adjacent. A Black woman who is not imperialistically beautiful. A Black woman who is quick-tongued and sharp and strong and forward-standing, long in her spine. And a Black woman who is committed to the person that she knows herself to be. [A Black woman who] is unbending in that and cannot be contained, let’s say, is a lot for that time. And I would say even now, at times, [that’s often] hard to swallow. She became a congresswoman. Now, she wants to become the president of the United States, leader of the free world. That is just not something those who surrounded her [believed she could achieve]. I’m not even talking necessarily about the Women’s Caucus or the Black Caucus. I’m talking socially, that this was not a practice. That seems such an extreme dream. I have known what it feels like to have an idea of myself and what’s possible for me, and to bear witness to what someone outside of me sees that is possible for me — and knowing that those two things do not line up.
Were there costume or production details other than the writing or directing that helped your characters? I’ll be honest, I’m thinking a lot about Bella’s hats.
MARTINDALE Aren’t they great?
PAULSON Did you like wearing those hats, Margo?
MARTINDALE Yes, I love them. I had a little bit of a problem with my first one. It was a scene we were shooting and everybody was in black and beige and gray, and I was in a baby-blue vest and skirt with an orange-and-red print blouse and red hat. This is my first outfit. This is my first time onscreen. I looked like Little Bo Peep — Big Bo Peep in a room full of beige and gray. And I said, "I can’t wear this hat."
BLANCHETT But you experienced her chutzpah to even wear those hats. The thing I must say about Bina Daigeler, our incredible costume designer, is that so many times you see things set in the ’70s and you feel like everyone raided their parents’ wardrobe. So people were in costume. Bina really worked to make [us] feel like [we were] wearing clothes.
MARTINDALE I thought Bina was a genius, and I wanted to kill her a few times. Finally she let me choose the hats I wanted to wear with each outfit.
PAULSON For me, it was the pantyhose. Every time I put on pantyhose, I was like, "Look!"
BLANCHETT That’s what they’re for.
PAULSON That and the kind of bra I would wear. I didn’t know the boob was supposed to look that way by design. But there was something about the pantyhose. I don’t wear them in my own life, so every time I put them on, I was reminded of all the ladies who had to do that for years.
Cate, what did you get out of Schlafly’s very specific look?
BLANCHETT She was leading the audience into the series. There had to be a porous sense to her to enable people who would have otherwise found her repulsive to lean in. Phyllis really understood the power of the media before any of those dudes did. I think that was something I had in mind, you know, how to evolve a lot.
Have you heard from any conservative or liberal women in your life about the show?
BLANCHETT I grew up identifying as a feminist, but my mother’s generation didn’t necessarily. [Many of them thought feminists] hate men, were anti-family … To me, the greatest moment of happiness was that I finally thought I was talking to people who were finding a point of similarity between these women [who were] so polarized by politics.
ADUBA I have had a lot of friends of mine talk about how important it is to actually mark Phyllis Schlafly into history. Because I didn’t know her, either. And the fact of the matter is, here is a woman at the end of the day, a woman. Whether we believe it or support it or not, want to know it or not. A woman is responsible for having crafted what are some of the more conservative talking points. And it’s important to [recognize that] so that we don’t forget our history.
MARTINDALE I would say the conservative women from my childhood who are still conservative, most of them would not watch it. I found it extremely disappointing, because it really would broaden their minds or give them a glimpse of something that they missed. I found it almost tragic. And what can you do? They just didn’t, it wasn’t for them.
BLANCHETT I wonder if that speaks to how painful that period of history was. I think there’s a lot of pain and misunderstanding, but that needs to be talked about. And that’s really difficult for people to approach. When we first started [developing the show], it was Phyllis and Gloria. As time went on, we actually needed to bring a more conservative audience into it. Because you don’t want to have these conversations with just us. You don’t want to have these conversations with a sense of judgment of the "other side."
MARTINDALE It was just so shocking to me — as if to say, "Well, I’m just not interested in that." That’s really what it was.
PAULSON Isn’t that sort of fundamentally how we are today? A lot of unwillingness.
MARTINDALE It’s unwillingness, Sarah, that’s exactly right.
PAULSON Unwillingness, in general. People like to stand where they’ve been standing. They don’t want to change their worldview. They don’t want to have it shaken. People don’t want to put the effort and energy into discovering what they don’t know. Their belief system is safe, and they’re not interested in questioning it. And that’s terribly sad, but I think it’s [where we have been] for so long as a country.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.