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Fred and Ethel Mertz are taking potshots at each other once again — but this time with genuine venom, given that I Love Lucy actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance notoriously disliked each other. In Amazon’s Being the Ricardos, those cutting barbs are delivered with lacerating impact by J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda, who also plumb deep wells of empathy for both performers in the unguarded moments when they’re not bickering with each other.
Aaron Sorkin’s film chronicles a fraught moment in the making of the pioneering 1950s sitcom during the Hollywood Blacklist era, when stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (played by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, respectively) feared they might lose their livelihoods and their marriage after press reports surfaced that Lucy was a Communist and Desi was a philanderer. That stress infiltrated the set of the hit series, just as the glamorous stage star Vance was grappling with becoming famous for her dowdy, matronly TV role, while vaudeville veteran Frawley wrestled with sobriety amid the demands of his newly revived career.
The actors joined THR for a candid, freewheeling conversation about how they got to the cores of Bill and Viv — not Fred and Ethel.
Aaron Sorkin did not want impersonations of these television icons, but rather performances that captured their spirits. What were some of the key things that helped unlock Vivian and Bill for you?
NINA ARIANDA For me, it was really trying to honor these two different women’s [actress Vivian Vance and her character Ethel Mertz] physicality as much as possible, because they were so, so very different. I obviously had as much footage as I could possibly want to study Ethel. Vivian, on the other hand, was a lot trickier to find.
A producer had sent me a clip [of] Desi introducing Vivian to the studio audience before taping. It really blew my mind, because out comes this woman who saunters down, her shoulders are back, her spine is long, she moves like a dancer and is completely in ownership of her own body. And then that same woman goes backstage and her shoulders drop a bit and she plays Ethel. I found that to be fascinating, and it was kind of an in to explore both these women.
J.K. SIMMONS I did not find a similar level of grace in Bill Frawley’s movement. (Laughs.) But it was great to have all the footage of the show itself to watch Fred and Ethel. There were just a few moments where we were specifically tasked with mimicking, re-creating a few moments of the show. The vast majority of the film is about honoring who these people were at their core, thanks to Aaron’s genius, multilayered script and how well he shows us the offstage relationships between Lucille and Desi and Vivian and Bill.
Along with playing the human side of these icons, you were also playing actor archetypes: She’s somebody who’s resisting feeling typecast as something that she doesn’t think she is; he’s that veteran actor who’s just fine with having a job to show up to every day. On that side of these performers, what was interesting for you as actors to dig into?
ARIANDA It was interesting and sad, too, to get into her head in this wrestling match that she’s in. It’s resisting, but it’s also that she’s at the stage of mourning in which we find her, I guess you could say: denial. She doesn’t want to lose who she was and where she thrived in her life, and who she is. And she’s told that she’s not allowed to even try, and that’s very sad.
SIMMONS For Bill and me, and there were certainly many, many, many similarities, but this job was a perfect example of what I hope is one of the differences, because when you’re a 60-whatever-year-old character actor who’s been around the block a million times, it’s very easy to settle in. Like Bill does in the first scene when they’re bickering: “Hey, don’t tell me comedy! I know what I’m doing. I’ve been doing this a long time.” He says to Lucille later, “I was only in vaudeville for 40 years, so what do I know? This is what I do. I’m the voice of wisdom and experience and bada-bing, bada-bang, bada-boom.”
It’s easy to settle into a rhythm of — I’m talking for myself now: J.K. Simmons, actor — saying, “I have experienced pretty much everything. I know what I’m doing and I don’t have to listen anymore.” When I realized how frightening, daunting a task this movie was going to be, particularly for the four of us, I realized that I haven’t done everything. I haven’t been everywhere. I do still have things to learn about how to be a better and more well-rounded actor. I hope I continue to get opportunities once in a while like this to really challenge myself.
What’s your individual interest in the history of the industry that you work in? Is this kind of fresh territory for you?
SIMMONS Honestly, this is something I have steadfastly and purposely avoided almost all the time. And by “this,” I mean the traditional biopic. Different strokes, but I personally, as an actor and audience member, don’t find them to be all that interesting. But because of how beautifully Aaron constructs this story, it’s not a biopic. And even though we are re-creating a little bit at times, that was just a very small aspect of what we were tasked with.
ARIANDA I also don’t care to know how the sausage is made because I believe in magic, and sometimes knowing too much, I don’t get to hold on to what I want to believe in, in a way, or what was so enjoyable and transformative for me. But this was so unique, and it’s such a concentrated time, that the stakes and the specificity of it make it almost, for me, like a thriller at points.
Aaron’s facility as a wordsmith is, of course, renowned. What was exciting to discover about Aaron the director’s approach to filmmaking?
ARIANDA For me, it’s how few takes we have, how theatrical it felt in the moment. But knowing full well that when he had it, he had it. And he had such trust in us as actors, and in turn we had complete trust in him.
SIMMONS It’s so great that he, almost by accident, had directed his two previous films [Molly’s Game and The Trial of the Chicago 7], because he hadn’t intended to. But he’s obviously been around enough now and been a writer and a producer, and now, at this stage in his life, has 100 percent command of every aspect of filmmaking. So, this was actually the first film that he wrote with the intention of directing it. And it was such a pleasure, like watching the master at work, because he did have a complete grasp of every aspect of it. To some people this might be surprising, because he is so specific and so exacting, but he’s not just [generous] with us, the actors, but with the people behind the camera as well. [He’s] the ultimate collaborator, always willing to listen to an idea that might be a slight departure from what his idea was.
ARIANDA That was the really lovely part of shooting this: Nobody came in with an ego, which is such a relief because the focus then becomes about the piece, your character, and there’s a malleable quality to everyone who enters a room. Because if it’s a better idea, a better thing, it’s not precious. That’s the best kind of environment, I think, to work in.
What was most delightful about playing Bill and Viv’s backstage sniping (which was far more barbed than Fred and Ethel’s bickering)?
ARIANDA The fun is all in the writing, and in the rhythm of the bickering and when they overlap or when they jump in. So, the musicality of that was really fun to play with.
SIMMONS Aaron’s writing has always been rhythmic, musical, and the way that these two characters — and then we too, as actors — passed the ball back and forth was the great delight of it. And the first scene at the table read where we are in full bickering mode was our first day of shooting. So that was like diving into the deep end headfirst. … Unfortunately, Nina and I can’t stand each other. Because once we found out that Vivian and Bill were enemies, we have just become lifelong nemeses.
ARIANDA I was told I’m not allowed to make direct eye contact with J.K.
SIMMONS Which she just did.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival