A month before they were scheduled to start shooting Being the Ricardos, a movie about the talent-packed, turbulent marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem were desperately trying to get out of the gig.
Having grown up outside the U.S. — she in Australia and he in Spain — neither actor had been aware of I Love Lucy’s fervid fan base when they signed on to their roles in Aaron Sorkin’s film. Once the news of their casting was out, some of those fans jeered the choices on social media, saying Kidman didn’t look enough like Ball nor possess her comedy chops; others voiced concern that Bardem isn’t Cuban like Arnaz was and said the role should go to an actor from Latin America. In February of this year — confronted with the task ahead of them to master both the couple’s complex real-life character traits as well as those of their beloved sitcom personae, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, all in time to shoot the movie in L.A. in a month in the thick of the pandemic — they panicked.
“I wasn’t aware of how big it was,” Bardem says of I Love Lucy, which at its height drew 60 million viewers a week in the U.S., explaining that he mostly knew Arnaz for his work as a musician who worked with Spanish entertainer Xavier Cugat. There was a subtitled version in Spain — Te Quiero Lucy — but Bardem never saw it. “When I really started digging into him, the deeper I got, the more I knew how iconic [the show] was … it was like, ‘Shit.'”
“Shit, what did we do?” says Kidman. “I got frightened.”
At first, Kidman and Bardem dispatched their agents to get them out of the film. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this whole thing’s falling apart,'” says producer Todd Black, who talked their representatives out of letting their clients jump. Then the actors scheduled a Zoom meeting with Sorkin and begged him to push the movie a year. Sorkin investigated delaying the $40 million production, but his distributor, Amazon, eager to meet a voracious appetite for content during the pandemic, wanted the movie to move forward as soon as possible, and re-syncing the crowded calendars of his in-demand leads down the line would be daunting. Within a day, Sorkin got back to his actors with the news that the movie would indeed start shooting March 29. “So then it was like, ‘Oh, no. Oh, no. We actually have to do this,'” Kidman recalls.
It’s now a Saturday in early December, a couple of nights before the Los Angeles premiere of Being the Ricardos, and Bardem and Kidman are on a couch in a studio just steps from where the couple they play made entertainment history. Across Cahuenga Boulevard is the gray brick building (now owned by Red Studios) where most of the 180 episodes of I Love Lucy were produced. The lot also once housed Desilu Productions, Ball and Arnaz’s pioneering television studio, at one point the industry’s largest independent production company, which developed such popular 1960s series as Mission: Impossible, Mannix and Star Trek.
Despite their fears, Kidman, 54, and Bardem, 52, each an Oscar winner and a multiple-time nominee, have delivered performances that defied expectations, added nuance and color to the popular black-and-white image of Ball and Arnaz as sitcom sweethearts, and placed the movie squarely in this year’s Oscar conversation. Being the Ricardos will stream on Amazon Prime beginning Dec. 21 after a modest theatrical release that kicked off Dec. 10; Amazon is not reporting grosses for the film, but a source close to theater chains estimates that it made $450,000 in 400 locations its first weekend. The movie is set during one production week on I Love Lucy, between the Monday table read and the Friday audience taping, but it tells the story of the surprising way two married outsiders, a working-class white woman and a Cuban-American immigrant, effectively invented the sitcom. As a writer, Sorkin likes compressing time, and his script condenses into one week three crises the couple faced during the 1950s — when gossip columnist Walter Winchell accused Ball of being a communist, when they battled with CBS and sponsor Philip Morris over allowing Lucy Ricardo to be pregnant on the show, as Ball was in real life, and when a tabloid printed pictures of Arnaz with another woman. In the film, the couple create and spar with their collaborators, William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), who played Fred on I Love Lucy, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who played Ethel, head writer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) and writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy).
Being the Ricardos has been some 25 years in the making. In 1995, well after the deaths of the couple (Arnaz died in 1986 and Ball in 1989), Black, who had produced some TV movies and was establishing himself in Hollywood, first reached out to the family to inquire about the rights to a film on the marriage. “They are a truly iconic couple with a huge hit TV show,” Black says. “And there’s no way that you can’t say, ‘Wow, how did that work when the cameras weren’t rolling? When they were fighting and they had to do the show?’ There’s no way that there wasn’t a movie in it.” At the time, the couple’s children, Lucie and Desi Arnaz Jr., weren’t ready to see a lens turned on their parents, Black was told. Nearly 20 years later, in 2015, Black tried again, this time with Jenna Block — then vp film and television at Black’s production company, Escape Artists, who had written her Wellesley College senior thesis on Ball — and with major fact-based films like The Pursuit of Happyness and Antwone Fisher on his résumé. At the time, Lucie Arnaz had just made a documentary about her parents, Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie, which had proved cathartic. When Arnaz met the producers at the commissary on the Sony lot with her manager, David Williams, “She was ready to open herself up to this idea,” says Block, who is now a motion picture lit agent at Verve and has an executive producer credit on the film. “It was luck, timing, knowledge and passion.” The family signed on, and both children have executive producing credits on the film.
The producers turned to their next mission, researching the story and convincing Sorkin, whom they felt had just the right sensibility, to take on the project, flooding him with books, articles and video footage Block had compiled. “I was a passing fan of I Love Lucy,” Sorkin says. “The same way that it was hard to be alive in this country and not have any contact with I Love Lucy.” Sorkin’s process before signing on to a project is typically to circle it for months. “Like a baseball player who’s looking for their pitch to hit, I’m looking for, ‘Do I have a chance of writing a good screenplay here? Is that possible?'” he says. Over what the writer-director calls an 18-month “courtship,” Sorkin and Black met multiple times, and the producer unspooled a different story about the couple at each meeting. “The first one he told me was that Lucy was accused of being a communist, which I didn’t know,” Sorkin says. “The more I read about them, and who they really were and what their relationship was really like … it felt like there were scenes that I wanted to write.” In August 2017, Amazon’s then head of movies, Ted Hope, bought the film based on a pitch and Sorkin and Cate Blanchett’s involvement (Blanchett would later drop out over creative differences). Sorkin went from being just the film’s writer to its writer-director after Black saw an early cut of his 2020 movie The Trial of the Chicago 7, which would go on to earn six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best original screenplay.
In casting the couple, Sorkin was interested less in finding perfect facsimiles of Ball and Arnaz’s sitcom selves than in finding actors who could carry the complicated emotional beats of the film. “Those roles are like actor Fear Factor,” says Hale, who plays I Love Lucy writer Oppenheimer. “You’re dealing with these iconic characters where everybody knows about their appearance, their voice. The fear is ever being able to match those expectations.”
The Ball in the movie — at once a tart-tongued, commanding businesswoman and an insecure, wistful wife trying to craft a home life that could match the domestic bliss she and Arnaz portrayed onscreen — may be unfamiliar to audiences who know Ball best as ditzy Lucy Ricardo.
“Everyone knows Lucy,” Kidman says. “She’s become part of our history as a comedienne. In the same way as there’s Abbott and Costello, there’s Lucille Ball. You have a sense of that female clown. But as with a lot of comedians, they’re not funny people. They work on being funny. … These people worked so hard to make something funny so that we could all laugh. They actually bled for that. They gave their souls to make us laugh.”
What Ball actually wanted from Hollywood was something Kidman has long had, to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress. “She wanted to be a movie star,” Kidman says. “She never got to be that, and that’s sort of heartbreaking. But her failures turned out to be her successes, which is something I relate to.” Though Kidman broke out in a black comedy, Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, in 1995, in which she plays a murderous newscaster, she is best known for her work in weighty fare like The Hours, for which she won an Oscar for portraying Virginia Woolf, and HBO’s Big Little Lies, which won her an Emmy for her performance as a victim of spousal abuse. Playing a trailblazing comedian, Kidman says, was enticing and new. “Yeah, there’s making people cry, but making people laugh is sort of exquisite,” Kidman says. “When I started doing all the physical comedy, and doing her voice, when it finally came, it was like, ‘Ah.’ And then I didn’t want to stop doing it. I’ve been working in this industry since I was 14 years old. This is a first.”
In casting Arnaz, Bardem also wasn’t the first actor offered the role. Producers initially approached a Brazilian actor, but with his native language being Portuguese and Arnaz’s Spanish, Amazon’s casting department nixed the choice; next producers approached a Guatemalan American actor, who was not available. “Desi was going to be tricky because we have to love Desi in the movie, even though he breaks Lucy’s heart,” Sorkin says. “He can’t be a puppet.” Bardem chased the part, he says, because of Arnaz’s optimism and energy. “You cannot help yourself but get madly in love with him,” Bardem says. “To be entertained by him, to be mesmerized by him, his physicality, his humor, his skills, his music. It’s like, whew. He got the world in one hand, boom.”
In making his pitch to Sorkin over Zoom, Bardem “did lie throughout that first meeting,” Sorkin says. “I asked him, ‘Hey, listen, it’s not a deal-breaker, but just out of curiosity, you ever held a guitar?’ And he said, ‘I’ve been playing the guitar since the time I was 5 years old.’ ‘And have you ever banged a drum?’ ‘I am a percussion expert, particularly with congas.’ ‘If I were to ask your wife, if you are a good dancer, what would she say?’ ‘Boy, do I love to rumba! I can teach a rumba class.’ He was lying about all that, but he spent the next three months leading up to the start of photography cramming on it. By the time he showed up to the set, he was good at all of that.”
Bardem trained on the conga with Chicago and Santana percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr., at one point drumming so vigorously that he cut his hand and had to pack it in ice between takes. “He would dance before most takes,” Kidman says. “I’d be pacing and smoking, and he’d be dancing.” (In re-creating the era, a total of 3,000 nontoxic herbal cigarettes were consumed on the shoot, some even “smoked” by a machine, to generate ash for the ashtrays.)
Like Arnaz, Bardem came to Hollywood as a Spanish-speaking actor hoping his accent and background wouldn’t define him. “It’s the energy of someone that has to belong,” Bardem says. “And make everybody understand that just because he’s a foreigner, he doesn’t have to be put in a box.” Bardem has been wildly successful at that — after appearing in about a dozen Spanish films, he first gained international recognition for playing Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls in 2000 and as a result became the first Spanish actor to earn an Academy Award nomination. He later became the first Spanish actor to win an Oscar for portraying a terrifying hit man in the 2007 Coen brothers movie No Country for Old Men. This year, Bardem plays a rebel leader in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and — as he first learned in a text from Josh Brolin that read, “See you in the desert, motherfucker” — he’ll appear in the sequel. He also stars in the social satire The Good Boss, Spain’s Academy Award submission this year about a desperate factory owner, which is nominated for 20 Goya Awards, Spain’s version of the Oscars, and has just finished shooting Rob Marshall’s live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid, in which he plays King Triton. “I’ve been lucky enough to be included in a film industry that goes beyond the Spanish film industry,” Bardem says. “Being Desi Arnaz in the ’50s in the States was a different thing. It was like being an alien. It was something very unique, especially when you were married to an American icon. People didn’t really respect him for what he was.”
When asked about the critique that the role should have gone to a Latin American actor, Bardem clearly has been bracing for the question, and he sees it as one that is often unfairly posed to actors who speak English as a second language. “I’m an actor, and that’s what I do for a living: try to be people that I’m not,” Bardem says. “What do we do with Marlon Brando playing Vito Corleone? What do we do with Margaret Thatcher played by Meryl Streep? Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln? Why does this conversation happen with people with accents? You have your accent. That’s where you belong. That’s tricky. Where is that conversation with English-speaking people doing things like The Last Duel, where they were supposed to be French people in the Middle Ages? That’s fine. But me, with my Spanish accent, being Cuban? What I mean is, if we want to open the can of worms, let’s open it for everyone. The role came to me, and one thing that I know for sure is that I’m going to give everything that I have.” Later in the conversation, Bardem brings the issue up again. “I was going to add something about the famous question. We should all start not allowing anybody to play Hamlet unless they were born in Denmark.” A day after the interview, Bardem is still thinking about it, and emails something else he wanted to say on the topic, in which he seems to have given more thought to the subject not just of his own exclusion but also the exclusion of others. “I do recognize that there are many underrepresented voices and stories that need to be told, and we should collectively do better to provide access and opportunities for more American Latino stories and storytellers,” he says in the email.
Like their screen counterparts, Kidman and Bardem are prolific entertainers married to fellow entertainers, she to country music performer Keith Urban, he to actress Penélope Cruz.
“There were so many things when I first read the script that I related to,” says Kidman, who has four children. “A sense of trying to make a marriage work, juggling a desire to have children, of, ‘I want to have a career, but I want to have the home.'” In 2021, Kidman starred in and produced the Hulu limited series Nine Perfect Strangers and the upcoming Amazon series Expats; she shot the 2022 Focus Features film The Northman, in which she plays a Viking queen, and the 2022 Warner Bros./DC Films Aquaman sequel, in which she plays Aquaman’s mother. “And then the idea of being a couple who are deeply protective of each other,” she says. “I relate to it and I understand it.”
Where Bardem feels he departs from Arnaz is in his character’s apparent comfort with the couple’s degree of celebrity. “One of the things that differentiates me from Desi is how much I think he loved the public eye,” Bardem says. “He loved it. The way he stomps out of the theater and says, ‘What do we have to do today?’ He likes it. I don’t necessarily like it.”
With both actors anxious early on about having taken the roles, a first table read was not exactly confidence-inspiring. Held outside on a windy day, on top of a parking structure at the Sunset Gower Studios and with cast masked to comply with COVID guidelines, it was, Bardem says, “very strange.” “We were screaming at the top of our lungs, this thick script with the quality of those words, to be screamed on a parking lot. I thought I was going to be immediately fired.”
While Sorkin felt no need to be dutiful to the couple’s television image, Bardem and Kidman wanted to nail it. She’d text Sorkin videos of her working on Lucy Ricardo while wearing sweatpants, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. “He’d be like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Good, good,'” she says. “But he was never hypervigilant on that stuff. I was like, ‘Well, leave that to me, then. It’s not his obsession, but that can be our obsession [hers and Bardem’s].'” When the film was nearly finished, Kidman did something she has never done before on a movie and asked to attend a test screening. “I just didn’t want to sit alone and watch it by myself in a movie theater,” she says. “There is another part to this equation, which is an audience.” She showed up to the screening in Los Angeles with Urban and felt a pit in her stomach. “I saw Aaron smoking, looking like he was going to faint,” Kidman says. “I went, ‘This is a disaster.’ But then I heard people laugh. People laughed!”
“We love them, these two people,” Kidman says of Ball and Arnaz. “And not to the point of where you’re not going to show their flaws, their humanity. That’s what I felt this film was most — was human.” And then, as her sincere, dramatic, actressy statement hangs there, Kidman punctuates it with a noise, the exaggerated cry-whine Ball would deploy whenever Lucy Ricardo was displeased. “Wahhhhhhhh,” the sound bounces off the walls of the studio. “That’s what I always do now,” Kidman says. “Wahhhhhhh. I’ll never stop doing it. It’s the best sound ever.”
SUPPORTING THE RICARDOS: A SHARP CAST
J.K. Simmons as William Frawley
Frawley, a heavy-drinking vaudeville vet, played neighbor Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. As performed by Oscar winner Simmons, Frawley is Ball’s offscreen barroom confidant and the insult sparring partner of Vivian Vance, the actress who played his wife, Ethel.
Tony Hale as Jess Oppenheimer
Ball referred to I Love Lucy producer and head writer Jess Oppenheimer as “the brains” behind the show, and he was often an unwitting marital counselor as well. In the role, Veep’s Tony Hale says he felt “the stakes of performing this iconic world and wanting to get it right.”
Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance
Vance, who had enjoyed a long career as a Broadway ingenue, resented being presented as frumpy Ethel Mertz, often the butt of Fred’s jokes. Tony winner Arianda worked with a dialogue coach to create the distinct characters of glamorous Vivian and homebound Ethel.
Alia Shawkat as Madelyn Pugh
Pugh, one of TV’s first and most successful female writers, had written every episode of Ball’s popular radio show My Favorite Husband, the inspiration for I Love Lucy. Shawkat watched interviews with Pugh, who pushed Ball to represent a sharper female perspective.
Jake Lacy as Bob Carroll Jr.
Together with Pugh, Carroll wrote My Favorite Husband and every episode of I Love Lucy. The White Lotus‘ hateable honeymooner, Lacy worked with Shawkat to re-create the team’s casual banter, a mix of nagging, teasing and motivation that generated some 180 episodes.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.