'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Frankie Shaw ('SMILF')

The creator, showrunner, producer, writer, director and Golden Globe-nominated star of Showtime's acclaimed new comedy series reflects on becoming pregnant at 25, relocating to Hollywood after 11 weeks and experiencing years of personal and professional hardship — until she took matters into her own hands and turned her story into a script.
Photographed by Sami Drasin

"We shot everything before the Harvey Weinstein article came out," says Frankie Shaw, the showrunner, producer, director, writer and star of Showtime's comedy series SMILF, as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's "Awards Chatter" podcast and begin discussing the show's recurring theme of sexual misconduct. SMILF debuted in November — its premiere attracted its network's highest ratings for a new comedy in five years — and, little more than a month later, its 36-year-old mastermind received a best actress in a musical or comedy series Golden Globe nom. Shaw volunteers, "I think that we got so lucky with the timing. People really want to see something that feels real, and that's something that we really try to do with the show."

SMILF, which Shaw originally made as a nine-minute film (it won the top prize for shorts at 2015's Sundance Film Festival), was largely inspired by her own experience as a single mom. She plays Bridgette, a young woman from working-class South Boston who was raised by a single mother and fantasized about a career as a pro basketball player, but instead found herself struggling just to stay afloat after becoming pregnant at 25 by a boyfriend with whom she was breaking up, and then raising their son. All of those descriptions also apply to Shaw — but, Shaw emphasizes, other aspects of the character's life do not. "My life as a single mom wasn't as messy," she says with a chuckle.

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 26:29], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Michael O'Connell, THR's senior writer on TV, in which they preview the Emmy race.

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Shaw was born and initially raised in Southie, but, at a young age, relocated with her mother to nearby Brookline. Though hailing from a blue-collar family, she was encouraged by a friend to apply to the upper-crust boarding school Milton Academy — and was admitted with a full scholarship. "It really did, I think, change the trajectory of my life," she says. Life at Milton helped Shaw to broaden her horizons and led her to apply to Barnard College, to which she was also accepted, leading to her first-ever trip to New York. There, her eyes were opened by her professors (she began taking acting classes and wrote her first script as part of an independent study), her side job (she worked at fabled Kim's Video in Harlem and also acted in short films directed by her boss) and the city itself. By the time she graduated, she "was dead-set" on pursuing a career as a professional actor in New York.

After landing a few small roles, including one on an episode of Law & Order, Shaw, at 23, met Mark Webber, a fellow actor. They entered into a relationship and, two years later, she was pregnant with their son, Isaac. Eleven weeks into her pregnancy, she broke up with Webber and, against the advice of her family, moved across the country to Hollywood to pursue her dreams. But out West, with no contacts, no money and no permanent home or job, it proved a challenge to juggle her ambitions with motherhood. During Isaac's first years, Shaw's mother and Webber (with whom she remained on good terms) were often around to take care of him when she had an audition or a tutoring gig, but sometimes thereafter she had to bring him along with her — for instance, to an audition for Breaking Bad that didn't ultimately pan out for her. "In hindsight, it seems so unlikely," she says of her story. "I was so naive."

Even after years of beating the pavement, Shaw's acting career wasn't quite taking off, and she was growing increasingly frustrated. She "pretended to be OK" with the part she landed on the raunchy sitcom Blue Mountain State, which ran on Spike from 2010 through 2011, even though it didn't pay a living wage and conflicted with her strongly feminist values, because she hoped it would lead to something more. It did not. "After I did the show Blue Mountain State," she recalls, "there was a year where, every three months, Isaac and I moved — he was 3 at the time — and I have just really crazy stories of the people that I lived with during that time. And so then I just started writing. I was like, 'I have to at least use this material in some way.'"

It was only in May 2013, when she was hired to fill a last-minute opening in the cast of a series that was already picked up by ABC, Mixology, that she began earning enough to take a breath — and to finance a project of her own that she had begun developing, as something of a pipe-dream, two months earlier. "I owe everything to Mixology because [after landing that job] I had money to pay for my shorts," she says, explaining, "I had written a script because I was so sick of being broke with this small child, and I thought I could get staffed on a show and then I'd have a regular job." The script was a "broad version" of what ultimately became SMILF — more of a sitcom. "It wasn't supposed to be a short," she notes. "It was really for my pitch [to be a TV writer]. I just realized, as I was editing, 'Oh, this stands on its own. I might as well just submit it to Sundance.'" Not only did it get accepted, but it won the top prize for U.S. shorts. "I'd been there before as 'the girlfriend' so many times," Shaw reflects. This time was different. "It was so empowering and it was so fulfilling to be there and be part of a community with something that I wrote and directed. I was like, 'Oh, this feels so good.'"

Shaw next went off to shoot the first season of USA's Mr. Robot, a drama series for which not even she had great expectations, but it debuted in June 2015 and proved a phenomenon, winning the best drama series Golden Globe Award just a few months later. Her one-season arc drew unprecedented heat for her acting career — but at a time when she was unavailable to capitalize on it. She had already sold the concept of SMILF, the series, to Showtime, and had to turn in the script for its pilot. At the suggestion of her friend Jill Soloway, the force behind Amazon's Transparent, Shaw made it a requirement that she be able to direct some of SMILF's episodes if it was picked up — but there was no guarantee that it would be, and if it wasn't, her moment of heat could easily have passed her by. In fact, Showtime chief David Nevins did not initially order it to series, but instead asked Shaw to write scripts for a few more episodes to give him a better sense of what he would be signing up for. She did, and then — after she made another short film that got into Sundance, 2016's Too Legit — he told her that she had a show.

The first season of SMILF spans eight 30-minute episodes. Four were written or co-written by Shaw, who also directed three of them. ("Directing is my love," she gushes, noting that she's "thinking about" directing all eight episodes of the second season, which is being written now.) Every episode offers a darkly humorous look at Bridgette's life, while also provoking deeper questions about sex, class, race and gender inequality. For instance, in the third episode, Bridgette is sexually assaulted — literally "grabbed by the pussy" — by a stranger, something that Shaw confirms was "inspired by our president, 100 percent." The season finale, meanwhile, is all about childhood sexual abuse, and takes a clear swipe at alleged pedophile Woody Allen by opening with titles in the same font that Allen always uses, a quote from him ("The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to these things.") and then a cut to a little girl — young Bridgette — talking about being sexually abused by her father. "That was my proudest moment," Shaw says, adding, "The desire is to explore themes and ideas that I'm passionate about."

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