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As Jeff Astrof was writing Shining Vale, he had only a few prerequisites in mind for the character Pat Phelps, a middle-aged author who moves her family from the city to a house in the suburbs that may or may not be haunted.
“I knew she would have dark hair,” Astrof explained to The Hollywood Reporter on Monday night standing outside TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, site of the Starz world premiere. “We also knew we wanted a mother because only mothers know the horror of raising teenage kids.”
Shining Vale centers on a dysfunctional family that relocates to an old house, unaware of the terrible atrocities that have taken place. None of the family members seem to be aware that something is amiss except for Pat, who can see a woman, Rosemary, who may be a demon, a split personality or a muse.
Because Astrof created the series with Sharon Horgan, he says everyone assumed it would be the Catastrophe star and co-creator in the starring role. She’s a mother with dark hair, but Astrof, a veteran TV writer and showrunner with credits on Trial & Error, Partners and The New Adventures of Old Christine, would soon get a call from an old friend — an actress who proved to be too good to turn down.
“My phone rang and [the caller] said, ‘Jeff, it’s Courteney,” Astrof recalled. “I said, ‘Courteney, who?’ She said, ‘Cox.’ I reminded her that the last time we spoke, there weren’t even cell phones.”
That time was during their days working on the iconic sitcom Friends in the mid-1990s. It was one of Astrof’s first writing credits, and the series made Cox an international superstar. “She said, ‘Listen, I just read your script, and it was written for me. I have to do it. This is my heart. I know what it’s like to be a mother. I know what it is like to be at this age. I know what it’s like to suffer like this,'” Astrof detailed of the call. “She’s a powerhouse.”
Cox said she just so happened to be in the midst of the swirl of the Friends reunion when Astrof’s script came to her, and she wasn’t about to let the role pass her by. He added that while she’s “obviously one of the most famous people on the planet,” he’d never seen her do the type of acting Shining Vale would ask of her.
“She’s done Scream, and we know what she can do. I worked with her on Friends, but we’ve never seen her do something this grand. There’s so much pathos in this character,” he said, adding that once Cox’s name was floated to the powers that be, all the pieces fell into place from there. “She’s in almost every scene. She has probably 40 scenes per episode, and she has to play so many highs and lows. By the time we got to the end of this, everybody was crying, not only because of the time we spent together and the fact that it was over, but because it was so raw, so emotional and it brought up so much deep stuff. At one point, when she finished a scene with Greg, all of us called our therapists.”
Cox has said it’s the best acting she’s ever done in her career, and she has another Friends connection to credit for that. Jennifer Aniston suggested she work with an acting coach named Nancy Banks, who helped Cox mine the layers in Pat’s story. “She’s incredible,” Cox told THR of Banks. “She has such good instincts, and she makes you think outside of the box. I’m really, really happy that I got to work with her on this.”
She also said she loved the scenes that required sparring with Kinnear, the ones that featured Pat’s children and even the supernatural elements that saw her going toe-to-toe with Sorvino. “She is a really talented actor, and she’s so deep. What she’s gone through unveils itself as the show goes on, and it’s not your typical ghost. She’s got some baggage.”
Sorvino, an Oscar winner, also turned up at Monday’s premiere, where she posed alongside Cox and fellow Friends star Lisa Kudrow. There are even more Friends connections. Merrin Dungey, who plays Pat’s book editor in Shining Vale, had a bit part in an episode that aired in 2000 titled “The One Where Paul’s the Man,” playing a museum official.
“When we got on set for [Shining Vale], Courteney said, ‘Nice to meet you.’ But I reminded her that we met before, and she actually did remember because it was a big episode,” recalled Dungey, who is more than just a Friends guest star but also a superfan who rewatches old episodes as comfort content before bed. “I got so busted one day on set when Courteney said something [about a scene], and I immediately responded, ‘Yeah, it was that episode when you lost your fingernails making lasagna, and your mom said, ‘Well, that’s like pulling a Monica.'”
Shining Vale debuts March 6 on Starz.
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