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If Ted Lasso was the pure optimism needed to survive 2020, then Peacock’s Girls5eva is the rocking energy for the world that follows. From executive producer Tina Fey and series creator Meredith Scardino, the comedy about a ’90s girl group that gets another shot at stardom embraces imperfection while also serving as a rallying cry for women over 40. The four stars of the quirky comedy — Sara Bareilles (chill mom Dawn), Renée Elise Goldsberry (the entitled Wickie), Paula Pell (the gay one, Gloria) and Busy Philipps (ditzy pop icon Summer) — spoke with THR about how they landed the roles, infusing comedy with music and TV finally focusing on women of a certain age.
Take me back to the first call that you each received about what would become Girls5eva. Did anyone have to audition?
SARA BAREILLES This was a Tina Fey cherry-picking. The concept alone is my dream job; it marries music, comedy and female-forward storytelling. I love that it’s a true ensemble piece. This is my first time in TV [as a series regular], but it was a no-brainer for me.
RENéE ELISE GOLDSBERRY I peed my pants when I was reading the pilot script. I was also terrified. Their humor hits home. It was edgy because it was celebrating and making light of a woman of a certain age with the audacity to be a pop star. I was like, “This is about me! How do they know that I’m sitting in here trying to make a record and I’m older than these women?!”
BUSY PHILIPPS Tina told me that Sara and Renée were attached and that she and Meredith had me in mind for Summer. But because I lived in L.A. and they were going to film in New York and with COVID and children, she wasn’t even going to bring it to me. But my family and I came to New York for a bit, and Tina asked if I wanted to stay, read the script and do the show. I fell on the floor. Tina knew I didn’t want to act anymore. Before I even had the script, I told my husband that Tina offered me this show that’s my dream in life. He was like, “Do you even need to read the script?!”
PAULA PELL I was hunkered down in North Carolina with my wife riding out COVID. We had no intention of going to shoot or do anything. Then Tina texted me. There are many moments in show business that can really pull the rug out from under you, but this was one of those times where you realize this career does hold magic sometimes.
What was the experience of working on an uplifting show like Girls5eva during such a turbulent time?
GOLDSBERRY We shot the show in a tunnel. There was an insurrection happening while we were filming these scenes. We didn’t know that the vaccine would work. We didn’t know how the elections would turn out, but we had this joy and love for each other in the middle of it. Art can be a light in the middle of a tunnel that can lead everybody out because it certainly led us out.
PHILIPPS I was on Dawson’s Creek when 9/11 happened. I remember having this sense of, “This is so fucking stupid. We should all be with our families.” I had the opposite experience during this show. Girls5eva saved my sanity. The crew would gravitate toward us during a scene at the piano because they hadn’t heard live music in so long. So many little things like that would happen and remind us that the world is crazy but there’s light and joy and laughter.
PELL We talked many times in scenes where we were sitting, having fake drinks or sitting at a diner booth, having fake food, and we would go, “This is what I miss.” A beautiful thing about performing is you can play out what you’re not getting.
Historically, shows focused squarely on women — especially of a certain age — face an uphill battle to get made. Why do you think it’s been so slow for the industry to greenlight stories about women in their 40s without a leading man?
PELL I never heard that in a meeting, every time ever. (Laughs.) They were operating on such an outdated model for so long that 14-year-old boys were the main people who go to movies. Whenever I would have those kinds of meetings as a writer, I’m like, “Where are these 14-year-olds in busloads coming to the theater?” Because all I see is 30-year-old women with friends and their family. Or couples.
PHILIPPS In my old decades of experience in Hollywood, the men who are making the decisions want to see themselves reflected back or want to see their fantasy reflected back. They’re not necessarily interested in telling stories that they don’t know anything about. [Busy Tonight showrunner] Caissie St. Onge and I had an executive, a man, say to us, “I don’t know if that’s what women want to watch.” And we’re like, “Well, we are actually women and we want to watch it.” The hubris of a mediocre white man is big.
Girls5eva never takes itself too seriously but does find a funny way to delve into serious topics, like what it was like to be in a girl group before Time’s Up. What was important to you that the show include?
BAREILLES We wanted it to just reflect real themes. The balance of work, life and responsibility and, especially for my character, having a child. What I love about these women is that they’re deciding that it’s OK to want something for themselves at a certain age. I root for Dawn because she’s allowed herself to wish for something bigger. So many women I know get to a certain age and we start feeling like we have to shrink to fit our surroundings rather than step into a more expanded version of ourselves, which is very uncomfortable. Dawn talks about it where she’s like, “This is truly insane, but we’re all going to go on the ride and are you with me? Are you going to make an idiot of yourself with me?” I love the spirit of that because they’re all doing that.
GOLDSBERRY I love the interdependence of a diverse group of women. Wickie needs Dawn to understand how powerful she is in order for Wickie to survive. That’s a thematic lesson that women need to learn. I learned it in the election that Hillary Clinton lost. It became clear to me when we’re dealing with issues of race and sexism that women don’t understand their power — and not even just my power, as the Black woman. We all need to understand our power and work together in order for this to succeed. And in this silly pop girl group, those are the things that they’re discovering.
PELL I felt a responsibility with being an older, gay woman in real life and playing an older, gay woman. I wanted to make sure that Gloria still has a sexual side. The scripts had all that in there, but I loved bumping up the idea that the jokes weren’t about Gloria being a complete frump and now that she’s out, she’s excited to do all this stuff that she wanted to do before but was always afraid that it would be too subtly gay that someone would pick up on it when she was closeted. I also was able to have my beautiful wife [Janine Brito] playing my ex, which was really fun.
PHILIPPS I was a teenager in entertainment in the late ’90s, and I know the kinds of things that were foisted upon young entertainers and the lack of consideration for mental health and for your own agency. The theme of the show is that these women realize that they actually can have agency at this point and they can redefine their own story and they’re not beholden to what their creepy manager assigned to them 20-some years ago. Think about all of the performers in the past who, if they were able to and emboldened to have their own agency, how different their lives could have turned out. That’s part of what I love so much about Girls5eva.
Did any of you speak with anyone from girl bands of the ’90s as you prepped for the role? Did anyone’s experience inform how you played your parts?
PELL When Meredith was creating the show, she did speak to iconic boy band members. Them telling their stories now is so fascinating because when you’re young in show business, everything’s operated out of fear and, “I can’t care about myself.” What Girls5eva was being told by Larry [their sleazy manager, played by Jonathan Hadary] and what these young groups were being told in real life by their managers was, “If you’re going to not sacrifice yourself for this, then you must not want it enough.”
PHILIPPS You’re expendable. There’s a thousand in line behind you. But Renée didn’t need to talk to anyone; she lived it.
GOLDSBERRY Oh, I tried! Part of the fun of our show is the illusion of what fame would be. I used to sing backup for a lot of TV shows, and in the sound check, Destiny’s Child was sitting behind me. It was around the time that “Emotion” came out, and I heard them talking and I remember imagining how fun it must be to be traveling around the world with your cousin and your best friend as the diamond jewels of the world, singing songs and wearing outfits and meeting your favorite people. I called my best girlfriends like, “Can you imagine how much fun we would have if somebody made us a group and let us fly around the world?” You don’t necessarily need to have lived it to have dreamed about it. That’s enough to lure people into this show. How fun it is to imagine what it must have been like. And to give a little bit of that feeling back to women in their middle age is kind and the right thing to do. Every woman over 40 should be able to, at least once in her life, sing and dance with her best girlfriends.
Busy and Paula, were you intimidated by the amount of singing you had to do, given the experience your fellow co-stars have in that arena?
BAREILLES Here’s the thing: They’re both legit singers!
GOLDSBERRY And Sara and Paula, if we had a band, they’d be competing for keyboard player.
PHILIPPS That’s true!
PELL I know, like, two songs.
PHILIPPS The theme from Rocky.
GOLDSBERRY And “Masquerade.”
PELL I’ve been in a million singing groups and choirs all the way through college. I love singing and musical theater, but I was always the matron part. It was always cartoony. So I have been completely out of my element. I hope that I faked it enough to be believable that I used to be in the group! I know that I’m not worthy to be singing with them —
GOLDSBERRY Shut your mouth!
PELL Busy always hits her notes. She always gets her dance going. My dancing got cut away quite often, and I’m so glad. It was like, “Just get just a little bit of that good part in there.”
PHILIPPS Paula, you’re amazing at the dancing. The dancing was challenging for all of us, and that was partially because of COVID. We wouldn’t have the normal rehearsal with everyone. Sometimes we had the dances sent to us on a file and we would have to try and learn our parts and then get thrown together at the last second. I just remembered that this is not the first time I’ve even been a singer on a TV show. I had a storyline on Dawson’s Creek …
PHILIPPS … and I laid down tracks and I sang in a punk band.
PHILIPPS I’m rarely intimidated by anything, but I was so excited to see Sara and Renée in the studio when we got to record together. I learned so much. Next season, I’m probably going to be on the same level. (Laughter.)
PELL I’m going to get so many secret lessons!
GOLDSBERRY Paula and I worked together before on Documentary Now! This was not a stretch for her at all.
PELL But I was singing, “I’ve got to go.” I’m a character actor. I sing in a character actor way. But I love to harmonize. So these sweet voices, they better damn well know that they’re going to be singing and harmonizing at my wedding that I’ll eventually have.
PHILIPPS I want nothing more.
Meredith Scardino described the pacing of the show as a machine gun of jokes. Sara and Renée, was it challenging to get used to that infusion of comedy with music?
GOLDSBERRY I was excited. We did our first acting together on Zoom, and I was very much doubting my ability to pull this off at that time. I learned you cannot sing together and comedy does not work for Renée on Zoom. Once I was on set in that hair — we had the most amazing stylists and hair and makeup department — and with those words in my mouth, I just don’t know how you can be set up that brilliantly and fail if you just show up. But I definitely had a moment in the beginning where I was concerned. “Is my version of Wickie going to be a disappointment?” They had such a clear idea of who she was. It’s not like it’s the easiest thing in the world to try to do comedy in front of Tina Fey.
BAREILLES What was challenging was the technicality of TV and how mechanical it can feel. The literal machinery that stands between you and your scene partner was a steep learning curve. But I can even see myself get a little more comfortable with it over the season. I’m so used to immediate feedback from an audience, so to do it all in a vacuum, that was the hardest part.
Looking ahead, is there a favorite moment from season one that you hope informs your characters in season two?
PHILIPPS Performing “Four Stars” at the end when we crash the Jingle Ball. Performing that together was so much fun.
BAREILLES I loved the first time we got to actually be together, which was in the pilot where we’re sitting all around the table. I laugh so hard anytime we get to be together and live in the chemistry that naturally exists between us.
PELL I loved singing “Four Stars” around the piano. Sara gave me a note of correction on a note that I was hitting a little flat. She said, “Just smile when you’re doing that note.” When I sing that note, I’m really cheesing it up. It felt real that we’re singing as a group.
GOLDSBERRY I love every moment that we think we’re nailing it regardless of whether we actually nailed it. Whether we’re in an empty mall and we’re group hugging, or on the stage in “Four Stars,” or we’re walking down the street at the end of the first season. Does it matter if we’re deluded?! The idea that we feel that sense together that we have killed it is just such a joy for me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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