As a make-up artist touches up Catherine Reitman’s hair between takes, it’s not immediately clear how many hats she wears on the Toronto soundstage for Workin’ Moms, her popular CBC and Netflix comedy.
Reitman is the creator, executive producer, writer and star, playing Kate Foster, on the half-hour series that began as four women in a Mommy and Me group wanting to have it all, yet juggling the real challenges of being a modern working mother, relationships, insatiable babies, horrific co-workers and postpartum depression.
“I laugh at the writers all the time. Here’s this indulgent thing I’m doing, sharing my personal experiences, praying that one out of five mothers will connect, and it turned out that a huge chunk of our audience don’t even have kids,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter about the improbability of her first TV show now headed towards its seventh and final season.
The cameras are about to roll on the well-lit set for Kate Foster PR, the PR company Reitman’s character runs, as co-stars Jessalyn Wanlim, who plays Jenny Matthews, and Nikki Duval, who has the role of Rosie Phillips, partner in Kate Foster PR, also get into position.
The daughter of the late Hollywood director Ivan Reitman, Catherine Reitman launched Workin’ Moms on the CBC network in Canada in 2017. Sally Catto, the CBC general manager of entertainment, factual and sports, recalls humor and honesty of the original series’ pitch: “I remember the demo reel and just loving the discussion about wanting a ‘brain-dead vacation’ and thinking, ‘Yes! She went there.'”
Netflix picked up the Canadian import in 2019 and the final season will debut on CBC and CBC Gem in winter 2023, followed by a release on Netflix elsewhere globally.
During a break in filming, Reitman shared with The Hollywood Reporter what she could about where Kate, Anne (Dani Kind) and the rest of the group are headed for the final season, recalls the difficult road to get the mommy-comedy — described as “too niche” by American studios — on the air, and opens up about how her creative collaboration with her filmmaking father evolved to where she could run the TV show on her own.
What was the original pitch for Workin’ Moms?
The origin story is: I gave birth to my first son, Jackson, and went back to work, shooting an indie movie in Philadelphia, and I was surrounded by men. It was my first Mother’s Day working, as we were shooting weekends, I had a 6-week-old baby at home and I’m doing a comedy scene. I’m surrounded by these brilliant comedic improvisers, and I start crying. It’s now a scene — captured at the end of the season one pilot for Workin’ Moms — where I’m with a boys club I can no longer hang with. And I call my husband [who plays onscreen husband Philip Sternberg in Workin’ Moms] when I get back to my hotel room while shooting this indie movie, and I say: Something is wrong. I’m broken. I no longer work the way I used to work. And I’ve lost it. He tells me: You can’t be the only new mother who has felt this. And we started looking for content that represented that. We couldn’t find any. So he encouraged me to write a few scenes of what my experience had been. We shot an eight-minute sizzle. FX picked it up as a pilot, and they eventually passed.
What about the rest of the studios?
I pitched it to every shop in town in America. And we kept getting meetings because there was something sticky; people were connecting to this female experience. But the feedback I kept receiving was that it was “too niche.” That even though there were shows about doctors and detectives, meth dealer/teachers and Mad Men executives, somehow the experience of being a mother and working was too niche. But it wasn’t, and the CBC picked it up.
How did you get around to shopping the project in Canada?
It was a week before TIFF (Toronto Film Festival), and my family has always come to the festival and been very involved. And my Dad said, “You know, you’re Canadian. Bring it around. See what happens.” And Sally Catto at the CBC — my guardian angel for life — watched the sizzle, greenlit it for 13 episodes and I was shooting the next summer, with a 5-week-old in my arms. I still feel so lucky that they took a chance, that Sally took a chance on me.
Thinking back to that original pitch process, could you have ever expected Workin’ Moms to end up getting to seven seasons?
I’m still in disbelief. I laugh at the writers all the time. Here’s this indulgent thing I’m doing, sharing my personal experiences, praying that one out of five mothers will connect and it turned out that a huge chunk of our audience don’t even have kids.
Was it a surprise when you got to a second season?
After the table reads for season one, Sally Catto was there and said we were going to get a second season. We hadn’t even gone to camera and we knew we were going to get a season two. That’s not revolutionary for CBC shows.
But it’s revolutionary for Hollywood.
In America, that’s unheard of. To get a second season is big. It’s a littered landscape.
You get notes from the CBC. Was there anything you took out that you wish you hadn’t, or anything you kept in that paid off?
Of course every season you have casualties where you go, “Gosh, that would have helped.” I know in season one, there was a real-life bear that comes at the end of the pilot, when I scream.
It sure looked live.
It was a live bear. It was brought in; took a trailer from Alberta for three days. It got here, and it was so expensive. And every single person said, “Make it a raccoon, Catherine. Make it a wolf. Make it anything but this goddam bear.” It had a stronger IMDB profile than me. At the time, I was a largely out-of-work actress. I looked at its CV and said, “Holey moley, look at us, working with such an experienced bear.” I just pushed for it because I’d been jogging in California with my newborn and saw a bear. And I remember thinking, “Push comes to shove, how would I protect my child?” My instinct was to scream.
What about the most edgy storyline you attempted over seven seasons?
It depends on the audience member, and which country they’re in. In America, the edgiest storyline is the abortion storyline. In Canada, it’s no big deal. In Canada, it’s these women are so flawed, that they do things that are occasionally unlikable. That’s the biggest bump here. As far as edgiest? We’ve covered some crazy stuff. What always shocks me is when people stop me in the streets, planes and grocery stores, and they’re not talking about how I breastfed a 25-year-old on camera. They’re talking about how much they feel seen, how much they connected with the series, how much they appreciate showing mothers as sexy or flawed. So, it never felt that daring to me.
What about castmembers, were there storylines they balked at?
From time to time, they’ll bump, but again, it’s not the thing you’ll bump on. It’s whatever they’re personally going through. I’m really lucky. I have an exceptional cast that wants to go there; they want to push the boundaries. They want to tell real stories. They’re bringing things to roles that I couldn’t. They’re far more talented than me. And they’re executing it. We’ve definitely had storylines that parallel with their own lives.
What’s an example?
Jessalyn (Wanlim) struggled and spoke about it on social media last season that she was experiencing miscarriages, and her character experienced one at the same time. We were shooting as it happened. I was worried and protective of her, that it was going to be too much. But I think sometimes having that outlet to turn something into art can be incredibly cathartic.
The relationship between you as Kate and Anne (Dani Kind) is the emotional heart of the series. When did you decide to bring their close friendship to the forefront?
I really credit Dani Kind with that. It was written as a gang of women who were trying to have it all. And our chemistry became apparent very early on in season one. Before that, I was 8.5 months pregnant and living in L.A. at the time, and I flew in around a dozen women to test for all the roles in Toronto. She was one of them. And I remember she and I having an ease. Not even during the test. Just when we were talking. I was thinking, “We must have known each other in a previous life.” It was just very natural. And it’s become the heart of the show. That’s the love story that the audience has connected with the most.
What was Dani Kind’s screen test like?
I wrote the characters of Jenny, Frankie [played by the departed Juno Rinaldi] and Anne as different aspects of my personality, my flaws. Kate is my ambition, Frankie is my lost child, Anne is my pride, my vanity and my anger. And when we started auditioning these roles, all the women were coming off so angry that I was going, “Ugh, how are we going to fall in love, to get through the anger and to have compassion for this character?” And Dani Kind brought a heart, a vulnerability that no other actress did. It was immediately apparent that she understood what was behind the anger. And that’s what the audience fell so in love with.
How has your own dual role as Kate and as the creator of Workin’ Moms evolved?
Now that we’re seven seasons deep, I’m still asking, how did this show hit like this? I say this all the time and mean it in the most sincere way: This show was meant to be with or without me. It’s meant to be a show about working mothers. I know I was starving for it seven years ago. The fact that I get to be at the helm, at the wheel, it’s just extraordinary.
At what point did you know Workin’ Moms was your show, “Catherine Reitman’s show,” and not “the comedy from Ivan Reitman’s daughter”?
You know, for the rest of my life, if someone wants to talk to me, I will always assume that you will want to talk to Ivan Reitman’s daughter. That’s how I was raised. When you’re in the footsteps of someone extraordinary, as a child, that’s what you assume: Will I always feel I have to prove myself more? Am I a fraud? Maybe. Probably. But when it came to the show, in season one I remember him giving me notes, and just eating up every note, and thinking this was the ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, I just have to accept the notes from the Great Man. In season two, I began to question the notes more. In season three, I started to have arguments. And in season four, it took everything in my power, but I said, “You know Dad, I think I know how to do this. I think I have the wheel here.” And it was a really hard conversation. He wanted to protect me. He wanted to feel involved in my life. He felt responsible for me as my father. And I was having the doubt of, Do I have it, am I worthy? And I’m Ivan Reitman’s daughter. It took some real soul-searching to come out of that, but our relationship had this incredible growth spurt as a result.
Do your recall some of your father’s notes?
His note about the sex scenes I was in were, “No one wants to watch that.” But he was the comedy expert and he had this belief that a female lead, the protagonist, had to be likable to the audience. And I wanted to show women with all their flaws.
Netflix eventually picked up Workin’ Moms and your comedy went global. What was it like being embraced by Netflix.
The power of Netflix. So we are the studio on our show. We don’t have a major, huge machine behind us. It was Philip and I shopping around, looking for the right fit, and we went to several places. And that was for the first three years, and every offer was just terrible. We came all the way to Canada, we were lucky enough to be partners in our own show. We owned it. My contract at FX would not have allowed that. And finally, Netflix came to the table and gave us an extraordinary offer and gave us the golden original title, which means the algorithm really serves it. And I don’t want to say it was instant, because it wasn’t. It wasn’t like it is now. But what was extraordinary to Philip and I was that, even though Canadians were watching it on the CBC, when Netflix Canada picked it up, there was a boost. That was noticeable. And around the world, of course, we would go on trips and the babysitter that I hire in Mexico City had watched every season. The taxi driver in Barcelona knew it. It became this wild thing where we thought, there is a power to Netflix. That being said, none of this would have happened if the CBC didn’t take a chance to begin with. That’s just the truth.
As you get set to put Workin’ Moms behind you, what’s your final piece of advice to working mothers?
That’s a trap! Look, it’s so case-by-case. What works for my best friend doesn’t necessarily work for me. What worked for my mother doesn’t work for me. One small, stupid tip might save another friend’s life when it comes to working motherhood. I have a lot of help. I can’t sit here and pretend that I’ve got two kids in the back room while I’m doing this show. I have a nanny, I have an extraordinary husband. I have camps and schools and all these things that I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
Lastly, can you tease the final season of Workin’ Moms for your fans?
I didn’t take this season lightly. The writers room felt an extraordinary responsibility to deliver a product that our audience would love. And I say with no hesitation that we’ve delivered on that. I think this season is our best one, and it’s hilarious. I think the luxury of having seven seasons of a show is that you understand what hits and what doesn’t, what works and what doesn’t. I think it’s a perfect season as far as our show goes.
It feels like Kate will end Workin’ Moms, the comedy about working mothers, wanting it all, as the powerful head of her own PR firm and family.
I’ve had a lot of success and a lot of failure, even within the show. And I’ve had a lot of success and failure as a mother. And as a wife and as a friend and everything in between. And I think running a ship and understanding the responsibilities of that ship, you get better at it over time. And you become more secure in yourself. And you realize how important it is to rely on your team.
After Workin’ Moms, what’s your next project?
I have something in development that I’m not at liberty to discuss yet, but I’m very excited to announce it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.