Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, JK Simmons and Nina Arianda
Have Some ‘Splaining To Do About Being the Ricardos
By Jay S. Jacobs
The whole world has loved Lucy for decades, but how well do we really know her? This question intrigued famed writer/director Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing, The Trial of the Chicago 7), to the point that his latest film is Being the Ricardos, a look behind the scenes at the filming of I Love Lucy in the early 1960s.
Being the Ricardos takes us behind the curtain of the show. We not only see the zany public personas of the actors, but also the driven artists and shrewd businesspeople behind the characters. It is a particularly fraught week for Lucy, who as the first woman in charge of a production company must put out fires amongst her stars and staff, deal with both a public accusation of being a communist and the effect of her pregnancy on the most popular show on TV, as well as suspicions of her husband’s infidelity.
Sorkin put together a star-studded cast for the film, including four-time Oscar winner Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and three-time Oscar winner Javier Bardem as her hot-blooded Cuban bandleader co-star and husband Desi Arnaz. Playing the supporting cast of I Love Lucy also had Oscar winner JK Simmons as William Frawley and Tony winner Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance. The cast is rounded out by the likes of Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy and Clark Gregg.
A week before Being the Ricardos had a limited theatrical release, and a few weeks before its premiere today on Amazon Prime, we were one of the lucky media outlets to take part in a virtual press conference with Kidman, Bardem, Simmons and Arianda. Here are some of the things they had to say.
The cast on the screenplay and direction by Aaron Sorkin:
Nina Arianda: It was it was such a brilliant first read. Then it was even more fun to dissect. The thing that right away jumped off the page for me was just how relentless the stakes are. Everything you could possibly want. It's almost a thriller for me. The stakes never leave you. It's just continuous to the end of the story.
JK Simmons: First I'm wishing I'd done what Nina had done and actually read the script more than once. (laughs) I was so blown away by it the first time. That's a great question, because obviously Hollywood knows Aaron Sorkin, the writer and has known for decades now. This is the third film he's directed, the first film that he wrote intending to be the director because the other two times it came together for different reasons.
Nicole Kidman: The thing that this film does is it pulls the curtain back. It's not the I Love Lucy show. It's how was that made? Who was this person that was capable of that genius? What was her story? What was her life? As JK said, aren't you glad it's not from birth to death? It's not that kind of storytelling. It's Aaron Sorkin storytelling where he compresses a number of things into a week and then – flashing forward and back – is able to show you the essence of who this woman was and who these people were. That was what was so unusual about it. It wasn't a biopic.
Javier Bardem: That’s the exquisite complexity of the script, that he really goes to places without abandoning anyone. It really reunites lots of aspects of them – as a marriage, as a couple, as artists, as colleagues. Everything is so well put together. That makes it more exciting to perform it, but also to watch it as an audience. It's very full of different details that is going to give you a good idea of who they were and what they were doing back in the day.
JK Simmons: [Sorkin has] gotten to a point now in his career as both writer and producer [where he] knows every aspect of filmmaking so thoroughly that it was a very collaborative process with everyone, all of us in front of the camera as well as behind the camera. He also had supreme confidence in himself – and from those of us working with him – as a guy who knows every aspect of what the story is and how to tell it.
Nicole Kidman: When I was sent [the script] originally online, I couldn't put it down. I read it and this screenplay is extraordinary. I would ask anyone to read the screenplays because it's such a good read.
The cast on playing such iconic real-life characters:
Nicole Kidman: She had Desilu, the production [company], and no actors had that at that time. She was the first of her kind. She's one of a kind.
Nina Arianda: For me, it was really important to honor the physical differences between the two women because they were so extreme. Vivian was a wonderful dancer. She was a leading lady. She was an ingenue. And Ethel was Ethel. I had all the all the research I can possibly want for Ethel obviously, but for Vivian it was a little tougher.
JK Simmons: As Nina said, we all had plenty of footage of I Love Lucy to watch. For those few moments when we were expected to mimic aspects of the show itself… of the play within the play... that was very clear. About Bill Frawley there was much less… well zero… video that I could find outside of his films and his appearances on I Love Lucy. No talk shows, no anything on video, not even a book. Desi famously wrote a book called A Book. There were plenty of books about Lucille Ball and even about Vivian Vance. Much less about Bill Frawley.
Nicole Kidman: Initially when I said yes to it, I did not realize what I was saying yes to. I was saying yes to Aaron Sorkin script and a great opportunity. I was like, “Wow.” It was in a pandemic. This is an extraordinary thing to sit on a zoom with Aaron Sorkin and him to say, “I want you to play Lucille Ball.” Having read the screenplay, it's magnificent. Then maybe a week later, it hit me. I was trying to work on just the little baby steps into her voice. It was nowhere within reach. I was like, “Oh, no, what have I done? I wish I had the talent to do this, but I don't.” Then it was like, “Help!”
JK Simmons: All of my research was through the perspective of Vivian and Lucille and Desi and Jess Oppenheimer in some audio interviews. In a way, I found that to be freeing in terms of how I portrayed off camera Bill, which again is 98% of the movie. He was honestly not all that dissimilar from the cranky landlord, Fred Mertz.
Javier Bardem: [I was most impressed by] his absolute confidence in himself. How supportive he was of his wife and the whole show. How to overcome the obstacles by a strong sense of humor. He was making fun of everything. That doesn't mean that he didn't take it seriously, but he didn't get stuck in the drama of it all.
Nina Arianda: A producer and sent me a clip that was a couple of seconds long and it was simply Desi introducing Vivian Vance to the to the audience right before they were taping. It was really eye opening for me because out came this woman with a long spine, her shoulders back and she sashayed to downstage and took a graceful bow and left. I just saw a completely different woman. I became so obsessed with her background. How did this spine develop? So I guess for me, it was really trying to be as respectful as I could to these two very different bodies.
Nicole Kidman: Luckily, I had a couple of months, so I could work on it slowly, meticulously, methodically. Watching the show, listening to the voice, doing all of the preparation. Which is very unusual for me because a lot of times I'll start really inside. But the inside of it was almost already there, just because I could relate to her, I could feel her. It was so beautifully written. Then it was like, “Oh, no, how do I actually create Lucille Ball?” But Aaron was fantastic. Because when I freaked out – which I did – he's not as good on the phone. He's like, “Yeah.” He wants to get off the phone. He's not a big talker like that. But he sent an email that was just basically, “You've got this. You're just going to have to take it day by day. I don't want an impersonation. I want you to do the work that you can do, that I know you will do. And I want you not to freak out, basically, because I believe you can do it.”
JK Simmons: The gift that we all got from Aaron Sorkin in this script and in his direction along the way, there were so many beautifully detailed layers for all of us. We got to see multiple aspects of all of these characters as they relate to each other at different times – as seen in the bar that I have [a drink] with Lucille, [or] the scene after the table read that I have with Desi, [or] the kvetching back and forth that Vivian and Bill have. All of it was not easy, but it was clear how to lift that off of the page.
Nicole Kidman: I would challenge him on that at different points throughout the thing. (laughs) He would never waver. [He] was so consistent in his belief. I'd be like begging for some sort of nose or chin. At one point, I was like, “I got to change my jaw, the jaw is different.” He said, “I don't care.” I mean, it was frustrating for him I think, because he saw how he wanted it and it took me time to give over to that. When I did, I went okay. But in the process, I was able to work on the actual Lucy part of it, which I could hang my hat on that and go, “Well, I'm going to have the hair and I'm going to have the lips and I'm going to have all [that.] I can do all of this. Even though it's a sliver of the movie, I'll have that.” Then out of Lucy Ricardo came Lucille Ball. Lucille Ball is very different to Lucy Ricardo. Lucille Ball created Lucy Ricardo.
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