When she learned she’d be playing three characters — Rosemary Wellington, Ruth Levin and Nellie Burke — in the second season of the Starz comedy, the actor immediately asked showrunner Jeff Astrof for details so she could start prepping.
“It was very ambitious,” Astroff told Variety on the Los Angeles set of the second season about his big ideas for the new episodes. But he was determined to continue the story, which picks up four months after the events of Season 1, as Pat (Courteney Cox) has been institutionalized and put under shock therapy.
This season pulls inspiration from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Ring” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” among other sources. In fact, Sorvino’s Ruth, who is Pat’s neighbor, is similar to Minnie Castevet, the character played by Ruth Gordon in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
“I rewatched but I wasn’t going to do an imitation; the character is Jewish, from Brooklyn, and very outspoken. Our character is a little bit different; she is not a senior citizen and she has a lot of love in her heart,” says Sorvino, speaking before the start of the SAG-AFTRA strike. “Where Minnie Castevet is kind of ominous the whole time — she has that agenda always and doesn’t have the same warmth — Ruth is a broken-winged woman, a broken-hearted woman. And she loves Pay.”
Just like the first season, “Shining Vale” is a story about women, mostly crafted by women. Astrof recalled when he first pitched the Starz show, sharing that “women are more likely to be depressed and possessed as men.” The network wasn’t happy with that at first; when he told them it was Sharon Horgan’s idea, “they loved it.”
“From that moment, I was like, I’m only hiring women. It’s a woman’s story. I like writing people who are underserved. Women of a certain age don’t get to play women that are sexy or who have an affair,” he said. So, he writes his characters and then Horgan sends him notes. “Sharon’s work is always a little bit darker than mine. Whenever she gives me notes, it hurts. She’s very blunt and she’s made me a much better writer.”
All of the episodes are directed by women and the writer’s room is almost all women — “Jeff is an honorary woman,” says Sorvino — but it doesn’t stop there. Much of the crew is also made up of women, something she can feel every day at work.
“It’s great to see that women can be boom operators. It’s really rare — not only in the key positions of director and writers but to have women in key crew positions,” she said.
However, there’s one thing that Sorvino wasn’t going to do, no matter who was around. Although specifics are withheld to avoid spoilers, one of her characters has an interesting relationship with religion and the devil. At one point, the script advised her to do a certain chant.
“I am a serious Christian. So I won’t say anything that invokes any names of anything,” she told Variety. “Jeff is very sweet and respectful of it. Last year, there wasn’t any of that. And all of a sudden this season, there’s demonic stuff happening, and I’m like, ‘I can’t do that, sorry!’ So I don’t say it anymore. I just say other stuff.”
Astrof never asked again: “I’m a religious guy. I respect that.”
Still, Sorvino was able to deeply connect with the show and the trauma that comes along with the show’s themes.
“My grandmother, God rest her soul, she had a nervous breakdown when she was my age. She was put in an asylum because she was hearing voices that were telling her that she could fly if she jumped out the second-story window. They gave her electroshock therapy. She said it made the voices go away,” Sorvino said. “There’s a lot of trauma that Jeff is exploring in this. But it’s not that uncommon for a lot of women. Life is really hard. And certain things can really take you down for a while. And this story is about a woman being taken down, whether it’s by her own psyche or other forces. That’s always a question mark in the show.”
“Shining Vale” airs on Fridays on Starz.
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