Zombie rom-com ‘therapeutic’ for newly divorced Drew Barrymore
NEW YORK—We made Drew Barrymore wait for three minutes, and we thought she was going to eat us alive—literally.
Thank God Drew, who portrays a zombie wife and mother in Netflix’s acclaimed rom-com, “Santa Clarita Diet” (opposite Timothy Olyphant), wasn’t much into method acting at the time, or we wouldn’t have returned home to Manila unscathed.
OK, it was nobody’s fault our exclusive three-on-one interview with Drew, Timothy and “Santa Clarita’s” Emmy-nominated show runner Victor Fresco (“Better Off Ted,” “Mad About You,” “Alf”) at the Edition Hotel on Madison avenue was running late.
We were scheduled to meet the trio during the streaming network’s Q1 slate event on Feb. 9—but the winter storm that dumped massive piles of snow in New York that day was understandably slowing down some pre-scheduled events.
But doing the “Santa Clarita Diet” project was actually “therapeutic” for its 42-year-old star and coproducer the first time Victor pitched its hilariously farcical “left-of-center” rom-com to her.
The series’ 10-episode first season, which premiered on Feb. 3, follows realtors Joel and Sheila Hammond (Olyphant and Barrymore), a couple whose unconditional love for each other—and for their teen daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson)—is tested when Sheila is transformed into a zombie who reluctantly feeds on human flesh!
“I wanted to do a comedy that had life-and-death stakes to it,” Victor explained to the Inquirer. “I wanted to provide empowerment for people like Sheila, who needs to learn to coexist with the humans in her community. The flipside of that is narcissism. We live in a culture that [panders to self-entitled] people who want what they want whenever they want it—and stories about the undead feel like an appropriate metaphor for narcissism.
“What I love about Tim and Drew is that they never ‘push’ to get a joke. They don’t ‘violate’ a character, which we see a lot of in comedy—because of the perpetual pressure to be extra-funny. For Sheila’s character, I wanted an actress viewers would root for, and Drew fits the bill.”
Timothy interjected, “Yes, you put as much blood on Drew, and she’d still be adorable.”
For Drew, acting in the series wasn’t just a way to “vent.” To simulate ingesting human flesh and blood, she had to munch dehydrated apples, edible rubber that tasted like Jolly Rancher, wet cake, soup that had gone bad (to look like curdled vomit), fake raw beef, etc.—a “fun” but less-than-delectable cornucopia of culinary “treats!”
More than that, however, the series provided a much-appreciated distraction from her then disintegrating four-year marriage to art consultant Will Kopelman, with whom she has two daughters: Olive, 4, and Frankie, 2. (The couple’s divorce was finalized on Aug. 3 last year.)
“I wanted to do this show because I was trained in the ‘E.T.’ world of [sci-fi] filmmaking in the ’70s and ’80s, when it was easier for viewers to relate to the stories being told,” Drew said. “I don’t want to watch something that is so farfetched that I can’t connect to it emotionally. But aliens, vampires and zombies that come to your backyard are a different matter altogether.
“In ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (the 1982 Steven Spielberg classic that catapulted the actress to stardom—at age 6), the huge theme revolves around [the tale of] a divorced single mom. On the other hand, ‘Santa Clarita’ is about the challenges married people go through. Both stories are about families trying to figure out how to make difficult situations work.
“Then, there’s my personal life. I was at a really low point in my life when I read the ‘Santa Clarita’ script, and it made me laugh and feel something. It took me out of my own world, which wasn’t super-pleasant at the time—and I thought, ‘Maybe other people would also want to be temporarily taken out of their unpleasant situations.
“Sheila’s journey became a safe ‘place’ to spend my summer with while my life was falling apart. I was thrilled to play a woman who was empowered by her new ‘identity’ … by losing weight and pulling her shit together. I drew confidence from those things because, for many years, I was just a mother raising her kids. I put my acting career on the back burner and did only two movies in eight years.
“The family unit is the heart of the series. Sheila’s relationship with her daughter gets me emotionally invested in the story, because I have two daughters—and people know that my relationship with my own mom is an emotional subject for me. I like seeing couples function as a team and work out their problems. The world offers the viewing public a lot of pain, drama and other depressing things. I want to see a story where people still genuinely love one another.
“The series also inspired me to lose weight. I was so hungry when we started shooting, because I was trying to lose 20 pounds. I was 144 [pounds] when we started, so in order to do that, I had to eat sensibly. Sheila eats humans, and if you were on an all-protein diet, you would really ‘thin out’—there’s no question about it.”
For Victor, conceptualizing the show was no breezy walk in the park. “I wanted to put a spin on the rom-com/family-show genre,” he said. “Here, instead of the grandparents moving in, the dilemma becomes the wife turning into a zombie. How does the couple adjust to that radical shift?”
“That happened to me!” Drew quipped. “I was dating someone, we moved in together, then he said his mother was moving from Greece and coming over to live with us. I told him, ‘I don’t think I’d be comfortable with that.’ And we broke up—and that was it. I kicked myself for many years after that, because I should have at least tried that arrangement—and it might have worked. I was so in love and heartbroken, and I realized how stubborn I was.”
Tim said, “He chose his mother over you. That speaks well of him.”
The atmosphere of the interview became even more convivial when the trio learned that we were from the Philippines. It brought up little-known information that fans wouldn’t find even on Timothy’s Wikipedia page.
“Do you know that I lived in the Philippines when I was between 1 to 3 years old?” he disclosed. “My dad was with Del Monte at the time. My memory of it is vague, but we have photo albums of me and my brothers as infants in Manila. We lived there before we relocated to California.” (Tim, who was born in Hawaii in 1968, before his family moved to the Philippines, is a descendant of the Vanderbilts of New York.)
Then, it was Drew’s turn to tell her Manila story: “I was in the Philippines last year [for a branding trip] for Flower Beauty (her beauty line).” The actress posted an Instagram photo of herself last September at SM Makati.
When we finally steered the conversation back to “Santa Clarita,” Drew said she was happy that she and Tim didn’t have to work so hard to build their rapport—their chemistry was instant. “I don’t like rehearsals, because I find them tedious,” she said. “But, sitting around and talking helps establish rapport.”
We enjoyed Drew’s cheery candor but, make no mistake, she was also sharp and quick-witted. As we began to ask her about how the show helped her deal with the divorce, we began by saying, “We don’t mean to be intrusive, but …”
“… But you’re going to ask me about it, anyway? (Laughs),” she winkingly giggled with a conspiratorial tone. “Sheila’s awakening was very positive for my own life—and that’s what we have in common. I see the show as a feminist rebirth, because women who are going through a rough patch need to be given a chance to recharge and rise to the occasion. The show came along and turned out to be the most positive ride that I could get on at that point in my life.”
To wrap up the interview, we extended our hand to Drew. She didn’t just shake it—she thanked us warmly and hugged us.