Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the entire third season of “Playing House,” available now on the USA App and VOD.
Midway through “Playing House’s” third season, Jessica St. Clair‘s Emma gets diagnosed with breast cancer. It is a story ripped from the headlines of St. Clair’s own life, who received her diagnosis only one week after finishing the second season in 2015. She then underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Lennon Parham, her co-star and co-creator of “Playing House,” was by her side every step of the way, taking notes on doctor appointments, medications, and even what elements of this unexpected journey would make for powerful storytelling on their show.
Variety spoke to St. Clair and Parham about how they decided what parts of the cancer journey to explore on-screen, drawing inspiration from “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” and why they feel this more serious season is the most important work they’ve ever done.
You were renewed for a third season in early 2016, already a few months past St. Clair’s diagnosis and initial treatment. At that point was it a given that cancer had to make it into the story?
Lennon Parham: When we first got to the writers room we spent about three days just talking about whether or not we were going to do [the cancer storyline]. [St. Clair] recounted the past year of [her] life, and it felt important. It felt important to hear and for [her] to share because it was what had been happening. [She] had just finished chemo and was just about to start radiation.
Jessica St. Clair: Our writers room is full of our very closest friends, so it was also like I was just catching them up on my real life.
Parham: And everybody else would share what was going on with them, as well.
St. Clair: And then we deliberated for awhile, just like “12 Angry Men,” about whether or not we should write about it because I was very on-board that there was no other show we could write. We were living in this high stakes drama, and I just couldn’t imagine us having just light romps all season. It was going to feel very inauthentic.
Parham: And I was like, “Hey, we just had a really s–t year, maybe we just have a light romp. Wouldn’t that be fun?” I was seven months pregnant, and in the midst of that, thinking about what would be good for my body and baby and do we want to relive all this? The choice to write about it isn’t just, “Okay cool we’re going to write about it.” It’s going to be the next year and a half and maybe forever of our lives. That’s how long it takes to do a show and then promote it.
St. Clair: Yeah, first we’re going to tell all of the stories in detail, then we’re going to hash out the storylines, then we’re going to go improvise them, which means acting them all out and recording it and sorting through the dialogue. And then shooting it, which means getting into a bed– a hospital bed– again, which was crazy because my body has sense memory of what it was like to be in surgery, which I had never experienced anything traumatic, but I guess your body goes, “Okay, we’re back in a hospital bed? Okay, you can’t move your legs!” That happened to me during the shooting of a scene, and I was like, “This is unpleasant!” But at the same time it felt like the most important thing we’ve ever done– both for ourselves, personally, but also as artists.
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How did you decide what parts of a cancer patient’s journey to show and what to shy away from?
St. Clair: Our head writer Anthony King is the most talented man in the world… I thought to myself that if we do the cancer thing, it has to be the whole eight episodes, and he goes, “No, let’s have you guys live your life, and let’s have it happen, and then let’s have you get back to living your life” because that’s how it happened in real life… Every thing you see in the show– every word that comes out of Laurie Metcalf who is the genius actor that plays [the on-screen version] of my surgical oncologist Dr. Leslie Memsic, and Michaela Watkins who, plays my plastic surgeon– that actually was said to us. Lennon was able to recreate those scenes almost word-for-word, which wasn’t the best time I’ve had in a writing session. I mean, I really went back there, much like a war veteran.
Parham: I feel like we’re just shining the light on it. We get out information on one-step reconstruction; we talk about her keeping her hair in episode six; we see her with her chemo hair growing back in kind of crazy in episode eight. We talk about her body not feeling like her own and feeling like a chewed up rag doll, which were all true to her experience.
St. Clair: But sometimes if we got too specific it started feeling like an infomercial, and [we thought] people would be taken out of the show. We weren’t going to show chemo because that’s a really tough thing to show, but we mention it, and we know it’s happening.
Parham: We did decide actively to not write about and not see Emma in actual chemo administration. We see her a couple days later, after her, like, fourth chemo at home, not feeling [well] and being really run down. There were funny things that happened at chemo, but we couldn’t quite wrap our minds around how to make that funny.
The core of the show has always been Maggie and Emma’s uniquely close friendship, but all of the supporting players really rally around both of them. What was it like to strike the balance with the ensemble this season?
St. Clair: I remember in the middle of treatment someone who was like 20 years out said to me, “I know you don’t believe me, but you will one day wake up and go, ‘Oh my God, I’m happier than I was before I got diagnosed.'” And that is insane, but it is absolutely what happened. And so once we saw that that would be the journey, that we would start it off kind of in an innocent way…and then the diagnosis comes out of nowhere as it does in life and all of a sudden the train stops and we go, “Oh My God,” and then through that experience you end up learning something and you learn how to appreciate life in a way you never thought. You’re stronger than you ever thought– both of us. Cancer doesn’t just happen to me; it happens to my best friend; it happens to everyone who means something in my life… The truth is, it does take a village to take care of somebody who’s sick, and so we just, at all times, tried to be authentic to the actual experience we had. And the experience we had was that Lennon was with me; [she] did not leave my side for an entire year. She was with me at almost every chemo…
Parham: But there was also a tag team of people. Lindsay Sloane who plays Bird Bones is one of Jess’ closest friends, Melissa Rauch, Danielle Schneider. If I couldn’t be at a chemo or had to go pick up my daughter, they tagged in.
St. Clair: I was never alone. The promise that was made to me by Lennon and my husband and all of my childhood best friends and adult best friends in Los Angeles was that this is going to be real sh—y but that I would never be alone, not for one second. And that promise was made true. If I texted somebody that I was having a down day, in seconds I would have somebody either call me or show up at my door. And I heard a few months later that behind-the-scenes there was a phone tree that would put out a red alert and then suddenly somebody would be like Ding dong! I’m in the neighborhood. Literally no one is in the neighborhood of Santa Monica ever.
Parham: Prior to Jess’ experience, my father had a kidney transplant, and I was pregnant at the time with my first daughter, and the waiting room at Piedmont Hospital where our entire church showed up– people that I had known since the beginning, since before I was even born, were there for me to cry on their shoulder. Entire meals were brought out. Family was there. People I hadn’t seen or spoken to, but I had emailed a bunch of people, and they would come by and check in at the hospital, and that experience was really powerful to me because you think the drama is happening in the surgery room, and it is, but it’s also happening in the waiting room… And I don’t think I’ve ever seen that [on TV]. I don’t think I’ve ever seen just the waiting room and what people are going through after you leave your loved one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the long walk out, back to the waiting room. So the honoring the caretaker was high on my mind as well.
Emma was Maggie’s caretaker at the start of the series, but the roles reversed this season. Do you think Maggie has been inspired by Emma or the realization that life is short? Is that why this was the right time for her to start dating again?
Parham: Maggie just wanted it to happen naturally, and I think Bruce getting a girlfriend and seeing Emma and Mark back together, she realized maybe it is time. Right after you have a baby, the focus is on the baby. You don’t feel sexual; you don’t feel attractive; and you have a bigger job. So to be able to focus again on yourself, it takes a little bit of time. And Maggie’s had a tough time of it, and I think it was good to have a win for her in that arena. And also for it to happen in that sort of awkward, misstepped, slow burn kind of way that’s [rare] to see in many romantic comedies.
St. Clair: Also, I think what’s nice about it is Maggie has to put her own personal life on hold for a minute when she’s taking care of [Emma], and in the way that we were just talking about how everybody’s life gets better after we get through this cancer thing, I think that Maggie pre-cancer wouldn’t have had the courage to ask the doctor out, but she just goes for it. It’s that saying yes to life [moment], and once she starts saying yes to things then she has this awesome new boyfriend, and it’s nice to see Maggie have this win.
Were there moments when you felt you should go bigger or broader with the adventures the women went on, to counterbalance the more serious and emotional scenes?
Parham: To be honest, I don’t think that we were thinking of it like that. In previous seasons we dressed up like men and sang with Kenny Loggins. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff– we break into swimming pools. It kind of grows. The drag queen thing seemed like a real natural transition because I wanted to have an “Adventures in Babysitting” moment, you know, where they get up on the stage and they sing with the blues band, so it was sort of a nod to that.
St. Clair: Singing with drag queens was just one of our bucket list things we felt like we wanted to do. What I love about our writers room is we go, “Oh and we want to sing Tina Turner with drag queens, figure it out!” And then we all talk about it, and what is so amazing is they come up with this concept to get us to sing, which is that Emma is feeling so physically defeated and not beautiful at the end of this chemo experience
Parham: And like you don’t really own these new parts of you.
St. Clair: So then these drag queens make me over and they say we’re all survivors of something. They say, “Hey you have to put these Double Ds in the window,” and I say that I don’t really feel like they’re mine, but they say, “Do you have the receipt? Did you buy them? Then they’re yours.”
Parham: We’re all born naked and the rest is drag. That’s my favorite part of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” I mean, I love the pageant and the performance of it, and those women are phenomenal at what they do, but that piece where they’re getting ready backstage, doing their makeup, and sharing This is my hardship, this is why I’m vulnerable; this is my story, that to me is the heart and the core of the show, and it just connected with where we were and with where Emma’s character was. That these women could give her this lesson, you know, we’ve all been through the fire in some way, but it’s what you do afterwards that matters.
St. Clair: [Bringing in former “Best Friends Forever” co-star Daija Owens] was another dream. We wanted to have [her] back and we didn’t exactly know how, and I don’t know who came up with the idea of a “Sweet 13,” but seeing her five years later– I mean, in “BFFs,” she was eight and could sit on our laps, and now she’s this beautiful young woman, and it was so meaningful. Again on this shoot, as hard as the hospital scenes were, every day we were so joyful that we got to do these things again… because we didn’t know in the darkest moments of this journey if we’d ever be back to shooting again, but there we were.
Where do you see these characters going from here, should the show get renewed for a fourth season?
St. Clair: The initial concept of the show was these childhood best friends were thrown back together, and in doing so, they’re encouraging each other and allowing each other to live their own best lives, so I think we just take that to the next level… Early on in living through this trauma we decided to adopt that kind of battle cry-slash-slogan of “F*** Yes Life.” “Hell Yes Life” is what we say on television, but basically the way we were going to deal with this newfound awareness of the fact that life is precious and that we only have today is to say “yes” to anything that will bring us joy. In the season we see them learn that lesson and then put it into practice. In the finale when they perform as Tina Turner drag queens, it’s the most joyful we’ve ever seen Maggie and Emma. So, in season four what I would love to do is see these girls truly manifest their “F*** Yes Life” and just go for it, you know? Let’s go big. Go big or go home. Even more joy.