Frankie Shaw is an overnight success story more than a decade in the making.
As an actress, her first professional credits are a short film and an episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” from 2005. She got her first major television role five years later (as a cheerleader on Spike comedy “Blue Mountain State”), which was followed by memorable parts on “Mixology,” ABC’s “comedy over the course of one night,” Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot” and the short-lived period drama “Good Girls Revolt.” Although Shaw was working pretty steadily, she got “sick of auditioning,” so she took matters – and her career – into her own hands and wrote “SMILF,” loosely based on her own life. It may have begun as a way to have a writing sample “because I wanted to staff as a writer,” she tells Variety, but “SMILF” became a short film that won the Jury Award for U.S. fiction in short films at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Later that same year, she sold the project to Showtime, redeveloping it as a half-hour comedy series that she would write, produce, star in and also direct.
“I think make opportunity for yourself, if that’s something you’re inclined to do, for sure,” Shaw says about actors creating work for themselves. “I discovered that my biggest passion was for directing, so in making opportunity for myself, I found what I like doing the best.”
In “SMILF,” Shaw stars as single mother Bridgette, who is juggling her own dreams of being an actress (at least for the pilot episode) with not only the need to provide for her child but also trying to co-parent with her child’s father, recovering addict Rafi (Miguel Gomez). Once a single mother herself, Shaw calls Bridgette a “fantasy” or “exaggerated” version of herself. “The seedlings in the story are true,” she says, “but we have an amazing team of writers who take a seed of an idea, and it comes from truth, but they exaggerate and make it better or make it more fun.”
Shaw lovingly calls Bridgette “a ridiculous human,” who is often taking “one step forward and two steps back” in her progress with everything from parenting to her day job (she’s a tutor) to her relationship with her own mother (played by Rosie O’Donnell). But that kind of flawed character is one she drew purposefully because she thinks it is the most fun. “A lot of people are concerned with if she’s likable, but I want to make sure she’s also relatable. There needs to be a balance,” she notes. “It’s been interesting to get in the humanity of what that looks like.”
Writing the authentic struggles of characters meant to feel plucked from every day life is not something Shaw takes lightly, nor reserves solely for her own character. “I’m really interested in exploring themes that I’ve read about in certain books. It’s like, ‘What are tidbits from them that we can use to tell those stories – stories that aren’t normally told?'” Shaw says of non-fiction tomes like “Global Woman” and “The Price of Motherhood,” by which she has been inspired.
In addition to looking at the lives of women in family support roles like nannies, housekeepers and tutors, and breaking down single motherhood economically, everyone from Rafi to Ally, Bridgette’s boss (Connie Britton), is designed to offer new takes on common television characters.
Rafi, for example, is not the deadbeat baby daddy who dropped out of his kid’s life once he heard the baby was born. “[Frankie] gives a positive view of a man who’s trying to make it and be a good person,” says Gomez, who was drawn to “SMILF” because it felt “so real.” “A lot of dads take off, but there are some that stick around and try to make it work, and she shines a light on that. She gives the opportunity to show that if you have a good heart and you’re doing your best, you can make it.”
Gomez, who is relatively new to comedy, says being on “SMILF” is freeing in a lot of ways. “Frankie’s fearless. Frankie’s courageous. She makes me have to be that way, and she pushes me, so what I’ve learned is there’s no boundaries,” he says.
Ally may be introduced in a comedic moment of trying to befriend her teenage daughter and her daughter’s tutor because she’s a “dissatisfied housewife,” but “SMILF” sets out to offer insight into her perspective, too. As Shaw puts it, “She’s going to pilates, but she’s also struggling.”
For Britton, who had just come off a multi-year run on musical drama “Nashville” and was not specifically looking for another TV gig, it was Shaw’s unique voice – for the show overall and the specific character – that she connected with immediately and enough to dive right back into television. While Britton doesn’t feel there are any similarities between Ally and some of the other famous TV moms she has played, she does draw parallels to her own life in recognizing that all mothers, no matter who they are, deal with “stress of being a mother and trying to do the best that you can.”
Britton also felt a connection to Shaw herself, in how Shaw’s short film version of “SMILF” took such a coveted prize at Sundance. After all, Britton’s first notable role was in the independent film “The Brothers McMullen” that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1995.
“It just shows you that when you do something that feels organic and from the heart and you have courage and work really hard at it, it can really transcend,” Britton says. “And I am so behind a woman who is creating and writing and directing and starring in her own stuff. I will always support that until the ends of the earth.”
“SMILF” premieres Nov. 5 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.