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Mae Whitman Talks Playing a Mom, Passing the Bechdel Test in ‘Good Girls’

Coming off a successful five-year run with “Parenthood,” Mae Whitman returned to NBC for crime drama “Good Girls.” But this time, she is playing the parent struggling to provide for her family.

In the series, Whitman portrays Annie, a single mother who is trying to maintain custody of her daughter. Throughout the season, Annie has shown she’ll do whatever it takes to support her child, which has led to hilarious mishaps during her schemes with Beth (Christina Hendricks) and Ruby (Retta).

The role has allowed Whitman to show off her comedic charm during intense scenes. “When I was younger I always played people that acted older and now it’s fun that I’m older and I get to play somebody who acts like a child,” Whitman tells Variety.

Here, Whitman shares with Variety what it is like to portray a mother for the first time, the importance of sisterhood, the characters passing the Bechdel test, and what viewers can expect from the first season finale.

How has it been playing a character that diffuses tension with humor?

I love it so much. One of the first things that drew me to this role is the fact that I have never played anything like it before in my life. I always think I tend to play the more serious person or the really wise-beyond-her-years teenager. Not somebody who makes light of situations or is sort of irresponsible…It’s been really fun to build a character and a full person like that. It’s part of her psyche. She even had a line in the [last] episode which was, “It’s just how I deal with things.” For Annie in general, she’s doesn’t always look at the issue at hand and tries to deal with it. She avoids things or puts things off that are difficult and I think humor is her way of dealing with serious situations. It’s been really fun to build an actual, serious character around funny jokes. That’s something I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to do on this show.

What has it been like portraying a mother?

It’s been amazing. I’ve been acting since I was four years old. I only have flashes of memories from when I was little. But, I’ve been sitting in so many cars looking up at the mom — my TV mom or my movie mom — who’s been driving, and it’s amazing now that I’m driving the car. I look over at my kid in the passenger seat and it just feels really full circle, and it feels really cool. It makes me remember how thankful I am that I still get to be doing the job I do.

My whole dream of being an actor is I want to try to play every role and be every person and try every thing. The fact that I get to do something I grew up so closely associate with but never knew if I’d have the chance to play is amazing. Also, I had some of the best moms in biz. I joke about this all the time, but I take so much from Lauren Graham, especially, who played my mom on “Parenthood.” She’s basically my best friend. I look up to her so much as an actor and I’m’ so lucky that I got to have the experience of being able to play her kid and see how she sort of treated her children with respect and they had a real friendship. I take a lot of what I’ve learned from my TV moms and I bring it to the table. I also lucked out because Izzy [Stannard], my kid, is just a phenomenal child and incredible actor and really a good, dear friend to me that I love very much. I really lucked out in that category because so much of what we have on screen is just totally natural.

Annie has dealt with an aggressive boss, an attempted sexual assault, and her non-binary daughter being bullied at school. What has been the toughest storyline to tackle?

I love the issues that it tackles and I think Jenna Bans, our show creator, is so intelligent and so sensitive. The whole concept is these are people who aren’t being heard and aren’t being respected or considered and they’re backed into a corner that literally becomes about life or death for their families. These are things that happen every day, as we’re learning. The filming of the sexual assault scene with Boomer [David Hornsby] was really, really painful and it was really difficult. It just made me so vulnerable. People that go through this have no one to express it to and have to carry this pain around their whole lives. That was an extremely difficult scene to shoot and I wanted so much to portray it honestly and with as much pain as I’m sure it encompasses. I’m glad we are bringing these issues to light. Especially with the bullying situation, Izzy is my friend and like my own child to me. I was bullied in school and I know how painful it is. That was another one that extremely sensitive and painful for me to film because it’s something I know people go through a lot. It’s so ugly and mean and horrible. Both extremely difficult things to tackle, but I’m glad they’re getting mainstream exposure.

Why is it important to show this sisterhood between your character and Beth and Ruby?

I remember so well first hearing about the Bechdel test. Like almost nothing passes the test! It’s insane the amount of things that you don’t seen, that doesn’t come up in so many movies. It’s just so absurd. In general, there has been a natural thing to pit women against women. I just love the female friendship [in the show], the encouraging of each other that we all do. Yes, we rib each other. Yes, none of our characters are perfect in any capacity. We’re all obviously extremely flawed. That’s an important thing to show. It’s important to show a female friendship that is so supportive, encouraging, and imperfect. These women are following each other’s guidance and becoming who they are with each other. They really are a family — seeing them at each other’s throats but then really coming together and being really present with each other in these extreme situations.

What is it like to play a character whose focus isn’t having a love interest?

It’s fricken dope! I love it! It’s so cool. To me, the thing I also really love is Jenna’s made it so that it doesn’t feel preachy. It doesn’t feel like a big statement. It just is. I think that’s how we need to work on making change happen — by saying this is what it is. There’s a show with three women leads who don’t give a s— about being in a relationship to the point that it takes over their lives. I love that concept so much. It’s more interesting. It’s more honest. It’s just what we need. Things have been so unbalanced in the world, obviously in every aspect of things, but I think especially in the entertainment industry. There’s a lot of shows where men aren’t being obsessed with being in a relationship. I feel really lucky that get to be a part of TV show that just feels like it’s about people. People are balanced without being in a relationship. It’s something we need more of.

What about Annie do you think makes the audience see through her flaws and root for her?

I usually try force myself to be very responsible and handle everything perfectly all the time. That’s just not how life is. The fact that these characters are grounded in real love and genuine compassion and caring for each other is what makes this show interesting. My hope would be that you understand the corner these women are backed into. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s almost helpful to see people on TV making mistakes, whether they’re the kinds of mistakes you would make or not. Other thing is that they do grow and they do learn from their mistakes. You see them make these mistakes, you understand their patterns, and then you watch them wrestle with their issues and try to grow.

The thing that grounds these people is really love — their love for each other and their love for their families. Yes, they make these crazy, misguided mistakes. It’s not just the crazy decision to rob a grocery story. You see their personal character development flaws they maybe have struggled with their whole lives. The other thing that’s great is they do grow and learn. You get to learn about these full people who have patterns and tend to make certain mistakes in their lives. You also get to watch them realize that and try to work on their problems. That’s what real life is. It’s just a cycle of that over and over. That’s more interesting than somebody who’s just perfect right off the bat.

In episode 9, Beth describes why the women are good people. Why would you say that characters are good people?

The thing I love about a show is when it sparks a debate of any kind. I remember even with “Parenthood” that was what I loved. There are no black and white images in real life. I love television that bring up conversation and makes people have to suss out for themselves what’s morally right and wrong. You get to know these people. Jenna’s so good at packing a show with a lot of action but also a lot of character development. You understand their hearts, their intentions, and where they’re coming from — it’s love and trying to protect their family. It’s sort of the Robin Hood effect — they’re doing a thing that, yes, on paper is wrong, but I trust their hearts and their intentions. I think that’s what’s really cool about having these anti-heroes. You get to decide for yourself if they’re justified in what they’ve done. Even if they’re not justified, hopefully you love them anyway.

In the finale episode, will the women face consequences for their crimes?

Annie represents the fantasy element of this show. The way the characters are developed we almost form like a trinity that makes a whole person. I think we all really keep each other in check. We all have such personality types that it’s a good balance. Annie’s the one that charges forward without thinking about the consequences, no matter how big or how small. So far, I’ve loved how she is on this journey of seeing the consequences that actions have. With her relationship with Gregg [Zach Gilford] and trying to keep custody of her kid, she in a way has been becoming responsible and more worried about consequences where Beth is the opposite. She’s been in this straight-laced, very responsible situation her whole life. She’s sort of seeing what it feels like to not put everyone else before her and not be so obsessed with the consequences of her actions. In this small way, we’ve been dealing with consequences and actions, but definitely s—’s going to hit the fan in the finale. Nobody writes a cliffhanger like Jenna Bans, so you’re going to see a lot of situations coming to a head and stuff is going to get a lot more serious and intensely dangerous than it’s been in the past.

The season finale of “Good Girls” airs April 30 at 10 p.m. on NBC.  

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