Showrunner and creator Victor Fresco, Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant Talk Netflix’s ‘Santa Clarita Diet’by Brad Balfour
March 6, 2017
You never know what you’ll be able to stomach when it comes to making a television series — especially when it’s a horror-comedy like Santa Clarita Diet. So when executive producer, show-runner and creator Victor Fresco recruited noted actors Drew Barrymore and Tim Olyphant to play the Hammonds — a couple of happily married real estate agents — to be at the center of Santa Clarita Diet, he found the perfect couple to play what seems to be the modern “Ozzie & Harriet.” Well, not exactly.
They signed on, figuring, hell we’re going to rewrite the book, that is, the mythology, on, of all things, zombies. The couple’s lives take a dark turn after wife Sheila dies and goes through a shocking transformation, becoming someone who feeds on human flesh while being undead herself — that is, a zombie. But she tries to only eat bad people.
The streaming service Netflix has embraced some wacky shows, but where in all their algorithms did this one fit in? Nonetheless, it got the green light and now 10 episodes are in carrousel ready to be viewed in a binge or digested one by one.
And what a great call it was to bring on ageless ingenue Barrymore who been on screen for so many years, it’s the life she known since she was an infant. Coming from a major acting dynasty didn’t hurt her skill set either. Ever since she established her first benchmark as the cute young girl in 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, she hasn’t been far from the spotlight. Since then, she been in everything from serious films such as the award-winning Grey Gardens to tasteless Adam Sandler comedies and action movies like Charlie’s Angels. But she’s never taken on a role quite like this one.
On the other hand, actor Tim Olyphant has dealt with his share of blood in actioneers like The Hitman and other films where he was often the villain. He also starred in such television series as Deadwood and Justified. So Olyphant has racked up a list of credits he cleverly brings to bear in the offbeat series.
Fresco had to find a way to bring them all together — including a great supporting cast such as Nathan Fillion, Thomas Lennon and Liv Hewson — and make all seem plausible. But Fresco’s ample credits — he created the critically acclaimed ABC series “Better Off Ted” and the FOX show “Andy Richter controls the Universe” (earning him an Emmy writing nom) — proved he had ample skills to put this odd hybrid together.
The following Q&A is culled from both a roundtable discussion and panel before a group of journalists held recently in New York City.
A lot of actors of your stature are doing TV shows which have dark anti-heroes, or like in “American Crime,” things happen with very dramatic, real-life stories. Not many are signing up when a mom becomes a zombie. So what took you down this route instead of the one that many of your peers travel — the very dark anti-hero cable drama?
Drew Barrymore: I don’t want to watch dark shit. I don’t want to be in dark shit and don’t want to put dark shit out there. I hate negativity. I want to be optimistic, problem-solving and solution-oriented and I want to make people happy. This show made me happy and I thought if that was transferable that would be where I would best serve anyone and it definitely best served my life.
What were your zombie lessons like? How did you prep for your unique brand of zombie-ism? Were there discussions on how you would define it as opposed to others in the zombie genre?
Victor Fresco: Drew had an idea which we embraced early on which was that she’s going for this sort of mousier realtor in the valley so that she would inhabit this whole change physically and emotionally — becoming more confident and…
DB: It was your writing that gave me the idea…
VF: it was your acting!
DB: I also thought it would be super positive for my life to set some goals for myself. I wasn’t in the greatest place and I was vulnerable and admitted that to you and we talked about this. I think [for] any woman who [was] in this monotonous slump, it’s evolutionary, one episode at a time.
I don’t think anyone changes physically or metaphorically or spiritually overnight. It’s a process, and maybe [if you watched from] Episode 1 and then 10 you would see a difference, but really there were no gimmicks along the way.
It was just an attitudinal, physical shift that was gradual and subtle, but it was exciting — someone who was like a feminist and empowered but in a very strange way. Victor’s whole thing is about gluttony and behavioral consequence and all that; I just wanted to play with that. That to me was the zombie in our case; it was kind of an awakening and empowering confidence builder.
In developing your characters, were there things about how to show your character evolving when Sheila goes through her process?
Timothy Olyphant: When I was reading it, I knew that it was a much different type of role than I usually play. There’s a reason I played those types of roles in the past. So Victor and I, once we got involved, it was about making sure that we created a character that you understood why he wasn’t around, why he was so passive in the relationship, why he was so fearful of this change.
So I felt like as the show went on we all did a good job [and] 3 or 4 episodes [and] . . . I felt like he became understandable, relatable, like a role that was perfect for me the more the show went.
DB: We are a good partnership. It’s nice to see people excel as a couple. I’m so sick of everyone fucking failing, fighting and falling apart.
Tim’s Joel is a loving husband and worships the ground she walks on.
DB: All women want Joel, women want to be told it’s going to be okay — literally, it’s as simple as that.
Where did this idea come from?
VF: It started with me watching a lot of drama and I wanted to do a comedy that had life and death stakes to it — that’s something we don’t see a lot in comedy. I was also interested in empowerment which is the Sheila character. And the flip side of that is candid narcissism, and I think we have this narcissistic culture where people want what they want whenever they want it and the undead felt like a good metaphor for narcissism in a way.
We are the ultimate undead — we want what we want. Look at reality television, we celebrate people who get what they want all the time. I thought that would be fun to do a show like that with somebody who has this urge to have her needs met constantly.
The upside of that is empowerment, but she also has to learn how can she exist in a community and in a family. How do you make those adjustments which we all make every day? We all want what we want all the time, but we also want to be loved and we want to be in relationships and family.
Timothy, you are hilarious in this show, you do an outstanding job when you are meant to be hilarious. You are even hilarious when you are doing drama. So where does Joel come from in your mind?
TO: In terms of the acting, it’s what I do, right? I try to find the funny in the drama and try to find the drama in the funny. Victor wrote something that, the other day, my job is to really ground, it’s a very ground material. It’s about a marriage.
Drew, you killed in this show; why did you want to do this?
DB: Thank you, pun intended. I wanted to do this show because, having been trained in sort of that ET, ‘70s, and ‘80s world of filmmaking and storytelling — one of my favorite times in storytelling is that if it takes place in your backyard, you’re going to relate to it a lot more. I wouldn’t know how to do a movie out in space. I’ve never been to space.
But aliens, time travel, zombies and vampires, they can all come to your backyard and people are ultimately going to deal with it. Like in ET, a huge theme of it [was that it was a story of] a divorced single mom. In this series, here is a family trying to figure out how to make their lives work and, for me, this was about a marriage. I loved Victor’s themes about behavioral consequences.
It felt like these were really high stakes and there was this crazy stuff being said and done, but if they were being handled in a domestic way, that’s what was so interesting to me. I don’t know if I want to watch everyday life and I don’t want to watch something that’s just so farfetched that I can’t connect to it emotionally.
This is a weird hybrid of the two and [it came at a time] my personal life was at a really low point. I read the script and it made me laugh and made me feel something. It took me out of my own world that wasn’t super-pleasant at the time and I thought, maybe other people want to be taken out of their unpleasant times and be transported into something that’s cool and different.
The show wouldn’t work if not for your relationship and the level of commitment between Joel and Sheila, they’re a terrific couple.
DB: I pushed that as a promotional thing and they didn’t want to do that because it’s not responsible and I get that. But I like the idea of that and I didn’t know that Netflix and Chill was — because, again, being a child of the ‘80s, “chill” was like relaxing. But apparently Chill is not relaxing and so that was news to me. I was like, “Oh, that’s what they mean.” I’m just an uptight 42-year-old single mom now. I didn’t know what chilling was, you know.
In playing Joel, you had to be the straight man, more or less watching your wife do some horrific things. And, of course, the makeup’s pretty good on the show.
DB: The special effects company is incredible. I don’t think it works unless it seems real, and we definitely mistook a body here or there for the real person when it was slumped in an actor’s chair just kicking it.
It’s good — it should be real and they pulled that off really, really well. I had to eat and vomit and kill, and we had to disembowel and every day there was a new fun activity — they made it look so real.
You break new ground and create new rules along the way. But what it is like to love a woman while she disembowels someone? It’s a lot of blood and guts.
TO: You can put as much blood on Drew Barrymore and she is still like, adorable.
DB: I knew that Victor wanted someone in Sheila that you wouldn’t truly dislike and lose your connectivity to. I know that in the writing and creation of the show and in the birth of this character. You wanted someone who you would go on the ride so I felt responsible for that.
VF: I wanted someone you would root for and felt Drew could do that for the character. and in the stories we’re going to tell, we were never going to get her in an area we really didn’t want to see her character go. We wanted an actress that [audiences] would always be behind. I wanted these characters to have unconditional love for each other. They were in it together. I felt that you guys totally did that.
There’s no question of the relationship surviving. They love each other. That’s where it starts. That’s where it will always be and then they’re going to go through this craziness together which also speaks to a lot of us. If something comes along in life you don’t anticipate but you’re in a solid relationship then you work with it together. You deal with it together.
How did you relate to your characters?
TO: I’ve been married 25 years, so I imagine they’ve been married for a long time. I never think about these things. I only know to show up [laughs]. I say what he tells me to. I hit my mark. I try to be honest. That’s not totally true. Victor, how do I relate to my character?
VF: What I also love about Tim and Drew is they play real people. They never push to get a joke. They never violate a character which we see [in] a lot of comedy and there’s pressure on us in comedy to be extra extra funny and at the expense of your characters and both these guys just stay authentic, which I like.
I feel like Tim is more like this Joel character than who he played in Deadwood or Justified. He plays these bad guys. But he’s been married 25 years. A great sense of humor.
TO: But mostly I kick ass. Completely different.
You had to do really aggressive scenes. Did you do your own stunts? Were you happy to be able to jump on someone’s back and rip a face off?
DB: Funny story: I jumped on that guy’s back in rehearsal and I fell six feet onto concrete on my head. I was on top of him and I fell backwards and went 6 feet down on concrete.
VF: She jumped on like piggy back, I don’t know if you have kids, if they ever jump on your back, and if they let go and if you don’t let go of their legs, they go back and that’s exactly so instinctual [to] hold on, right? The actor she held on was wide and she couldn’t quite get her hands around so she started to fall back and we’re all watching and it’s like slow motion and we’re all thinking like…
DB: It was definitely the scariest thing that’s happened to me in many a year…
VF: Tim was four feet away and moved like a cheetah and put his hand out and…
TO: Thank God I was there to catch your head after it hit the pavement.
DB: I went off in the ambulance and was in the hospital for two days. From then on I requested someone else do my stunts, but towards the end of the show I was so vibrant from all the diet and exercise, I was like, “But I’m pumped, I’m alive again.” But they were like, “Get out, no…”
I’m too old and don’t want to ever end up in an ambulance and the hospital for two days again. So there are wonderful stunt women who I work with and [then] I pop up in the camera. It’s so fun and so crazy. There’s the woman who got hit by a car and I’m like, “That’s your job, you want to get hit by a car… How fucked up are you?” It’s cool but really weird.
VF: They’re very athletic but also adrenaline junkies, they really enjoy the [rush].
DB: I won’t be doing my own stunts anymore like in “Charlie’s Angels.”
That was the one where you did the most?
DB: Oh, we did all of our own stuff. It was amazing, so empowering but that chapter’s ended and [I’m] moving on.
You’re great at telling stories about your own family. You and your family would probably be perfect for an unscripted show…
TO: Sounds like a fucking nightmare. Yeah, we could do that. A little unscripted show about my family and — and just take a little bit of money and put it aside for the kid’s rehab later.
VF: Two of our kids go to school together so our kids would be on it. Your kids would get fucked up too.
DB: It does but hopefully you get over it and make your life a wonderful thing.
In relating to your character, were you in a particular place when you read this script?
DB: I was, and I think this woman is going through an awakening. I loved getting to have that outlet with Victor and Tim who are really solid, wonderful gentlemen. Both have been married for a long period of time and were such a safe place for me to spend my summer while my whole life was just sort of falling apart.
I really was excited about playing a woman who was becoming empowered, losing weight, pulling her shit together, finding a new confidence, finding that when your life really does fall apart, you don’t ditch everything in it. It’s not like everything goes away. You have to become you and take all the wonderful things in it and just find these new roads.
For me it was a total metaphor for my life and I felt really lucky. I hadn’t been working in years. I was really a mom who was raising her kids and I had stepped aside and put everything on the back burner. I did only two movies in eight years. I wasn’t participating in a lot of aspects.
So this was such a lucky fortunate thing to me; timing is everything. It’s the next tattoo I want to get because it really is. This came at a time I got to put myself into this thing. Sheila is not me and I am not Sheila, but the coalescence of the two with these two guys and this world of Santa Clarita over this summer produced something which was the exact intention I had when I read it. This took me out of my shit and made me a happier person.
VF: Both are very strong. I read Drew’s work [she did the autobiography “Little Girl Lost”] and she has overcome a lot of tough times. There’s a very solid strength in her that I think the Sheila character also has and Drew brings to the role a relentless optimism — which is also in Sheila. That helps her navigate any difficult times in life; there’s a joy and an optimism that things are going to be okay and good. Sheila also has that.
DB: We’re a show about how you make things work and I love that Victor was like, “I don’t want to see a couple fighting” and I was like, “Neither do I.” And that’s great. I like seeing people can become a team through adversity. I liked this family.
Family is everything to me on my radar and daily life. I also just need to laugh, but I don’t want empty laughs. I don’t like vacant sort of comedy. I want comedy that comes out of an emotional thing again, that’s based in your backyard, humanity, everyday issues that’s what we’re all going through.
You’re kind of a counter-zombie, well-meaning while eating flesh. Did you discuss how un-zombie-ish you would be while being a zombie, and how it was to have blood all over you? Was there a special accommodation you had to make when you were bloodified?
DB: An un-zombie, zombie, what exactly does that mean?
Your character is a zombie but not because you have a normal day and a normal life and you don’t have to go through things like your fingers falling off and stuff like that.
DB: But I’m not like that, really, I’m not that zombie.
You’re not that zombie. Or the running fast zombie either.
TO: Other than the eating people, you feel great. You seem great.
DB: Yeah, that’s the thing.
TO: Better than ever. There’s a lot of upside.
DB: Tim and I have been acting a long time. We’re both no-bullshit people. Our families come first. Victor is included in all of this too. The triangle of our dynamic was that we wanted to show up and do our jobs and go home.
Our kids visited all the time and so, our exterior conversations weren’t about the show, they were about our lives and it was like no one was like single, or a playboy — we were talking about kids, family and life. I think everyone’s a real professional and we’ve been doing this a long time. So we’re not jaded but we’re not, like, disillusioned. There’s a nice level of sanity going on here.
In the finale, your character says we’re just a normal stand-up family as you’re being taken out of the psych ward in chains. What should be read into that as far as you’re talking about a transformation as a zombie? In terms of the American family, what kind of statement are you making?
VF: I think we’re saying all couples, all families, have their challenges. Life hasn’t changed that much for them; they’re still realtors, they still love each other, they still want to keep their family intact, but they’ve had this thing happened to them that can happen to any family — an outside thing comes in and affects the dynamic.
Tim’s character says it. Joel is more alive in a certain way than ever which is a positive for them. So to me I feel like it’s a little bit blown out, obviously a bigger issue than most families face. But it’s not unlike any family that loves each other unconditionally is going to stay together and is trying to navigate through this.
DB: I equated it as an onlooker [at] the state of the world, like we’ve come and gone so far that a TV show like this could be a network [show] at 8 o’clock like Dick Van Dyke in the ‘50s — like this is where we’re at in the world. This is a normal backdrop in this society.
Everybody’s exposed to so much insanity. I also like the ambiguity of the cliffhanger and I loved the line, “Maybe next week we’ll both be free to…” ` Much like those words just left on this “dot dot dot.” I think ambiguity sometimes can be very annoying and unsatisfying. Sometimes it can just be nice [to go] on to the next day, which is what most people have to face in their everyday life — like life is good, life is insane, but there is always a next day.
Season One is so much about change. If there’s a Season Two, does she need to stay where she is if there’s no cure? Can you speak to [the idea of] maybe a reversal and what that might mean for the family and tone of the show.
VF: I don’t really know what we’re going to do yet with the definitiveness of the show. She’s now deteriorating and they are trying to stop that deterioration. If we have a season 3, 4, and 5 there’s no going back: she is undead and can’t become alive. She’s going to have these symptoms for the rest of her life.
But for the rest of her undeadness, she’ll have these symptoms and we’ll just play with how advanced they go and where she’s going to end up. But the tone of the show will stay the same.