As a girl, Frankie Shaw found refuge on the basketball court at the top of her street. Now, street ball figures prominently in her Showtime series, SMILF, about a South Boston single mother.
It’s distinctly possible that half of Los Angeles heard Frankie Shaw’s pitch for her Showtime comedy, SMILF, before networks did.
It was structured less as a presentation to television executives and more as a 20-minute acting exercise, complete with memorized dialogue and hand gestures.
“I’d do it for my husband. I’d do it for the babysitter,” Shaw says, recalling how, two days before her meetings with executives, she even managed to turn an Anza-Borrego camping trip with her son and his entire first-grade class into a desert state park run-through opportunity.
“It was the kind of thing where you have to sleep under the stars next to everyone snoring,” Shaw says of the outing. “I practiced the pitch in front of the moms.”
The stakes were high. What Shaw was proposing was a quasi-autobiographical series about Bridgette Bird (Shaw), a broke, Boston-based single mother who loves her son, Larry (twins Anna and Alexandra Reimer), struggles to land acting gigs and is often impulse-driven.
But Shaw also wanted to star, executive-produce, write most of the scripts and direct many of the episodes. So she left nothing to chance, and continued “rehearsing the crap out of it.” In the end, she admits, her mini-performance at HBO went “terribly.” But she brought down the house at Showtime. “I remember riffing, reading the room and making a joke about the camping trip,” she says.
Now she’s emerged as a player in the wave of multiple-threat cable auteurs like Lena Dunham (Girls), Donald Glover (Atlanta) and Pamela Adlon (Better Things). Back in January, she attended the 75th Golden Globe Awards — attired in a black gown and matching Puma sneakers — as a double nominee for producing and acting in SMILF.
Roughly six weeks after her show premiered, Showtime green-lit a second season. This for a series made of fluctuating tones that mixes almost slapstick humor with full-frontal nudity while exploring uncomfortable TV topics such as bulimia, clinical depression, child abuse and class divides (all deftly handled). All the while, the show maintains an overtly feminist sensibility.
With the exception of acting, Shaw is a relative newcomer to the occupations on her hyphenate title. But she wasn’t afraid to stand her ground when telling ABC Signature Studios, which produces SMILF with Showtime, that she was going to hire only female directors.
“They said, ‘That’s a great idea. We want to support you. But we want you to consider the best people for the job,’ and then I said [lightly], ‘Okay, but we’re only considering women directors.’”
“She’s making the show she wants to make,” says Karey Dornetto, a SMILF writer–coexecutive producer. Dornetto was often impressed when one of Shaw’s ideas that looked preposterous on paper somehow worked when Shaw did it. She cites a sequence in episode three in which Bridgette fantasizes about people lining up to worship her vagina. “Sometimes I’d think, ‘Oh, that’s insane. But go for it,’ and then it turns out great.”
Basketball is featured prominently on SMILF — Bridgette often parks her toddler courtside and engages in a sweaty game of full-court street ball — and the sport also played a key role in Shaw’s upbringing.
Shaw was raised by her Catholic working-class loan officer mom from South Boston, who split up with her Jewish lawyer dad when she was four.
“He was a terrible, violent person,” she says. As part of the divorce settlement, her mother got the nice house in tree-lined Brookline, Massachusetts. “I totally didn’t fit in. I was this latchkey kid,” Shaw says. She eventually discovered the basketball court at Schick Park at the top of their street. “That’s where I’d go every day, just playing basketball for hours. It became my whole identity.”
During season one of SMILF, Shaw used the information-packed Twitter feed @SMILFwriters to cite crime statistics, explore pop culture references and, at one point, give a shout-out to California’s outspoken U.S. representative Maxine Waters.
But back when she was 16 and a summertime short-order cook at Longwood Cricket Club, her big dream was just to land a stable office gig. “I was never exposed to the arts, and would never understand how one would have a life in them,” she says. Then someone suggested she apply for a scholarship at Milton Academy, a private school about a half hour away from where she lived.
“Suddenly, I was challenged. It was a real turning point,” Shaw says. After graduation, she attended Barnard College, a women’s school in New York City. Her film education began when her job at a video store exposed her to indie gems like John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974), starring Gena Rowlands as a mentally ill homemaker, and Wim Wenders’s 1984 road flick, Paris, Texas.
She decided to start acting. “I didn’t see women [directing],” Shaw says. “So I didn’t think, ‘How can I be Cassavetes?’ I thought, ‘Oh, I have to be Gena.’”
Whatever she lacked in acting experience, she made up for in moxie. “It was just my Boston competitive thing of ‘How do I do this?’” Shaw says. After enrolling in an acting class, she was told by her professor, “‘You’re fascinating to watch.’ I thought, ‘He’s validating me. I need to pursue this.’”
If anyone wondered why she couldn’t be found at her Barnard graduation ceremony, it was because, so intent on landing roles, she was busy making a tape to self-submit to Law & Order. By 2005, her life was a swirl of auditioning, occasionally booking film and TV roles, and carving out a niche for herself in the world of no-budget films.
“I always played the lesbian best friend — which was fun, because I could wear anything,” Shaw says. Between takes, though, she’d scrutinize everything from camera angles to blocking. “That’s how I learned to direct, because I found myself wanting to control the scene.”
Two years ago, Shaw married actor Zach Strauss, now an executive story editor on SMILF. But back in her early 20s, she became involved with actor Mark Webber.
Just when things began to fracture with Webber, she learned she was expecting her son, Isaac. She moved from New York to Los Angeles, answered a Craigslist rental ad and informed her new roommate, “‘Hey, it’s nice to meet you. I’m pregnant.’ She was like, ‘ What? ’ But she was fine with it.”
Part of SMILF’s bracing authenticity is how it draws from this time in Shaw’s life, when she was broke, sharing a bed with her toddler, moving every three months and pursuing any avenue possible for some financial stability. (She tutored a lot.)
Isaac was two years old when Shaw secured a role as Mary Jo Cacciatore on Spike TV’s raunchy college comedy series Blue Mountain State. “Terribly misogynist” is her current characterization of the show. But at the time, all she could feel was relief. “I was a new mother and playing an 18-year-old cheerleader with fake boobs and high heels and all that,” she says. “But it was a job, and I was so grateful for it.”
One short-lived ABC series (Mixology) and many no-go TV pilots later, Shaw was introduced to producer Michael London by director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), who told him, “There’s this wonderful actress who has this idea for a TV show.” The way London remembers their 2014 meeting, her concept was essentially SMILF, only with a sanded-off, broadcast-sitcom bounciness.
“There was a disconnect between what she was writing and what she was describing in life,” says London, who became an executive producer of SMILF alongside Shaw, Lee Eisenberg and Scott King. He urged her to take a darker, edgier approach.
Because Shaw wanted to direct the pilot, London suggested she create something to use as a work sample. In response, Shaw wrote, produced, directed and starred in a nine-minute short film made over the course of a day in her apartment. It went on to not only be accepted into the Sundance Film Festival but also win the Jury Award.
“You talk about someone finding her power? It’s amazing what she did,” London says. “She’s had a huge belief in herself and challenged herself in the most intense way possible.”
The path to getting the series on the air was strewn with its share of typical Shaw-ian hardships and rewards. While writing the outline of the pilot, she was cast as Shayla, a lovelorn drug dealer on USA’s cult hit Mr. Robot. Seventh on the call sheet, she was paid so little she slept in a friend’s closet during production.
On the happier side of things, Shayla became a fan favorite, and Shaw earned a mentor in Mr. Robot creator–executive producer Sam Esmail. “I was always watching him, asking questions,” she says. “It’s different — he’s a six-foot-two Egyptian man. But he really helped me with the politics, dealing with the network.”
Indeed, in person Shaw is slim, sleepy of voice and, if today’s outfit is any indication — yoga pants, an oversized UFC sweatshirt and sneakers — not inclined to use wardrobe to telegraph her personal power. But, judging from an anecdote she tells, involving a time-strapped three-day shoot in Boston and some openly dismissive on-set behavior, she isn’t afraid to spring into action.
Rosie O’Donnell, who plays Bridgette’s mother, Tutu, was waiting between set-ups when she overheard some male crew members making fun of Shaw, guest director Leslye Headland and female directors in general.
O’Donnell quickly relayed the denigrating chatter to Shaw, adding, “You need to surround yourself with people who support you.” After telling her director of photography, “Get control of your crew — that’s not okay,” Shaw replaced the loose-lipped male duo with two female camera operators. “To her credit, she went for it,” O’Donnell says. “And it was smooth sailing after that.”
Shaw — who ultimately wrote two of the eight episodes of season one, cowrote three more and directed three — says her secret superpower stems from those years of pickup games on public basketball courts.
“I’m tough because of it,” she says. “My strong suit is defense, and I’m real scrappy. I get the loose balls, get rebounds. I’m really good at giving the assist.”
When Showtime green-lit SMILF in May 2017, Shaw realized she had to start the writing process in early June and begin shooting by late August. She credits the game with giving her the resolve to jump in and do it.
“I know how to adapt,” she says. “I’m not sensitive.” One could even make a case that reading other players has sharpened her directorial skills.
“She’s the greatest director I’ve ever had,” says O’Donnell, whose deeply poignant, world-weary turn as Tutu has been a career-changer for her. “[Frankie] is unbelievably supportive, unbelievably emotionally astute. She also has a very clear idea of what she wants. So, we’re all allowed to improvise a lot, and it creates a vibrancy and liveliness, but no one overacts. Everyone stays in character.”
Shaw says she was emboldened by FX’s distinctively strange sitcom Baskets. “It made me think, ‘Oh, I’m just going to take liberty on our tone.’ It won’t be their tone, but it will be weird and not traditional,” she recalls.
The unpredictability of each episode is part of what makes SMILF so watchable. An episode about forgiveness was structured as an homage to the 1998 German thriller Run Lola Run.
In another, Shaw echoed the trivializing remark made by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to a woman reporter last year (“It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes like that”) by having a broadcast journalist character on SMILF brushed off with the same casual sexism. (To further troll Newton, Shaw cast Brandin Cooks, wide receiver for the New England Patriots, as the pro football player.)
The show’s most controversial episode was the season finale, which took on Woody Allen and the allegations brought by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow that he sexually abused her when she was seven years old.
The episode began with a quote from Allen (“The heart wants what it wants”), while the opening and closing credits mirrored the font Allen uses on all his films. There’s even a version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” famously used in Allen’s film Manhattan.
The SMILF storyline? Bridgette attempts to confront the father who sexually abused her as a child. Social media erupted in support of her siding with Farrow.
“It was the most rewarding thing,” Shaw says, then starts thumbing through Twitter on her iPhone until she finds Dylan Farrow’s tweet to her. “It says, ‘Finally some appropriate context for a Woody Allen reference. Thank you [Frankie Shaw]. I appreciate it more than you know.’”
A decade ago, it’s unlikely Shaw could have imagined herself starring in her own series — one which, as creator, allows her to weigh in on a national conversation like the Allen issue.
“I spent 10 years of auditioning hell,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like all my best [acting] work is on tape in some casting office. No one will ever see it; it didn’t go anywhere. But I put in my time, and it started to pay off in the past couple of years.” She sticks out the inside of her wrist. “Do you see my tattoo? It’s from a T. S. Eliot poem, and it’s a good motto for my career.”
In block print, it says: “All in the waiting.”
Viewers can catch up on SMILF on Showtime, streaming or on demand.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018