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December 08, 2014

Flipping the Script

Cover Story Preview: Lisa Edelstein turns a page in her career as the star of Bravo’s first original scripted series, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. For the beauty from House and the home of Real Housewives, it’s a brave new world.

Mark Morrison

Don’t tell Lisa Edelstein how lucky she is.

“I don’t like the word luck,” she says with a husky laugh. “It sounds like you had nothing to do with it. I have been working hard in a risky business since 1987. So, am I lucky that I got my dream job when I’m forty-eight years old? Yes — but it’s not luck like in Las Vegas.”

Dressed casually in black pants and a sleeveless blue-gray top that reflects her smoky blue eyes, the actress is relaxing on the patio of her hilltop home in L.A.’s hip Silverlake district.

Thickets of bamboo frame the mountain view from her Japanese-inspired garden. Pebble pathways meander past exotic grasses. And somewhere beyond the pool, in a studio that doubles as a guest house, her long-haired artist husband, Robert Russell, is at work.

Dream job, dream house, dream husband — Edelstein may not like to use the L word, but she doesn’t take her good fortune for granted. It’s her first day back in town after nearly six months shooting in Vancouver, and she’s barely had time to unpack. “It’s my job,” she says. “If I didn’t love it as much as I love this, it would be more draining. But I’m so excited about it.”

She flashes a megawatt smile, the familiar dazzler that brought so much warmth to Dr. Lisa Cuddy, the by-the-book hospital administrator she played for seven years on Fox’s House, M.D. She left the procedural in 2011, after 153 episodes and a dead-ended contract negotiation. “Fantastic experience, bad ending,” she says of her time on the show.

Which makes her return to television — in Bravo’s first original scripted series, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce — all the more sweet. And this time she is the indisputable star of the show. Edelstein plays Abby McCarthy, a successful self-help author and mother of two whose 19-year marriage hits the skids just as she sets out to promote her latest book, Girlfriends’ Guide to Getting Your Groove Back

It’s a straightforward premise with a messy underbelly: what happens when the Answer Lady runs out of answers? Abby’s dream life with stay-at-home husband Jake (Paul Adelstein of Private Practice) — a camera operator who wants to direct but mostly takes care of the kids — has turned into a nightmare.

As the series begins, Abby is drowning in questions: Should they tell the kids? Should they get lawyers? Should she start dating (since he has)? In a modern twist, her married gay brother (Patrick Heusinger) offers the kind of old-school advice you’d expect from a Stepford wife: “Shit happens, but you don’t leave. That’s what we all signed up for. That’s marriage.” 

Instead, she seeks comfort from a circle of acerbic divorcées — particularly, a bespectacled Janeane Garofalo as Lyla, a power lawyer, and willowy Beau Garrett as Phoebe, an earnest, if airy, seeker.

While the subject of divorce is hardly new to television — One Day at a Time, Civil Wars, Once and Again, Happily Divorced and more — it has never been as scrutinized as it is here. Yet, the 13-episode series — which premiered December 2 and is also available on demand and at Bravo Now — is as much about the ramifications of relationships as it is about ending them.

Comparisons to Sex and the City are inevitable, thanks to the show’s funny, fly-on-the-wall chick chat, but Girlfriends’ Guide is much darker.”I think this show feels more like [HBO’s] Girls twenty years later,” says Lara Spotts, Bravo’s senior vice-president of development.

“Our show is complicated,” Edelstein observes. “It’s about expectations, the failures of fantasy, growing up, finding yourself. No one is a bad guy — there are only people struggling. And the humor comes out of that struggle in a very real way. It is a much more well-rounded exploration of the human experience in regard to relationships than I’ve seen in a long time.”

Edelstein’s path to Girlfriends’ Guide— and television itself — has, at times, been equally complicated. Raised in Wayne, New Jersey, by a pediatrican father and social-worker mom, she never felt at home in suburbia.

“I was really miserable in New Jersey,” she says. “Yet I’m happy I grew up there because it drove me with such fervor to find something else. I was driven away with this great power — there was steam in my engine.”

She fled to New York City, where she started hitting the clubs with her older sister when she was 14. A good student who didn’t like school, she later attended NYU, determined to be an actress. But this was the Bright Lights, Big City era in Manhattan, and college life couldn’t compete with the burgeoning club scene.

“I found a community of people who were exciting, weird, who didn’t fit in but were extraordinarily talented,” she says. “It was this vital microcosm, heavily Warhol-influenced — he was still around. And it was great for a young person because people were pushing the envelope.” 

Though she didn’t drink (still doesn’t) and was a devoted vegetarian (still is), Edelstein enjoyed pushing the envelope (still does).

She became a regular at Danceteria, Area, Limelight and tended bar at the Palladium; she threw parties with her club-kid friends and became widely known as Lisa E. Journalist Maureen Dowd profiled her for The New York Times Magazine, crowning her “New York’s reigning Queen of the Night, Girl of the Moment, new Edie Sedgwick and top ‘celebutante’ of 1986.“

“This small amount of fame-for-no-reason showed me very quickly that fame is not a good goal,” Edelstein reflects now. So she retreated, quit college during her junior year and staged a musical, Positive Me, that she wrote and starred in at the experimental La MaMa Theatre Club to draw attention to the growing AIDS crisis.

In 1990, Edelstein tried veejaying for MTV — her first paid job. It lasted only seven months, she says, because “the idea of being a host and saying, ‘This 1 percent of my personality is me,’ is not what I like to do. Ryan Seacrest is amazing at it. I just came off like an idiot.”

So she focused on acting. A bit part in Oliver Stone’s The Doors led to guest shots on Mad About You, Sports Night and Seinfeld. There were memorable stints as the lesbian sister to actor David Conrad in the short-lived ABC drama Relativity and as Rob Lowe’s date (a law student who turns out to also be a call girl) on NBC’s The West Wing.

But it was Lisa Cuddy — and her complicated relationship with Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House — that landed her on the Hollywood map.

“The first year [after leaving House] I was so sad,” Edelstein says. Still she guest-starred on shows like The Good Wife and Scandal. She also said no a lot — before saying yes to Marti Noxon, a writer-producer she knew socially, who had cut her teeth on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mad Men.

“Marti had mentioned a project to me at a gathering, but I put it out of my head,” Edelstein recalls. Six months later, Noxon emailed her, saying the project — Girlfriends’ Guide — might be greenlighted and she wanted her to read it.

Which Edelstein did — and told Noxon she’d love to do it.  But “I had to wait for them to make offers to the top five women who sell a show,” she cracks. “They probably offered it to JLo!”

As Noxon tells it, the role of Abby was always Edelstein’s, as far as she was concerned. “We had to go through a casting process, but at Lisa’s first audition for the network and studio together, it was over. She was so ready as a leading lady. I’ve never had a shorter debate about a lead in a show — ever.”

The idea to make Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce as a TV series was sparked by a 2012 meeting in L.A. between Noxon and producer Meryl Poster, both of whom are now executive producers of the show.

When Poster asked how she was doing, “I burst into tears,” Noxon recalls, “because my husband had moved out the day before. And it turned out that Meryl was going through the same thing. She said, ’You should write about this.’ I said, ‘I’m too close to it — I don’t know what I would say.’”

Six months later they met again, in New York. Poster asked: “Are you ready to write about this?”

Noxon again demurred. “It’s just a garden-variety story about a marriage that ended,” she remembers saying. “I think a good show about this topic should be specific. I wish we had a brand and could relate it to something people could understand that also wouldn’t be super sad.”

Poster immediately called her friend, Vicki Iovine, author of the Girlfriends’ Guide book series and now also an exec producer of the TV series. She was writing her Guide to Getting Your Groove Back when her marriage to Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine ended.

“The book was all about getting back your connection with your husband,” Noxon explains, “figuring out who you are, but totally staying within the marriage — at the very same time that hers was falling apart. I said, ‘Well, that’s a show.’ We needed a way in that didn’t feel soapy and sad. And the great thing about Vicki’s brand is that it’s not mopey.”

Noxon and her then–business partner, Dawn Olmstead (now executive vice-president of development at Universal Cable Productions and a consulting producer on Girlfriends’ Guide), assigned it to a writer and tried to sell it as a half-hour comedy. Showtime considered it, but passed.

When it was again suggested to Noxon that she take a crack at the script, she finally agreed. During a solo vacation in London, she wrote a first draft in four days. “While it’s not autobiographical, it’s so close to my experience and people I know and love, that it just came tumbling out,” she says. “I’ve never had such a cathartic writing experience before.”

That writerly flow turned to production nuts-and-bolts when, almost immediately, Bravo stepped up, ordering the pilot in August 2013 and committing to the series the next February.

For the network, Girlfriends’ Guide was definitely a step in a new direction. Launched in 1980 — and owned since 2002 by NBC, which became NBCUniversal in 2004 — the basic-cable outlet had already experienced a transformation. In the early 2000s it set aside its serious focus on film and performing arts, becoming a one-stop shop for food, fashion, beauty, real estate and pop culture.

Since the premiere of the makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2003, Bravo has become home to such unscripted hits as Top Chef, Project Runway (now on Lifetime) and the Real Housewives franchise.

And in the process, the network says, it has morphed into the number-one ad-supported cable entertainment network for upscale, educated and engaged primetime viewers aged 18 to 49. In the past year, its top-rated show,The Real Housewives of Atlanta, averaged more than 4.6 million total viewers.

So, why tackle the scripted series market?

“It’s a natural expansion of our brand,” Spotts says. “In no way are we changing who we are as a network. Bravo has been a real innovator and reinventor of formats. I think this element of surprise — ‘What will Bravo do next?’ — is baked into our brand identity. And our shows are at their best when they feel like they’re capturing something buzzy and of the moment.” 

A first attempt — an American reboot of the Danish series Rita, starring Anna Gunn — fizzled. It wasn’t the right fit. “What we are looking for is something with the sass and wink that a Bravo show has,” Spotts explains. “A certain tone of irreverence. And aspiration. It’s a universal experience that’s taken to an entertaining extreme.”

Girlfriends’ Guide not only offers Bravo the requisite zeitgeist-y elements, it also marks a generational shift for relationship dramas.

Whereas ambitious one-hour series like thirtysomething once dealt with baby boomers, Girlfriends’ Guide takes a look at Gen X marriages, in which women are more empowered and often out-earn their husbands. The sexual politics have changed, giving the series new dynamics to explore.

“Our parents’ parents stayed together no matter what,” Spotts observes. “Our parents were like, ‘Wow, this is not what I expected! I’m getting a divorce.’ Now there’s this generation of kids of divorce who think there has to be another option — why does it have to be A or B? Where’s the C?”

With those expanded dramatic options in mind, Noxon and company shot the pilot in Vancouver last fall; production for the series began in June and wrapped in October. Noxon has nothing but praise for all involved.

“Bravo has [only] two scripted series in production, so the amount of personal attention and dialogue I’ve had with everybody — from the executives in Los Angeles to Bonnie Hammer [chairman, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group] in New York — is amazing.

Being one of the new generation of programs [at Bravo] is really exciting. UCP [Universal Cable Productions], our studio, has put everything behind it and been incredibly supportive. If this show fails, it’s on nobody but me.“

Jill Kargman echoes her sentiments. The author of Momzilla and other books about obsessive parenting on New York’s swanky Upper East Side, she created, executive-produces and stars in Bravo’s first scripted half-hour comedy, Odd Mom Out, which will premiere next year.

“Bravo is like the wild, wild west,” declares Kargman, a show-biz novice despite some notable family connections (her brother, actor Will Kopelman, is married to actress-producer Drew Barrymore). “They’ve given me such freedom that I know the product is so authentically what I wanted — from the grain of the idea all the way through the process to the execution — that I don’t feel any pressure.”

So far, so good. Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer of NBC-Universal Cable Entertainment, credits the team at Bravo for knowing how to speak to their core audience in a fresh way — and not resting on their laurels.

“Successful networks always need to be in the process of reinvention,” he says. Not to mention knowing how to align themselves with the right talent.

“Marti is a brilliant writer with a really savvy point of view,” Wachtel adds. “And Lisa is truly ready for her moment. She’s been successful as a co-lead. This one is really her baby, and you can feel her rising to the moment.”

Paul Adelstein, who is very much a part of that moment, calls Edelstein “formidable.” As her husband Jake, he goes toe to toe with the actress in confrontational scenes that suggest Edward Albee. But he’s also a writer on the show (Girlfriends’ Guide has three men and five women writers) and thus has a keen understanding of Noxon’s vision.

“Marti has stated again and again that this is not a ‘blame-game show,’” Adelstein says.

“This is not, ‘This woman got screwed over and let’s see her bounce back.’ What you learn throughout the season is, it’s taken two people to ruin this marriage and it takes two people to have a divorce. Saying you’re going to get a divorce is just the beginning of this long, intricate process with the kids, the house, the money, the emotions….

“Marti not only wants you to feel, ‘Will they get back together or get divorced?’ but should they? She wanted there to be weight on both sides of that question. She kept saying, ‘It’s complicated, this stuff. It doesn’t have to look neat.’” 

And Edelstein, in particular, illuminates this mess, bringing depth to the madness. In the pilot, there’s an intimate seduction scene between Abby and a younger man (Will Peterson). In seconds, a gamut of emotions washes over Edelstein’s face — fear, worry, shame, embarrassment, curiosity, excitement, desire. It’s an awkward moment — for Abby, unaccustomed to her singlehood, and for viewers, who feel her pain.

In lesser hands, it could play a little cheesy. But Edelstein makes the scene poignant, relatable and real.

Now, with production behind her and the series unfolding, Edelstein can refocus on her home and family. But a cheeky reminder of her new adventure — a Girlfriends’ Guide poster — hangs on the wall of her home office. It features an image of the actress flipping a finger at the camera — only it’s her ring finger, sans wedding band. The copy reads: “Go Find Yourself!”

The poster was created by Edelstein’s husband, who has also designed key art for Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. The couple started dating four years ago and married in May, the day before Edelstein left to shoot the show. They visited frequently during the summer and arranged for his two young sons to go to camp in Canada.

If Edelstein doesn’t trust the word luck, she’s certainly ready for this new time in her life. “I get to use more of myself in this job than I’ve ever had the opportunity to do,” she muses. “And I feel really prepared for it. I’m working super hard, but I feel so relied on.”

She looks out from her hilltop perch. “I feel very fortunate,” she says. “For better or worse, whatever happens, everyone has put on their A game. Everyone’s on the same train, going in the same direction. To me, that makes me a lucky person.”

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