In this latest instalment of our In Conversation strand, we talk to Mrs America showrunner Dahvi Waller about how the struggle for equality in Hollywood is still very much a work in progress.
The FX original miniseries Mrs America launched in the US this April to widespread acclaim and with a rather timely theme about the fight for gender equality; a battle which its showrunner Dahvi Waller says is still very much ongoing.
The series, a nine-part historical drama set in the 1970s that has sold to the UK’s BBC among others, focuses on the feminist movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and the opposition it received from conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.
“I pitched the show back in 2015 and in some ways the themes and the story have become even more relevant as we caught up to 2020,” Waller tells TBI, after appearing on a Banff World Media Festival Master Class.
Canadian writer and producer Waller cut her professional teeth writing for Commander In Chief, before going on to work on other hits including Mad Men, Desperate Housewives and Halt And Catch Fire. She reveals: “I never really want to work on a historical drama unless it has resonance to where we are today and I think you could draw a straight line from 1972 to where we are right now.”
I never really want to work on a historical drama unless it has resonance to where we are today and I think you could draw a straight line from 1972 to where we are right now.
Despite almost half a century since the events depicted in the miniseries, Waller says that women are still waiting on that equality. When it comes to the number of showrunners, writers and directors working in Hollywood, “we are definitely not at a 50% female to male split by any stretch.”
That’s not to say that there haven’t been advancements, however, she adds. “I think there has been a lot of really great change. Even when the show was greenlit over at FX, and I said I want all the directors to be women, I got a tremendous amount of support.
“I have a mostly female writing staff, at least half or more of our department are women; our cinematographer, our production designer, our costume designer, so there’s definitely the intention. But intention is not enough, we need to actually execute.”
Waller highlights that Mrs America is, “I think, the first television series that focuses on women in politics fighting for equality” while any of the female characters in the show’s large ensemble “could and should” have their own biopics or TV shows.
“You have to work harder to have more diversity both in front of and behind the camera, it’s not just something that happens. You have to recruit, you have to reach out, you have to work and put in the time to make sure that you actually have a very diverse group on every project,” says Waller.
Mrs America was also Waller’s first time working as a showrunner, an experience that she says taught her a lot about “what it takes to be a leader” and she describes as “rewarding in a different way than when you are staff on someone else’s show.”
Waller adds: “I think I really learned to delegate, to surround myself with really incredibly talented people and not micro-manage too much. I think it’s important to have a clear vision for your entire team but then let them have ownership.”
Australian star Cate Blanchett takes the lead role in Mrs America as Phyllis Schlafly, the activist who was opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment. While she is the show’s lead, she is also absolutely the antagonist of the story, and Waller had no interest in painting Schlafly as a one-note villain.
“I was really interested in finding who was the human being behind Phyllis Schlafly – and she was a human being; I think all great villains in television are human. If you paint them as monsters they are arch and not very interesting.
“More than that, I really wanted to understand her appeal, because she obviously appealed to thousands of followers and particularly to women. So I’m looking at why would a woman be so complicit in her own oppression, why would a woman fight to stay in her cage?”