“Red Widow” premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET, and I had the opportunity to speak with showrunner Melissa Rosenberg this week.
You might know her name from having penned the scripts for all five “Twilight” movies, but her roots in television run deep. She’s been nominated for three Emmys and four Writers Guild of America Awards for her work on “Dexter,” and her credits also “The O.C.” and dating back to “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman” in the 1990s.
Learn more about “Red Widow” here, and read on for Melissa’s thoughts on…
Jane Boursaw: So are you in full promotional mode this week?
Melissa Rosenberg: I am in full promo mode. Yeah, you better believe it.
Are you big on twitter?
I’ve been learning. I’m beginning to make it a part of my daily life, that and Facebook and just reaching out to people and talking about the show.
I know the “Scandal” folks are big on Twitter, and it seems like it really helps to get people engaged and talking about the show. So I watched the premiere of “Red Widow” and loved it.
Yeah, it’s a little bit “The Sopranos” meets “Revenge” meets “Breaking Bad” with “Weeds” thrown in there. Marta wants to protect her family, but at the same time, I kind of want her to become this huge mob boss. Because we need some females mob bosses on TV for a change.
This is a character who was raised by Russian mobsters. She has distanced herself from it for many years, but it’s sort of in her DNA, you know? She never really studied the specifics, but she’ll find, I think much to her dismay, that she’s actually pretty good at it.
I bet she likes it, too.
She may eventually get there.
Talk a little about the show. Tell our readers what it’s about, in your own words.
The show is about a mother of three who was raised by a Russian mobster, but has distanced herself for many years. Her husband gets assassinated, and leaves her with enormous debt to a major crime lord, and she has to re-enter that world in order to protect her children. It’s a very character driven show, and a complex character that’s not easy to sum up in one word.
She does seem very complex, and you wonder if she’ll go the whole Walter White – “Breaking Bad” route. Where she starts out good and then spirals into this dark world. It will be interesting to see the evolution of her character and how she reconciles the mob world with her family life.
“Breaking Bad” is certainly something to aspire to. They’re very different characters, but there’s a similarity there.
I see that “Red Widow” is based on a Dutch show, which I haven’t seen, but will track down.
Yes, I adapted it. ABC bought the rights to it and brought it to me. I saw it and said, “Well this isn’t a network show. You can’t do this on network.” But Paul Lee, the head of ABC, said, “No, we really want to do it.” ABC never once pulled me back from the edge. Not once.
For a network show, can you make it as dark and edgy as it needs to be?
To me, what is edgy is not necessarily violence or sex or racy language. To me, what’s edgy is the depths to which you take a character, the murky grey waters and darkness that you explore in a character’s psyche. In the first eight episodes, we really take this character on some pretty dicey paths. The trick is how do you keep an audience rooting for a character like that?
For me, the answer, hopefully, is that everything she does is to protect her children. She may be misinformed, misguided, and just flat out make mistakes sometimes, but everything she does is geared towards that.
Well, another thing is that maybe a lot of people don’t want all the sex and violence you find on cable shows. I mean, it makes it more accessible to a broader audience.
Well, I have to tell you, though, there’s plenty of sex and violence in this. I don’t mean to say that we don’t have sex and violence. We have sex and violence, trust me.
I just don’t define edginess with that. All of the sex and violence in our show is played with real consequences, and it’s played in a real way. You know, if someone gets hit, they really get hit, and take a while to recover from it. It’s not gratuitous. It’s played very real.
The cast is amazing.
Totally. First of all I have to mention Clifton Collins because I interviewed him years ago, and even at that time, he was like the hardest working actor in the business. I’m really excited to see him in this show where we get to see him on a regular basis.
Yeah. I know. His character is an FBI Agent, which is typically a very thankless role. It’s like, “Okay, here’s a cop,” but his story is not about the fact that he’s an FBI Agent. He has a personal life, and he is about his personal life and his personal choices, and how those come into conflict with his job. I wanted an actor of his caliber so I can take him somewhere.
Radha Mitchell … what drew you to her for the central character of Marta Walraven?
She is so authentic in her acting style. You don’t see her acting. She’s so naturalistic, and so emotionally naked. There’s no barrier between her and the audience. She’s real and she’s every bit in that moment when she’s in front of the camera. That’s what drew me to her, because that was the tone we wanted for the show. You have to have access to that character’s inner life as an audience or you’re not going to be supporting her.
I think a lot of women with kids might identify with her. Even if you’re not born into a mob family, your main goal is always to protect your kids.
That’s exactly what you want from the actors and the storytelling. Being a parent or being responsible for other people is something that’s universal.
I wanted to ask you about that scene where Boris finds the gun in the car, and then takes the gun to school and points it at another kid. I think every viewer’s heart is going to skip a beat at that scene because we’re so super aware of guns and kids, especially after Newtown. In the film “Mama,” there’s a scene where an adult points a gun point blank at a kid’s head, and honestly, I was a little amazed that scene was kept in, but maybe it was too late at that point, because Newtown just happened in December. But are showrunners and writers more aware of those types of scenes now?
Well, certainly we are all. It’s been made very real to all of us, the entire nation, the real consequences of gun accessibility, and it really is dismal for all of us. For me, what this event does — this event of Boris with a gun — the entire series is a consequence of that father leaving that gun in that car.
If the dad had not owned the gun, first of all, and then stuffed it in the car for a child to find, and had that child not pulled it in school, then Marta may not have ever told him, “You have to get out. We have to get out of here,” and he may not have been killed. It’s the consequence of that event, of that irresponsibility, that is hopefully going to keep us on the air for seven years, you know? So it’s not about the gun being used even, it’s about the danger of it being in any child’s hands.
Which led to the kid seeing his father die.
And the kid saw it, yeah. There are some pretty serious consequences.
I love the women empowerment theme. I love the idea of Marta becoming this powerful figure, and who knows where — well, maybe YOU know — but the viewers don’t really know where she’s going with that. I kind of want her to become this powerful female figure in the mob scene, because we never have women in those roles.
Well, she certainly has the possibility of that.
You’re a writer and an executive producer on this show, and I can’t even think about how much work is involved in that.
It’s extraordinary. It’s funny because I’ve been working in television for decades, and I’ve been the number two on many shows, working right alongside showrunners, and was convinced I knew exactly what it was to be a showrunner — until I became a showrunner. It’s unbelievable. The sheer volume of work is simply unbelievable. There’s just not enough hours in the day. It’s the best job in the world because you have control over virtually every creative decision, but … you also have control over virtually every decision.
Yeah. A blessing and a curse.
It is a blessing and a curse, and I really didn’t get how many decisions you make in a day. A friend of mine, a showrunner, someone followed him around and counted the number of decisions he made. It was something like 135 in a day, and it’s true. You just walk down the hall and make five decisions on your way to the bathroom.
If I can physically survive it, it’s the job I’ve been dreaming of my whole life, and it is every bit as wonderful as I thought it would be. If I can survive it physically, I will be doing well.
When do you find time to write then? Are you going to continue writing episodes or do you just write the first few to get it off the ground, and then let other writers take over?
For me, this is such a personal project. I mean I have a tremendous writing staff so it’s all about the team, but every script, every moment, is going to pass my desk and I’m participating with all the writers. That’s where the most important work is – on the page. The energy needs to be in the writer’s room.
I can’t let you go without asking the question all my writer friends want me to ask … A lot of people know your name from “Twilight,” but you’ve been working steadily since the 1990s on shows like “Dexter” and “The O.C.,” even going back to “Dr. Quinn.” How did you get started in the screenwriting business at the beginning? Did you know someone, or just start submitting screenplays?
I wrote a feature and somehow managed to get an agent. I first tapped into the alumni from both my undergraduate and graduate schools. There was one who was very successful, so I gave her the script and she said, “This is great. You have to get an agent.”
And her assistant sends it to someone, and then it goes to another and another, and so it’s like three down. Suddenly there were four, and she said to call them, and they were like, “Give me that script, right away. Give it to me.” I’m like, “What did she tell them!? My God.” One of them wants to meet with me before I even send the script. I’m like, “All right.”
So I go into that meeting — it was a company with one literary agent that’s not around anymore — I go in there and I have the head of the agency and a couple of agents pitching me on why I should sign with their company. I’m going, “This is amazing,” and then one of them said, “You know, because we just made a deal for your mother.”
I’m thinking, “My mother? She’s been dead ten years. You guys are good!” I realized then that they thought I was Joan Rivers’ daughter. She’s Melissa Rivers now, but at the time was Melissa Rosenberg.
Oh my God. So the bottom line is, having a famous name is helpful.
Yeah, having the name of a famous lady.
During the “Twilight” years, was that pretty all-consuming, or did you work on other projects during those years?
I was juggling “Dexter” and “Twilight” at the same time. I did the first three “Twilight” movies while I was on “Dexter,” so it was a pretty full schedule. But I’ve always written in television. I love television. It’s really the place where most writers want to be. I did take a step away from television when the last two “Twilight” movies came around, because I needed to write them both at the same time. I could do one “Twilight” and “Dexter,” but I couldn’t do two “Twilight” movies and “Dexter,” so I regrettably left “Dexter” after the fourth year and just focused on the two “Breaking Dawn” movies, then went on to another couple of features. Then ABC came to me with some great projects, and I was like, “I can’t say no to that.” So I jumped back in.
So it’s never occurred to you to take a break…
No. I never had a break. My husband will attest to that!
Well, it’s all very cool, and I can’t wait to see where the show goes, and I’m really happy to talk with you.
I hope you like it. I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve ever done in my whole career. I really hope you enjoy it, and great talking with you!