Warning: This interview contains mild spoilers for The Kitchen.
If you’re heading into The Kitchen with the idea that you’ll be in for a light but raunchy comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, you are in for a shock. The film, which stars the usually comic actresses, along with Elisabeth Moss, is closer to The Departed than Girl’s Trip. Its humor is as dark and brutal as the many misdeeds of its main characters.
Based on a DC comic by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, The Kitchen centers around three women trying to make ends meet in New York City’s Hell's Kitchen circa 1978, after their husbands end up in jail. Though they’ve all married into the Irish mob, each woman’s situation is different: Kathy (McCarthy) is a happily married mother of two, Claire (Moss) has spent her life being knocked around by an abusive lowlife, and Ruby (Haddish), a Black woman from Harlem who married into this insular community, is constantly harangued and bad mouthed by her tough mother-in-law, Helen (Margo Martindale). What they do share is complete financial and emotional dependence on the men around them — first their fathers, then their husbands. And when those men are taken in during a crackdown by New York City police, they’re left with nothing. The mob is in trouble, and it soon becomes clear that the first casualty of financial strife is the code of honor that demands women and children be taken care of while their men serve time. But in that vacuum, Kathy sees an opportunity: What if she, Kathy, and Ruby took over the business that’s been falling through the cracks? Thus dawns a new crime empire that threatens to engulf the whole city — and their very souls.
It’s the kind of “you go, girl” story that, in the wrong hands, could have yielded the kind of bombastic, artificial feminist rallying cry so common in recent Hollywood blockbusters. But thankfully, director Andrea Berloff, a screenwriter who co-wrote 2016’s Straight Outta Compton making her directorial debut, isn’t afraid to go there. Her heroines aren’t just spouting zingers meant to elicit claps from the audience. They’re getting their hands dirty — and bloody — in situations we’ve mainly seen male anti-heroes tackle before. Things get messy, and shockingly violent, as these three women fight for space in a world set up to exclude them for their gender, and in Ruby’s case, the color of their skin.
Ahead, Berloff explains why she cast Haddish and McCarthy in these unusual roles, and why she thinks audiences might be shocked by the film’s premise.
Refinery29: Audiences who come to this movie expecting the kind of comedy they’re used to from this cast will very likely end up surprised. Was that your intention in casting Tiffany Haddish and Melissa McCarthy?
Andrea Berloff: “When I started trying to cast The Kitchen and figure out how to create from the page into a movie, the biggest piece of that was casting. Give people a reason to go to the theater. Take people that you already love, and that you already think you know, put them in roles you've never seen them in before. I really don't think that the world has seen the levels that Melissa [McCarthy] and Tiffany [Haddish] can bring to the screen. More than anything, I feel really privileged and lucky that we got a chance to showcase them in this way.”
Did you always have them in mind, or did they audition?
“Tiffany was the first [to be] cast. Girls Trip opened in movie theaters, and the Monday after, producer Mike Deluca called me and said ‘I just met a woman who I think is going to be a star, and I want you to meet with her because I think she might be Ruby.’ I went to lunch with Tiffany, and I saw what he saw. She was destined to be a star. She was bright and funny and all of the things that everybody else sees, but that the depth of soul within her, the humanity within her, the intelligence within her, she is the total package — there's no question in my mind. She's Ruby; she's going to nail it. I'm just so grateful that she sought us out, because I don't know that we would have been smart enough to say, ‘Let's start with Tiffany Haddish. She really made this happen for herself.”
It’s more subtle in the case of Elisabeth Moss, because we’re used to her playing a badass, but Claire is a new kind of character for her, as well.
“When we offered the role to her, I was already giving myself a million reasons why she would say no. She had just won an Emmy, and I was like, Gosh, she just isn't going to say yes to this. She said yes in 24 hours. She got the script on a Sunday, and by Monday afternoon I was on the phone with her. I said to her, I cannot believe that you're saying yes, and she said, ‘I'm not an idiot. I know a good job when I see one.’”
Mostly, when women are portrayed in an action situation, they either kind of bumble through it, or it's very, very sanitized. We'll never actually see them kill anyone, or the gross aftermath of murder. This movie handles things differently — it’s very open about the violence that goes hand in hand with what the characters are trying to do.
“There is violence in the movie, but interestingly I find that people's perception of the violence is more than what is necessarily on screen. This is not a slasher film. It is not wall to wall blood. A lot of scenes that are just suggestions rather than actually showing anything, and that makes people squeal. Part of it is because people just don't expect it as women. They don't think that we're really going to go there. When we do, I think it's surprising to people.”
I was definitely surprised, but that also made reflect about why. Had the movie been about men, I definitely would have expected that same level of violence. We don’t have many women anti-heroes — is that something you wanted to delve into?
“Absolutely. I feel like we will not have arrived until we can allow women on screen who are not angels. I looked a lot at Thelma and Louise when I set out to make this because the two women at the center of it are not angels. Until we allow for that in cinema, we will not allow the full depth of exploration of women-fronted stories. We cannot just portray little perfect girls the entire time, and we have to allow fully flawed human beings, exactly the same way that men had been allowed to explore their flaws.”
There's a really lovely moment in the film where Annabella Sciorra, who plays a mob wife, tells Ruby, Kathy, and Claire that she supports them. It works on so many levels — as a nod to her role as Tony Soprano’s mistress Gloria on The Sopranos, but also as a reminder of her tragic abuse by Harvey Weinstein. What went into putting that scene together?
“When we cast her, particularly last summer when we were shooting it, it was not that long after MeToo started. She was one of the people who helped to kick off the movement, and the idea of putting the line that says, "They 'F’ us every time, every chance they get," in her mouth, gave me chills.”
The movie is based on a DC comic. How closely did you stick to the source material?
“When it was sent to me by New Line in February 2016, it was a real full-on mob story set in 1978 Hell's Kitchen, [with] women [taking] over the Irish mafia. The comic book had three white women at the center of it, and I didn't want it to be about three white women, so I went into the studio and I was like, Listen, I don't know how I'm going to do it organically, but I'm going to make one of these characters African-American, and I'm going to figure out a really great story for her. So, I created the character of Ruby. [And] out of Ruby, I created Helen [played by Margo Martindale] because, what’s better than a really mean mother-in-law?”
This is your directorial debut, how did you make the leap from screenwriting to directing?
“I had wanted to direct for a while, and wasn't quite sure how to do it, frankly. Not how to direct, [but] how to get the opportunity to direct. I wrote this movie and felt stronger about this movie than I had about almost any other script that I had ever written. I had more to say. I went to the studio and — once they were happy with the script and wanted to go out and find a director — I just said, Please give me the opportunity to pitch as a director. I'm not going to make you hire me, but I just want a shot. And they hired me. I had worked at the studio a lot, and I knew these guys really well. They were willing to take a shot on somebody that they were already in business with.”
This movie is about women taking up space, but also about the racial and class divides in New York City — issues we’re still grappling with today. How do you pitch that concept to a studio for a mainstream audience as a first-time director?
“Straight Outta Compton is about first amendment rights and police abuse and civil rights, but it's [also] a really fun night at the movies. By the end people are dancing in their chairs. That is how you get these movies made. If we just gave them the history lesson on class issues in 1978 — what a bummer. First and foremost, you have to tell a great, fun story. Then, within that context, you can talk about some real issues. That's been something that I've worked on throughout my career: Trying to figure out where that balance is between talking about the big ideas and inspiring people to think bigger and do better, but also making sure that they come see it. How do you balance those two things? It's definitely a struggle. I cannot believe what they let me get away with.”
Without giving anything away, Melissa McCarthy’s character has this really powerful monologue that really sums up the message of the film. Asked if she’s doing this for her kids, she flat-out says that she’s doing this for herself, and that should be enough. What were you trying to get across with that?
“That was a late addition — I probably only wrote it a few days before we were shooting. What is the siren song of this movie? It's about women being able to open their mouths and say what they want for themselves and not for any other reason than they want it, and they're gonna take it. I hope if anything, that women leave this movie — and men, too — feeling strong and empowered, and that they can stand up for themselves… [These characters] are not serial killers. They're not crazed lunatics. They do all of this for a reason — just like a million men before them on screen have been violent and aggressive and demanding and selfish for a reason, and we've loved them. I think we need to give these women the same consideration.”