In THIS CLOSE, which premieres its second season on Sundance TV Thursday, September 12 (its first season streamed online, as did its precursor FRIDAYS), series creators Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman star as, respectively, Kate and Michael. Kate and Michael are the kind of thirtysomething best friends in Los Angeles who know each other so well that they’re capable of driving one another crazy. They are also dealing with significant others who are jealous of their bond, work issues and Josh’s drinking. One other element of the dramedy: both the creators and their characters are deaf.
Stern, a native Californian, was previously a series regular on the post-apocalyptic drama JERICHO and had recurring roles on WEEDS and SUPERNATURAL. Feldman made his screen acting debut as Michael in FRIDAYS. The duo and their sign language/spoken English interpreters sit down for an in-depth discussion of THIS CLOSE.
ASSIGNMENT X: Had you worked together before doing THIS CLOSE?
SHOSHANNAH STERN: There have been several iterations of the show. We had been writing together for about a year before I came up with the idea. Originally, Michael’s character was supposed to be hearing. Kate was going to be the only deaf character. And we went around town pitching to different production companies, and they had interest in it, but they kept saying they couldn’t really understand why Kate’s character was deaf. And we tried to come up with a reason to answer their question, and we realized that we really can’t tell them, we have to just show them. So we decided to just do it on our own, and once we made that decision, we realized that we’ve actually never seen two leading characters that are both deaf on a show before. So I felt like, if we’re not going to do it, no one else is. So we decided to just make his character deaf as well.
AX: So originally, you were just going to write on THIS CLOSE, and maybe play a supporting role, but not the lead?
JOSH FELDMAN: No, actually, I didn’t think I’d be on the show at all. I thought that I would just write and be an executive producer. But then she forced me to act, and so I found out, I actually really enjoy acting, and it’s given me more ownership of the gay deaf character. I realized that I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to do this character. It helps in all my writing.
AX: Do you take on outside political issues that do not have specifically to do with being deaf, or do you feel like, because you’re right now the primary deaf show on TV, you have a responsibility to primarily deal with that?
FELDMAN: Well, we did have a lot of discussions in the writers’ room about whether or not to bring up politics, Trump. But we decided that it was in the show’s best interest to not discuss that, because, one, it could date the show. And secondly, we didn’t want to speak for anyone else’s experience except for our own, the one that we know. Like you mentioned, we’re the primary show for deaf people on television right now, so we do have a responsibility to stick to the issues that we know firsthand.
STERN: I think the more specific we are, as well, the bigger of an audience we actually can reach. It’s important that we maintain the characters that we have, Michael and Kate. It’s impossible for one person to really speak for an entire community. There’s a large spectrum within the deaf community. It’s so very vast, and we can’t reach all corners of it. There are different kinds of people. There are Republicans within the deaf community. So Michael and Kate both definitely have their own experience, and their own political beliefs. We’ve talked about that as well. We feel like we know where they stand, and that might come into the storyline. But it doesn’t really work for our show, not yet, at least, to take on broader spectrum.
AX: THIS CLOSE does deal with political issues within the deaf community, though. For instance, cochlear implants, which are hearing-enhancing devices that require brain surgery and a sub-dermal magnet in order to be used, is considered a political issue …
STERN: Definitely, yes.
FELDMAN: And we will touch upon the cochlear implant issue in Episode 2.
STERN: I was really proud about that episode in particular. There’s a large misconception out there that tends to repeat itself in TV shows – some that I happen to be on [laughs] – but [hearing] people often think that there’s this divide within the deaf community between those who have a cochlear implant and those who don’t. And [some hearing] people believe that those who don’t have a cochlear implant hate those who do have a cochlear implant. That’s not true within our community. I think deaf people really do believe that if a person wants a cochlear implant, that’s fine. But you need to give the person all the tools they need to make that decision themselves. So if they want to learn sign language, they should be able to have access to doing that. There are no tools that are being deprived or taken away from someone. So I’m trying to reframe that storyline in a way that shows all of the tools being provided.
AX: Besides the two of you, are there other deaf/hard of hearing people on THIS CLOSE?
STERN: In total, we had twenty-five deaf individuals working both in front of and behind the camera.
AX: What kind of a difference does that make for you as creators and performers? Is it just a matter of greater communication and comprehension, or is there something else either that you can define, or even indefinable about that?
FELDMAN: Well, we were the only deaf writers. We wrote all the episodes. But on set, it’s such a feeling of being at home, when you have other deaf people around you. And not only that, but hearing people, our crew, learned sign language as a result. So our set had a family feel, and made me feel more comfortable, because acting can be very scary. Making art is scary. Being around people who use the same language as you makes it a little bit easier.
STERN: We really wanted to challenge ourselves each season, and if we’re lucky enough to get a third season, we want to increase the number every time. I do feel like being surrounded by other deaf individuals in Season 2 really made the show better. It embeds itself in the story in a way. It allows us to take the story even further. So creatively, it gave us a lot of fuel.
AX: THIS CLOSE was on two different streaming platforms before it arrived at Sundance TV. Can you talk about what kind of effect moving to SundanceTV had on the show?
FELDMAN: Actually, it didn’t have any impact on the writing or the creation from that aspect. Because we’re now exclusively on Sundance TV, which means we have a bigger platform, more opportunities to reach more people.
STERN: By flipping through the channels, people can come upon us, which is much nicer than with a streaming service, [where] you have to know it’s there, you have to know how to look for it, so we’re hoping that more people will be able to find the show now.
AX: Speaking of people finding THIS CLOSE, how was your experience with SUPERNATURAL, and do you have a fan following now from that that has followed you into THIS CLOSE?
STERN: [laughs] Yes. I am really very grateful and fortunate for that. SUPERNATURAL and THIS CLOSE oddly kind of intertwined with each other. They happened at similar times in my life. I got the offer to play Eileen on SUPERNATURAL around the same time that Josh and I premiered our Web series. I really wasn’t sure if I would get to play Eileen and get to show that [deaf] experience. It was interesting to be able to show that [on SUPERNATURAL], amid the crazy things that could be done. We were pitching our show at the same time. The fan base for SUPERNATURAL – they really connect with those folks on a very deep level. The shows are so very different from each other, but you can see how connected they are, and how they can play into each other. So it’s amazing to see that.
AX: Have you been able to use the SUPERNATURAL fan base to promote THIS CLOSE?
STERN: I Tweet about it.
AX: Millicent Simmonds, the young deaf actor from THE QUIET PLACE, will be on THIS CLOSE this season. Did you create her role for her?
FELDMAN: Actually, she came to our premiere for Season 1 at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, and we fell in love with each other right away. We knew that we had to write something for her, we just had to.
STERN: She really inspired us. She’s so very talented, such a beautiful person. I feel like I just connected with her instantly, on so many different levels. And she’s working a lot, but she does tend to be the only deaf person on the sets she’s working on. And I had the same experience for a very long time. Most of the time, I was the only deaf person who was working on that set. I always felt grateful to have a job and to be able to act, but there’s something really special about being able to truly connect with someone else in front of the camera. So I knew that we really wanted her to come onto the show, so we specifically wrote the role for her – it was inspired by her, [although] not her life story.
AX: Besides Millicent Simmonds, have you had any other guest people who you specifically created characters for?
STERN: CJ Jones. He’s in BABY DRIVER, and he’s going to be in the new AVATAR, wonderful deaf actor. Camryn Manheim. She’s actually been a sign language interpreter, so she has fluent sign language, and there are not many actors who are already fluent in sign language. Moshe Kasher as well, we did write a role with him in mind, Marlee Matlin, we wrote a role with her in mind.
FELDMAN: Once we cast Margaret Cho in her role, we did eventually tailor the role even more.
AX: How do you go about creating the season as a whole?
FELDMAN: First of all, we had to break the whole season down. So we had to figure out what our story is overall. And then we dive into the particulars, asking ourselves, “Why did this particular thing happen?” And then maybe we’ll figure that out later, or it will happen and we’ll figure out why it happens later. That’s how we work it out.
STERN: We did have a bit of a map that we made that we laid out in the writers’ room to try to figure out the arcs for each character, what’s happening for this character in this episode, what’s happening in their love lives, trying to piece all that together. So we did try to even it out, so we knew where everyone was going.
FELDMAN: We often would be told to make sure that we put as much of Kate and Michael together in every episode as possible. So that was always in the back of our heads as we were creating the story – we want them to have separate storylines, and have them be on a parallel track, but we want to make sure that we get Kate and Michael together as much as possible.
STERN: We had a formula, actually. It had to be a minimum of three times every episode we had to see Kate and Michael together, so we had to figure out how to plug that in and actually make that formula work out.
AX: When you say the writers’ room, do you mean the two of you, or are there other people in the room?
STERN: We did have an executive producer in the room with us for this current season when we were writing. We did have one EP who was there purely –
FELDMAN: She was there to help us write the story down, go through each of the drafts.
AX: If this question isn’t too personal, did you ever find yourselves working out any of your real-life friendship issues writing on the show?
STERN: I think it’s more like life imitates art in a way. We are both very similar. We do take our characters home with us, they do become a part of us. Not by choice – it really is just what organically happens. It’s just who we are as actors and how we play the characters. So I don’t feel like we did that in the room, but once we actually started acting, and bringing those emotions home with us, what we were playing with our characters, that’s when we started to see interesting things happen that were kind of parallel to our characters’ stories. We didn’t predict that happening at all, especially when we were writing. When you’re an actor, you really do work with emotions, and you cannot turn those off. It’s not like writing, where you can just stop writing the emotions. You keep feeling it, even though consciously you’re aware that it’s not real life. Your psyche just doesn’t quite grasp that, doesn’t really know what’s real or what’s not, when you’re in that moment of playing that character. So it’s an unconscious thing.
FELDMAN: We have to wear many hats, as creators, as the writers, as the actors [laughs], as the executive producers. And so in every step of the process of creation, we’re surprised by what’s happening. So when we’re writing, we don’t expect how hard it’s going to be to film some of these things that we’re created between Kate and Michael. While writing it, we’re like, “Oh, yeah, this will be just fine,” and then when we’re acting it, we’re like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so hard.” And that’s what Shoshanna means when we take it home with us. It does affect us. Of course it does – as friends, as people.
AX: How is it working with the actors who aren’t part of your writing process?
FELDMAN: I think we’ve been really lucky. The people that we’ve cast, on their own, have an intimate connection with the material, and I feel like you can see their passion. I feel it when I see them working. I feel like they’re helping me make the show.
STERN: The cast is so good that they actually change how I initially thought I felt about the story. They bring in their own light to it. I’ve been very surprised by that. I think that, as an actor, if you write your own stuff, you already know where it’s going to go, you know exactly what’s going to happen. I was constantly being surprised, especially with those things that were happening between myself and the great guest stars that we had with us. They really brought a new life to the story and a new type of breath to it. The energy that they brought to the story really made it go in a different direction than I originally thought.
AX: Are there other shows that you would compare THIS CLOSE to? Is there anything you can point to and go, “Well, we’re kind of like this” or is this completely its own thing?
FELDMAN: Obviously, we did have some shows in mind that we love, that we drew some elements from, like LOOKING, TRANSPARENT, GIRLS would be another example. Those three shows had a slice-of-life feel about a group of people that hadn’t necessarily been represented authentically before on television.
STERN: Not while we were writing, but while we were watching, I did feel like I could relate to VIDA. VIDA talks about a community that’s underrepresented, they’re using a minority language, and it’s showing them as human beings beyond just the outside appearance. So I think we have a lot of parallels with the show VIDA.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about THIS CLOSE Season 2?
FELDMAN: Hmm. It’s even more fun than Season 1. It’s even more sad. It’s worth every minute.
STERN: Like a mom with two children, and you love both, but you’re a little bit like, “Ah, this season is smarter. But I love you both the same.”
This interview was conducted during Sundance TV’s portion of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with THIS CLOSE creators and stars Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman on Season 2