Director, writer and actor Frankie Shaw, 33, was born and raised in Brookline. After studying literature at Barnard College, she moved with her infant son to Los Angeles to pursue her career. Her short film SMILF premiered at Sundance and won a jury award in 2015. She recently wrote, directed and starred in a Showtime pilot based on SMILF that was filmed in Boston. Her second short, Too Legit, premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and she has been accepted into the prestigious WGA Showrunner Training Program for 2017. She appears in the forthcoming feature film Stronger, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, and her other credits include playing Shayla on the critically acclaimed USA show Mr. Robot. She lives in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Soroff: Do you see yourself as a maverick?
Frankie Shaw: I would probably never call myself a maverick, but I do have a very hard time following the rules. And oftentimes when there are rules, I have an instinctive notion to do exactly the opposite.
You’re pretty outspoken as a feminist in an industry not terribly friendly to women. Is that a constant battle? The key is to surround yourself with people who understand the way in which the system is set up, but they’re few and far between. On one hand, the experiences I’ve had could be totally debilitating. There are things that are said to me now, especially since I’m directing, that you would not fucking believe. It’s way more subtle than it used to be. Some dude will be talking to me, a privileged white executive, and I’ll be thinking, “Why is my stomach in knots?” And I’ll realize afterward that he was putting me down without even knowing he was doing it.
Your satire Too Legit was inspired by Todd Akin’s infamous statements about rape. What do you think it says about us as a society that we even have a term like “rape culture”? That’s such a good question. Because I think the system we live in is a patriarchy, it allows for so much gray area in terms of positions of power when it comes to gender dynamics…. We’re so conditioned to accept violence against women. I forget what country it was, but there was an ad for makeup to cover bruises from domestic abuse. We’re just way too used to it, and we all internalize it.
So what steps would you propose to change that? There are so many things, but one of them is having stories told from all different perspectives. The pilot I just shot for Showtime really goes into the “maiden, mother, crone” syndrome, whereby women are put into one of those categories through the lens of patriarchy. So I’m trying to question, how do we become the protagonists of our own story, so that we’re not labeled in those terms? What’s really fucking devastating is that most of the people making the decisions are rich white men. My friend’s show just got canceled on Amazon, despite having the second-best opening and 80 percent viewer retention, but the guy never watched it and didn’t like it.
How do you teach your son that objectifying women is wrong? I’m very proactive. When he was little and he was drawing soldiers, I’d ask which one was the female soldier. When he’s playing a game on the computer and there’s a girl in a bikini, I’ll say, “The animators value women for their bodies, which we don’t.” At this point, he’ll point at a billboard or something and say, “Mom, it’s sexism!”
Mr. Robot—best show on TV? It was created by one of the most generous, brilliant men I’ve ever met: Sam Esmail. He is the reason the show is such a phenomenon. It has such a strong following, and it was so fun, because obviously none of us knew it was going to take off the way it did. And Sam is very collaborative but also has such a strong vision, being on that set was a feeling of total creativity and focus.
Worst job you ever had as a struggling actor? I wrote college application essays for the rich kids of Brentwood. It was very, very unethical, but for some reason, it’s a talent of mine: inhabiting the voice of a pimply-faced 17-year-old boy who wants to get into Skidmore.
SMILF—was that your life on film? I think it goes to what we were saying about following rules. There have been all these situations in my life where I find out later that people around me were like, “What the fuck is she doing?” I got pregnant when I was 25, and I was like, “I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore. I’m going to move to LA and have this kid alone.” Not realizing how insane that was. I found a roommate off of Craigslist. It was so hard. I was so broke. And I was auditioning and renting out my tiny apartment to subletters and staying on couches with my kid. And I was like, “I’ve got to write to get myself out of this situation,” and that was SMILF.
How do you improvise a whole movie? You have something you need to accomplish in a scene, like I need to invite a guy over to my house. The first take is 20 minutes long. You’re flirting. All kinds of shit comes out of both of your mouths. Some of it is terrible, but some of it is funny. Then when you go to take two, you narrow it down to the good parts. You write the scene as you go, and it’s so fun that way, because you’re so alive when you’re doing it.
Role you’re most proud of? Mr. Robot was super fun. When you’re starting out, you just take any job you can. I remember when I was cast in Blue Mountain State, it was my first gig. It was a totally misogynistic TV show about objectifying women and drinking and football. And I had to find a way to make the character interesting. It’s nice to get roles that are a bit more substantive.
Is there a role you’re just dying to play? This is such a weird answer. There’s a book called Shantaram and Johnny Depp was going to shoot it with Mira Nair directing. I just found this old email from 2007, where I was trying to get hired by Mira as her assistant, but really my secret plan was to try to get the role, because I’m delusional. Anything that’s a fun, weirdo character is good.
Role you were up for but didn’t get? The first one that comes to mind was a role on Boardwalk Empire. They flew me to New York to test, and the woman doing my makeup made me look like a geisha. I looked completely crazy and I totally blew the audition.
Worst audition disaster? So many. I remember going to Bernie Telsey’s office in New York to audition for a big play, and you had to do a British accent. I kept starting the scene over, and then I ended up going on this anxiety-fueled rant of “Oh, my God, I’m acting like the crazy actress now. This is so bad! I’m so sorry!”
Anyone you’re dying to work with? Well, I just worked with the director David Gordon Green, and he was a dream. I loved that experience. But there are tons of directors I’d die to work with: Danny Boyle, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Jane Campion, the Coen brothers, this French director Jacques Audiard…
Thoughts on people who say actors shouldn’t voice their political opinions? It’s a personal thing. I have friends who say, “I don’t use social media for activism. I just want to enjoy it.” But if you’re passionate about something, and you’re somebody who has a voice and a platform to help implement change, that’s great. When I talk about sexual violence against women, I can’t tell you how many people who have thanked me for voicing their thoughts and concerns. So fuck the haters.
How much of your persona do you attribute to being from Boston? I’m super sarcastic. I have no patience. I’m really bossy.
Thing you miss most about Boston? Being with other people like that. You have to be so fucking polite here in LA.
Would you prefer to maintain your outsider status, doing edgy work, or do you want the bigger recognition that comes from being more mainstream? I want to direct studio movies. I want to reach a broad audience and bring some of my point of view to that. There’s such a lack of women working in that sphere, so that’s my goal.
Photography: J Heroun; Location: Red Sky Studios; Styling: Lauren D’Avolio / Anchor Artists; Hair: Michelle Lee / Salon Eva Michelle; Hair assistant: Bryant Anthony / Salon Eva Michelle; Makeup: Tessa Liska / G2O Spa + Salon; Wardrobe: Rag and Bone jumpsuit from Nordstrom