When we talk about the ever-growing industry red carpet that’s been leading film’s A-list talent to prestige TV projects, we talk about about the complex antiheroes on dark cable dramas that they flock to play, the grand historical dramas with infinite budgets, and the Ryan Murphy universe of horror, crime, and feud stories.
But a family sitcom in which the mom discovers that she has become a zombie?
“I don’t want to watch dark shit,” Drew Barrymore says about her decision to star in Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix’s clever comedy series that stars the self-proclaimed Hollywood “Wildflower” as a real-estate agent trying to keep her family functioning, despite the minor hiccup that she is now undead and must eat people in order to survive.
“I don’t want to be in dark shit, and I don’t want to put dark shit out there,” she continues. “I hate negativity. I want to be optimistic, problem solving, and solution oriented.”
Back in 2009, Barrymore was among the first group of top-tier traditional “movie stars” to make a splash on TV, co-starring with Jessica Lange in HBO’s Grey Gardens film. But while the trend in her wake has been toward grittier, arguably more upsetting fare, the actress and producer, who has mostly starred in earnest emotional dramas like Everybody’s Fine, Big Miracle, and Miss You Already since then, is uninterested in following that same path.
“I want to make people happy and this show made me happy,” she says about Santa Clarita Diet, on which she also is a producer. “I thought if that was transferable, that would be where I would best serve anyone. And it definitely best served my life.”
The series, which premiered earlier this month on Netflix, centers on Joel and Sheila Hammond, your typical sitcom married couple raising a teenage daughter while running a real-estate business. In the great sitcom tradition, they are forced to band together in order to charmingly overcome some introduced obstacle. Bucking that tradition, that obstacle is Sheila’s rapid transformation into a zombie.
She becomes helpless in managing her desires and cravings, whether it’s telling people off, constantly craving sex, making impulse purchases, or the small business of having to eat people in order to stay alive. Well, undead. But you get it.
When the series, from sitcom veteran Victor Fresco (Better Off Ted, My Name Is Earl, Sean Saves the World), came her way, Barrymore was going through a rough time.
She had recently divorced from her husband of four years, Will Kopelman, with whom she has two daughters. After nearly two decades of a relentless work schedule, she had dialed back her professional commitments to focus on her family, starring in only four films in the last eight years.
“I wasn’t in the greatest place and was vulnerable, and admitted that to [Fresco],” she says.
The shoot became something of a life-imitating-art experience—as much as is feasible when you’re talking about a TV show about a mom who starts craving human flesh.
Both Barrymore and Sheila are relentless optimists, but the actress needed some reminding from her fictional counterpart to recapture that. Plus, it turns out it can be rather cathartic and freeing to spend a few months inhabiting a character who has no other recourse than to chase their id and satiate every carnal desire.
She found the character arc to be resonant “if any woman is in a monotonous slump,” she says. “It was exciting to play someone who was a feminist and empowered, but in a very strange way. [The] whole thing about gluttony and id and behavioral consequences, I just wanted to play with all that. ‘Zombie’ in our case was kind of an awakening and empowering confidence builder.”
To get the most out of the shoot, Barrymore thought it would be positive to set some goals for herself.
She put herself on a strict diet, losing 20 pounds during filming. It was a life transformation, but one that also turned out to serve her work well. “I was very hungry,” she laughs. “So I understood Sheila, because I wanted to rip everyone’s fucking face off that was eating craft services and lunch and I wasn’t getting to do that.”
She eventually became so energized by diet and exercise that she thrust herself into her own stunts with a bit too much zeal, in one rehearsal tumbling off the back of another actor and falling six feet down, headfirst, onto concrete. The mishap landed her in the hospital for two days—and her stuntwoman a more prominent role.
“I’m too old, and I don’t ever want to end up in a hospital for two days again,” she says. “So, no, I won’t be doing my own stunts anymore. In Charlie’s Angels we did all our stuff. It was amazing. It was so empowering.” And then, her mouth curling into that side smirk that’s become her trademark: “And that chapter has ended. Moving on…”
There’s been an understandable obsession with the zombie conceit of Santa Clarita Diet, and it’s certainly one that she enjoys talking about, almost delighting in her own disgust as she recounts chowing down on the edible prosthetic foot made for her and nearly chipping her tooth when she accidentally bit down on a pin.
But there’s something even more unusual, she thinks, about a major element that serves as the undercurrent of the show, as Sheila’s husband Joel, played by Timothy Olyphant, throws himself into “fixing” this problem that’s plaguing his wife—even if that means exploring illicit ways to keep her fed and happy. Something struck Barrymore about that, especially in the context of her own personal life while filming.
“We’re a good partnership,” Barrymore says, about Sheila and Joel. “It’s nice to see people excel as a couple. I’m so sick of everyone fucking failing, fighting, and falling apart.”
To that end, what are we to make of Santa Clarita Diet’s Season 1 finale?
(SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t finished the first season.)
The last we see of this couple, Joel is being dragged off into a psych ward while insisting, “We’re just a normal Santa Clarita family,” and Sheila, afraid that she’ll further lose control of her impulses, requests that her daughter “chain mommy in the basement.”
Barrymore loves the ambiguity of the cliffhanger, when Sheila, shackled yet acting as if nothing unusual is going on, answers a phone call about showing one of her real-estate listings and says cheerily, “Maybe next week we’ll both be free.”
“That to me—those words left on this dot, dot, dot—was a little trance-like, a little weird, a little fucked up, a little cool,” Barrymore says. “I think ambiguity sometimes can be very annoying and unsatisfying and sometimes it can just be a nice, like ‘on to the next day,’ which is what most people have to face in their everyday life. Like, life is good, life is insane, but there’s always a next day.”