Creator Jessie Kahnweiler and EP Illeana Douglas Preview The Skinny [Exclusive]
Here at TV Goodness, we probably don’t watch enough web content. There’s so much great stuff on TV that I know I’m usually a little late to the game when it comes to great online series. The good news with Refinery29’s The Skinny, is that I heard about it early. I was already familiar withÂ Jessie Kahnweiler and Illeana Douglas. And if you don’t know whoÂ Transparent‘s Jill SolowayÂ is, we can’t be friends.Â Putting all that aside, though, the fact thatÂ The SkinnyÂ is a dark comedy about an imperfect woman justÂ made me want to know more about the series and the creative team behind the scenes.
The SkinnyÂ follows feminist wannabe YouTube comedy star Jessie as she struggles to live, love, and…get over her bulimia. On a mission to save the world and get rid of her love handles, Jessie demands honesty from everyone but herself. The Skinny is a new kind of dark comedy for those who know that the most beautiful moments in life ainâ€™t always so pretty.
I had the chance to talk to Jessie and Illeana a few days ago just before they premiered The Skinny at Sundance. IÂ talked to them about feminism,Â women’s struggles with self hate, their great mother/daughter dynamic in the series and more.
TV GOODNESS: Feminism seems to be an F word people are pretty scared of these days. Plenty of both men and women donâ€™t seem to understand the definition of the word or the intent behind it. What does it mean to both of you and how important is it to tackle feminist issues in your work?
Illeana Douglas: “For me, I think itâ€™s always been a part of my life and my work just because when I grew up the late â€˜70s my mom was a feminist, a single mom, a working mom. My grandmother was a politician, so for me it was always just a part of my life. And so much of the movies of the late â€˜70s were images of powerful women, so Iâ€™ve never shied away from that word. Iâ€™ve always sought out working relationships with women, like Allison Anders, so Iâ€™m always trying to focus and showcase women in strong leadership positions.”
Jessie Kahnweiler:Â “To piggyback off that, for me it feels like innate — I mean the political talk about feminism — but for me especially with my work, it feels very personal. To me itâ€™s just about the female perception of the world and what does it mean to experience the world as a woman. Those are the stories that need to be told as much as any other story needs to be told. It just feels like my own. Itâ€™s a part of who I am. I donâ€™t really think about telling a feminist story. I am a feminist story.”
TV GOODNESS: Jessie, after you made Meet My Rapist you said that your next project would be about your struggle with bulimia. Why was it so important for that to be the next topic you tackled?
Jessie: “My work stems from a really personal place and at that point in my life I was getting into recovery from my bulimia and felt like I really wasnâ€™t seeing enough of those stories about my experience. I was inspired because Iâ€™m a TV addict and I wasnâ€™t seeing that story. When youâ€™re a broke filmmaker, the projects Iâ€™m gonna doÂ [is] gonnaÂ become my life for 3 years. So, I wanna pick stuff that Iâ€™m obsessed with and also stuff that kinda scares me. Meet My Rapist was really scary to make and The Skinny was really scary to make in its own way. But for me, it was a challenge that I really wanted to take on, involving people like Illeana and Jill [Soloway] to really help me tell the truest version of this story.”
TV GOODNESS:Â Youâ€™ve said that so many women struggle with self hate, which can manifest itself in many ways. But you said the struggle was â€œbeautiful and real,â€ which I completely agree with. Can you talk about that?
Jessie: “In my life, I feel like the most moments of beauty and growth and honesty have all come from painful experiences, not just from my childhood when something bad would happen. Thatâ€™s where you really grow. All of my closest, most intimate relationships are based on going through shit together or being there for one another. I really feel like thatâ€™s what humanityâ€™s really all about. To me, thatâ€™s what the whole experience of the show has been like.
I remember meeting Illeana the first time. We got a cup of coffee and just talked about bodies and what it meant to be a woman and heartbreak. Leaving that meeting, Iâ€™m like, â€˜Oh my God. I know this person. We share these experiences,â€™ and I think filmmaking is all about trying to make meaning out of your life, at least thatâ€™s what I feel like. I think itâ€™s a really fun adventure thatâ€™s also really hard.”
TV GOODNESS: I love that weâ€™re getting more stories, including this one, about women who are less than perfect. Can you both talk about your characters and what weâ€™re going to see this season on The Skinny?
Illeana: “I play Jessieâ€™s mom. Itâ€™s interesting. When Jessie and I first sat down to talk, thatâ€™s one of the things we were talking about, is that in my day people didnâ€™t typically say, â€˜Oh, you have an eating disorder. You have bulimia.â€™ It was just called growing up and being a girl, being a teenager. So, I thought it was very interesting to bring that perspective into the mother of not understanding or knowing how to deal with the subject because thereâ€™s a generational distance. Itâ€™s not something you would accept after of believe if somebody comes from a good family and is loved. Why would you have an eating disorder? So, I think that my character as Jessieâ€™s mom is gonna have to break down these walls and navigate through some difficult territory.
And the whole mother/daughter dynamic is always so rich. In Jacquelineâ€™s case, itâ€™s just trying to navigate, trying to be her friend, sometimes trying to be her mom and that complex relationship that mothers and daughters have. And hopefully, too, as the series goes on what I would love to see is where do these seeds come from in Jessie? Are we gonna see things from the mom that say â€˜Oh. Well maybe this is how, maybe hereâ€™s this pattern,â€™ which I think as a daughter, you never want to accept but eventually start to see. â€˜Oh, these are patterns that I saw in my mom and now Iâ€™m replicating them.'”
Jessie: “Yeah, they just morph into one person. [Laughs.] [In] this first season, weâ€™re just trying to set up these relationships and these complex dynamics. I really didnâ€™t want the show to be about just bulimia, the bulimia show. This is really a coming of age story and how somebody reconciles self hate and how growing up affects your relationship. I know with my own mom, our relationship is constantly changing and ebbing and flowing and thereâ€™s roles being reversed and the parent becomes the child. I really just want to keep exploring those dynamics in an authentic way.”
TV GOODNESS: I really love your mother/daughter dynamic and I thought your on-screen chemistry was great. Jessie, why was it important for you to have Illeana in your project? Illeana, what was it about this project that made you want to do it?
Illeana: “Iâ€™m pretty much the life of the party. [Laughs] No, you go first.”
Jessie: “So, I was dreaming, and Iâ€™m not just saying that because sheâ€™s sitting right next to me. If I could have anyone play my mom, I want Illeana Douglas. I had just re-watched Ghost World for the 500th time and Iâ€™m like, â€˜I would have Illeana Douglas.â€™ And everyoneâ€™s like, â€˜Youâ€™re not gonna get Illeana Douglas.â€™ I didnâ€™t have any money. This was pre-Refinery, pre-Soloway. I was like, â€˜Well. Iâ€™m really good at stalking my ex-boyfriends, so I might as well try to email her.â€™
What was really amazing about it and such a gift is that she came on as a producer. She really helped me in shaping this character and setting up the story. She has so much experience in the business and sheâ€™s a filmmaker in her own right. So, it was such a meaningful experience to me because I had never taken on a project of this scope. But I feel like Illeana has this balance. I didnâ€™t want mom to be this evil witch. Itâ€™s not about, â€˜Oh, look at this crazy mom.â€™ I really wanted the mom to have her own inner life and I really feel like Illeana brings that humanity to it. Also, we laugh. We have a lot of fun on screen. Weâ€™re dealing with some heavy subject matter so I really feel like that comedy is a really helpful tool.”
TV GOODNESS: Illeana, what made you want to do this project and how did you hear about it?
Illeana: “Jessie contacted me about coming on board and I read the material. I get sent a lot of material, but I thought there was something in it. I really do believe in mentorship of other women if I feel like I can help and so something. I felt like that there was something within the story that was different and I thought I could really help as a producer.
My whole approach is: I really want to try to make this as good as I can, get other actors of quality in it, make the script truthful and just have more female-based product that I believe is truthful be shown. I feel that the whole idea with mentorship is, yes itâ€™s to help the mentee, but itâ€™s also to help me because we want to have more womenâ€™s stories. You take a subject like this, bulimia, an eating disorder, and I thought that would be a fascinating challenge. Like, how do you present something thatâ€™s a very difficult topic, but that every woman can relate to, but doesnâ€™t talk about?
In my opinion 90% of the actresses in Hollywood have an eating disorder. You canâ€™t be an actress without having an eating disorder. Iâ€™m sitting here doing an interview and Iâ€™m looking at snacks. Iâ€™m not gonna eat them because Iâ€™m gonna get my picture taken. You could say that thatâ€™s an eating disorder. This permeates our being from the minute we get up in the morning to the minute we go to bed at night and we just donâ€™t talk about it. We say, â€˜Oh. thatâ€™s just part of being a woman.â€™ You want to look slim and healthy and beautiful and all of our self-esteem comes from that one thing. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™ve been so proud to be associated with this show, the growth of it, the idea that youâ€™re at Sundance and weâ€™re gonna actually get to talk about these ideas, presenting it in a very entertaining way, [and] that it also has a message. For me as a filmmaker, as an actress and as a producer, I love being involved in a project that has a message.”
TV GOODNESS:Â The original title of this series was Skinny Bitch. Why did you decide to change the name?
Jessie: “I donâ€™t know. I felt like Skinny Bitch was lacking an emotional resonance. This is whatâ€™s up. Look at this world. This is whatâ€™s going on, so I love the double meaning of [The Skinny]. As somebody who really, truly in my heart, spent so much of my life, and still do sometimes, really believing that skinny is gonna give me the perfect life, I just wanted to take that word and shine light on that. Thereâ€™s a lot of shame associated with that. I want to be a feminist, but I want to be a size 2 feminist. What does that mean? Thatâ€™s embarrassing for me, so it just felt like a good way to hit the themes of the show.”
TV GOODNESS: Iâ€™m wondering about some of the other characters and the actors you got for the show. Iâ€™ve seen the first 3 episodes and it seems like it was well cast and that everyone has great chemistry.
Jessie: “Yeah. We got extremely lucky on this project, like I said. It was such a labor of love getting Ryan Pinkston and Spencer Hill. We really sought out people, kind of like the Illeana thing, that really personally connected to the material and were excited to really go there. So, Sadie Calvano is another one, just people that we felt like really wanted to take some chances. It really does feel like an ensemble to me.”
TV GOODNESS: I like that youâ€™ve partnered with Refinery29 and WifeyTV and Jill Soloway. How did they all come to the table?
Jessie: “We shot a spec pilot. Iâ€™ve known Jill for a few years and I sent her the pilot. She sent it to Refinery29 and it all happened really quickly. I feel really lucky. Working with Refinery, they basically just gave us the money. It was total creative freedom. They were like, â€˜You can do whatever you want,â€™ and I was like, â€˜Ok. Iâ€™m gonna fucking go for it,â€™ and we really just made the show that we wanted to make.
That being said, for me as a filmmaker, itâ€™s great to have creative freedom, but thatâ€™s why it was also essential for me to have Jill and Illeana because they really gave me structure and they really helped me hone it in and not feel like I was all over the place. They both have such experience with story structure, especially the tone, and I really wanted it to be extremely specific, so it was really helpful. I felt like I was in this incubation and I really felt protected and free at the same time.”
Edited for space and content.
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