“Shining Vale” takes its time before it properly introduces the audience to Mira Sorvino’s Rosemary. The Starz horror comedy focuses on Pat (Courteney Cox) and Terry (Greg Kinnear) Phelps, a couple in a strained marriage, as they move from New York City to the titular Connecticut suburb in an effort to find stability. Their quest, however, is doomed to fail — because they’ve moved into a house haunted by Rosemary (Mira Sorvino), the spirit of a ’50s housewife who schemes to use Pat to live the uninhibited life she never could.
In classic horror fashion, though, the show very slowly teases out its villain. In the first episode, Sorvino has only a single line. It takes a full three episodes before she has a proper, full-length scene with Cox, and even then, her presence in the show is deployed sparingly, rarely appearing for extended periods of time. It may seem like a thankless role for the Oscar-winner, beloved for her turn in the cult-classic “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion,” and well-known in recent years as a significant figure in the #MeToo movement. But in spite of her limited screentime, Rosemary looms large over the entire show, and that’s in no small part due to Sorvino’s delectably mannered performance, which expertly blends a sugary sweetness with barely concealed menace.
“The thing I love about Rosemary is that she just has this zeal for being alive,” Sorvino says. “You can see it bleed into everything she does, because essentially, she’s been locked in an attic since the ’50s. She’s just so excited to be alive, and to have someone else hear her voice. And whether she’s good or bad, there’s a kind of a glee to her that I really love.”
Ahead of the season finale of “Shining Vale,” Variety talked to Sorvino about returning to comedy, bouncing off of Cox’s Pat, and how she makes her mark on the show with her limited screentime.
It’s been a while since you’ve been in a straight-up comedy, especially in a starring role. What was it like diving into that form of acting for the show?
I just love it. I mean, there’s nothing I love more than comedy. It’s an interesting mixture between comedy and horror, and then a bit of relatable drama thrown in. I feel like there’s something about this show that people can actually relate to, especially if they’re married or struggling to try and figure out their life and they’ve got kids and they’ve got a career and they’re trying to figure how they want to self-direct all of that. I think Pat’s character is super relatable, and in some cases, Rosemary is too. So it’s a really interesting mixture. I love it, and I love the character of Rosemary. She’s multifaceted, she’s not only the glam sort of spirit as we see her but she’s also the historic Rosemary, who was a real person. And sometimes that historical Rosemary pops through. So it’s really interesting to get to play both of those Rosemary’s because they’re sort of distinct.
In the first few episodes of the show, the audience only gets to see flashes of Rosemary. It takes a little while before you get more screentime. As an actor, how do you approach making her interesting in the limited windows you have?
In the first episode, I’m basically confronting Pat about why she’s in my house. And Rosemary’s point is also to intrigue and entice Pat. You know, she wants Pat to sort of cross into the, you know, never never land of where she’s living, in the tiki bar, the naughty zone. It’s almost a seduction. She is performing in a way, she’s trying to get Pat to befriend her, to want to join her to drink, to live life on the dangerous side, to be more sexual, to be more empowered. So I was just doing the things that the script asked me to do, but those things are attention getting.
How did you sort of develop your comedic chemistry with Cox, because for the entire show, she’s your only real scene partner?
I felt an instant rapport with Courteney. Rosemary just wants to be besties with her. She’s dying to have a companion, a drinking partner. There’s something so sweet about when Pat first sees her and she’s like, “Are you my muse?” And there’s something about the way she says that that reminds me of characters in like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” There’s something really childlike about Courteney when she’s dealing with me, and that was beautiful to play off of. And then I’m just there to cajole and entice. And she’s just so naturally funny playing it straight. She doesn’t have any weird voice, she absolutely gets the timing of everything and she can play the everywoman in a strange situation and make it funny. And that’s a huge talent that very few people have and that’s why she is who she is. We just had fun. I always found myself doing things like staring across the bar at her, and I’m like, “Wow, you’re so beautiful.” Because she is so beautiful. But we both have got teenage daughters, and are basically the same age, so in between takes we’d chat about motherhood. So I don’t know that we worked on making it, I think the rapport was actually already there. It was very easy. And all the scenes just kind of worked naturally.
How’d you get into character as this 1950’s housewife archetype for Rosemary? She has such a particular way of speaking and moving that makes her fun to watch bounce off of Pat.
I’ve played other ’40s and ’50s characters before, and there’s that sort of this Mid-Atlantic way of speaking that they sort of assumed. I’m not really sure if anyone in the ’50s actually spoke like that. I’ve never met someone who wasn’t an actor who actually spoke the way that people do in old movies. But regardless, I watched a bunch of like 1950s sitcoms, like “The Donna Reed Show” and “Leave It to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet” and I tried to see what public expectations for what a housewife and mother was supposed to act like and that’s what original Rosemary is trying to maintain. And then spirit Rosemary, I watched things like “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” movies of that era that were a little bit more femme fatale and glam. Because spirit Rosemary is everything real life Rosemary dreamed she could be and couldn’t achieve, so spirit Rosemary is really trying to live that life promised by silver screen movies. I wanted her to have that deep voice, which is not something I’d done in any of other ’50s or ’40s characters. It’s this strange, timeless, weird, seductive thing that she’s doing. She’s maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of years old. We don’t know, what is this being? That’s why I wanted her to have a little bit more gravitas in the voice, a little lower. And then I would just glide around and spin. It’s almost like she’s always dancing in a way.
Speaking of dancing, Episode 7 starts with a whole black and white sequence where you dance to “Patricia,” this old ’50s standard from Perry Como. How did that sequence come together?
This is the amazing thing about Jeff Astrof, our showrunner. I was like, “Oh, you know, it’d be so great. if we could do some kind of like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly thing, I took dance when I was a kid, blah, blah, blah.” And then all of a sudden, he’s like, “Great, I’m gonna write that in.” They come up with this choreography, it was a little bit longer initially — but still, I got to live this dream of being in an old movie, dancing while I’m cleaning the house. All of us have those little moments. We’d just say something, and then Jeff would write it in and have the writers room accommodate these various whims or instincts that we had, and I was so thrilled by that. That was the most fun I could ever have, doing that dance number. Even though it’s a short tone note for the beginning of the episode, I was like gleefully happy. I can’t even tell you.
Episode 7 also features several sequences where your character Rosemary possesses Pat. Did you talk with Cox about replicating your performance on the show?
She did an amazing job. I offered her if she wanted me to read all the lines in a neutral performance, but just in the Rosemary voice. And she said yes. So I recorded all of her lines as Rosemary, so she could hear my patois. But I didn’t perform it. I just read it flat so she can hear my accent. Sort of the way that I work on an accent when I work on an accent.
The show juggles a lot of subject matter about how women with mental illness are treated. How do you think Rosemary and the more horror elements of the show fit into that theme?
Rosemary is the example of a woman with no rights, who was unable to even buy liquor in a store because her husband says “cut her off.” She was just stuck at home with an increasing depression that was being untreated. Maybe she was self-medicating with alcohol. But I think that real Rosemary suffered depression in the ’50s. I think Pat is suffering depression. I think the idea of the hysterical woman has been around since Freud. The dismissing of a woman’s actual instincts or her cries for help as hysterical. And I believe that [Show creators] Jeff Astrof and Sharon Horgan want to explore that further in Season 2, that historicity of the way that women who are undergoing mental health issues are treated and treated very differently than men. It’s very easy for a woman who is suffering like a mental break to completely lose her autonomy. Even in my life, I had a relative that I was very, very, very fond of. And when she was in her middle age, she had a mental health crisis because of the events that were happening to her. But the response was to have to give her electric shock therapy. And it’s controversial, I think nowadays people once again are saying “maybe that helps.” But I think there must be less barbaric ways of approaching the brain than that.
I’m interested to hear your point of view: How do you feel about Rosemary? As she gets more possessive, how do you feel about her?
That actually fits into something I wanted to ask you. I think she’s definitely misguided, but at the same time, she’s really charming and you can sense a lot of sadness at her core, which makes it hard to dislike her. I was going to ask you how you think the audience is supposed to feel about Rosemary’s intentions?
I always try not to judge any of my characters, right? There’s certain characters I would not play, but if I say I want to play a character, I’ve got to look at it from her perspective, right? I’ve got to play it from her perspective. And as I said, Rosemary’s very human, even if she’s technically not alive. She’s bursting with humanity. And sometimes that’s the good parts of humanity. Sometimes that’s the bad parts. You know, she’s almost like our shadow side, right? She’s pure instinct, and that instinct can be good or bad. It’s pure id. I hope people stay with her through her ups and downs. It’s a ghost story, and in most ghost stories, the ghost is up to some mischief. So we have to forgive her a little bit for those things because Rosemary, from that other side of the ectoplasm, she’s going to stir up some trouble. That’s just in her nature. But hopefully, people will still enjoy her and relate to her.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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