Meet Actress Italia Ricci & Co-Executive Producer Jessica Grasl of Designated Survivor
I was super excited to meet actress Italia Ricci & Co-Executive Producer Jessica Grasl of Designated Survivor during my time in LA for the #ABCTVEvent. I love getting to ask questions of the talent behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. There are so many moving part to producing an award winning television drama and it is not every day I get to be in the same room with the minds that make it all happen.
The group of 25 bloggers sat in the ABC building around a board table with Jessica Grasl on on end and Italia Ricci calling in on a video conference call on the other end. These two women shared more about themselves as women, about behind the scenes at the show and we laughed more than I expected to.
I remember in government class in middle school learning about the ‘designated survivor’ and I thought that was so smart and such a well thought out plan our forefathers had set into motion. And here was a show about that exact unfortunate event and the drama that happens in the aftermath. I love this show and how the storytelling comes together.
Here is out interview:
Italia Ricci stars as Emily Rhodes, Secretary Tom Kirkman’s chief of staff, on ABC’s popular drama “Designated Survivor.”
Most recently, the Ontario native Ricci had a recurring role on the CW series “Supergirl,” playing villain Siobhan Smythe – otherwise known as Silver Banshee. Ricci starred on ABC Family’s (now Freeform) “Chasing Life,” where she played the lead role of April, a twenty-something smart and quick-witted aspiring journalist, who is trying to work her way up the ladder at a Boston newspaper by trying to impress her hard-nosed editor.
Jessica Grasl has worked in television production for fourteen years and as a writer since 2008. Her credits include Leverage (TNT), Hawaii Five-0 (CBS), White Collar (USA), Proof (TNT), The Player (NBC), and Shades of Blue (NBC). She is currently writer/Co-Executive Producer on ABC’s Designated Survivor.
What does your storyboarding process look like? Is it whiteboards, is it sticky notes; what is that creative process?
It changes for every show. For Designated Survivor, it involves a ton of whiteboards, and a copious amount of markers and cleaner fluid. We start by writing things up on whiteboards and then once you get down to the nitty gritty, we put things on big index cards.
So for example, if we’re doing in Emily’s story, Emily would probably have her own color. If we’re doing Hannah and Damian’s story, that would have its own color. You can look at the board and track (the colors). Part of the process that I’m at with my episode is you take these parts down off the board, and you have a big stack of them, and then you try to make it make sense on an actual document, which is the really hard part.
It goes from, marker boards, to index cards, to computers. I’ve also worked on shows where you have magnets, which is really cool, so you can move the magnets around and shift things around as opposed to erasing and rewriting. So every show has a little bit of a different process but a lot involves a lot of writing, and erasing, and rewriting, so it gets into your brain.
How hard is it to keep those stories cohesive because each episode has its own storyline, but it all has to fit in under your own part.
So on my way over here, one of the writers was texting me: ‘so in your episode, where do we leave off with this character, and do we establish this?’ And I tell them, ‘No, we don’t. I think we’re setting that up in the next episode.’ It’s a puzzle and the challenge is that if something changes in episode fourteen, it affects what’s happening in episode fifteen and sixteen.
That’s the fun of a serialized show is you’re not just doing the beginning, middle and end in every episode. These things are continuing. You’ve got to be flexible because it’s all going to change. Sometimes it’s right before it starts shooting.
Is there ever a point where it too much drama?
I think that the challenge is probably more to make the drama compelling rather than complicated. I think that one of the challenges of storytellers is we have six acts to tell in an X amount of time. You need to have the story- it has to keep moving. And what we always have to be aware of is how many times are we sort of twisting things. Is intriguing? Or does that just become confusing?
How did the writers know what to write? It’s like you are right there in the White House.
Luckily we do have really good consultants. We always have somebody on our staff who used to work in the White House. I knock on his door all the time.
On the episode that I wrote which was last week, it took place on a Navy ship. I know nothing about the Navy. You can go to Wikipedia, and then you grabbed a lot of books, and there a lot of really boring books on my desk about ships. But I also got to spend a bunch of time on the phone with, an admiral. He’s a contributor on CNN. I was bragging to my dad, ‘I’m friends with that guy.’
That’s really fun about a show like this because it’s the White House. You’re not just solving crime every week; you’re not just dealing with political or law stories every week- every week. It’s like a new sandbox that you’re going to have to play in. Sometimes it is NATO, and sometimes there’s war brewing.
It is challenging because you’re never gonna feel like an expert. Every episode, you have to dive into this whole new world and become an expert. And then you [Need to be an] expert enough to not sound like an idiot before forty-four minutes of television which is where our consultants help us not look like idiots, a lot.
You’re in a position of power as a woman. What do you want to share with other women and girls who watch?
I hope that she is able to portray that women are just as smart, just as strong, and just as tough, present, and capable as a man in that world, if not better. I think I’m a better Chief of Staff than Aaron was, but you know, I’m a little biased.
I like the idea of saying, ‘Hey, we can do it, too, and we can wear killer heels while we do it!’ I really enjoy being able to push your own limits and really see what potential you don’t even know that you have. So I’ve really enjoyed that part about Emily.
What does a work day on the set look like?
It takes about nine days to shoot an episode, and there’s usually two days of that, where we are shooting two episodes at once, so it’s a lot. Our days are averaging between thirteen to sixteen hours. Then you go home and you have to learn your lines, you go to bed, and you wake up. It goes by so quickly through because it’s so fun. When you finish it, you’re like, ‘did we really shoot that full episode already?’
It’s, it feels like it’s non-stop. But talking to Kal who worked in the White House, everybody sort of ends up dating because they never meet anybody else. You’re forced to sort of live within that building because you never go home, and you never have a chance to relax. It’s sort of is your life
And then touching back on the authenticity- shooting in the White House is amazing because they’ll be like, that’s not- that would never happen. That would never happen- that would never… And they’re like, oh, artistic incorrectness- stop it, stop it!
Do you have any freedom to say, I would like her to be stronger for this, or I would like her to shy away from this political issue.
I can but no, not really. There’s so many people involved, and so many storylines. I have a lot of trust in our writing team.
How similar or what personally traits you share with anybody?
I seem always to get lucky enough to play very, confident, smart ambitious women that I kind of feel like if I wasn’t an actor, I would hopefully have been. I would like to think that that’s what I would be like if in an alternate universe.
How would you compare working on Chasing Life with working on Designated Survivor?
Well, in Chasing Life, I was the main character, so I was like the on-set team captain, if you will, and that was Kiefer who was a way more professional athlete! I’m so lucky to just be able to watch and learn from him. But what’s kind of cool is, don’t you think that maybe April could’ve grown up and been Emily?
In writing a political drama, how do you balance the politics in the drama without making it too political?
I think that the Kirkman White House, lives in a different universe. Obviously it started from a very unique place which, God forbid, our actual U.S. history has never experienced. I think it’s been really exciting to sort of live in a space that feels so different from real world. I mean, regardless of who’s in the White House, it’s very different from Tom Kirkman being in the White House. Something we have really gotten to explore a lot this year because we’ve sort moved past the crisis point and the rubble, if you will, and now it’s about Kirkman and his team. And his administration moving the country forward into Kirkman’s vision. And so really, as writers, that’s the world that we live in.
Obviously, we all read, the newspapers, and we follow the news, and sometimes we pull stories from things that are happening. Last week was based on the thing that actually happened.
What is so weird, this has happened five times. We will shoot an episode, and while we’re shooting it, it will actually happen. We were shooting an episode about the statue-that whole rally happened. We were shooting an episode about the ship- the ship happened. I can’t go on farther, so I’ll be spoiling it, but things just keep happening! I was like, you know, you should write an episode where Emily wins, a million dollars. It was just freaky!
It is freaky and sometimes that’s awesome because you’re like, oh, that’s great, we’re really sort of tapping into something that people are living through, and sometimes it’s really complicated, you know? And when an episode really pre-dealt with the Confederate statue issue, and then all of a sudden the Confederate statue issue became something the whole world was talking about.
That’s awesome, but also you wanna be sensitive. So it’s a fine line that we walk as writers. I just get really excited that I get to go to work every day and live in Kirkman’s world. His vision for America and be a part of that. Escapism maybe not a place you wanna live in all the time, but we’re artists. It’s a nice Camelot to get to live in five days a week.
Designated Survivor is on ABC on Wednesday at 10/9c