Years ago, before Aaron Sorkin made Molly’s Game or The Trial of the Chicago 7, producer Todd Black and his then executive Jenna Block requested a meeting. Block had written her college thesis on Lucille Ball, and the two felt strongly that there was a movie in Ball’s story, and that the Oscar-winning screenwriter was the one to tell it.
Sorkin wasn’t so sure.
“It was about a year-and-a-half before a yes,” he acknowledges now, though he also says he almost always labors over such decisions as movies are gargantuan commitments of time and, before pen hits paper, he wants to be reasonably sure he can deliver. (The Social Network was the rare exception, says Sorkin: “I heard about the lawsuits against Mark Zuckerberg, and I said yes right away.”)
Still, he was interested enough to keep meeting with Black every few months, until he ultimately signed on. “There were just all of these interesting conflicts, and that’s what I’m looking for,” says Sorkin. “Points of friction that add up to something that you can write about.” The first one to capture his attention was the fact that Lucille Ball had been accused of being a communist, which he admits he knew nothing of going in. But there were other compelling points of friction, too: in the marriage between Lucy and Desi, for instance, and the fact that she, a midcentury sitcom star, was pregnant with their first child.
Before long, Sorkin settled on his structure: The Amazon Studios film would be set during a single production week of I Love Lucy, beginning with the Monday table read and ending with the Friday shoot before a studio audience. Sure, he’d sprinkle in flashbacks, showing Lucy and Desi’s tumultuous relationship and steps along the couple’s path to the beloved 1950s series, but everything else, for the sake of the narrative, would take place during those few days in September 1952. Once a script was written, Nicole Kidman was hired as Lucy, and Javier Bardem came aboard as Desi. The cast was filled out by J.K. Simmons (as William Frawley) and Nina Arianda (Vivian Vance), and Sorkin agreed he’d direct as well, marking his third go-round in that dual role.
Ahead of Being the Ricardos’ theatrical release on Dec. 10, followed by its Prime Video rollout Dec. 21, Sorkin opened up to The Hollywood Reporter about the controversies surrounding the casting of Kidman and Bardem, the parallels to recent notions of cancel culture, and the power of Lucy and Desi’s real-life daughter’s endorsement.
What did you want the film to say about Lucy, about Desi and about their relationship?
Beyond the accusation of communism, there were other things that really interested me, like the fact that Lucille Ball was nothing like Lucy Ricardo, and she looked nothing like Lucy Ricardo. She’s kind of like Charlie Chaplin in that way. When most people think of Charlie Chaplin, they think of the Little Tramp, but Chaplin doesn’t look anything like Little Tramp. And when most people think of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, they’re thinking of Lucy and Ricky. But Lucille Ball was more of a Rita Hayworth, Jessica Rabbit-looking actress. And the road that she took to I Love Lucy was an interesting one. The road that Desi took to I Love Lucy was an interesting one.
So, I was interested in the contrast between Lucy and Ricky and Lucy and Desi, and then throw in a kind of strained relationship that Lucille Ball had with Vivian Vance, and throw in the kind of Damon Runyon character that William Frawley was, and suddenly there were these stories to tell. The fact that, for instance, Desi came from a culture that had a very narrow definition of manhood, and as hard as he tried, and as much as he loved Lucy and really admired and respected her talent, it was difficult for him to be second banana. And Desi himself was an extraordinarily talented man. As Lucy said, “He would’ve been a movie star if there was such a thing as a Cuban movie star.” So, what I look for is interesting points of friction, and they were springing up all over the place.
I think it’s fair to say that Lucy is one of the most significant female figures of the 20th century not to have gotten the film treatment before now. What kind of pressure does that come with for you?
In terms of pressure, I kind of max out no matter what. I don’t think there’s ever been a time I’ve written something meant for other people to see that I didn’t feel the maximum amount of pressure. But as word got out that I was doing this, what I discovered is that there are people who are really passionate about I Love Lucy. For me, it’s nostalgic. I remember watching I Love Lucy reruns when I was home sick from school. It’s not a show that if we took a fresh look at today, we’d think was funny, I don’t think. But there are people who consider those four people their best friends. So, I knew that that was out there, but it’s not like, “Well, now I really better write a good movie.” I’ve been trying to do that all along. I was aware that for the actress who gets cast, we’re asking a lot of her and we’re putting her in the crosshairs, so I want to do right by that actress. I really want to build a ship that won’t sink.
When it came to casting, how did you navigate what you wanted and what audience expectations would be? And, to that end, how do you prepare whoever you decide to cast for the almost inevitable blowback?
I couldn’t cast Desi until we had our Lucy. What I needed was someone who absolutely owns it. And you’re going to choose from a small pool of world-class actresses. This isn’t for beginners, as Lucy says. This was going to be a kind of tour de force performance. And then when Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem and J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda say they want to do your movie, your casting search is over. You start out making graphs and charts and this and things like that, and then suddenly it gets easy.
There have been some pretty vocal critics of Nicole Kidman’s casting, and I believe their primary issue is that she doesn’t look like the woman they watched on TV for all those years. What do you make of the blowback?
We made this movie during COVID, and so in Zooming with Nicole and Javier and everyone else, I’d make it very clear to them that I am not looking for a physical or vocal impersonation of these people. Leading up to the first rehearsal, I’d write to them every day, “Just play the characters who are in the script.” I know that Nicole was working on Lucy’s voice for a while, and I wanted to relieve her of that. As far as audience anticipation, that’s something I’m just not worried about. I’m certain that when people see the movie, they’ll leave feeling that Nicole has made a very solid case for herself, but moreover, I’ve found that you can really leverage low expectations. I learned that with The Social Network. People assumed it was going to be a romantic comedy, where, like, Paul Rudd “friends” Drew Barrymore and they fall in love. And I just thought, “Great, they’re not expecting what they’re about to see.”
And you think the same will be true of Being the Ricardos?
I do. Now, the fact of the matter is when Nicole, as Lucille Ball, plays Lucy Ricardo, I think she does an incredible job of mimicking Lucy. Same with Javier, Nina and J.K. But there is, in total, less than three minutes of I Love Lucy in this film, and the only reason the I Love Lucy material is there is because we’re in Lucy’s head and we’re seeing that she is a comedic chess master, that she can project ahead to what [the show] is going to look like on Friday night, and how the audience is going to react and whether this joke is going to work. So, finding an actress who looked like Lucille Ball wasn’t important to me, especially because I was excited by the idea that Lucille Ball doesn’t look like Lucille Ball — and that every time we’re seeing Lucille Ball not as Lucy Ricardo, she should both literally and metaphorically let her hair down. Let her be what she’s not allowed to be on TV in 1952 on CBS. Let her be a woman. Let her be sexy. You weren’t allowed to be sexy on TV.
Not at that time, no.
TV was a family proposition in its infancy. And looking at these home movies that [her daughter] Lucie Arnaz gave me of Lucy and Desi just hanging out by the pool, you have to look twice, like, is that Marilyn? She’s not at all Lucy Ricardo. And I was excited by that contrast.
Your decision to cast Javier as Ricky plays into a larger conversation that’s being had about who can play what, and already we’ve seen the Latinx community be vocal with its displeasure over a Spanish actor playing the part of a Cuban. Were those conversations you and the producers were having from the beginning? Presumably, you were aware that this was going to be a narrative?
First of all, Amazon’s casting department had a Latina casting consultant [who was focused on all Latinx casting] on board. I found out, for instance, because there was an actor who I was considering who’s Brazilian, and I was told by the casting consultant that Brazilians aren’t considered [Hispanic] because they speak Portuguese. So, Javier is Spanish and the casting consultant was fine with it. But I don’t want to use the casting consultant as cover. I want to tell you my opinion on this and I stand by it, which is this: Spanish and Cuban aren’t actable, OK? They’re not actable. By the way, neither are straight and gay. Because I know there’s a small movement underway that only gay actors should play gay characters. Gay and straight aren’t actable. You could act being attracted to someone, but most nouns aren’t actable.
We know when we’re being demeaning. We know that blackface is demeaning because of its historical context, because you’re making ridiculous cartoon caricatures out of people. We know that Mickey Rooney with the silly piece in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and that makeup, doing silly Japanese speak, we know that’s demeaning. This is not, I felt. Having an actor who was born in Spain playing a character who was born in Cuba was not demeaning. And it wasn’t just the casting consultant who agreed, Lucy and Desi’s Cuban American daughter didn’t have a problem with it. So, I’m very comfortable with it.
I’m curious what parallels you see between the McCarthy era in Hollywood and cancel culture today?
There are parallels. Obviously, the House [Un-American Activities Committee], Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn, had the force of government behind them. They could lock people up.
And Twitter doesn’t have that power?
Well, here’s the power that Twitter has …
I was kidding, but also kind of not.
No, no, I know what you’re saying, but the bad guys during the blacklist, it wasn’t just Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn would have been powerless if it wasn’t for this other committee whose job it was, if the network wants to hire me on a television series, it was their job to tell the network whether that was OK, whether a guy who owned a couple of supermarkets on Long Island was going to be OK with the network advertising their product during my show. If the studio heads and network heads had told these groups to take a walk, and had just not listened to them, everything would have been fine. And so, for instance, if we were to talk about Dave Chappelle for a moment, I certainly could make a rebuttal argument against a number of the points that he makes in his special, but I have absolutely no argument with Netflix and Ted Sarandos for putting it on their platform, and what we need are more people to say no to — and that’s what Twitter is, Twitter is that committee that says whether or not you can abuse someone, and they must be ignored. Actually, I’ll use another example a little closer to home, if you don’t mind.
My play, To Kill a Mockingbird, had to shut down along with everyone else a year ago March, when Covid came along, and during that year and a half, five different school districts in the country banned the teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird, along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men. And people will point out to me, “Well, they use the N-word in To Kill a Mockingbird.” Isn’t it better to have a discussion in class about this? Isn’t it an opportunity to talk about that word and why that word is almost holy in its power? In other words, I just strongly believe, and now more than ever when we’re living in a frighteningly divided culture, that people talking to each other is the way out and that banning things isn’t. Banning books, banning people. Now, I want to be clear, it’s one thing if someone is spreading dangerous misinformation or if because of someone’s speech, people are getting beaten up or worse, that’s entirely different. But just someone offending you? I just think that’s the cost of doing business in a free society.
I think that there are layers to it …
There are, it’s very nuanced. And again, I’d be all-in on having a discussion about this.
As you’ve often said, writing is a long, intense process for you. I’m curious how writing this compared to others?
There was no one alive to talk to for this, for first-hand research. We made contact with a man who was a camera operator on I Love Lucy, but he wasn’t able to tell me much that I needed. And there are books, but most of the books, frankly, aren’t very good. They were written for I Love Lucy fans, so there’s not going to be any bad news in there. Desi wrote an autobiography, however, and he’s a great storyteller, so there were some terrific stories and he doesn’t mind giving you bad news. What was also very helpful was the home movie footage that Lucie Arnaz, their daughter, was able to provide. You had asked me what drew me to this, and one thing was just how different these two were from what the perception of them was and continues to be. Again, people will say, “Who’s playing Fred?” Or, “Who’s playing Ethel?” And I have to remind them that it’s J.K. Simmons who’s playing William Frawley and Ariana who’s playing Vivian Vance, and they are playing Fred and Ethel. But Lucy, in particular, was not an easy woman, and I just saw the potential for scenes that could add up to something. And I thought, “OK, if I swing well, I’ll hit it.”
Why do you think Lucille Ball has not gotten the film treatment until now?
That’s probably better asked to Lucie Arnaz, who I should point out was very helpful in getting me to a yes. We all had lunch together, and she said to me, “I know my mother wasn’t an easy woman. Take the gloves off.” In other words, you can go for it. And without that …
You wouldn’t have moved forward?
No, I don’t think so.
Lucie actually came to the set when you were filming some of the flashback scenes. Am I right to assume that you felt flashback would be easier for her to sit through than those that depict her parents’ marital struggles?
For Nicole’s sake, I had said, “Listen, Lucie can’t come to the set. I can’t ask Nicole to play her mother in front of her.” And then Nicole invited Lucie to the set. (Laughs.)
She’s since come out and given you and the film what I imagine is a very important endorsement. Before that, she said that there were things that she had hoped you’d take out. What were they?
Let me say, first of all, if anybody did a movie about my parents, no matter how great the writer or the director, no matter how great the actors, no matter how well they captured my parents, I can’t imagine liking the movie. So, I really love Lucie Arnaz for the public statements that she made. There was a while when she had trouble getting her arms around the fact that I was taking these three incidents — what we call the “Red Scare,” Desi showing up on the cover of Confidential magazine with another woman with the headline “Desi’s Wild Night Out,” and Lucy being pregnant — and I put them not just in the same year, but in the same week when those three things happened at three different times. And then there were little things that were important to her. For instance, at the table read, there are little name cards in front of everybody. It’ll say Karl Freund, director of photography, that kind of thing. She said, “There were no name cards.” And I said, “That’s OK. No one’s going to look at that and say that it doesn’t look or seem accurate, and those name cards are going to be helpful to me.” So, that’s what she was reacting to. Then she saw the movie and then saw it again the next night with an audience sitting next to me and Nicole, and I think that’s when she saw what we were after, what for several years I’d only been talking about.
You didn’t go in knowing that this would be something you’d direct. So, how was that decision ultimately made?
I wrote the script, and Todd and I met with a couple of really great directors. While that was happening, I made [The Trial of the] Chicago 7, and then Todd saw Chicago 7 and asked me to direct Being the Ricardos. That was an easy yes.
The last few things that you’ve written, you have also directed. Do you think you can go back, and are you interested in going back, to writing things that you don’t direct? I ask because I remember hearing you, a couple years ago, talking about wanting to do a Social Network sequel but not unless David Fincher was on board to direct.
It’s amazing because I actually had a phone call about that very subject this morning. Have we really gone nowhere since the time I said that? What progress has been made? The answer to your question is no, I am not done wanting to work with great directors, and Fincher would certainly be on the top of that list.
Do you still want to make that movie?
Well, I don’t want to make news here. I think what has been going on with Facebook these last few years is a story very much worth telling, and there is a way to tell it as a follow up to The Social Network, and that’s as much as I know.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.