Boston’s Frankie Shaw does it all on ‘SMILF’
Frankie Shaw is curled in a leather armchair in her Charlestown office, a paper cup of coffee in each hand. Her gaze shifts to a wall calendar covered in neon sticky notes detailing meticulously planned weeks of script rewrites and filming.
“When I was writing in LA for so long, this would’ve been the ultimate dream of mine,” she says. “It’s so fulfilling to be able to do it.”
Shaw is a television wunderkind. At 30, the Brookline native acts, directs, executive produces, and writes for the half-hour comedy “SMILF,” which premieres Sunday on Showtime. The series, set in South Boston, draws from her own experiences as a struggling actress and single mother.
Though Shaw is now married to writer-producer Zach Strauss and her son, Isaac, is 9, the juggling act is far from over. The series began shooting in late August, first in Los Angeles and more recently in Southie. When she isn’t acting, Shaw’s showrunner duties involve overseeing most of the production process. Which explains why she’s double-fisting cups of coffee on this October morning.
“It’s funny,” she says. “Making the show is like being a single mom. It’s so hard and so much work, and there’s a singular focus.”
“SMILF” aims to portray motherhood honestly, straying from the Mrs. Bradys of sitcoms past. Shaw plays Bridgette Bird, an impulsive twentysomething with a knack for saying the wrong thing. Connie Britton and Rosie O’Donnell costar, respectively, as Ally, Bridgette’s unstable boss with three teenagers of her own, and Tutu, Bridgette’s combative mother.
None has mastered being a mom. And that’s the point, Shaw says.
“I feel like we talk a lot about having high standards of motherhood, but we don’t [get into] the nitty gritty of how moms are not totally supported culturally, politically, or in the workforce,” she adds. “It’s exciting for me to bring a bunch of different moms on our show and talk about it from their point of view.”
This desire to highlight diverse perspectives is what initially attracted Shaw to filmmaking. Growing up in Brookline, she thought she’d keep playing basketball as she had at Driscoll School and Milton Academy. But acting and photography courses at Barnard College “pointed the way for me,” she says.
Shaw found out she was pregnant right before she had planned to move to Los Angeles. Despite her family advising against it, she went to LA anyway and found a roommate on Craigslist. She took small parts over the next few years, moving around with Isaac until she landed a role in the 2014 ABC sitcom “Mixology.”
“That show was the first time I wasn’t like, ‘[Expletive], how do I pay for gas?’ ” Shaw says.
Other gigs, such as a seven-episode stint as a drug dealer on “Mr. Robot,” afforded her the opportunity to continue working on short films. A producer encouraged her to write a script depicting a grittier version of her own life, and it turned into “SMILF,” a nine-minute film that inspired the Showtime series. It won the Short Film Jury Award at Sundance in 2015.
“It’s sort of writing what you know, right?” Shaw says of the show. “There are inherent aspects of the character that are similar to me, obviously a lot more exaggerated. The seedlings for some of the stories are real, and then the basic architecture or some of the relationships are real.”
With “SMILF,” Shaw showcases the Southie she experienced growing up, one dominated by strong-willed women rather than foul-mouthed mobsters. Her mother’s family is from the neighborhood, and Shaw used to spend every weekend with her aunts and grandmother on East 4th Street.
“I want to give you more Boston stuff,” Shaw says, eager to reminisce. The story that comes to mind is when she and a friend ditched high school to hang out on Castle Island, where she encountered a friend of her mother’s who spontaneously gave each girl $50. Shaw shrugs, adding that her mother “had some friends who were maybe on the gangster side of things.”
“We were like, this is so much money for free,” she says, laughing. “We went into my brother’s bar and tried to order a drink, and he almost got fired. He was so pissed.”
Even some of the locations depicted onscreen in the series are personal. For the pilot, the crew built the set for Bridgette’s apartment in the living room of the house Shaw’s mother grew up in, and the exterior of Tutu’s home is where a family friend once lived. The week after this interview, Shaw was planning to film at the Black Rose, the bar where her parents met.
At the mention of “next week,” the conversation pivots to scheduling once more. Shaw lets out a small sigh. She tells herself that if she just makes it to the end of December, she’ll be able to take a break.
“Honestly, I’m a little bit of a shell of a human right now,” she says. “The only thing I can talk or think about is the show. I was telling my husband this is what it feels like when you have an infant.”
If “SMILF” gets picked up for another season, Shaw hopes to film it entirely in Boston. But for the time being, her wish for the show is much simpler.
“I just hope that people watch and enjoy it and see themselves in it,” she says. “That’s it.”