Executive Producer and writer Charlotte Stoudt (Fosse/Verdon, House of Cards, Homeland) wasn’t quite sure she was up to the task of taking on the third season of The Morning Show (Apple TV+) as the showrunner, but her anxieties were quickly eclipsed by her desire to unapologetically put the women of the series into their rightful positions of power. Stoudt is no stranger to journalism, albeit on the entertainment side, having written on the arts for the LA Times, the Village Voice, and Variety. Her ultimate interest in venturing into the world of the cutthroat hard television newsroom of The Morning Show was to answer the question, “How are powerful women complicit in patriarchy?”
The result was a healthy collaboration with creators and writers Jay Carson and Kerry Ehrin to bring female-centric issues into focus on the fictional streaming television network UBA, where news anchors Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), and newcomer Christina Hunter (Nicole Beharie) would report on stories that ironically were making the headlines in the real news. One of those issues included the overturning of “Roe v. Wade,” in an episode that was penned by Stoudt and the writers and fast-tracked due to the eerie timeliness of the Supreme Court’s “Dobbs v. Jackson” decision leak in May 2022. Stoudt explores the shakeup from the men in the series, UBA CEO Cory (Billy Crudup) and tech billionaire Paul Marks (Jon Hamm), plotting to “save” the streamer from going under, putting the women into high gear to steadfastly challenge this looming hostile takeover.
Above The Line spoke over Zoom with Charlotte Stoudt, who thoughtfully shared her views on what she wanted to accomplish for Season Three and how what she read in the media inspired the storylines. She discusses the addition of new cast members Paul Marks (Hamm) and Christina Hunter (Beharie) and how they impacted the world of The Morning Show. In essence, Stoudt wanted to shake things up a bit.
(NOTE: There are spoilers for the Season 3 finale in this interview.)
Above The Line: Good morning, and nice to meet you. It’s Halloween so if the doorbell rings I apologize!
Charlotte Stoudt: You can hand out that candy. It’s more important. Nice to meet you as well.
ATL: I’ve been watching this show since the beginning. Tell me how it came about for you to join as showrunner in Season Three.
Stoudt: It really was just my agent who mentioned that Kerry Ehrin was stepping away [as showrunner] after two seasons. At first, I thought, “Oh, I’m terrible. I’m such a bad idea. I could never do a show like that.” And then I started thinking about it and realized it scared me to death, so I should do it.
ATL: Do you have any kind of background in journalism? Did you know that world of hard news?
Stoudt: I worked for the Village Voice for a while, and I was a reporter for the LA Times, so I was kind of aware of the print journalism world. I kind of knew about that, but certainly I didn’t work in the sort of television news world. But I knew some people who did some of that, but still, it was a big leap for me for sure. It was not a world I particularly knew.
ATL: So walk me through how you found your way into the show.
Stoudt: One thing I thought I really loved was the simplicity. It was asking a question that no one I had seen before asked, which is: How are powerful women complicit in patriarchy? I think that was a really smart and provocative question. Except for parts of Mad Men, I can’t think of another show like that really does much of that, so that interested me a lot. I am also interested in how people exist in a larger world, how we are all citizens of the world, and how these big news events actually impact us and how we see things. So that again was something that attracted me. It was really just, how do I get into the story? I think when I read an article about the Sony hack, I was like, “Oh, I think I see what I could do here.” So that was kind of my way in, reading about the Sony hack and the intense emotional fallout from that hack. I was like, “Oh, that’s juicy.”
ATL: There’s a lot of juicy stories in this season, one of which is the episode about Roe vs, Wade being overturned. Did you and the writers have a premonition?
Stoudt: You know, we were always thinking about it. When we first met in the writers room, we knew the Supreme Court decision was going to come down in a few months. So we were expecting it, but we weren’t expecting the leak, and I was struck by that. We were already going to do some kind of event. There was always going to be an episode where Paul and Alex had to pretend that they were just colleagues but had actually already started seeing each other, so we knew we wanted a public-private kind of episode. And then, when that leak happened, I was like, This is what we need to add to the story. It can elevate the public-private conversation because it’s just really about the unilateral way in which a woman’s control over her body can be taken away, just like that, so it felt important. There’s so much rage that has been pent up with Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, and it just felt like I wanted to see somebody just melt down over this topic on screen. So it was very satisfying to watch Chris get really mad. She was holding a lot of our feelings.
ATL: This is certainly a show that keeps up with current events.
Stoudt: You can’t write too far ahead unless something absolutely crazy happens. I was interested in the metaphor of Russia and Ukraine—what happens when a strong man comes into a place that’s in trouble or is weaker and tries to take over? I’m not saying Paul Marks is Putin, but there are certain resonances for me with the invasion of Ukraine. Back to Roe, we knew what we were going to hear about in the early summer, and we just felt like that was completely central to the show and the theme. So we really wanted to deal with that. We knew the ruling was going to come down, but we just didn’t know what was going to happen in the aftermath of that, and that was the shocking part. Misogyny is worse than you think. It’s more pervasive, deep, systemic, and total than you could even imagine on this show. I don’t know why I’m always shocked by that, but it’s really so bad. Episode 1 is this little runner about abortion pills, and wow, we had no idea! And Bradley says the pills are the next battleground. I mean, someone else suggested that line, and I put it in, and I was like, well, I guess we’ll see. And then, lo and behold, the pills became the next battleground. It turned out to be such a seismic thing for American women.
ATL: What other sort of headlines inspired the stories in the season?
Stoudt: I certainly wanted to address George Floyd and the aftermath of that. We had a long discussion about the best way to do that. We didn’t want any stories about a cop who shoots somebody. That just didn’t feel like the show, and it felt like we couldn’t bring anything original to that. But I had been reading about these micro-aggressions in these casual emails that were in workplaces where people got into trouble. Early on in the writer’s room, we discussed a way to look at racism, where we think we’re all in a post-George Floyd era, but actually we’re not at all. So what form would that take on something like the Morning Show, where it’s more insidious and the reaction to the email is as much the story as the email itself, where white characters scramble to say, “Well, I’m not like that?” It was a sort of a mad rush to say it’s not me, and it was also a chance to really spend time with Chris, this new character, and learn that she was a fish out of water and learning her way through the ways of UBA. She got, I want to say, a crash test. She’s thrown into the deep end right away with this leaked email.
ATL: Another new cast member is Jon Hamm in the role of tech billionaire Paul Marks. Was he always your first choic for the role?
Stoudt: He was certainly the frontrunner, and obviously, Jennifer Aniston had strong feelings about who she wanted to play opposite. I mean, obviously, Jon is just an amazing actor, and he’s beyond Mad Men; he’s done so many interesting, different kinds of things. But it was really like, who can play opposite her? Who is a man who would really make her cross a line? I mean, you had to be pretty special, so he seemed like a good fit. I think Jon’s style of acting is so grounded and minimalist in the right ways that he was a good foil to sort of the Alexes of the world who emote a lot, express a lot, and talk a lot. He’s much more like I talk when I need to. Just rhythmically, he was the right kind of person to sort of put in the band.
ATL: Maybe this is a casting question, but who else was considered for that role that you can talk about?
Stoudt: (laughs) That’s confidential, not going there!
ATL: Was his character based on Elon Musk?
Stoudt: Paul Marks is an amalgam, and he is a little bit Elon. He’s a little bit [Amazon Chairman] Jeff Bezos, and I always mention Alex Karp [CEO of Palantir Technologies], who doesn’t quite have the wealth of these other guys but is a sort of stealth billionaire in the tech space and has created some of these data analysis and data aggregation software that has been used for good and possibly for ill as well. Alex Karp doesn’t seek the headlines, and he’s smart to stay in the shadows, and I think that’s allowed him to make a lot of progress in his work and his business without having too many eyes on him.
ATL: One of my favorite characters is the head of UBA, played by Billy Crudup, who has really come into his own this season.
Stoudt: I think Billy is just one of those people. He’s one of the reasons people write and direct. I mean, he’s such a joy. When you see him on the call sheet, everyone’s like, “It’s Billy Day!” People just adore him because he’s just all in as an actor. He’ll try anything. He’s brave. He works so hard. He’s really just extraordinary. It’s one thing to sort of throw spit balls from the sidelines. You’re actually in charge; it’s a whole different thing. When the buck stops with you, it’s not as fun because you can’t go, “Well, I wouldn’t do it like that. You have to do it.” So, I was sort of interested in what happens when Cory is in the big chair and the place is really in trouble and he’s got to save it, and to what extremes is he going to go to keep the doors open? One of them is making this alliance with this very tricky guy (Paul Marks). I think Cory was sort of turned on by a little of the trickiness, and then Paul is like the unavailable woman that you’re always longing for. And how can he stalk him and kind of reel him into UBA?
ATL: What’s your favorite departments to liaise with?
Stoudt: I really love the whole process. I’m a real process geek, and I love when someone has the right lamp in a room that’s on. I’m so happy! I do believe in every detail and every person. I’m very moved by a film crew because a good film crew is one of the most functional things on earth. When everyone is moving in the same direction and they’re respectful of you doing this and I’m doing this and I trust you, it’s really a great model for how communities can work. I love directors because they’re going to make it better. They’re going to take a scene that someone types and thinks about in some way and give it a cinematic aspect. I always like to see how a director will translate something on the page to the screen. I really think it’s important to be visual and also to give an audience a break from language and just to have images of these silent moments, just moments that have music where we’re just with people, and it’s not pushing the story directly. I love those moments.
ATL: Not to give too much away, but the women of UBA finally get their due. Can you talk about how they rise up?
Stoudt: It did feel inevitable that the women had to save the day. There’s a saying, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.” So it’s not like they can say, “OK, good; we’re done now.” It’s really just the beginning of trying to see if we can do it better. Can we do it differently? You know, it’s really an open question and a question for season four.
ATL: Let’s talk about the two women who run the show, played by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. They are both incredibly accomplished, powerful business women as well as producers on the show. How do you work with them?
Stoudt: You’re absolutely right. I mean, they have their hands in so many things. They’re producers. They’re remarkable people. Once we have something to say, and if it’s a little messy about the season, we, of course, speak to both of them. For season three, we certainly sat down, and we usually start with emotion and the journey they’re going to take emotionally. And then what is the storyline that supports that emotional journey? They have feedback and suggestions, and they’re giving us notes on scripts and everything.
ATL: Can you can you give me a specific example where they changed something in the script?
Stoudt: It was a very small scene, but a really wonderful full scene that Jen added. In the episode where Alex goes to Paul’s house in Malibu to interview him, right before the interview, he leans forward and says, “So how are we reacting? We’ve never met. We don’t know each other. Like, how are we playing this?” And, you know, she gives him the advice, and that was really Jen’s idea to add that moment because that’s something she’s experienced in her life when she does events. I thought it was a great addition because he’s really asking a question that is the basic question of their relationship. What are we to each other? Do we know each other? What is this exactly? He’s acknowledging that the line is a little blurry. Then obviously, as the episode goes on, it blurs even more, but that was sort of a great example of Jen going. we should add this moment, and it also created added tension before the interview, and there was a little bit of sexual energy there.
ATL: I’m also imagining that Jennifer weighed in on the intimacy between her and Jon Hamm in that sex scene?
Stoudt: All credit goes to team leaders Jen and Jon for that one. I was not on set that day, and they were amazing. We were thrilled.
ATL: Are you surprised at how this show has touched the zeitgeist?
Stoudt: Listen, you know you do this stuff and you work like crazy, and you’re just in your tunnel, and you’re like, I hope this makes sense, is good, and people like it. And oh, my God, it’s terrifying to put this out in the world. I guess I’m just glad it resonated because people worked very hard and the writers really put their hearts and souls into it. I guess I’m relieved that it’s resonating with people. It’s satisfying, but you can just never predict when something is going to hit. Is it not going to hit? Do people like it? Is it too soon? Is it too late to talk about certain things? You’re just in Vegas, rolling the dice. You just don’t know.
ATL: Why do you think the show has resonated so much with the audience?
Stoudt: I think we’ve been going through such a crazy time, and I think obviously with COVID, and just finally, a lot of white people are really realizing the depth of systemic racism in the country and just having to truly face it. Watching an image and going, this is real; this is our country. I think the sort of certainties that privileged people lived with for a long time have eroded, and so people want to watch a story that either captures that or says, Yes, this is happening, but maybe there’s a way to get through it. I think I’m just really tired of patriarchy. This is really that simple. We don’t have to live like this. Why are we living like this? That, to me, is why I do the show.
All three seasons of The Morning Show are available to stream via Apple TV+.