How Frances and Robert’s Backstory Came to Be in “Ohio”
By Marissa Blanchard
Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and showrunner Jenny Bicks discuss the challenges of creating a loving past for a failed marriage.
HBO: What was it like to work on Frances and Robert’s backstory?
Sarah Jessica Parker: It was really fun. Adam Resnick wrote it and he’s a writer that I just adore. We worked hard to squeeze as much of the past as you could illustrate in an episode. You finally get to see why Frances and Robert were together; you see some of their goodness.
The problem with our show dealing with divorce is that I don’t get to work with Thomas as much as I would love to, so this was an episode where we really got to be together. Opposite Thomas Haden Church is a place I really like to be as an actor.
Thomas Haden Church: That may be my favorite episode, when I go to see my father. Even though Robert first tells Frances, “No you are just going to distract me and I have to focus on my family,” she shows up and it turns out to be the most rewarding dynamic that she would have provided. We touch on a little of what used to be, which I thought was very sweet and passionate. It’s something about them that they may never be able to extinguish. There are some nice, quiet moments with SJ.
Jenny Bicks: A very important thing for me coming into this season was to understand what had brought these two people together. When we meet them in Season 1, they are so against each other and the extremes of who they could be. It was hard to understand sometimes if they were ever really in love.
This was a great opportunity to go back in time in a way and look at what brought them together and see the connection that they once had. It’s so much fun to create a backstory, especially with Robert. To give him this crazy sister and see him have to deal with her, you really fall in love with him because who wants that sister? He is very much the solid son that never gets the credit.
HBO: Robert’s sister Cathy (played by Amy Sedaris) brings up old grudges in this episode. How did you develop this dynamic?
Sarah Jessica Parker: I was really excited to tell that story, as well as to have Amy Sedaris, who is just so spectacular and an old friend. We worked on that scene a lot and it was really fun. We were working with the director, Janicza [Bravo], who I’ve known for awhile, and I think her contributions to that episode are really valuable. We all worked really hard on that speech in particular thinking about what did we want it to be and what was the most important thing to convey.
Thomas Haden Church: Frances really takes on Amy’s character. Robert’s exhausted by it, it’s gone on for so long and it’s this really ridiculous competition between them. One of the things I loved is that Amy and I are really close in age in real life. I loved that the sibling rivalry could actually be organic.
As opposed to being three or five or more years apart, Amy and I are literally less than a year apart in age. She and SJ knew each other from a Broadway musical they did together and are really good friends. She’s a ball of beautiful energy that you either go along with it or you get sucked into the vortex because she’s not stopping for anybody.
HBO: What do you think it meant to Robert to have Frances stand up for him and tell off Cathy with such passion?
Thomas Haden Church: She did it in a way that Cathy was not defeated, but she definitely got a comeuppance whether she accepted it or not. That’s the thing with that sibling rivalry: Robert could never have done that. For him to even try, it’s just like two rocky mountain-sheep ramming into each other. She’s not accepting of Frances, but there’s not the same conflict and competition.
When Frances does approach her, at first she does it in a kind of gentle way and then drops the hammer — if you mess with him, I’ll be back and you’re going to be sorry. Frances threatens her, but like a lovely, dignified New York woman telling this ball-breaker sister to shut up.
HBO: Do you think Robert is ultimately happy that Frances came to Ohio?
Thomas Haden Church: Yes, for sure — or the episode wouldn’t have ended the way that it did. They originally wanted to have Jackie show up at Robert’s after he gets back, or him texting her to come over. I was against that; I just didn’t feel like it was necessary, and would undercut that emotional travel that Frances and Robert do together.
Sarah Jessica Parker: The knowledge about a partner of that many years after divorce is not erased from either your muscle memory or emotional instincts. I think her instinct that she should be there, and that he would do the same for her proved to be very good for them, and also as a means of building back a relationship of honor, respect and affection.