I met Alex last year at a networking event (gag) for NYC Web Fest and immediately liked her. We somehow managed to skip all of the small talk bullshit and actually have an interesting conversation about film, art, and the difficulties of negotiating a pay raise. Post-festival, we've enjoyed a really nice digital pen pal situation and have occasionally met up when I've been back in the city. She is an incredibly nice, thoughtful person with a wide range of professional and educational experience (she started her career as a lawyer). All of this comes through in "Roommating," her directorial debut, starring Ellen Adair and Kris Arnold, two actors who you might know from recent TV shows like "Billions" and "When They See Us."
I normally hate doing interviews with multiple people because it's hard to give everyone equal consideration, but this one was enjoyable. Alex and Kris are former roommates (the script is loosely based on their experience) and have also grown close to Ellen after working with her on the show. Our discussion felt more like a conversation between old friends than something I was 100% facilitating, which I always appreciate. Before we get started, here's an overview of the series.
"Roommating" is a comedy web series about Vivian (Adair) and Nick (Arnold), two roommates who, after seeing a flyer for a paid study, decide to lie about their relationship and attend marriage counseling together. It's the perfect situation because she's trying to work on self-improvement, and he needs to pay his half of the rent. Although their therapist a bit unconventional, they actually learn a lot about themselves and benefit from the experience in unexpected ways.
This series is a sprinkle of Woody Allen, a dash of Upper West Side charm, and a will-they-won't-they storyline that ends on an unexpected note. It's not particularly heavy, but deeper than a frothy romcom.
Best time to watch:
Check out an episode next time you have ten minutes to spare (or watch the entire series in less than 45). People always ask me how I find time to watch so many shows/movies, but it's really not that difficult. It's especially easy with web series because the episodes are short and easy to get through while doing mundane tasks, like waiting for a dentist appointment. I'd rather consume something with an artistic POV instead of mindlessly scrolling through Instagram.
Worst time to watch:
Where to watch:
You can watch the entire first season on the Roommating website.
Interview with Ellen Adair, Kris Arnold, and Alexandra Dell:
WiR: Alex, how did you come up with the idea for this project and why did you decide to make it a web series?
AD: As art imitates life, Kris and I were roommates and wanted to collaborate on a project. We thought a web series would work best because it seemed more accessible and less time consuming than a short. One night, we were hanging out, talking about our feelings, and realized how much we could both use therapy. We couldn't afford it individually, so we joked that maybe we could go together and split the cost.
KA: Couples therapy.
AD: We thought that maybe our significant others could benefit. It was a funny premise ... two roommates attending couples therapy and seeing what happens. That was the germ of the idea and then we just took it from there. It all came together after we set up auditions and found Ellen through a casting director. She was by far the best person for the role.
Did you try to make the therapy scenes feel authentic? The office you filmed in looks like the real deal.
AD: My friend is a therapist and was nice enough to let us use her office. We unfortunately did not ask the building if it was okay, so we got thrown out before filming was complete. The other day, someone said to me, "I love all of the close-ups in the second therapy scene." Honestly, those exist because we had to attempt to recreate the office in my apartment.
As for the authenticity, a few therapist friends (including the aforementioned) read the script and gave me pointers about how to make it better ... more realistic, but still offbeat.
Ellen and Kris, how did you interpret those therapy scenes? Do you feel like the characters treated them seriously?
EA: I think Vivian definitely treated them seriously and tried to benefit from them. Nick was involved for the money, but she wanted to figure out how to work on herself and get over her last relationship.
I enjoyed the comedic aspects of the therapist and felt like they were plausible because she was part of this study, not someone getting paid $200/hour. It gave her room to act a little more casual and say semi-questionable things about her ex-husbands. One of my favorite sequences is when Judy, the therapist (Andrea Bianchi), asks what kind of [sexual] props they've been using, and they have to make it up on the fly. It comes after a moment where Vivian's really been touched by something and it sort of blindsides her when she realizes that she has to lie.
KA: Vivian owns self-help books and is more into figuring herself out, whereas Nick really isn't. Through osmosis, I think he reluctantly starts to grow.
After therapy, do you think Nick stays with his yoga instructor girlfriend, Kara (Victoria Davis)?
KA: I think the obvious guess is that she accuses him of being in love with his roommate and they break up ... I don't know, though.
EA: My favorite thing about her performance is the way she pauses in the middle of sentences. It's sort of like that NPR guy [Stephen Hill] from the space music show [Hearts of Space] a long time ago.
She was great, along with the entire auxiliary cast ... the therapist, all of Vivian's dates. In a way, the Upper West Side also becomes a character. Kris and Alex, is that where your original apartment together was?
AD: Yep! The therapist's office is there, we shot in Central Park ... we tried to use a lot of locations in the same area because they were meaningful to us. So many shows film in Brooklyn now and we wanted to show that the UWS can be cool. There might be strollers, but there are also some young-ish people here.
The Upper West Side is cool. It has those wide sidewalks and lots of green space ... maybe that's just me getting older.
That's a pro tip. Ellen and Kris, can you talk about your initial thoughts upon first reading the script? I'm interested in your first impressions of Vivian and Nick.
EA: We had some time to review the script together and work out what was going on between the characters. That was a very helpful way of collaborating and workshopping. We would make suggestions and then Alex would go away, think about it, and come back with a new scene. It was a fun process and helped me learn who Vivian is, what she's dealing with, and how her past relationships have impacted her. As an actor, I'm never really thinking about playing a character. I sort of just approach it like, "What if this were my life? How would I deal with this set of circumstances?" The character starts as me and then magically turns into someone else, which is my favorite thing.
KA: When the 3 of us got together for the first time for a read-through, it was an instant bond. Unlike most web series that people do, we had the time to meet beforehand a few times and go through the script scene-by-scene. Alex was able to answer questions, and she was great at being open to dialogue suggestions. Since Ellen and I bonded, it made our jobs a lot easier. It felt like we legitimately could have been roommates.
EA: What he's actually saying is that he was pretty annoyed by me.
KA: [Laughs] But seriously, those situations don't happen all that often. I've had people come up to me after watching, some actors, who comment on the chemistry between the characters.
EA: That's totally part of the magical alchemy that makes the characters the characters. It's not just me thinking about Vivian in a vacuum; the relationship evolves in real time, and they're both individually influenced by one another.
There was a nice, easy chemistry between the two of you that wavered between romantic and platonic. Alex, you had mentioned before that you wanted to show the intimacy that can exist between two people who aren't necessarily in a romantic or sexual relationship. Can you talk about why that interests you?
AD: I was thinking about what intimacy is and how it's developed. It's easy to enter a new relationship with expectations that actually create barriers, so it can take intimacy longer to develop. With someone like a roommate, you start from an intimate place because you're sharing a space together. If personalities mesh well, it can kind of fast-track a relationship. I was curious about whether we're more ourselves when those expectations are taken away. In the case of Nick and Vivian, the fact that they go to therapy together adds yet another layer of intimacy, because they're forced to talk about things that two roommates might not.
Why did you choose to leave things open-ended in the final episode? It would have been easy to have those two characters kiss and start to explore their romantic potential, but I like that you didn't go that route.
AD: I didn't want to wrap it up in a bow because I like the idea of exploring this story with another season. I also felt like it was natural for them to be hesitant because if things don't work out, the stakes are higher since they already live together.
EA: One of the things I liked so much about the ending is that Vivian and Nick achieve personal growth. They recognize that there are things more important than just finding a romantic partner. It's less like, "Oh yay, they found their person" and more like "Oh, yay, they found themselves." In a way, I think that's the most important thing in any relationship.
AD: Throughout the series, Vivian is recovering from a break-up and she's scared that she won't be able to find someone to replace her ex. Instead of finding that person, I wanted her to find that thing in herself. It wasn't about replacing her ex with another guy but finding a way to be whole without him.
I read a great piece this week about the idea of high-maintenance women and the way that pop culture (specifically "When Harry Met Sally") often makes them seem ridiculous for asking for what they want. To me, it seems like the Vivian we first meet either doesn't know what she wants or doesn't know how to ask for it. By the end, she's starting to figure it out and vocalize it.
EA: Yeah, for sure. Maybe because it's inherently such a part of society ... it's inevitable for that type of behavior to show up.
If you expand this series to a second season, how do you avoid spending too long on the will-they-won't-they storyline? Very few shows adopt that framework successfully and I think it's something discerning viewers are not as into these days.
AD: I'm not 100% sure if it will go in this direction, but I was playing around with the idea of what it would look like if they were living together as a couple. I'm not sure how long it would take for them to get there, but already living together obviously fast-forwards things to a more serious place.
That's another area where a lot of shows fall apart. Often, the writers have no clue how to make things interesting once the characters are actually together. It's a shame, because exploring those relationship elements are interesting and it's delightful when done right ("You're the Worst" comes to mind). I'm confident that you can do it justice if you choose to go that route.
Ellen and Kris, are there any particular challenges you've faces as professional actors in a challenging industry?
EA: There are plenty of days where I feel and acknowledge the difficulty of being an actor. I think this fundamentally has to do with uncertainty. Of course, it sucks to not know where your next paycheck is coming from, but even more than that, not knowing when you'll get an opportunity to do the thing you love most in the world. Unlike other artists who can go out and paint or write whenever they want, acting doesn't work as a solo activity. Working on a monologue alone in your apartment isn't acting ... it's not the same thing for me. What's most interesting to me is the interaction with other people - actors, writers, directors. I love what happens through the triangulation of all of those forces. I can't do it by myself, but together we all create this other reality.
KA: Auditioning is rough and definitely different than the skill of acting. It's hard to focus on the emotions of the scene when you're worried about getting the job. It's probably the best way to cast people, which is why they still do it ... it's a necessary evil.
No other job interview is like that.
KA: Right. It would be like if you were interviewing for a sales job and they said, "Okay, here's the phone. Now sell something." Then if you don't sale anything, they kick you out.
EA: Sometimes you do get more chances. Occasionally, the casting director will really work with you on a scene, even beyond an adjustment and a second take, but it's rare. I'm super grateful when it happens.
AD: One thing we noticed being on the other end of it is how it often has nothing to do with how good you are. Sometimes the casting directors are looking for the right person who just feels right. There was nothing anyone else could have done to be better or get the part.
KA: Sometimes the casting directors don't even know who that person is until directly confronted with them. Like, "Oh, this is the person!"
EA: At a certain point, everyone is super talented, prepared, and smart. When I get the job, it's not because I'm awesome but because that time, I was the person. I try to find peace with that, but it's tough. I understand why it happens, but I think it's often a disservice to be told why they're passing on you. From talking to other actor friends, I feel like it's always the same speech but with a different quality filling in the blank. It's not super helpful because it sets actors up to feel like victims of the world. Like, I am not wanted because of my body type or my age. It creates a feeling that the cards are stacked against you.
To wrap up, why don't you all tell me about something exciting that you're working on now.
EA: I shot a very fun horror movie called "Trick" that will be out later this October. I'm also writing a TV series with Chris Carfizzi, my friend from "Billions." It's about a female baseball writer (I'm obsessed with baseball) who is learning to deal with her position in a male-dominated world. The field of baseball writing skews even more male than with other sports. It's also about her work marriage between her and her male best friend, who wants to be an ally to her. It's a comedy, so hijinks ensue.
AD: I'm working on a few unscripted series. One is with Amazon about a German soccer team, Borussia Dortmund, that is out now. We're also working on a series about a high school football team in Baltimore and are in discussions with distributors. Personally, I'm working on a script with someone from "Lace Up," a sneaker show I produced a while back. Then of course, season 2 of "Roommating."
KA: I play a reporter in "When They See Us," which I really enjoyed working on. I actually got to meet Ava DuVernay, who has such a presence and is absolutely fantastic. She walks into the room and it's just like, "Ahhhhh." At first, I was bummed because she was directing another longer scene and we were working with an AD (or a second-unit director, I'm not sure). Eventually, though, she finished what she was doing and was able to come give us notes. Through association, I got to work with Oprah!
I'm also working on a web series that is kind of like "The Office," with a fool of a person who is an actor and doesn't know how stupid and bad he is. I hope to finally make that sometime soon.
They're pulling "The Office" from Netflix at the end of the year, so now is the perfect time to create something that can kind of fill the hole.
Special thanks to Ellen, Kris, and Alex for doing this interview not once, but twice. In true Mercury in Retrograde fashion, I lost all of my audio the first time we recorded, and they were nice enough to do it again without making me feel like an asshole.
If you want to keep up with "Roommating," follow the series on Facebook and Instagram. Catch Ellen in shows like "Billions," "Homeland," and "The Sinner" and keep an eye out for her new horror film. If you haven't watched "When They See Us," devote a weekend to binge-watching and catch Kris in Part 2. Soccer fans can watch the series Alex developed, "Inside Borussia Dortmund" on Amazon Prime. Sneakerheads should check out "Lace Up."