Charlotte Stoudt Discusses ‘Pieces of Her,’ ‘The Morning Show’ and the “Enigmatic Gaze of Toni Collette”
For a TV writer who only just launched her first series as creator and showrunner, Charlotte Stoudt’s resume is already pretty stacked. But, after stints on Homeland, Fosse/Verdon and House of Cards, it’s her Netflix adaptation of Karin Slaughter’s Pieces of Her that looks to help springboard the scribe’s industry profile. (The fact that she just signed an overall deal with Apple, where she’ll join The Morning Show as showrunner for season three, will likely help quite a bit as well.)
Stoudt’s new series, a taught thriller about a young woman (Bella Heathcote) who begins to unravel her mother’s (Toni Collette) mysterious past, premiered on the streamer March 4. Just before, she spoke with THR about pulling the trigger on her first series, the unexpected logistics of moving production from Canada to Australia, upending familiar genre tropes with a mother-daughter dynamic and what lured her to Apple’s glossy star vehicle for Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
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You’ve been a writer and producer for a long time, but this was your first experience as a showrunner. What surprised you about the experience?
I had no idea how long it would take. I didn’t know that my primary concern in making a road movie season of television would be trying to ship the correct cars to Australia. The show became about signage and cars and making it look like America. I thought I was just going to worry about things like performances and if I cast the right people. You just want to be a good leader. Most writers are introverts, and then suddenly you have this super extroverted job. How does that work?
Yeah, how does that work?
What I love about TV is that a bunch of very different people get together and agree they’re all going to work towards the same goal. Especially during the pandemic, the fact that we could work and everyone really cared about making sure a scene of somebody getting their throat sliced goes exactly right… It’s quite moving, actually.
You signed onto adapt Pieces of Her four years ago. How’d you wind up attached?
WME sent me the manuscript of the book, and I read it in one sitting. You can just tell in your body when you want to do something. I loved the premise. It’s delicious. What if suddenly you found out everything you knew about your life and your family was a lie? That’s just a hook. It’s surprising to me that the question is framed within this mother-daughter love story that’s also a thriller. I hadn’t seen that combination, and I had a very personal connection to the material. I was adopted, and even though my parents told me as a child, I had a burning desire to answer the mystery of who my birth parents were. It really obsessed me.
Did you meet both of your birth parents?
I don’t mean this in a Pollyanna way, but I was really lucky to meet both of them. Many people I know who were adopted, their parents were already dead or didn’t want to meet them. So, I did meet them. They were not together at all, and my dad was a pretty bad guy. So it was really easy for me to project onto this character of Nick [Joe Dempsie]. Is there any way there could be two sides or maybe three sides to this story? It’s absolutely me wrestling with that question.
To your point earlier point, this type of story has been told a million times — with someone who doesn’t really know their spouse. But a mother-daughter relationship? Not so much.
It is a little bit gendered. Can a mother-daughter story get down and dirty and have lots of sex and violence and all that kind of stuff? The answer is yes, of course. Initially, I had a scene where Toni was trying to get away from Bella, and she pulled a gun on her. We know she’s not going to shoot her daughter. No one ever believes that. But it was very hotly debated. And I was like, “Well, if this were Liam Neeson and Robert Pattinson, would anybody even ask that question?”
Tell me about casting Toni. She’s had a real run of playing stoic, mysterious women who get put through the wringer.
She can do anything, so you’re almost like, “What can I throw at her that will retain her interest?” I remember very early in the filming, I was like, oh, the show is about the enigmatic gaze of Toni Collette! “What is she thinking?” That’s a show. It’s that simple. You get to see a little bit of what she’s thinking, but by the end of season one, you still don’t know.
Is this a limited series, or do you see room for more?
It started as a limited, and then I think there was a decision made at a certain point to go for a series. I believe that was a Netflix decision, but there’s certainly a lot more to tell and I purposely kind of started building it out a little bit more. I tried to open it up so it could have some legs should it find an audience.
You’ve worked on a lot of really successful shows. Who do you go to for advice?
The people I’ve worked with let me see behind the curtain, and that was just invaluable. David Manson (House of Cards) and Alex Gansa (Homeland) were extraordinarily generous that way. Meredith Stiehm was kind of a big champion for me throughout Homeland, and I just owe a tremendous amount to her.
Speaking of Homeland, did you ever get to go to Spy Camp?
I miss Spy Camp every day. There was a day, I think it was season five, and we were breaking for lunch. We were in a room with a screen, and there was suddenly the Google Hangouts sound. I remember Claire Danes going, “I think that’s Edward Snowden.” How could I possibly be in a room full of a dozen people having a private conversation with Ed Snowden? Of course, the FBI was listening in, too — we knew they would — but that was rather extraordinary. I’m still obsessed with all the issues that I came to be kind of educated about on Homeland. Now I care about every drone strike. It stays with you.
You just joined The Morning Show as showrunner. How’d that happen? Tonally, it’s quite different from a lot of your work.
It is super sexy. The big thing for me is the fact that Kerry Ehrin and the cast created something that a lot of different people like to watch. It’s not a small thing to create characters that people are really interested in. That’s hard. One of the fun things about The Morning Show is the humor. You can write slightly looser scenes, and it can be a little bit of a West Wing-Mad Men chatty vibe. Thrillers tend to be rather narrow. The beauty and the limitation to them is they’re very narrow. You can have a little gallows humor along the way, but you’ve kind of got to keep turning that screw. I try to pick things where I’m like, “Can I do that? I’m not sure. So let me try.” I think all writers do that. But no one’s ever going to hire me to write straight-up comedy, I can tell you that.
I once wrote a pilot, a comedy pilot, and a very nice agent said, “Don’t do that again.” It was just a train wreck. Morning Show just has a lot of tonal variety. It presents itself as a glossy workplace soap drama thing, but then it does a lot of other interesting things in a way that’s a little bit stealth.
You just signed a deal with Apple. What’s your creative mission statement right now?
For me, it’s a great character that I could get three or five seasons out of. I’ve got two ideas right now — one is an extraordinary true crime story, and the other is a very backstage All About Eve true-life story. I like my glamor, but I also like a lot of danger. It’s like Fosse/Verdon and Homeland. Sequins and surveillance.
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