BURBANK, Calif. – Do not come for the women of "The Kitchen."
In the mob drama, in theaters Friday, three crime wives take over the family business in 1970s New York: deferential housewife Kathy (Melissa McCarthy); Harlem-born Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) who married into a disapproving white family; and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), victimized for years by an abusive alcoholic husband.
But now their Irish husbands are in the clink. And they're the ones running Hell's Kitchen.
The gritty, cutthroat “Kitchen” is a dramatic turn for both McCarthy and Haddish, but today the air is light as the stars reunite at the Smoke House Restaurant with Moss and director Andrea Berloff.
McCarthy, 48, is sipping on a very LA green juice. Moss, 37, who flew in from a shoot in Australia, is fighting jet lag with coffee. Haddish, 39, throws zingers about trying to date Moss’ brother.
“Don’t you feel good when you drink something with chlorophyll in it?” Moss asks McCarthy, eyeing her co-star's grass-hued elixir.
“I always think it’s chloroform and I’m waiting to pass out,” McCarthy jokes.
“The Kitchen,” based on the 2014 graphic novel, arrives as a fully formed example of everything Hollywood is allegedly supporting two years after the #MeToo movement spurred a Time's Up call for equality. A powerful female-led cast. Rich writing. Studio backing. An acclaimed woman director at the helm.
But these women, who each have multiple projects cooking, are aware of buzzword fatigue, especially when it comes to equality. Behind the scenes, "I am very open-eyed that we are experiencing a blip," says Berloff, suddenly sitting ramrod straight. “I had a president of a studio say to me last week that 'Because Movie X and Movie Y did not work this summer, we’re done with women-fronted movies.' ”
Though Berloff declines to specify the exact films referenced, several female-led films struggled this summer. For example, the Olivia Wilde-directed “Booksmart” and Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night," both critical hits, did not live up to box office expectations in a summer stuffed with sequels, reboots and spinoffs.
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"What’s obviously so insane about that are the 150 movies starring men that didn’t do well either," says Moss, noting 2019 women-fronted successes such as "Us" and "Captain Marvel." "It’s an unintelligent thing to say."
McCarthy shakes her head.
“I look forward to knowing who that was right after we turn the tape (recorder) off,” she says.
So yes, Berloff wants her "Kitchen" to kill it at the box office, despite experts forecasting a sleepy weekend at the cineplex, with current predictions under $10 million. But the first-time director, who was Oscar-nominated for her screenplay for "Straight Outta Compton," is simultaneously sounding a siren, noting the "handful" of coming studio films boasting women in front of and behind the camera.
"If these movies consistently don’t do well there’s not going to be more in a few years," she emphasizes. "If people want to see more of these movies, they have to go out and buy a ticket."
"You can’t say ‘I’m for it, too’ and then only go see male caped movies,” McCarthy says. “It’s a weird epidemic. I’m not against (those movies), but everybody’s gotta put their money where their mouth is.”
Away from the cineplex, here's what the push for progress looks like off-camera for McCarthy, Moss and Haddish.
Fighting for equivalent budgets
Studios "taking meetings" about female-led movies, or green-lighting such films but with slashed budgets, is not progress, McCarthy clarifies. “And that’s what we have to keep watching. (When studios say) ‘We are doing it (women-led movies)!’ Why is it half the budget of the same movie made with men? … We’ve rang the bell but the numbers have to change."
Rejecting old stereotypes
Despite putting Hulu on the map for original programming with her Emmy award-winning series "The Handmaid's Tale," Moss says she's pitched television projects led by a woman "and have shockingly heard, ‘Oh, well, we’re just not sure that (it should be) a female lead.' And it’s me sitting there! I’m like, you do realize ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is doing really well? It’s shocking sometimes."
Moss notes that every experience isn't negative.
"I’ve walked into rooms where you’re pitching to three female executives," she says. "There just needs to be more of that.”
Creating paths for new voices
Haddish took the bull by the horns when Netflix offered her more money after the streaming service was publicly called out for gender-based pay disparities on “The Crown."
“I said, how about instead of giving me that money, you give me that money so I can give six other comics an opportunity, comics that you guys would probably have never seen?” she says.
And so, on Tuesday, "Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready" will hit Netflix, featuring six diverse comedians, each with their own half-hour specials.
“I made sure they each got paid a lot of money, more than what they would have normally got paid,” she says, her eyes filling with tears.
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“It makes me feel really good to be able to do that for them because I know how hard it is. All those comics have struggled, a lot of them have been homeless. It’s really hard to be like, ‘OK I’m going to make everybody laugh tonight but I haven’t eaten all day,’ says Haddish, her voice catching. “I hope it gets picked up again and I can do it for more comedians.”
McCarthy is now wiping away tears, too.
“In the midst of all this fun, which is the only thing people concentrate on, she’s doing all this stuff with homeless kids and she’s constantly doing something like that," she says. "Please don’t say we cried!”
Haddish hollers: “We’re cycling up!"
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Melissa McCarthy, Haddish, Moss warn women-led movies are in danger