Sweet Magnolias Creator Sheryl Anderson on Working With Heather Headley and That Season 1 Finale Shocker
The Netflix series serves up a romantic, cozy drama with a cast full of Broadway names.
“Who else was in the car?!” Days after the new series Sweet Magnolias dropped on Netflix, the Internet erupted in a frenzy from the Season 1 cliffhanger crash akin to the kind of season finale audiences became accustomed to in the days of The West Wing and ER, or more recently, anything Shondaland. But Sweet Magnolias has succeeded on multiple levels, delivering that kind of jaw-dropping drama with Southern comfort, a story about the power of female friendship and chosen family that provides as much depth in the lives of the three magnolias—Maddie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), a newly single mom and spa owner; powerhouse attorney Helen (Heather Headley); and badass restaurateur Dana Sue (Brooke Elliott)—as their teenage kids. Equal parts sexy and sweet, the balance of the story and its compelling characters comes courtesy of creator Sheryl J. Anderson, who received her degree in playwriting from William & Mary.
A self-proclaimed “Navy brat,” Anderson moved around a lot as a child, but spent her formative teen years in northern Virginia. Her parents raised her on a healthy diet of theatrical productions from The Kennedy Center and The National, which “ignited my passion.”
She brings that fire to the series, inspired by the Sweet Magnolias books by Sherryl Woods. The fictional town of Serenity feels reminiscent of Gilmore Girls’ Star’s Hollow, if you swap quirk for calm. But it’s a place where everyone knows everyone, the kids can’t wait to get out, but the adults prove there’s just a heartstring that’s too tough to cut. Here, Anderson shares how her foundation in playwriting impacts her TV writing, working with Heather Headley and other Broadway talent in the cast, scripting modern romance, and what the heck she was thinking with that wild season finale.
What drew you to study playwriting at William and Mary?
Sheryl Anderson: I was very fortunate to be raised by parents who loved the arts. As I got into high school, a beautiful English teacher made sure that I had [knowledge of] the plays of Noël Coward. And my parents had already introduced me to Thornton Wilder and Hart and Kaufman, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, the sparkle, the crackle, the wit.” So I started reading plays a lot more in high school, so when I got to college I thought, “Well, I’ll take acting classes and I’ll take playwriting classes.” And very, very quickly I was like, I’m leaving the acting to the other people. And I had a fabulous professor who mentored me, and there were a handful of us from his class who actually ended up in L.A. instead. That’s how I went from playwriting to television.
Why playwriting rather than going to a film program?
I really thought that theatre was what I was going to do. I always kid that I wanted to be Oscar Levant in American in Paris and just sit in a garret with a great view and write deeply. I wanted to be Dorothy Parker writing plays.
We here in the Broadway community are obviously very big fans of Heather Headley. So any excuse to watch her do anything. Tell me about your experience with her, casting her as Helen, and working with her.
I feel so blessed. She is amazing. All three of our ladies are amazing, but, oh my gosh Heather Headley. She’s a marvel to watch in process. Obviously on the screen, she’s just so genuine and heartfelt and focused and powerful. I will tell you, I had a magical phone conversation with her when we were wooing her. And then when she said yes, I think I might’ve danced for a couple of hours. The first time I walked up to her in Georgia [on set], I thought, “Oh my gosh, my knees are shaking.” She had just had her baby and she was showing up for 2AM calls looking fresher and more put together than all the rest of us. And the immediate bond she had with [co-stars] JoAnna and Brooke was just magnificent. When we shot the first “margarita night” our producing director and I were like, “That’s it.” That’s magic. That’s lightning in a bottle. That’s the show.
Are there conversations that you had with her or any of the three of them that led to bring something out in that character or that just affected your writing in a specific way?
We actually had written all the scripts before we started shooting, but there was one line I remember that Heather asked me about before a table-read. She just sort of arched an eloquent eyebrow and said, “Do you really think that Helen would say this?” And I said, “Oh, well, it’s a joke.” And she said, “OK.” And we did the table reading and I went up to her, like flew across the room, the minute the table reading was over. And I was like, “You’re right, the joke doesn’t work and it’s not a Helen joke and I will change it.” It was very collaborative. We not only have Heather, we have Chris Medlin, Brooke has been on Broadway. Caroline Lagerfelt. Dion Johnstone had just done [King] Lear before he came to us. So we have a real heart with Broadway on our show and I know I am one of millions who are praying that Broadway gets to come back very, very soon.
What is your secret to crafting compelling romance for all three women?
We had great source material and I had a writer’s room filled with people who I think are romantics at heart, people who believe in love and joy and the excitement of meeting somebody new and figuring out where it can go and being worried about where it might go. We knew that that was the heart of the show. We wanted to make sure that everybody got their moments, but that we didn’t make it too easy. I know a lot of people are annoyed with us that Dana Sue’s men show up late in the game, but a writer’s room’s reach should exceed its grasp, or what’s Season 2 for? And even though this is a romance, I didn’t want these women defined by who they were in relationship with. I wanted everybody to meet them and love them as they are. The men that they encounter along the way are in addition to that; they do not define the women. That’s why we delayed Dana Sue’s romance, because we wanted to get into the mother-daughter dynamic more deeply.