Sitting in an armchair in a fishbowl-style conference room of Empirical Publishing, Sutton Foster is doing her best not to look at me. Her eyes shift left, then right, then flutter in my direction before she repeats the process on a loop for a minute and a half. It reminds me of a scene in
Waiting for Guffman
when Catherine O'Hara's character describes her "less is more" acting technique: "You open your eyes when you're looking away...but you never open your eyes when you're talking to them."
Empirical Publishing is the fictional company that employs Liza, Foster's character in Darren Star's
, his first original series in more than a decade. Around us, rows of books are visible through a glass wall. There are a few clusters of cubicles, with manuscripts piled in them. Surrounding the perimeter are doors to offices that do not exist. The fluorescent lighting is both realistic and reflective of the show's perky tone.
Foster -- who's best known for her work on Broadway, including Tony-winning runs in the musicals
Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes
-- is between takes. Perhaps that's why she seems so reserved. It's only after I suggest that it might be flattering to snag a role in which she has to pass as someone 13 years younger that she finally looks me in the eye.
"I feel like my employment is dependent on my skin quality," she admits, mostly kidding, but not entirely. Later, by phone, Foster explained away her diffidence as part of her "Zen"
approach to being on set. "I think I've just learned it from the experience of being slapped around a little bit for being too exuberant," she said. "In my youth, I was probably a little too talkative."
In taking the lead role in this new single-camera sitcom on TV Land, Foster must align with the show's title -- it is her job, in fact, to present herself as younger. The first episode opens with Liza attempting to re-enter the workforce after a 15-year break to raise her daughter. When Liza finds that prospective employers are reluctant to fill an entry-level position with someone in her 40s, she decides to deceive them by posing as 26. That's how she comes to find herself working at Empirical Publishing.
The series is just a touch farcical -- it presents a nearly reasonable antidote to the ageism faced by women in the workplace and infuses it with the "fake it till you make it" attitude of many a New Yorker.
wouldn't work as a sitcom without a sense of realism. It is no coincidence that three key roles are filled by female actors who are near or over age 40 -- the beginning of the notorious "dead zone" for women in Hollywood.
In stark contrast to her co-star's reserved demeanor, Debi Mazar, who plays Liza's confidante, Maggie, chatters away between takes -- about mutual friends among crew members, the production, how well Foster is doing. At one point, regarding the setup around the camera, she asks, "Is that some kind of special light for me? Does
have that light?" The question is tongue-in-cheek, but then Mazar has such sardonic charm that everything she says goes down easy.
A few takes later, Mazar motions to the iPad she holds in the scene. "Is this light on my face OK?" she says. Yes, it looked fine on camera, a crew member tells her. "Good upper glow," she concludes.
The pacing and light humor of the scene (a brief, transitional setup in which Liza recaps recent events to Maggie) are reminiscent of
Star, the creator of
Sex and the City
as well as
, 90210 and
, hasn't unveiled a totally new show since 2003's short-lived
(though he has since worked on other shows, including the
). He was inspired to bring
to the small screen after reading Pamela Redmond Satran's novel of the same name. The book was released in 2005, but Star says the subject matter is more relevant than ever.
"I think the whole idea of playing with age -- the meaning of it and how we're defined by it -- is just a great theme to explore," he says. "I think we've always lived in an ageist culture, especially for women. It's certainly harder for women not to be defined by their age."
's broad strokes trace those of
: a group of women facing issues in a bustling, competitive setting. In addition to creating the show, Star ran its writers' room and wrote several of its episodes himself. He is hands-on throughout the filming process.
"He remembers every bit of detail," Mazar says. "Working with him is like doing theater. You cross your
s. You make sure you hit your commas and your pauses. You don't drop an 'and,' 'if,' 'there,' or 'but.' It's very specific."
"I would say relative precision," Star counters later. "I like to stay in the ballpark."
Star has the kind of presence you feel before he enters a room, and then you
feel it once he's there. The air changes. After a meeting in an office adjacent to the set, someone murmurs, "Darren's coming! Darren's coming!" It's like watching a rock star emerge. He wears jeans, Nikes, and a leather jacket so black it looks more like a costume than a functional body warmer. His face is powdered for an in-house package TV Land is shooting. The glamour hits him and spreads out to the ether.
And then he evaporates entirely. "He had to go," a publicist says, promising to secure a phone interview with Star later.
Minutes later, Mazar talks about her role as a lesbian "straight man." If that's not ironic enough, she's also just a few years off from living the life of Foster's character -- Mazar, 50, is playing a character who's 10 years younger.
"Life is really good right now," she says, smiling. She wears heels, tuxedo pants, a white tank top, and two thin gold chains (one rosary, one holding a medal of the Virgin Mary). Her hair is slicked back. "Last week, I had a great time making out with this beautiful black woman who had the body of an Adonis, a gorgeous supermodel body. It doesn't really get that deep. It's TV Land, so they can't show boobs or bush."
Mazar says that she had wanted to play Maggie as more butch than Star would permit. "She's not completely defined by her sexuality by any means, but at the same time, I think it gives her character a bit more vibrancy," Star says. "I think for all of us, it makes it a more interesting character to write than another single straight woman."
Maggie is the only adult character on the show that knows Liza's secret.
is full of binaries like that -- those who know and those who don't. (The latter group includes Liza's co-worker Kelsey, played by Hilary Duff, and Liza's 20-something love interest, Josh, played by Nico Tortorella, whose confusion over her age spawns her careerist lie.) Then there's the divide explored between younger and older. There's the old media that Empirical Publishing produces and the new media it attempts to harness -- Liza's first task at her job is to set up a Twitter account for Jane Austen to promote reissues. And then there is the function of dueling settings.
"I think there's a distinction between those who live in Williamsburg and those who live in Manhattan," Star says. The latter was rhapsodized wildly in
Sex and the City
, it's Brooklyn's turn. Not only is the set located on a soundstage almost directly across the East River from One World Trade Center, but many of the additional shooting locations were in the Williamsburg neighborhood. For example, Matchless, a bar that sits atop McCarren Park, is featured multiple times in the show's pilot.
"I really love the idea that New York has broken across to Brooklyn and there's been this exodus of youth and creativity there," adds Star. "It's defined itself in a very shorthand way as 'young.' "
reunites Star with Miriam Shor, who played Cricket Caruth-Reilly on ABC's Star-produced comedy
. Star says that he cast Shor in the role of Liza's Wilhelmina Slater-esque boss Diana because "everything she does is funny."
That much is clear as Shor jokes her way through a wardrobe fitting with Patricia Field, the iconic
designer who's also reuniting with Star for
. The options include giant iridescent earrings and a necklace of different-sized gold links, one of whose diameters is more than half the size of Shor's head. "I call it my Flavor Flav," she says. She compares dressing so theatrically and taking on the role of an extreme bitch to performing drag. Shor is no stranger to cross-dressing -- she previously played the male character Yitzhak in
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
both onstage and in the show's film adaptation.
"You get to envision this whole other world, this whole other character that is so vastly different from yourself, and you get to embody that and live it for a while," she says. What does she love best about working with Star? "He just loves women. I think with that love comes a sort of acceptance and celebration of every kind of woman. I love that, and I feel that from him."
Though Shor is impossibly glamorous as power bitch Diana, it is Foster's transformation from 40 to 26 that's the show's most crucial device. On
's pilot, Liza adds highlights to her wavy hair and clashes prints stylishly, and she's able to convince anyone who looks at her that she's in her mid-20s. Field's task was considerably more complicated than the character's, or so it at first seemed. "In the beginning, I was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to do this; I'm not a magician,' " Field says, her distinctive smoker's purr rendering each syllable tactile.
Field is wearing an orange fedora, chunky glasses, a multicolored scarf, a black sleeveless button-down, blue plaid pants, and red patent leather shoes. Together this somehow reads conservative. The overall effect is that of a wizened Muppet. Field continues:
"But then when I met [Foster], and I saw this energy she was exuding, it gave me the inspiration. You don't ever watch her and say, 'She's not 25.' She sells it. That was crucial for this. If she didn't sell it, there would be no show. Darren is a master at casting, I have to say."
It's difficult not to be cynical about
's pilot episode, at least during its first half. Although youthful and plucky, Foster hardly looks a generation younger than she is. But then, all of a sudden, as you watch her bounce down the street in her winter wear, and then into the Empirical Publishing office, the transformation snaps into place. Liza, and, more important, Sutton Foster
"I think for Liza's character the important thing is that she has a youthful exuberance," Foster says. "I think I share that in my life. I have a very youthful demeanor. I feel like as you get older, sometimes all the responsibilities of life -- the mortgages, the divorces, the relationships, the children -- all of those things can [weigh on you], but keeping a lightness and a free-flowing attitude about your life can keep you young."
So can Botox. But
's gentle satire of our ageist culture would be undone if it drove its leading woman to extreme measures of youth preservation like plastic surgery. Although her filming makeup seems to be spackled on thicker than everyone else's, giving her an almost live-Photoshopped texture, Foster says her
beauty regimen has not extended into the face-freezing world of Botox and Restylane. "I'm terrified of all of it," she says. "I'm so overly expressive that you would be able to tell if I did anything. I have elasti-face. I feel like I'm just trying to age gracefully and be as natural as I can."
"She doesn't need it," adds Star. "It's an attitude. I think it's an inside-out job."
By the time
begins airing in late March, the show's principal female actors will all be over 40. By now, they've all somehow felt the pressures imposed by Hollywood that force women to act out in ways even more farcical than Liza's.
"A director once told me that I look like a shar-pei," Mazar says. "I was like, 'Fuck you. When I'm not moving my forehead, it looks fine.' "
"It's expected of women in Hollywood," Shor, 43, says of youth-restoring injections, which she says she's never received. "They're flabbergasted when you're like, 'Yeah, not so much with the botulism in the face.' "
There are two ways to look at
: as a comedy about survival or as a tragedy about cultural pressure on women. You can also look at the show's very existence in multiple ways: It could be the rare pop cultural bright spot that employs three women over 40 in key roles, or part of a growing trend that suggests that turning 40 no longer means certain death for a female actor's livelihood.
"My whole career, I've sort of fought against the pressure of holding on to youth," says Foster. "I refuse to succumb to it. I love how far I've come as a human being. I love every wrinkle."