Abby McEnany is quite clear that she’s not your typical television star, and part of that reason is because she’s never really seen someone like herself on screen.
“Queer folks, mentally ill folks, fat folks, older women, non-conventional people [aren’t what] you would see as a lead on a TV show,” she tells Out. “Growing up and even not that long ago, often the queer character was portrayed as somebody who was unlovable or the freak or the weird one, just the other. There are so many stories that are either silenced or that we don't see or are side stories.”
But not with her show, Work in Progress, which premiered on Showtime Sunday. “This is a representation of the real,” she continues. “I don't think we're shying from stuff. We're not trying to make things pretty to please a certain audience.”
Work in Progress is a half-hour comedy loosely based on McEnany’s own life about a 45-year-old self-identified “fat, queer dyke” who unexpectedly lands into a vibrant, transformative relationship with a trans man, played by The Politician’s Theo Germaine. McEnany, a Chicago improv mainstay, is co-creator (with longtime collaborator Tim Mason) of the show which also stars Karin Anglin, Celeste Pechous, and Julia Sweeney.
Just one episode in, the show is already radically queer, gut-wrenchingly hilarious, and supremely relatable. Out caught up with McEnany to discuss representation, radical inclusivity on set, and what it’s like seeing her face on billboards.
What was the process like for you in terms of getting the show in front of the people at Showtime and getting it to move forward?
My co-creator, Tim Mason, and I, created the pilot on our own. We created a proof of concept video and actually it's the first scene in the pilot, that therapist scene. Tim was going to go out to L.A. for some meetings and he was like, “I really want to talk about the show, but I don't think you really come across on paper. And I've told some people that and they're like, “Ooh, that's offensive,” but I don't think it's offensive at all. I told him “I think you're right. I think that's right on. I don't think I do.” So we filmed that and then he went out for some meetings and we weren't getting any movement on it. And then after like a year and a half, I was like, “Oh, we got to do this on our own.”
Tim was like, “Well, we're going to submit it to Sundance.” And I was like, “Why? We're never going to get in.” He's like, “Well, it's only 80 bucks” and I'm like, “Whatever, Rockefeller, there's no way we're getting in.” Then we got in and it's so crazy because then we were lucky enough to sign some executive producers prior to that and these lovely guys from Circle of Confusion, Josh [Adler] and Ashley [Berns], and then [Matrix creator] Lilly Wachowski who's been a friend of mine for about three and a half years came on board.
They set up three days in L.A. after Sundance. We had no meetings but we had all booked our trip because Lilly, Tim, and I were going to fly out. So we got some meetings. One was [at] Showtime, who had someone come to our premiere at Sundance… and so when we went in and what was so lovely about it is that they already had the pilot. A lot of our work had been done for us because here's 24 minutes of the show. This is who the character is. This is a lot of the stuff she's going to be dealing with.
How much of the main character is based on you and your life experience? How much of it is fictionalized?
There's certainly a lot of me there. There's so much. Anytime you see [the character] making a mistake, that's me. It's very much based on me — my therapist did not die in my session.
Yeah. That didn't happen. We did a screening at NewFest a few weeks ago in New York and this wonderful audience member came up and they were like, “Did your therapist really die?” I'm like, “Oh no, no, no,” because I don't know what I would do if that happened. Obviously you change some stuff and add new stuff. The Julia Sweeney story stuff, that I was called Pat, that stuff is real but I had never met her before. I'd say the character is very close to me in real life.
What has the experience been like for you having lived some of these experiences that the cast is going through and now recording it and putting it out there for the world to see? I feel like you have to kind of be in a vulnerable place to do that.
That is exactly right. It is. And sometimes it is very scary. I think one thing is that when you are the co-writer and the character's based on you and you're the executive producer, when Tim, Lilly Wachowski, and I started writing, we were talking about what was going to happen. Obviously we're going to see some of my friends, we're going to see my family, we're going to have this love story with Chris, who's based on a real ex-boyfriend of mine, but you don't want to give away your whole life. There's something lovely about anonymity and privacy. I'm not going to tell stories I don't want to tell. I don't have to share stuff I don't want to share. And while it is scary and vulnerable, it's also thought out, right? I didn't feel like I got hoodwinked into that. I'm very much in control of what I wanted to share. And supported. Tim and Lilly had my back 1000% and continue to do so. That's lovely.
What would you say has been the best part of this experience thus far?
I still can't believe it. After 26 years of no success, right? But I’m loving it all, honestly. What was so beautiful was Lilly said and made it a mission of the show [to truly be diverse and inclusive.] She said it's important [to fill] our set, our cast, and our background with queers and trans folks and gender nonconforming folks and nonbinary folks.And so we set up a queer day of casting. And we had an amazing casting director we worked with — AJ Links is her name — who helped us set up this day and we got the word out and it was if you are trans, if you are gender nonbinary, queer, and you don't have to be a performer, but we'd love to meet you. We met all these wonderful folks. Lilly and I would just kind of meet them; it wasn't like an interview. It was like, “Hey, what's going on? Tell us about yourself.” And then they'd read a scene and I gotta say it was such a beautiful day and it was like, “Wow, this is exactly what I want to use this for. This is what this opportunity is about, showing and giving people opportunities that they've never had before to be themselves.” And we were very clear that if you get cast and the character that you're cast as is not how you define yourself, we will change the pronouns. We want you to feel comfortable in the clothes you're wearing. And if you are not, then you tell us. This is all about you being you and showing the beautiful community that exists.
Theo [Germaine] is trans and nonbinary and the character they play is a trans man. When we talked to Theo about that, they were fine with that. And that was important for this character role because it was based on a real person. But everybody else, [we were open to making changes].
And I have to say, I'm sure we made a lot of mistakes and I want to hear about it. I'm not saying we did everything right. I want to make it very clear. We certainly tried and we'd love opportunities to keep doing stuff. But I would say, long story longer, that was, I think, the most powerful thing for me. And it was before we started filming. When you're gifted with this beautiful opportunity, and you have an opportunity to depict yourself and a character like you, that is rare. I mean, your job, I think, as an artist who is outside the lines of what is usually championed is that that opportunity becomes also a responsibility to give others a chance to be seen and opportunities they've never had before. And having Lilly with you, Lilly Wachowski, you have the power to get that shit done and it's powerful.
You're the star, co-creator, co-writer of this show and you've spoken about not having a certain level of success up until this point. What does it feel like to now be the face of a show?
It is legitimately bonkers and I'm freaking out a bit. I'm trying to figure it out. We were on set one day, probably like two months ago, and the marketing and publicity department at Showtime were coming up with ideas for a billboard. I was like, “There's going to be a billboard?” It was so cool.
There were a couple different iterations and one of our executive producers, Josh Adler, who lives in L.A, showed [key art] to me and said it was for the billboard. I'm like, “Oh, there's probably going to be a small one in L.A or something.” He was like, “Well, maybe not. They'll probably do one here [in Chicago].” I'm like, “Why would they do here? I live here. Why would they do that to me?”
Now that you're at this point, what is something that you would tell either yourself those many years ago or someone who might be going through what your character is currently going through at the beginning of the show? What would you tell them about how life turns out for you?
I would say to young folks or isolated folks that there is hope and there is a community for you out there somewhere. I had amazing privilege with my family and they had the means for mental health care and healthcare and [gave me] love when I came out. But there's so many isolated kids and folks [who have] families that they're struggling [with] and I just want to say there's a community out there of people that will love you and support you. And I just hope that you find it soon. My goal is to give mentally ill folks, queer folks, fat folks, people that have always felt unloved, the hope [that they will] find a life without shame. Wouldn't it be amazing if the people who are made to feel like shit every single time they leave their apartment or they wake up, wouldn't it be amazing if folks like us could feel love and not shame of who they are?
Watch Work in Progress Sundays on Showtime.