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STARZ SWEETBITTER: Q&A w/ Ella Purnell, Stephanie Danler, Stu Zicherman + Series Overview & More

Maj Canton - May 6, 2018

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On Sunday, May 6, 2018 at 8pm ET/PT, STARZ premieres SWEETBITTER, based on the bestselling novel by Stephanie Danler. The original series tells the story of Tess, a 22-year-old who arrives in New York City ready to pursue a new life. When she finds herself interviewing for a position at one of the best restaurants in the city, she thinks she’s found a steady income and a safe place to wait. But the chaotic, adrenalized world behind-the-scenes, tasting expensive wine quickly intoxicates Tess, exploring dive bars, and learning who she can trust. SWEETBITTER is a show about the life that happens to you while you’re waiting. Staring: Ella Purnell, Tom Sturridge, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Paul Sparks, Evan Jonigkeit, Eden Epstein, Jasmine Mathews, Daniyar, Katerina Tannenbaum, Todd Gearhart, Gabriel Gutierrez, Rafa Beatos and Jimmie Saito.

 

 


 


This past January at the Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour, STARZ presented a panel that included series star Ella Purnell; creator, writer, executive producer Stephanie Danler; and director Stu Zicherman. Here are a few highlights (edited for clarity and readability) from that panel.

 

Creator, writer, executive producer Stephanie Danler (left); series star Ella Purnell (middle); and director Stu Zicherman (right)

at the Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour in January 2018.

 


Question: What’s the experience of adapting your own work like?


Stephanie Danler: One of the reasons I signed on to do this is because I wanted to expand the world of the book and make something new. It’s such a deeply collaborative process, so much different than the kind of loneliness you encounter writing a novel. It was hard work but it was never difficult.



Question: Is the show girl power? How far are you going with that?


Stephanie Danler: The show is really about strong women. The show is really about the relationship Tess develops with her mentor, Simone. How Tess is imagining who she’ll become and how she’s going to turn a somewhat inarticulate woman into a strong woman who doesn’t apologize all the time and knows how to say, “No.”


Ella Purnell: This show is about a young 21 year old lady developing a palate and becoming a person. And she gets a taste for everything. She gets a taste for sex, love and lust and wine and food and music and poetry and so many things. It’s just one small element of what makes her her by the end.

Stu Zicherman: This show is very much about a sensory awakening. There are people in the world who grow up in places where they don’t have the luxury of experience, right? And more than a coming of age, this show is about finding a place where you can begin to experience all the things that form who you’re going to be as an adult.


Question: What is the plan for the overall series?


Stu Zicherman: We’re just six episodes. We’re not biting off that much of the book to begin with. What I love about the book is it’s this incredibly immersive world. So what we’re trying to do in our first season is immerse Tess into this world. The theme we talked about for Season 1 is intoxication. Hopefully our audience will become intoxicated and fall in love with this world. But we have a lot more to go with the book.


Question: What were you seeking from actors during the casting process?


Stephanie Danler: I was looking to have my stomach flip. When I saw tapes of those actors, my stomach flipped. I also wanted people to feel singular to me and didn’t feel like actors. They felt like real lived-in, grounded people that could be working in a restaurant. I didn’t want it to have too much of a fantasy quality to it.


Stu Zicherman: When you see the show, I think you’ll see it’s a real ensemble. When you go to work in a restaurant, it’s sort of like an island of misfits. To us, the show is so much about belonging to something and we wanted to build a world that felt like a family that Tess has to try to fit into. I think we found a really incredible, complex group of actors.


Question: Ella, Tess says she doesn’t know what she wants to do. Can you tell us about when you knew what you wanted to do?


Ella Purnell: I think I still don’t. I just turned 21, it’s a really weird age because you’re trying to figure yourself out and find your place in the world. And Tess just grabs all her stuff and leaves in the middle of the night, and that’s such a brave thing to do. And I think all throughout her life she never really found her thing. I’m quite fortunate because I know my thing is being creative. I think I always knew. I always attracted to music, acting, and film. And with Tess, she has qualities which are actually perfect for the industry she ends up in, even though she doesn’t know that.


Stu Zicherman: That’s something that’s really a central thing in our show. Tess is not like every other character on any other show – she’s not aspirational. She doesn’t come to New York to make it. She really just wants to put one foot in front of the other. A lot of times that’s when your life starts, when you’re waiting. By the end of Season 1, she realizes, “Oh my God, the place I went to go wait, my life is actually starting.”


Question: We’re in a climate now where there’s a lot of accusations of sexual misconduct, harassment at work. Will that affect the way you tell these stories?


Stephanie Danler: It hasn’t changed the way we’re telling our story. It’s a workplace environment. We have a young woman in that environment and she’s navigating a lot of tricky situations that are very true to life. Our show is excited to be part of the conversation. We’re just trying to show what it was like to work in a restaurant in 2006.


Stu Zicherman: I don’t want what’s going on in the culture to squash what’s beautiful about romance and about how people meet and connect. We’re trying to tell a story that’s about a sensory awakening. And part of that is meeting people you connect with, the first time you feel lust, the first time you feel love, the first time you feel passion. And so I think that’s part of the conversation.


SERIES OVERVIEW

This six-episode first season follows Tess along the path of the L train circa 2006: the prestigious Manhattan restaurant where she serves an upscale clientele, an industry dive bar, a corner bodega in Williamsburg, and an East Village apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen. She came to the city without a friend or ambition because she wanted more from her life. Underneath the oysters and champagne is a love letter to the way New York City changes and can change you. But it’s the people Tess meets at the restaurant who end up marking her for life. SWEETBITTER is not only Tess’ story—it is also the story of the backwaiters, servers, bartenders, and dishwashers as they navigate friendship, intimacy, lust and betrayal. Her co-workers become her family, and through them she finds a degree of belonging that she’s never encountered before. SWEETBITTER is a show about the life that happens to you while you’re waiting.

 



CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS




TESS (Played by Ella Purnell)



Tess arrives in New York City as a blank slate ready for a new life. She has no friends or specific ambitions beyond finding a job. Despite her lack of experience, Tess’ charm and observational nature find her training at one of New York’s best restaurants. She thinks it’s a temporary solution — a safe place to wait for her life to begin — until she meets the people, and the challenges, that will come to define her.





JAKE (Played by Tom Sturridge)



Jake is a recklessly beautiful bartender, who is mysteriously attached to Simone. Jake awakens a sense of lust in Tess that she has never felt before and a triangle develops amongst him, Tess, and Simone.





SIMONE (Played by Caitlin FitzGerald)



Simone is the embodiment of self-possession, beauty and authority at the restaurant. She has an effortless command over the guests, her co-workers and her wine list. Tess instantly becomes infatuated with her.





HOWARD (Played by Paul Sparks)



Howard is the owner of the restaurant as well as father-figure and mentor to the group of polished professionals who work there. He is poised, thoughtful, and warm -- a man who appears to be exactly where he wants to be.





WILL (Played by Evan Jonigkeit)


 

Will is the backwaiter assigned to train Tess throughout her "trails,” and her first friend. He’s kind to her and develops feelings for Tess, longing for her the way she longs for Jake.





ARIEL "ARI" (Played by Eden Epstein)


 

Ariel, known as Ari, is a backwaiter by day and an adventurous lesbian and DJ by night. She and Heather are a fearsome duo, who treat gossip like a professional sport.





HEATHER (Played by Jasmine Mathews)



Heather is a server who is postponing law school and hiding from her academic parents who don’t understand why she’s working in restaurants.





SASHA (Played by Daniyar)



Sasha is a Russian immigrant-turned-backwaiter who loves watermelon flavored vodka and pop music - he's exceptional at his job and desperate to get his green card sponsored.





BECKY (Played by Katerina Tannenbaum)


 

Becky is the bright and beautiful restaurant hostess. She is the first face guests see as they enter and the last one they see when leaving, setting the tone for their entire dining experience. While she appears sweet and perhaps a little vapid, she also harbors a darker secret that could potentially change both Tess’s perspective and the restaurant as a whole.





NICKY (Played by Todd Gearhart)


 

Nicky, first known to Tess as “Clark Kent Glasses”, is the restaurant’s longtime bartender. His crooked bowtie, Long Island accent, and general unpretentiousness have been drawing people to the bar for decades. No longer considered one of the kids going out to dive bars after work, Nicky is set apart from much of the staff by the normalcy of his life outside the restaurant. He has children and a wife he met at his own bar a decade ago. While he is kind to Tess, he doesn’t hesitate to tease her mercilessly.





MANNY (Played by Gabriel Gutierrez)


 

Manny, in his mid-30s, is the restaurant’s prep cook. While it may not seem obvious at first, Manny is menacing and not afraid to assert his mafia-like power in the restaurant when Tess oversteps her bounds.





SANTOS (Played by Rafa Beatos)


 

Tess arrives in New York City as a blank slate ready for a new life. She has no friends or specific ambitions beyond finding a job. Despite her lack of experience, Tess’ charm and observational nature find her training at one of New York’s best restaurants. She thinks it’s a temporary solution — a safe place to wait for her life to begin — until she meets the people, and the challenges, that will come to define her.





SCOTT (Played by Jimmie Saito)


 

Scott is the restaurant’s handsome, strong-minded sous chef. His incredible kitchen skills represent a fresh new direction and future for the restaurant, but his innovative menu ideas are mostly rejected by the traditional higher-ups. Scott is commanding and intimidating in the kitchen, and while he originally views Tess as nothing but a nuisance, they eventually develop a friendship.





EPISODE GUIDE


If you want to know nothing about the episodes at all, skip this section. Provided by STARZ, this episode guide includes general episode descriptions and specific plot details.



"Salt"
May 6, 2018 at 8:00pm ET/PT
Tess, a 22-year-old, moves to New York City without friends or a specific ambition; after an interview at one of the best restaurants, she's invited to train there; Tess attempts to keep up while observing her new co-workers.

"Now Your Tongue Is Coded"
May 13, 2018 at 8:00pm ET/PT
When Tess forgets her wallet at the restaurant, she goes back to discover what happens after-hours: shift drinks. At the end of shift, each employee is entitled to one drink ­ or ten. As Tess sips her wine, Simone teaches her about the coding of our tongues: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, leading Tess to become even more enthralled by Simone. Sasha then recruits Tess to find his missing "green card wife." Along the way, Tess finds out where everyone goes after they've clocked out for the night.

"Everyone Is Soigne"
May 20, 2018 at 8:00pm ET/PT
Tess is beginning to master some essential backwaiter skills, but there is still one thing she struggles with: the three plate carry. She asks Will to help her practice after work, which leads to her first romantic encounter with a coworker. The next shift, Tess meets Serena, an alumna of the restaurant who married one of their wealthiest guests, Fred Benson. Serena and Simone were best friends until Serena chose to leave the restaurant and settle down. To Tess, Serena has the picture-perfect New York life. But Simone teaches Tess not to believe everything she sees.