How award-winning actors got to know Fred and Ethel Mertz in ‘Being the Ricardos’

Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, and Nicole Kidman in a scene from Being the Ricardos
Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, and Nicole Kidman in a scene from Being the Ricardos. Pic Credit: Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services.

While all sitcom lovers are more than familiar with television favorites Fred and Ethel Mertz in the mega-hit I Love Lucy, there were many surprises uncovered in the behind-the-scenes story of the new Amazon Prime Video film, Being the Ricardos.

Expertly played by award-winning TV, film, and stage actors J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda, the new movie that began streaming on Tuesday, December 21, uncovers many secrets.

Simmons is the winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a merciless jazz instructor in Whiplash and is also known for his role as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man trilogy, and the recent reboot of the popular film franchise.

Arianda is a versatile Broadway Tony-Award-winning actress who won a Tony Award for Venus in Fur (in 2012), a role that she originated off-Broadway. She is the youngest actress ever to be nominated for back-to-back Tony’s in consecutive years, the first being for Born Yesterday in 2011.

Her movie roles include Midnight in Paris, Higher Ground, and The Disappearance of Elenore Rigby, and on TV she guest-starred in Billions, Hannibal, The Good Wife, and 30 Rock.

Classic TV lovers were well aware of Fred and Ethel’s bickering, but it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that this cantankerous relationship was alive and well off-screen when it came to William Frawley and Vivian Vance.

It appears that early on in I Love Lucy history, Frawley overheard Vance refer to him as old enough to be her grandfather, and this did not sit well with her co-star.

Being the Ricardos takes an intimate glimpse into the couple’s turbulent partnership during a single week of production in I Love Lucy, in which Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) battle with the show’s conservative sponsor Philip Morris. They also face off against muckraking columnist Walter Winchell and each other, as a series of crises threatens to end their careers and perhaps their marriage.

On-screen, Ball’s signature screwball comic genius, supported by long-time co-stars Frawley and Vance and the show’s legendary writing staff, make I Love Lucy an unprecedented popular success that has endured for some 70 years.

Everyone loves The Ricardos’ neighbors and landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz; the talented sidekicks who were crucial to the show’s success.

The constantly squabbling former vaudevillians appear in virtually every episode of the show and the actors who played them were at odds with one another. But they both became close friends of Ball and Arnaz.

Acclaimed writer-director Aaron Sorkin says he wrote the role of the cantankerous, but loyal Frawley, with Simmons in mind. “I wanted J.K. from the beginning,” he says.

“My professional writing debut was the play A Few Good Men, and J.K. understudied one of the leading roles and when I saw him in the performance, I was knocked out,” Sorkin explains. “I’ve been so happy seeing where his career has gone since then and I knew I wanted him for this.”

Sorkin chose Arianda to portray Vance for a myriad of reasons. “I knew Nina primarily as a glamorous Broadway actor,” Sorkin recalls. “One of the reasons I wanted to cast her in the role is that Vance was a successful stage actor and dancer. The fact that she is relegated to playing the frumpy upstairs neighbor creates an additional tension at times.”

Monsters and Critics: J.K. What made Aaron Sorkin just the perfect writer and director for this movie?

J.K. Simmons: There are three writers that should never be messed with: Aaron Sorkin, the Coen brothers, and Shakespeare. Well, I’m wishing I’d done what Nina had done and actually read the script more than once. [He joked]. I was so blown away by it the first time I read it.

Obviously, Hollywood knows Aaron Sorkin the writer, and has known him in this role for decades now. This is the third film he’s directed; the first film that he wrote intending to be the director.

Aaron’s gotten to a point now in his career as both writer and producer, and knows every aspect of filmmaking so thoroughly that it was a very collaborative process with everyone; all of us in front of the camera, as well as behind the camera.  He also had supreme confidence in himself and from those of us working with him as a guy who knows every aspect of what this story is and exactly how to tell it.

I’ve got to say that William Frawley was not what I expected from Fred.

J.K. Simmons: As Nina said, we all had plenty of footage of I Love Lucy to watch. For those few moments when we were expected to mimic aspects of the show itself, of the play within the play, that was very clear.  About Bill Frawley, there was much less. Zero videos that I could find outside of his films and his appearances on I Love Lucy. No talk shows. Nothing on video. Not even a book. Desi famously wrote a book called A Book.

There wasn’t much written about William Frawley.

J.K. Simmons: Correct, there were plenty of books about Lucille Ball, and even about Vivian Vance, but not much on Bill Frawley. All of my research was through the perspective of Vivian, and Lucille, and Desi, and Jess Oppenheimer, and some audio interviews. In a way I found that to be sort of freeing in terms of how I portrayed off-camera Bill, which again is 98 percent of the movie. He was honestly not all that dissimilar from the cranky landlord, Fred Mertz.

What did you learn?

J.K. Simmons: The beauty of, again the gift that we all got from Aaron Sorkin in this script was in his direction along the way. There were so many beautifully detailed layers for all of us and we got to see really multiple aspects of all of these characters as they relate to each other at different times. The scene at the bar I have with Lucile. The scene after the table read that I have with Desi. The ‘kvetching’ (complaining) back and forth that Vivian and Bill have going on. All of it was not easy, but it was clear how to lift that off of the page.

Nina Arianda in Being the Ricardos
Nina Arianda in Being the Ricardos. Pic Credit: Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services.

Nina, there were many surprises about portraying Ethel and Vivian, can you talk about them?

Nina Arianda: I wasn’t aware of Vivian Vance’s successful theater background. Being the butt of jokes about her appearance and age was deeply frustrating because she played ingénues most of her career. She had a whole line of Vivian Vance beauty products. It was quite jarring to go from that to playing Ethel Mertz. Supposedly, Frawley overheard her complaining that she was cast with ‘this old man.’ That may have set the stage for their dislike for each other. They butted heads all the time.

What was your first take on this incredible screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin?

Nina Arianda: It was such a brilliant first read, and then it was even more fun to dissect. I think the thing that right away jumped off the page for me was just how relentless the stakes are. Everything you could possibly want, it’s almost a thriller for me. But the stakes never leave you and it’s just continuous to the end of the story.

Aaron Sorkin said he chose you to play Ethel because of your background as a successful stage actor and dancer; similar to Vivian Vance. How did you feel about being selected for this big role?

Nina Arianda: I grew up watching I Love Lucy and I was intimidated by the idea of playing an iconic television star. It was a real gift from Aaron when he said he wasn’t interested in an exact representation. I worked with a dialect coach for both characters. I found many video clips of her movement as Vivian.

Alia Shawkat, Nicole Kidman, and Nina Arianda in Being the Ricardos
Alia Shawkat, Nicole Kidman, and Nina Arianda in Being the Ricardos. Pic Credit: Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services.

How did you approach playing two different people – Vivian Vance and Ethel Mertz?

Nina Arianda: I think for me it was really important to honor the physical differences between the two women because they were so extreme. Vivian was a wonderful dancer. She was a leading lady. She was an ingénue. Ethel was Ethel. All the research I could possibly want, I had for Ethel obviously.  But for Vivian, it was a little tougher.  

Was there anything that helped?

Nina Arianda: A producer had sent me a clip that was a couple of seconds long and it was simply Desi introducing Vivian Vance to the audience right before they were taping. It was really eye-opening for me because out came this woman with a long spine, her shoulders back, and she kind of sashayed downstage and took a graceful bow and left.

I just saw a completely different woman and I became so obsessed with her background. How did this spine develop?  I guess for me it was really kind of trying to be as respectful as I could to these two very different bodies.

Being the Ricardos is playing on Amazon Prime Video.

For more of what’s coming on Amazon Prime check out: Get your popcorn ready: Season 4 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is just around the corner

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