Exclusive: Audra McDonald tells tales of lovers, lockdown, and Zombies

Audra McDonald and Will Swenson in The Bite
Audra McDonald and Will Swenson in The Bite. Pic credit: CBS Studios and Spectrum Originals

Television and Broadway star Audra McDonald gladly took a break from baking, eating, and board games and headed back to work and took on The Bite, a pandemic satire filled with unexpected twists and turns.

From Spectrum Originals and CBS Studios, The Bite follows the lives of two neighbors, Rachel (The Good Fight’s Audra McDonald) and Lily (Orange is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling), as they embark on unprecedented times when a deadly new strain of a virus arrives. 

The series was written and created by Robert and Michelle King, also known for The Good Wife and BrainDead.

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While navigating the new normal in New York City, Rachel, a noted doctor, works from home juggling her telemedicine clients and has a shaky marriage to her husband, Dr. Zach (The Comey Rule’s Steven Pasquale), who has a prestigious job at the CDC miles away in Washington D.C. Rachel is enjoying the company of her new flame, Brian Ritter, her real-life husband, (The Greatest Showman), Will Swenson). 

Meanwhile, Lily is upstairs trying to convince her Wall Street clientele that her very specific skill set is still just as valuable through a video screen as it was in person.

McDonald and Swenson told Monsters & Critics that the unique show, with all of the pandemic references, did not seem out-of-the-ordinary despite the heightened reality there are many universal themes.

“It seems like a perfect response to what is happening in the world right now. Even though it is a satirical drama, there are real moments in there, too, of where you are laughing at things,” McDonald explains, “and other aspects horrify us, and devastate us, which happens in life, also. I think they encompassed all of that within the show.”

"The Bite" - Official Trailer - Premieres May 21 on Spectrum Originals

Monsters & Critics:  Why did each of you pick this particular project?

Audra McDonald: I have been working with the Kings and Kennedy, our showrunner, on The Good Fight for four years and I love working with them, I love the space that they create on their sets, and I love the stories that they tell. I can never predict where they are going with their stories. Even as we were getting scripts in for this, I was like, “I have no idea where this is going, but I trust them.”

I also love that they were so intent on making sure that they employed as many theater actors as they possibly could during this rough time.

Will Swenson: I picked this one because my wife dragged me along. [He joked]. The creators of the project wanted to employ real-life couples so that there could be intimacy represented on camera while shooting during COVID-19. So, that’s a massive challenge right now for people that weren’t in the same pods to come together and be close to each other, let alone kiss. It was just a massive challenge.

They smartly cast Audra and me as lovers instead of spouses and Steve and Pippa as the same kind of idea so that we could be intimate and tell an interesting story at the same time. It was a stroke of genius and is a cool thing to be part of this project, and nice to get back to work.

M&C: Audra, why were you attracted to this script? 

Audra McDonald: When I first read it, I didn’t know how this was going to play. But, the more I did the work and was in the work,  it all made sense to me.  We are in a time that you could not have written what has been happening. So, I figured why not have this be a version of how it might have all played out? Everything else has been unbelievable up to this point, anyway. 

Another aspect of this is that they are writing very realistic characters who are still dealing with very human emotions and feelings and things. You see daughters trying to deal with overbearing mothers, you see husbands and wives having relationship breakdowns, you see loneliness, you see isolation, you see new romance budding, you see political issues happening.

M&C: Did you take this story and project with you?  You are playing lovers and you are married in real life. How much of this comes home with you?

Audra McDonald: I mean none of it really, except the fact that we took some zombie makeup home to let our four-year-old play with.  It was so – it wasn’t necessary for us to take it home. I don’t know, maybe I’m just speaking for me.  Babe, do you think we took this home with us?

Will Swenson: I did try to devour Audra a couple of times when we went home.  She’s very tasty…I found [He teased.] I found the need to bite her lips.  No, but because I would come home with these zombie tattoos and our young daughter was very intrigued; so I did pretend to be a zombie with our daughter a little bit.

Audra McDonald: Oh my God, stop! [She exclaimed].

Audra McDonald in The Bite
Audra McDonald in The Bite. Pic credit: CBS Studios and Spectrum Originals

M&C: Did you learn any life lessons during the pandemic?

Will Swenson:  I learned that I can eat far more than I thought I could. I’m a very talented eater. But apart from that, yeah, I mean it seemed like a time – nobody won during COVID, but if there’s a silver lining to it all, I think everybody was forced into a certain place of introspection. Some of us found new hobbies, some of us found new relationships or ended ones that weren’t working.

I guess, in a way if there is a silver lining, it was a reset in a way for everybody. It forced a certain light onto our lives and this world and maybe made us see certain things are more important than others. While that was going on in our lives it’s also something that’s reflected in this show. It kind of was the point of this show, in a way.

M&C: Were you two together night and day for months and months during lockdown during the pandemic?

Audra McDonald:  Completely. Now you can see we are in different places, Will is working in Atlanta right and I’m in New York. This is the first time we’ve been apart and it’s the longest we’ve been apart. I’m not used to it.  We got so used to being with each other every minute and you realize how much your unit, whatever that is, your family, the people that you walk through the world with, how much they matter to you.

We’re actually having a hard time now because we’re not together. The pandemic, for me, made me realize just how much I rely on my unit and my husband and my family and how much I love being with them.

M&C: Did you start new things, like family movie night or game night or anything with your little one?

Will Swenson:  As far as a ritual, I don’t know that we did. But we sure picked up a whole lot of hobbies as a family. We got into gardening a whole lot more, I got into carpentry and pottery and baking. 

Audra McDonald:  Baking…way too much baking.

M&C: Audra, did you try new and different things during lockdown?

Audra McDonald:  I just followed Will. He is the one who has more artistically inclined as far as all that is concerned. So, Will would sort of find things for us to do and he’d find these ideas.

He became a lumberman, too.  He was chopping up everything in our backyard, chopping wood, and creating things. We would just go, oh, look at what daddy’s up to today? But, it was just about quality time together hunkered down at our house outside of New York City.

M&C: Why should my readers want to watch this show?

Will Swenson: I would say it’s going to be one of the more unique shows you’ve ever seen. While we were shooting it, we were not sure what it was going to become because the nature of shooting it was so unique, and the timing and the subject matter were so unique.

There is comedy in it, there is tragedy in it, there is satire in it. So, there’s a whole lot of things in the mixing bowl. We were not entirely sure what it was going to turn into. Having now watched it completed, all of those elements, in my opinion, have added up to be just truly unique. It’s unlike any show I’ve ever seen.

Audra McDonald: We are people that have also lost people to this horrific virus. So, it’s not in any way, shape, or form to lessen or invalidate the pain and the grief and the suffering that people have gone through. But, in some ways, because it’s all been so much, there is a bit, I have found, of release that comes with watching this.

There are parts that you can just scream at or laugh uncontrollably and you do not even know why. Then weep with them, too. I think, for me, that is why if you like the zombie genre, but you want to get the full gamut of emotions given what’s going on in the world, this will give you that.

All six episodes of The Bite are streaming ad-free exclusively on Spectrum’s On Demand platform now.

If you want to take another bite at this, check out the Monsters & Critics story on Taylor Schilling

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