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While certainly a massively important genre in cinematic history, mafia movies aren’t especially known for featuring iconic heroes. It’s a storytelling arena where filmmakers are instead typically centering narratives around “protagonists,” as characters make decisions that frequently step outside the bounds of societal morality. The new film The Kitchen is no different, centering on a trio of women who start their own crime family, and the making of it inspired some interesting philosophical thoughts among the stars.
Actors will typically tell you that it is not their job to subjectively judge their characters, instead putting themselves in their shoes, and that presented a novel challenge in the making of The Kitchen, given that the leads wind up doing some pretty horrific things. It was something that I asked Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss about at the recent Los Angeles press day for the film, and you can watch their responses by clicking play on the video below:
Written and directed by Andrea Berloff, The Kitchen takes audiences back to Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s, and centers on Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Claire (Elisabeth Moss), and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), wives of men who are a part of the Irish mob. When their husbands are arrested and sent to prison, the women are left struggling to find a way to survive, and their solution is to team up and start their own criminal enterprise. It results in them having to do a lot of bad things, and the actors in the lead roles had to process those choices.
For Melissa McCarthy, what was important for her in her thinking about the role was the simple realization that she can’t predict how she would personally react if she found herself in the exact same circumstances as her character. Though we can all imagine how we may behave, living the reality is a totally different situation, and that helped her understand where Kathy was coming from. Said McCarthy,
They're making poor choices. They're making hurtful choices, violent choices. But when I really stood back and had to think about it, I was like, 'You know, you can't really say what you would do.' I don't know. I mean, I certainly would like to think I wouldn't go to that length, but my character couldn't get another job, couldn't support her kids was about to be thrown out into New York City in the 70s - could not get another job! She tried to do all the right things.
I'm not one that ever thinks, 'Well, I know what I'd do.' You don't. No one knows what they'll do until they're put into that circumstance. And I think Andrea wrote a script that was so good because it's believable that these are the only choices that they have left. And then you find yourself strangely rooting for these bad choices, and that's when I think you really have a great story.
Each of the three women at the center of the story in The Kitchen has a personal fight or plight, and in Kathy’s case it is the need to provide for her family. In the case of Elisabeth Moss’ Claire, she is a person who has suffered at the hands of an abusive spouse for years, and with him gone she sees an opportunity to assert herself for the first time in her life. Of course, doing this by pursuing a violent career in crime doesn’t earn her a totally free pass, but Moss also stressed that it’s not as though the characters in the film are living fun and happy lives.
On the contrary, Kathy, Claire, and Ruby regularly have to pay a serious price for their actions, as Moss explained:
And there are consequences to those choices as well. And in the film nobody winds up walking away with everything that they ever wanted. For my characters especially, there are consequences for what happens. And I think was something that we all really liked. It felt very real.