Nicole Kidman as Lucy and Javier Bardem as Desi in Being the Ricardos (Amazon Studios)
Lucy and Desi Ricardo. Fred and Ethel Mertz. These are the iconic characters from the sitcom that essentially defined the form in I Love Lucy, which Aaron Sorkin portrays in his film Being the Ricardos. Academy Award winners Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem take over the roles of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, while Oscar winner J.K. Simmons plays William Frawley, who played Fred on the sitcom, and Tony winner Nina Arianda plays Vivian Vance, who played Ethel. The four actors talk about their experience working with Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed Being the Ricardos, and the challenges of playing not only both the actors who portrayed the I Love Lucy foursome, but the characters themselves.
For Arianda, playing Ethel Mertz was less of a challenge in the film than playing Vance herself, thanks to the dearth of footage of Vance outside of her character. As she says about Vivian verses Ethel, “It was 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 ingenue, and Ethel was Ethel. All the research I could have for Ethel I had, obviously, but it was difficult for Vivian. A producer sent me a clip that was a couple seconds long, It was Desi introducing Vivian Vance to the audience right before they were taping, and it was eye opening for me, because out came this woman with a long spine, her shoulders back, and she sashayed downstage and took a graceful bow and left. I saw a completely different woman, and I became obsessed with her background and how this spine developed. For me, it was trying to be respectful to these two very different bodies.”
Simmons echoes Arianda’s observations about playing an actor for whom so little footage outside of character exists. “As Nina said, we have plenty of I Love Lucy footage to watch, so for those moments when we had to mimic aspects of the show itself, the play within the play, it was very clear,” Simmons explains. “As for Bill Frawley himself, there was zero video that I could find outside of his films and appearances on I Love Lucy. No talk shows, nothing in video, not even a book. Desi famously wrote a book called A Book, and there were plenty of books about Lucille Ball and even Vivian Vance, but not about William Frawley. So all of my research was through the perspective of Vivian and Lucille and Desi and Jess Oppenheimer, and in a way I found that freeing in terms of how I portrayed off-camera Bill, which is ninety eight percent of the movie. He was honestly not all that dissimilar from the cranky landlord Fred Mertz, but the beauty of the gifft we all got from Aaron Sorkin and his direction along the way, there were so many beautifully detailed layers for all of us, and we got to see multiple aspects of our characters as they relate to each other at different times”
Simmons lauds Sorkin for his work on Being the Ricardos, not simply for his work as screenwriter. “Obviously, Hollywood has known Aaron Sorkin the writer for decades now, and this is the third film he has directed. And it’s the first film that he wrote intending to direct, because the other two times it happened for different reasons. He’s gotten to a point now as 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, but he had supreme confidence in himself, and from those of working with him, as a guy who knows every aspect of what this story is and how to tell it.”
Bardem, who plays Desi Arnaz as a complex and conflicted mix of lothario and supportive husband, echoes Simmons and Arianda in lauding Sorkin’s work on the film. “The exquisite complexity of the script is that it really goes to different places. It unites the aspects of Lucy and Desi as a marriage, as a couple, as artists and colleagues, and everything is so well put together that it makes it more exciting to perform, and also to watch. It’s full of different details that give you an idea of who they were and what they were doing.”
According to Bardem, he found the strength in Desi Arnaz. “He had an absolutely confident in himself, and how supportive he was of his wife and the shole show, and how he overcame obstacles through a strong sense of humor. That didn’t mean he didn’t take anything seriously, but he didn’t get stuck in the drama of it all.”
Being the Ricardos not only looks at Lucille Ball the actress and comedienne, but also the businesswoman, and Nicole Kidman highlights how groundbreaking that was for both Lucy and Desi. “She wasn’t running the studio,” Kidman notes, “But they did have Desilu productions, and no actors had that at the time. She was the first of her kind, she was one of a kind, and the genius of the film is that it’s not just the I Love Lucy show, it’s about how it’s made and who this person is that was capable of that genius. Aaron Sorkin’s storytelling compresses a number of things into a week, and then by flashing forward and back he can show the essence of who these people were.
Portraying a Hollywood icon like Lucille Ball is obviously a challenge, and it was a daunting experience for Kidman, despite her decades of fearless performances. Kidman talks about her uncertainty about taking the role. “Initially when I said yes, I didn’t realize that I was saying yes to. It was an extraordinary thing to sit on a Zoom call with Aaron Sorkin and have him say that he wanted me to play Lucille Ball, but maybe a week later it hit me as I was working on getting baby steps into her voice, and it was nowhere in reach. Fortunately, I had a couple of months to work on it meticulously. This was unusual for me because I could relate to her and feel her, and it was so beautifully written. But how could I actually create Lucille Ball?”
Kidman tells how Sorkin reassured her that she could portray Ball. “When I freaked out, and I inevitably did, Aaron sent me an email that said: you got this. You have to do it day by day. I don’t want an impersonation, I want you to do the work I know you can do, because I believe you can do it. I would challenge him at different points, but he never wavered. I would beg for some sort of nose or chin or a jaw, but he didn’t care. He saw how he wanted, and it took me time to give in to that.”
The result for Kidman was her final performance as Ball, which has been widely-praised. “In the process, I was able to work on the actual Lucy Ricardo part of it, and I could hang my hat on that. I would have the hair and the lips and all of that, and even though it’s just a sliver of the movie, I had it. And out of Lucy Ricardo came Lucille Ball. And Lucille Ball is very different from Lucy Ricardo.”
Being the Ricardos is now playing in theaters and streaming on Prime Video.