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How the women of ‘Mrs. America’ celebrated their Emmy nominations

Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, left, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug and Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in "Mrs. America."
Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, from left, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug and Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in “Mrs. America.”
(Sabrina Lantos / FX)

Because “Mrs. America” premiered last spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic upended daily life around the world, the cast and crew never got together to celebrate with the customary red-carpet premiere. But cast members Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale and Tracey Ullman were reunited in a sense on Tuesday morning, when they were nominated for Emmys in the same category, supporting actress in a limited series.

The drama about the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, starring Cate Blanchett as anti-feminist leader Phyllis Schlafly, received 10 Emmy nominations in a year rich with female-centered dramas. Aduba, Ullman and Martindale — each already a winner of multiple Emmys — play key figures from the women’s movement who fought to pass the amendment.

Aduba stars as Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and a pioneering candidate for president in the 1972 Democratic primary. Martindale plays sharp-tongued congresswoman Bella Abzug, while Ullman portrays “The Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan.

In separate calls with The Times, the actresses each spoke about the powerful experience of working with such a large group of women. Cast members remain in touch via group text and planned a Zoom chat to celebrate the show’s nominations.

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As for an in-person gathering, well, that would have to wait.

“Mrs. America” depicts the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. We’re fact-checking its historical accuracy, episode by episode.

Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan
(Sabrina Lantos / FX)

Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan

Where are you right now?
I am standing in a garden in Sussex, I have been in lockdown in England with my grandson who has no regard for social distancing, being 18 months old. I have been very, very occupied. I am so, so lucky to have a Yorkshire terrier and an 18-month-old.

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How did you feel when you heard the news?
I was at the vet’s with the dog when my son called me to say I had a nomination. It’s a lovely, lovely thing. I wanted to be a part of this part so badly. They cast me last. It drove me mad. I was like, “Give me the part!” It’s like they were buying a car, they were kicking the tires for months. I said, “Oh, God. Get someone else. Let me off the hook here.”

I just love Betty Friedan. When I would come to America I would see her on the TV; I read “The Feminine Mystique” in my 20s. I was just very, very proud to be part of this group and to play an iconic American woman like this.

And I’ll be really honest, to have the academy recognize me in a dramatic role today — I was really surprised and really thrilled. I have been very, very lucky in the comedic world, and it’s lovely. But some people say, “Oh you are just going to do an impersonation of somebody? You’re a comedian.” No, I started out as an actress.

Your performance recast Friedan in a sympathetic, human light.
When you’re going to play somebody like this, you look at all the stuff that’s available on YouTube. They’re making speeches and [she switches into Betty’s more strained voice], “It’s them being bold and pontificating and being strident.” [Returns to her regular voice.] You think, what were they like in real life? Those moments on a Tuesday morning having coffee with Ms. Magazine, not getting on with Gloria Steinem. It’s finding those quieter, vulnerable moments.

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I think Betty was vulnerable. She was from [Peoria, Ill.,] and became a big star. I loved all that stuff they had me do on “The Tonight Show.” She would go on TV in the ’60s and say things like, [Betty voice again] “No woman has an orgasm cleaning the kitchen floor.” I was just like, “Wow. I always wanted to say outrageous things in the ’80s, but she did it first.” That was the public face. “Mrs. America” shows the private face.

Betty repeatedly mispronounces the name Schlafly throughout the show. Was that something you picked up from your research?
It was a hard name to pronounce. I think she did used to mispronounce it on purpose. At my toughest moments — it sounds very dramatic and actressy — but I would try to summon her in my funny little beige plastic-lined trailer. I would say, “Oh, Betty, I want to be worthy of playing you! They said they had the toughest time casting this role. [Betty voice] You gotta help me, Betty!” I think she bloody helped me. I think she’d be bloody proud of me. She was tough on everyone and tough on herself, but she was extraordinary.

Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm.
Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm.
(Sabrina Lantos / FX)

Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm

It must be a strange time to have a celebrated performance in a well-received show, while being at home.
[The nomination] was a nice spot of sunshine, a ray of light, in the five months of being locked in the house. This whole experience of “Mrs. America” has been unique. Our show had a very pandemic, lockdown everything. So this feels good because we never got together again after having made it. We’ve been on Zooms. That’s how we did all our press. We have a thread. But we haven’t really gotten to see each other again since wrap.

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What has it meant to you to play Shirley Chisholm at this particular time — when we might have a Black woman on the Democratic ticket, and we’re seeing racial justice protests across the country?
We’re talking about equity for all, really looking at that Constitution.... That sacred document is being reexamined and analyzed for its truth. I am obviously an intersectional person as a Black woman. When we were doing this project it was nice that Shirley was sort of getting this RBG moment with young Black feminists and young Gen Z-ers. I did an [Instagram Live] with Yara Shahidi with this fantastic yellow Shirley Chisholm T-shirt. You hear from young women who feel like they’ve been robbed of their heroes. “There is somebody that I can look to.”

Look at what AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)] said the other day. We are still having these very real conversations. We are still seeing examples of women being diminished, marginalized and sidelined. We are having conversations more specifically about intersectional women not being lost in the conversation. I want it to continue. I want every voice for everything to be heard, represented and seen.

If we let history stand as it is in the books, Florence Nightingale, Amelia Earhart and Betsy Ross are the only women who did anything. It’s nice that a show like this came out and really gave the space for all of these voices.

How are you feeling about going back to work?
I was supposed to do “Americanah” from HBO Max when the pandemic hit. I love to work. I love to tell stories, I love to act, I love to do all of that. It feeds me, it thrills me. I am desperate to go to work, but I want to go work safely. I have extended family, close family members of a certain age who cannot be exposed. I take this very seriously. I know the numbers and see the numbers within my community and, again, take that very seriously. I think of it as being neighborly.

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Depending on how the Emmys ceremony comes together in September, have you thought about potentially giving an acceptance speech from your apartment? Do you have neighbors you’ll have to ask to keep quiet?
No, but I have a dog. I don’t know how he knows, if I am talking to my family, silence, nothing. As soon as I am on a call of even mild importance, the dog starts barking as if he has a stake in what I’m saying. His name is Fenway Bark. He just knows. That’s my only real concern.

Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug.
(Sabrina Lantos / FX)

Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug

This is your sixth Emmy nomination. Is it just old hat (if you will)?
Honestly, it’s just as exciting. It really is. I cried. I am very delighted, and it’s incredible to be among those people, and I am so happy for the show. We got 10 nominations. You don’t want to be a pig. [laughs] But everybody is really, really excited.

How familiar were you with Bella Abzug before signing up for the part?
Yes, of course, I was familiar with her because I live on the Upper West Side and have since 1974. So Bella was all around. I’d see her in the news and in the paper. She was everywhere really. I knew enough about her, and I learned so much about her doing this. It was a great education for me. I read two books and looked at massive amounts of documentaries. I did dialect coaching for a few months. Let me just say, I worked harder than I’ve worked on anything, and this is great gift at the end of it.

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Did you feel an obligation to get it right because she was so well-known?
Absolutely. I felt incredible responsibility to capture her essence. From what I hear from people who knew her, they feel that I did, so that makes me very, very happy.

The accent is tricky — it’s one we don’t hear much anymore.
She was raised Orthodox [Jewish] and her parents were from Europe, and so there was an old-fashioned-ness to a lot of the sounds that we tried to keep in the way she spoke. They don’t really talk like that in the Bronx anymore. It was a fun accent. But it was a tremendous adjustment because, [puts on a thick Southern accent] “Obviously, I come from somewhere else.”

Tell me about the hats.
What was it like wearing a wig and a hat? Stiflingly hot. I was very clear about when I wanted to have my hat off. I wanted my hat off when I was in Betty’s house because we were old friends. After I was fired, it was a dilemma for me whether I would have my hat on or hat off. The hat was her armor, it was her way of being noticed, always. It was, I am somebody to look at. Don’t overlook me. Her mother said wear a hat and gloves so they’ll never mistake you for a secretary. So that’s what she did.

Did learning more about her story give you perspective on the current political situation?
I learned a lot about how to get things done through Bella Abzug. You have to have one thing you’re fighting for, you can’t have a committee of things. That’s something our leaders now should think about. Choose what things are most important. That’s what Bella did. She knew how to play the political game. She was a very smart, savvy, sharp woman.

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How are you feeling about getting back to work?
I have been solid, nonstop working for a long time. I am desperate to get back to work. But I want it to be done the right way. I don’t think we need to rush anything.

Is there anyone you’d be looking forward to seeing if you actually got to see people at the Emmys this year?
I want to see all the people. I want to see everybody! All of them. [laughs] It’s a strange time. Our girls, the “Mrs. America” people. We just want to celebrate together. Let’s pray and be optimistic.


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