Donald Glover teamed up with Maya Erskine and “Atlanta” writer-producer Francesca Sloane to reimagine “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” as an exploration of marriage and commitment.
Donald Glover and Maya Erskine are lounging in a bunker-like greenroom in the bowels of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, debating which of them would make a better assassin.
“I wouldn’t pull the trigger,” says Erskine.
“Are you talking about who’s willing to kill somebody?” Glover asks, his voice rising in amused disbelief.
“I think you’d be better at, like, ‘I was told to do this. Pffftt,’” she says, dutifully firing an imaginary gun with her thumb and pointer finger. Fresh off an interview on “Today,” both actors look impossibly put together despite the early hour, she in a camel-colored skirt and top with elaborate gold hoops and he in a fitted cornflower blue turtleneck and navy jacket.
He considers it for a second: “I mean, I guess. I don’t want to kill people, either.”
“I don’t think you want to kill people,” she responds, laughing. “I’m just saying you’d be better at the job.”
The argument is relevant: the duo star in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” a reboot of the 2005 comedic spy thriller about a pair of married assassins that is now largely remembered for unleashing Brangelina on the world.
In the series, which premieres Friday on Prime Video, Glover and Erskine play disillusioned millennials who accept jobs with an unnamed spy agency and are set up as partners — in marriage and espionage. Known by their code names, Jane and John Smith, they move into a Manhattan brownstone worthy of an Architectural Digest spread — complete with indoor pool — and, when they’re not stalking their targets in Lake Como, Italy, enjoy visiting the farmers market and practicing yoga on their rooftop terrace. Initially awkward together, they gradually form an attachment informed by the trauma of the job, and their arranged union becomes a love match — albeit an unusually complicated one.
Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry and Hiro Murai break down how the FX series comes together.
Created by Glover — who also directs several episodes — and Francesca Sloane, this reimagined version of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” departs radically from the source material, in both narrative and tone. (As if to signal this deviation, the cheeky opening scene depicts a pair of Brad and Angelina lookalikes, played by Alexander Skarsgard and Eiza González Reyna, getting killed off in a spray of bullets.)
Although the series boasts glamorous locations and intense action sequences worthy of a Bond movie, its spy storyline is mostly an afterthought, a MacGuffin that lures us into what is actually an exploration of marriage and the difficulties and rewards of romantic commitment. We never really find out — or care — whom John and Jane are working for or learn much about the greater goal of their various missions. Instead, each episode focuses on a milestone in the Smiths’ relationship: first date, honeymoon, therapy and infidelity.
When it was announced in late 2021 that Glover would follow the inventive, idiosyncratic and often surreal comedy “Atlanta” with a TV adaptation of popcorn fare like “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” many fans were surprised. It’s not what he expected, either.
“I don’t like remakes,” he says. “I think most of the time, they are just kind of wack.”
But a few years ago, producer Michael Schaefer asked him to take a look at the Doug Liman film about a husband and wife who discover they are assassins working for rival agencies — and have been assigned to kill each other. Glover had never seen it and figured at the very least that he would finally watch this movie that had become such a cultural touchstone for reasons that had little to do with its cinematic virtues.
“I remember watching it like, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done it that way at all. They don’t know each other as spies? How is that even believable?’” he recalls. But he called his brother and frequent collaborator, Stephen Glover, who brought him back down to Earth. “He was like, ‘You’re watching it wrong. It’s a great date movie. Let’s go to the movies on Friday, and you see boys versus girls, but they’re hot with guns.’”
To make the story hot in a deeper, more contemporary way required an authentic sense of intimacy, Glover decided, not just conventionally attractive leads. (“I look just like, you know, Brad Pitt? Obviously, I think that’s what everyone’s been saying. I’m surprised you didn’t bring it up,” he jokes.) It also needed a strong female point of view, so he brought the project to Sloane, a standout writer on “Atlanta,” who was initially puzzled by his interest in the material.
“I sincerely thought he was making a weird Donald joke,” Sloane said in a separate conversation over Zoom.
But she heard him out and grew intrigued by the possibility of humanizing a larger-than-life genre.
“I have always been interested in thinking about the in-between moments, like when do they use the bathroom? Or what happens if they wear the wrong shoes and come home and they have a blister because their shoe was a little bit too small?”
“Fleabag” auteur Phoebe Waller-Bridge was originally attached to star in and create the series with Glover, in what would have been a meta pairing of Emmy winners behind two of Peak TV’s most distinctive comedies. She left the project in late 2021 due to what has been mutually described as creative differences.
“They’re both really specific and wonderful artists,” says Sloane. “But the visions just weren’t aligning, especially with [different] time zones and doing it through Zoom.” (Waller-Bridge was “very gracious,” she says.)
They began to look for a new Jane and couldn’t stop thinking about Erskine, star and co-creator of another groundbreaking, deeply personal comedy, “PEN15.” In the Hulu series, Erskine, then in her early 30s, donned a bowl cut and upper-lip peach fuzz to play a fictionalized version of her 13-year-old self.
“I think ‘PEN15’ is one of the best television shows ever made. It’s so incredible. And it sneaks up on you with how profound it is,” says Sloane. “We were excited to do something surprising with her — like, get her out of the bowl cut.”
“I wanted mustache hairs drawn on just a little,” Erskine jokes.
The genius of “PEN15” lay in the vulnerability of the performances, says Glover.
“I’ve always felt like acting is about embarrassment. If you’re doing it well, like ‘I drink your milkshake’” — Glover does a passable impression of Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” — “it’s embarrassing, because you’re seeing a human being pushed to the edge, and usually those moments are very intimate.”
When Glover reached out about the project, Erskine says she “had no idea what part I was going to play.”
“I was just excited to just talk to him about it,” she adds. “He didn’t say ‘I want a new Jane’ right away.”
When, after several phone calls, he offered her the role, Erskine was quick to say yes — excited by their vision of a more relatable spy duo.
“It was very clear that they were not going for the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith.’ We’re not going for perfection,” Erskine says. “We’re going for real nuance, seeing all sides of a character. Let’s show them being rejects. They’re not the perfect spies. And that’s exciting to me.”
“She asked to fart,” Glover adds. “That’s when Fran was like, ‘She’s the one.’”
Once she was officially on board, Erskine sent what she calls “a weird, big packet I’m really embarrassed about,” detailing her various romantic failures and humiliations. “It didn’t even need to make its way into the script. It was more like, ‘Does any of this line up with the character of Jane? Does it help make her more specific?’” Erskine says. The collaboration continued on set. “It would be hard for me to not have any opinion or voice.”
“The romance of filmmaking is really deep in her,” says Glover, who turns to speak to his co-star. “When I’m on set with you, I feel like it’s 1970.” (Coming from Glover, this is the highest compliment.)
Glover and Erskine never did a formal chemistry read, but their in-person rapport is obvious — and helped shape the storytelling during production of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”
“We started noticing the places where Donald and Maya had the most chemistry would be when they would be able to laugh with each other and poke fun at each other. And we started shifting more in that way,” Sloane says. “Maya and Donald’s chemistry as actors was happening in real time, which helped the chronological story that was happening on screen.”
This version of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” will remind many viewers of “The Americans,” the critically beloved FX drama about a pair of Russian agents in a spicy arranged marriage. But the show also harkens back to the sophisticated detective procedurals of 1980s broadcast TV, like “Hart to Hart” and “Moonlighting.” Each episode features a mission of the week and memorable guest stars like Sharon Horgan, John Turturro, Sarah Paulson, Parker Posey, Ron Perlman and Michaela Coel. (In a decidedly 2024 twist, the couple, like Task Rabbits or Uber drivers, receive their assignments via text message from someone they call Hihi, the casual greeting that opens each message. They’re just two covert agents plying their trade in the gig economy.)
The creative team also found inspiration in an unexpected genre: reality TV, particularly shows like “Married at First Sight,” “Love is Blind,” “Terrace House” and “The Real World,” in which young people are thrust into strange, dramatic circumstances and do seemingly inexplicable things in pursuit of love, fame or a few months of rent-free living in a cool house.
When you consider that “people are getting married through a wall without ever meeting each other” on shows like “Love Is Blind,” Sloane says it’s not so inconceivable that John and Jane would follow assassination orders delivered on an app in exchange for a luxury home, a generous salary and a committed romantic partner. (Another show Sloane and Glover have discussed more recently is “The Golden Bachelor.” Glover, who’d been rooting for Leslie Fhima, was surprised that Gerry Turner seemed to favor Theresa Nist once he found out she was financially well off. “The practicality of it kind of broke the romance a little bit,” he says. “Then you realize what makes it work long-term is maintenance.”)
It’s easy to view John and Jane’s partnership skeptically; after all, they are paired by the company simply because they both like Korean barbecue. But Glover sees something laudable in how they commit to their assignment.
“Before [the pandemic], I was like, ‘Why do people get married? You’re swiping on your phone and there’s always something better,’” says the multi-hyphenate star, who wed his longtime partner, Michelle White, while making the show. “It’s like being forced. I hope this doesn’t become the headline — ‘Donald is for arranged marriages’ — but [the show] is definitely pro-marriage.”
“It is!’ says Erskine, who also recently got married, to actor Michael Angarano.
“There’s something about the fact of accepting and understanding that this person is not perfect, right? And you will never fix them,” Glover adds. “My wife is the woman who helps me be a better guy because I want to be the guy that she wants me to be. So I’m always reaching for that. It’s really special.”
For her part, Sloane doesn’t think John and Jane are soulmates, either. And that’s a good thing.
“I think that’s the beauty of it,” she says. “So many times that’s what marriage really is. It’s about deciding that this is something you want with this other person and dealing with the muck of life with somebody by your side.”
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