Writer and executive producer Cindy Chupack has been telling the same gay joke for years: that once she got into comedy writing, her husband no longer wanted to be a straight man.
That’s a stretch, of course. But after her ex, Sam, came out to her after two years of marriage, the couple divorced. During that time, in 1993, Chupack became a TV writer for the NBC sitcom The Mommies, which led to future writing gigs on Sex and the City, Modern Family and HBO’s Divorce. In a 2007 “Modern Love” column she wrote for The New York Times, she detailed the end of her relationship with Sam—the man she thought she would have children with—and their lunch reunion that left them both with a feeling of contentment.
Chupack says now that she may never have landed a writing job had she and Sam stayed married: “I was single for so long, and I feel being single and writing about being single was what led to Sex and the City.”
She’s already the winner of two Emmys and three Golden Globes, but Chupack’s latest project, Otherhood, marks her directorial feature debut. Airing on Netflix, the dramedy follows three suburban empty nesters who feel more like “others” than mothers—so much so that they decide to pop in on their grown sons to rekindle the bonds that have gone missing. The moms are played by Angela Bassett, Patricia Arquette, and Felicity Huffman, who portrays the trio’s chicest matriarch, Helen, who in the process of making her surprise visit to see her son, Paul (Jake Lacy), discovers he’s gay.
Chupack spoke to NewNowNext about the importance of casting real-life queer actors, why she regrets parts of that Times essay, and if she thinks we’ll ever get that third Sex and the City movie.
Your projects have been very LGBTQ-inclusive. Did you also aim for that with Otherhood?
Yes. It was one of the many things I loved about it: that it was just an inclusive film about the very relatable story of a man’s relationship with his mother, whether he’s gay or straight. That relationship feels very universal at a time when maybe we need that reminder in our country.
From Sex and the City to Modern Family and now Otherhood, how far has LGBTQ representation come?
I think we have come a long way, baby! I think gay characters have gone from “the gay best friend” to characters in their own right—the lead, the entire show—and then just part of an ensemble where someone just happens to be gay and one of the relationships just happens to be a gay relationship. I think that’s progress.
As a writer, what clichés and tropes do you try to avoid when creating an LGBTQ character?
I try not to write a gay character differently. I don’t try to figure out how the language, the walk, or any particular thing would be different. I think that’s something an actor can bring to a character. It’s just best to write a relatable character who happens to be gay. On Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell were very different. Cam you could write a certain way because he just was. But I don’t think it was because he was gay—it was just the kind of character he was.
Those characters got some flack from some LGBTQ viewers—Cam, specifically—at the onset of the show.
I remember criticism that they didn’t kiss or that they argued too much, but that didn’t feel valid to me. But what was the criticism?
And was it because he was a straight actor playing that role?
Well, actually that’s a good question because that’s become so controversial. There’s a real push for LGBTQ actors to play LGBTQ roles.
For Otherhood, I auditioned both gay and straight actors to play Paul. I just wanted the best actor. And then once we did hire Jake Lacy, I was determined to surround him with gay actors because I felt that was important, and Frank [De Julio, who plays his boyfriend, Andre] was amazing. Frank and Jake, I thought, were the best couple. When we rehearsed the scenes, Frank brought a lot of love and warmth and groundedness to that character and to that relationship. And of course I love Mario [Cantone] and Tim Bagley [who play the couple’s friends].
I think the dinner scene, when Helen gets upset at Paul for not telling her he’s gay sooner, will resonate with a lot of LGBTQ people and their parents.
That’s in Whatever Makes You Happy, the book the film is based on. That scene is very close to what was in the book, and I thought it really resonated and was modern and interesting. I have had that conversation with gay friends. I do think Helen had a point in her desire to be able to talk about it so that they could get closer, and so that they could actually talk about Paul’s relationship and his boyfriend and she could be part of his life.
What kind of direction did you offer during that scene?
It was a tricky tone to control, the whole movie. I really like the line between drama and comedy, but with Felicity and Jake, I felt like I had slightly less control over it. I think I wanted to make sure you could still tell they loved each other and that she was pushing his buttons, but then something magical happened with the chemistry between them where when he felt attacked, he wanted to attack back, and same with her. It felt more heated than I’m comfortable with in general, but I like how it turned out.
I got some lesbian vibes between Angela Bassett and that woman she literally runs into in the club scene.
It’s funny, someone else told me that, but I didn’t recognize that in the moment.
I was just like, Are we gonna get a lesbian Angela Bassett by the end of this movie?
One of my editors, Sunny Hodge, who’s worked on Transparent, is gay, and she told me, “Oh, I like the chemistry between these two!” It wasn’t meant to be that way! But I kind of love that. You know, though, I will say that the girl at the door [at the club]—we saw actresses and then we saw trans actresses and she was just the best actress and I love her in this. I shouldn’t even be remarking on it, but it was nice. And she was great, wasn’t she? I thought her acting was so good.
Considering your experience with your ex-husband, Sam, who came out to you as gay while you were married to him, it does seem you have a lot of empathy and compassion for the LGBTQ community. It’s nice to see that parlayed into your work.
Yeah. It’s definitely nothing conscious.
It’s just natural?
Just natural. [What happened to me] might’ve made me more empathetic, whereas with some people it would’ve made them… angry [laughs]. But I felt empathetic because I understood what he was fighting against and how it continues to be a challenge no matter how liberal we get. Every once in a while we get a president who sets things back, and there’s still a lot of hate and antipathy and bias, and I know I like to fight against that.
In your TV and film work?
Yeah. There’s a little Elizabeth Warren bumper sticker on [Patricia Arquette’s character’s] car! And that was before she decided to run! You know, what I like about this movie is what I liked about working on Sex and the City: Even though it’s very specifically in New York, it translated in all countries and people from where I’m from in Oklahoma related to it. Because it was about friendship and dating and love, and that’s something we can all relate to regardless of your politics.
I feel like this movie fits into that: It’s about motherhood, it’s about female friendship, it’s about this stage people go through, and hopefully it’s something that can remind us of what we have in common as opposed to how we’re different, in the same way that Modern Family did that by just trying to normalize people even though we’re different in many, many ways. I like having that as part of the story.
Sex and the City 3: Are you Team Kim or Team Sarah?
I’m Team “If Michael Patrick King writes a script—which he has written a script—I wanna see it become a movie.” I wanna see everything Michael writes and directs come to life, and they were really ready to film when that fell apart. I mean, I love Kim—I’ve done a TV pilot for her—but I felt very sad that it fell apart right before they were about to film because I would’ve liked to see the movie. So I’m just Team Michael Patrick King. I think he should start a movement that calls for him to publish a book of the script! [Laughs]
In the years since 2007, when you first opened up about your divorce to Sam, have women who’ve gone through a similar situation reached out to you?
Yeah, whenever George Takei reposted that piece, it got a lot of hits. Also, men saw it and were appreciative, I think. I mean, now that piece feels almost dated to me, and I feel like there’s a little bit where I was kind of stereotypical about gay things and I wish I wasn’t.
It’s easier now, but there are still women who go through this, and hopefully it helps us realize to forgive each other and be empathetic toward each other and understand that it’s still better for everybody to be who they are and find their true love. And it doesn’t have to be an ending. It can be a beginning.
Do you still stay in touch with Sam?
Just vaguely, but not out of any animosity. But he did adopt. He and his husband adopted two kids and used the same lawyer that I eventually used to adopt our daughter [with her husband Ian Wallach]. I remember Sam being a proponent of that early on. And it was funny that we both ended up getting kids. We kind of had kids together! [Laughs]
Otherhood premieres August 2 on Netflix.