Lana Parrilla has absolutely nothing to apologise for.
“I didn’t want you to see me like this,” she says with a laugh as our Zoom call begins and she puts aside what looks like an incredible hamburger (which, she later reveals, was both delicious and 30 minutes late). “Especially after playing such an elegant woman and now you’re seeing me eating this amazing, sloppy burger.”
She’s right about that: burgers are the last thing you’d associate with her character on Why Women Kill. Rita Castillo is pure femme fatale, a glamorous queen ruling unopposed over her domain – which in this case is the Elysian Park Garden Club in 1949. It’s with her home life that the trouble starts.
Her elderly husband (who she married for the money) refuses to die while she suspects her young stud of a boyfriend is cheating on her. And when lower class frump Alma Fillcot (Allison Tolman) wants to join the garden club, Rita doesn’t begin to suspect the threat Alma poses to everything she holds dear.
Asked to describe Rita, Parrilla says, “She’s crafty, she’s sassy, she’s sensual, she’s venomous – she’s just completely outrageous. She is also deeply conflicted.”
That’s no surprise. Why Women Kill is a series written and created by Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives), a creator as well known for his subtle, nuanced female characters as he is for his over-the-top take on American suburbia.
“This is the first time we’ve worked together,” she says about Cherry. “He’s very, very, very good at writing for women. It’s not easy to find, but it’s because he’s taking time to ask the right questions, he really understands the complexities and the different layers of a woman.”
The first season of Why Women Kill was spread across three timelines, with different characters in each. This season is all about one storyline in one period, giving the series more room to go in-depth with the characters.
“Rita found herself in a marriage that didn’t really turn out the way she had hoped,” Parrilla says. “She always wanted to be a woman who fell in love and married her true love like most of us and it just didn’t happen for a woman in her position given her history and background and at the time. Her choices back in the 1930s were very different than women’s choices and opportunities today.”
Desperate Housewives was notorious for its ability to skilfully mix drama and comedy, and Cherry’s taken that approach to new heights with Why Women Kill. While Parrilla has done both drama and comedy before – she was Regina Mills, AKA the Evil Queen, for seven seasons on Once Upon a Time, and was a regular on sitcom Spin City – this was her first series that mixed the two together so thoroughly.
“It was just a delight,” she says. “There are times when it’s hilarious and you’re just trying not to laugh. But dark comedy is right up my alley. I would love to do more.”
As far as the challenge of juggling the two extremes of comedy and drama goes, for Parrilla it’s all about telling the truth. “The best comedians understand that they’re playing the drama, they’re actually believing that this is horrendous or tragic even if it’s the most ridiculous thing. We’re laughing, but for them they’re really upset. As the actor looking at it from outside, you can see where the jokes are. But if you play the truth, there is no difference between comedy and drama.”
One area where Parrilla thinks women of the 1940s may have had an edge on the women of today is fashion. “I’m a big fashion person,” she says, “and I really love the fashion of that time. I love the elegance of that time, the way women carried themselves, and how they presented themselves”.
With Rita as an archetypical femme fatale, her look and style were central to developing her character, and Parrilla is full of praise for Why Women Kill costume designer Janie Bryant.
“When you’re working with someone who is as talented as she is, there’s not much that you have to do. Rita’s name came from Rita Hayworth, and I’ve always been a fan of Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall since I was a little girl. I had a couple months to really prepare for her and figure out how she walked and how she sat and what did she like to wear and what was her colour palette. We wanted to create that sort of Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe silhouette, and it just worked. It wasn’t always comfortable, but I never felt more beautiful.”
One of the big themes of this season of Why Women Kill is that having it all beauty-wise, as Rita does, isn’t exactly a sure-fire path to happiness. While Alma is obsessed with getting everything Rita has, Rita gradually comes to realise that her beauty and glamour has come at a price – and it’s one she’s increasingly unwilling to pay.
“I think the story itself is so important for an audience to see,” says Parrilla. “When we go on Instagram, and we look at everyone’s life through photos and videos, we think it’s so perfect. We really don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. Rita Castillo really was that person that said, ‘Look at me, it’s all perfect and beautiful.’ Then once she started to peel away the layers, we realised that deep down inside, she’s a very lonely and unhappy woman.”
“It’s so refreshing as an actor to be able to have an arc like the one Rita has on Why Women Kill,” she continues. “I really appreciated getting to her inner truth behind that facade of beauty and fashion, the things that seduce all of us, really. When she got to the deeper truth, I actually think she became more beautiful.”
The full 10-part season 2 of Why Women Kill is streaming now at SBS On Demand. Double episodes of the new series will also air on SBS VICELAND on Saturday nights from 15 January. Start with season 2's first episode:
You can also catch up with the first season starring Lucy Liu, Ginnifer Goodwin and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, now streaming at SBS On Demand:
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