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Naomi Watts and Netflix Set Fire to Stereotypes in Nervy New Thriller Series ‘Gypsy’

Variety logo Variety 6/14/2017 Sonia Saraiya
© Provided by Variety

An illicit romance. A woman on the side. A protagonist who isn’t afraid to cross the line, in both work and pleasure — leaving behind a nervous spouse at home, searching for clues about the partner’s infidelity.

Sounds like a typical antihero drama, right? Think again.

“Gypsy,” premiering June 30 on Netflix, is a psychological thriller where the antihero — boundary pushing, taboo seeking, thrill driven — is a woman. The producing team behind the camera is toplined by women too.

What happens when Hollywood flips the script? A nervy drama that depicts adultery, manipulation and sex with a distinctly feminine perspective.

At the heart of Netflix’s upcoming show is a woman who wants more. The 10-episode series follows a married therapist named Jean Holloway, played by Naomi Watts, who can’t stop herself from seeking illicit, transitory pleasure through the lives of her patients. This lands her in an enviable but unstable romantic scenario: juggling her marriage with husband Michael (Billy Crudup) and an affair with rocker chick Sidney (Sophie Cookson).

As the stakes get higher, Jean’s two lives get harder to balance. “Gypsy” is a psychological thriller about a woman choosing to live on the edge just because she can.

tula lotay for Variety

The funny thing, says creator Lisa Rubin, is that “Jean would sit in a room with you in the pilot and tell you she’s very happy.”

But “there is something missing,” she says. “This life, while she’s happy, it doesn’t feel like she’s satisfied. And maybe Jean is someone who could never be satisfied. Maybe she’s insatiable.”

Those are characteristics we’ve often seen in men. But then there’s Jean.

“We’re used to seeing the male characters cheat or be more interested in physical desire,” she says. “I wanted to flip those stereotypes. Women aren’t always touchy-feely or want to talk.”

The result is Jean, a flawed, complicated and at times frustrating lead. As the audience slowly learns in the pilot, Jean is drawn to Sidney because one of her patients is one of Sidney’s exes — Sam (Karl Glusman), the last guy Sidney left brokenhearted.

Jean’s working with Sam to ease his obsessive tendencies. But the focus on his boundaries comes at the expense of her own. She starts dropping by the coffee shop where Sidney works, and when she introduces herself, she pretends her name is Diane. Sidney keeps asking questions, so Jean has to keep inventing details about Diane’s life.

In Watts’ characteristically skilled performance, Jean is attracted to risks that would make others draw back. Every time it seems she is about to sensibly step on the brakes, she takes a hard turn toward risk.

“She really acts upon her fantasies,” Watts says of her character. “We’ve seen this character played out with a male protagonist many times over, but I think it’s not that common for a woman to be playing someone seeking power and control but still having a lot of desire.”

Rubin’s desire to flip the script led her to a create manipulative and unstable character to see what might happen as she grows dangerously closer to her clients. Her screenplay drew the eye of Liza Chasin, Working Title’s president of U.S. production, who was compelled by Jean’s problematic morality and thrill seeking. “We rarely see women in those roles on television, really carrying those shows,” she says, of the antihero-drama subgenre of prestige television. “It’s a part that we tend to see men play — the sort of complex, flawed central character.”

“What’s interesting is that she’s real,” she says. “It’s not that she doesn’t have a moral code. She’s listening to voices that some of us don’t listen to and acting on them.”

Chasin brought on “50 Shades of Grey” director Sam Taylor-Johnson to the project. Coming off that tumultuous, high-profile film, Taylor-Johnson was particularly choosy with her next endeavor. She was drawn to Jean’s complexity.

“I felt I had not read a character like this,” she says. “I couldn’t guess what the character was going to do. She was wild and unpredictable. And I thought, Wow, that’s exciting.”

“We’ve seen this character played out with a male protagonist many times over. It’s not that common for a woman to be playing someone seeking power and control but still having a lot of desire.”

Naomi watts

Taylor-Johnson brought on Watts — who was Rubin and Chasin’s most pie-in-the-sky first choice — to play the lead. The decorated star, who recently appeared on David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” has never led a television series. “I just got really caught up in this woman’s story,” Watts says. “Jean loves her child, loves her husband, but something in her work piques her curiosity. I think it all starts from a really well-intentioned place — she wants to think outside the box and help these people in some way or another.”

But then, of course, “it starts unraveling.”

“She has a good marriage,” Rubin says. “But what if it’s not good enough?”

The idea of following Jean as she looks for more than just the neat, pat narrative of home and family is what ultimately captivated the team of women behind the show.

“Just because you have a good marriage, or a good relationship, or are a good mom — it doesn’t mean you don’t have your own needs or your own desires,” Rubin says.

Watching “Gypsy,” it’s obvious it was formulated by women. It’s a show where a woman has sex with her husband, fantasizes about a woman and formulates her identity based on what she decides to wear that day. That’s a lot of naked, or semi-naked, Naomi Watts.

But the lens in “Gypsy” isn’t objectifying her — or desexualizing her either.

“When these [kinds of] characters are portrayed, they’re often psychotic or considered ugly in some way,” Watts points out. Jean, with her precise Waspy fashions and inherent sensuality, is neither of those things. Furthermore, female sexuality in “Gypsy” doesn’t exist for an implied male viewer. Sidney and Jean don’t kiss for show; Jean doesn’t trail around partly naked for the heck of it. When Jean and Michael have sex, so much attention is paid to Jean’s facial expressions immediately afterward, as she tries to understand what is happening to her.

Even Jean’s pathologies or proclivities — her bad behavior — stem from a socially mandated femininity. After all, when she crosses boundaries, she does so because she wants to “help” — and gets so over-involved that she manipulates patients, and their families, toward the conclusion she hopes for. It’s a reflex that evokes other feminine images — like the busybody who convinces herself she knows what’s best for her friends and neighbors, or a little girl making her dolls kiss, make up and marry each other. The audience watches as these innocent images warp into dysfunction and abuse. In a significant subplot that is so on the nose it’s almost cheeky, Jean and Michael struggle to understand their own child Dolly’s gender identity, which is much more fluid than they were expecting. Just as Jean throws herself into a landscape of feminine wiles, her daughter is feeling burdened by the irritating restraints of being a boring old girl.

In retrospect, Chasin says, there wasn’t really a question between choosing a male or female director. “Whenever possible women should hire female directors. Everyone should hire female directors.”

But in the case of “Gypsy,” it seemed especially apt. “It’s a strong subjective piece with a female lead,” she says. “Really, it was just instinct that a female director would be the right way to start.”

“Lisa’s goal was to make a very sexy show,” Chasin says. “And I don’t mean crass sexy — I mean elegant sexy. A woman driving that is a very different point-of-view. What does that look like? Sam really brought it in that way and set us up.”

For Taylor-Johnson, Rubin’s screenplay offered “beautiful” source material to adapt without being “demeaning” or “tasteless.”

“I’m always conscious of how an eroticized scene is going to play out — my gaze being probably very different to a male gaze,” Taylor-Johnson says. “I have an innate awareness of it.”

The collaborative environment behind the scenes also bolstered the work in front of the camera.

“I don’t want to say [‘Gypsy’ is] uniquely feminine,” Chasin says, “but having a bunch of women doing this together? It’s an interesting starting point.”

The closest analogue to “Gypsy” in contemporary television is the Shonda Rhimes family of female-led dramas. Like the Shondaland shows, “Gypsy” exists in a TV-friendly world of expensive kitchens and hotel staycations, and while the plot twists that beset Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) are slightly more soapy than what “Gypsy” creates for Jean, Rhimes’ series are also concerned with flawed, morally questionable female protagonists navigating power and romance.

The difference is that “Gypsy” is much slower. Where Rhimes’ series tend to make grand political statements, “Gypsy” portrays a narrower world, with Jean revealed to the audience over the course of hours. It makes for a slower burn, but that vicarious thrill of seeing a married middle-aged woman follow her impulses will likely appeal to a similar audience. Jean is setting her life on fire because it seems fun; there’s a freedom that is intoxicating.

Taylor-Johnson describes Jean as “throwing grenades.” She adds, “Her non-consistency, as well, is liberating. It starts you on such a different viewing path of engagement.”

The team behind “Gypsy” hopes that something about Jean’s risk taking will entice viewers who can’t take those risks in their own lives.

“Dare I say: Is there some sort of wish fulfillment in being able to watch somebody act on their impulses, live out their fantasies, not control their obsessions — whatever you want to call it? Yeah, I think there might be,” Chasin says. “I don’t think most people do that in their life.”

Indeed, the audience might surprise themselves by being on Jean’s side.

“In some ways, we might even root for her to trespass,” Chasin says. “We’re going to enjoy watching everything sort of burn.”

Watts has joked that she feels better knowing the audience will be watching her performance from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Jean’s an explosive, volatile lead.

“I feel like it’s a cautionary tale,” Watts says. “You can go on that journey with Jean but stay in your living room — and not get caught up in the same way she did. Because it doesn’t really pay off. I mean, it does pay off. But it’s going to bring her all kinds of trouble.”

Rubin says she knows some audience members will see the heroine of her story as a villain or even a sociopath. She somewhat agrees. “There’s no way I think Jean is a sociopath … but people are going to be very judgmental about what she’s doing — which makes sense.”

But Watts embraces the role. “I don’t disagree. But you still root for villains!” she says, laughing. “And that was part of the fun too.”

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