On a muggy July day on Long Island, Elisabeth Moss is staring into a kitchen sink, but there’s nothing dull in the dishwater; in fact, there’s a lot of blood. Over her shoulder, Tiffany Haddish and Melissa McCarthy swig booze and tensely discuss the incident responsible. Abruptly, Moss turns from the clothing she’s trying to scrub clean of bodily fluids and snaps, “I’m not sorry Little Jackie is dead. Are you?”
If you thought The Kitchen was a culinary comedy, since it stars two of Hollywood’s funniest actresses, you’d be grossly mistaken. Rather, the fall 2019 crime drama, set in Hell’s Kitchen and based on the Vertigo comic-book series, follows three 1970s housewives who — in the event of their mobster husbands’ incarceration — take Irish Mafia matters into their own hands, dealing with the competition more viciously and voraciously than anyone expected.
“I was excited by the idea of placing women in a position and world in which we don’t normally see them,” first-time director Andrea Berloff told EW during filming, which features set pieces like a dated subway-car interior, an FBI surveillance van (sparse in gadgets by today’s standards), and a wood-paneled apartment adorned with Virgin Mary figurines and crucifixes.
The lure of exploring unfamiliar alleyways attracted the cast, too. “It’s about these individuals instead of the Mafia as an entity,” says McCarthy, who plays Kathy, a devoted mother of two whose initial reluctance to enter the criminal domain is eventually diminished by her deft abilities. “It was more about three people who are put down and held back finally breaking out. There was much more humanity to it, which also made it scarier.”
Moss, whose character Claire starts out timid but grows to relish her new role as an outlet for her anger (evidenced by a scene in which she takes rapt interest learning how to dismember a bathtub-bound body alongside Domhnall Gleeson’s character Gabriel), agrees. “They’re nobody special necessarily,” explains the Handmaid’s Tale star, “but they’re people that have a story to tell.”
Their characters might not be out of the ordinary, but Berloff knew immediately that she’d brought together an exemplary group of actresses. “I wanted that excitement of women in a Mob movie to permeate through the casting, so I cast people you wouldn’t expect across the board,” she says. “If we’re defying stereotypes, let’s defy them all over. Who says women can’t run the Mafia? Who says comedians can’t do drama?”
Indeed, upon first meeting Haddish, “it was clear she had incredible range,” Berloff says. For Moss, one Girls Trip scene in particular sold her on her costar’s versatility. “I’ve never even told Tiffany this, but you know that scene where you get into a big fight with everybody in the lobby?” Moss says, leaning into Haddish affectionately. “I remember rewinding and watching it three times in a row — not because it was so funny, but because it was so real. I was like, ‘That is a f—ing great performance.’ I knew she was going to kill this.” Haddish shrugs and smiles, “There’s a lot of layers to me.”
The Night School actress plays Ruby, an outsider in an Irish community who seeks self-sufficiency once her husband isn’t around to protect her. “Ruby starts off quiet and observant, and then gets a little bossy and gangster,” says Haddish. “She has a plan; she’s just figuring out how to execute it. Who do I team up with? How do I get to the money, power, and success that you need in life?”
The racketeer lifestyle doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of levity in the film (much appreciated after witnessing a scene in which a femur is snapped with a sickening pop), but the set atmosphere between takes is decidedly more playful. The girls tease Moss about her banana chip addiction, and at one point the trio dream up their own sitcom. “It’s a 16-camera dramedy,” says McCarthy. “It takes place underwater, is primarily with animals and babies, and shoots somewhere in New Zealand.” Adds Haddish, “We’ll be taking calls.”
Maybe it’s not so outlandish an idea. The Kitchen argues that female collaboration is not to be underestimated. Berloff hopes that message will be among the movie’s main takeaways. “It’s about empowerment — but not just female,” she says. “Anyone can do anything. Everyone has a beast within them. We shouldn’t be hemmed in by society’s definitions of us.” Perhaps a woman’s place is in The Kitchen after all.
The Kitchen hits theaters Sept. 20, 2019.