Ry Russo-Young on the emotional journey of bringing her Nuclear Family's story to HBO
When she was 9 years old, Ry Russo-Young's world was suddenly in danger of disintegrating.
The daughter of two lesbian moms, Russo-Young was used to people having questions about her family. But the types of questions changed after Tom Steel — the sperm donor who'd made it possible for her mom Robin Young to get pregnant — sued for visitation rights and to be recognized as Ry's father. Young and her partner, Sandy Russo (who'd used a different donor to get pregnant with Ry's older sister, Cade), went into fight mode, resulting in a landmark case that ultimately validated the existence of same-sex couples as legal parents.
Now, 30 years later, Russo-Young is still grappling with the trauma of the four-year court battle that turned a family friend she'd loved into a monster trying to rip her away from her loving mothers. "There were many years I felt like I had the full story," she tells EW. "But I didn't."
The Nobody Walks and Before I Fall filmmaker turns the camera on herself in the new three-part docuseries Nuclear Family, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO and will also be available to stream on HBO Max. Here she explains why she chose to share her story in this form, how the series has affected her family, and where they are now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to tell your story now, in this way?
RY RUSSO-YOUNG: When I started filming in my teen years, it was an effort to understand my family and myself — to have more perspective on my life in some way. And then in my 20s in college, that's when I really started exploring this story in my own perspective. In my early 30s, when I was already a narrative filmmaker, I was thinking I should tell this story as a narrative feature, because that's what I knew. And then it wasn't until two years ago that I actually realized it had to be a documentary because I didn't know how I felt, and I didn't know the other side of the story. A documentary would allow me to go into the filmmaking process not knowing those things, and that would be okay. Whereas in narrative, you have to have it all figured out. And that would become part of the film, the learning.
When did you realize you didn't know the full story?
There were many years I felt like I had the full story. I felt like the world was still so homophobic, that half the time telling the story was about educating the world, to teach people that gay families are normal. If you look at the 2004 New York Times article, it's all about, "Are the children of gay parents psychologically damaged?" basically. So those were the questions of the time. But when I went to make this documentary and I went to other people who knew my sperm donor really well, they said to me, "Sit down. I've been waiting for 30 years to talk to you, and here's what I have to say…" I didn't think that there was a completely different narrative than the one that I knew. I just thought they would have interesting things to tell me, but it was much more fascinating — certainly from a filmmaking perspective, but also of course from a personal perspective.
What was your family's reaction when you first told them you were going to film this docuseries?
I filmed my family so much over the years, so no one was surprised when I said, "Okay, here I am. Let's do another interview." I did an interview in 2014, ostensibly for whatever this film was going to be. So it was like, "Here's Ry again, doing what she does…" But that's not to say that having to ask them about this specific time wasn't hard for them.
My moms are incredibly supportive of me in all respects. But they were very terrified about me going and speaking to people that they won't talk to, haven't talked to for 30 years, and will never talk to for the rest of their lives. They felt threatened by it. And they felt, from the beginning, that they really didn't want to re-litigate the lawsuit. They didn't want to be put on the defensive — like they had during the trial, having to defend, and protect, and educate — by their own daughter. They didn't want to have to do that, which I completely understood. I think they eventually realized I was coming to them for my own edification. And that I wasn't coming to them from a place of, "Here's what you did wrong, and I think you're s‑‑‑‑y parents." I was coming from a place of, "I need to process this. Can we do this together as a family?"
There's a very intense moment where you play your moms footage an interview you did with one of Tom's friends. Once you had that interview, did you know right away you needed to present that to them and have that difficult conversation?
My editors and I had built the film, basically. We had parts 1, 2, and 3, and we looked at it and my amazing producer, Dan Cogan, said, "I think you need to go back and talk to your moms about this." And I said, "Oh, no. You're right." It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I was so scared of hurting them and of breaking my family apart. I was thinking, "Are we going to make it through this? How am I going to ask these questions and still communicate how much I love them at the same time?" And then we sat down together, and it was a four-hour conversation. And then there were many conversations after that. I had breakfast with my parents this morning and we're still processing to this day.
Was it difficult convincing Tom's friends to speak to you for this series?
Yes, I had convincing to do. And one subject and I had already had extensive conversations on the phone and eventually I showed her a very rough cut of the film, and I said, "If you watch the film, you'll understand why I need you and what I need from you." And that worked. I reached out to Jacob Estes, Milton's son — he's also a filmmaker, so I think he understood what I was doing, and he was very helpful in communicating to the Tom team that my intentions were not to regurgitate the story that had been told in every other piece of media. And that I was coming at it in a new way that much more personal, and much more human and nuanced.
How did you navigate being both subject and filmmaker? Did you have to keep your instincts as one separate from the other?
I knew that they were inextricably linked — the subject and the filmmaker role — and that part of making the movie would be to embrace my subjectivity, the psychology of my experience. I wanted the viewer to go on the journey with me, in terms of understanding my psychology, and how my feelings changed towards my biological father over the years. I knew I was tracking that as my arc for "my character." And there were certainly many times when I would have to refer to her as "Ry." I would say, "Well, let's talk about, 'How does Ry feel?'" We would have whole, long conversations about Ry, because I needed to look at her as someone else to really have perspective on her.
The series ends with a look at your growing family. How big has it grown now?
So there's my two moms. There's my husband, Colin, and I, and our two sons: Sandy, named after Russo, is 19 months, and Harlan, named after the town where my husband is from in Kentucky, is almost 5. And then my sister, Cade, is married to a trans man, Max. They have a daughter, Sy, who's about two months older than Sandy. The fun fact is that Max carried Sy. I loved telling people that "my sister's husband is pregnant," that was fun.
What's been the most rewarding part of sharing your story with the world this way?
The audience reaction. At [the Telluride Film Festival in early September], I saw that people were thinking about their own families. And that by telling this very specific, personal story, we were able to tap into these more universal themes of love, and loyalty, and loss, and family dynamics that everybody has — and how fraught they are. But they're fraught because there's so much love there and so much history. People would come up to me with tears in their eyes, and they would start sharing their own story. That exactly what I hoped would happen.