Sometimes a show comes along that just transports the viewer into another period in time. Paramount Networks’s American Woman is one of those shows.
Set in 1975, American Woman follows Bonnie (Alicia Silverstone), an unconventional mom who struggles to raise her daughters with the help of her two best friends Kathleen (Mena Suvari) and Diana (Jennifer Bartels). The three friends discover their own brand of independence amid the rise of second-wave feminism.
I recently spoke with Jennifer Bartels about her role of Diana on American Woman, what surprised her most in her research about the 1970s, and her hopes for future projects.
“Diana is the working friend out of three. They are all trying to find their own footing and voice within this very specific time in 1975, but Diana still lives with her mother,” said Bartels about her character.
“We’re seeing that her responsibilities to her mother and her responsibilities to herself are a little different than the other two characters that Mena and Alicia portray.”
Bartels’ character Diana is a professional ten years into her career with a sexist boss who lobs inappropriate sexual comments her way frequently, but Diana also has a positive, upbeat demeanor that comes through in several of her scenes.
“There’s a toughness to her and a sense of sarcasm and keeping it real that I think Diana has, almost as a coping skill for the stuff that she battles with at the workplace, as well as at home,” Bartels continued.
Bartels was blown away by the American Woman script once she read it.
“I was like, ‘Oh, Alicia Silverstone’s attached? That’s amazing. 1975! John Wells! John Riggi!’ All of these amazing people who are just so rich with wonderful development out here, and I [thought] ‘Oh wow! I hope this goes well for me!'” Bartels remembered.
One of the aspects of the script that really resonated with Bartels was how well the characters were written. Each of the three main characters: Bonnie, Kathleen, and Diana have rich, layered personalities that allow the audience to relate to each of the characters on different levels.
“I know, as a viewer and as a woman, I really look to align with different characteristics of different women. I have a little Bonnie in me, and I have a little Kathleen in me, and of course, I have quite a bit of Diana in me, so it’s nice that people can relate to different aspects of the characters,” Bartels explained.
One of the challenging, but more important aspects of American Woman, was getting into the 1975 mindset, something that the actors and writers wanted to stay true to as they were making the show.
“We didn’t grow up in this time period, and a lot these women and a lot of these situations helped spearhead where we are now,” Bartels said. “It was important for all of us to educate ourselves, so we represented these women’s journeys properly.”
“We all very quickly started sharing materials,” Bartels recalled. “Whether it was documentaries on the 70s, CNN had run a beautiful piece on the 70s, but I also took the time to go back and look at newspaper articles, clippings, and advertisements for what was being marketed towards women like our characters.”
One of the things that surprised Bartels the most while she was doing her research was the attitudes towards sexual harassment.
“It wasn’t until around 1975 that sexual harassment was even seen as a problem in the workplace. It was forgiven behavior; it was justified behavior; it was secretly accepted,” said Bartels. “It was only around that time that women and workers started to speak up about how this wasn’t acceptable in the workplace.”
The 1975 setting also means American Woman deals with issues such as a character’s sexuality and the wage gap. While it’s easy to see these issues with a 2018 lens, American Woman views these topics through a lens that is true to the time period.
“When people ask me, ‘Well, why didn’t she just say no to her boss?’ or ‘Why didn’t Alan just come out to Diana and say that he was gay?’ I say because we have to be honest with where we were circumstance-wise,” she explained.
“It was 1975. That was not what was happening,” she continued. “People’s sexuality was quiet and hush, hush. Sexual harassment was accepted or overlooked, and women weren’t treated fairly, weren’t paid enough. These are things where you think, ‘Oh, that’s not the way it is now.’ Yea, well it’s 2018.”
Bartels started acting in high school when her family moved from New York to North Carolina.
“That was a big culture shock for me,” said Bartels. “I really leaned into performing because it was almost a coping skill for myself.”
When she got to college at East Carolina University, she gave herself a year and said that if she got into the acting program she’d pursue a career as an actress, and if not, she’d still pursue it but likely become an acting teacher. She got into the program.
“I feel like that was the universe saying, ‘Give this a go!'” she reflected. “In my heart of hearts, there’s nothing else I’d rather do in my life than create, and give that escape for people to watch and enjoy, and make them laugh, or cry, or whatever.”
After college, Bartels moved to New York where she started studying with the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is where Rachel Bloom and Kate McKinnon got their starts as well.
“I kind of got fluffed with representation and support to start making a career out of this from that stage,” Bartels stated. “I owe so much to Upright Citizens Brigade taking chances on me to become a house performer because that’s how I got a team in place that eventually set me up to work as an actor.”
Prior to appearing on American Woman, Bartels also appeared on truTV’s scripted comedy show Friends of the People where she served as writer, performer, and executive producer. Bartels reflected on how the two experiences differed.
“I was the only woman in that show. It was a very male-centric environment of six gentlemen who primarily came out of doing standup, and I came out of doing theater, being theatrically trained and doing more improv,” Bartles explained.
“There were a lot of different viewpoints and creative ideas that were thrown around, which was really eye-opening for me, which I enjoyed,” she stated. “But I think it was really wonderful to then flip it, and then have a project like American Woman where I was working amongst so many talented women with so many female-driven subjects.”
Now that American Woman Season 1 has wrapped, Bartels is working with her writing partner on another project that deals with mental illness.
“I really want to create awareness for things that are really special or important to me, and one of them is the stigma tied around mental illness,” said Bartels.
One of her other goals is to create or be in more rooms that allow other people opportunities to break into Hollywood.
“I think what’s frustrating about Hollywood, at times, is that we don’t expand and take chances on new people, and there’s a lot of worthy people out here that deserve opportunities.”
When Bartels isn’t acting or writing she’s got some television ready to watch. Her tastes vary but include shows like GLOW, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Real Housewives.
“I was a big fan of Real Housewives and Kyle Richards prior just because it’s fun, it’s light, it deals with female friendships, and as a performer sometimes you want to escape into something a little lighter.”
You can catch Jennifer Bartels on American Woman Thursdays at 10/9c on Paramount Network!
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