Gilmore Girls: Kelly Bishop on Cursing and Other Fun Things Emily Gilmore Got to Do in the Revival
Warning: Spoilers for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life follow!
If there was anyone who took a journey in the Netflix miniseries Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, it was Emily Gilmore, the constantly-chagrined mother of Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and proud grandmother to Rory (Alexis Bledel). Emily, played by Kelly Bishop, spends the length of the miniseries trying to come to terms with the death of her husband Richard (Edward Herrmann, who died in 2014), eventually ditching the Hartford estate and the Daughters of the American Revolution and moving to a beach house in Nantucket. On the way, of course, years-old disputes with Lorelai rear their heads, and she tries to make sure Luke (Scott Patterson) becomes a diner magnate, even when he doesn’t want to be.
We spoke to Bishop about Emily’s transformation, plus a little bit about the other Amy Sherman-Palladino show she worked on, the dearly departed ABC Family dramedy Bunheads (most of that show’s main cast, including Sutton Foster, had parts in the Gilmore miniseries, though none with Bishop… that might have cracked the universe wide open!).
When Amy said, hey we’re going to get the band back together, what was your thought of playing Emily again?
I was all for it. I had actually been badgering Amy for a few years now to see if she could get a movie made, that was my thinking. I was so envious when Sex and the City did their first film. I said, “Come on, talk to Warner Bros.” She wasn’t averse to it, but I don’t know what all the inner workings are there. I think Amy was okay with the idea of it, but I got the feeling if she did anything, and I shouldn’t even say because we never discussed this, but if she did approach them there was not any interest; I think it’s because of Netflix and this new generation, this new audience that started to peak people’s interest.
Then we did that ATX reunion in Austin, Texas, and the fans were so enthusiastic and our venue sold out the fastest, that people started getting intrigued by the idea. Then when it looked like it was going to happen, I was thrilled, because I thought, we should have done this but this is fine. If it’s later, that’s okay too. I was very happy about it.
How easy or tough was it to get back into the acting skin of playing Emily again after 9 years?
Totally easy. It’s so familiar to me that it’s like the old “riding the bike” metaphor. Okay here it is, this is what she says, and Amy’s always written such good dialogue for me that really fits me, it fits in my mouth, fits in my brain, I get it. I’ve never struggled even through those 7 years, I’m aware the 7th year she wasn’t there, but with anything that was written for me, I never disagreed with it or thought it was inappropriate. We were always in sync that way. That made our working together very easy.
When you’re doing scenes with Lauren, is it the same Emily-Lorelei stuff that’s been going on in the history of these two characters for decades? How do you dredge that up, knowing that there’s so much backstory? How do you dredge that up as an actor and come back to that after not doing it for 9 or 10 years?
I didn’t find that a problem at all, and I suspect that Lauren didn’t either. We’ve always played off each other really well from the very first day I met her when we were shooting the pilot. We did the blocking rehearsal, holding our pages in our hands, and I had never met her before, and it was an introduction and then we got to reading, and I thought, “Oh this is great, this is going to totally work.” She and I, bang bang bang bang off each other. We developed a friendship that has lasted because of the show. We don’t contact one another as much as I do with Amy, but there’s a great comfort and love between us, so that was just something I was looking forward to. We’re like family at that point, like family both off and on stage, or in front of camera. It was just familiar and comfortable and exciting. I just so wanted to do it. It was good.
Emily changes the most during the course of the miniseries of any of the characters. But it’s fully dependent on the fact that Edward’s not there anymore. How did you feel about how Emily develops, knowing it’s a product of Edward’s passing?
Well that’s just it, that’s just one other person, the three people I’ve stayed close with from this show were Amy and Lauren and Ed. We had a running email conversation and his wife had called me the day before he died and said, “He’s dying, do you want to come to the hospital and say goodbye to him?” and I said yes. I knew nothing about his illness, I knew nothing about the financial problems that we read about on I think it was Page Six or the Post, and this was only two weeks after all of this happened. Amy sent me an email and said “What is going on with him?” and she sent me a copy of the article.
I went into the city and I saw him. He was not conscious. It was just the family and me, which I was surprised and flattered. I was able to talk to him and bring love from the girls. It leads me to believe that Ed felt as fondly for me as I did for him. But knowing that and having lost him and knowing now that we were going to do [the miniseries] and treat it with some real honesty … That character has passed away. It’s not that she can write, “Oh he went off to Europe with some young tootsie” kind of thing. But she took it for what it was and we went with it, and I thought it was a wonderful journey that she gave to Emily, and I feel like the show really honored Ed, and when I talked to his wife I said to her “You are going to be very moved by this. It is going to be very painful to watch, but you’re also going to be very gratified when you see the way Ed and his memory is treated with the show. It’s going to be really interesting and good for you although it’s going to break your heart.” I was ready for that.
As far as I know, Emily is the only one to utter the word “bulls–t.”
I know, I know.
How cathartic doing that scene?
It was wonderful, absolutely cathartic. I just was so delighted that they let Emily evolve so much and really change. I agree with you, she has quite an interesting journey that she takes in those six hours. I did say to Amy at one point, “I’m so tickled that I can say ‘bulls–t.'” She said, “You know, since this is Netflix and it’s not regular television, there’s so much more free reign with what you can say and what you can do. It’s sort of like the sky’s the limit, you can do anything you want. As we were writing this, the only character in the whole series that uses profanity is going to be Emily.”
That really tickled me too, that’s very much an Amy quirk. She’s got a very interesting take on life, and you can see it in her writing and I said “That’s great, it’s fantastic.” It was fun.
Must have been fun to let loose like that after all that time playing someone who’s emotions are bubbling under the surface.
And she’s so stuck in the status quo and her life was so structured and this is right and that is wrong and this is what we do and that is what we don’t do, but you know I guess all this time she’s not been unaware. She is an honest character, she’s never been deceptive. She’s been manipulative, but she’s never lied to people even through those early years. So the fact that she’s just had it, she’s heartbroken and she’s angry and she’s just going to restructure and she’s just going to say what comes out. I’m sure the DAR meetings bothered her for years, and this time they just bothered her too much and out it came. I loved it, that was one of my favorite scenes.
I just found out that Rose Abdoo, who plays Gypsy, was playing Emily’s housekeeper Berta, who brought all her family into Emily’s house. Was she trying to surround herself with everybody because she’s just so afraid to be by herself at this stage?
Yeah, I think she relied so much on Richard her whole life, they were such a team. She was so able to have order and discipline and ran the household and now she’s lost. I’ve wondered, I’ve never asked Amy questions, it’s very strange, because I just go with the flow, but suddenly instead of having a new maid every time you see her which is what she did before, she would never keep a maid for more than a week or an episode, that this woman is there who she can’t even understand, which is bizarre in itself, and this whole family comes in and she’s letting it happen. It is again a very strange thing for Emily. I guess it gives her comfort, she feels she’s being taken care of, and as long as the food is good which it apparently is, and Berta is certainly a cheerful person and her husband is very handy fellow, all these children running around it’s really kind of crazy, but that’s part of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s mind.
The most emotional scene was when Lorelei calls up Emily from out on her hike in the “Fall” episode and talks about this memory that she should have said at Richard’s funeral. You playing that scene, though, on the other side of a phone. How does a scene like that go down, what do you have to access to do your side of it?
It’s such a wonderfully written speech. It’s so sweet, and I just let Emily listen to it and hear it and remember all of that. The difficulty of it was that we were on location at that point and it was not a working day for Lauren, so someone else read it off camera. That it would have been easier for me if Lauren had read it to me. If she would have been off camera I wouldn’t have seen her, but she would have been in the room with me and I would have been hearing her voice, and I didn’t. But I knew where I wanted to go with it. I have not seen that episode, so I’ll see if I’m satisfied with it. Apparently you are so that’s good.
There’s a lot of speculation over the final four words that Amy had mentioned ten years ago that she wanted to write. When you saw what those final four words were going to be, what was your thought about what that would mean for the show?
I even almost wonder if those were the original last four words, I truly do. Again, I never ask questions. I never ask these things. Those words were not in the script, at the end of that script it said, “And the final four words.” That was kept very secret. Then finally I asked someone because I thought, other people seem to know around here, and I was told the last four words but I wasn’t absolutely sure that was correct. I accepted it as being correct, but I wasn’t sure. My thought was, huh that’s interesting. That was just basically it, I thought, hmm, who knew, that’s very interesting. I didn’t have any kind of a big reaction to it, and I thought well maybe that was it. Do we just start up again, does the whole thing go around in another circle, I don’t know. Mine was literally h-m-m-m, dot dot dot dot. That’s what I thought.
Do you envision great grandmother Emily at this point?
Do you think Amy would be up for doing another miniseries down the road?
You can’t wait too long, I’m getting older and older and older. I think given the right circumstances they probably would be because clearly this is written from the heart for Amy, this is her baby. This came out of her, the one thing she said to me at the time when we first started the show, she said, “I was so tired of seeing teenagers on television or kids on television being so sophisticated and so adult. I wanted to see a kid being a kid.” So that was the way she developed this relationship between this mother and daughter. Then however she went, we see exactly what happens.
As far as doing another few episodes, I would always be open to it. I will work for Amy Sherman-Palladino anytime. If she has something for me that she thinks I’m right for, the answer is going to be yes. I liked the character from the get go because I thought she was a horrible woman and I love playing horrible women. It turns out people liked her better than I ever expected her to, I was baffled by that. I just wanted to play one nasty impossible mom, and I guess I should be flattered that people said, “But you could always tell she really loved her daughter,” and I’m thinking to myself, “Really? You thought that? Okay.” Which she does, of course.
But that montage from that therapy session shows the complicated relationship in a nutshell, where there’s silence, and then they’re sniping at each other, then they’re laughing at something that happened in the past. That’s kind of what built over the years, so I would imagine that’s where Emily ended up going.
When we were shooting the wake part in the first chapter I think they’re calling them, and initially the story about the 4th of July and getting caught on the couch with a boy that Lorelei tells, because she’s so drunk, that anecdote was not in the script.
That’s something I just learned about Lorelei, because of course we knew she was pregnant when she was 16 and had a child, but in that little monologue that she does, she also says that she was younger than that. She had to have been younger because she wasn’t pregnant, so she had to be at least 15, and it wasn’t with Rory’s father, because she mentioned some other kid’s name, and then she says that Richard’s running around saying “Our daughter is losing her virginity!” and Lorelei said, “Well that ship already sailed a long time ago.” I’m sitting there as Emily thinking, “Well what was she, 12 when she started this?” It was really funny, but I thought oh boy what a bad little girl she was.
That’s where you understand poor Emily, who’s trying to keep everything so neat and tidy and organized and respectable, that she’s got this wild child on her hands, and she remembered that. As Lauren was telling the story, I’m sitting there as Emily thinking to myself, “I remember that and I was so humiliated.” Poor Emily, just not the world she had planned on.
I know you didn’t work with any of your Bunheads co-stars, but how fun was it that Amy snneaked people from there from that show, and also people like Maw Whitman, who played Lauren’s daughter in Parenthood?
She has that kind of loyalty, if you’re loyal to her she’s loyal to you. I remember, I think when we were actually doing Bunheads, and suddenly in comes Sean Gunn [who plays Kirk in Gilmore], and in comes Rose, and in comes Liza [Weil, who plays Paris Geller on Gilmore] whom I just adore. I think Liza is such a solid actress, I just love her work. I said to Amy at one point, “Well, look who’s here today” and she said, “Look, it took me seven years to assemble this company of actors. It took me a long time to find the right people, I’m not letting them go.”
By the way, do you miss Bunheads? Did that not get the chance that it deserved? Kind of weird how it just kind of ended.
Poor Sutton [Foster], Sutton’s going, “We got these good reviews” and I’m thinking in my cynical old age, “Babe, it’s the numbers. It’s the viewership.” On a Broadway show it’s box office. In television it’s the numbers. It doesn’t matter how good your reviews were, I think that it felt very unfinished, I think it was frustrating, that there wasn’t enough money in terms of doing the production. The production looked good, it wasn’t that, but I don’t think there was extra money for some of the stuff they wanted to do, and you really need the support of your studio to get something off the ground and get it going.
It kind of happened with Gilmore Girls in the beginning; you didn’t know anything about Gilmore Girls unless you happened to tune into the WB. Then they would advertise it. But how many grown-ups tuned into the WB in those days? It was all about teenage shows. Publicity is everything, it seems to me, I learned that from theater. People have to know about it, then after that, then word of mouth starts to do it, and I think that’s what happened with Gilmore Girls. There was it would be a digital word of mouth, but that was the momentum.
I just don’t think that Bunheads ever got the chance. Again it was a strange title: “Bunheads? What’s that mean?” So it didn’t have the draw. But people every once in a while will come up to me and say, “I loved that show so much, I was so sorry when it was off.” So it had that loyal group, but it just wasn’t enough of them.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Now streaming, Netflix