Zoe Levin Shares Her ‘Bonding’ Experience

Zoe Levin in Bonding

Bonding is not your average sitcom. Much like the world of BDSM isn’t your average scene. Both require an open mind, both are more complicated than you’d imagine, and, as it turns out, both call for a lot of lube.

In Netflix’s just-released comedy, Red Band Society alum Zoe Levin stars as Tiff, a grad student-by-day, dominatrix-by-night, who recruits old high-school pal Pete (Heathers‘ Brendan Scannell) to be her assistant. And while yes, certain wackiness does ensue — The Good Place‘s D’Arcy Carden guests as a client — so too does a portrait of a young woman not just owning her power but also helping others relinquish their own.

Whether she’s in cracking a whip or stuck in a classroom, Tiff takes no prisoners (unless they ask) and Levin is so damn good at straddling both worlds, we’re pretty sure viewers will be saying “Yes, please…more!” after bingeing the seven-episode series. Here, she explains why this gig, above all, fits her like a rubber corset.

I have to say, this is one of the bravest comedies out there. It’s not salacious. It doesn’t judge anything. It doesn’t make fun of anyone who is like into BDSM, but there’s still a ton of humor.

Zoe Levin: Totally.

I can imagine scripts and roles like this are very rare.

They are. They’re super, super rare. I mean, it’s kind of the genre that I’ve been tossed into the most, this dark-comedy vein. And it’s the thing that resonates with me the most. When I get a script like this, I just go like “Oh, this is totally me.” And I just hope and pray that the director sees it the same way that I see it. And luckily, Rightor [Doyle, creator and EP] did. And I kinda came into the process very late. I got scripts like a week before production and sent in an audition tape.

Oh my god.

Yeah, and Rightor was in New York and they called me the next day in L.A. and was so sweet to me on the phone. He gave me so much confidence. He was like, “I started crying when I saw your audition tape.” I was like, “Oh my god!” It was serendipitous.

Wow. So Brendan was already on board there?

I think Brendan had been cast… I’m pretty sure he had been cast. But I know it was kind of around the same time because Brendan and I were both in L.A.. And they were kind of only casting out of New York. And then they decided to open it up to L.A. and Brendan and I were kind of like the first people to come in.

S0 this is inspired by Rightor’s actual past as a dominatrix’s assistant. Is he still in touch with the woman your character is based on?

It’s based loosely off his life experience. He had this experience with this woman, but it’s a very highly fictionalized version of the story. And I actually met her. She came to set and I was a little nervous about meeting her because I was thinking “Oh, I’m gonna want to be exactly like her,” and I wanna do her justice, all that stuff. But because Rightor was so confident about my audition tape — it had a dominatrix scene in it — I ended up really comfortable and calm, just kind of being authentically myself in the role and not trying to put on a big show or be like this [woman]. It was more like me stepping into a dominatrix character.

What was she like?

She was so sweet, such a normal girl. Like, that’s the thing about the script. You wouldn’t know walking down the street or sitting with her in class that she was a dominatrix. They’re people who live normal lives. She was just a very normal person and it was really fun to get to chat with her and learn about her experiences.

What I love about Tiff is she’s not like this mousy, quiet type in her day-to-day life. She’s actually a pretty strong character outside of the job.

Yeah, definitely. I think her trust issues and all that kind of stuff in her real life really bleed into the reason why she’s a dominatrix. She has a lot of walls up. That really comes through in her character.

I’m assuming that your dom costumes were like the Hollywood-ized versions? So they’d be more comfortable.

[Laughs] Oh no, they were real dominatrix costumes! The costume designer went around to actual dominatrix designers. So, they weren’t out of like a Hollywood set. They were like for real dominatrix costumes. I was strapped in. And also, so, a lot of what I wore was latex and you can’t just put latex on your body like skin to skin. So, I had to lube my entire body in order to get into these costumes. You can’t even get it on, it just won’t go! So you need to have some lubricant. It was literal lube.

That’s insane. Let’s talk about the arc of this character because it’s a wild ride, these seven episodes. Yeah. I think the best part about the arc of the character is what happens when Pete comes into her life. At first, she’s kind of being manipulative and using him, being in control of the situation. But what ends up happening is that all the walls start breaking down when she realizes that she has this true, authentic friendship in her life. And that’s really where things start to unfold, and she starts to learn to be more honest and truthful about how she’s feeling inside. It just all comes out in that friendship.

There is also a sweet little romance for Tiff that evolves in the middle of the giant dildos and whips.

Yeah, yeah. It was so fun switching back and forth between the two worlds. And then Brendan has his love story going on and there’s these tender moments in this very sexual world. But what I loved about this show is that it wasn’t objectifying Tiff or women or sex workers. It wasn’t about the sex; it was about the psychological effects of being a dominatrix and why men or women go to dominatrix. It wasn’t about how sexual this character could be, it was more like let’s explore what’s underneath.

Did you go to clubs or experience anything in the S&M scene?

No, I didn’t. I looked up some stuff online a little bit, but like I said before, there was a dominatrix scene in the audition tape. So just playing around with it and going balls to the wall with the audition—and Rightor really responding to that—just gave me confidence to not create a character-y kind of dominatrix. But is did see this documentary called Hot Girls Wanted on Netflix a few years back. It’s a little darker take on sex work and a little more explicit but I remember seeing it and just being so interested in the whole sex-work world. Like, what that means for young girls and how they find their power. It’s empowering to some, it’s a way to escape for some, so I was always hoping I’d get a role that explored that topic. And I’m glad I landed on Bonding because it was a comedic take on it and it was fun and playful.

And one might say it’s safe.

Totally safe. Totally safe. Yes. [Laughs]

These are shorter episodes than most comedies, and it’s kept tight. How long did it take to shoot this whole thing?

We shot in 20 days. Yeah, it was a whirlwind. And Rightor was genius. He knew exactly what he wanted, he was so on top of it. You would think he’d been working as a director for years and years and years. And he just killed it.

And did you and Brendan have to go through any kind of like bonding experiences of your own? To have that level of friendship that you bring to screen? Like did you go out and just get hammered?

I mean, Brendan and I didn’t have much time before we started shooting. So honestly, it was because the production was so tight and like we didn’t have our own trailers, we sat in these shitty apartments in New York and huddled in the corner by a heater. And Brendan was so nice to me and taking care of me. He’s so cool and collected and confident and I’m more like anxious type. I’m more like Pete in real life. He’s more like Tiff. So, it was funny once we cut, the opposite came on. He was constantly I was making sure I was okay, and I was going in for validation. It was a fun dynamic and I think we just got into the groove really quickly.

In the show, Pete has to explain a few times “I’m an assistant to this dominatrix, but it’s not what you think it is.” Have you had to tell people in your own life like “Oh I’m doing this show about BDSM but it’s not what you think it is.”

Kind of. But I like to leave it as “I’m playing a dominatrix” and then let people think what they wanna think. [Laughs] It’s more fun that way to me. I don’t feel like I have to over-explain anything, which is great. I just feel like I chose to do this, and people respect my choices…my family respects my choices that I make as an actress.

Did you take anything from the set as a memento?

I don’t remember, but I did go out and buy stuff for the audition, I went to this BDSM store in Hollywood and bought all of this shit. I felt so awkward doing it! I was like “Oh it’s for an audition.” I felt the need to explain myself then. I kinda wanna go back to the store and be like, “By the way, I got that role.” I got like riding props and these handcuffs. I went full out for this audition.

You know, they probably hear that all the time in Hollywood shops like that.

Yeah. Oh, I’m sure. [Laughs]

Bonding, Streaming Now, Netflix