‘Being the Ricardos’: Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem on Becoming Lucy Ball and Desi Arnaz
Amazon’s absorbing biopic “Being the Ricardos,” takes the viewer inside the world of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her husband and “I Love Lucy” co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), showing a side of the couple that was rarely seen by outsiders. Set during a fateful week during which both her personal life and career were on the line due to tabloid allegations, writer-director Aaron Sorkin and Kidman reveal how Ball not only survived, but some would say thrived, under the pressure. The film also goes behind the scenes of the Ball-Arnaz marriage, both during a week of production and through flashbacks. Theirs was a union full of passion and support, but Desi’s extramarital activities and the insecurities he felt about having his wife as his boss took a toll.
While Lucy welded more power than most women in Hollywood and elsewhere in the early ‘50s, no detail was beyond her attention when it came to the production of her show, but at the end of the day, it took a village to create the beloved sitcom. “Being the Ricardos” also showcases the people in Lucy and Desi’s world, including their “I Love Lucy” co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), the actors behind Fred and Ethel. Kidman, Bardem, Simmons and Arianda opened up about bringing to life their characters and their experiences working with Sorkin.
On playing the trailblazing Lucille Ball, who ran her own production company alongside Arnaz, Desilu Productions, Kidman tells us, “No actors had that at that time. She was the first of her kind. She’s one of a kind. I think what this film does is it sort of pulls the curtains back on [not just] the ‘I Love Lucy Show,’ but how it was made and who is this person that was capable of that genius.”
When Kidman first received the script for “Being the Ricardos,” she was skeptical, but found that she couldn’t put it down once she started reading it. She appreciated that it was not the type of conventional biopic that told the subject’s whole life story. “It’s not the kind of storytelling. It’s Aaron Sorkin’s storytelling where he compresses a number of things into a week, and by flashing forward and back, is able to show you the essence of who this woman was, and who these people were.”
Bardem revealed that he was also impressed by the depth and complexity of Sorkin’s script, especially when it came to Lucy and Desi’s marriage. “It really reunites lots of aspects of them as a marriage, as a couple, as artists, as colleagues, and everything is so well put together that it makes it so exciting to perform, but also to watch it. As an audience, it’s very full of different details to give you a good idea of who they were and what they were doing back in the day.”
“The thing that right away jumped off the page for me was just how relentless the stakes are,” said Arianda. “Everything you could possibly want. It’s almost a thriller for me. The stakes never leave you, and it’s continuous until the end of the story.”
Simmons spoke about working with Sorkin on his third feature as a director, which was the first one he wrote with the intention of directing. “He’s gotten to the point now, in his career as both a writer and a producer, and knows every aspect of filmmaking so thoroughly, that it was a very collaborative process with everyone, all of us in front of the camera and behind the camera. He also had supreme confidence from himself and those of us working with him as a guy who knows what this story is and how to tell it.”
By signing on to “Being the Ricardos,” Kidman, Bardem, Simmons and Arianda all took on two roles, the actors and the characters they played in “I Love Lucy.” While Kidman has an Oscar and numerous other accolades under her belt, she admitted that she initially felt like she was in over her head.
“When I said yes to it, I did not realize what I was saying yes to,” revealed the lead actress. “I was saying yes to an Aaron Sorkin script and a great opportunity, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was in a pandemic, so I was like, this is an extraordinary thing to sit on a Zoom with Aaron Sorkin and for him to say, ‘I want you to play Lucille Ball.’ Having read the screenplay, I said, ‘This is magnificent.’ Then, maybe a week later, it hit me, and I was trying to work on just little baby steps to get into her voice, but it was nowhere within reach. I was like, ‘Oh, no, what have I done? I wish I had the talent to do this, but I don’t.’”
Fortunately, Kidman had a few months to prepare. “I could work on it slowly, meticulously, methodically, watching the show, listening to the voice, doing all of the preparation, which is very unusual for me, because a lot of times I’ll start really inside, but the inside of it was almost already there, just because I could relate to her. I could feel her. It was so beautifully written. Then I was l like, ‘Oh, no, how do I actually create Lucille Ball?’”
Bardem talked about what struck him the most when he looked into Arnaz. “His absolute confidence in himself and how supportive he was of his wife and the whole show, and how he overcame obstacles with a strong sense of humor. He was making fun of everything. That doesn’t mean he didn’t take it seriously, but he didn’t get stuck in the drama of it all.”
Simmons and Arianda had less to go off of when researching Frawley and Vance, as there was little to no archival footage of them just being themselves. Simmons discussed playing Frawley, whose career started on the vaudeville stage over a century ago. He ended up reading books from and about his co-workers to get to know him through their eyes.
“All of my research was through the perspective of Vivian, Lucille and Desi, and [‘I Love Lucy’ producer] Jess Openheimer in some audio interviews,” he recounted. “In a way, I found that to be sort of freeing in terms of how I portrayed off-camera Bill, which is 98 percent of the movie. He was, honestly, not all that dissimilar from the cranky landlord Fred Mertz, but the beauty, again, and the gift we all got from Aaron Sorkin and this script, and in his direction along the way, was there were so many beautiful, detailed layers for all of us, and we got to see multiple aspects of all of these characters as they relate to each other at different times.”
“For me, it was really important to honor the physical differences between the two women, because they were so extreme,” said Arianda. “Vivian was a wonderful dancer, she was a leading lady, she was an ingenue, and Ethel was Ethel. All the research I could possibly want I had for Ether, obviously, but for Vivian, it was a little bit tougher.”
Arianda remembered how she was able to view a clip of Arnaz introducing Vance to an audience right before a taping. “It was really eye-opening for me, because out came this woman with a long spine, her shoulders back, and she kind of sashayed downstage and took a graceful bow and left. I just saw a completely different woman, and I became so obsessed with her background and how this spine developed. For me, it was really trying to be as respectful as I could to these two very different bodies.”
Kidman explained how Sorkin helped her through a freak out. “He sent an email that was just like, ‘You got this. You’re just going to have to take it day by day. I don’t want an impersonation. You’re just going to have to do that work that you can do that, I know you will do. I want you not to freak out, because I believe you can do it.’ I would challenge him on that at different points throughout, [panicking], but he would never waver. He was consistent in his belief.”
He vetoed her repeated requests to use prosthetics and the like to try and make her look more like Ball. “It was frustrating for him, I think, because he saw how he wanted it, and it took me time to give over to that.” In the meantime, she focused on playing the Lucy we all know and love from TV. “And out of Lucy Ricardo came Lucille Ball, and Lucille Ball is very different from Lucy Ricardo. Lucille Ball created Lucy Ricardo.”
“Being the Ricardos” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.