If you've watched television with any regularity over the past three-plus decades, there's a pretty strong likelihood that director-producer Mimi Leder has told you a story or two. Best known for her groundbreaking, electrically paced work on ER, she's also lent her signature style to such enduring and impactful television favorites as China Beach, Shameless, and, perhaps her signature triumph, The Leftovers.
Today, as executive producer and director of AppleTV+'s The Morning Show -- not to mention directorial guidepost, in charge of selecting the series' helmers for the episodes she doesn't tackle herself -- Leder is once again in the thick of crafting watercooler-topic TV. The first season explored the fallout from the big reveal of beloved network a.m. news show anchor Mitch Kessler's (Steve Carell) troubling sexual conduct in the office in the wake of the #MeToo movement, while the women who work around him, including long-time superstar co-anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and his plucked-from-obscurity successor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), deal with the complicated repercussions.
As Leder reveals in conversation with TV Guide, the show remains equally of the moment for its second season: just as the characters are sifting through the rubble of their lives wrecked by Season 1 -- including a pending tell-all book about the scandal that puts Alex in a panicked tailspin, Bradley's sometimes uncomfortable evolution into her on-air and off-air life, and Mitch grappling with a somber sense of responsibility -- here comes a double whammy: COVID-19 rocks the newscasters' worlds, and so does veteran TV news star Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies), called in to help clean up the now-frequent messes at TMS.
For Season 2, I thought it was amazingly ambitious what you did, taking these characters whose lives have been blown up and throwing them into the real-world situation in which all of our lives kind of got blown up. What was it that you wanted to bring to the visual storytelling in depicting that big shift in the story?
Mimi Leder: This season has everybody asking, "Who am I? Am I a good person?" There's a lot of self-examination and guilt and regret, fear and self-preservation for all of the characters, and so we explore the themes of identity, fear around cancel culture, race, and sexuality. The characters are going through a storm of feelings while this COVID lingers in the background like a bigger storm cloud. So in terms of the visual storytelling, I wanted to perhaps add more complexity to the visual style by adding more handheld work into the show, to give you that feeling of unease and discomfort. I felt that was important to add to the look of the show this season.
The new character of Laura Peterson brings us some seismic shocks into the world of The Morning Show and who better than Julianna Margulies to play a character with impact and presence like that? That must have been a great professional reunion for the two of you after all the work you did together on ER as your careers were catching fire. I'm curious: did you bring her up as the right actor to fill that role?
Leder: I don't remember if it was me or if it was our incredible casting director, Victoria Thomas. I had an incredible experience with Julianna when we were babies working on ER. I mean, it was kind of funny: Julianna and I were on Stage 11 [on the Warner Bros studio lot] and Jen Aniston was right next door doing Friends, and so we would all see each other at that time. Anyway, Julianna is a tremendous actress and we needed someone to match the stature and gravitas of a Diane Sawyer-type character who was also very instantaneously recognizable for an audience, and Julianna brings that fully to the part, and she brings so much more. She's an incredible actor, an incredible person.
After all that time not working together, what was perhaps the big reveal of this point in your careers as being together on set again?
Leder: Well, that we've come a long way, baby! That we're so blessed that Julianna has just gone on to do such incredible work, and at the same time have a family and live a full life. And I've been very fortunate in that arena as well, to do the work that I like doing, tell the stories I like telling, and it was just great catching up and being together again. And she hasn't changed a bit!
The Morning Show continues to be one of the most beautifully shot shows on television, and you guys were really up against it to create this global scope, that you're in all of these different locations around the world, when you were essentially landlocked in Los Angeles and dealing with your own real-world COVID restrictions and protocols. Tell me how you accomplished that sense of global scope – and with such visual beauty – that you were able to accomplish in Season 2?
Leder: We had a huge global scope this season: Mitch Kessler's in Lake Como, and we are in New York, obviously, where our show takes place, and in Vegas. But of course, we were landlocked in Los Angeles, so we had to use more CGI, more set extensions, and had to really think through our visual landscape. For example, in telling the Mitch Kessler story, he is in Lake Como, he's staying in this incredibly beautiful villa, he's in a very dark place and he's an exile, figuratively and literally, and so he's in a prison of his own making, for life. So we put him in Italy, where COVID was happening before it was happening here, and even though you're in this absolutely gorgeous place, you can still be in hell, a hell of his own making, trapped by the consequences of what he's done.
So we found this villa in Sierra Madre, California, where there used to be an old nunnery, and the interior and exterior of that we used as our villa – and it's a replica of some famous villa in Florence, by the way. So then what I did was I got a drone unit and I shot all of the villa from all different angles from above, and then I hired a drone unit in Italy, in Lake Como and said, "Please, let's go on a virtual scout and show me all the peninsulas in Italy." And we picked this particular peninsula and then we shot it just like I shot the drone unit in Los Angeles. I shot all around this peninsula coming at it from all different angles and then we CGI our villa onto the peninsula, Lake Como, and those are slight of hand and the tricks we use to transport us there. And honestly, it felt like we were there because our production designer, Nelson Coats is a genius.
You've got such a deep bench of performers to work with. Tell me about everybody bringing their input to the table as you're putting the show together, and how that affects how you do what you do all those all-stars in the cast.
Leder: We do have a super deep bench of brilliant actors and a great creative team led by [showrunner] Kerry Ehrin, and we all set out to really tell an important story. And not only are Jen and Reese great actors, but they're also great producers. And it was really wonderful, to again, experience that together with them. And every actor who works on this show, from the stars to the day players to our supporting cast, everybody works really hard on this show and they bring their in experience with them and they're smarts and they have an incredibly smart group of actors and our new actors that have come onto the show.
Greta Lee represents a more millennial voice and how she challenges Cory and the way he thinks, and we have such really smart, great actors. Karen [Pittman, as Mia Jordan] and Desean [Terry, as Daniel Henderson] were really collaborative in their storyline about race and not sugarcoating it.
Putting these characters through such an emotional and dramatic period in our own immediate history, what are you hoping the effect of their journey will have on the audience, who's also lived through it, as they watch Season 2 in its entirety?
Leder: Well, that's a very good question. Our characters very much go through a catharsis in this show, and they go through a lot of self-examination, and I think they go through a lot of reflection, and I think so do we as an audience. You know, COVID lingers in the background like a storm cloud, and it's still here, we're still going through it, and still reflecting. I think I'm hoping the audience goes through some sort of journey, as well as self-evaluation, and looking inside like we do, like Alex does once she gets to rock bottom and starts to build herself back up. I hope this story is somewhat of a reflection of that for everyone going through that journey of asking the important questions: "Who am I? What more can I do?"
The Morning Show Season 2 is now streaming on AppleTV+ with new episodes premiering every Friday.