‘Playing House’ Stars on Turning a Cancer Diagnosis into Comedy

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Lennon Parham as Maggie, Jessica St. Claire as Emma in Playing House (Photo by: Robyn Von Swank/USA Network)

It’s been almost two years since fans of Playing House have seen two of TV’s best BFFs, Emma (Jessica St. Clair) and Maggie (Lennon Parham), in action, and now we know why. The same month the USA comedy’s Season 2 finale aired, September 2015, St. Clair was diagnosed with stage 2b estrogen positive breast cancer — something she revealed in a moving and funny essay for Stand Up To Cancer last May. Just in like in real life, Emma’s diagnosis midway through Season 3, premiering June 23, will come out of nowhere. “It’s gonna be the reality of what it is, but also those insane, hilarious moments that happen when the stakes are so high,” St. Clair says.

“I think what you’re going to feel is that thing that happens when women show up for each other in a super deep way,” Parham says.

Here, the duo previews how and why they brought that story to the show, and what else we have to look forward to.

Jessica, I loved the mission you wrote about in your SU2C essay — being able to report back to other women what worked and what didn’t work as cancer hacks. You talked about how much Lennon and your husband, Dan O’Brien, were there for you. How much of your exact experience are we going to see in the show?

Jessica St. Clair: Well, in classic Jessica-Lennon form, and maybe this is because we have a lack of imagination, we write pretty much exactly what we lived. So that was one of the reasons when we came back for Season 3, we were like, “Well, this is a really big challenge for us. We’ve never written something that is both equal parts really serious and funny.” But the truth was, what we had just gone through, although being diagnosed with breast cancer is not a laugh a minute, there were really hilarious things that happened to us during the experience.

Like in the show, Lennon is responsible for choosing my new boobs. The scene is one of my favorite things we’ve ever written, but that’s also because that’s exactly what happened. When the plastic surgeon asked me to feel three implants and decide which one felt most like my own boob, I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t touch mine very often.” So I’m squeezing it, and then my husband steps in, or I’m like, “Dan, can you tell me?” He pokes it like a water balloon, and I’m like, “Get outta here!” Then from the recesses of the office, I hear, “May I give it a try?” And Lennon steps forward, and she felt each implant like a sommelier would taste a fine wine. Without any hesitation, she goes, “It’s number two.” Like she was dropping the mic.

Lennon Parham: Well, half of that is true. Jessica did force me to grab her boobs. I thought, “Hey, you know what? I love her. We’re really close, probably closer than any two women should be who are not in a married relationship. But this is not my place.” She was like, “Get in here.” And I was like, “You know what, I don’t —” She was like, “Lennon. Get in here.” I was like, “Fine.” So I got in there and it was very clear from the get-go which one it was.

St. Clair: But why is it that your best friend knows the consistency of your boob more than your husband? That is so disturbing and also amazing on so many levels.

Parham: It’s not because I’m always feeling your breasts, Jessica. That makes it sound like when we’re writing, what I’ll often do is hold onto your breasts between typing.

St. Clair: It is not true.

Parham: That is inappropriate. And that is not true.

St. Clair: If anything, I hold onto yours, and that’s why I don’t understand.

Parham: Because it’s a compare and contrast. I have a scientific, logical mind, and that’s how it happened.

St. Clair: It was so crazy. And the other thing I thought was insane was that I did not question it. Once she said, “Two,” I was like, “Fine.” I didn’t deliberate. I was like, “Put them in.” Because I trust her implicitly. The other thing that was amazing was my husband was out of town, unfortunately, the day that I heard. It was the worst day of my life. So I, of course, text Lennon. I drive to the place. I’m sobbing. It’s the worst. And she shows up. I think I told her not to come ’cause I’m insane. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine.”

Parham: You just texted me. This is how it went down. I said, “What happened?” She texted me, “It’s cancer. I’m going to the doctor. I gotta drop off my daughter” and whatever. I was like, “Okay, what’s the address?” She’s like, “What are you talking about?” And I was like, “Tell me where it is. I’m coming.” She was like, “You don’t need to come,” and I was like, “I’m coming. I’m coming, you insane person.” And so she finally texted me the name of the place. She was like, “I’m on my way there,” and I was like, “Me, too.” So I just threw on the most comfortable sweatshirt I could find, which Jess makes fun of because it says “Mama Bear” on the front of it. And then, this season, after making fun of me a thousand times for wearing that sweatshirt, guess what sweatshirt Jess decided to wear every day on set? The same exact sweatshirt.

St. Clair: So she rolls in. Everybody in the office thought that Lennon was my life partner, because she kept saying “our daughters” and “we have good insurance” and stuff like that.

Parham: The Writers Guild has really good insurance. That’s the truth.

St. Clair: So they thought we were like this powerhouse lesbian couple.

Parham: That’s not the first time that’s happened.

St. Clair: No, it’s not, and it won’t be the last. But my husband shows up, and they’re like, “Who’s this guy?” Like were we in a triple marriage. No one knew what was going on.

Parham: And he didn’t bother to explain it to them.

St. Clair: Right. So then my husband’s like, “Lennon has to be present at every single appointment.” I don’t feel good unless Lennon’s there because Lennon has what we call ‘judgmental resting face.’ She’s always studying somebody.

Parham: I just call it my face.

St. Clair: So most of the doctors would deliver news directly to Lennon.

Parham: But I was also writing it down. Jess was asking all these questions, and Dan was there as well asking questions and pacing back and forth. I would get it all down and then I would recount it to them because later, she would say, “The doctor said this.” I was like, “No way did she say that. Look at my notes. She definitely didn’t say that. You’re not hearing things straight.” Because, you know, in those moments you’re hearing it through a weird lens. So listen, they didn’t tell me to come, I was just showing up. I was like, “Where are we going today? Who are we seeing?” And I was just there at 11:15, meeting them out front with a juice. I was like, “Let’s do this.”

St. Clair: She made a binder, and this is in the show as well. We could talk for like seven hours about this —

Parham: And this is just one of the eight episodes. There’s also drag queens, and there’s this amazing British actor who plays Maggie’s chief resident and there’s some real chemistry there. There’s also Bird Bones and Gwen and women’s basketball and, I mean, you name it this season. We did not hold back. And that is the truth.

St. Clair: We never hold back, but really, I promise you that this is the funniest stuff we’ve ever written, and also, it will make you cry, so you might throw up.

Parham: Hey! Don’t put that in print.

St. Clair: It’s gonna be that kind of cry. Remember when you were 12 years old and your parents just got HBO and you were like, “Hey, what’s this movie, Terms of Endearment?” And then you’re just like, “Why is this happening?”

Parham: You did not watch that when you were 12, you little piece of something.

St. Clair: I did! Or Beaches. Maybe it was Beaches. But yeah, so anyway —

Parham: You know what I was watching? On scrambled TV, I was trying to pick out scenes from Losin’ It, that Tom Cruise movie where they go to Tijuana. Anyway, that’s where we differ.

St. Clair: What I was gonna say before is, Lennon showed up with the binder on the first day. It said on the cover, “Cancer, you wanna roll with this?” In the show, she has that exact binder.

Parham: It’s true. But here’s the thing: It was a really hard decision whether or not to write about this. Because our show is sort of like an escape —

St. Clair: A fantasy.

Parham: We dealt with Mark and Bird Bones’ divorce in Season 2, and that was a super serious theme. But for the most part, it’s breaking into a JCC and skinny-dipping. There’s friendship moments, but this season, we really went for it in a really deep way, and I think we’re really both super proud of it.

St. Clair: I was so shocked that this was able to be the case, but you know how some shows, you love it and then they introduce something really serious and you’re like, “Oh my god, you’ve just taken everything that I love about this show and thrown it away.” All the charm, or the couple starts hating each other and you’re like, “I don’t want to watch this on a Friday night.” But for whatever reason, we were able to keep the charm and the love, because that’s sort of what keeps people coming back, I think, is how much these girls, and now how much everyone in the town — Mark, Bird Bones, Emma’s mother — love each other. What happened to me was, getting cancer, although terrifying, made my life so much better, and that sounds totally insane. I remember when I was in my deepest, darkest part of going through chemo, this woman, who was like 20 years out, was like, “I know you’re not going to believe me, but your life will be better after this. You will be happier.” I was like, “That’s insane.” But it’s true. So after this experience, and as they all go through it, there is nothing that can get between these people. They love each other so much. They’ve shown up for each other. They realize that life is short, so they might as well have an even better time, and they live what Lennon and I started calling the “F**k yes life.”

Parham: On the show we call it “Hell yes life.”

St. Clair: Because it was USA, we had to change it to “Hell yes.”

Parham: Well, just because it was America. What I was saying earlier was, when we were deciding to write it, it was a really hard decision to do this because I was like, “This is where our show normally is. Do we really want to [relive] the past year of our life? Do we really want to talk about it in a room, break a story, improvise it, act it out, edit it, and then talk about it even more?” Through the process, I think Jess and I faced some stuff that we had not faced when we were going through it. Then as we’re writing it or when we were shooting it, some of our crew would be like, “Hey, my sister-in-law is starting chemo on Tuesday. Can you tell me more about the thing that let’s you keep some of your hair?” Or, “I’m gonna go get a mammogram today.” It already started to do this really profound thing, and I was like, “Listen, if that’s all it is, then that’s enough.” But it’s gonna be more than that because it’s gonna be available for everyone.

St. Clair: You know, the other thing is I’ve always thought of television, the good shows that you love, they make you feel less alone. I remember watching Gilmore Girls in like a deep, dark part of my twenties, and it kept me afloat. And so what I felt was when you’re going through this, it’s the loneliest time in your life. If for some reason there’s a girl — and listen, there’s a lot of girls under 40 who are getting this and they don’t know why and it’s terrifying — but if she’s sitting at home… I looked for something when I was going through this, something that would speak to my experience. Not a Beaches or Terms of Endearment or anything with Debra Winger in which she dies, but something where somebody goes through it and actually survives and thrives and is happier. I couldn’t find it. So now it exists, and I’m hoping that if one person is sitting there feeling sad and watching this and then feels like they’re less alone, well then we’ve done our job.

St. Clair, Keegan-Michael Key as Mark Rodriguez, Parham (Photo by: Michael Yarish/USA Network)

Looking at what else we can tease about the season, in the premiere, we quickly find out if Emma and Mark (Keegan-Michael Key) are rekindling their high school romance.

Parham: You’re going to have your favorites back. Keegan-Michael Key is back. Jane Kaczmarek [as Emma’s mother, Gwen]. Lindsay Sloane [as Tina, aka Bird Bones]. And Jack McBrayer [as Rod]. Then we’ve also got Laurie Metcalf and Michaela Watkins, who play Jess’s two doctors. It’s next level. Then also I mentioned a bunch of drag queens, and it was like a dream fulfillment for me because I’m obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race, so Bob the Drag Queen, and Katya, and Jiggly Caliente, and Detox — literally the all star team.

St. Clair: In the finale, basically the concept is, even though I kept most of my hair, at the end of chemo I looked like Dog the Bounty Hunter — some of it was growing in and it just looked straight-up and fake. So we are going out to celebrate our final night of chemo, and I’m like, “I can’t go. I look like Dog the Bounty Hunter. Nobody wants to see this.” So through a series of crazy things that happen, we end up getting made over by a bunch of drag queens into twin Tina Turner drag queens. And we perform “Proud Mary” to these drag queens. So we’re on a stage, dressed like Tina Turner. I, by the way, find out that I have such manly features that drag queen makeup on me looks correct. So that’s something I’m trying to just accept. And I remember saying to Katya, “Katya, give us some pointers.” And she just said, “Don’t be afraid to get ugly.”

Parham: No, she said, “Don’t be afraid to flirt with the grotesque.”

St. Clair: Yeah, “Flirt with the grotesque.” So that’s all we needed, right? Then we f**king let it rip, and we’re dancing —

Parham: That’s my comfort zone though, actually. Put me in a pair of stripper heels in front of a neon heart and I’m like, “I’m home.”

St. Clair: You were home. I had a limited passport. And then behind the camera is my three-year-old, who was obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race and was dressed, by her own accord, in an Elsa costume with a tiara. She was dressed as much like a baby drag queen as you could possibly get. She’s behind the monitor, and I was like, “This is living, man. This is it. It doesn’t get any better than this.” Oh and the other thing is Maggie gets a love interest, and we have not yet gotten to see Maggie fall in love.

Parham: It’s slow and simmery. We really tease it out Jane Austen-style, and it’s really nice.

Ben Willbond as Dr. Ericson, Jeff Hiller as Jeff (Photo by: Michael Yarish/USA Network)

That’s the British actor you mentioned earlier?

St. Clair: Yes. His name is Ben Willbond, and what happened was one of our directors, Chris Addison, who was one of the executive producers of Veep when the British people were in charge of it, we texted him. We’re like, “Listen, we wrote this British love interest for Maggie. We don’t know anybody who fits this. Can you ask your best girl friend who is the next Mr. Darcy? Who does she most want to have sex with in London?”

Parham: Keep it classy. Keep it classy.

St. Clair: She writes back one name: Ben Willbond.

Parham: She wrote a couple names back, but that guy was at the top of the list.

St. Clair: We don’t even audition him. We look at a clip where he’s talking as himself on YouTube or something, and we’re like, “Yeah, that sounds good.”

Parham: We watched a couple clips.

St. Clair: It’s the most amazing romance you’ve ever seen. He’s so good.

Parham: He’s really talented. He’s written and starred in a bunch of stuff in England, a show called Horrible Histories and several other things. So he’s super smart and just a really good actor, but also really grounded and connected and also he can improvise, so it was like we found the jackpot basically. He’s the new chief resident on her new nursing rotation. Jeff Hiller plays my best friend at the hospital and he is so hilarious. We get paired with this doctor that we call Doctor Popsicle because he’s cold as ice.

St. Clair: But in our private life, we call him the Salt and Pepper Situation, because that’s what we’re working with.

Parham: It’s not really private when you tell it to everyone’s face.

Season 3 of Playing House premieres June 23 at 11 p.m. ET on USA before the entire season hits VOD on June 24.

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