Maid, the emotional and riveting limited series on Netflix, begins when Alex (in a movie star turn from Margaret Qualley), a twenty-five-year-old single mother, is forced to flee from her abusive partner Sean (Nick Robinson). While the title of the show accurately describes Alex’s newfound occupation she takes on to support her 2-year-old daughter, the series provides an eye-opening look at domestic violence, emotional abuse, and the bureaucratic hoops women in poverty have to jump through to survive. Despite the heavy subject matter, the show is highly watchable–full of warmth, humor, and a sense of optimism.
I was thrilled to speak with Molly Smith Metzler, the showrunner of the limited series. We discussed her writing process, depicting the truth on-screen, and why this beautiful new series inspires viewers to take action.
Sophia Ciminello: Thank you so much for joining me today, Molly, and congratulations for all of the success that has come your way with Maid! I absolutely loved the show.
Molly Smith Metzler: Oh, thank you! Thank you for watching and thank you for saying that.
SC: Of course! I also flew through it and watched it in three days. It was somehow an easy binge for me despite the subject matter.
MSM: Oh wow, three days, that’s intense. I know what’s going to happen, and I could only watch it one night at a time, like one episode a night for ten days. That’s the only way I could do it. But that’s a wonderful compliment; thank you for the binge.
SC: Oh, of course! Let’s start by talking about the book. So, Maid is adapted from Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. What drew you to this story in particular? How did you know this was an adaptation you wanted to take on and a show you wanted to run?
MSM: What drew me to the book is Stephanie, the writer. The book details her experience trying to provide for her daughter after leaving an abusive situation and cleaning houses for a living for eight bucks an hour. It’s so brutal, it’s so honest, and it’s very eye-opening. Ultimately, mom to mom, it really upset me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And what I was thinking about the most was that these stories don’t get told. I feel like we all know someone in Stephanie’s position, but we don’t like to talk about it, or there’s a stigma around it. So, I felt very compelled to tell a story I can’t remember seeing on screen.
SC: Definitely. There are many moments in the show when you see people mistreat Alex and comment on how she is as a mother, and you just know that that is not true, that she’s a wonderful mother. It breaks your heart, and you know that real women are experiencing that.
MSM: Yes, absolutely, and I think that that was important too. I’m sure you noticed, and our viewers noticed, but we never leave your point of view for 10 hours. The camera, we are always inside of her head. I used to call it “inside of her chest.” You know, we are always inside of her chest, and that was really intentional and important too. Not only do we see the story, but we see how it feels. It’s an emotional experience that was at the front of our list of goals for the show.
SC: Part of the reason the show is so watchable, despite its challenging subject matter, is that Margaret Qualley’s captivating performance feels like a fully realized movie star turn. How did you know that Qualley was your Alex? What was your collaborative process like with her?
MSM: We are so lucky that Margaret wanted to play this role and wanted to invest in this role in the way she did and ultimately spend nine months creating this role. I mean, it’s a real undertaking, and we wanted Margaret the minute we met her. There was no one else to play the role. We immediately loved her and were so excited that she loved the project and wanted to do it. So casting was very easy. But the thing about Margaret, I think that made me convinced and then also as a writer that I kept writing towards is that she’s just unaffected. It’s just so raw and genuine, and you know she also has a great sense of humor as a human being. It was just open, unaffected, and a real pleasure to create a role with someone who brings that kind of intense commitment to it. It was inspiring.
SC: Speaking about her humor a little bit, I find Alex really funny, and I love how the show’s tone allows for comedic moments within such an emotional story. How important was it that she felt like a real person experiencing poverty, trauma, and abuse? How did you manage to capture that authenticity so flawlessly?
MSM: Thank you for saying that! I’m glad that you thought it was flawless (laughs).
SC: Yeah, of course!
MSM: It was really important, and I’ll tell you why. The memoir is brutal, and it’s outstanding–Stephanie is an amazing writer, but it is without humor, just zero percent humor. So when I decided to adapt this, I knew it would be a huge challenge because it is not a television show, and it just feels relentless. It just feels like one terrible thing happening after another. The fact that it’s a true story makes it heartbreaking. But I didn’t want to write something that we could turn off after one episode because it was too brutal. I wanted to go on the ride and write a protagonist with a sense of humor who sometimes has a kind of dirty mouth, someone who was horny and went on Tinder. Basically, she’s twenty-five, and her outlook on the world is still developing, but there’s a ton of joy and humor in her. She’s resilient. I felt like the key actually to the entire show is that we loved her, and I think humor had a lot to do with that.
SC: I love that. As a playwright and screenwriter, I’m also interested to hear more about how you wanted to depict Alex’s relationship to writing. How many of these stories, like “The Porn House,” were inspired by or described in the memoir? What was it like to write another writer?
MSM: Well, on the one hand, being a writer, I know how hard writing is and how hard it must have been to write the memoir that Stephanie did. So I felt like, if she were a carpenter, I might have had to do a lot of research, but because she was a writer, I did know those feelings. I sort of know how hard it is to say out loud that you are a writer like she does at the very end. I also know how hard it is to bank on that, you know, to roll the dice and say, I’m going to go to school for this in this economy. All of those things felt very real and relatable to me, so it was a pleasure to dramatize them. What was really hard was that I wasn’t allowed to lift anything from the book verbatim, so all of Stephanie’s beautiful writing could not be on screen. I had to rewrite it as Alex and kind of tonally hit near it, emotionally hit near it. But it was my job to disguise it. So that was a fun writing assignment (laughs). But Stephanie cleans houses in the memoir and gives them fun names. We did try to lift a couple of the names of the houses, even though we had to dramatize everything that happened in the book. The “porn house” is real, but the events that happen in that house are 100% fictionalized in the show. But the name of the house, the experience, going into “the kinky house,” that’s all in the memoir. So, it’s a little bit like cooking. I pulled a few ingredients, but we had to make a new stew.
SC: That makes sense. It’s cool to see her confidence grow throughout the story, around writing. Even when she’s facing these tremendous hardships, writing is always there for her, and it’s neat to see that confidence grow.
MSM: Yes, I really felt that, too, especially as she comes to terms with her abuse, and I think with gaslighting, it’s so hard to know what’s real. Alex has that line at the end that sometimes she doesn’t know what she’s feeling until she writes it down. And I’ve very much had that experience as well. When you’re in a gaslighting reality where nothing is real, sometimes you can go to your journal and see what’s real, and it will save you and help your mental health. So, I felt like that was a really important development for her too. I think writing maybe saved her.
SC: Speaking of gaslighting, I have to ask you about Sean.
MSM: Yeah. (laughs)
SC: I loved seeing Nick Robinson in this role. I think he gives a really nuanced performance, and I was taken aback at first because I recognized him from Love, Simon. In that movie, he plays a character who is so warm and sympathetic. It’s impossible not to root for him, and that is very different here. So, when did Nick come on board and how did you work with him to display how the emotional abuse slowly unfolds throughout the show?
MSM: Well, we cast Margaret first, which was great because then we could cast everyone around Margaret. Then our next big piece of casting was Sean, and it was sort of exciting because when we met Nick Robinson, I was like, oh, Love, Simon, we’re not gonna find him scary. But I think the key to Sean is that he’s not one thing. He’s not a bad guy; he’s also a good guy. In Episode 8, we’re almost rooting for them to get back together. You forget how damaged he is. He’s complicated in many shades of gray, and when we met Nick, he raised that bar even higher. He elevated Sean. I just loved him, I wanted to put my arms around Nick Robinson, and that’s a great quality to have in someone mistreating someone. Ultimately, it’s a show about empathy. There’s more to people than meets the eye, and it was great that Nick saw the character that way and wanted to build it that way. Also, he’s just great. None of us thought he would be as scary as he was.
SC: He really is. These characters are so complex; they take you on these different journeys and make you feel empathy at the parts where it should be challenging to feel compassion for them. I felt that a lot with Paula as well. How was it working with Andie Macdowell and Margaret Qualley, this mother-daughter pair?
MSM: It was wild! And it was Margaret Qualley and her mom on a locked-down island in Canada for 9 months. I think a lot of people’s idea of a terrible time would be to be on a locked-down island with their mother, but casting Andie was Margaret’s idea. We hoped she would bring it up, but we didn’t know the relationship. So when she brought it up, we were like, yes! But you know it’s a big thing to do this kind of a show with your real mom. It was just beautiful to watch the two of them. They supported each other on-screen and off. It was a traumatic time for the whole world, and the two really helped each other. They made soup on the weekends. It was very cool. And they’re both so professional. I mean, you see how that runs in the family. They really came prepared and ready to work, and they raised the whole bar on set.
SC: They have such great chemistry working together. I wonder how many viewers will watch the show not knowing they are mother and daughter and then, later, will realize it and think, “oh wow, that makes perfect sense.”
MSM: Somebody congratulated me on casting someone who looked so much like Andie Macdowell, and I was like, oh, it’s her mom! But really, it’s just such good luck that Andie was available and that she chose to take on such a challenging character. Paula is not a character we’ve seen Andie Macdowell play, and it spoke to her, and she wanted to challenge herself like that. It’s a very hard role. She worked endlessly at it. I really admired her commitment. But again, it was really good luck. It was COVID, on an island, in another country, and these two were there to crush it.
SC: That’s really special to hear. The show also does a fantastic job of detailing the complex, inequitable services that women in similar situations to Alex rely on. Specifically, the ways you showed the money in Alex’s bank account dipping into the red and how she heard and interpreted the legal jargon were very creative. What was your research process like? How did you determine how to display the flaws in these systems and Alex’s related struggle visually?
MSM: So, in the memoir, one of the things you learn is the constant stress that Stephanie is under as she runs out of money almost daily. And survival is not just about food and housing, it’s also about emotional and mental health. And when you are under that kind of stress, it chips away at who you are and your sense of reality. And I really wanted to get that on screen but that is a very internal thing. So I came up with the money on the screen and also being inside of her point of view so that if she hears “legal, legal, legal, legal”, that we hear it and that was why. I wanted to be able to feel the stress in a visual way, in an emotional way without saying it in dialogue which was very hard, but it was exciting when we figured out how to do it. When those numbers drop, my heart is in my chest. What was the first part of that again?
SC: Oh, yeah, just what your research process was like for all of these complex services.
MSM: I wanted everything on-screen to be accurate because I hoped people would watch the show and maybe feel inspired or inclined to take action about their own situation or get involved in local government. So, I wanted everything on-screen to be accurate, and it is. We worked very closely with some lawyers from Washington state to get all of the Washington laws correct. The book is a great resource, of course, but then when it comes to domestic violence and those statistics, that’s all accurate. That’s because I worked closely with a domestic violence shelter here in Los Angeles called the Jenesse Center, and they have three emergency shelters where the addresses are not disclosed, and I was allowed to go to all of them. I got to interview some of the residents there. I got to see the intake process. They were so generous. And so when it feels real on-screen, that’s because it really is. I got to do that research really thoroughly.
SC: Wow. That must also be very draining and emotional to take part in research like that.
MSM: It was, but it was so important because I don’t think you know what that experience is unless you see it. It made me have so much more respect for the women like Denise, and then to sit down and dramatize Denise–these women who work there are angels, and they’ve seen it all. We have so much to learn from them. You also see the difference it makes to donate to these institutions and shelters. How much they’re relying on the community that they’re in. So, all of that gave me a great sense of determination to try to portray it accurately. It should be on-screen. We should know more about it. I didn’t know enough about it.
SC: Yeah, I didn’t either. Just seeing things like the boutique they have at the shelter with all the clothes and noticing that they don’t have to pay for those clothes, but there are tags on them, and there’s a cash register to make them feel some sense of normalcy in their lives again. It gives them some sense of control back.
MSM: That’s all based on something I saw here in Los Angeles, yeah.
SC: I also thought it was really eye-opening how you displayed how men can control women’s finances and how that becomes a way women can lose their sense of autonomy and any control they have of a way out.
MSM: It’s interesting. Financial abuse, which is what that’s called, is a form of emotional abuse, but I feel like it’s an often misunderstood one. Paula actually says that line, “Oh, I’m just bad with money, so he does all the money.” I feel like you hear that, but if you’re financially dependent on someone for gas money, you don’t get to drive if you can’t put the gas in your car. It’s a very common form of emotional abuse. I don’t think our audience would necessarily know about that. I didn’t know about that. It was really shocking, so I wanted to put it on-screen. The other amazing thing about it is that it doesn’t have to do with being poor or living below the poverty line. You can be a billionaire and be in a financially abusive situation. It’s also relatable for our audience. Emotional abuse, in general, is very relatable to our audience. I mean, just based on the input I get back from people who have seen the show. I don’t think emotional abuse is understood widely, and I think the show may have helped people see how that cycle happens, how you get stuck in it, and how money plays a big part.
SC: How does that feedback feel? How does it feel to see your show complete and what are you hearing from audiences about this series you created?
MSM: Well, I’ll tell you what I hear almost every day, which always gives me a little tear. I get notes from strangers telling me what their favorite color is. That’s something from the show in Episode 9. It’s so beautiful in that scene where Margaret says she is “sky blue,” and it’s become a little bit of a thing. I get notes from strangers telling me they’ve left an abusive situation. Sometimes I get, “because of the show, I’ve signed up to volunteer at the local shelter,” or “I’ve donated all the clothes in my house to the shelter.” I’ve also heard from many men who’ve said, “I watched this with my wife, and it dramatically changed how I view the world,” and “I’m so grateful because I didn’t realize I was mistreating someone.” I also hear a lot of fun stuff. I hear that the music is awesome. I hear how wonderful Margaret is, and Nick and Andie. It does seem like people let these characters into their hearts and really care about them, and as a writer, that’s always the ultimate compliment.
SC: For sure. I definitely can say that this show had such a positive impact on me and has really helped me think of how I’m going to view emotional abuse and situations like Alex’s, so thank you for that.
MSM: Well, I’m so glad to hear that. I have to say I wrote the show for my twenty-five-year-old self. I’m forty-four now, but when I was twenty-five, I did not understand these things that Alex came to understand. If it’s opened anyone’s eyes, then that’s really exciting.
SC: What a perfect way to end our interview today. Thank you so much, Molly, for joining me. This has been such a great conversation, and again, I recommend Maid to anyone. I’m telling all of my friends to watch it if they haven’t yet.
MSM: Sophia, thanks so much. Thanks for kicking me off here, woohoo!
SC: You’re welcome! I’m so excited for you! Good luck with everything.
MSM: Thank you!