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Girls director Richard Shepard on Matthew Rhys’ guest spot and fake penis

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/Getty Images
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/Getty Images

Note: This interview discusses major plot points of “American Bitch.”

From the most simple summary, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen Girls’ episode “American Bitch” before. Just like in season two’s “One Man’s Trash,” Hannah finds herself in a gorgeous New York City home with a significantly older man. But the circumstances have drastically altered. While “One Man’s Trash” was a hazy sex-fest, this episode is a tautly wound battle of perspectives. Multiple women have accused author Chuck Palmer (played impeccably by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys) of engaging them in sexual encounters that were not consensual, and Hannah has written an article about the charges. She’s an admirer of Chuck’s work, but irate with the alleged infractions and the cultural implications of a lauded man abusing his position. He invites her over to confront her, convince her she’s wrong, and garner her sympathy. And he’s largely successful. Then he pulls his dick out. It’s a carefully staged episode, one that hinges on the heated back and forth between its two lead performances. The A.V. Club spoke to frequent Girls director Richard Shepard—who also helmed “One Man’s Trash”—about how he put it together.

The A.V. Club: This episode feels like a companion piece to “One Man’s Trash.” Did you approach those episodes in a similar way?

Richard Shepard: What was interesting is that “One Man’s Trash” is ultimately about a romantic two days between people. It was the first time that Hannah had a normal sexual situation in which she actually is pleasured and is not humiliated. To me that was really important to do. And I really loved that element of it and I loved the emotionality of it. And what was interesting about [“American Bitch”] was, it is a story about two people in an apartment, but it’s not a romance by any stretch of the imagination. So it was its own set of challenges. I very much wanted the house in “One Man’s Trash” to be a character and I very much wanted Chuck’s apartment to be a character. It is really about two people and you don’t get a relief of cutting elsewhere. That is a similarity. But where “One Man’s Trash” represented this almost perfect—until Hannah fucks it up—two days, this episode is not about a perfect two days. It’s about a lot of things other than perfection.

AVC: In “One Man’s Trash” Hannah is playing with her own power. She asks Patrick Wilson’s character to beg her to stay, for instance. This episode is also about power, but toxic male power.

RS: I think clearly the issue of power is of interest to Lena as a writer, and I think what’s so interesting about this episode was she was able to craft a very interesting and serious conversation into an episode that still felt like it could live in the Girls world. I think that was proven on “One Man’s Trash.” It was the first time the series had ever tried to do a bottle episode, and I think there was an inherent fear like, could it work? I think because we were able to pull it off, it emboldened Lena in terms of the way she writes to know our audience will go with this if we go down this road. I think people are going to be shocked in a good way.

It’s so timely. We filmed this last summer, but it couldn’t be more relevant today. The fact that we’re in a place where we have to fight for women’s equality again—it’s a horrible flashback to a time we thought was behind us—makes this so relevant and interesting. And the way she tackles it as a writer—this idea that at the end of the episode Matthew’s character sort of shows to her that he still has the power. She can debate him as logically as she wants and he’s impressed by that, but at the end of the day he knows he has the societal power. That’s what makes the episode so interesting and hopefully thought provoking. Because when you’re sitting there watching her and him watch his daughter play music and they’re stuck in this room together, hopefully you’re thinking about what you just witnessed and realizing that he’s got the power. So you can debate all you want—this is the way the world is. And that’s tough stuff but I think hopefully done in a way that is compelling.

AVC: There’s a moment when you hit the middle of the episode where it zigs when you think it should zag. There’s a reprieve in the tension. How did you tackle that structure?

RS: I said from the moment I read the script, “We have to earn that Hannah goes into his bedroom.” Because there’s no way when this episode starts that she’s going into his bedroom. For me then it was about, “How do we cast an actor who has played difficult people to like, but we somehow like him?” Matthew fits that perfectly. It was a very short list of actors—“Oh, I believe him as a writer, I believe him as an asshole, but I also kind of like him and he’s going to charm me.”

The idea is he’s charmed by Hannah because she can articulate her position really well and he likes smart people. At the same time as he gets more and more charmed by Hannah, we get more and more charmed by him so we let our defenses down, which I think is part of the point. It’s his most devious quality. He sees that she’s his equal intellectually so he’s got to go show his power over her in a different way. That sequence in the bedroom is about him saying, “You may have been equal in our debate, but make no mistake, society expects you to touch my penis and you’re going to.” That’s shocking and it’s a power play. I think that’s what the episode is about.

It takes a pretty smart, instinctive actor who comes in with a likability to be able to play a character as complex and dark as that and make you like him. I found myself liking him, but intellectually I don’t. As a director that was my job because I don’t have anything to cut to. I have just these two characters and it’s about—how do I finely calibrate their performances in a way that feels organic and not forced and so that the audience doesn’t feel like they’ve just been lectured, but feels a connection in some way that they may not have felt in the beginning.

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/Getty Images

AVC: There’s a Woody Allen portrait on the wall behind Chuck, which can’t be an accident. What was important to you in finding that apartment and decorating it?

RS: I really spent a lot of time looking for locations. It needed to feel like it was a real place that was lived in, that was above Hannah’s economic stratosphere, that was a place she almost wished she could live in and imagined herself as a successful writer living in, that still had a little bit of a funky quality to it and allowed me to shoot wide shots and stuff like that. There was a lot of discussion of what that apartment should look like and of course it’s one of those things when you walk into the right location, you’re like, “This is exactly what this is.” Those were all the books of the person who actually owned that apartment, though we did put up the Woody Allen picture, which Lena had written in the script very specifically. Woody Allen is one of the greatest writers who has ever graced pen to paper, but he’s also been accused of some stuff that is not so great. It made sense that Chuck would have that picture in his apartment, but it also made sense for what we’re saying that it would be there as well.

There are choices that are made on film sets all the time that are one step too many or that you push it too far or you’re so on the nose that it’s wrong. That’s one of the fun things about a show that’s in its sixth season that’s run as well as Girls is. You have Lena, Jenni [Konner, executive producer], and then Judd Apatow in L.A. looking at dailies, [and they] will sniff out anything that feels bullshitty. And you don’t feel like you’re going to be reprimanded. So you push yourself and sometimes that doesn’t always work, but if you’re pushing yourself you have the chance of actually pushing yourself into a great place.

So it’s a very safe environment to work on, especially in an episode in which the specificity of these two people in this house, like “One Man’s Trash,” is part of the storytelling. When we did “One Man’s Trash” there was a ping-pong table in the house. I said to Lena, “I think you guys should play ping-pong and you should be naked and then you should fuck on the ping-pong table.” That wasn’t in the script. That was us in the house, looking at that ping-pong table and feeling that it would make sense for her character. Lena has final cut, so it kind of gives you a freedom to try things because you’re like, “I’m not pushing her to do anything she doesn’t want. If she doesn’t want to do it she won’t do it, but let’s see what we can do. Let’s have some fun.”

In this episode it was my idea to have them watch the little girl do the concert and [Hannah] not be able to leave the apartment. I wanted her stuck there and I wanted her to have to sit in the room with that guy. For me, being able to articulate that to Lena and having Lena be so supportive of what I wanted and why I wanted it, that’s why it was such a fun show to do.

AVC: The episode ends with a shot of Hannah walking out of the house while a group of women enter. There’s almost something surreal about it. Where did that come from?

RS: It was my idea. I just throw a lot of ideas onto the table and most of them just disappear, but Lena responded to that idea. For me, I understood that it was a little surreal, but I really liked the idea of, I don’t want the audience to end this episode thinking that Hannah sort of escaped the clutches of this guy. Yeah, she’s scared, but she got out. Well, she did get out, but until we start dealing with the real problem there are going to be more victims, whether of Chuck or other people. We have to make some bigger changes before we can feel safe. That for me was what the ending was about.

There’s some surreal comedy on Girls but not a lot of it. In terms of drama, there’s not a lot of surreal drama in it. I like to think that some people will notice it and some people won’t. I said to Lena, “Let’s shoot it and we can always end the episode with her just in her apartment watching the girl play.” It’s easy to end it if you don’t like it. And then we shot it and I remember very distinctly shooting it and feeling like this actually is really good. This turned out even better than I imagined. And I called [Lena] over to the monitor and I said, “Would you watch the playback?” I usually don’t do [that] with her, and she usually doesn’t ask to watch the playback. But she watched it and she was like, “That’s really cool.” There were discussions with Jenni, Judd, and Lena in the editing about whether to keep it in or not. But I’m glad they kept it in. For me this was a provocative episode on every level, so let’s push it a little.

AVC: Was the penis a prosthetic?

RS: Yeah.

AVC: How did you stage when he pulls that out and puts it on her leg?

RS: In the very first draft Hannah doesn’t touch the penis. This was a discussion among many of the writers and a debate between many of the people behind the scenes of Girls, who had varying opinions on what to do. My opinion was that she needed to touch it and if she didn’t we weren’t fully going as far as we could with what was going on. Lena listens very carefully to people and she chooses to agree or disagree. She has very strong opinions and I think she realized that there would be a value in it. I think once we got over that hurdle, for me it was about, “How do I stage this in a way that will be both shocking and funny?” I purposely didn’t do it in a close-up or even in a medium shot. I wanted it to be wide. I wanted the audience to maybe not even notice it at first or to think, “Could that be? Is that it? Oh my god it is.” [I wanted there to] be an actual emotional response to it. If an audience doesn’t immediately catch on but catches on a beat later that’s even better. When we rehearsed the scene we rehearsed it various ways and we figured the best way for Matthew to turn over and the best way for it to lay.

And then I thought about what the best shot of it is. That was all of us together figuring out this would be the best way of achieving this. The whole episode is leading up to this moment. From the beginning you know it’s coming, but you don’t know how it’s going to come, and it’s not the way you expect it. Matthew’s look after she gets off the bed—this shit-eating grin, almost of, “I told you I had the power over you, you just didn’t listen”—he’s just incredible in this shot. One of the things I dealt with in editing was how we make sure that we’re not laughing too much—how are we making sure that we laugh a little bit.

AVC: You mentioned you had a very short list of people who could play Chuck. Was Matthew the first you went out to?

RS: It’s always crazy because whenever you’re casting a star you start talking about people who are like, fully unavailable—they’re never going to do it. So you throw things out like, wouldn’t it be great to see this actor in it and then you’re like, “Let’s get Tom Cruise, it would be great.” You go down these wormholes. And then at a certain point you’re presented with a list of actors who might actually be available and might actually want to do it.

Our script supervisor Kim Delise works on The Americans and for years had been talking about how great Matthew Rhys was both as a human being and an actor and what a big fan he was of Girls. So when we started really talking about who we really could go after Lena and I remembered what Kim had said and we were like, “You know, Matthew makes so much sense.” He loves the show. He lives in New York. He’s not afraid of tackling difficult material. I’m not quite sure if there were other names that were higher, but to me in my mind once we heard Matthew’s name we did everything we possibly could to get him. I know that Lena wrote him a long letter and called him 75 times and did whatever needed to be done to get him to do the show.

AVC: Did he immediately find this character? Or did you have to work to get to who Chuck is?

RS: There’s a grumpiness about Chuck and a tiredness about Chuck and an annoyed-ness. And then you slowly see him warming up a little bit to Hannah. His face brightens and he’s says to her “you’re funny” like five different times and never laughs. He brought all of this stuff to it. I didn’t get into a conversation with him about his initial reaction to the script. He understood why we wanted him and he understood what we needed.

In those rehearsals I was like, “This is not the episode to come in and not know your lines or not to have thought about things. This is the episode to come in and fucking nail it because if you’re not nailing it it’s going to suck.” Matthew was so lovely. His being a great person actually made a difference. There are uncomfortable issues dealt with in this episode so it’s helpful to have the conduit to it be someone you inherently liked as a human being and as an actor. I could say to him, “I want you to be a little darker here or I want you to be meaner here or I want you be more devious here or I want you to be lighter here,” but have him understand that what we were doing was just calibrating stuff.