Courteney Cox has lived with two career-defining characters since the ’90s. Friends’ Monica Geller and the Scream franchise’s Gale Weathers tower over her extensive body of work and pop culture conversations even today, especially because Cox revisited both of them fairly recently. She was part of HBO Max’s Friends: The Reunion special last year, and she reprised her persistent journalist role for the fifth Scream movie in January.
The actor is now set to put the spotlight on her new fictional persona: Patricia “Pat” Phelps in Starz’s new horror-comedy Shining Vale, which premieres on March 6. The show taps into Cox’s comedic timing and her experiences of being spooked by Ghostface multiple times, and puts a nuanced spin on the genre. Shining Vale centers on Pat and Terry (Greg Kinnear), who move from Brooklyn to a 200-year-old Victorian mansion in Connecticut with their two kids for a fresh start. But they get more than they bargained for, because their home is possibly haunted by the ghost of a 1950s housewife. Unless Pat is simply imagining it all due to her medications?
Cox returns to TV as a top-billed series regular seven long years after the end of Cougar Town in 2015. In a roundtable interview, she told The A.V. Club that Pat appealed to her because of the challenges the character presented. “I was excited to play someone so layered. I’ve never played a character that had so much going on,” she says. And that’s not even an understatement.
Pat and Terry decide to uproot their lives primarily to work on their marriage after she cheated on him. She hopes that moving into a big, quiet space will improve her mental health and energize her to write again. Pat was previously a wild party girl who achieved success with a feminist, erotic novel, but hasn’t published anything in 17 years. Cox adds: “They are going through marital strife, she’s depressed, she has an affair, she has writer’s block, she’s raising a teenager, which is in itself a challenge. And then she gets possessed.”
That’s right: Pat begins seeing and connecting with a spirit named Rosemary (Mira Sorvino), decked in standard ’50s-style cinched dresses. The more Rosemary becomes involved in Pat’s personal and professional life, the weirder Shining Vale gets. It becomes a quirky situational comedy at times, but also addresses the deep-rooted issues of a woman striving to hold it all together for the sake of her family—all through the lens of horror and possessions.
As Shining Vale’s central duo, Cox and Kinnear said in the interview that they spent substantial time fleshing out Pat and Terry’s chemistry, including doing improv scenes during ostensibly creepy moments to add levity to the show. “The thing is, I do like to be scared, but I also hate it,” Cox says. Kinnear wisely took advantage of this fact. In one episode, Terry surprises Pat while they’re checking out a creaky closet and causes her to briefly freak out.
“It worked!” Kinnear boasts of his improv timing in that scene. “Courteney (and Pat initially) is a lovely little scared butterfly. There were times where I felt like Terry would come back to scare her because of that,” he says. Cox reveals it was extra spine-chilling because of the eerie real house in Pasadena they filmed in: “There was a guy who passed away there in the ’80s. His wife is certain of his presence there, and I believe in all that stuff.” What’s a better way to get into character than that?
Shining Vale is no subversive slasher, but Cox credits her time working with Scream director Wes Craven for learning how to, well, scream and be afraid on-screen: “I’ve had experience with people jumping out and things like that. [Co-creator] Jeff Astrof was open to hearing my thoughts, like I would say ‘This would never happen in a horror film.’ All the training I had on Scream and doing Friends set the perfect tone for me to be able to play this, and then add drama to it. It was a nice balance.”