On Sunday, Sweetbitter — based on the book of the same name — will premiere on Starz, an attempt to bring glitz, glamour and mystique to the not at all exciting world of being a restaurant's backwaiter (that’s fancy for busboy). The series follows Tess — your standard order naive, homegrown gal from Ohio — trying to find herself in 2006-era Williamsburg, as one does. Once she scores a job at a fancy pants restaurant, she finds herself caught up in the drama of love triangles and balancing three plates at a time. As one does.
There is one tiny glimmer of hope in Sweetbitter, though, and it comes in the form of the the mysterious, inscrutable Simone, played lovingly by Caitlin FitzGerald. We chatted with the actress about practicing for the role, the relationships between women in the series and tackling the darker side of the restaurant industry.
My roommate actually worked at a restaurant where Tom Sturridge would come in and practice bartending. Did you do any similar research for the role?
Yeah, we had a consultant who came in and did waitressing bootcamp before we started shooting. We had a few days where we did kind of a crash course in fine dining and… we dropped a lot of plates. It was a graveyard of glasses.
What got you excited about the role of Simone?
It’s interesting because I was kind of Tess, Ella Purnell’s character, in my life. I graduated from New York University in 2006, when the show is set, and went to work in restaurants. And I knew a lot of women like my character, Simone, who seemed to always know the right thing to say and wear and knew everything about food and wine and seemed to be living lives based on their own rules. So to play the woman that I got to idealize when I was younger was really exciting.
How would you describe the relationship between Tess and Simone? She’s someone Tess idolizes but she also plays big sister, mother and mysterious other.
It’s very multifaceted. It’s not just one thing. There is definitely a mentor/mentee relationship there. I think there’s love there and maybe competition and some bitterness and suspicion. And to me, that feels really true to life. I’ve certainly had many relationships in my life with women that are very complicated.
I appreciate shows that depict the complex relationships that women have with each other.
That really mattered to me. And I know it really mattered to Stephanie Danler [the writer of the book], too.
You’ve said that you read the book and it was all a super familiar experience to you. Can you talk about that?
It was uncanny, the first time I read the book. It felt like reading my diary from when I was 22, only actually well-written and articulate! I told Stephanie at my first audition that we had definitely waited on the same people because the characters were so familiar in her story. And I loved it, and it made me feel incredibly nostalgic for that time in my life. It was a homecoming of sorts.
Simone (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and Tess (Ella Purnell). Starz
It’s also very New York — the city is almost its own character.
Absolutely. And it’s a New York that feels authentic to me. So many television shows are set in New York, but the characters don’t really work — yet they live in amazing lofts and have incredible wardrobes. Our show feels like the New York that I know, the New York that I came of age in.
The show is more about the intoxicating, exciting, fast-paced part of working in a restaurant. Looking forward, do you think the series will cover the darker side of the restaurant industry? Especially after the exposes earlier this year about the prevalence of sexual assault?
I think the restaurant industry — like every industry — has inappropriate power dynamics and I think certainly in 2006, long before we were having the conversation the way we are now, it was at work. So I don’t know what the plans are for the show but I can’t imagine that they would ignore that dynamic going forward.
You also direct and write — what are some things you’ve been working on?
I co-wrote a feature film that I made with some friends that I also starred in, and I wrote a short that I also directed. A couple of years ago I directed a second short which I didn't write, but I love directing and want to do a lot more of it going forward. I think we’re in such an exciting moment in Hollywood and there are opportunities for women unlike anything before. I’m hoping to capitalize on that.
I feel like as women sometimes, we feel like we have to pick one thing to be. So it’s really cool seeing actors, like you, branch out and be multifaceted.
Totally. I do think, historically, men have felt a different kind of permission to be a hyphenate, at least in my experience. I had an awakening recently, where I thought, “Oh, if it interests me, I can pursue it.” Cool.