A portly police officer steps out of the toilet stall at a tired, Seventies-era diner in New York City’s infamous Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. He thinks he has a moment to himself. Instead, he is confronted by the imposing trio of Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), who walk in after him and lock the door. They want information. Not sure how to react, the cop suggests they might have taken a wrong turn but the truth is, these women are exactly where they need to be and no one is going anywhere until he gets the message they’ve come to deliver: if he wants to stay on the payroll, he answers only to them now. It’s a tense, pivotal moment that could go a lot of different ways but they take the big risk – their first of many – and it pays off.
This is one of the final scenes being captured on a soundstage for The Kitchen, a gangster drama set in the late 1970s that was filmed largely on location throughout four of the city’s five boroughs. It tells the empowering, gritty story of three mob wives who decide to take over the Irish gang that runs their neighborhood after their husbands are sent to prison. What they soon discover is that they can run things even better than the guys did, but with power and money comes even more obstacles and they must stick together to survive.
Andrea Berloff, Oscar-nominated writer of Straight Outta Compton, was hired to write the screenplay for The Kitchen, based on a DC Vertigo comic book series known for its graphic noir style and its uncompromising take on the criminal goings-on of this infamous section of inner city real estate in the turbulent 1970s. She quickly realised she wanted to take this fresh look at the gangster genre all the way as a first-time director, too, framing the action in a broad, contemporary way, with the taut pacing and surprising twists that should keep audiences – men and women alike – on the edge of their seats.
Setting up the standoff above, she says, “It’s part of a sequence of scenes that marks a turning point for the three leads, as they start to discover the joy of having some power. It’s really the most joyful it gets for them. I like the idea of their taking over a community that they were not welcomed in. I like seeing how women tend to work differently when they are put in charge. There is a great deal of camaraderie and collaboration that goes on, and I thought all of that was really exciting and fun to explore.”
And fun it is, despite the serious story beats. “When I read the script I was like, ‘Who do I need to talk to?’ says Tiffany Haddish. “I want to be one of these bad-ass women!”
In the process of gaining their power, each of the three goes through a transformation of sorts. For Ruby, Haddish says, “She made a plan and stuck to it. Even when things went wrong, she still believed that she could achieve. Through figuring out what our imperfections are, we grow as women and this is what happens with Ruby, Kathy and Claire. They discover themselves. They are going to fight sometimes and disagree, but if they stick together they are a force.”
Claire, played by Elisabeth Moss, makes possibly the biggest change. “She has an amazing arc,” producer Michael De Luca says. “She starts out as a battered wife and ends up a stone-cold killer.” To Moss, “I think what Claire finds is the strength to fight back against her abusers and the realisation that she doesn’t have to take it anymore. That she can fight back. It was just very hard for a woman at that time who wasn’t able to make her own income to get out of a bad situation.”
“I think even for Kathy, who thinks she is in a good relationship and has a good life,” notes Melissa McCarthy, “there is still an underlying sense that she could have done more but was never given the chance.” And with that is the idea that undervalued, unseen people will eventually rise up. That’s a really intriguing theme for me and it was interesting to watch that happen with this group of women, these characters.”
Berloff and De Luca set out to find the perfect three actresses who would be able tell this special story of housewives turned gangsters, and playing against type was right in sync with the story. McCarthy, Haddish and Moss all jumped at the chance to work with Berloff and her vision for the dark, fast-paced drama. “It is not a comedy,” Berloff confirms, albeit with a laugh, if the presence of McCarthy or Haddish gives anyone the wrong idea. “If you spend a day with us, you will see that this is clearly not a comedy.”
“We are doing something different,” adds De Luca. “I love breaking stereotypes and I love this cast. Melissa is so fierce in every performance and Tiffany is just like lightning in a bottle, so full of inventive energy. I think Elisabeth is one of the best actors of our generation, her range is amazing. It’s a really cool combination and sharp dynamic. They’re all different and they’re all at the peak of their game.”
Not that McCarthy is looking to step away from comedy, even after her recent Oscar-nominated turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me? “I love both,” she admits. “I go for character and story. It’s so exciting to watch Andrea take what she imagines and translate that to the screen. She knows exactly what she wants.”
Best known for her breakout role in last year’s Girls’ Trip, Tiffany Haddish had a more immediate reason for taking on the role of Ruby. “I just got energised because I was like, I’m going to show them another side of me! Boom!”
“I have seen both of these ladies work in both comedy and drama and felt the truthfulness of their performances,” observes Elisabeth Moss, coming off a Golden Globe win for The Handmaid’s Tale. “It’s the same kind of honesty and commitment. I am so excited to get in there with them and do this.”
Generally speaking, whether it’s about the cast and filmmaking team or the characters that propel the action in The Kitchen, Berloff suggests, “All of us in life get a little pigeonholed sometimes, right? I think part of what was attractive to them about working on this project is doing away with those definitions. These definitions don’t necessarily serve anybody in life and I think many people are capable of doing many different things that they are often not allowed to do, and it’s great to have the opportunity to counter that.”
As the story unfolds, that philosophy clearly applies across the board in a strong supporting cast that includes Common as a stoic FBI agent working the neighborhood his own way and Domhnall Gleeson as a hired gun who proves both simple and surprisingly complex.
Back in the diner’s cramped bathroom space, the nervous cop ultimately gives in to the demands of the trio and sheepishly exits. Kathy, Ruby and Claire stare at each other for a quiet, edgy second and then burst into laughter at what they’ve just accomplished. It is then that the director registers the perfection of the scene by calling “Cut!”
“It’s one of the lighter moments in the entire movie,” McCarthy acknowledges, before adding, “but this is about as light as it gets.”
Of course, that applied only to the film. Off-screen was a different story, as evidenced by the way the three leads break that scene and immediately head off together to relax, where the crew has set up a sofa and laid out bottles of chilled water. “You never know when you start a movie,” says producer Marcus Viscidi. “You have three actresses, three personalities. But it was very quick on this where the three of them, just like in the script, bonded and became friends. They hung out together on the set between takes just enjoying each other’s company and I believe that contributed to the chemistry we wanted for the movie.”
“It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to direct my material and see my ideas expressed,” offers Berloff. “Film is a collaborative medium and it’s often a confluence of everybody’s ideas, and I think part of the joy of filmmaking is seeing people working together and how all of that work goes into making the movie. If anybody wants to be a first-time director, I would advise working with Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish and Melissa McCarthy because they make me look good and they make my job look easier.”
McCarthy offers her own observation of working on The Kitchen. “Yes, it has three female leads and is directed by a woman. I think that’s all overdue. But I never want to make that the story. I think the story is that a really incredible writer has become a director and is seeing her vision through all the way. We also have many women working in key positions here, but hopefully, someday, that won’t be such an anomaly.”
Both on screen and off, things are changing.