Catherine Zeta-Jones tackles pageants in 'Queen America'

Posted November 19, 2018 4:35 p.m. EST

ATLANTA -- In the opening moments of Facebook Watch's dark comedy "Queen America," Catherine Zeta-Jones' Vicki Ellis comes across as a stereotypically tough pageant coach as her client runs furiously on a treadmill, then collapses from fatigue.

"I don't want you to think of it as pain," Vicki tells the young woman. "I want you to think of it as improvement. Because if everyone lived like that, nobody would ever have to be mediocre."

On the surface, Vicki -- decked out in glamorous, body-hugging outfits and residing in a tasteful mansion -- appears sophisticated and high class. At the same time, Zeta-Jones' character starts out decidedly unlikeable in the first episode, hurling insults with the ease of a practiced Mean Girl.

But Vicki used pageants decades earlier as a way to escape her dirt-poor upbringing, a past she tries her best to bury. And her cracks quickly begin to show, those vulnerabilities making her a far more compelling figure by episode three.

"When I approached this character, I wanted everyone to hate her," said Zeta-Jones in a recent phone interview. "But I hope after a few episodes, you'll love her. This is a woman you can relate to. She really has this underlying determination to make things better for others."

Like many A-list movie stars, from Reese Witherspoon to Matthew McConaughey, Zeta-Jones is now finding more compelling characters in TV -- or in this case, the TV equivalent in the streaming world. This is her first big role where she could potentially play the same character for years.

"Queen America" debuted on Facebook Watch on Sunday and is free to all. Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it's yet another scripted show produced in metro Atlanta, courtesy of those enticing tax credits.

"Atlanta does a surprisingly good job," said show creator Meaghan Oppenheimer, who grew up in Tulsa. "It's just a little greener than Tulsa. We did shoot some establishing shots in Tulsa, iconic places there."

Oppenheimer said she was drawn to pageants in part because they're so polarizing. At the same time, the series is less about pageants per se and "more about being a lens through which we explore the lives of these characters, particularly the women, the pressures of society and perfection."

Vicki, for instance, has an eating disorder and a love-hate relationship with her proudly blue-collar sister, played with searing intensity by Molly Price. And she appears to be single for sundry reasons.

But the over-arching plotline in season one is how Vicki reshapes a new client Samantha Cole (Belle Shouse), who wins Miss Oklahoma but is hardly ready for prime time. Samantha is a diamond in the rough Vicki has to mold, a seeming bumbling, naive small-town girl with actual underlying intelligence, ambition and savvy.

Samantha sees pageantry as her one way to get out of her poverty-stricken trappings. Oppenheimer said finding the right actress to play Samantha was difficult. She needed someone with the right balance of beauty, grit and innocence who could be seen as an underdog.

"She has many layers," said Shouse. "You clearly can't judge this book by its cover. I was a lot like Samantha. I grew up in a small town in Texas. I've grown a thick skin since I've come to Hollywood."

Zeta-Jones too said she connected with Samantha due to her own personal experience as a young actress in the 1990s hailing from Wales.

"The fact I am an Oscar-winning movie star talking about this series is big," she said. "I relate to the underdog. When I tried out for 'The Mask of Zorro,' I remember calling my agent and saying, 'If this is a beauty contest, I've lost. There are five actresses here prettier than me!' Then I got the role."

Oppenheimer said she was amazed how Zeta-Jones picked up on Vicki's nuances so well. "She knew her intimately," Oppenheimer said. "She spoke of her in such intelligent and emotional terms. 'Oh my God! You know this person that has been living in my head for so long!'"

She liked how Zeta-Jones can possess both an intimidating quality and a soft, sweet component. "I love those contradictions in Vicki," she said. "She is really this tough, ball-breaking woman but also a scared child trying to be the best version of herself and going about it in all the wrong ways."

While Oppenheimer was producing this show, the real Miss America became embroiled in internal conflict and major changes that included the end to the swimsuit competition. But all 10 episodes had already been written by that time and the producer chose not to make any changes because while the competition in her world is similar to Miss America, it's not exactly the same.

"We make jokes about the importance of the swimsuit competition and its irrelevance," Zeta-Jones said. "While we deal with some frivolous things, we are being pointed about serious issues."

Facebook Watch, which launched 15 months ago as a repository for free original programming that would rival TV networks, is entering an already crowded field of streaming options that includes everything from leader Netflix to Amazon Prime to Hulu to CBS All Access to YouTube Premium.

Oppenheimer said Facebook won her over because they said they wanted to make high-quality, edgy intelligent content. "I also like that there is such a unique ability to have conversations around aspects of the show," she said, "whether its bullying or eating disorders or societal pressure for women."

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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