Michaela Zannou is the creator of Couples Therapy, a dramedy series (think Sex and the City or Fleabag), with Michaela herself in the starring role of the therapist who has the challenge of guiding a wide range of couples through the troubles in their relationships.
Michaela is from Greece originally but moved to New York to pursue her on-camera acting and filmmaking career. It certainly looks like the move is now paying off. If the pilot episode of Couples Therapy is anything to go by, we’re in for a treat when the series is launched. It’s sharp, with witty dialogue and a flawed but attractive protagonist who appears to be as troubled as her patients.
Here’s our chat with this talented writer and actor who is clearly going places in the film, television and streaming space. You can see the full trailer at the bottom of this interview…
FF: Can you explain what Couples Therapy is about and what inspired its inception?
MZ: Yes, well, Couples Therapy is a dramedy series about a Couples therapist (Natalia) who treats neurotic couples while her own marriage is falling apart and for the life of her she can’t follow her own advice and save her own marriage! It was inspired by some incidents in my life… I was just coming out of a bad relationship and I also happened to have a conversation with a friend about her husband and them going to Couples therapy and whether that helped or not so I just got this light bulb in my head that I should, you know, write this story about this, you know, amazing woman that should know better but she just can’t follow her better judgment when it comes to matters of the heart, which was what I was feeling at the time… I was kind of like mad at myself for getting involved in a toxic situation in the first place. Yeah, so I just wanted to talk about the fact that, you know, when it comes to matters of the heart, all good sense and reason goes out the window!
FF: How close did the finished pilot episode come to what you originally envisaged?
MZ: Well, I would say pretty close. And in some ways it was even better than what I had imagined. What did end up happening was we had to trim a lot of fat on the spot, like on set, because if we were pretty ambitious wanting to film 20 pages in two days, usually, you know you film, like, 6 – 8 pages a day and that’s just like cutting it very close. So, we had to change just to trim a lot of transitions; there were some scenes of me opening the door to the couples, and just those little things that were not really helping but were more transitional. But at the end we just didn’t have enough time and an extra day of filming would be another $5,000 which I was paying for with my own money and I didn’t have that. So we just had to make those decisions on the spot and, thankfully, It didn’t take anything away from the final product. So we really lucked out on that.
[FF: Maybe that’s part of the reason why it felt so slick, because you were forced into that kind of editing decision?]
FF: I read another interview you did with Medium where you allude to the couples/patients on Couples Therapy representing different forms of love and relationships that are yet to have a voice in the film and TV. I just wondered if you might be elaborate on that a little bit?
MZ: Absolutely. I feel that, you know, we’ve had a lot of TV shows in the past that have tackled the concept of relationships and modern relationships, Sex in the City was one of them, for sure. Mostly on the female side of it. And you know, for its time, it was very liberating and just like, you know, women talking about sex so openly, and having multiple partners and all that, but I feel that you know, relationships have evolved so much and that people thankfully are comfortable talking about different types of relationships and defining the relationship the way they want to, like, you know, polyamory triads. Also, you know, gay couples like have marriages now, that’s so amazing. And they will have issues, the same as any other married couple. And we have, you know, trans couples like we have all those new, different relationships. And, thankfully, people are comfortable talking about them and being like, ‘Hey, we’re a couple, like, we exist in this world!’ So I feel like we need to give a voice to those relationships because they’re so unique. And they have unique issues and problems. And in another sense they will have, like, the same issues as every other couple, and we want to see that side as well. So I just think it’s very important. It’s the perfect time to now give a platform to those modern relationships.
FF: You’re a member of the New York Women in Film and TV organisation. I just wondered how they have helped your career and professional development?
MZ: Well, so far I’m pretty new at it and it all happened during coronavirus, so I haven’t been able to make too much of my membership there, but, they are very supportive. They have this amazing, great network and offer a lot of, you know, inclusive screenings and panels that are available for its members. And it’s very important, you know, for women to support other women. So it really is a wonderful membership to have.
FF: I saw on your website michaelazannou.com that you were cast by Netflix for a promotion of the hit series, The Haunting of Hill House but I couldn’t find too much about it online. So, can you tell us a little bit?
MZ: Yes. So that was for the promotion of it. I really wish I had been on the actual TV show! Yeah, but it was really exciting. It started as a promotion when they released it, or like before they released it and they were looking for someone that looks like the actual bent-neck lady. I don’t want to spoil anything because it’s kind of like a mystery who the bent-neck lady is but they were looking for an actress that was similar to that actress. So they called me back a bunch of times and it was really an amazing experience. I got to experience special effects makeup which I never had before. And it was just, like, three people working on me for like, an hour and a half non stop and then it took, like, about an hour for three people to take it off for me and it was just, yeah, it’s so complicated and then I had to come back the next day and then do it all over again. So it kind of felt a little bit like I was, you know, in one of those big movie sets where you see people saying, ‘oh, like it took that actor five hours to get into that’, you know, X Men or whatever. Yeah, and it was really a match made in heaven because I really love horror and the part of horror that I love is anything eerie and with ghosts and spirits, I really love that. So it was really just a perfect role for me.
FF: Did it give you a taste for doing a role of that kind in a series or a film in the future do you think?
MZ: I mean, yeah, it’s great to know, like, what work goes in it… I have, for example, I had some prosthetics on my neck and I had to be like that all the time. So it gave me an idea of how the physicality will have to be when you’re on set and how different it is, how different the work you do before is going to be with these particular roles and how you need to incorporate them. makeup and all the prosthetics into your performance. Yeah, absolutely.
FF: You’ve previously alluded to Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea of the ‘lazy perfectionist’. What advice would you give artists, especially writers, who just can’t seem to get past the fear of not producing their best work, and ultimately don’t end up finishing a project?
MZ: Well, what usually happens in those cases is that it’s pretty much fear, like fear is stronger than their love for what they’re doing and, like, a lot of ego. Fear of failure has to do with how you look to the world; what would the world think? So I would say just, like, go walk around by yourself in a room, just be quiet, get in touch with yourself and figure out like, do I love this enough to brave all the fear and rejection and risk failure and risk looking like a failure? Do you love it more than that? If not, then, OK, it’s not for you, because it really is not for the faint of heart this industry and even the art itself. You need to really love it, to persevere, and to just make it through all the rejection and all the writing and the rewriting. So I would say just, you know, figure out how much you love it. Just be a little more brave. It really is worth it.
FF: It’s really interesting, I’ve talked to a number of actors, writers and directors and there’s been a similar thread throughout some of these interviews; this point has come up so many times, that you’ve got to just go with the courage of your convictions and plow ahead because, as you say, so many people don’t. What advice would you give to budding filmmakers looking to get ahead in the industry? If you forget about Coronavirus for the moment?
MZ: Well, I would say the most important thing is find your tribe, find a group of supporting people, kind people, you know? This industry has, like we said, a lot of egos and they can be really toxic in a filming environment. We moved so fast like when we’re making Couples Therapy, everything was just moving so fast. So if there was anyone that was just like holding production because of ego or because of, you know, just causing any trouble or not being open minded into like adjusting on the spot, we wouldn’t have made it. And even before that, like in pre production, I had an amazing group of people that were supporting me and giving me advice and answering all my questions. So I find that the most important thing is to find good, kind, talented people and surround yourself with them. people that do share the same work ethic. And then, after that, like we said, just persevere and be just prepared to, you know, hustle and keep, you know, pounding the pavement until it happens for you.
FF: If you could choose three people from the filmmaking world to work with, who would they be and why?
MZ: Well, the first one would be Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I love her so much! I think Fleabag is brilliant. I think she’s brilliant. And all her other work, like Killing Eve… she’s just, like, a very charismatic and talented person and I love her energy. I love her sense of humour. I love her brutal honesty. So, she would be the first one then. I also love Reese Witherspoon and her production company Hello Sunshine. I love the work that she’s doing. It’s very female oriented. It’s very, very empowering, giving a platform to women of all, you know, shades and colours. And I would also, I guess, moving a little bit more to the film world, it would be a debate between Darren Aronofsky or Quentin Tarantino. I just really like their darkness which is very different in both of them. They’re just so different, but I feel like, I dunno, I grew up watching their movies and just appreciating their brilliance and how unique their style was, so, I would say either of them.
FF: Finally, what’s next for you and where do you hope future Couples Therapy series will be seen in the future?
MZ: Well, right now, I’m trying to find Couples Therapy its ideal home. I feel that we need a network or a streaming platform that is supportive of both storytelling and groundbreaking content. So I would say HBO, Amazon, Hulu or Netflix. The BBC is also amazing. I would collaborate a lot with Amazon and HBO with Michaela Cole and May I Destroy You was a wonderful collaboration there, so I love them too.
FF: I could see Couples Therapy working on BBC Two late at night…
MZ: Yeah, it could definitely be in London too. I feel like the same issues that New York couples face are pretty much the same with London. It’s a very, like, vibrant and open and modern city. So that’s the goal right now with Couples Therapy and hopefully that will happen soon. Then, what’s next for me? I’m also developing a new project called Three Can Keep a Secret. It’s about a love triangle drama gone terribly wrong. And, yes, I’m trying to have a lot of projects in my tool belt, just so that someone will be like, ‘You know what we can do Couples Therapy, what else do you have?’ So, you know, just being prepared for that.
FF: Yeah, I mean, with the whole Coronavirus situation are there any sort of talks about things opening up a little bit more now? I know in America, it’s really, really difficult right now. So have there been any conversations about trying to do some sort of socially distanced filming at all or…?
MZ: Well, I think right now it’s up until 25 people on set and with certain rules and regulations. The good thing with filming, as opposed to theatre which is really suffering right now, is that it is a little bit more controlled. I’ve heard about a lot of productions thinking of going to places, traveling to some countries that have very few cases and that, you know, we can just stay in that area for like two months, film, and then come back. Meanwhile, everyone, you know, gets tested and just takes all safety measures. So I’m optimistic because I feel like it’s a little bit more flexible and easier to control it. And, you know, even if that happened in some sort of, like, filming studio lot in LA or New York where we had to stay there for two months, film a season, and then you know, go back to our houses, I would be absolutely down for that too. So, I am optimistic that, you know, filming will continue sooner rather than later. But, and I’ve talked to some studio executives, and they told us that, you know, we have this date, and we’re, like, okay, so we’ll start filming by this date but they’re just also playing it by ear.