California-based actor and writer Paul Witten is the co-creator and lead star of hit digital series Dropping the Soap.
The 10-episode first season was recently released on DVD in the UK by TLA Releasing and it tells the story of the cast of soap opera Collided Lives. Witten plays Julian Draker, an in the closet actor whose world is turned upside down when new producer Olivia Vanderstein (Jane Lynch in an Emmy winning role) is brought in to improve the ailing ratings.
I caught up with Paul recently to talk about the first season of the show, discuss how Dropping the Soap came to fruition, and to find out what we can expect from the upcoming second season.
You co-created Dropping the Soap. Where did the idea for the show come from?
I came up with the idea a few years ago while taking a nap (laughs) and approached my friend Mandy Fabian and asked her to develop a pilot with Kate and I. We all have a very similar sensibility and twisted sense of humor so creating the show together was really fun. Mandy and I then outlined the season and she went off and wrote it. Shes such a funny and talented writer and we’re very simpatico, so the show-runner/writer relationship is a dream. I always look forward to getting her scripts because she’s friggin hilarious! Anyway, the initial idea came to me because I’d gotten my Screen Actors Guild card from working on a soap opera. Back then it was harder.
You know you had to work a union job to get in the union but you couldn’t work a union job unless you had a union card (laughs). It was really tricky. I happened to be a member of what was then Aftra and I booked a job on General Hospital and that got me into SAG. I’ve always had a little bit of a fondness for soap operas and also realize that there’s so much to skewer there. I love workplace comedy because we all have to work. Most of us work and we know what it’s like to be thrust together with a bunch of different personalities, some of which you may like and some you don’t. I think that that’s great fodder.
Soap operas are so ingrained in many cultures, especially in America. Were you nervous to go near the genre because it is so well-loved?
Yes but we did it with such reverence. Coming from where we all did, which was a place of real respect, I had a lot of friends that work on soaps and it is a journeyman actor’s job. It’s like the 9 to 5 job for an actor. You are put through your paces. We wanted to approach it respectfully but also if you can’t laugh at yourself then I don’t want to know you (laughs). We laugh at ourselves plenty so we figured that most of the people that work in that genre, they get it and they know what they’re doing.
Everyone that I’ve talked to across the boards that loves soaps or that is in a soap has really responded to the show, which is awesome because we’re not out there to alienate anyone and make anyone feel bad about what they’re doing. If anything it’s kind of an homage in a lot of ways.
One of the things that I really like, is the way that the storylines get crazier each episode.is day. It took me back to when I was a huge fan of the short-lived soap Sunset Beach, which was just so outlandish and crazy. What was it like to be able to write those kind of plots and then act them out?
Well I got to say it was so much fun to be able to shoot those scenes because as you said storylines just got crazier and crazier and crazier. I was a huge fan – still am – of those old 1970s disaster films so I wanted to have a shipwreck scenario where we’re all dressed like we’re rejects from Poseidon Adventure. I also know with soaps very often you see people would same outfit for months because they’re on a desert island or whatever. I remember Luke and Laura growing up as a kid. I was very young and I would see that and it made an imprint obviously, so that was a little bit of a nod to that.
Shooting those scenes is so much fun, you know? (laughs). The key I think is to take it seriously and commit to it because the way it’s written, and the way Mandy has kind of woven that story and as the Collided Lives story lines get more insane, it’s mirrored by the backstage. We built a desert island and that shipwreck scene (laughs), it was amazing, and doing the hull of the ship. .. it was ridiculous. One of the episodes where we’re all pretending to shake and falling against the wall (laughs)… it’s kind of insane. They were really fun. In some ways those are the most fun things to shoot because it’s heightened, very heightened.
One of my favourite things about the show is the interaction between Julian and Kit, particularly the traded barbs that you have with each other. Some of the things that the characters say to each other are quite shocking. One of the moments that sticks out in my mind is the fragrance commercial that Kit shoehorns herself into. How do you and Kate manage to hold it together on set and get through those kind of scenes?
Well it’s funny because that scene was with John Michael Higgins, who’s a genius by the way. It was a well-written scene. It was really funny and what I really loved about it was it was the first time, particularly for my character, that you got to see him outside of his element. He wasn’t Julian Draker the soap star as much as he was kind of a hired hand in a bit of a different arena and no one gave a shit. You see a little of his humanity because he’s so lives in a bubble and it’s the same with Kit. They both are so B-team and live in such a bubble in their own important universe.
We did laugh plenty during that. Kate and I have been friends for years and she and I co-created along with Mandy as I said, this show, and we have a really fun relationship. She makes me laugh, I make her laugh and that definitely didn’t stop when we were shooting because we would play and try different stuff. We both love to push each other’s buttons. It’s like a brother and sister kind of relationship. It’s funny because when we first started working on the pilot for this, Kate and I wanted to play friends and we were like, ‘oh because we’re such good friends, let’s play friends’. Mandy was the one who said, ‘oh no, no, no! No you’re not friends, you’re going to enemies’ so it was a smart idea because it was so much more fun that we get to insult each other and be at odds and be butting heads.
I think the reason that scene may resonate, and it certainly does for Kate and I as well because we’ve talked about this, is that they’re kind of more frienemy-like in that scene and that’s where our relationship really lies I think on screen. I think that’s really a great relationship so for Season 2 that’ll definitely be the tone I think.
I thought it was interesting the way that Shea is thrown into the mix and she’s the love interest for Julian but doesn’t know that he’s in the closet. She also doesn’t really seem to want to be part that relationship either because she’s obsessed with Rahim and wants to have a fling with him. How did you approach bringing that character in because she is a bit of a fall guy I guess?
Yeah. I love that character, due in large part to Suzanne Friedline who is the actress that plays that role. She has such a great kind of innocence and love to her, and that’s who she is too. She’s a very loving warm human being. She’s much smarter than Shea is but that character is great because there are so many relationships like that where people make these maybe not verbalized agreements to be together. He (Julian) doesn’t sexualize her as a woman and she’s so starved for that, and he’s starved for a different type of sexuality.
I think Julian so desperately wants to be the character he plays on Collided Lives, Detective Strong, but he’s so not. She is part of that fantasy and he loves her. I think his intentions are all good that he loves her, he wants to marry and he wants to be Detective Strong and have her as his wife but it’s just not right. I was closeted for years and when I finally came out I decided to be an out gay actor. I struggled with some similar stuff so there ‘ s a little bit of a mirror (there). I think that’s why she responds so much to Raheem because he is treating her as a sexual being and she’s so starved for that. Thank God she starts to play with that and that’s also going to be a really fun relationship to see develop.
Everything blows up by the last episode, which sets up for season 2 to be incredibly interesting. What can you tease about the relationship that Julian is going to have with Olivia next season?
Well it is certainly going to be strained because he doesn’t toe the line that she wants. There will be a price to pay for that. Julian’s going to be in a lot of trouble.
That’s going to be quite a switch around isn’t it because throughout Season 1 he was trying to change her mind about things and every time she said the opposite he was like, ‘yeah let’s just do that’. Can we expect more conflict then between those two characters?
Yes and yes! The way it’s going to begin, Julian is no longer going to be the top dog when we start season 2 in Olivia’s mind because he didn’t obey her orders. There is going to be a price to pay for that. How long that will last, I don’t know and if the tables will turn, I don’t know. By I don’t know, I mean I do know but I’m not going to say (laughs). There’s going to be a lot of power struggle and a lot of shakeup and more drama for the cast that is inflicted on them , and watching this group of misfits in some ways rally against another common enemy. It’s got to be really fun especially the Julian and Kit characters, that we’ve seen at odds. There might be other wars to fight in Season 2… and there will be! Whether they can get past their differences and work together or whether it just continues to be a warring relationship will remain to be seen… maybe a little of both.
Will season 2 follow the same structure of season 1 with 10 episodes?
At this point yes. There’s nothing in cement but the idea is to follow a similar format. Anything can change. It’s so the Wild West in digital television at this point so whether we have a couple of more episodes or we do any kind of half hour format, we’re open to whatever. I think it works really well as it is in 10 short format episodes but it would also be great to see it expand beyond that. We have storyline so however it ends up as far as how it’s cut in episodes, remains to be seen.
Creating the show for digital platform rather than you know a traditional TV channel, are there less limits which allow you to be more creative?
Oh a hundred percent because you don’t have a network telling you, ‘no, no, no you can’t make that joke’. We go there are a couple of times where it’s a little bit… you know we push the envelope, especially in today’s climate because there’s a certain amount of political incorrectness. I think that the reason, if it works, is because these people aren’t bad people they are uninformed.
As I said earlier they live in a bubble so what’s going to be really funny about Season 2 is to watch the bubble burst. Watch them have to be in the real world and see how they evolve in that. Not working with a network or doing something independently certainly gives you so much more control creatively of what you want to do, what you want to say and that’s why it’s becoming so popular. People are doing their own thing and creating their own content. Thank God we are platforms like Amazon, Hulu and YouTube and all of these different great platforms to work from.
Is there more pressure going into Season 2 because the show was so well-received and Jane got an Emmy?
I mean who knew? (laughs) I didn’t know lying in my bed the show I created was going to end up having an Emmy. That was kind of amazing!
That must put more expectation and pressure going into Season 2…
Well I didn’t know that Jane would win the Emmy when she was nominated. We approached this with so much gratitude because this was really an idea that we had to work with friends, to create something and that was it. Our expectations were so limited so to see them expand in that kind of way and to see Jane walk away with an Emmy, I think she’s wonderful and deserving, just kind of blew our hats off. I don’t feel pressure because we enjoy doing it so much that it really is, believe it or not, a labour of love for everyone that’s been involved. We certainly aren’t making money. It wasn’t huge budget and people across the line were paid much less than their talents deserved certainly. They were doing it for the love of the project and because it made them laugh. I think there’s nothing better especially… God especially at this time in our lives to be able to have something to laugh at and we’re aware of that. So no I personally don’t feel. pressure. It kind of mirrors all of our senses of humour and we all have so much fun doing it that for us it would just be exciting. It would be excitement. I don’t pressure.
Creative fulfilment is often more important. Obviously everybody needs money to survive but if you can keep writing something that’s creatively fulfilling then that is fantastic. To get rewarded for it and awards is even better…
Yeah we were fortunate a few of the festivals that we submitted to, we were treated very well and were grateful for that. We didn’t really even approach it much. We submitted to a few because we weren’t going to really take that track but we’re still a very grass roots show. We don’t have a big company behind us pushing us. As you said before we started this discussion you didn’t even know about (the show) till a couple of weeks ago. That speaks to the amount of content, which is a great thing that so many people feel empowered to create stuff so I love that, but you want to rise above the fray and you want to get noticed and have people watch your show and review your show. Sometimes people benefit more when they have that muscle behind them of the network or a company that has produced it, as opposed to something like ours which is independent but it’s doable. You saw it and you’re helping helping spread the word.
Have you got any other projects or anything else on the go outside of Dropping the Soap?
Yeah I just wrote a short film with a couple of friends of mine and we shot it at the end of the year. We’re in post and we just picture locked, which means we’ve finished editing the picture and now we’re in the rest of post like sound and colour correction. It’s a very dark comedy (laughs). It’s called A Play and the log line is, ‘Two friends go to see a play and realize just how terrifying supporting the arts can be’ so that’s fun. I’m writing a couple of projects with other people and we’re talking with a couple of different places about a season 2 for Dropping the Soap so lots of little fingers in different pies.
Dropping the Soap is available on DVD through TLA Releasing now. Watch the trailer for the show below: