Lake Bell did it. She got “Pam—motherfucking—Grier.”
About a year ago, the actress was shopping around her upcoming TV show Bless This Mess, a fish-out-of-water comedy about New York newlyweds who leave behind kombucha and ashwagandha hot teas for actual wellness as Nebraskan farmers. As co-creator, Bell knew she needed the legendary actress Pam Grier on board.
Over her 50 years in the industry, Grier, 69, often retreats from Hollywood to a farm in rural Colorado. No one knows the inner workings of both Hollywood and hay barrels like Grier. But she was skeptical when her agent Harry Gold called, saying Bell and her co-creator Liz Meriwether (of New Girl fame) wanted her for their new series. They didn’t have a script, and Grier doesn’t do projects without one—especially if it’s about her beloved community of farmers.
“I don’t know if they will reach the level of truth, beauty and purity that I know from where I live and the people I know from the heartland,” Grier told Headline News about her early reservations. “People go to the heartland to find their heart.”
Bell grew up in Manhattan and now lives in Los Angeles. She thinks of herself as street smart, but “maybe that won’t help in the apocalypse.” Still, she was determined to tell a story about savvy farmers. So when Grier walked into their meeting with her signature leather gloves tucked into her back pocket, Bell cast her strongest bait. Meriwether had a proven success in creating New Girl and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Grier timidly bit. The overwhelming majority of the Bless This Mess writers’ room hailed from heartland states Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin. That reeled Grier a bit farther in. And, finally, Bell noted her already proven chops in the independent film world—a soft spot for Grier. She had her hooked.
“Liz and Lake are two juju women, and I’ve been spied on by these witches,” Grier said with a laugh. She praised the duo for successfully depicting every anecdote she had about farm life, from how to work with cows (don’t be afraid) to what Nebraskan farmers would actually plant (alfalfa). “I could see pieces of it in each episode,” Grier said.
She’s played iconic characters like Coffy and Jackie Brown and dated the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Freddie Prinze and Richard Pryor, but few roles in Grier’s life have quite compared to her character in Bless This Mess: a black woman living in a small town farm community—the original yeehaw queen. “I’m an adventurist,” Grier said. “This is one of the greatest adventures in my lifetime.”
Bless This Mess, which premieres Tuesday on ABC, boasts quite the cast. Bell as Rio spars perfectly alongside Dax Shepard as Mike, her sweet yet bumbling husband. Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), Madison Curry (who recently played the younger version of Lupita Nyong’o’s character in Us) and Ed Begley Jr. (also putting in work on Hulu’s Future Man) round out the supporting players.
Everyone douses their humor in earnestness, from Bell and Shepard skewering their coastal elitism to Grier and Begley courting ranchers. “There’s always sort of fiery rhetoric between blue states and red states,” Bell said. “This is a show by no means can heal everything, but certainly it is very keen to illuminate what’s great about a small town community and what we might lack in the city sometimes.”
“People go to the heartland to find their heart.”
— Pam Grier
If Bless This Mess succeeds, it’ll be because of Bell. The actress is best known to mainstream audiences for her sidekick work in films like What Happens In Vegas—she saves the entire film—No Strings Attached and It’s Complicated. But she’s kicked down doors and reinvented herself, too. As studio rom-coms faded in the early 2010s, she swapped out the sassy best friend roles for starring roles in indie films like Black Rock and Man Up.
Her biggest success came when she did the damn thing herself. In 2013, Bell wrote, directed and starred in In a World, an under-seen indie comedy about a vocal coach determined to become the first woman to utter the phrase “in a world” in the male-dominated voiceover industry. Time’s Up would sweep Hollywood four years later in part to acknowledge the work of women behind the screen. By then, Bell was already breaking norms.
In the first year that the Sundance Film Festival saw women make up half of the dramatic films entries, Bell’s In A World premiered. At the time, then-director of programming Trevor Goth told USA Today that Bell is “just one of those really exciting discoveries of this triple-threat talent.” In A World went on to win Best Original Screenplay.
Like her close friends Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth Paltrow, Bell’s interests also go beyond the movie business. Her husband Scott Campbell (They met on the criminally underrated HBO series How To Make It in America) co-owns the high-end cannabis label Beboe. Bell has fronted the company’s PR campaign, from a Paper magazine cover story to moderating a cannabis panel at Paltrow’s Summer 2018 Goop Summit.
While Paltrow and Diaz retreated from the entertainment industry, Bell doubled down. She parlayed her success with In a World to a seat on non-profit Women in Film’s board of directors. For the past five years, she’s mentored aspiring female directors and spoken out in support of gender parity. “She stands behind her commitment to gender equity in her own work, giving opportunities to women whenever possible,” Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film, said in a statement.
Before Bless This Mess, Bell had never spearheaded a long-term project before, especially one where she’d have to answer to a studio. It proved difficult at first to write, direct, produce and star in the series. It’s partly why Bell only directed the pilot. And for the first time, she came up against “the list.”
Given the high-wire act of creating a network TV show, studios often offer a list of go-to hires from to cinematographers to writers. The problem is these lists are often dominated by men, so Bell issued her own unofficial version of an inclusion rider, meeting three women qualified for every position on the list. “Oh God, we’re gonna have to schedule three more meetings,” she says sarcastically, mimicking anyone who might be annoyed at the extra effort. “Oh well, that’s what we’re gonna do.”
“It is not the kind of thing where lives are on the line,” she said. “The thing that is on the line is our responsibility to inform, help influence and nurture genuine gender parity from the inside out. We’re just chipping away.”
It’s people like Bell that inspire Pam Grier to say that she has seen a change in the treatment of women—not just in Hollywood but throughout all industries.
“You hold a rod, you cast and you catch a fish, but there shouldn’t be any gender issues,” Grier says. “It’s about the intellectual capacity to be successful, and Lake has it.”