“The Royal We,” the second episode of Amazon’s The Romanoffs, is a story about a collapsing marriage. Of course, it’s not exactly that simple: While Corey Stoll’s character, Michael, fantasizes about a beautiful woman he meets in jury duty, his wife Shelly (played by Kerry Bishé) goes off on a Romanoff-themed cruise — a trip she originally planned for her husband, who believes he’s descended from the Russian royal family — and is simultaneously revolted and compelled by the absurd pageantry she witnesses.
As “The Royal We” jumps back and forth between Michael chasing infidelity and Shelly’s surreal experience, it’s easy to see why she reacts that way: The cruise features a novelty act about the Romanoff assassination performed by a troupe of costumed little people, a whole lot of Americans in fake Russian military garb, and even an educational lecture about the family’s infamous history. Soon enough, though, Shelly finds a kindred spirit in another outsider, Ivan (Noah Wyle), who tempts her to question whether her marriage is worth the effort.
Ahead of The Romanoffs’s debut on Friday, Vulture talked with Bishé about what makes Shelly tick, seeing the episode as a story of “a woman discovering her worth,” how art should respond to the #MeToo movement, and her deep love of Shelly’s “You Had Me at Merlot” T-shirt.
I have to say, first of all, that I’m a huge Halt and Catch Fire fan.
Oh good! It’s always nice to meet one of the eleven people who saw it.
But we eleven are really committed!
And we appreciate it!
Let’s talk about The Romanoffs. Your character Shelly is really interesting: She’s painfully aware that she’s outside this family tree, and she’s really trying to understand it during the cruise. What you think that we, the audience, are supposed to understand about the Romanoffs from her point of view?
She goes on a whole journey when she’s on the boat. She’s really self-conscious and dressed up like a princess, and then all the pageantry starts. She’s skeptical, and then she sees it and can’t help but be completely beguiled. It’s magical and fascinating and she lets herself be taken in by it. And then there are some speed bumps along the way — the little people reenacting this crazy thing [the Romanoff assassination] — and she meets people who have this sense of grandiosity about them.
Then she goes with Ivan out on deck and they talk about how the Romanoff legacy has personally fucked up their lives and their relationships. When she comes back in, and this is one of my favorite moments — it’s a really gentle little quiet thing and no one says anything — but she and Ivan are walking back through the big hall and there’s a singer singing “Those Were the Days.” She understands that feeling of having lost something profound, of that nostalgia and that sense of yearning for the way it was. Which is a very Romanoff thing. It’s also a very human thing. And so it hits her.
When she’s watching the little people perform, it’s like …
I was trying to watch your face in that scene, because I wanted to see whether Shelly was fascinated or disgusted.
[Laughs.] The one detail that Matt [Weiner] wrote was, “She goes to take out her phone to take a picture, and then decides against it.” What a great detail. Because then you get to be like, “Am I … I mean this is, I have to … but then … I shouldn’t … ” You know?
When she gets off the boat, she tells her husband, “I really understand you now.” Is that sympathy? Or is she’s now concerned about who he is?
I think she comes back committed to giving it another try. She doesn’t go with Ivan into the room — she leans on the little bit of romance she got, and she’s trying to believe that that’s enough for her. And she thinks she does understand Michael better. But not, clearly, well enough. She understands now that that he’s really fucked up, but she doesn’t understand the extent to which he is.
At the end, she’s clearly reinvigorated. Janie [Bryant] did the costumes and I think she’s a genius. My costumes in the whole first part before I go on the cruise make me laugh so hard.
They’re really frumpy!
They’re so hilarious.
When I saw her put on that pink coat, I thought, “Oh, I see.”
I see! I see where she is! They’re trying to find a way to make her still really positive, but the way she looked was supposed to communicate just how depressing this relationship is. Not trying, looks terrible, goes to sleep wearing her “You Had Me at Merlot” shirt. Makes me laugh so hard. I think I have another big nightgown T-shirt that has an owl on it with glasses — it just cracks me up. And then I get to be a little Disney princess on the boat!
How do you feel about the fact that he gets to have an affair with this idealized woman who dances in front of a jukebox, but then your character has to be the restrained one?
You know, I’m personally all for sex. And I think everybody should have it and women should enjoy it. But Shelly got what she needed. She didn’t need sex — that wasn’t the thing that she was yearning for in her relationship. Michael needed danger and a visceral sexual encounter. Shelly needed emotional intimacy. And you could look at that as being as big a transgression as having sex with somebody else.
Sure, but it still plays into this sense that men need sex and women need emotional connection, right?
A lot of storytelling in culture, in television in particular, works that way and trades on stereotype. The things that I’m drawn to are more specific than that. And I don’t know that it’s really helpful for me, playing Shelly, to invest in the idea of her as a capital-W woman. What I love about her is all of the ways that she’s a complete, full, fallible being. I love that she’s got a temper and she’ll let him fucking have it when he needs it. She hides her cigarettes because he doesn’t approve, and she’ll vindictively smoke one. She can kick back and smoke pot with one of her co-workers and have a good time.
So it’s not helpful for me to generalize about what they are in terms of gender politics. I’m obviously interested in playing characters who have autonomy, who drive the story. I always say to myself, If the most interesting thing I get to do is decide whether or not I’m going to hide his gun, I’m not interested. More important to me is, Is this a woman who makes choices? Does she have an interesting, diverse array of behaviors and qualities about her? At the end, we’re left with Shelly and it feels like it was her story all along. I thought we were watching a man misbehaving, and really we were watching a woman discovering her worth.
At the end, there’s never a moment where she thinks, “Wait, did he push me accidentally?” She knows immediately.
[Laughs.] It’s so great. I also don’t know how or why this happened, but when we were filming the scene — she’s just fallen down, she’s trying to pick herself up again — and I just kept saying, “I’m okay! I’m okay. I’m okay! I’m okay!”
Which is such a thing women would say. “You tried to kill me, but I’m fine. I’m fine! I’m going to my car.”
He’s like, “I don’t know what you think happened.” And I’m like, “I’ll tell you exactly what I think happened! You tried to fucking kill me!”
And he did it in the stupidest way!
[Laughs.] I know! I know! What a dummy! Oh, it’s so funny. And to me, the very end makes the whole story make sense. I didn’t really know what we were saying, or what it was about, until that event happens. And then it’s like, oh, it’s about a woman who’s so committed to being positive and making things work that it takes an absurd, crazy event for her to see the truth of the relationship that she’s in. And that’s something I can relate to.
Did you know what the music cue was going to be Cake’s “I Will Survive” cover when Shelly was driving away?
[Weiner] told me. He told me when we were filming it, and I was like, “Cake? Interesting! So 90s.”
There’s a lot in this episode about power dynamics in relationships. I think the audience is going to be thinking a lot about that — specifically with #MeToo. How do you think this episode and this series will resonate with people who are thinking about that?
I think good art asks questions. I’m not interested in political theater. I want to make art that is helpful, that’s useful to people, that starts fruitful conversations. That makes you think about a question that you hadn’t considered before. But for me, I didn’t get into this gig to tell anybody what to think or how to feel. I hope people have a whole broad range of feelings and thoughts and conversations about the work. This episode, this show, all the work that I make.
I am sick to my stomach, just all the time. The tools in my toolbox to address that are choosing jobs where I can be a full complete person, where I have some agency and autonomy.
What does agency and autonomy look like?
A character that drives the story.
So, not necessarily something behind the scenes?
I also write my own material. I’m developing a TV show with this network called Shudder, which is extremely gratifying. I’m brand-new at writing and that’s really empowering to be new and stupid at something again — that naïveté can get you really far, so I’m trying to stay as stupid as I can. So, making my own work.