Ethel Steps Out of Lucy’s Shadow Thanks to Nina Arianda in ‘Being the Ricardos’

·6-min read

Following a limited theatrical release and a well-received bow to awards voters,”Being the Ricardos” finally dances its way to Amazon Prime Video subscribers on Tuesday.

While Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem topline the Aaron Sorkin drama, one of the major takeaways in both critical reviews and early audience reaction has been the unexpected potency and drama of Vivian Vance — portrayed by “Goliath” and “Billions” star Nina Arianda.

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Vance was best friend to Lucy Ricardo (and her real life counterpart Lucille Ball, for that matter) on the formative TV show, portraying the long-suffering neighbor Ethel Mertz. In Sorkin’s telling, though, Vance’s daily struggles were not simply relegated to mounting housework and a curmudgeonly husband.

Arianda’s Vance is a formidable stage and screen star struggling to find her place in the orbit of both Lucys: the searing physical comedian and the steel-toed creative executive running the show.

Warning: Minor spoilers for “Being the Ricardos” ahead.

While Arianda contends with a toxic relationship to her on-screen partner Fred (William Frawley, played by JK Simmons), she also confronts an unexpected foe in her shrinking waistline. A dancer in her earlier years, Vance’s sudden weight loss in the film poses problems for Ball, who maintains the character of Ethel must be frumpy and relatable to the show’s 60 million weekly viewers. Vance thinks Ball is threatened by the competition, and both stars hash it out in one of the film’s more memorable sequences.

Variety caught up with Arianda to discuss the real Vivian, her showdown with Kidman’s Ball, and the beauty of a Sorkin script.

What did you know of Vivian Vance before this, and how did you dive into the character?

The biggest thing for me, off the bat, was that Aaron Sorkin told us strictly: “no impersonations.” That’s a gift, to be told that you have no obligation to perform in that sense. That being said, we had 3-4 minutes of “I Love Lucy” show footage that we had to study and recreate, so honoring Vivian’s physicality was super important. I wanted to find everything I could on her. There was so little it was maddening to me. Finally somebody sent me this clip, it was only seconds long, and it was Desi Arnaz introducing the cast before one of the original show tapings. What I saw was a woman that is head-to-toe a dancer, a seductress. To me, she was so aware of her hips. Her energy was oozing femininity. I love that that woman then went backstage and played Ethel.

How was that limiting to her, as the film poses it was?

I realized she was a famous torch singer, an ingénue mostly. Further on, she had her own line of beauty products. She was a very established theater actress. It only built up the idea that this was a woman who was so desirable and beloved. Her voice, the way she moved. Knowing all of that helped me contextualize the fall — and by that I mean, her being boxed in for the rest of her life as [her character Ethel]. We find her at place in this movie where she’s almost in a mourning stage, a bit in denial that this part of her is gone. She’s so desperately fighting to keep it alive.

The confrontation between Lucy and Ethel in this film is hard to watch, especially when Lucy discusses Ethel’s appearance becoming too appealing. There’s a level of respect there, though, between the characters. How did you build that with Nicole Kidman?

Nicole was so kind in the beginning and said, “I want to apologize ahead of time, this is a very difficult scene for me to do and to have to speak to you like this.” But then, thank god, she really gave it to me in the scene. There were no softballs thrown at me, which I really appreciated. It is coming from a place of respect. These were two people that were best friends and begging to be seen by one another. Lucy is saying, “You have to understand, this is my job, I know what people want.” Vivian is saying, “You have to let me be me, even a little bit. Im losing it.” It’s all coming from love.

The other tough but important relationship for Vivian is with William Frawley — the Fred to her Ethel. You and JK Simmons walk such an amazing line of hatred and begrudging respect. Had you worked together before?

I only got to glare at JK during our last season of “Goliath,” so I was so thrilled I got to speak to him this time around. When I found out, it was very funny because we were still shooting — on January 6, of all days — so I walked over to his trailer and knocked and said, “So we’re doing this, huh?”

That fine line is there because regardless of their genuine, genuine dislike for one another, I think they did respect one another as performers at the end of the day. Aaron does that so beautifully in the film.

As you mentioned, a big part of the plot here is recreating scenes from “I Love Lucy.” How did you approach that show-within-the-show?

It’s always fun to have a play within a play. And in my mind, if I’m Vivian playing Ethel, you can’t escape the fact that potentially your co-star smells like whiskey. That visceral experience is there. Luckily, [Vivian and William Frawley] were very much butting heads on the actual show a Fred and Ethel. It blended perfectly, but they had this physical vocabulary from their theater days that works. It’s a shorthand that exists between artists.

Sorkin dialogue is a rare commodity in Hollywood, but it has its quirks, too. Did any of it trip you up?

My first day was the first scene we shot in the entire film. And of course, I have the first line in the opening sequence of an “I Love Lucy” table read. That was very much Sorkinesque. You cant get an article wrong, it has to be precise. Sort of like learning Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare, there’s a musicality to it. If you look at It as music, it makes sense.

What from Vivian Vance do you think will stay with you?

Are you familiar with the Chekhov play “Three Sisters”? I once played Olga, which is a really “womp womp” part. You don’t get the sex appeal of Masha or Irina. When you play Olga, you’re sad for the entire run but you have an appreciation for someone in their position and how they make the best of it. Vivian is no Olga, mind you, but what came from this was — boy, you better appreciate your own layers on a personal basis even though the world might not.

It’s important to give that to yourself, especially these days when we need constant validation from other people. She has to reconcile with herself that what she did in her past and who she is, that’s so very important to where she presently was — which was on a hit show. Nobody can take any of that away from her, as hard as they may try.

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