The Cast of Emmy-Contender Short Form Series STRUT: “Every character is a human first”

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One of the most interesting short form series available for streaming now is STRUT, a comedy about sex workers starring Christina Toth (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), Margaret Judson (THE NEWSROOM) and Manini Gupta (YOU). These three co-leads will be on the first round Emmy ballot for Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series and the show will also be in contention for Outstanding Comedy or Drama Series. Notably, Judson was awarded for her performance on the festival circuit before Revry picked up the series. STRUT is Revry’s first entry into the Emmy race and Revry is the first global LGBTQ streaming network.

The cast took a moment to speak with Daily Actor about their new project which is now garnering awards buzz.

Speak about the collaboration and what drew you to work on the project.

MISHA CALVERT: When I wrote STRUT back in 2017, I was tired of seeing projects with unrealistic portrayals of women. Thankfully that has changed a lot in the past five years, but I still struggle to see positive portrayals of sex workers. So that hasn’t really changed. My sex worker friends are some of the most interesting, intelligent, funny people I’ve ever met, and I wanted to do them justice in a series.

MARGARET JUDSON: It was such an honor to work with an almost-all female cast, crew, creator, and director. The writing was irresistible—smart, fun, sexy, honest.

How are you similar to your character, how are you different?

MANINI GUPTA: Lucy is the Buddha of the group. She practices radical acceptance of self and others and exudes positivity and kindness. She is salt of the earth. One similar aspect of her character which resonates with me is her compassion for and desire to help her friends. She deeply cares about and wants to help the people she loves. Lucy doesn’t fear judgment and truly embodies the philosophy “live and let live.” If I could let go of fear and judgment in the way Lucy has, I’d live a freer life. I would subscribe to her spiritual journey.

CHRISTINA TOTH: The most apparent similarity I share with Chandaleer is the place we are from: Montreal. On many levels, I find her persona quite opposite mine. And that is what I love most about it. I get to forget myself completely and dive deep into another being that has a different book on living life from mine. However, there is one thread that linked me strongly to her: we share a similar survival instinct. Chandaleer is a survivor, and I too. And that is where I connected with her humanity and built up from there.

MARGARET JUDSON: Eva’s differences are a major inspiration to me—she’s bold and carefree and deeply loving. So fun to play! I think in any character you play has inherent similarities since you bring your own personal humanity to any role.

MISHA CALVERT: I have had a LONG journey to self-confidence. And still get hung up on my circle head. But hey, life is long, and we get many years to learn to love ourselves.

How did you prepare for the role? 

MANINI GUPTA: Chalk it up to years of sex-positive podcasts and progressive literature by the likes of Dan Savage and Esther Perel, but I never felt the need to mentally prepare for Lucy’s journey into sex work. These characters Misha Calvert created feel so real and compelling, there was no need to dig deep or battle with preconceived notions—especially for Lucy. She’s open-minded, practical, and a little mischievous. She’s a delight.

CHRISTINA TOTH: On one hand, the homework by myself, meaning anything and everything I felt I needed to ensure I’d be ready before the start of the shoot. And once I was on set, it was all about letting go of the homework and connecting with the team. There is an incredible sense of community and camaraderie present in this project and also in its subject. It is all about women supporting and empowering each other. That was a crucial part of my preparation: being present and supportive to everybody participating in this project with me.

MARGARET JUDSON: What I found to be really lucky is that the creator and director put together such a great group of people and we all clicked immediately, so it made it easy to drop into the character and automatically have the freedom to live in the strong relationships we were there to play.

MISHA CALVERT: I was so busy Executive Producing I didn’t even really think about the acting until I got to set. But I do recall spending a lot of time selecting the right eyeglasses.

How was your preparation different from other roles you have worked on?

MISHA CALVERT: Eddie is sort of my clown self. I developed her when I was writing a previous show, Textual Intercourse. She even has the same name as that early iteration. It’s where all my sex shame, self-deprecation, nerdiness, and hermeticism all hang out. It’s fun to compartmentalize all those traits and magnify them and see what happens.

MARGARET JUDSON: I don’t think it needed any special treatment; the writing was so natural, so it made it easy to prepare.

CHRISTINA TOTH: Every project is different. And I do love that the preparation process is always unique and tailored to the project I’m involved with at the time. With STRUT, my main point of focus was something I touched on in your previous question: developing the sense of belonging and building chemistry with this group of strong women. It was great fun working on the friendship.

MANINI GUPTA: I approached it the way I approach any role: by defining the core values and traits of the character based on their behavior and actions. The script provides a blueprint for the character and how she shows up in different scenarios. Key details are revealed about how the character handles conflict, solves problems, and what she prioritizes. From there, I extrapolate to deepen and add dimension: if Lucy behaves a certain way in one scenario, what does that mean about her? How does she show up in other parts of her life?

Where did you train as an actor?

MISHA CALVERT: The Studio/New York two-year conservatory.

MANINI GUPTA: Northwestern University and Upright Citizens Brigade; now I study with Jamie Carroll.

CHRISTINA TOTH: I’m a graduate of The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, home of the Meisner Technique, in New York City. Prior to my years training and living in New York, when I was still starting in Montreal, I was introduced to the world of theatre by Rita Lafontaine, a celebrated actress back home, that soon became my mentor.

MARGARET JUDSON: On the first set I worked on; it was a show called The Newsroom on HBO. I feel very fortunate to have been able to watch and learn on the job from actors I deeply admire.

What did you learn from working on this character?

MISHA CALVERT: How to sell a show to a network.

MANINI GUPTA: To revel in a strong sense of self and play.

CHRISTINA TOTH: The joy of fully being yourself, outrageous at times you wish to be. And living this beautiful life according to how you want to live it.

MARGARET JUDSON: I learned a lot about wearing latex.

How do you approach comedy differently than drama?

CHRISTINA TOTH: I don’t. The acting remains the same. There’s no difference in the humanity whether it be drama or comedy. What I find changes are the situations/circumstances the characters are placed in. And that is where I believe comedy emerges.

MISHA CALVERT: Comedy is drama but with comedic timing.

MARGARET JUDSON: Before I went into the first audition I ever had, the creator told me: “whatever you do–don’t act,” so I still follow that advice no matter the genre.

MANINI GUPTA: I approach it with the same gravitas, if not more. Preferences in humor tend to be more subjective than drama; but I find the more grounded your character is in reality, the more specific—and earned—the humor. If the audience knows a character, they should know, without a doubt, how that character feels in nearly any given situation. The reaction is where the magic happens. That’s grounded humor—it comes from a place of rules and logic. When something feels “unearned,” it’s because it doesn’t line up with what the audience knows about the character. Even in major plot twists, you have to lay subtle groundwork to pay off a massive pivot. If you do the work leading up to a turning point, the audience should be thinking, “I never saw that coming,” rather than “That makes zero sense.”

What is your standout moment from the show? If you are nominated, what would your Emmy clip be?

MANINI GUPTA: My stand out moment from the show was the lingerie shoot. [SPOILER] In the show, the women decide to launch their own high-end operation, glossy website and all. I’d always considered myself to be sex-positive, feminist, and progressive; yet whatever cultural messages I’d internalized about women’s sexuality all came to a head. Shooting the lingerie scenes was a defining, walk-the-walk moment for me. I started in one place emotionally, feeling insecure and guilty about my own body, and where I ended was liberating and free. It showed me firsthand how fearless women can be.

MARGARET JUDSON: I love every moment of the show—it was really fun when we were all getting ready for the sex party together, so I’m sure I’d want to use part of that!

CHRISTINA TOTH: When I was introduced to the “Police outfit”, I knew any moment involved with that costume would be a stand out.

MANINI GUPTA:  If nominated, my Emmy clip would be the scene where Chandaleer has hit a bit of a financial rock bottom, and Lucy gently convinces her to spin up a profile on Arrangement Finder—just to try it out! Together, they spitball rapid-fire before settling on an even more ridiculous-sounding alias for her profile. There’s so much fun and levity, but also such hope and heart. You get the sense these girls truly care for one another and have each other’s backs.

MISHA CALVERT: I was pretty proud of the bathroom scene where I am crying about my circle head. But I think my Emmy clip would be the flirting scene with Beau at the sex party in Episode 2, where we are both uncomfortable saying we’re afraid of catching an STD if we even sit on the couch. Nick was really fun to play across from, and also everyone was wearing super hot outfits. Great episode all around.

What do you think of other portrayals of sex workers on film/TV, such as Jane Fonda in KLUTE?

MARGARET JUDSON: I’m really grateful that portrayals of sex workers are becoming more popular, and I’m proud to have been part of a project like STRUT, which was ahead of its time in that way.

CHRISTINA TOTH: I show great respect and support to their craft and dedication to shed light on a subject too often associated as taboo.

MARGARET JUDSON: Since you brought it up, I’ll go on the record saying the scene in Klute when Jane Fonda’s character is with a John pretending to enjoy it, but is looking at her watch the whole time, is one of the most underrated moments in American cinema. Also Jane Fonda is a unicorn and I was completely starstruck (read: embarrassing) when I was lucky enough to work with her on The Newsroom. There’s nobody like Jane.

MANINI GUPTA: Words fail. Jane Fonda has epic levels of BDE. She is the embodiment of a self-possessed, powerful woman—you can’t take your eyes off of her and can’t wait to see what she does next.

MISHA CALVERT: I recently saw GOOD LUCK TO YOU LEO GRANDE and it was one of the finest portrayals of a sex worker I have ever seen. Emma Thompson as the client and Daryl McCormack as a male escort. It was so poetic and humanizing of both sides, while also really nailing some of the specificity of sex workers’ reality. And at one point she calls Daryl’s character a “sex saint” for how much he tries to liberate people from their shame, and I just thought that was gorgeous. On the other end of the spectrum, I think the Kardashians are a brand of sex workers, and I admire that kind of performance just as much in a very different way.

How do you as an actor create empathy for a sex worker or some other type of person that society stigmatizes?

MANINI GUPTA: By normalizing it, which STRUT does beautifully. In order to destigmatize sex work, people have to be able to recognize and identify with the individuals who participate in it. To see these women as real people—engaging, smart, funny, caring, capable women who could easily be your neighbors, your colleagues, even your friends. For people who are freely opting into sex work or any similar line of work, society is quick to draw conclusions about their intelligence, morals, and characteristics. What if we decoupled the notions around celibacy and monogamy being “good,” and the consensual enjoyment of sex being “bad” culturally?

CHRISTINA TOTH: I find stigma brings to surface the underlying fear on a subject. And often this fear or judgement is caused by a lack of information. If knowledge is power, then my empathy comes from learning and understanding the circumstances of other people lives. It’s not about me, it’s about them. And it is part of my work to remove anything in relation to what is “right” or “wrong”, otherwise I’m blinded to the truth and beauty of any individual. We are all humans, and as an actor that’s what I do: illustrate our humanity.

MISHA CALVERT: Every single character is a human first! Unless the writing is misogynistic in which case it should never have been written to begin with.

MARGARET JUDSON: It’s funny—I know the backdrop of the show is related to sex work, but to me, it was always really about friends figuring stuff out together and supporting each other. I guess that’s where stigmas come from—forgetting that we’re all just people doing our best, who need love and support.  And I think what makes this show so fun to watch is that it’s not finger-wagging, it’s honest and true and I think that naturally breeds empathy.

MANINI GUPTA: Every story is different. For these women, reclaiming their bodies and sexuality is not only a clear and conscious decision, but empowering. It raises questions around why aspects of this type of work are considered illegal in this country when the argument could be made that, for these women, it’s fundamental to their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To these particular women I say, “Godspeed.”

FOLLOW ON INSTAGRAM:
@mishacalvert
@maninigupta
@tothchristina
@margaret_judson

Guest Interview by Adam Davenport. He is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and Actors Equity Association. You can find Adam on IMDB, Instagram and Facebook. 

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