Prepping to interview Sweet Magnolias‘ JoAnna García Swisher is a lesson in humility. Almost every single person says things such as: “She’s great”, or “You’re going to love speaking to her”, and after hearing that enough, you think to yourself, “Alright, let’s see what happens”. And even with advance buildup, García Swisher delivers beyond expectations. She is beyond friendly and feels like a pleasant conversation between friends more than a formal interview.
We spoke to García Swisher from her quarantine in Florida, and she spoke eloquently about Sweet Magnolias, in which she plays Maddie Townsend, one of three best friends, who is going through a bit of a life transition but still finds time to pour it out and to raise her three children. In short, it’s a game changer series for Netflix.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our phone chat with the wonderful JoAnna García Swisher of Sweet Magnolias.
Brief Take: We were major supporters of your series Priviliged. Quality show, good ratings, I have no idea why that show didn’t return for more than one season!
JoAnna García Swisher: Join the club! I was devastated. I was so proud of that show. That was one of those moments in which it all felt like it came together, and I was working with one of my favourite writers of all-time, Rina Mimoun, of whom it felt like we were in each other’s brains. The two young ladies that I was working with, Lucy Hale and Ashley Newbrough, they were just—they were my babies and I loved them so much. And Anne Archer…it was a really, really, really special show and a wonderful experience and a great first foray into leading the charge in something like that. It was a big responsibility. I had come off doing Reba for six years and I watched that incredible woman effortlessly lead us. It was just a really monumental experience for me and I was so, so proud—I still am—very proud of that show.
BT: Director-producer Norman Buckley was a big part of that series and you worked with him on Gossip Girl. Is his presence on this series a reason that you signed on to Sweet Magnolias?
JGS: Norman has a lot to do with the rapid-fire decision that I made to join the show and move across the country. And then it was very, very, very quickly apparent to me that I was about to go to work for the incredible producers and talented writers and then this great cast of people who I was just so excited about. I had already worked with Chris Klein, we had done a show together—which I actually did in between Reba and Privileged—which was called Welcome to the Captain, and I absolutely adore him. But then to be able to join forces with Heather Headley and Brooke Elliott and to be able to go to work for Sheryl J. Anderson and Dan Paulson, it was really a wonderful experience.
BT: There may not be a show quite like Sweet Magnolias on Netflix. Is this your first time working for Netflix or for any streamer, for that matter?
JGS: This is my first experience with a streamer and let me tell you, working for Netflix is amazing. [laughs] I’m not just saying that, you do not have to write it and put it in print. [laughs] Just leave it out of the interview. But it’s so genuine. It’s been such a creative experience, it is really such a creative freedom that they allow you to tell the story that you want to tell, and it was such a breath of fresh air to be able to tell a story that wasn’t any huge event. And yes, there were big things that happened, big life events that happened, but we’re not bombing any buildings. But things happen in life and it’s a slice of life and it’s really an opportunity to pull the curtain back on this small town (the town of Serenity). It’s three women, their friendship, their lifelong friendship and the ups and the downs of life and the journey and how they survive, with each other, for each other, it’s a really great story of friendship and family and what it means to endure and to have faith and to support each other. Thematically, it checks all of the boxes that these are the stories that I want to be able to tell in my life as an actress and I’m so grateful to be able to do it and really grateful for good storytelling.
BT: What we love about the show is that though Maddie’s getting a divorce and one aspect of her life is unraveling, she still has it together and is firing on all cylinders.
JGS: Well, it’s funny you should say that, and I really appreciate you saying that because that was the first thing that I said to Sheryl Anderson when I agreed to the show, and three weeks later, I was shooting the show. I walked on set and I looked at her with tears in my eyes, and I said: “I want Maddie to be a survivor”. And by the way, Sheryl and I cry all the time together, we both are easy criers. But she kind of cried back to me: “That’s all I hope for, that’s all I wish for her”, is that she can endure and that she can survive, and especially when you’re a Mom and I can show my children. My father recently passed away very, very suddenly. He was my best friend and such an extraordinary human, he passed away very suddenly on November 9th of this past year and it was catastrophic. And I thought a lot about…well, first of all, I am very, very sad about the loss, but about what it means to endure and I wanted my girls to see that, yes, it’s alright to grieve. And it’s okay to be sad, but we must find the joy and we must be okay. And that’s what life is all about, we have to survive. Right now, we are all trying to survive.
And it’s so important, I think, to strike that balance and that, yes, a really crappy thing happened to Maddie. And yes, a crappy thing happened to me when my Dad passed away, but there was going to be a new normal. There was going to be an adjustment, and there were going to still be highs, but there were going to be mainly lows and moments like that, but there was this desire and the will to move forward. And that balance was something that I really wanted to bring to Maddie. I didn’t know that a few months later I was going to be losing the most important man in my life and I can say that, knowing that my husband knows that my Dad was that to me. [laughs] He was so, so, incredible and we were so, so close. And I have no doubt that the story and the role came at a time in which I was going to be walking the walk. It was really important to be honest about the highs and the lows and the good days and the bad. But it also feels very important for me and for my life and ideologically speaking and who I am and what I brought to this character, that we have to endure and we have to survive and we have to have faith, and I was grateful to be able to tell a story of a woman that still endures.
BT: We really enjoyed the many margarita bonding scenes. Do you have anything like that in your life?
JGS: [laughs] I pour it out all the time. My girlfriends and I, we are pouring it out experts. Yes, they were my favourite scenes. I don’t even know how else to say it. I hate to say that because I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes with every single person on that show. But after our first margarita night, in that first episode, I told Norman Buckley and Sheryl (Anderson), if we can capture the way that we all felt in the moment of shooting that scene, that comes through on screen, that I think that we have something really special here because we just enjoy each other. There is a unique admiration for one another that was an instant chemistry that we all had. And these were woman that prayed over my father when he was sick and I didn’t know that it was going to end the way that it did, but these are women that are very much in my life and have become a support system and very, very dear friends in a short time, and you can only hope for that in the casting office. I have experienced what it is like to not have that and so to feel that is really special.
BT: The broken plumbing/fixing the sink scene also was hilarious and one of our favourites.
JGS: [laughs] Well then let’s flip the switch to the other person who I adored working with, who is Justin (Bruening). I actually worked with his wife, Alexa (Havins), on a show called Astronaut Wives Club which was one of my favourite jobs ever and one of the proudest moments of my career. We bonded instantly because we were the only two Moms on the show. And I just love her, she has three beautiful children, I have two little girls. And I adore her, and when I found out that I was working with Justin, I was so excited, as I thought that Alexa would be in Atlanta. And after this job, I now love Justin the same. For all that he looks like he is—which is obviously a very tall and handsome man, he is goofy and precious and kind and [laughs] it’s funny because I don’t know, I guess when you look like that in real life, like your whole life, you can kind of be sexy no matter what. And I am a goofy human and very comfortable in that zone. It was nice to work with a guy who could throw me over his shoulder and say like: “I got you, I’ll make you look good, we’re going to bring it”. But come on: you put two actors dripping wet under a sink when your relationship is just starting, you can’t help but be like: “Whew!” It was a fun scene to shoot.
BT: Then let’s talk about The Astronaut Wives Club and how that show was also great.
JGS: Oh my gosh! I don’t know, truly, what I did in a past life to deserve such good fortune. But honestly, it is just how I have chosen my jobs, truly, because I just want to work with people who are good. And yes, the talent is immense and I have been really lucky, but Stephanie Savage from The Astronaut Wives Club, it doesn’t get any better than that woman. She is so smart and so talented and fun and kind, and to have a show that was going to star a massive amount of actresses, all in one, like that is spicy! But she was so much in charge of that and some of my best friends have come from that show. That was the most fun experience—to be in New Orleans with women I deeply love and admire, wearing costumes designed by Eric Daman from Gossip Girl, telling a really well-known moment in history that’s been documented on every level, but never really from the perspective of the wives and the women behind that. Watching the perspectives of the women having their husbands put into a tin can and shot into outer space and all that comes with that, it was really [chuckles] a fun show to do. It was a really fun show.
BT: Of all the plots, Maddie falls in love with a hunky former baseball player, how did you tap into that?
JGS: Listen: I didn’t have to go far to draw my inspiration for what it felt like to fall in love with a guy like that. I mean I fell in love with a pretty hunky ballplayer myself and now he’s a former MLB player. I was lucky enough to be able to see him for half of his career to be able to do what he loves. But yeah, I’ve enjoyed watching the transition of a new life and what that means, and watching Nick discover new passions in life because he certainly got to do what he loves for a very long time. But yeah, it was really cute and it was fun, even when we were shooting some of the baseball scenes, a lot of the young kids that were out there were real ballplayers and they were like: [laughs] “Is your husband going to visit the set today?”, and I’m like: “No! Not today. But I promise that next time I will bring him!”.
BT: What does being on a female-driven show mean to you?
JGS: Ah! It means a lot. I mean I was raised by a man that is an utter feminist, my Dad was an OB-GYN and literally, who would think that women are far superior to anything else in the world. And I myself then married a pretty big feminist himself, as Nick is pretty much all-female, all the time. He’s raising two girls and to be able to tell stories of strong women and honest stories about strong women, and really, honestly, stories of women taking care of each other. I feel grateful. I feel really, really grateful.
BT: You’re a mother in your daily life and yet on the show it is very different. How did it feel to raise these kids?
JGS: Yeah! I mean, obviously, Maddie started early to have kids in high school, the way that she has kids in high school. I mean she started young in a small Southern town. I didn’t become a Mom until I was 33 years old. So I thought a lot about what it means, first of all, to raise young men. And there’s a lot of growing up that happens during your twenties, and so what would that feel like, the dynamics of the relationships, and what is means to be a strong Southern mother that has dedicated her life to this family and being a stay-at-home Mom and all of what that meant. But then, you know, the bitch gets broke, and life gets a little shake-up and it’s like: “Okay, well, who are you and what do you want to be right now?”. And “what kind of parent do you want to be, and you’re doing it on your own and you get to reinvent your life. Do you want to be the one that does it kicking and screaming, or do you want to be the one that does it gracefully and honestly and with a lot of strength and humility?”. I think that being a parent is the greatest soul-baring—the greatest learning experience we could have ever. We learn more — we give birth to our greatest teachers. I really leaned into what those particular relationships looked like and how they were guiding me and what it taught me. There were actually some really intense things that happened toward the end of the show that really, really punctuate that idea.
BT: Had you ever worked with Caroline Lagerfelt, who plays your mother, perhaps on Gossip Girl?
JGS: Yeah, we had never worked together before, and ah! I just adore her. She’s so wonderful and warm and supportive and loving, and she’s just a really, really cool lady and such a talent. It was very easy to ride under her wing and nuzzle up to her as a Mom, but also, they couldn’t be more different—Maddie and my Mom—it was fun to play that as well.
BT: What are your deal breakers? Maddie’s is that if you don’t like Dolly Parton, she doesn’t want to be with you.
JGS: [laughs] I mean, Dolly’s a pretty big deal breaker. How can you not like Dolly?!
I don’t know, I’m not a very black and white person like that. I mean, yeah sure, if you’re an evil human, that’s a deal breaker. But, yeah, I could probably be friends with someone who didn’t like Dolly. It would be a bit of a head-scratcher, but you could find at least 15-20 things you like about Dolly Parton, and I could find about one million things that I love about Reba McEntire. These are two of the biggest country music legends that we will ever know.
RT: What has this recent time meant for you as a performer and for the work that you’re doing?
JGS: It’s been a really insane year. And like I’ve said, I’ve kind of touched on the highs and the lows, the highs being this show, and probably one of the greatest lows of my life, the loss of my father. I’m in a very reflective moment in my life. I have children that are growing up before my eyes and husband is right now a few years out from retiring from baseball but is coming into his own of the new normal and what that means. And I’ve thought a lot about the kind of Mom and the kind of creative performer that I want to be, and I have The Happy Place, which I am very proud of. It’s a destination that was borne out of great celebration and happiness, but has endured and has taken such a different shape through all of the highs and the lows through the last few years. I realize now that I’m in a place in my life in which it’s really important for me to tell stories.
If I’m going to be away from my family for my work, it’s really important for me to tell stories that resonate. And right now, it’s no surprise that the stories and the opportunities that are presenting themselves in my life have everything to do with transformation and lot of them have given me an opportunity to reflect on what the future holds and the kind of role model that I want to be to my children. I’m in a specific unique moment in my life. I don’t know if I have ever really had a moment in which I’ve had enough life behind me on which to look back and enough life in front of me on which to look forward. I have small children still. Getting to tell stories from a character’s perspective that are in a very similar space has been really fun and has felt incredibly organic and therapeutic [laughs] and an opportunity to really reflect on the space and the journey. Now we are in a global pandemic and with it comes all of the emotions that this brings up, as well as the uncertainty and I think the realizations. It never surprises me that the energy that we put out into the universe—whether or not we realize it —is going to attract back the same energy. And so right now it’s this and this feels really good.
Sweet Magnolias is now streaming on Netflix