How Elizabeth Olsen's 'Sorry for Your Loss' Became a Stunning Exploration of Grief and Moving On (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Warning: This interview contains spoilers from the first six episodes of Facebook Watch's Sorry for Your Loss, which are streaming now.
Sorry for Your Loss is this year’s best-kept secret.
In Facebook Watch’s stellar half-hour drama series, Elizabeth Olsen plays Leigh Shaw, a young widow trying to pick up the pieces following the sudden death of her husband, Matt (Mamoudou Athie). She is a millennial filled with anger, quiet rage and bite, but as she gradually discovers, her husband’s loss forces her to reexamine her own life and her relationships to those closest to her, namely her sister, Jules (Kelly Marie Tran), a recovering alcoholic; mother Amy (Janet McTeer), owner of a floundering gym; and Matt’s brother, Danny (Jovan Adepo).
Instead of wallowing in her grief, Sorry for Your Loss provides Leigh the freedom to experience and process the death of her husband in her own way. After all, there is no right way to grieve. For creator Kit Steinkellner, who drew inspiration from a near-traumatic experience with her husband, and showrunner Lizzy Weiss, that was the guiding principle that was top of mind for the long-gestating 10-episode series.
"One of the things that we learned is there isn’t one authentic way and that’s what we’re trying to honor with every character -- that every character is experiencing [Matt’s] death in a different way," Weiss tells ET. "Every character is very different in the way they process it and when we talked to our psychiatrist and grief experts, that’s the truth. That’s the message. There isn’t a right way to go through loss and however you’re feeling, you’re allowed to feel."
"From the original pitch, it was the intention to show that this is a multi-faceted experience because life is multi-faceted. It is devastating one minute and then something comes along that is completely hilarious and you’re laughing through your tears," Steinkellner tells ET. "We were very careful in calibrating the changes to maintain the overall tone of the show to make sure it was consistent."
With the second half of the freshman season hitting Facebook Watch over the next week, Steinkellner and Weiss talk to ET about the challenges of making the series, what it says about difficult topics like death and loss, and why there's much more story to tell.
ET: Kit, when did you first get the idea for Sorry for Your Loss?
Kit Steinkellner: It will be five years around the holidays since I started writing the pilot. In the first episode, there is a flashback sequence when [Leigh] wakes up in the middle of the night and her husband is nowhere to be found and she is scared out of her mind that something terrible has happened to him. That was very much based on a real night in my life. Everything was fine, my husband was fine but I couldn’t shake it, just the terror of what had happened and what could have happened. It had been a year where a couple of important people in my life had died, so I felt very vulnerable and unsafe in that moment in time. I started thinking deeply about what it would be like to survive this impossible thing -- something people survive every day. The more I started thinking about this heroine, in particular, played by Lizzy Olsen, and the people in her life, I really grew to love them and I really needed to tell their story. It was burning a hole in my gut.
Did having personal experiences with losing loved ones during a short period of time make the process of writing this show more challenging? Did you find it cathartic?
Steinkellner: It was all of those things. I joked about a few times while making this that if this had been directly autobiographical, if my husband was dead, I would not have written the show, I would have written a fantasy or a space opera. It would have been too painful to write this exactly how I wrote it. What we were able to do throughout the series is you take one truth and then you put it inside the pocket of another truth and then you put that inside another vessel of truth, so it’s like a matryoshka doll of truth.
How early in the creative process was Elizabeth Olsen, who also is an executive producer, brought in? Was she always the first choice to be Leigh?
Steinkellner: Yes. Once Lizzy had read the material and sat down and we talked, it was this crazy experience where I realized I had written the part for her without knowing I had written this part for her. She was the only lead. She was always meant to play this role. It’s impossible to imagine anybody else doing what she does with this role. I think that was fall 2015, so it’s been a couple of years.
Lizzy, you spent several years running Switched at Birth. How did you link up with Kit for this show?
Lizzy Weiss: It was coincidentally three weeks after my artistic mentor had passed away from lung cancer. I was still in shock. I had done a compressed version of all of those stages, but I was mostly in shock because her death was accelerated. When they sent me the script, it did feel like fate. I had never read a script like that before that was purely about grief and loss and one woman’s journey through it. It was so efficient, elegant and fair. And there's an ounce of serendipity to it. Kit had interviewed me for Switched at Birth when she was a freelance writer [years ago]. Because Lizzy Olsen was an EP, they asked me to meet her as well. I joined last Christmas and we started the room super fast in January, so we’ve been on it since the beginning of 2018, which is not as long as [you’d think].
How did you land Kelly Marie Tran as Leigh’s sister, Jules? Was it always your intention to have Leigh and Jules be of different ethnicities?
Steinkellner: It wasn’t necessarily about them being different races but it very much was that Jules was adopted that drove her backstory and explained a lot of who she was and who they were as sisters and how that family unit worked. We cast a wide net and knowing that we didn’t have to look at biological siblings, we were committed to finding an actress who embodied the essence of the character and that was Kelly. We were blown away by what she did with the scenes.
Weiss: Jules is a tough character to love. On the one hand, like a lot of addicts, she’s a bit of a narcissist. She’s messed up a lot in her life. She’s caused a lot of damage. When I watch it now, I find her so lovable and I think that’s Kelly. Jules is so endearing, she’s trying so hard and she has a good heart. That’s Kelly and that comes through in Jules. The same thing with Leigh. She is pretty rough and she can rub people the wrong way, but you can see the intention and the heart there, and [Lizzy] plays her with a lot of honesty. She’s not afraid of having her sell these lines that are a little caustic, but you still really like her and it’s not just because she just lost her husband and you feel for her. They’re both likable actresses and we’re able to make them feel flawed because we’re not worried that people are going to turn on them.
Steinkellner: These are two young women who are dealing with incredibly difficult things and we never want to shy away from that, but at the same time, these are two women who both mean well. They’re trying their best. They’re never malicious or intentionally selfish or destructive. When they realize they’ve made a mistake, they try to make amends.
The show documents death and grief in a way we rarely see in TV shows and in a way that feels real. How important was it to make sure the grieving process Leigh and the other characters go through felt organic and true?
Weiss: One of the things that we learned is there isn’t one authentic way and that’s what we’re trying to honor with every character -- that every character is experiencing [Matt’s] death in a different way. Amy is boxing it up and putting it away because she feels like she has to be strong for her daughters and Jules, to some extent, a little bit too. Danny has a very different response; at the end of episode two, he distances himself and feels alone in his grief. Every character is very different in the way they process it and when we talked to our psychiatrist and grief experts, that’s the truth. That’s the message. There isn’t a right way to go through loss and however you’re feeling, you’re allowed to feel.
Steinkellner: From the original pitch, it was the intention to show that this is a multi-faceted experience because life is multi-faceted. It is devastating one minute and then something comes along that is completely hilarious and you’re laughing through your tears. We were very careful in calibrating the changes to maintain the overall tone of the show to make sure it was consistent. But if something rings false, it’s when it is one-note.
The fifth and sixth episodes really show Leigh spiraling out of control when she learns Matt may have died by suicide. Can you speak to the thought process behind the episodes?
Weiss: One of my favorite things about episode six is Leigh is a little manic. It’s a stage she’s in only for that episode; she’s in this wired, super-awake, determined, “I’m going to get my life back” mania and that’s a stage for her. And then, of course, she has a crash and all of her feelings come back again. Episode six is the mania of your grief, and maybe not everybody goes through that, but Leigh is going through it and that’s how her emotions are processing for her to go through her birthday without [her husband].
Steinkellner: She has a bomb dropped on her and a lot of that mania comes from how to process this unprocessable feeling. It’s been three months so everything is still so raw and new and crazy. You’re finally seeing her starting to emerge from the fog a little bit and this revelation at the end of [episode] five sends her spinning in a manic way. It’s really an episode about trying to process this impossible thing and she’s already been trying to process this impossible thing of his death. I feel like this is the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back episode.
Weiss: It used to be “I was sad and now I’m angry at him,” and she’ll go into a different experience in [episode] seven. She’s going through everything in all of its warts and all. We're not saying we don't know for sure what happened [to Matt], but she's feeling like if that's the case, then "I'm mad and I get to be mad at you" and in a way, being mad is easier than being sad. I've never seen a character go through onscreen in 30 minutes what she goes through and she does an incredible job. A birthday when your husband has just died, that's a logline I've never heard.
The show has a pseudo-mystery element with Matt's death. Was that something you were interested in interweaving into the fabric of the show with addressing that looming question?
Steinkellner: A lot of the answers for the series and what the series is supposed to be you can find in the pilot and there is a mystery element of how he died. We really did run with that plot. She brought so much to that in building that mystery out and making it feel grounded and true to life, but as an audience member, really compelling. Lizzy Weiss has that golden bingeable touch.
Weiss: There's always a mystery to the death. I have my own questions about my own friends who died. Why wasn't she able to reach out to me before she died? Was it too hard to talk to me? Did she feel too emotional? There's a specific mystery with Leigh's husband, but death is the ultimate mystery: Where do you go? What happens? That's that feeling about it that everyone has. You'll always have questions that you'll never get answers to. We were also trying to tap into that metaphor.
There are difficult conversations had about depression, over-medicating, dealing with loss. What does the show say about tough issues like these?
Steinkellner: This is a show that is empathetic to our characters, for all their flaws and shortcomings. They really are trying their best. We love them dearly. We hope what we're saying about sensitive issues is just in the way we love and support our characters, we love and support the people in our lives who are struggling with these issues and ultimately, our show advocates for understanding and kindness above all else.
Weiss: We don't talk, particularly in American culture, about death. It felt terrifying to most of us because we have not been raised in a culture, where we ask people in our lives, "What do you want if you go?" These are really, really hard questions. What is fascinating is there is now a zeitgeist for shows that are touching on grief right now. Maybe there is a movement that's happening to get people to think about grief and loss differently and face it and have conversations most people don't have.
Steinkellner: Death is a part of everyone's life and we will all die. This is just hard facts. This is a moment in time when many people are feeling intensely unsafe and the ground seems to be shifting. In a timely way, people are experiencing grief and loss apart from death.
What was one scene that affected you emotionally that you didn't initially expect?
Weiss: You should have seen the writers' room when we talked about losing dogs. (Laughs.) That is a loss that is so intimate and so profound, but most people are embarrassed to admit and they feel shame to express that they have that level of grief over an animal. The scene in episode four, it does always get me and I go back to putting my dog down and it does stir me, and I'm so happy we got to put loss of an animal onscreen even though the episode is about something else, and it's such an opposite connective tissue between past and present. The grief of losing a dog or a pet that you adore, I love that that episode is able to put that pain onscreen.
Steinkellner: It was so important to show Leigh and Matt grieving together. This felt like an organic way to accomplish that and to go right from Leigh and Matt grieving together in the past to Leigh grieving alone in the present was powerful for me. And also, in the end of episode three, where Leigh has a complicated relationship with another young widow. I've gotten so many messages from people praising the show and pointing to that moment as one of their favorite moments.
Was this show conceived to be a one-season story?
Steinkellner: No. It's meant to go on longer. If it had a beginning, middle and end, it would be a feature. I have so many things that I think are worth exploring in season two if we were lucky enough to have one.
Weiss: We take Leigh through a lot in the first 10. She's got a lot more journey left to go. She'll never get over this grief, but we have a lot more challenges that we haven't been able to put her through.
Steinkellner: A film is a solvable problem in 120 minutes, but television is all about an unsolvable problem. At the core of what makes this show work is she will never get over this -- this will always be an unsolvable problem -- and still she has to move forward and she has to figure out how to move forward with her life.