While playing a character from her early 20s into her 40s, the greatest challenge Sarah Chalke was presented with on Firefly Lane was surprisingly not the emotional scenes of a woman facing her mortality, nor her dramatic conflicts with on-screen best friend Tully Hart, played by Katherine Heigl.
"I had to sing again — and it was on day one of shooting!" Chalke tells Metacritic. "Somebody says, 'OK, you're going to be running around in your nylons.' Singing comes so many stages ahead of that in terms of a personal challenge, because I was kicked out of the choir in grade five. That's hard to unglue from yourself."
That's not to say the rest of the second season was easy for Chalke, whose character Kate experiences the near loss of her ex-husband Johnny (Ben Lawson) in an explosion in Iraq (and more metaphorically to divorce), her teenage daughter Marah (Yael Yurman) in a car accident, and her best friend as a consequence of Tully's decision to drive Marah while under the influence of alcohol.
But these are the storylines Chalke eagerly signed up for.
"This show is always getting me out of my comfort zone, which is what I love about it. It's what drew me to this part in the first place and what made it the experience that it was," she says. "The challenge of playing yourself a couple decades apart, being able to figure out, how did you move when you were 20 years younger when you had more of a spring in your step? The cadence of your speech and your outlook and attitude on life being so young and naive versus having lived a life. And in terms of new challenges, there's some really challenging material for Kate that was a gift to get to dive into."
Here, Chalke talks to Metacritic about the emotional second season, Kate's relationship with Johnny, the collapse of her friendship with Tully, that devastating last scene and what to expect from the second half of the final season, coming to Netflix in 2023.
In the first half of the season, we see Kate and Johnny get to fall in love as young adults, but we also watch them in the aughts, falling in love again as the people that they've become. What did you like about Kate and Johnny finding each other again, later in life?
I thought it was so real how they're coming back together. At this point, as opposed to at the beginning when they're just falling madly for each other, I think that through all of their history together, they know all of each other's flaws and are there for each other and they're each other's person. All the stuff that they went through makes them so much stronger going forward, for having been through it.
At the same time the friendship between Kate and Tully is falling apart. Who is Kate without Tully?
It just leaves such a hole for her. They have this incredible, unparalleled friendship. I've never been asked a question more in my life as I have over the past year and a half since the show came out. And we get to find out [what breaks them apart]. There's just such a huge piece of Kate that was missing that whole time. I loved the way that Maggie [Friedman] wrote the entire thread of what happened and what Tully did. I feel like it was a near impossible task to try and feel for both Tully and Kate. And that is what ends up happening — you really do see both sides. I kept wondering, "How do you have such a huge thing that would be so big that would be able to break these two up and have them be able to come back from it?" I think it threads the needle.
They've disappointed each other in the past and nothing has been able to come between them. What is it about the accident that pushes Kate over the edge?
I think it's a few things. Tully took Marah in the car after she'd been drinking. And the fact that she was grounded. She was not supposed to leave and there were other options available to her. But because of Tully's history, and because she heard the situation Marah was in, it just triggered Tully right back to when she was raped in Season 1. And you understand that she just was like, "I have to go get her." And the fact that the accident wasn't her fault. I think you can really see both sides.
The other thing that is interesting this season is how they juxtapose their friendship with Kate's new friend and how hopeful she is that someone else could take Tully's place.
Totally. She's desperate for another friendship and looking for that, but you can't [replace] the history that Kate and Tully had and how just right they are for each other. And I thought it was really sweet in the '70s too, how they introduced Lisa-Karen. I love how everything is paralleled in all the decades.
That last scene is devastating and at the same time so hopeful, in terms of their relationship. What was it like to shoot Kate making her way to Tully's?
That was a tough couple of days. It's one of those things where, at that moment, everything else falls away. All of the hurt and pain and anger and everything over the accident, it all falls away and she just needs Tully in that moment, and she's gone. Filming that scene was such a dance, of this elevator door that opens and one that closes. I thought it was a great way to finish off the cliffhanger for Part 1.
Historically we equate youth with beauty, but these two women are at their most beautiful once they get to their 40s. What do you think happens there?
I think it is the beauty of within and how they become more sure of themselves. Certainly for Kate, she spent her whole time growing up being such a pleaser and trying to figure out, "What does everyone else in the room want?" Then I think she's finally coming into her own and feels like, "OK, what is it that I actually want? It's OK for me to go and get it." And the same goes for Tully: She's had this outward confidence her entire life, but she has come to such a new place of putting her foot down and drawing boundaries — not taking the job back with Wilson King because the price is too high, and deciding, "OK, I'm going to make a documentary and look for my dad." They both start to zero in on what is the most important as they get so much more sure of themselves.
It is a lovely midlife representation, which television lacks in general. When you're reading scripts, how often do you see this?
You don't. Not often. It's one of the things I loved when I read the pilot of Season 1, and one of the things I loved when I read the book — this portrayal of women at this stage in their lives and this friendship between them.
Kate really goes through a lot this season. Which of the material were you most eager to delve into?
The season really gets into Kate and Johnny's relationship, falling in love and going through the '90s. But then in the 2000s there's them really figuring out where they're at in terms of their separation. Kate still has so much love for Johnny, and I think watching him come back from Iraq and be dealing with PTSD, it's so hard for her to watch and to figure out how to navigate, how to be there for him. And there's obviously the other piece of [the final season]. When I read the book, I thought it was beautifully written and I wondered how it was going to be handled in the show. It was intimidating, the idea of portraying that journey. I wasn't sure what that was going to be like and it was really quite an experience playing that. There's nobody who's not touched by cancer in their lives. Lots of crew members had approached me and told me their stories. So, there were a lot of days on set that were quite a powerful experience. Some days were definitely pretty heavy.
The first part makes no secret out of Kate's diagnosis, and the fact that Tully is potentially gone, for what at this point could be crucial months. Is there anything that keeps the second half of the season from being really sad?
I thought Maggie did a beautiful job. You're in the '70s, you're in the '80s, you're in the '90s and even in the aughts, just living in what the show really is, this beautiful friendship and a love story. It's a really good balance between the two.
I assume you have shot the entire series. What has it been like to say goodbye to these characters?
I would've done this for a lot longer. It was hard to say goodbye. Our last day of shooting, everybody was emotional just because it was such a great experience. It's tough to say goodbye, especially to a character that was fun to play, but also challenging and interesting and had so many sides to her. And it was the second season, and so, everybody knew each other. By that point, there's just so many things that go unspoken. There were so many inside jokes. We had these ridiculous tongue-twister warmups that we would do. I have a mug that I'm drinking out of right now, with all my tongue twisters, that Brendan [Taylor] made for me. We would do even before a big dancing scene where nobody had to speak. Yeah, really it was a ridiculously great group.
Get to know Sarah Chalke:
While many know Chalke from her decade on Scrubs (Metascore: 74) and having taken over the role as Becky Conner in Roseanne (73) from Lecy Goranson in 1993, she also made an impression playing Ted's love interest Stella on three seasons of How I Met Your Mother. Chalke may also be recognized for her voice work as Beth in Rick & Morty and another Stella — the sensible Sheltie from Dogs in Space.