Bringing the love story of Tembi Locke and her husband Rosario "Saro" Gullo to the screen can concisely be described in just three words: Exhilarating, joyful, hard.
In From Scratch, viewers follow aspiring artist Amy (Zoe Saldaña) as she meets and falls in love with Lino (Eugenio Mastrandrea), a handsome Sicilian chef, during her study abroad program in Florence. The two build a life together in Los Angeles with the daughter they adopt at birth — a life that is tragically cut short by Lino's untimely death from cancer.
Whether you pick up the book or the series, from the very beginning there is no question about what is to come. The story is based on Locke's memoir, From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily and Finding Home.
"From the prologue, you know he's gone," Locke tells Metacritic. "The question becomes, what makes you read the next 270 pages? That became our North Star: Let's take these viewers on a deep ride that is funny, that is interesting, visually stunning, and also let them fall in love, feel deep grief, but also hope."
But while writing the book was an experience that Locke describes as intimate, bringing her life to the screen as part of a greater team proved to be an exercise in how deep she could stretch, emotionally.
"I could not have imagined the ways I'd be asked to go to the outer realms of what I thought I could do," says Locke. "Like, 'Oh, OK. More? Sure, let's go.'"
Luckily, the experience of revisiting the Locke family's most difficult moments was shepherded by her younger sister, Attica Locke, who after working as a writer and producer on Little Fires Everywhere for Reese Witherspoon's production company Hello Sunshine, pitched them Tembi's memoir. Being able to go through the process together, both sisters say, was magical.
Here, Attica and Tembi Locke talk to Metacritic about the very real challenges of bringing this story (and a loved one back from the dead) to the screen, the truth behind a certain key moment on the series, and the emotional impact the experience has had on the two.
As far as writing the book or bringing the story to screen, which was harder?
Tembi Locke: They were both hard. On a personal level, there's such emotional labor that goes with memoirs because the job of the memoirist is to relive your experiences, to have processed them enough and then artfully offer them up to a reader in the hopes that something connects. So it was very hard, it was very intimate, it was very singular. The adaptation was all those things, but also incredibly expansive because now, I wasn't doing it alone. I'm doing it with these brilliant creative women. I think the inherent parts of production that are hard are what made it hard. We were the first Netflix show back in the pandemic and we're shooting in two countries and five cities. It covers a span of some 14 years. That made it hard.
You decided to rename the characters, who are all based on real people. What was the reason for that?
Attica Locke: The practical answer was, Tembi is an actor by trade [Editor's note: She is most recently known for playing Fabiola Torres' mother on Never Have I Ever] and the part of her career that is in the book is an actor on the rise. It seemed unbelievable that we would watch Zoe Saldaña at an audition. I mean, maybe it could have worked, but it felt unbelievable. And we also knew we weren't going to do a direct adaptation, so we wanted to change names to be able to bend the story to our own ends.
T.L.: On a personal level, I needed the distance to be able to imagine the life of Amy on screen in a way that didn't feel deeply personal. And I'm a mom. I didn't want my daughter, on screen, doing things that she never did. We understand when you adapt something, that some things are going to be fictionalized, so it was a protective layer, quite frankly. And our parents are not as wacky and as dramatic as the parents in the series. That's the other reason why we decided to change the names.
A.L.: Oh, let's talk about the biggest change. I'm actually the younger sister,
T.L.: Now you have a window in and a front row seat. [Laughs] Yeah, she is the younger sister, but in our series, she's the older one.
What purpose does that serve from a storytelling perspective?
T.L.: None. [Laughs]
You're obviously a big part of the story. What is helpful and what's challenging about that?
A.L.: The helpful part is that I bore close witness to a lot of Tembi and Saro's life and their marriage, his passing and the family's mixing. I hope I gave Tembi a level of respect on set that I don't know that another showrunner would've given. She knows things that nobody else on this set knows. If she had notes about something in a scene, if it felt like we were getting away from the essence, we'd give back the essence of what the story was. I made sure that she was constantly, consistently an equal voice on set. Those are the big things. The challenges, as you can imagine, were lots of tears. It's wading through grief. That was hard.
It must have been incredibly emotional.
T.L.: It was. From the beginning, Attica and I had lots of conversations about what we were walking into, because we know enough about production, about storytelling and about how Hollywood works to know that we were going to be asked to do a mammoth job. We knew we were going to have to traverse all the emotional touch points and triggers and do all of the heavy lifting, while being sisters. What we landed on was a couple of things: We found the pillars of the story that we knew were non-negotiables. We always had our north star in terms of where the story would land. In terms of being sisters, we always had our sister check-ins. And I knew, as the person who lived it, that I had to buffer myself with a great deal of self-care and a team, internal and external, who could walk with me through what would be the hard times and lift me up. Attica and I had agreements that I could step away when I said, 'I've offered everything I have to give right now. It's on the page. We've had many discussions about it. I actually don't need to be here to witness it.' We found ways to navigate it knowing that we are here to tell the best story we can tell, to honor the essence of the book while we make something wholly new.
How did Zoe get involved?
A.L.: We got a phone call from Lauren Neustadter from Hello Sunshine letting us know that Reese Witherspoon had had dinner with Zoe Saldaña, and did we know that Zoe Saldaña's husband is Italian? Reese said that the entire time that she's watching them interact across the dinner table, speaking in Italian, there was something she saw in the moment and in Zoe that she's like, "That could be Amy." We looked at a lot of Zoe's work. We talked about it, we thought about it. Tembi and I we're in agreement that for us, Zoe had the kind of toughness and tenderness that there's an essence of [in Tembi]. The bonus was that I didn't know Zoe was that funny.
How did her experience with Italian culture help in terms of finding the character?
T.L.: She and her sisters grew up in New York, Dominican, and her husband is from Northern Italy. Being married into an Italian family has its own kinds of things, and coming from her own very strong culture, the same way we come from East Texas, Black but with very strong culture — when two strong cultures come together, I knew instantly she would get that.
In terms of playing a real-life character — based on someone who's very available to guide her — what kind of conversations did you have?
T.L.: Early on, I said, "Look, I know you have your process. I am always here. The door is always open." But I really let her take the lead. There were moments when I was in the room, and there was no one else — and I'm specifically referring to the passing scenes, the hospital moments — that she would check in with me. But for the most part, Zoe really crafted this in her own way. It was beautiful to watch.
What was most important in the casting of Lino?
A.L.: I don't know that I could have told you what I was looking for, but it just presented itself. Eugenio has a quality about him that is very reminiscent of my late brother-in-law. It is a quality of kindness. It is a quality of being devastatingly handsome, but also kind of shy, a little goofy, being stalwart and being a delightful father. There was something about that in Eugenio's first tape, to the point where, when I watched it, I came out of my chair and I had to walk away. I started crying and my husband heard me, he came into the room, then my daughter heard me, we had a hug and they were like, "What's going on?" I said, "I just saw something." And then I called Tembi, because I knew she got the same tape, and I just said, "You're going to come across someone and I just want you to give yourself space to process it because it may trigger something."
T.L.: That is exactly what happened. We always knew we were looking for a unicorn. We've seen Italian masculinity on a screen, and I was like, "OK I get that. That exists. But that wasn't who he was." We knew he needed to be able to speak Sicilian and speak English and speak Italian. He needed to be handsome and he needed to be endearing. When I saw Eugenio flash on the screen, there was the doppelgänger aspect of it, and I stopped watching, but I was compelled to return to it. I re-watched his tapes, numerous, numerous, numerous times because what I was asking of myself was to be very clear: Was I having a widow's response or was this legitimately the best actor for our part? When I felt satisfied that yes, he was that, that's when I put my name behind him because I knew if I told the team he's the one, they weren't going to be like, "Oh, Tembi doesn't know what she's talking about."
It has got to mess with your head, to watch the recreation of your love story with someone who reminds you so much of your husband.
T.L.: Right. So, what Eugenio and I did was build a relationship away from set. And then, there are moments, frames, and certain scenes when something would happen. I was witnessing a kind of magic and grace and I thought, "You know what? I'm going to let that pierce my heart and understand that I don't know how any of this is happening the way it is. I stand in awe of it. I stand humbled and in reverence of this and I'm going to let it be, because this is bigger than me." I don't know how this human being came into our lives and into the show. It's a part of something that I think happened repeatedly throughout the making of the show, where these echoes of reality, echoes of spirit, of magic just made their way into our show.
There is a scene in the last episode, which is so specific that I'm curious if it actually happened. Zora [Danielle Deadwyler] tells her sister that she is the one leaving her family, wasting away. But then the scene turns, and becomes so funny, on a dime, when she tells Amy that she smells. Is that from real life?
T.L.: That's our dynamic.
A.L.: So, because we had to compress what it is to suddenly be a single parent, having lost your partner, into such a short period of time, it got condensed into one episode. That, I think, Tembi did much better navigating. Inside you might have been dying, but on the outside, you never left Zoela.
T.L.: The part about being stinky...
A.L.: The bathing sh-- was real. [Laughs]
T.L.: We talked about this in the writers' room, and I'm fairly certain I reference it in the book, is that sense that you're literally out of your body, so tending to things in the real world become very hard, including drinking, eating, all the things. I had the blessing of family nearby, and I remember people running baths for me and, not just because I was stinking, but because I needed something soothing and comfortable. We tried to distill in one crystalline moment what was months and months of a deep, deep, deep grief and give that to these two amazing actresses, who could show the world what that moment is like, and also be sisters.