Interview: ‘Mom’ star Sadie Calvano discusses CBS’ dramatic comedy

It's time for your weekly reminder: CBS' “Mom” is taking creative risks that no other comedy on TV, especially no other multi-cam comedy on network TV, is even considering.

After tackling drug addiction, teen pregnancy, cancer and an assortment of other maladies and discomforts last season and delving into depression and economic hardship so far in Season 2, “Mom” delves into some of its darkest terrain with Monday's episode, “Free Therapy and a Dead Lady's Yard Sale,” in which, as the title suggests, a group therapy session leads Christy (Anna Faris) and Bonnie (Allison Janney) to tell an acting-out Violet (Sadie Calvano) some distressing truths about her father. Long stretches of the episode play out in almost purely dramatic mode with nary a punchline.

But, as always seems to be the case on “Mom,” if ever things get too somber, there's a corpse that “looked like a bean-bag chair in a nightgown,” or an acerbic cut-down from the deservingly Emmy-toasted Janney. 

That Janney and Faris have been able to sell the tonal rainbow that is “Mom” hasn't been a surprise. They were always the anchors for this Chuck Lorre show. The big surprise, especially since midseason last year and into this fall, has been Calvano, a 17-year-old actress whose most prominent credit before this was apparently “Melissa & Joey.”

Last season, Calvano's Violet had to deal with comedic subplots — Flatulence at prom is an issue if you're pregnant, apparently — but also with the tough to decision to give up her baby to an adoptive couple. This season, things have gotten far murkier and I've been pretty reliably impressed by how effective Calvano has been in the raw, emotional moments.

Ahead of this week's admirable episode, I got on the phone with Calvano to discuss the challenges of “Mom,” including how much she was prepared for when she signed on. We discussed the different on-set atmospheres for dramatic scenes versus comedy, as well as the influence of her two co-stars.

Check out the full Q&A below and check out “Mom” on Thursdays at 8:30 on CBS.

HitFix: So, I want to start at the beginning because the “Mom” pilot has a couple dramatic beats to it but it's still fairly straightforward as a sitcom. Did you have any idea that the writers sort of had the desire to go as frequently dark and serious as they have?

Sadie Calvano: I definitely think so. “Mom” does something super unique because very rarely do you get to see a sitcom that touches on such heavy topics in a light-hearted manner and very rarely do sitcoms get to talk about the real pressing issues that “Mom” does. I definitely think it was an intention.

HitFix: But when you were auditioning where you just reading the straight-up comedic stuff or did they want to see your dramatic side at that time as well?

Sadie Calvano: Nope, just comedic at that time. And I think that even in our comedic scenes there is a lot of dark elements. And Chuck [Lorre] is amazing at what he does as are the rest of the people on the casting and writing team. And so I think that they have specific things that they were looking for when they were seeing people audition because I don't think that there's a weak link in our pack. So I like to think that they're pretty good at what they do.

HitFix: When you started to see in those first couple weeks how dramatic and at times not funny things got, did that scare you, make you nervous at first?

Sadie Calvano: It made me super excited. I think that when I first started working on a sitcom my fear was that because I love to do it all, I was a little nervous that doing only this light-hearted comedy would make me forget how to do the rest of the stuff. Because when you're not exercising that muscle it's easy to let it get rusty. But our show really enabled these actors to push themselves in every direction and really just get to play every week.

HitFix: Violet had a very clear journey in the first season with her pregnancy. How much did the writers sort of tell you upfront, how did they sort of tell you about the choices she was making as the season went along?

Sadie Calvano: When I auditioned for the show they said, “Also we have a feeling Violet might become pregnant, would you be okay with that?” And when you're offered a job like this one, that is a dream, what are you supposed to say like, “Oh well it sounds really good, but no thanks?” So I was, of course, on-board. I had no idea what they had in store for me. I find out what the next week's script is the Friday before we start rehearsals on that Monday. So I kind of experience Violet's journey along with the rest of the world, I just happen to know what the next step was a couple weeks before everyone else did. I think that her journey was a surprise to everyone.

HitFix: It's a funny thing to ask given that it's a sitcom, but have you done any sort of research into young pregnant teens and the choices that they make and sort of how that impacts them?

Sadie Calvano: Oh yes. All kinds of research. I think it was a really difficult thing at first for me to play something that I really had no context for. I'm 17 in real life. I've never been pregnant, let alone given up a baby. So research for me was a really vital part of my process and 
“Mom” was really helpful with me because they would bring on all kinds of different specialists and nurses to talk to me about what the process was and I watched all kinds of videos and learned about Lamaze before we did the birthing scene so I could understand really what this was and how people dealt with it. And the more research I did the more I became terrified of ever becoming pregnant because it's so scary! But research was a super important thing for me that I don't think I could have gotten through those scenes without.

HitFix: How is your preparation different between a very dramatic scene and a very comedic scene? How do you get into those different frames of mind?

Sadie Calvano: I don't know. I had never really thought of it as a different frame of mind. I think a lot of what my craft is just comes from listening. And our writers do a really good job of creating pretty honest dialogue. So I think as long as I'm listening to what these people are telling me and reacting in an honest way that things will come out as they should be. And when I'm listening and something is funny then I think it comes out one way. And when we're in something like we were at the finale of last season, it kills you and your heart is breaking while you're doing the scene. And I think that's how our show gets such honest work produced is because we tell powerful stories and have actors that are super aware.

HitFix: Does the atmosphere change on a set overall when it's a more dramatic scene at all?

Sadie Calvano: Oh absolutely. Without a doubt. I think when we're doing really comedic stuff everyone is so excited to be watching it. And sometimes we'll be on camera and then giggle, and when we will do stuff that's more heavy, like the birthing scene last season, you can hear a pin drop. Even when we have a live audience it doesn't matter how many people are in studio and on the stage, there's a tension and a certain level of stakes that is so heightened. It's crazy.

HitFix: That's something I was actually curious about. Are you guys shooting the dramatic stuff in front of the exact same audience that you're shooting the comedic stuff in front of?

Sadie Calvano: It depends on the director and it depends on the scene. Normally we'll do really dramatic stuff in pre-tape, the day before the rest of the audience is in the room, because it's easier to be more vulnerable in a smaller environment. It's hard to expect your actors to be able to open up in that way and stay with the level of focus needed when there's so many people on stage. You have the pressure of needing to get onto the next scene, but then again it's dependent on the scene and the director. 

HitFix: Well, multi-cam the medium sort of trains you that if it's a comedy, if you get laughs that means you nailed the scene. With a dramatic scene how do you know if it's working? How do you know if you nailed a dramatic moment?

Sadie Calvano: I think as an actor you can feel when something's right and when something's resonating. I don't think that there's necessarily a right and a wrong. I think it's just a matter of being honest and telling a story. And when you're listening, you're available to the people around you. And your job as an actor is to be a storyteller and communicate to people. And I think it's very easy to see whether or not people are listening.

HitFix: Just sticking with this whole drama versus comedy element, do you feel like Anna and Allison are sort of different when they're working in one of those two sort of modes?

Sadie Calvano: They're brilliant. I think they're so wonderful. It catches me by surprise every week how amazing they are at what they do. They are some amazing, amazing women that shine no matter what they do. It's unbelievable. I'm honored to be a part of that.

HitFix: What has surprised you about working with those two actresses in the past year?

Sadie Calvano: Anna and Allison have really taken me under their wing. It's kind of shocking to me that in the short amount of time we've really become family. And not only have they been amazing coworkers but I'm also able to call them my friends, which means something special. I know that for the rest of my life I will be talking to these women and I couldn't be more grateful to be a part of that family.

HitFix: This week's episode deals with a very serious subject and I was wondering if there was sort of a different process in the rehearsal, with the table read, with all of that to make sure that you get certain things right when you're doing certain scenes?

Sadie Calvano: No. The schedule and stuff like that stays exactly the same. It's just that in rehearsals I think as an actor you allow yourself to take a little bit more time. And I know that with me when I'm running super dramatic scenes we normally spend a little bit less time on them because you don't want to overwork it.

HitFix: There's the therapy scene in this week's episode that's very powerful, specifically Allison just has a great moment at the end of that scene. What are the conversations you have to make sure you guys are comfortable with the turns that that scene takes?

Sadie Calvano: I think that's really it, is you just have to check in with one another and make sure that everyone is comfortable with the turns. And if there's anything that anyone is having a problem with, we voice it. And one of the things that Allison and Anna have taught me is that regardless of the level you're at and how many years you've been doing this and how many awards you've won, everyone sometimes needs to ask for help and that's an okay thing. In fact I think it's a great thing in that we're lucky enough to be doing scenes with people that make us feel super safe. And it's all about communicating and listening.

HitFix: And Violet has been in a dark place for much of this season and perhaps at her darkest in this week. Do you have a sense that there's a lightness coming up or are we just staying where we are with her?

Sadie Calvano: Violet has always got tons of stuff going on, so definitely later on in the season I think you'll see more colors coming from her.

HitFix: And do you miss the pregnancy prosthetics/belly at all?

Sadie Calvano: Not at all! So happy to be done with that belly! It was so heavy and so hot. I am thrilled to be back in normal clothes.

HitFix: I guess it got bigger and clunkier as it went along, so did you have to learn how to act with it?

Sadie Calvano: Oh yeah. I think that especially the heavier and the bigger that that belly got the more I started to waddle because I really had to. It's hard to walk, but I was thankful I could take it off at the end of the day, for sure.

“Mom” airs Thursdays at 8:30 on CBS.

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