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‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Cast Discuss Adapting the Novel for Apple TV+

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Lessons in Chemistry was a standout streaming show in 2023, anchored by a strong performance from Brie Larson. The Apple TV+ limited series also starred Lewis Pullman and Aja Naomi King, both of whom played perfect supporting roles. All three stars, in addition to showrunner Lee Eisenberg, appeared at Deadline Contenders Television 2024 to discuss their approach to adapting the novel and the potential of a second season. 

[Editor’s note: quotes have been edited slightly for clarity.]

Brie Larson and co. on adapting Lessons in Chemistry for AppleTV+

To kick things off, the moderator asked Eisenberg how he discovered the Lessons in Chemistry novel by Bonnie Garmus. I loved how passionate both he and Brie Larson clearly are about this project! 

Eisenberg said, “I’m completely obsessed with the book. Brie and Michael Costigan found the book years before I was even aware of it. I read the book and looked for it, I found out that it was at Apple, I found out that Brie Larson was attached. I raised my hand and said if there’s a job opening, I would like it. And in short order, I was on a Zoom with Brie, we were talking about it, and we were just off to the races. It was an absolutely incredible experience, adapting something that I was so in love with, and with these characters, it was just a dream job.”

Next, the moderator asked Brie Larson a great question about her approach to playing Elizabeth Zott: “Brie, this character is my absolute hero. I can’t think of a character I’ve liked more in like the past few years than Elizabeth Zott. She is a feminist hero. She has an absolute moral compass. But she’s also an excellent cook and a scientist and I believe that you were an enthusiastic cook going into this. But what did you know about chemistry? How did you feel about that?”

Larson’s response started with a joke, but it’s very interesting to hear about her approach to playing such a scientific character.  “Oh, I’m a chemist. You know, it’s not my strong suit. But that’s the fun of the job and to me, the heart of Elizabeth is, I get to be in the same place as the audience are, a lot of the audience, in terms of being in the position to translate these incredible feats of science through her so that the audience at least somewhat gets what’s going on. Because we’re not going to diminish her, but we also can’t create a world where she has to constantly explain herself, either. So it was the great challenge of it. It’s like learning a new language and figuring out how to pronounce words. You know, I learned French, and it’s not dissimilar to that idea. How do you pronounce these words? How do you say it in this way that reflects the community? And then understanding how much is the same in where she’s coming from.”

Lee Eisenberg, Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, and Aja Naomi King at Deadline Contenders Television 2024
Lee Eisenberg, Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, and Aja Naomi King at Deadline Contenders Television 2024 (Photo by Uday Kataria)

Larson continued, “It’s still baffling to me that I get confused from time to time, and you think, ‘Oh, she’s so different than me. She’s a scientist. I could never be like that.’ And then as more time goes on, you’re like ‘Oh, but her process is actually very similar to mine.’ And it is a creative field. It’s just translated in a way that’s like, beyond, and I’m in awe of her. Being her was an absolute delight and pleasure, and I just never wanted it to end, really.”

The moderator then wanted to know how involved the book’s author was when it came to crafting Elizabeth, asking: “I had read that Bonnie Garmus, the novelist, had designed Elizabeth as sort of an amalgam of characters from her mother’s generation. Did you have much contact with her about having created this character and how to kind of embody Elizabeth?”

Brie Larson responded, “Well, the beauty of this is that we had this book and Bonnie, such a brilliant writer, that Elizabeth always felt strangely clear to me. […] I still was like, ‘Wow, it’s so interesting that there’s certain things that – it’s a testament to her writing how clear and robust and multidimensional and multifaceted this character was. So I was following her lead in that way, just fingers crossed that I was doing something that could even be a teeny bit of what she created. Because that is a task. I don’t know if I’ve ever really had to do it before. I had a little bit of luck that the book hadn’t come out yet, so I got to live in my own world for a little bit. And then the book came out, I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ But I think it works. Bonnie’s work has been the North Star of this. Of course, I can only be responsible for my work. If you have a problem with Elizabeth, that’s my problem, it’s not Bonnie’s problem. I was just so deeply inspired by her, it was just taking that next step forward on the path that she had laid out.”

Lewis Pullman and Aja Naomi King on their characters

Focus then shifted over to Lewis Pullman, who plays Elizabeth’s love interest Calvin Evans. Rowing is a hobby for both of them, so the moderator asked how they prepared for such a physically intensive sport. 

Pullman said, “I would say we did a lot of one-on-ones with Jack, our trainer. But we had different schedules in prep. You know – what?”  The moderator interrupted him to say, “[Brie] just said he crashed the boat.” Pullman denied the accusation: “I was in the boat when it crashed… there were only two people [and the] instructor, so… You can decide.”

In response to Lee Eisenberg saying “You’re an excellent actor,” Pullman continued: “Yeah, I got pretty good at pretending that I can crash. I mean, it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to try and learn fast. As an actor, you try your best to learn what most people spend a lifetime mastering in like three weeks or four weeks? I don’t know. But yeah, it definitely is. I mean, it’s a very meditative sport, I can see why that’s a huge part of what people love about the book, and so it’s important to try and keep up with Brie’s incredible learning curve. I was always trying to just keep up there, but I think it looks like I can row.”

The moderator wanted to know more about actually playing Calvin in Lessons in Chemistry since “he’s a very singular person”. 

“I think it’s hard. It’s hard. Adapting a book is a challenge because when somebody reads a book and falls in love with a book, it’s a story that is catered towards their imagination, they get to create their best version of it. It’s hard to compete with that, which is what was so great about coming in with this team, who is so adamant about doing service to the original story while also bringing in our own original breath and life to it. So it was just kind of a beautiful current of creativity and listening. It was very collaborative, and I didn’t create Calvin by myself. I was really just kind of following orders. Luckily, I was surrounded by people who love the book and loved Calvin, and so I can bring what I like to him, and then we’ll also bring stuff that wasn’t in the book. Like a lot of Aja and I’s stuff, that was compounded on, that I thought really got to breathe its own life. Sorry… [I’m] rambling”. 

Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, and Aja Naomi King at Deadline Contenders Television 2024
Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, and Aja Naomi King at Deadline Contenders Television 2024 (Photo by Uday Kataria)

The next question kicked things over to Aja Naomi King. “Well, I enjoy the rambling. Aja, I want to follow up on something that was just said. Obviously, what happens with Harriet is somewhat different from the character in the book. I love that Harriet shows up in every way a person can show up for her friend, for Elizabeth. But at the same time, she will not waver from her mission. She’s very driven. We see her staging the freeway protest, tackling these incredibly racist covenants in Los Angeles. Tell us about shooting that particular situation.”

King responded, “That was phenomenal. It was such a remarkable day, it was so beautiful. I mean, it was also very overwhelming. There’s something about when you are standing in a space reenacting something that you know that people went through. If you’ve ever been to a protest, there is just this overwhelming sense of urgency that kind of takes over you because you know what you’re doing is so important. So just kind of living in this space of like, ‘People went through this, people still go through this’, is what I carried in my spirit during that time. We didn’t quite know all of the choreography that we would be witnessing while we were filming that scene.”

“It was oddly the sort of thing where we knew we didn’t have a lot of time because we shut down an actual freeway. But even in the ‘We don’t have a lot of time’, there was this need to just honor the process. It didn’t feel rushed, it felt fully embodied, and just really, really beautiful to inhabit it and be there with each other and then find moments to laugh between takes and have conversation and enjoy ourselves. But then just the surprise of sitting in that, firsthand, and it just being done so realistically. You don’t have to engineer the emotions in that moment because it’s really just emerging out of you being present in it. I loved playing Harriet, I loved everything, everything that was created for Harriet, and the way in which Harriet and Elizabeth got to have this relationship. An earned relationship, which I love, the honesty with one another, the shared experiences, the conversations about not shared experiences, all of it. It’s just so beautiful, so beautifully done.”

Review: Brie Larson Cooks in Lessons in Chemistry

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Will there be a Lessons in Chemistry season 2?

Of course, the moderator asked what fans of the shows are all thinking. She had to know if a second season is in the cards due to the show’s “phenomenal reception”.

Asking for Eisenberg’s thoughts, he responded: “My thought is that writing is hard. No, I think if the right idea came along, I think I would really consider it. Working with these people was the gift of a lifetime, truly. It’s the best work experience I’ve ever had. So selfishly, I want to keep working with them for as long as I can. And if it’s Lessons in Chemistry season 2, then great, and if it’s something else, great, but we really felt like we reached the end of the story. We don’t really talk about it. We have no plans for season 2. We finished the book.”

Finally, there was one last question for Brie Larson: if Elizabeth left her with something that inspired her in real life. Larson replied, “Oh, it’s that when you say to yourself, ‘This hurts so much. It doesn’t make any sense.’ You just give it time.” 

It was wonderful to hear from the cast and showrunner behind Lessons in Chemistry. It’s clear that everyone involved with this series is very passionate about the story they told, and it was exciting to be in the room with them because of that. I don’t think we need a second season, but I certainly wouldn’t say no to one if they go down that route!

Lessons in Chemistry is currently streaming on AppleTV+! Have you seen it? What did you think? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord!

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Uday Kataria

Hi! I'm a huge Marvel, DC, and LEGO fan. I run my own YouTube channel (GoldenNinja3000) and write/host podcasts for The Cosmic Circus. I also created and produced the LEGO Ninjago short film "Golden Hour".

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