In ELLE.com’s recurring feature Character Study, we ask the creators behind our favorite shows to go deep about what went into creating their memorable characters: the original idea behind them, how they were tailored to the actor, and elements of them we might not see on the screen.
It all started with her year of yes. In the first season of HBO Max’s The Other Two, Pat Dubek, a recently widowed Ohio mom with a suddenly famous teen son, decided to embrace all the possibility missing from her life and relocate to New York where her old children (the titular other two) were struggling in their careers. What started as a fish out of water story could have turned into into the expected parable of teen fame. Instead, it became something very different. As her pop star son’s story veered off of the Justin Bieber trajectory, Pat’s began to flourish. The second season saw her as host of a wildly popular daytime talk show and in the third, she’s become a media mogul on par with Oprah.
Several weeks ago and prior to the WGA strike, showrunners Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, who were head writers at Saturday Night Live, spoke about the changes Pat has made since the first season, the darkness that comes with wealth and notoriety, and the joy of working with Molly Shannon.
What was the first characteristic of Pat you came up with?
Chris Kelly: We thought of her as versions of our moms or aunts or family members. Happy, plucked from nowhere, just along for the goddamn ride. Just wrapped in cotton candy and got on the roller coaster. When you first meet her in New York, she went to the candy store, got the leather jacket and “can’t believe she’s in New York City!” We didn’t want her to be outwardly a momager or anything like that and we didn’t want Chase to be a little shithead. We wanted him to be a sweet little kid with a sweet little mom who are just about to be gobbled up whole by the machine.
Sarah Schneider: She’s still wide-eyed and gets excited by things even though she’s now at the level she’s at. In the first season it was the candy store and now it’s getting candy delivered to her house. She’s still like, “oh isn’t it so fun to be powerful?” She’s still so excited to be there.
What do you think it was that made her want to make such a huge change and say, we’re going to move here, we’re going to start over again?
Schneider: Her husband had recently died and I think a lot of times when you’re grieving you’re just a little bit more susceptible to making a big change as a distraction. She was in her house that she shared with her husband and the alternative was to go to New York City and start a new adventure and have a year of yes. That felt very appealing to her.
Do you think there are ways in which we’re seeing her still grieve?
Kelly: She was excited to go along for the ride and say yes to everything and lucked into all these things because she’s so charming and funny and she’s a normal person and people relate to her, so these things kept falling into her lap. But what this season is largely about is that you can’t go backwards. She’s this huge famous person and now she can’t just exist in the world like she used to. In some ways she’s grieving her old life. We find her missing the things she left, the boringness, the normalcy, the ability to go to the store or go to the park.
We’ve seen all the ways that her life has changed since being in New York. But has she changed?
Schneider: She just carries herself a little bit differently. She’s a little bit more in her power, she speaks a little bit more authoritatively. But then at the same time she still has that “my kids are here” energy. She’s still who she always has been but she’s also changed because of everything she’s gone through and the status that she has.
What do you think she sees in Streeter?
Schneider: He’s someone who loves her kids as much as she does and someone who’s solid and someone she can trust. When you knew someone when and now you’re at a certain level but you’re like, “well, at least they liked me then.” I think he’s home to her.
Chris, I know you worked with Molly before. Was this part created with her in mind?
Kelly: It wasn’t initially written with her in mind, only because we didn’t remotely presume she would want to do it or could do it. It just felt too good to be true that she’d be like, “I’ll do a second thing, sure.” But shortly after writing it we were like, that’s who it would be, that’s who I picture, that’s what it sounds like.
Knowing it was her probably changed the character a little bit, too. You become excited to write for that actor. You’re like, oh, she’s really good at doing this, let’s keep pushing in this direction. Or what do you want to see Molly Shannon do? Let’s do this. That kind of happens with every cast member. Once you have the cast member locked in and you know who it is, you become specifically excited to write to their strengths.
What are elements of Molly’s own character that we might see in Pat in various ways?
Kelly: She’s similar to Pat in a lot of ways, which is why season 2 worked so well when she had her own talk show. You can kind of imagine Molly Shannon having her own talk show. She’s very personable, she’s very warm. She’s kind of bubbly and lively and she’s a gossip and she likes to talk and she likes to dish. She just feels like you’re meeting a real person. She doesn’t feel like she’s behind this wall of celebrity.
Schneider: She’s also someone who’s still so excited to be there. It feels like someone who’s been working for so long would really get over it, but she would be excited to have celebrities on set, she’d be excited for big new sets that we were working on. When she saw her house for the first time was so, “Chris, Sarah look at this!” That is so nice to have on set as a person, but it also works great for Pat, as well.
What do you think she was like before she moved to New York? Did she have a job? What was she like as a mom when the kids were little?
Kelly: We always thought she was a school nurse. We thought she probably lived a normal life and had friends. We actually meet some of her friends from Ohio later in the season. She had a good life. I think she was probably a little smaller than she should have been. Maybe she spent a lot of her life taking care of her kids and taking care of her husband and not that that’s a bad thing to do, but I think she probably had things that she wanted to do. She wanted to burst out and go do things or travel or try things or see things and she probably put those goals second.
Schneider: Children are her life which is another way that Molly is similar to her character. She just loves and adores her kids and family always comes first for her. I think that’s why we thought she’d be a school nurse. We thought she should have a job where she was on the same schedule as her kids.
She could go say hello to them in class.
Schneider: And have the summers off together. Her kids have always been her world for her and now it’s just on a huger scale. That’s always been the most challenging part of this new shift in her life, that it’s at times taken her away from her kids or changed their relationship. That’s almost more devastating to her than anything in her own personal life.
What do you think she’s really coping with in season 3, besides the obvious lack of privacy and inability to go anywhere?
Kelly: The back half of the season changes. The question is, this life has become untenable, this life is a little bit more of a prison than I thought it would be. She starts to wonder what would happen if she went back. You long for what you don’t have, or the grass is greener, so she starts to try to explore.
At the end of the day, what quality of hers really propels the plot?
Kelly: In the first episode of the season, we find her rich and powerful and in the second episode we’re realizing she can’t go out and be a normal person in the world. But she still wants to see her kids, so then she starts sneaking out at night. Then that doesn’t work, and she keeps getting swarmed by paparazzi and fans everywhere, do she goes and tries prosthetics. In every new episode she’s trying new things to try to make herself feel real in this bizarre world. How can I find happiness in this new world? What is the key to that? Is it trying this, is it trying that disguise, is it sneaking out, is it going back to my past? What is it? What can make me tether myself to any modicum of reality in this bizarre world?
Schneider: Find some ounce of normalcy.
Kelly: What’s propelling the plot for her is to find some little nugget or normalcy in a world, in her new world which is full Oprah. Which is not normal at all. It’s not normal to have bodyguards follow you everywhere. It’s not normal for JFK to have to clear the airspace before you can walk in Central Park
Schneider: We instantly were like that would be a pure prison. That would be a personal hell. If you’re Oprah, yes of course, you’re Oprah. But you can’t run to Whole Foods, you can’t go for a stroll. I’m sure a million people would come up to her. It’s this prison that has its benefits, obviously. It’s so funny to be like, oh, poor Oprah. But we do feel for her. It is a massive life shift that you can’t undo. We found it interesting to see how Pat, who’s family oriented and normalcy-focused and that’s what she wants, would react in the least normal circumstances.
How did you develop the prosthetics that Pat wears?
Schneider: Oh my god, we worked with Louie Zakarian who does prosthetics for SNL and is just the best in the biz. Our whole goal for that not for it not to look like Molly wearing prosthetics, but for it to look like a completely different Linda from Iowa, just some completely different person so that Molly looked believable as a stranger. We liked her popping up within the kids stories and ultimately at the same bar as Streeter to overhear how he’s been feeling in the relationship.
They didn’t really take four hours, did they?
Schneider: I think they took two. Those were some early mornings for Molly, for sure.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Adrienne Gaffney is an editor at ELLE who previously worked at WSJ Magazine and Vanity Fair.