Entertainment

How ‘A League Of Their Own’ series cast built on the movie

In adapting “A League of Their Own” into a new drama series for Amazon, co-creators Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson weighed every potential Easter egg, callback and quote from the beloved 1992 film with a fan’s sensibility: their own.

“We were pinching ourselves with excitement and fear that we get to do this,” Graham said of their reverence for the film, set against the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and for the female ballplayers of the 1940s and ‘50s who inspired it. When it came to a certain famous line, though, they weren’t sure it fit the story they wanted to tell.

“They’d hear the name of the film and say, ‘There’s no crying in baseball!’” said Jacobson (“Broad City”), who also stars in the series, of those they told about the adaptation. Then Graham dropped it into an episode draft, thinking, “We’ll probably not wind up doing it,” he said. But in the context of the series’ new lineup of characters, each of whom is navigating both the pressures of the league and her place in America circa 1943, the words took on new dimension.

With more room to explore an array of racial, gender and sexual identities within the ensemble, “League” deepens thematic seeds planted in Penny Marshall‘s classic. So the line stayed in, employed at just the right moment to nod at the original while underscoring the remake’s more contemporary interests. “Because I think part of what’s underneath it,” says Graham, “is that, well, there is crying in baseball.”

Not that many tears are shed in the series, now streaming on Prime Video. But it has a lot more than just baseball on its mind. Where the film tracks the rivalry between sisters Kit Keller (Lori Petty) and Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) as they become Rockford Peaches at the start of the AAGPBL, the series follows all-new aspiring players Carson Shaw (Jacobson), a married catcher from Iowa; Greta Gill (D’Arcy Carden) and Jo Deluca (Melanie Field), streetwise besties from New York City; and Lupe Garcia (Roberta Colindrez), the team’s driven star pitcher.

Expanding on one of the film’s most memorable moments, in which an unnamed Black woman (played in an uncredited role by DeLisa Chinn-Taylor) forcefully throws a ball over Dottie toward home plate, the pilot sees pitching phenom Maxine “Max” Chapman (Chanté Adams) throw a bomber across the field to prove her skills at the league’s open tryouts. Because Max is Black, she’s not even allowed to compete — launching her own parallel journey over the season as she fights to play the sport she loves, any way she can.

The co-creators were grateful to speak with Marshall prior to her death in 2018. “We wanted to make sure she knew how much we loved the film that she made,” said Jacobson. “We want to continue and showcase the spirit and the joy and the grit and athleticism and all the things we loved about it.” Marshall in turn told them about her original four-and-a-half-hour cut of “League” and what she wasn’t able to include in the film, said Graham. “She also said, ‘These stories changed my life. And I think they will change yours too.’”

[Penny Marshall] said, ‘These stories changed my life. And I think they will change yours, too.’

— “A League of Their Own” series co-creator Will Graham

The show’s creative team, led by a full-time researcher, interviewed historians and surviving members of the league, pored over letters and memorabilia and collected untold stories rarely centered in movies and TV depicting the period. As a result, queer, Black and Latinx lives are explicitly centered in its interwoven narratives.

“The original movie was like a Trojan horse — it’s a good time, it’s fun and you don’t realize you’re watching something that was really groundbreaking at the time because you’re just on the ride and having a good time,” said Graham. “I think part of what drew both of us to this was knowing that, looking into the real stories, there’s a gigantic queer story here that is fun and joyful without looking away from the hard parts of it. There are plenty of those too.”

At the center of that story is Jacobson’s Carson, who becomes a reluctant leader of the Peaches. With her husband at war, Carson finds herself on an unexpected journey of self-discovery as she comes into her own on the team and strikes up chemistry with the Peaches’ glamorous first baseman, Greta.

Woman in portrait

D’Arcy Carden.

(Evelyn Freja / For the Times)

“Carson’s queer journey in the show is partially her coming into her queerness and is partially about her finding her confidence, which then lets her do the things she loves in a totally different way,” said Jacobson. “That can be analogous to whatever your baseball is. I think the more you know yourself and feel seen and known, the better you are in the world at whatever your passion is.”

One of the first cast members she brought on was friend and “Broad City” alum Carden (“The Good Place,” “Barry”). Stepping outside her comedy comfort zone, Carden plays the worldly Greta, who maintains a tightly controlled public façade to hide her dalliances with women as a means of survival. “Greta always gets what she wants because she’s learned how to show you exactly what you want to see,” she said.

As soon as she signed on, she and Jacobson, who both played softball, stole away to an Echo Lake park with their gloves to have a catch. “We had this moment where we were like, ‘Holy s—, I hope we still can throw a ball,’” Carden said with a laugh.

Adams (“Roxanne Roxanne”) was another pivotal actor cast as the series geared up for a prepandemic start. Inspired by real-life players Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan — the only three women to play professionally in the Negro Leagues — Max struggles to balance the heteronormative expectations of her family with her own wants and desires. “Max’s journey is about her figuring out for herself where she lands, what she likes, and who Max is,” said Adams.

Barred from trying out for the AAGPBL, Max takes aim at joining the local all-male factory team, tackling obstacles that her white counterparts don’t have to face. Through the character, “League” also expands its scope to include her family and friends within Rockford, Ill.’s Black community.

Portrait photo of a woman

Chanté Adams.

(Evelyn Freja / For the Times)

“A lot of times when we see projects that approach Black life, they are rooted in trauma and the oppression of the time period,” said Adams. “We wanted to find a way that was authentic to the story that we’re telling and the era but also showcased what it meant to have Black joy and Black friendships and Black love, whether it’s through romantic relationships, platonic relationships or parenthood. What does it look like when we put all of those things into a positive light, especially in this era? It’s unheard of, and something that we rarely get to see.”

As the cast grew, baseball camp began in Los Angeles under the tutelage of consultant Justine Siegal, the first woman to coach in the major leagues. Original AAGPBL players Maybelle Blair and the late Shirley Burkovich shared their experiences on and off the field, with the 95-year-old Blair coming on as a series consultant.

By the time the cast had gone through months of training alongside professional players, it felt like a real team — which helped when, due to pandemic delays, it resumed filming a year and a half after the pilot to finish the rest of the season.

British actor Gbemisola Ikumelo, who plays Max’s loyal best friend Clance, is the only core character who is not a ballplayer. Devoted to helping Max’s dream come true, she harbors her own dreams of being a comic-book writer.

“There was something Will said in the beginning: This is a story of a generation of women, and baseball is a beautiful exploration of what that means and how that generation had to move through the world at that time,” said Ikumelo, who also joined the writers’ room after filming the pilot.

As characters’ journeys intersect, the series illuminates common forces that dictate their lives, from racial and economic barriers to the expectation of gender conformity and beyond. The financial security that comes with a ballplayer’s paycheck means economic freedom for many characters, especially Colindrez’s Lupe, whose steely exterior masks the reason she’s desperate to keep her spot at the top of the Peaches roster.

The “Vida” and “I Love Dick” star was excited to be tapped for a role in the show — then wondered who she’d play, since there weren’t any Latinx characters in the film. At first Lupe, a Mexican American pitcher, is so eager to show off her talent that she allows her ethnicity to be rewritten by League press agents, who dub her the “Spanish Striking Sensation.”

Photo portrait of a woman

Roberta Colindrez.

(Evelyn Freja / For the Times)

“That serves as a perfect example of the exotification that is engendered within racism itself,” said Colindrez. “Why do y’all have to qualify it? Lupe’s main drag is, ‘I don’t want to just be a really good Latin player. I am a really good baseball player.’” The arrival of Cuban second basewoman Esti González (Priscilla Delgado), who only speaks Spanish, prompts the bilingual Lupe to begrudgingly take the younger player under her wing, confronting her conflicted feelings about her own identity.

“That was something we talked about a lot when when the show was being written,” said Colindrez, “because I feel so lucky that I’m Latin. I’ve always had this monumental pride about being Latin. And it was impossible for me to understand, growing up and even now, how people aren’t sometimes.

“For me, it was important to talk about the horrible cultural violence against Mexican Americans that has happened historically,” she added. “I grew up in Texas, and so many of the Mexican American kids I grew up with were like, ‘I don’t speak Spanish.’ It was like they had internalized that kind of racism towards themselves and shame about being different. So I wanted to explore that with this character.”

Vernon Sanders, Amazon Studios’ head of U.S./global television, describes “League” as emblematic of the studio’s four-pronged inclusion policy announced last year to amplify diverse voices both onscreen and behind the scenes, from the development stage to production, casting, hiring and accountability. It has also helped the studio solidify how to put the policy into practice, he said.

“We’re telling the stories of people who haven’t often had their stories told,” Sanders said. “They were doing the work of the inclusion policy before we announced it.”

Portrait of a woman

Abbi Jacobson.

(Evelyn Freja / For the Times)

While much of the company’s upcoming slate hangs on what Amazon Studios head Jen Salke describes as “epic, genre, IP-driven” fare — like the “Lord of the Rings” series tentpole, fantasy series “The Wheel of Time” and superhero franchise “The Boys” — she says period and character-driven titles like “League,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” young adult hit series “The Summer I Turned Pretty” and the upcoming Harry Styles romance “My Policeman” serve important roles in the studio’s slate.

“We’re very intentional about the balance of stories we’re telling,” said Salke. “We have a very broad audience that like all kinds of content, and it’s global so it’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all kind of strategy for us … we pride ourselves on having shows that surprise the audience in terms of what it’s really all about.”

One of the most gratifying moments for Graham and Jacobson came earlier this summer at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Blair joined cast and producers in a panel discussion for the series and came out publicly as a lesbian at the age of 95.

“The show is about teams and communities and she was a part of the community of the league, and she’s now a part of the community of our community,” said Graham, who along with Jacobson became close to Blair over the course of the show. “We did not know in advance that that was going to happen the way that it happened, and it’s a moment that is bigger than the show and more important than the show.”

“To get to see someone be fully seen and wildly accepted, and someone I love and respect, it was so incredible,” Jacobson agreed. “She came out at 95. It’s never too late to do that. It made me feel so proud of the show that we’re telling these stories — that maybe she wouldn’t have had to wait til she was 95 if more stories had been told.”

Four women on a bed

The cast of the 2022 series “A League of Their Own,” from left, D’Arcy Carden, Roberta Colindrez, Chanté Adams and Abbi Jacobson.

(Evelyn Freja / For The Times)

‘A League of Their Own’

Where: Amazon prime

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: 16+ (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 16 with advisories for coarse language, sex, violence, smoking and alchohol use)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-08-17/a-league-of-their-own-amazon-prime-video-cast How ‘A League Of Their Own’ series cast built on the movie

Sarah Ridley

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