Spoilers ahead for the ending of minx season one.
minx has concluded its first season, fittingly, with a bang. The HBO Max show depicts the birth of the titular feminist nudie mag, full of big dongs and bigger ideas. The magazine is a tenuous alliance between veteran pornographer Doug (Jake Johnson) and feminist writer Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond), who winds up roping her sister Shelly, played by Lennon Parham, into the venture. Comedy fans will recognize Parham for guesting on just about every TV show (including once playing Johnson’s cousin-in-law on an episode of New Girl) as well as for co-creating and co-starring in two shows with partner-in-comedy Jessica St. Clair: six episodes of Best Friends Forever on NBC and three seasons of Playhouse on USA.
Shelly is minx‘s representative of mainstream American womanhood, the housewife all middle-class women are “supposed” to be; Parham thinks of her as minx‘s ultimate target audience. But the more Shelly reads, the more she is transformed, moving deeper and deeper into the San Fernando Valley’s porn underbelly as the season progresses. That involvement (ahem) climaxes when she and Bambi (Jessica Lowe) escalate their boudoir-photography session into an exclusively gay moment. Parham spoke to Vulture about that night of passion, how to improvise on a scripted show without being a jerk about it, and what’s next for Shelly post-sexual-awakening.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you find out how Shelly was going to end this season?
Before my first fitting for the season. Ellen Rapoport, the creator, texted me and said, “Hey, can we chat real quick about Shelly’s arc?” I was terrified. Whenever you get a “Hey, let’s chat” text, you’re terrified. And she said, “I just wanted to take you through Shelly’s arc. Because you’ll see at the fitting tomorrow, you’re going to be trying on some unusual things.” I was shocked but also so excited to play this portrait of a woman who is the ultimate minx reader, and it’s working on her. It’s opening her up.
You and Ophelia have a very lived-in sisterly relationship. How did you find that?
It was just there; it was easy. Maybe because Ophelia is British, she’s a little more buttoned up. And I’m 100 percent American — “Tell me your darkest secrets.” Maybe there was this level of yin and yang that already existed. It was there from the get-go, the way sisters can say something rude as hell but can get right back to loving you. Because they know you better than anybody.
But the dynamic changes over the series. Joyce is so much more ambitious, career wise, and Shelly keeps getting pulled into this world out of sisterly care.
I think she sees that Joyce has been trying and how precious this thing is to her. And she knows — the way you know for all your good friends and your sisters — that if they just move into that place where that discomfort lives, they will get to where they want to be faster. I think it’s also a little self-serving for Shelly. Because if her sister has access to this world, then she’ll have access, too. It feels so titillating and so outside of her awareness.
Tell me a little bit about the fantasy sequence.
It was pretty much a day of me making out with men I’d never met before. Which, as your job, is a pretty weird thing. I was very nervous about it. I was nervous about the scene with Bambi even more so, to be honest. Probably because the fantasy sequence lives in the world of comedy, and I’ve done comedic make-outs before. But the sheer amount of make-outs was insane.
I did love that I got to wear that hairpiece, that fall, and have hair for days. And the “girls” were lifted and out for play. All the gentleman callers that were involved in it were very kind. Tea Wuthering Heights Heathcliff guy had on like a Kip Winger–style wig, which made him very attractive. The two stuntmen who played the priest and the pope were very funny and very professional. And the gentleman who played the stable boy—we didn’t have much time to shoot that, so we had to run through that pretty quickly because there was also a horse involved.
An intimacy coordinator and a horse wrangler on the same set.
We were on a stage that was surrounded by these black drapes, and they flooded it with this fog. They had to keep it really cold for the fog and the horse. There were all these moving set pieces, like the confessional, that disappeared behind me. There were also like a hundred candles lit. There were so many moving pieces. It was really the first scene of the whole series that was really my thing, so that felt good. It was really fun, but then I would come home and feed my kids, you know?
Speaking of, part of Shelly’s journey is that she’s been so — for lack of a better term — mom-pilled that she’s having trouble getting in touch with her sexuality again.
The mom of it all is very … invasive? That’s not the word I want to use; that sounds negative. That sounds like a disease. But it does infuse every piece of your life. Like, you put on a nice top to go to dinner, and it’s got a peanut butter stain on it. Once you get pregnant, everything changes. Especially for a woman in 1972, a homemaker whose sole job is essentially this family. There isn’t a whole lot outside of that for her, I guess, besides playing doubles.
That was a big fear for me when I got pregnant — that I would never want to work again or that I was going to lose that part of myself. Or that I wouldn’t be as funny. But I found the opposite to be true. I got funnier; everything became a lot clearer. Whatever it was that I was going to do, to have to be away from my kids, it had to be worth it. So I started to make smarter choices about how to spend my time.
We don’t really get to check in with Shelly in the last episode. How’s she doing?
She literally doesn’t have anything that’s just for herself, and this titillating world opens up to her. She starts to dip a toe in, and I’m sure she’s not telling her husband about it. She’s definitely not talking about it with her girlfriends. And she’s definitely been kicked out of the tennis club by now, for sure. So she’s starting to have this thing just for herself, and I think it probably feels really, really good.
Going back to the fantasy sequence, there aren’t any women in there. What do you think that night with Bambi means to Shelly?
In 1972, I don’t think she’d have a lot of access to the idea of “gay.” Or how we’re talking about identity and sexuality — nonbinary, bi, pansexual — awareness about it didn’t exist. It felt dangerous, not at all what she would have seen growing up. We don’t really get into the parents of it all, but the dad’s dead and the mom’s MIA. I think if we ever learn any more about them, there will be some good information there.
But I guess when you don’t see it, like with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, when you don’t allow awareness about it, it won’t be an option for a lot of people. So for Shelly, I don’t think that option exists. She’s never seen that relationship in a healthy, normal way. So I think she’s been feeling this pull toward Bambi and had been assuming it was this exciting friendship. This beautiful, open woman who’s totally settled in her body, kind of “Been there, done that.” That’s exciting to her. It feels like they’re falling in friend love. I think Bambi sees something in Shelly that she doesn’t even see in herself. So when that moment comes, and she starts to feel desirable and she sees the desire in Bambi’s eyes, I think it totally surprises both of them. It comes out of nowhere. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to go away, though.
It’s interesting that you say seeing Bambi’s desire kind of activated her. Because for women, so much of our desire is tied up in feeling desirable.
I remember the feeling of that when that first happened. I looked like I was a 12-year-old until I was like 25. I went to study in England, and it was an opportunity to rewrite who I was. To see myself reflected in a man’s eyes and to feel desirable, that felt good and powerful and exciting. I guess it didn’t have to be a man, but that’s who was looking. I think that was the first time I started to feel those feelings and have that awakened in me. I never really thought about it that way, but you’re right.
At the end of the season, Joyce is trying to decide between working with people who can scale up her operations but also want something from her and going it alone with fewer resources. You’ve developed shows on multiple networks and also done more DIY podcast stuff. How do you navigate that choice between a big audience with strings or no strings but no money?
I think it depends on who the people are that are the gatekeepers, if you will.
Who the Doug is in the situation.
Exactly. For me, when I see the show, I see a guy who has the patriarchy deeply ingrained in him but knows that he doesn’t know it all. And that is a gift for someone who is supporting artists — in this case, Joyce. But for me and Jessica St. Clair, when we sold Playhouse to USA, we had someone at the top, Jeff Watchtel, who came up in the world of theater. He understood that the artist’s voice is what’s most important. So it wasn’t like we were trying to tailor our voices to the USA Network. They didn’t really have an identity as far as half-hour comedies were concerned. And sometimes it felt like maybe they’d forgotten we were on their network. But inside of that, it felt like we were able to tell the stories that we wanted to tell. We didn’t get a whole lot of notes or pushback, and that was great.
The show before that, Best Friends Forever, was different. It was on a network, NBC, so we got notes like, “You need to have a big event every episode.” So we would have to retrofit to that.
You’re a gifted improviser and a lot of your co-stars also came up in improv. Was there room to improvise at all while shooting?
Listen, on a scripted sitcom, it’s never useful to improvise your own monologue about a turtle or whatever. And as an EP, I know that. I know what’s useful, hopefully, in the edit. So I try not to totally go off on a tangent. But for sure, there were elements of play. They kept things I improvised in the final cut. You always need a button for the end of a scene. You’re always going to need a good word, a laugh to go out on. I’m an improviser, and I crave the camera crew laughing with their shoulders behind the camera. So if it’s there for the taking, I’m gonna take it.
It does seem very in line for your character. For Shelly, wry asides seem like her main mode of self-expression.
At one point Joyce says, “You’ve always been funnier than me,” and I say, “Low bar.” So there’s some dry stuff that feels like me, almost, but inside of this woman.
I think I improvised “His anus is bluer.” I’m proud of that.