'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland It's Tuesday: Skogland is the only woman nominated for best directing (drama) at next month's Emmy Awards. She explains the care and craft behind directing such dark and intense material, and what Hollywood could do right now to increase the number of female directors. Tweet @NPRItsBeenaMin with feels or email samsanders@npr.org.
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'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland

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'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland

'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland

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Hey y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. We are entering my favorite season - Emmy season. And my guest today is up for an Emmy. She is the only female director nominated for directing in the drama category. Her name is Kari Skogland. She has directed episodes of "Boardwalk Empire," and "The Americans," and "The Walking Dead," "House Of Cards." But she's up for an Emmy this year for directing Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale."

This show stars a lot of talented actors like Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes, Ann Dowd, and all of those actors are up for Emmys themselves this year, too.

So "The Handmaid's Tale" is adapted for TV from the Margaret Atwood novel, the classic by the same name. It was adapted by writer and showrunner Bruce Miller. It's set in this America where infertility has plagued everyone but a handful of women who are forced into sexual slavery by a ruling class of religious extremists. I know; it's heavy.

Kari and I talk about the show and what it's like to work on something that is so challenging and dark. And we talk about female directors in Hollywood, why it is still so hard for them, and this is a thing that Kari has been writing about and talking about for decades. All right, with that, let's get into it - me and director Kari Skogland. She was in New York. I was in LA. Enjoy.


SANDERS: Congratulations on your nomination. That's pretty awesome.

KARI SKOGLAND: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. It had been a wonderful ride and a real surprise.

SANDERS: What - so, like, I know for the Oscars, when a movie or an actor is about to be up for nomination and wants to have it, they're, like, on the circuit, and they are wining, and dining and glad-handing for months. How intense is the circuit for the Emmys?

SKOGLAND: Well, it's quite similar, actually.


SKOGLAND: And now with the - well, basically, the television has - is no longer TV as we ever knew it.


SKOGLAND: People are watching television as if it's in the same kind of sphere, I suppose, as what features used to be - I think also because there's so much sort of social commentary allowed in television and less so, oddly, in features these days. I mean, I - it's always there, but it's so independent.


SKOGLAND: So you're - on the circuit, you're also talking a lot about what that is. You know, so it's been a real joy that way, to be part of a continuing conversation. Obviously, you make a piece of entertainment, and that has its bearing, but then when you get to continue the conversation from a very personal place, I found it very rewarding.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, it's - there was a moment, and there's probably still a moment, in which this show, "The Handmaid's Tale," has become a part of the imagery of the so-called resistance to Donald Trump. There were women at resistance marches wearing the outfits from "The Handmaid's Tale." Are you OK with that? How do you feel about that?

SKOGLAND: Well, you know, I'm only one of the cogs in the wheel.


SKOGLAND: ...In terms of bringing it to life.

SANDERS: ...But a pretty big cog...

SKOGLAND: Thank you.

SANDERS: ...Who's up for an Emmy.


SKOGLAND: Thank you. Thank you. I wouldn't - I would like to say that nobody involved is agenda-oriented, so I don't know that there's been specificity to say, all right, we'll take on this argument. And by the way, everything that happened in the book, according to Margaret - which I know from research - has happened in the world. So nothing was made up. She obviously put it into a narrative that was fiction, but it's all based on absolute truth. So I think we are very aware in every step of what we are portraying, and I feel very good about that.

SANDERS: Yeah. You - I want to talk about the nuts and bolts of directing this show in a minute, but I do have to say a pressing question that I have for you. You're Canadian.


SANDERS: ...Which...

SKOGLAND: And American. And American.

SANDERS: ...Is great - and American.

SKOGLAND: I'm both.

SANDERS: Yes. But, like, do you approach - seeing how this show fits into the American cultural landscape right now, looking at some of the themes and plotlines in your show, do you approach some differently than some of your not-Canadian counterparts? Like, this is a show in which people are fleeing American tyranny by going to Canada. Do you see all of that differently as a Canadian?

SKOGLAND: Well, I have to say, doing the finale where, you know, Samira escaped to Canada, we had quite a fun time with that because, you know, in the envelope she was getting - you know, her health card and her - you know, her new passport, and she was being embraced as a immigrant - and what else did she get? She got, you know, a thousand dollars - a couple of thousand dollars for housing and clothes and, you know, all these gifts that Canada does...

SANDERS: Do they do that up there?

SKOGLAND: They do. They do. Yeah, they do.

SANDERS: I did not know that. OK.

SKOGLAND: And what was funny was, of course, right at that time was the beginning of the whole immigration question, where, in the U.S., they were saying, you know, no to - you know, hard-lining the whole immigration idea. And so it was, you know, this eye-popping kind of difference. And also, being Canadian, of course, growing up in Canada, I read them at - you know, I studied Margaret Atwood.


SKOGLAND: ...Amongst the other feminist authors of the time. And so there was a wonderful point of pride that this was being brought to life and, of course, a wonderful irony that it was being brought to life by Americans and not Canadians. So it had to be said.


SANDERS: When did you know that you wanted to direct?

SKOGLAND: I was 12 years old, and I went to see "Ryan's Daughter."

SANDERS: Really?


SANDERS: What about "Ryan's Daughter" made you know?

SKOGLAND: You know, I can't tell you. I think it was the cinema, the fact that this movie took me to a story that I hadn't had - the importance of a story that I hadn't quite ever, you know, realized about war, and it was so engaging, and it was this "Romeo And Juliet" love story at the same time as this cautionary tale and tragedy, and set in the - you know, Ireland, which is nothing but beautiful, and these, you know, epic performances. And I just said, I want to do that, and I just want to make that, those.

SANDERS: Yeah, at 12.

SKOGLAND: ...You know, at 12. So - but, of course, I didn't come from a family that was on the inside of entertainment, so of course it's...

SANDERS: What kind of family did you come from?

SKOGLAND: Well, my mother was a teacher, and my father was in broadcast, ran a series of radio stations in...

SANDERS: Really?

SKOGLAND: Yeah, in Canada. So I actually...

SANDERS: What kind of radio? Sorry, I have to stop and geek out on this for a second (laughter).

SKOGLAND: Oh, well, he was standard broadcasting - so CKFM, CFRB. It was news - one station was news radio. Another one was more pop music, popular music.


SKOGLAND: So I then folded into, you know, that world. And I actually even had my own show at one point called "Good News Reporting (ph)" which was - so I was - you know...

SANDERS: You had a radio show.

SKOGLAND: ...Broadcasting for - I did. I had a radio show.

SANDERS: Good - OK, what was the show about? We're going to sidebar for a bit.

SKOGLAND: Well, I was a teenager in my last year of high school.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

SKOGLAND: ...And sold the show to CBC, which is like the BBC.

SANDERS: Oh, I know that, yeah.

SKOGLAND: ...Or like NPR. Yeah.

SANDERS: But you sold the show your senior year of high school.

SKOGLAND: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDERS: ...To Canada's NPR.

SKOGLAND: Yeah. Yeah. And it would be good-news stories. So we would...

SANDERS: I like that.

SKOGLAND: ...Go around - we would, you know, interview the people - I don't know. I can't even remember the stories now. But it'd be, like, you know, the person who trains Seeing Eye dogs and what the - you know, stuff like that. So...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

SKOGLAND: So it was all feel-good stuff, but I really enjoyed it.

SANDERS: But at 12, you're like, I want to direct. Was the path to get there...

SKOGLAND: Direct, and produce and write.


SKOGLAND: I mean, I wanted to do it all. It was like, just, I want to do it all. Yeah.


SKOGLAND: So I did. You know, by age 25, I owned my first company, which was postproduction. So I came in through editing and started in commercials and music videos, which helped my - I guess, design my visual dialogue but also learn the importance of the second, of the 10 seconds, you know, how much you can - how much story you can tell. So that was a great area to learn. And then I started writing and wrote my first feature who - Paul Rudd starred in.

SANDERS: Really? Which one was that?

SKOGLAND: Well, that - actually, that was - I directed that one. Pardon me. I didn't write that one. It was called "Size Of Watermelons" (laughter).


SKOGLAND: And it was this kind of "I Love You Man" kind of storyline.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SKOGLAND: And we had a blast. I think we shot it in 10 days in Venice Beach.


SKOGLAND: The first film I wrote was called "Stone Angel," which was actually a movie - a book, a Margaret Laurence book. Another movie I wrote was called "50 Dead Men Walking" with Ben Kingsley, Jim Sturgess, and I was very proud of that film. We all were, who worked on it, because it was...


SKOGLAND: ...About a time in history that I knew very little about, which was the troubles in Ireland, and, you know, saving lives and ratting out your neighbor - you know, what that conundrum was.


SKOGLAND: So, you know, I always love to dig into, you know, these tough stories to tell. So...


SKOGLAND: "Handmaid," when it came along, was absolutely my sweet spot.

SANDERS: Yeah. So you've directed how many episodes? What - three or four?

SKOGLAND: Well, I - four this year and one last year.

SANDERS: OK. So this is my forever question. I will watch a season of a show, and it will have a throughline and a certain continuity, and the episodes look like they all belong together. And then I'll look at the credits and realize every episode was directed by somebody else. How do you guys do that? Like, how do you...

SKOGLAND: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...Go into an episode and say, I'm directing this episode; I'm going to make it my own, but it also needs to be part of this larger unit and make sense in the midst of that larger forest?

SKOGLAND: Well, I think it - first of all, it's show-dependent on how much license you're given to bring your unique visual style to the show.

SANDERS: Yeah. How much were you given?

SKOGLAND: On "Handmaid," you are given complete freedom.


SKOGLAND: ...You know, really, unlike some shows where you're really expected just to fold in and kind of, you know, deliver the script; that's it, and...


SKOGLAND: ...Put the camera, you know, where we normally put the camera and so on. This show really is much more like making a feature...


SKOGLAND: ...And uses kind of that feature model where the director is truly in charge on the floor. And we - Bruce renders a very, I would say, spare script, both - you know, because imagine all those scenes where there's three words (laughter).


SKOGLAND: His point of pride is to take a paragraph and turn it into a word, so there's a lot of room for the actors to perform and for the camera and for the atmosphere and the mood to help create the tension and the drama.


SKOGLAND: ...Because you can imagine all the actors have - this is tremendously difficult material...

SANDERS: Yeah, you don't say (laughter).

SKOGLAND: ...To perform. Exactly. So, you know, the - for them to be gracious about an incoming director - and, you know, the path of discovery with anybody, it takes a little bit to get to know each other and to get to trust each other and to get inside each other's heads.

SANDERS: Yeah. Do you drop little Easter eggs into your episodes so that people that are in the know are like, oh, yeah, that was a Kari episode? Like, do you have a little line, a little visual, like, one cup on the...

SKOGLAND: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: ...Kitchen counter or something?

SKOGLAND: I don't. I don't, actually. But I think I probably have a fairly signature style. I tend to have a certain aesthetic, although I try to shake that up, honestly. I try to - I think as I evolve and as I look at an episode or a feature that I'm working on, whatever, and I think, OK, what is the scene really about, and what can I really get away with in terms of drilling into that? - and so I started as an editor. And so right now, one of the things I'm doing is looking for ways not to have edits, for example. So you'll see my scenes unfold, and I try to eliminate what I call pingpong editing. And, you know, just...

SANDERS: Which is...

SKOGLAND: Well, you know, close-up, close-up, close-up, close-up, back, forth, you know, two people sitting at a table, pingpong back and forth. And so I try and find ways to block it and to keep people moving. I tend to use a lot of movement in both camera and characters. And I also tend to give characters a lot to physically do. So I never mean to unsettle someone, but I always find if they're having to cope with something that's physical, it can often bring something that much more alive.


SANDERS: All right. Time for break. When we come back, in a show of dark and disturbing scenes, Kari describes the most intense scene she and the cast had to shoot. All right. BRB.


SANDERS: When you were first approached to do anything with the show, like, did you - was there any moment of pause where you said, gosh, this is freaking dark?

SKOGLAND: No. No. No. No. No. I immediately knew I was in. I can say, you know, in Episode 8, where Joe has to spank his wife, we all were - I mean, it was a very quiet day on set. We were all very reverent of what it was we were displaying and what we were portraying.

SANDERS: Is that one of those scenes where you're just like, shoot it once and be done? I can't - like, we can't do...


SANDERS: Like, we can't belabor this.

SKOGLAND: No. No. We shot many takes, and we rehearsed it. We knew what it was we were trying to say here, you know, as he was destroying the relationship. He was humiliating her to...


SKOGLAND: ...Destroy a relationship that was threatening his position. And we knew exactly what that was - what the intention of the...


SKOGLAND: ...Scene was, and therefore, how important it was to get it right.


SKOGLAND: And so - but it was just a very quiet - I have to say, a very quiet time on set because we all felt the...

SANDERS: It's tough.

SKOGLAND: It's tough. It was just hard. So it's moments like that, I think, on any set, but in particular, this one, where the respect of the writers and the whole of everybody involved in the show - the team...


SKOGLAND: It - you just all realize, we're doing something special, and let's not upset the apple cart, you know? The show...


SKOGLAND: ...Is more important than anything else.

SANDERS: Special but hard. I mean, we...


SANDERS: ...Actually asked some of our - we asked all of our listeners to send us questions they might have for you. You know, and fans of the show wrote in. And one of the things that we saw a lot in the themes of the questions was, how do you as a person working on a show that is often so dark, how do you, like, take care of yourself? I mean, it must be emotionally draining and taxing. Like, is it harder just doing this work than other stuff you've done before?

SKOGLAND: That is a really good question. And I have to say, I think it is, because, you know, you have to live there. Now, we all have...

SANDERS: What do you mean by that?

SKOGLAND: Well, you - in your head. You know, I have to take it on and imagine - I have to put myself into the scene and kind of be all - I have to take on and be all the characters, right? I have to kind of live there.

SANDERS: What's the book where the guy holds all the emotion for the whole community? "The Giver."

SKOGLAND: Right. Right. But it is a little like that because you have to go in there, and I have to kind of embody the space from all the different perspectives. So...

SANDERS: That must hurt. That must hurt.

SKOGLAND: Yes, it's hard. That's why I choose not to do certain kinds of shows or movies because it's just a place that I don't want to live for - you know, because you have to. I don't know. For example, if you have to do a wound, I have to plan the wound. I have to help the - you know, figure out how we're going to make the wound. If I have to make someone cry, I had to - poor Yvonne had to cry for, you know, probably three hours. The poor woman was destroyed. You know, she - and she - it was a beautiful, heartbreaking scene. But I feel like the taskmaster. OK, do it again. Here we go - right? - because we have to do it multiple times. You know, it's hard to make them go again.


SKOGLAND: So having said that, what I do - for example, Samira, in her heart-wrenching moment where she sees the - her lover - her dead lover for the first time in Episode 7 of Season 2, so what I do is first of all, I try to make a very safe set. And that means that when we have a particularly difficult performance, it's about being quiet; it's about being reverent, and, you know, you don't joke around. You make the space...

SANDERS: Really?

SKOGLAND: Yeah, because a set can be an awful lot like a cocktail party for a lot of the time. You know, people talk, and they're - you know, it's many jobs that come together. So it's important that when we have a very particularly difficult scene coming up, part of it is - for example, with Samira, I did the close-up first. And I also made sure that she saw nothing of that book until it was time to look through it. So she is looking - we are capturing as she's looking through the book and seeing - you know, we recreated the dead bodies, and we recreated - well, the dead body of her lover, who's in there. And I made sure she didn't see that so that the first time she looked at it was the first time she saw it. And we captured that moment. So it helped her just be in the moment and not have to force anything but truth.

SANDERS: What is your routine once you leave set after a hard day, your self-care regimen? Is it an immediate glass of whiskey or something?

SKOGLAND: No (laughter). No, but probably should be. No.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

SKOGLAND: You know what? I go home and hug my kids, or I talk to my kids, and that...

SANDERS: How old are your kids?

SKOGLAND: ...I think, has really - I've got a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old.


SKOGLAND: And I think that's been a big part of grounding me - and my husband. I talk to them. You know, because they haven't experienced what I've experienced, so if I bring my stress home, they call me on it. And all of them do. And so I would say, you know, hearing about their day and taking me out of my day, which I think, at the time, is so important, you know, and you realize that's not so important; listen to what happened to them. So that, I think, is really my true regimen, is that connecting with them. And sometimes...


SKOGLAND: ...If I'm traveling - because I do an awful lot of traveling - so even if it's an emoji, even if it's a, hey, how's it going, Hon? - you know, I connect with them. And I - one of the things that I think I've been very careful to do is not separate them, actually, from what I do. So they've seen me distressing over something maybe I felt I didn't get right and all the stuff that just goes into the creative process. I've embraced that and let them see it so that I hope, as women, they will grow up to understand that that's just part of living, you know, particularly if they're going to choose a creative field. But I think it's true of all fields and particularly women who - particularly anybody, male or female, who is taking on, you know, the challenging roles..


SKOGLAND: ...Of leadership, of - because I lead a group of - I lead, you know, a hundred people every day into something (laughter).


SKOGLAND: ...Into doing something (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. You know, speaking of leading and your role as a director on such a big show, you've written and talked at length before about the odds for female directors. They're still slim. It's still hard. Do you think it's better now than it was when you started? The data seems to suggest, actually, no.

SKOGLAND: Well, you know, it was funny. My mother recently was going through some of - apparently, she's been keeping a - you know, a shoebox full of clippings on me and...

SANDERS: That's a good mom.

SKOGLAND: Yeah, good mom, huh? And so she brought it over and said, you know, maybe you would like this, you know. So I - it was the kids, funny enough, were going through some of these clippings. And I can tell you, at age 29, the same - I was telling the same story. I was being interviewed by, you know, newspapers and so on, and it was the same story. How are you - you know, how are you being a woman and doing this? And how is - and then, of course, having family - that was considered impossible. I was just told, it's impossible; you will not be able to have a family and direct. And so I decided - which is why I decided to embrace just making it all normal, kind of making it our family business.


SKOGLAND: My husband is an editor, and so...

SANDERS: Oh, I didn't know that.

SKOGLAND: Yeah, he's an editor. And so he - in fact, he was the first person who hired me (laughter) as an assistant editor. Yeah.


SKOGLAND: And so that's how I came up through the editing process.


SKOGLAND: So - and then we fell in love, and the rest was history between us. But - so I think, sadly, the narrative hasn't really changed, and the numbers haven't really changed. And that's not about griping about it. It's just kind of saying, well, oh, how is it that it hasn't changed? I think what I'd love to believe - so I sort of cynically say, I've been through the #MeToo movement a few times, you know? But I'd like to think that the optics of it now are a little bit more important and that the people - if we're sitting in a room and somebody's saying, OK, we're going to have to write a check to pay that person off because there's been a charge, a bad thing, are we being responsible as human beings to pay - to write that check? Similarly, in a boardroom, are they being responsible by looking at the lineup of people that they're working with and saying, gosh, it's off-kilter to the general population and to the diversity question; should we be paying attention? And I feel like, for the first time, that conversation is a lot more open.

SANDERS: Yeah. You - in one of the essays you wrote about representation and gender in Hollywood and in fields like directing, you talked about your younger self and how you didn't see the barriers and just kind of worked around them without knowing they were there. And there's a line that really stuck with me. You said, ignorance allowed me to believe and invest in myself as if my ambitions as a filmmaker had no limits. Then you go on to write that you sacrificed wages, and time and more to accomplish your goals, kind of not even knowing this - the glass ceilings that might exist. Looking back on that, you know, ignorant, younger version of you, are you proud of her or do you feel sorry for her?

SKOGLAND: (Laughter).

SANDERS: How do you look back on that younger you?

SKOGLAND: Well, of course, no regrets, for sure.


SKOGLAND: I think it was, at the time, particularly important that I did not acknowledge that there were barriers because it - the second you acknowledge them, you start to see them, right? And so if you see them, you kind of play into them a little bit, and you can use that as an excuse. So I think I somehow just, you know, put the head down and the horns on and just tried to break through. The older self would say to the younger self, though, OK, now you understand why certain things didn't happen; you know, just understand what you didn't know, you didn't know, and so it wasn't your fault, you know, that you - I think a female tends not to be able to fail up, for example, and I think that's a gender bias. I think men often fail up, and women generally don't. So if you've made a mistake, you wear it, and it's really hard to dig yourself out from under that mistake.


SKOGLAND: You know, having said that, you just do it. And I keep - I mentor a lot of women, and I - not only on set, but I have several people who, you know, call me. And I have people that I call, both male and female. And I can say I've had as much support from men as I have from women to, you know, get past some of these barriers that are...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

SKOGLAND: ...Gender-specific. You know. And I recently spoke with a female director who said she had chosen not to have children, and she, you know, was questioning it as a woman later in life. And I thought - I felt for her because I thought - you know, she bought in. And I guess it's up to you to design your life the way you want to design it. And so hopefully, the message is, it certainly can be done. There is a whole boatload of luck involved and then a whole boatload of hard work. You know, you asked me what I do when I go home to decompress.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

SKOGLAND: Well, I also do my shot list for the next day and get a little bit buried in that. I rework - you know, I look at dailies. I spend probably two hours working...

SANDERS: You never stop working.

SKOGLAND: ...To make sure that the next day is in - like, because you can't do an entire plan for, you know, 30 days of shooting that is going to remain sound. So each day, I tweak it, which is a good hour to an hour and a half of work. It might require phone calls, might require, you know, rearranging plans because something didn't work. So there's - I would say the other part to - you know, and I don't think, male or female, any director and/or person who's succeeded at anything would say that there's not - there's an awful lot of hard work that goes alongside that.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. I want to ask, also, about a thing that you've written about before in terms of how to change the industry when it comes to gender parity - the lack thereof. You've talked about government-sponsored film agencies in other countries that set targets for women in filmmaking - quotas, you could call them. Do you think those programs work in those countries? And do you think that anything like that could happen here? Because there - I mean, I don't think that there is a government entity that could do the same kind of thing that it would do in other countries.

SKOGLAND: No, exactly. So where should we look? I guess we should look to the studios. Now, if they actually openly said - and particularly the studios who make all the superhero movies...

SANDERS: The most popular film award movies.

SKOGLAND: Yeah, the most popular film award movies. If they said - because they all have - many of them, they are the big, you know, producers - if they said, we will have 50 percent of our movies made by women tomorrow, whether there's a male lead or female lead, doesn't matter...


SKOGLAND: ...That would, I think, probably, signal the same thing, wouldn't it?

SANDERS: Yeah. Do you think they would ever do that? You're in the industry.

SKOGLAND: I hope. That's...

SANDERS: But do you think they would?

SKOGLAND: I don't know. I'm going to leave that one...


SKOGLAND: I guess it's an open challenge.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, like, are you hopeful about things changing as a woman that's been in this industry now for a bit?

SKOGLAND: Oh, yes. Absolutely. We can - we all live and hope. Of course, that's the business. We are in the business of hope, so we do live and hope. And I do feel - I honestly feel we are changing the course of things now.


SKOGLAND: I really believe that that is starting to happen.


SANDERS: Kari, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for your time, and good luck at the Emmys.

SKOGLAND: Thanks so much for having me. And thank you so much for watching and liking the show.


SANDERS: Many thanks to Kari Skogland. The Emmys are on September 17.

Speaking of the Emmys and Emmy season, heads-up listeners, next Friday, Labor Day weekend, we're going to take some time off. Instead of the Weekly Wrap, we're going to revisit two conversations I had with two actors who are up for Emmys - Brian Tyree Henry from "Atlanta" - you might know him as Paper Boi from that show; he's up for best supporting actor in a comedy - and also, Rachel Brosnahan, who is up for best lead actress in a comedy for a show that I also love, "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." You'll hear those two next Friday. And, of course, we're back with our regular Weekly Wrap after Labor Day. All right. Until later this week, thank you for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. Talk Soon.


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