‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Star Brie Larson Became a ‘Jack of All Trades’ to Play Elizabeth, Showrunner Says

TheWrap magazine: More than just an executive producer on the project, the Oscar-winning actress “was the heart and soul of the show,” Lee Eisenberg says

Brie Larson Lessons in Chemistry
Brie Larson in "Lessons in Chemistry" (Credit: Apple TV+)

Lee Eisenberg has one person to thank for introducing him to Bonnie Garmus’ best-selling 2022 book “Lessons in Chemistry.”

“My wife read the book first and she said, ‘This is a series and you need to read this immediately,’” he said. “I don’t remember what I was reading at the time, but when my wife says that, I drop whatever I’m doing and I start reading. It was not surprising that I trusted her opinion and that she was right. I loved the book so much.”

So he got to work: He learned that a TV series based on the novel about a brilliant female scientist in the 1950s was already set up at Apple, with Brie Larson attached to star and exec-produce. Eisenberg — a seven-time Emmy nominee for writing and exec-producing “The Office” and “Hello Ladies” who’s also nominated this year for Outstanding Comedy Series for “Jury Duty” — reached out to Apple and told them, “‘I don’t even know what I’m asking for right now, but I’m obsessed with this book and if there’s anything I can do to work on it, I’m here,’” he said. “I just wanted to be near it. At the time they were looking for a writer. The timing just worked out perfectly.”

Eventually, Eisenberg became the showrunner — and his wife, journalist Emily Jane Fox, cowrote two of the show’s eight episodes with him. Larson plays Elizabeth Zott, a gifted, tightly-wound chemist whose talents and ambition are routinely stymied by Eisenhower era institutional sexism. When she meets fellow chemist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), her emotional barriers erode and the two fall in love. But this is not a geniuses-ride-into-the-Bunsen-burner-sunset story. The series explores trauma, grief, heartbreak, alienation and the difficult path to healing. 

Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in “Lessons in Chemistry” (Credit: Apple TV+)

“The making of the show was incredibly intimate, incredibly collaborative,” Eisenberg said. “It was a very small group of us sharing very personal stories. We had four directors who each did two episodes. And it was only me and one writer and then Natalie Sandy, who’s an exec-producer on the show — that was the writers room. Then I would go home at night and my wife and I would go over all of it again. Finding people that were willing to share and that understood the tone made it a unique experience.”

And the tone is tricky. The novel can be devastatingly serious, deadpan funny and delightfully quirky — as when Elizabeth’s dog Six-Thirty pops in to narrate and ruminates on such heady topics as guilt and bereavement. “We talked a lot about the idea of surprise and when things don’t go the way you plan,” Eisenberg said. Naturally, they embraced the story’s abundant scientific metaphors. “We talked a lot about bonds — the chemical bonds and the bonds that you form in friendship and in romance, in work collaborations. Forgive me for my ignorance of chemistry,” he said, laughing, “but there are certain bonds that immediately connect, others that have a tenuous connection and others that don’t connect. When you find the people in your life that you do connect with, that becomes your village, your family, and family can have all different forms.”

Writing for Larson, according to Eisenberg, was not a hardship. “Generally speaking, any opportunity that I have to write for an Oscar-winner is one that I will take, gladly,” he said. “And she was not an executive-producer in name. Brie was on the pre- calls, the post- calls, she came into the edit and we reworked episodes together. Brie was the heart and soul of the show and also a jack of all trades.” 

Larson did have to believably pull off several skills to bring Elizabeth to life, including rowing (Calvin introduces her to the grueling sport) and cooking. In one of many unexpected turns that her life takes, she becomes the host of a cooking show on a local TV station. (Think Julia Child, only with safety goggles, a strictly scientific approach to food and a blunt, no-nonsense demeanor.) To help Larson appear at ease creating, say, the perfect lasagna on screen, the show brought in Courtney McBroom, a professional chef who is one of the actress’ best friends. 

And of course, there was the chemistry itself. “Brie has an incredible ability to memorize quickly. We would give her, without exaggeration, a page of scientific jargon. Not a word of it made sense to me,” Eisenberg said. “Our science consultants would say, ‘Okay, well, this is what the presentation would look like, this is what she’s debating with Calvin.’ Brie is just adept. She would look at the scientific jargon for five minutes in the makeup chair. And then all of a sudden, it would come out of her mouth.”

This story first ran in the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue of TheWrap awards magazine.

Read more from the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue here.

Lily Gladstone Wrap cover
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

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