A lot of historical research has gone into The Playboy Club, and they’ve only filmed the pilot. But the cast and producers spent most of their time on the TCA panel defending one of the show’s taglines: “The men have the keys but the women hold all of the power.”
The new NBC show (slated to premiere Sept. 19) is a soapy hour-long drama that focuses on the 1961 Playboy Club, started by Hugh Hefner in Chicago. And because the Playboy brand carries some stigma, there were several questions posed to the panel about how the women could actually “hold all of the power” while prancing around in tight, cleavage-revealing outfits with bunny tails.
“This is about choice,” said the show’s star, Amber Heard. “Ultimately it’s a different generation with different opportunities and different expectations for women. And I am fortunate to be part of this generation which doesn’t need to choose between combat boots and an apron. I can do it in heels!” (Nude platforms, for the record.)
“It also wasn’t a situation where the girls were sitting on laps and being slapped on the bottom,” says Leah Renee, who plays the closeted lesbian bunny Alice. “There were very strict rules about the girls not being touched, you know. They were walked to their cars at the end of every one of their shifts. A lot of the times, the people in the clubs didn’t didn’t even know their real names.”
“The way we look at things, if it involves sexuality, somehow a woman must be compromised. And I think it’s just as chauvinistic to deny a woman her sexuality,” Heard said. “It’s about the time. It comes down to choices. If they are making the choice, they are not being exploited.”
Whether or not that’s something you agree with, the women involved with the show see it that way, and are taking that attitude into the way they play their characters, which are based on real women who worked at the Playboy Club on which the show is based. The historical aspect of the show is actually one of its most enticing aspects. As Heard noted during the panel, it was pre-Stonewall, pre-civil rights movement — right before everything happened.
“I think the backdrop of the ’60s and the backdrop of the club is going to be important to our story because everything was about to happen. It was right before the bubble burst. It was pre-Stonewall — in reference to … there being out lesbian characters — pre-Stonewall, pre-women’s lib, pre-Civil Rights revolution. It was right at the cusp before everything started to boil over and I think it’s going to lend itself really well to our character-driven piece.”
Case in point: Bunny Alice…
Alice a closeted lesbian bunny who is married to a gay man. Together, they pool money for the Mattachine Society Chicago chapter, which was a huge LGBT rights group in the 1960s. Although this storyline was only a small part of the pilot, the producers say it will definitely be a big part of the show.
“It’ll definitely be a part of the show that will continue,” said executive producer Chad Hodge, “And the reason it’s in there is because it comes from character and it comes from who Alice is. When I first approached this material, I really wanted to talk about the inside of the club and the back of the club and the front of the club and what first impressions are and what is behind it. The same goes for a person — what do you think of a person when you first meet them? … That’s really represented when you meet Alice. You don’t think she’s a lesbian when you meet her. You think she’s a perfect married housewife and then you realize she has a secret life that is very tied to the times and history and what’s going on and that’s certainly a major storyline of the series.”
“Well I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but all the other bunnies will find out,” Leah told me after the panel. “Her secret is going to come out. I can tell you that. I don’t know how, I know that our next episode, which we’re working on now, has some really exciting stuff for Alice. Her husband Sean is also a gay man and they’re in a ‘lavender marriage’ — they’ve been friends since they were in high school. They’re just kind of in this together. There’s a lot of fun scenes between them.”
So will she actually find love? “She definitely has somebody that she’s has her eye on for a long time. I’ll say that,” Leah said. “I can’t say if she’ll be her girlfriend or not.”
“Because it’s 1961, she’s not an out lesbian,” Hodge said. “The other girls don’t know about her. But it’s her secret life.”
As far as her job security at the Playboy Club, Leah doesn’t know how the bosses might feel about learning she’s a lesbian.
“I’m not sure what they’re going to say about that or how it’s going to play out,” Leah said. “But I certainly hope it doesn’t cause anything negative for her as a bunny because that means I won’t have a job either. Let’s hope they’re more understanding of it!”
The Playboy Club debuts on NBC on Sept. 19 at 10 p.m.