The Story Behind Gypsy, Netflix’s New Psychosexual Drama Starring Naomi Watts

Gypsy debuts on Netflix June 30, and co-stars Billy Crudup and Blythe Danner.
Naomi Watts in Gypsy.
By Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix.

When Lisa Rubin was a graduate film student at Columbia University, she gained a reputation for writing good sex scenes. They were sprinkled through her feature scripts, which centered on flawed women grappling with issues like control, obsession, identity, and sexuality. So when Rubin moved to Los Angeles in 2013 after earning her M.F.A., Hollywood insiders were quick to urge the Long Island-raised screenwriter to play up her strength in the most marketable, zeitgeist-y way possible.

“I met some managers who all wanted me to write, essentially, Fifty Shades of Grey,” Rubin said by phone this week, referencing the mainstream E.L. James franchise that has capitalized on its own themes of control, obsession, and sexuality to the tune of over 125 million book sales and $950 million at the box office. “They would read my indie feature ideas and try to make them really commercial. I would always say, ‘Yeah, but that’s not actually what I want to write.’”

Rubin stuck to her indie inclination—and ironically, after selling a 10-episode psychosexual drama called Gypsy to Netflix, Sam Taylor-Johnson came onboard to direct and executive produce the first two episodes. The acclaimed filmmaker also directed the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie. Despite the sexual nature of the project, its female protagonist, and Taylor-Johnson’s involvement, however, the projects are very different.

For one, Taylor-Johnson enjoyed working on this project—following a well-documented clash with E.L. James on Fifty Shades. “It’s so brilliantly written,” the filmmaker told The Guardian this month. “And the protagonist is so multifaceted and complex and dark and mysterious and clever and twisted—it was exciting to be part of something so different.”

The project—Rubin’s first to be made—attracted an equally impressive star: Naomi Watts, who plays Jean Holloway, a therapist who, feeling trapped by her suburban life in Connecticut, begins crossing the very boundaries she preaches to her patients, by tracking down the objects of their obsessions and developing her own relationships with them.

Television audiences have watched time and time again as flawed middle-aged male characters forfeit their comfortable family lives in favor of the dangers and demons tempting them from the shadows. But women are not often afforded the same opportunity for ugly onscreen soul-searching, which is why Gypsy is all the more special. Here, our mid-life crisis-hurdling protagonist is not only a woman, but one with a triplicate of complications—a husband, a daughter, and the capper, a career guiding patients through their own squalls of the psyche.

Some critics have taken issue with the drama’s slow-burn unraveling. But this viewer, at least, saw the pacing as a deliberate nod to the speed at which a woman might actually unwind the very identity she’s spent over a decade carefully constructing.

Rubin, whose sister is a cognitive behavioral therapist, said she wanted “to create a strong, flawed, female character who lives full of desire, makes some bad choices, but is human. I have a lot of drive and I wanted to see a female character like that.”

Citing the Diane Lane character in 2002’s Unfaithful as inspiration, Rubin said, “I really like the idea of forbidden lines and what that means. I had been thinking about therapists and the power that they have by knowing these intimate details about their patients. In a way it’s a super voyeuristic job. . . The idea that somebody would have that power and would act on it for good or for bad felt like it could be really dark, sort of exciting, and if [the therapist] took the steps to develop a relationship using the information she had, it could be quite dangerous.”

“I thought a lot about people who go into therapy [as a profession], and I know this from my sister, they’re flawed themselves,” said Rubin. “They’re curious about something in themselves that makes them become a therapist. I liked the idea of turning the tables where it’s the audience looking at Jean as if they are the therapist diagnosing this person and trying to understand them . . . trying to put clues together to sort of make sense of her.”

The drama’s outline came together while Rubin was working out of Caffe Vita coffeehouse in Silver Lake, California. And when Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” started playing overhead, and Rubin listened to the lyrics—about a woman nostalgic for her past life—the series and main character, who reverts to the free-spirited ways of her younger self, synthesized. (Stevie Nicks recorded a stripped-down version of the track for the opening theme song, a bit of black magic courtesy of executive producer Liza Chasin’s music connections.)

After finishing the pilot, Rubin showed it to her sister, whose response was logical: “Yeah, a therapist can’t do this.” After explaining that Jean breaking those boundaries was the point of the show—“it’s not drugs or drinking or a traditional addiction, it’s the idea of escaping into other people’s lives”—her sister worked as a sort of technical consultant, ensuring that Jean’s language with patients was realistic.

“I asked her if she would diagnose Jean as having a disorder,” Rubin said. “But she said everybody falls on different spectrums of different disorders, and she didn’t think Jean was diagnosable, and I agree. This is not a story about a woman with a mental illness . . . we’re all capable of doing dark or bad things. Most people are not good or bad; they fall in the gray and do bad things. And showing women [on screen] who are always nurturing, good, or likable is not being honest.”

Rubin pitched her series to Netflix, which bought the show before Taylor-Johnson or Watts were attached.

“I think they felt equally passionate to me about why this was a story worth telling,” Rubin said of the streaming company. “They were totally onboard for the female perspective, and the fact that Jean was not going to be likable at times . . . They were very big on pushing boundaries. A lot of other networks would have wanted Jean to kill somebody in the pilot, and that’s just not what I wanted the show to be.”

Netflix also supported Rubin’s request for a female director.

“I met with Sam and I just felt like she was already inside the material,” said Rubin. “She knew this character. It felt so natural. Then she was friendly with Naomi, who read the script and I think connected to the character. Each step of the way felt like building this kind of team.”

Going into Friday’s premiere, after the whirlwind of her first Hollywood project getting an A-list cast, director, and rollout, Rubin said, “I’m excited, but I also don’t even know if I’ll understand all of what’s happened right away. That’s probably true of Jean, too. Sometimes, emotions are delayed—and things happen in such a frenzy that you just go through it, and then understand it later.”

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