Damon Wayans Jr. plays Stevens West’s husband in what executive producers Austen Earl and Tim McAuliffe call a “modern marital sitcom.”
Passing up the chance to star in the series because of her pregnancy was never an option for Stevens West. She knew if the show went forward after the pilot, there would be adjustments needed to accommodate her, but, she thought, why count herself out?
“I think a lot of [actresses], because we have that expectation that we’re going to be turned down for opportunities, we don’t put ourselves out there,” Stevens West tells CNN. “I know me, I know my abilities and I wanted to prove to myself — and to others — that there’s nothing wrong with me. I just am growing a person inside of me, and that’s it.”
Once the show was picked up to series, “it was time for everybody to know,” Stevens West says, laughing.
To the best of their abilities, Earl and McAuliffe put a plan in place in case the first-time mom wasn’t feeling as energy-filled in the final stage of her pregnancy as she was the day she spoke with CNN.
After learning their star was pregnant, for example, they moved up production by several weeks during the summer to ensure they’d be done filming their first block of episodes by mid-September, weeks before her due date. In order to do this, they trimmed their pre-production period and instead jumped right into work.
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This, they say, turned out to be a blessing, as writers got a much-needed break midseason as well.
“I think we’ve actually, through this process, discovered a better way to do the regular TV season, which is do a faster pre-production and get a little break in September to kind of reset yourself,” Earl says.
“It was a happy accident,” McAuliffe adds.
In the final few episodes before their break, they also had her character appearing via Skype in one episode and in a sick bed in another. This was done so there were fewer physical demands and they could have an easier time hiding her growing belly.
They also listened to women on staff who shared their own pregnancy experiences. (Earl is a father to twins.)
“I think what’s great is that our, I think with the exception of one, are all young dads,” Stevens West said. “So they’re very sympathetic to what it’s like becoming a new parent.”
The entertainment business — and workplaces in general — are not always friendly to new parents or pregnant women.
A CNN report earlier this year examined the difficult and, at times, problematic workplace culture new and expectant mothers face in TV’s writer’s rooms.
Breaking stigmas about pregnancy is considered one step toward combating the discrimination some women face.
An Instagram post by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison about her work on set while more than eight months pregnant went viral this summer for that reason.
“Pregnancy and motherhood in general is not a disadvantage and the craft doesn’t suffer as a result,” she wrote. “If anything the added experience and enhanced empathy has made me a better cinematographer and filmmaker.”
Earl acknowledges that there may have been a time in the industry when the “loudest voice” would have been a person who would advocate for replacing an actress who is an expectant mother. But, he says, “I can’t even imagine we’d be doing right now” without Stevens West.
“Being a writers rooms the last 10 years, it’s a constantly evolving. As society is changing outside, inside the writer’s room, things are changing as well. The younger generation coming up — I’m kind of caught between Baby Boomers and the Millennials — and I find that working with the next generation, the way that they approach sensitivity is the most inspiring thing in the world,” Earl says. “It was our chance to figure out how to do this the exact right way.”
Stevens West is a proponent of changing the conversation about pregnancy.
“I think it’s unfair for someone to put those limitations on you because you’re pregnant,” she says. “You just have to know yourself and what you’re comfortable with and what your abilities are and don’t let someone else dictate that for you. That’s all that I did, and it’s nothing heroic or anything. But I definitely happy with that decision, and I think that I did gain a lot of perspective.”
She adds: “Just hire the best person for the job…and if that person happens to be pregnant, so be it.”
“Happy Together” premieres Oct. 1.