Behind the Scenes of Younger: A Coney Island Day Trip With Sutton Foster, Hilary Duff, and Co.
The show’s season five might tackle #MeToo and serious issues, but the cast still knows how to have fun with one another.
Coney Island without the throngs of tourists, teens, and locals is a strange sight—eerie, even—but on a chilly morning in April, there was none of the usual din coming from the arcades, beach bums, or screaming thrill-seekers brave enough to ride the 91-year-old Cyclone. The amusement park had been shut down for a special occasion: the cast of the beloved TV Land sitcom Younger—leads Sutton Foster, Hilary Duff, Nico Tortorella, and Peter Hermann, along with supporting actors Debi Mazar, Molly Bernard, Miriam Shor, and Charles Michael Davis—was in Coney Island shooting scenes for season five, which premiered on Tuesday night, and to be photographed amid the bumper cars, rides, ring toss games, and boardwalks by Ellen von Unwerth, whose pictures appear exclusively here in W.
When Younger premiered in 2015, its premise was simple: Liza Miller (Foster), a 40-year-old mother of a college-bound daughter, separates from her husband, and attempts to re-enter the working world only to by stymied by corporate America’s rampant ageism. After moving in with her wisecracking best friend Maggie—a devil-may-care lesbian artist living in a Williamsburg loft—Liza heads to a local bar, where she is mistaken for a 26-year-old, and decides to roll with it. She begins work as an assistant at the fictional Empirical Press, where she lies about her age to her boss, her coworkers, and her clients.
Forty-eight episodes later, and the series from Sex and the City creator Darren Star is still going strong; the complicit players have done what they can to sustain the lie, but by now, nearly everyone is aware of Liza’s real age. Her dopey, tatted, on-again-off-again (they’re in the “off-again” stage at the start of the fifth season) boyfriend Josh has known the truth for seasons; Kelsey, her best friend at work and co-founder of an imprint at Empirical (appropriately named Millennial Print) is keeping up the lie to their supervisors; and of course her best friend Maggie remains permanently in the loop. Liza’s credibility may be on the line (her handsome boss, Charles, is not at all up to speed with the fact that Liza has been lying about her age), but at the start of season five, her career is in a good place. Her love life, however, could use some of that stability.
Before Younger, TV Land was recognized for its reruns of family-friendly sitcoms like The Nanny and The Brady Bunch, but the debut of this series marked a push into sexier, edgier material that resonates with a 20-something audience. For all of Younger’s clever one-liners, silly antics, and on-the-nose pop culture references (this is the same show that has spoofed Game of Thrones, Marie Kondo, Karl Ove Knausgård, and The Wing over four seasons), it does still take the world its characters inhabit quite seriously. Every larger-than-life parody is met by a real-life issue to bring things back down to earth, and the writers of season five are keenly aware that Younger, as a workplace comedy, could not fully exist in the zeitgeist without addressing the conversations about sexual harassment and assault allegations in the workplace happening in the real world right now.
Perhaps the most subdued and contemplative of the bunch, Peter Hermann, who plays Charles, spoke of how proud he was of the way the writers handled this season’s inevitable “#MeToo” moment. “When we came back for season four and when we came back for season five, in the intervening breaks we came back to such different worlds,” Hermann said while waiting in his trailer between scenes. “This seismic election the first time around, and then this seismic, long-awaited, hard-won shift in the way that women’s voices were heard and regarded.”
“I think you will also see that the show takes itself to task for things that we dismissed, with one of the many phrases that has been used to dismiss men’s behavior, like, ‘Oh he’s just a dirty old man, that’s just the way that men are, he can’t help himself, he’s from a different generation,’ and all of that steaming pile of bullshit that we use to excuse men’s behavior,” Hermann went on. The season five premiere, titled #LizaToo, begins with the indictment of a fantasy writer named Edward L.L. Moore (think Game of Thrones‘s George R.R. Martin) who, in an earlier season, abused his power as an author with a cult following to ogle Liza’s body and verbally harass her (as well as other young women, we later learn). “I think that it’s remarkable that it wasn’t just the writers saying, ‘Oh, we need to pull something that’s appropriate to this cultural moment into the show,’ but it is actually something they were able to generate out of an existing story line,” Hermann said.
For her part, Von Unwerth said, “I always love to empower the woman. So it was really great in this sense because that is what they really wanted: they wanted to show that in the new season the women are becoming more powerful.” She went on, “It’s wonderful, and it’s different than with models, because they don’t react in the same way when you say to them, ‘Look at each other, kiss,’ you know. I always say working with actors is like driving a Porsche instead of a bicycle,” she quipped, referring to a short film she shot on site, which features Hilary Duff and Charles Michael Davis in character as frenemies-with-benefits Kelsey and Zane, tossing popcorn into each other’s mouths at a bright, colorful boardwalk candy shop. “Just a little tiny bit of direction and straight away they do something about it,” the German photographer said. “That’s really the fun part of it.”
Though some cast members admitted to being “ridiculously starstruck” around Von Unwerth, Duff, who has made her return to TV playing the always fashionable and sometimes formidable editor Kelsey, called the experience “fantastical.” She was waiting between takes near the giant Wonder Wheel. “Our setting makes everything amazing—all the colors are very playful and bold—and I think that speaks a lot to her personality but also our show,” she said. Candy apples, cotton candy, and ice cream cones were shuffled in and out of the hands of the cast. Once they finished, Miriam Shor, who plays Liza’s ball-busting boss Diana, politely asked a production assistant if she could take home a couple of the inflatable guitar props to her kids. Props obliged.
“Coney Island encompasses everything New York is about,” Debi Mazar, who was a mainstay of New York’s downtown club scene in the 1980s, said. Working with Von Unwerth brought back happy memories from their first shoot together, in the early ‘90s. “Ellen shot me in the beginning of my career, and she shoots people very sexy. We go back to being people that bounced around New York City in 1980, and also in Paris. We know a lot of the same people,” she said casually.
Nico Tortorella, who plays Josh, was getting tattoos painted on their body (the actor has over 25 of their own already) in a trailer. “Josh is a very watered-down version of who I am,” Tortorella said. “Josh is a pretty normal, straight, cis dude that lives in Brooklyn, and his marriage reflects that, and my marriage does not.” Tortorella laughed, referring to their recent marriage to fitness instructor Bethenny Meyers. Meyers and Tortorella, who recently took to Instagram to announce that they “have started playing with using they/them pro-nouns for myself,” identify as a queer and polyamorous couple.
The actor found it ironic that Josh is the one character who does not fully grasp the concept of someone self-identifying as nonbinary. “Like, I’m the one that gets it wrong,” Tortorella laughed. “Out of everyone in the cast it’s me that has to have that scene, which is just hysterical. But beautiful too! I’m educating myself and the world on gender and sexuality in such an interesting way, that to be able to also play that straight, cis dude that is in question of what’s going on is meta and beautiful,” they said, as a makeup artist continued carefully painting each tattoo on the actor’s torso and arms.
As for the cast’s relationship with one another, Tortorella assured me that the chemistry onscreen is real. That much was apparent after a few hours with the cast on Coney Island. “There’s never a moment where I’m like, Ugh, let’s just f—ing be done already,” Tortorella added. “It’s a 22-minute rom-com, we’re here having fun, loving our jobs, loving life. We work like three months out of the year and it’s like a family reunion every day that we’re with each other. We’ve spent almost five years together, loving on each other,” he went on. “There’s not a bad seed on this show. There’s no judgment. We all see each other for who we are. We know this is our work life, and we have our private lives outside of it, and we celebrate that.”
“The crowd that I come from is largely LGBTQ, and [Nico has] taken on this mission to educate the world on fluidity, which is not really new to me,” Mazar proudly insisted. Younger takes narrative and stylistic cues from its Darren Star–created predecessor, Sex and the City, but according to the cast, it does a much better job of “responsibly” introducing trans, pansexual, and nonbinary characters to a mostly millennial audience that has grown up with the concepts of “wokeness” and holding popular media accountable for its representations of marginalized groups.
After four seasons, Younger has also become an undeniably “New York” show. The executives on set made it clear that while the series shoots on location, the network brings the writers out to Brooklyn during production as well; all those local quirks become material in the writers’ room. “I go to Williamsburg and I’m happy to go to the cute little boutiques or go to eat, but I wasn’t on the pulse of Williamsburg starting to pop off when it did,” Mazar admitted. “But now I get run over by hipsters in the bike lane when I step out of my makeup trailer. The kids there are super cool—I mean the children of the hipsters—but I’m more old-school.” Mazar, who was very hands-on in the design of her character Maggie’s eclectic Williamsburg loft, based the character on a real-life artist friend of hers, does her own hair and makeup each day on set, and keeps her signature Brooklyn accent for the role. Though that’s where similarities between scripted and reality end. “I try to have fun through Maggie,” she said.
Hermann, meanwhile, had just spent a couple hours tightly squeezed inside of a Ferris wheel car with Foster, Von Unwerth, and a camera assistant. The crew went all the way up to the top of the Wonder Wheel so that von Unwerth could grab a romantic shot from up high, with Hermann and Foster, who stand at about six feet five and five feet nine, respectively. “We’re here at Coney Island so we spent all day looking at a roller coaster, and it seems cliche to say the season is a real roller coaster,” Hermann joked once he unfolded himself from the rickety Ferris wheel car. “But at the same time, there’s that moment where you’re in the roller coaster and you hear that clickety-clickety-clickety sound going up and there’s that moment where it goes over the lip and you can catch your breath—that’s a little bit what season five feels like.”
“I think that I’ve said this before, that different people bring out different things in us,” Hermann remarked between sips of seltzer water. “Different people wake up different aspects of Liza, and I hope that she ends up with the person with whom she feels most alive,” he said, before coyly admitting he is keeping his fingers crossed for Charles.
On the other hand, the leading ladies of the show look at their characters’ season five trajectories differently. The couple they root for the most is not Liza and Charles, or Liza and Josh. In fact, they feel most strongly about Liza and Kelsey, whom Duff confidently declared would be “the ones that are going to make it ’til the end, for sure,” while shivering under a heat lamp on the boardwalk.
It may not be the coolest show on television, but Younger is a delightful, addictive roller coaster with a positive message that is not lost on its cast. “The girl empowerment on this show—our writers really make it a priority, and I think that it all makes us really proud to be on this show,” Duff said. “Because the love is fun and the flings are fun, but…” she continued, before Foster stepped in: “Ultimately I feel like Liza and Kelsey always choose each other. We sort of fight for our friendship more than any other relationship.”