Melissa Benoist hits the campaign trail in 'The Girls on the Bus'
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Melissa Benoist hits the campaign trail in 'The Girls on the Bus'
The actress and producer Melissa Benoist, who is starring in “The Girls on the Bus,” an adaptation of the former New York Times reporter Amy Chozick’s nonfiction book “Chasing Hillary,” in Los Angeles on Feb. 29, 2024. After six years on “Supergirl,” Benoist took a crash course in political journalism to prep for the new Max series. (Amy Harrity/The New York Times)

by Esther Zuckerman

NEW YORK, NY.- Melissa Benoist has made a habit of playing journalists on television.

She spent six years as the hero of “Supergirl,” Kara Danvers, who works in media when she’s not saving the world. Now Benoist is taking on the role of a campaign reporter named Sadie McCarthy in the Max series “The Girls on the Bus,” a very loose adaptation of former New York Times reporter Amy Chozick’s nonfiction book “Chasing Hillary.”

But Benoist does not think she’d be a good fit for the profession. Asked about the choice of some political reporters to refrain from voting in the elections they cover, she explained in a phone interview that she would be a “terrible journalist.”

“I’m too emotional,” she said. “I’d for sure be biased.”

“The Girls on the Bus,” created by Chozick and Julie Plec (“The Vampire Diaries”), is a fictional and frothy account of the lives of women chronicling a series of Democratic presidential contenders on their way to the national convention. Benoist’s Sadie works for a New York Times stand-in called The New York Sentinel and is given an opportunity to return to the road after being publicly embarrassed during the previous election cycle when a video of her crying after her candidate lost, a journalistic no-no, went viral.

The show has a fantastical bent, and not just because Sadie has conversations with the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson (P.J. Sosko). Despite arriving in an election year and taking inspiration from Chozick’s book about covering Hillary Clinton, the political landscape of the show looks very different from our current one. Sadie and her cohorts grapple with familiar topics, but they do so in a sort of parallel universe where the bonds they form while tracking down sources is at the center of the tale.

The show is Benoist’s first series regular role since “Supergirl” and her first venture as a producer. In an interview, she discussed her crash course in political reporting and why that word “girl” keeps following her around. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: “Supergirl” ended in 2021, and you took some time to pick your next television show. Why this one?

A: After “Supergirl,” I did consciously take a break to spend time with my family. There was a shift in my perspective that I really wanted to be mindful and purposeful about the kinds of stories that I was telling and what I was putting out in the world. I got a call from Julie Plec and Sarah Schechter at Berlanti Productions. I was walking my son to the park, so I was on the phone pushing a stroller in a very different mindset. And it was one of the first sparks that I felt of, Oh wow, this is a story I really want to be a part of after “Supergirl.” It feels timely. It feels relevant. It’s a really fun way to examine a lifestyle that many people don’t know about that also is directly related to something that we all know about, because it’s in our faces every day and it’s the state of American politics.

Q: You’ve been involved in activism related to your experiences of domestic violence in a past relationship, which you’ve been open about. Did that influence how you thought about your work?

A: In 2016, I think I really became more involved and informed as a citizen. With my activism about mental health and surrounding intimate partner violence and domestic abuse — that’s always at the forefront of my mind, because I recognize the platform that “Supergirl” gave me and the people that it affects. And I’ve seen firsthand, based on people that have reached out to me specifically after I told my story, that it did have an effect. That definitely informed and it still does inform the kinds of stories I want to tell.

Q: Here you are stepping into another role as a reporter. Why do you think you’re getting typecast as a journalist?

A: Maybe I’m tenacious and curious and maybe that telegraphs, I don’t know. It is kind of funny. But I’ve thought a lot about it, and obviously I thought a lot about it before I agreed to do “Girls on the Bus.” But the difference could not be more stark. My friend Kevin Smith, who directed a bunch of episodes of “Supergirl,” was like, “This is a show about a girl who can fly. You got to suspend some disbelief.” So Kara Danvers’ job as a reporter, it’s the alter ego. Because Sadie McCarthy is a real, living, breathing reporter, that is her entire life, and it is everything she cares about.

Q: How did you prepare for “The Girls on the Bus”?

A: I learned really quickly — and you could probably attest to this — (journalism) is a calling. Not unlike acting, you have to sacrifice a lot to do this for a living. Especially on the campaign trail, because you are giving up so much, and you’re never home, and you’re kind of living in a bubble for the entire campaign cycle. I immersed myself as much as I could. I read Amy’s book, of course; I devoured it. I read this book called “What It Takes” that’s sort of “The Iliad” of campaign reporting, and I loved it. And I read “The Boys on the Bus” and “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” by Hunter S. Thompson. I read anything and everything that I could, and watched documentaries.

Q: This is a story based in reality, but you do have Sadie talking to the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson.

A: That’s pretty absurd. Maybe we should be concerned about her, I don’t know.

Q: What were your thoughts about playing those absurdist elements of the show?

A: I loved the absurd elements because we get to examine how journalism is changing. The double standards that women face and have always faced in journalism. How it used to be a boys club, what it looks like now. Because especially with Hunter S. Thompson as the ghost that Sadie is talking to, by today’s standards, he’d be really problematic. I think that’s a part of her discovery: What does she want to lend to journalism and being a part of the media to change it and still get to the truth? Because she is a journalist who really romanticizes that era.

Q: Sadie has sex with a former fling before realizing he’s working for the candidate she’s covering, and that escalates. A lot of female journalists, myself included, dislike the trope of female reporters sleeping with their subjects because it is belittling and a depiction of an unethical practice not based in reality. How did the series wrestle with this cliche?

A: We face it head on, and we show that the trope is something that should be commented on and not told anymore because it’s just not possible. Your career would be over if you did that; you’d be a pariah. What we’ve seen, it’s like, “That’s just how female journalists get their information.” It’s not.

The way we’re approaching this is that it is a massive mistake that Sadie makes. She would never have done it if she knew that he was working for a candidate. To her mind, he is unemployed when they hook up. Then the fact that she makes the mistake and does sleep with a source, we’re going to see her face the consequences. She’s going to pay for it deeply, and I have not seen that done.

Q: What is the significance of this show being put out in an election year?

A: With the state of our politics right now, I think this show is the perfect antidote. It’s funny, it’s absurd, it’s sexy, it’s aspirational. It is much more of a story about female friendships and women finding a found family in the most unlikely place. And yes, the politics are there, and it is definitely the backdrop, and they’re so passionate and care so deeply about their work. But more important, it’s a story about women supporting each other.

Q: The title is a reference to the Timothy Crouse 1973 book “The Boys on the Bus,” but you’ve now been in two shows with “girl” in the title. Do you have any thoughts on how that word gets deployed?

A: They’re both from and related to intellectual property. “Supergirl” was formed in the 1950s; she was always called that. And you’re right, “The Boys on the Bus” is opposed to “The Girls on the Bus.” It’s funny because both of these stories — they’re not coming-of-age stories, but they are women discovering themselves in different ways.

In “Girls on the Bus,” we have women from all walks of life and generations finding each other and finding themselves. I felt that way in “Supergirl,” too, both personally and playing the role, that it really was a discovery of myself at that time and what it meant to be a woman. So maybe it was me graduating from girl to woman. But, yeah, that’s an examination worth taking and diving into. I don’t think it’s a bad word, but we are women.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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