Sarah Adina Smith on getting all the elements right for series Lessons In Chemistry

For the director, working with Oscar-winner Brie Larson on a New York Times bestseller adaptation was a no-brainer

Brie Larson stars as a scientist who ends up hosting a TV show. Photo: Apple TV+
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Director Sarah Adina Smith’s career has been building up to Lessons In Chemistry.

In less than a decade she has written and directed four films, as well as overseeing episodes of Wrecked, Room 104, Legion and Hanna. But Lessons In Chemistry is the biggest project the director has been involved in so far.

Rather than being overwhelmed by the opportunity to collaborate with Oscar winner Brie Larson in an adaptation of a hugely popular book for one of the biggest streaming companies in the world, Smith actually found it quite liberating.

“In some ways the expectations and stakes were so high that I found it freeing,” Smith tells The National. “The book is so wildly popular and you have this amazing Oscar winner in Brie Larson. I just thought to myself, ‘Go for it!’”

Based on Bonnie Garmus’s 2022 novel of the same name, which was Barnes & Noble’s book of the year, Lessons In Chemistry is set in the 1960s and revolves around Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), a scientist who is fired from her own laboratory. After she is hired to host a television cooking show entitled Supper At Six, Zott instead uses the opportunity to educate housewives about scientific topics.

Smith knew that she had to honour the source material, especially as it spent over a year on The New York Times bestseller list. At the same time, though, she still wanted to give herself the “freedom to have fun and play and try things” with the story.

“I wanted to take risks with the cast and crew. That was really the spirit when I went in to work each day. We all wanted to surprise each other and push each other as far as we could and see what happens. Bonnie Garmus really deserves credit for trusting us to do what we did with her novel.”

Smith was guided in these pursuits by Lessons In Chemistry’s showrunner Lee Eisenberg, who has worked on the US version of The Office, Hello Ladies, and wrote the movies Year One, Bad Teacher and Good Boys. “He’s such an amazing collaborator,” says Smith. “He’s not precious about anything. When you have that mindset, it allows everybody to bring their best ideas.”

After being approached by Lesson In Chemistry’s executive producer Louise Shore, who she’d previously worked with on her 2021 movie Birds Of Paradise, Smith was instantly attracted to the show because it gave her the chance to work with Larson.

“She really is a powerhouse of an actor,” Smith says of Larson. “She’s just a visionary and a boss lady in the best way. This project was her baby from the beginning. It just speaks so highly about her taste and intelligence that she identified something in this that would be really great for her.”

Since winning a Best Actress Academy Award for Room, Larson has directed her own film Unicorn Store and the Disney+ television series Growing Up. This only made working with Larson a much smoother and more rewarding experience for Smith.

“She has this really strong creative voice. It really was a director’s dream to be working with someone so versed on both sides of the camera. She understood what I was doing cinematically innately and was really supportive of my choices. She just gave me the freedom to play and take risks.”

At the same time, though, Smith was in awe of how much Larson challenged herself in front of the camera, too. “She’s so driven and tackles every creative task you give her. She just immersed herself in science and cooking. The only thing we really worked on with the role was her letting go and being surprised and not being in control. We had to create the conditions so she had done little preparation. That way we could see how the surprises build in both beautiful and painful ways.”

The result, Smith hopes, is a show that works on a number of levels. Not only does she believe that Lessons In Chemistry will deliver for fans of Garmus’s book, but that it’ll also prove to be funny, profound, surprising and dramatic for viewers who know nothing about the story.

“There are several layers of meaning in this show. The most obvious is that we still have a long way to go as human beings to allow each other to be taken seriously and respected for our full humanity, no matter how we’re born. This is a story about someone experiencing obstacles because she was born a woman. But it’s a universal story and her resilience in the face of these obstacles is really inspiring.”

Lessons In Chemistry will have its premiere on Apple TV+ on Friday

Updated: October 27, 2023, 1:14 PM