JoAnna Garcia Swisher was ready to take the summer off. Three days before she headed to dinner with her closest friends, she’d called her agent asking for a break. She needed to recharge her batteries, refocus, find a project that actually resonated with her. She’d been in a couple recent TV movies; she’d played Ariel on Once Upon A Time for years; surely she could take some time to find the Next Big Thing.
But, of course, her agent called her on her way to dinner. He tip-toed a bit—he knew she’d just asked for a break, but listen, this was big. This was Netflix, and a story he knew she’d love.
“I went home after having a big Italian dinner and a couple glasses of wine and read all the scripts he sent me in one sitting,” Swisher says. “I didn’t even stop. And the next morning I woke up, and I said, ‘I’ve got to do this show.’”
A week later, her family was on a plane to Georgia, where they’d settle in Covington as she filmed the sweet tea and sunshine-fueled Southern drama Sweet Magnolias, which landed on Netflix in May. Swisher plays protagonist Maddie Townsend, a fiery but warm-hearted woman navigating a turning point in her life.
Swisher didn’t know if the story, based on a series of books by Sherryl Woods, would find an audience, let alone become the most-watched show on Netflix over Memorial Day weekend. “I’m really grateful that I’m talking about a show that is so human right now,” she says. “The fact that the show has resonated in the way that it did…I can’t even explain it. The response has been life-changing.” Now, as ardent fans clamor for news of season 2, ELLE.com caught up with Swisher, currently quarantining in Florida with her family, to see why she took a chance on this project—and where it should go next.
You read the script for Sweet Magnolias in one sitting. What was so captivating?
It started with the idea of a show that depicted female friendships in such a genuine and beautiful way. These women—you could feel it on the page. There’s such a human quality to them. That’s kind of rare. It’s easy to get into these shows that rely heavily on stereotypes, and everyone plays their role and has their function. [Sweet Magnolias] was like you rolled the cameras on real life.
Did you have any familiarity with the books before you heard about the show?
My mom had Sherryl Woods’ books, so I knew of her. I went on to read them after I started the show. Someone asked me how much the Maddie in the books and the Maddie in the show differ; I thought that was an interesting question because I didn’t imagine them different in any way. When I was reading the books, I was just imagining being Maddie.
Sweet Magnolias manages not to veer into soap opera territory. Why do you think this series succeeds in being as genuine as it is?
There were active, creative choices. Each character, big or small, had a reason for being there. It wasn’t just to serve a purpose to drive story, or to antagonize this character. There was none of that. Every story had its own opportunity to live and breathe. That has everything to do with [showrunner Sheryl Anderson] and the world she created. I mean, for anybody to walk away at the end of the season and ask, “Are you and Bill going to get back together?’ is such a testament to how well the story was told. Because, Lord, Bill’s a hard pill to swallow.
Sheryl genuinely loves, on every level, every character on the show. She has emotional love for them. When a show is created with that in mind, it grounds it.
The finale left us with quite a cliffhanger. If the show is renewed for a second season, what do you want most for Maddie?
She’s got a long way to go. I don’t think Cal was a rebound by any stretch of the imagination. There were some very real feelings there and an incredible connection…but she’s got some control issues. She’s got a lot of work to do. She’s got to figure it out.
I don’t know about Bill and Maddie. I think most of her growth in season 1 came from realizing where her relationship had gotten to. I’d actually be surprised by [them getting back together].
I also don’t know where we begin [next season]! Like, am I at a hospital with two of my kids? Have I lost one of my kids? Am I going to lose another one? I don’t know. I don’t think Sheryl is going to shy away from doing something really intense. When I read the finale script, I said to her, “Would you be so cruel as to take two of my children away in front of me, in one fell swoop? Would you? I need to be prepared!” She’s probably one of the sweetest people I’ve ever worked for, but she laughed maniacally. I was like, “That’s so bone chilling. I don’t even know what to say to you right now.” So I don’t know what’s happening with that.
What are you hoping to see next season for the other characters?
If Eric and Helen don’t get together, honestly, the world is a cold, dark place. The chemistry between the two of those characters is just, woo!
And I’m excited to see Dana Sue. She’s built up a lot of walls and has had a lot of hurt, and a lot on her plate with her job, and the way she sort of feeds the town. And obviously, [she] had a little bit of a health scare. But then at the end, to see her come alive with all these different romances, and try to be open to the idea of falling in love again? I look forward to seeing her character get her buttons pushed a bit. Like, are you going to forgive Ronnie? What does that look like?
We’re keeping our eyes open for that season 2 announcement, by the way.
Me, too. I’m about to talk to my producers in about 20 minutes.
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