Jurnee Smollett-Bell & Aisha Hinds. Credit: Steve Dietl/WGN
Feud: Bette and Joan is FX’s juicy new miniseries about the rivalry between screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that plays out during the making of their one film together, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It premieres March 5 and stars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in the title roles, and a host of other actresses playing stars of yesteryear (including Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Olivia de Havilland). Welsh and Irish-Catholic, and married to actor Michael Douglas, who is Jewish on his father Kirk Douglas’ side, Zeta-Jones relished the role. “She was a tough, ball-breaking woman of her time,” she says of De Havilland. “She went up against the studio, which is rare today, let alone then. She’s a bit of an enigma, which I love…I want to play her stronger than what people would imagine.”
The 1979 sci-fi movie Time After Time comes to TV Mar. 5 in ABC’s series of the same name, starring Freddie Stroma (UnReal) as author H.G. Wells and Josh Bowman (Revenge) as Dr. John Stevenson, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper, a fugitive from Victorian-era justice who escapes to the future in Wells’ time machine with its inventor in pursuit. In modern New York City, the serial killer “shaves, gets a nice suit and really meshes into the world,” says Bowman. “He goes to the nightclubs and is in awe of everything and the violence. Everything around him is like a drug. He’s personable and charming on the face of it, like a Ted Bundy character. But he has these impulses to do terrible things.”
His research into Stevenson and Jack the Ripper (it’s one of many theories that they’re were one and the same) was enlightening. “It’s fascinating to try to understand the motivations of these people. That’s mostly why I jumped onto this project,” says the British actor, who is Jewish on his father’s side. “I celebrate holidays sometimes when I’m with friends; I have family that’s very religious and some that’s not at all, like my father. My mom is Irish-Catholic,” notes Bowman, who identifies with both faiths and another he has explored on his own: Buddhism. “I’m a Jew-Bu,” he says.
Another new time travel series, also premiering March 5, is the Fox comedy Making History, which sends a pair of modern dudes (Adam Pally, Yassir Lester) back in time, initially to the colonial era. Pally’s character Dan meets Paul Revere’s daughter Deborah (Leighton Meester), who completes the traveling triumvirate. Meester (Gossip Girl), who married Jewish actor Adam Brody three years ago and took a break from work after giving birth to their daughter Arlo in August 2015, was eager to return to series work. “I definitely wanted to do comedy,” says Meester. I just wanted to live in a world that’s fun and have fun on set. This script came my way and it really spoke to me.”
On March 8, Jurnee Smollett-Bell returns for the second season of WGN’s slavery-themed drama Underground, and the story finds her escapee character Rosalee in league with a famous historical figure, Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds). “Rosalee spent most of season one running away from the danger and in season two she’s running toward it. Harriet has taken her under her wing and become a mentor to help her get her family back,” says Smollett-Bell. “They challenge each other, and there’s times they agree and times they don’t agree on the method to the madness. But it’s really about learning from this great woman and trying to become her own warrior.”
The actress can look to her own ancestry for other exemplary role models. The daughter of an African-American mother and Jewish father with roots in Russia and Poland, she says, “I come from survivors. I come from revolutionaries.”
Returning to TLC March 5, the genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? follows celebrities as they explore their ancestries, including Noah Wyle on March 26, who is from an interfaith family. Plus one actor who didn’t know she had any Jewish heritage: Jessica Biel discovers her Jewish roots in the April 2 episode.
Michael Vartan (Alias, Bates Motel), the France-born son of a Polish-Jewish mother and a Christian father of Armenian-Hungarian ancestry, returns to TV March 5 in the E! drama series The Arrangement in a role that’s a departure for him. He plays the controlling advisor to an actor (Josh Henderson), going as far as to make the star’s ingénue girlfriend sign a very strict contract.
“Mostly, I’ve been the good guy—the husband, the boyfriend. And this was an opportunity in my career to really play someone completely different, someone who’s flawed and complicated,” says Vartan. “Playing someone creepy and a little darker was really interesting because I’ve never had the chance to do that.”