First Wives Club Star Ryan Michelle Bathe Admits She's a "Slightly Cynical" Romantic
Every time Ryan Michelle Bathe walks the red carpet with her husband, This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown, they’re the picture of wedded bliss. But in her latest project, the actress portrays a woman whose relationship is anything but a dream. She takes on the role of unhappily married attorney Ari Montgomery in First Wives Club, a modern adaptation of the 1996 film that follows a trio of women seeking revenge on their ex-husbands (Bathe’s character is based on the role Diane Keaton made famous in the original).
Much like the movie that came before it, the BET+ series First Wives Club is centered on three best friends, all of whom are struggling in their respective marriages. And though the relationships of her BFFs Hazel (Jill Scott) and Bree (comedian Michelle Buteau) are crumbling rapidly, the demise of Ari’s marriage to Senate hopeful David (Mark Tallman) is more of a slow burn. Publicly, they’re keeping up appearances on the campaign trail — but behind the scenes, things are anything but perfect. “Ari has a type-A personality and everything is always under her control, so when things are a mess, it takes a long time for them to really manifest,” Bathe tells InStyle. “She has so much going on and so much on her plate that she can ignore what’s happening until she finally can’t ignore it anymore. All of the things that she’s tried to keep under wraps are starting to bubble up, so internally, Ari is going through it.”
Having given up her own law career to support her husband’s political ambitions, Ari makes it clear she feels resentful. But according to Bathe, David is oblivious to the fact they have some major issues in their marriage — lack of romance included. “He has no idea that anything is wrong or that their sex life is odd or that their relationship has become a performance,” says Bathe. “It doesn’t even cross his mind, and it’s not like they have a tumultuous relationship — all of the tumult and questioning lives inside Ari. It’s not mutual, and she’s really alone in all of it, and that’s the saddest part.”
Bathe certainly feels for her character. And though she may not be able to relate to her plight, she fully understands her character’s inner workings. “Ari and I are two branches on the same tree,” she explains. “We’re similar in the sense that we are overachievers and people pleasers. We are incredibly ambitious and very loyal, almost to a fault. The main difference between us is that in my own personal life, I gave myself permission to be messy in ways that I don’t think Ari has ever given herself permission.”
That included Bathe’s decision to pursue a career in acting. “There was a time in my life when I was very much Ari and heading towards a life that would’ve been very much like hers,” she explains. “I went to Stanford, and everybody I knew there was either going to be a doctor or a lawyer. I think that had I continued on that same path, Ari and I would be very similar internally and our external worlds would look very similar. But I wanted to explore what it was to be an artist, and fortunately I had permission — from myself and from key people in my life — to make that decision. And by not having it all together, you learn to just take life as it comes a bit more. So I understand Ari intuitively because I made very clear choices not to be like her.”
Keep reading for our full interview with Bathe, in which she opens up about being a “cynical” romantic, navigating marriage in the public eye, and how she and Brown have managed to keep the spark alive “even in the bleakest of times.”
First Wives Club is all about sisterhood — at one point, two of the women even scale a building in a show of support for their friend. In real life, do you lean on your friends in that way?
One thousand percent. My mother actually was a really great example of that for me. She had girlfriends like you wouldn’t even believe — and I mean like sisters. So I knew from a very early age that sisterhood is the lifeline for a woman.
Would you go to such great heights as scaling a building for one of them?
You would be surprised by some of things that I’ve done for my friends! I can’t tell you, ‘cause I’d have to kill you. But scaling a building? Girl, that’s easy. At least it’s not illegal. [laughs]
What was it like on set? Did you bond with Jill and Michelle?
We had so much fun! My biggest fear was that Jill Scott was going to call security on me. I didn’t want to geek out on her so much that she was like, “Who is this crazy girl, and why is this a parody of Single White Female?" But I held it together and didn’t scare her off. I can’t even tell you what it’s like to meet someone that you’ve held in such esteem and have her be everything you wanted her to be. She is such an amazing woman. And I don’t want to use the word down-to-earth — what does that mean, we just put on Crocs and a robe? — because people overuse that term. But she was just one thousand percent authentically herself at every single moment.
The show is very relationship-focused. Would you describe yourself as a total romantic?
Yeah, I would definitely describe myself as a romantic, but with a slightly cynical veneer. In this age of social media, that’s where I give a little side-eye, when people are like, “It’s me and my boo,” and they’re like 18 and just got matching tattoos. It’s easy to say it’s your boo when everybody has six-pack abs and you guys don’t go grocery shopping [laughs]. Talk to me when you’ve had the same conversation about almond milk for 10 years! So that’s when I get a little cynical, when I see this social media performance of relationships and love and romance. It can be a lot.
What has it been like for you, having your own relationship in the public eye these past few years?
There have been so many blessings that have led to us living our lives in the public eye like that, and we are so grateful for all of those blessings. We are so grateful for This Is Us and the response to it and all of it. It’s difficult for me sometimes, because it’s a little bit like being shot out of a cannon. We didn’t prepare for this, there was no warning or template for this. That part of all of this has been very much a surprise and something that I’m learning to navigate every single day as we grow and change and as this thing grows and changes around us. It’s weird to have a relationship and have something that is very much connected to you, yet you have absolutely no control over it being a part of the satellite of things. It’s interesting to navigate.
Unlike your First Wives Club character, it seems like you and Sterling are great at keeping the spark alive. What’s your secret?
Oh my lord, I don’t know! I think we are just lucky to have very lively children. Our kids keep us laughing, and I think that’s what it is. If nothing else, Sterling and I have always had laughter. Even in the bleakest of times, we have always been able to laugh. We laugh at ourselves, we laugh at each other, we laugh with each other about ourselves. There is a form of laughter in everything that we do. I read a quotable once that said laughter is a sure sign of the presence of joy. I think as long as you can find something to laugh about, it allows you to access your joy, and therefore your spark. And that’s how you keep it alive.
Love that. Speaking of your kids, how do you balance motherhood and marriage with your busy work schedule these days?
People always talk about the balance, but I think it’s more like preparing a meal. Some things come to the front burner, some things go to the back burner. It’s like, “Let me go ahead and put this bread in the oven, because if I don’t get to the onions, they’re not going to be chopped in time for the water that’s already boiling.” It is also a managing of the triage: “Who’s bleeding? Who needs a tourniquet? Who needs an Advil?” Sometimes things will break down and you’re in the middle of something else, and you’re like, “Okay, can that breakdown wait 45 seconds so I can tie this thing up?” So once I realized that it’s not a balance, I took the pressure off myself.
At home, do you and Sterling ever run lines together or weigh in on each other’s work?
You know, Sterling and I spent three years together in a graduate school program that had 16 people in it. The class above us had 16, and the class below us had 16. And we were all artists trying to figure out our art. So Sterling and I know each other very, very well when it comes to art — not to mention the fact that we went to Stanford together. We’ve had a lot of time to work together, so when it comes to running lines and stuff like that, we kind of have our own little worlds and our own little spaces. But we definitely bounce ideas off of each other and I ask him for a ton of advice all the time, about everything. Maybe it’s not quite vise versa, but we definitely try to collaborate in ways — especially with everything new. He also always says, “You’ve got a lot of strong opinions!” [laughs] And I’m like, “Yes, I do!”
Do you think your characters — Ari on First Wives Club and Randall on This Is Us — would get along?
I think Randall would be very intimidated by Ari. But I think she would absolutely appreciate his type A-ness and how successful and smart he is, and how he got himself in office without asking his wife. She would really like that!
What’s coming up next for you?
I have this wonderful movie coming out called Sylvie. It’s a little jewel of a movie, it’s soft and sweet. It’s set in the ‘50s and Tessa Thompson plays Sylvie and Nnamdi Asomugha plays her love interest. I’m super proud of it. I’m also working on a podcast. I can’t tell you too much about it yet, but I’m really into politics so it’s definitely going to have a political bent. I also love fashion, so it’ll probably be about how to look good while we survive this political apocalypse! [laughs]
First Wives Club is now streaming on BET+.