The apple, as far as acting talent, actually fell pretty far from the tree back in 1962, when the tree was Bette Davis and the apple was her aspiring-starlet daughter B.D.
Fortunately, Feud found an accomplished actress with the meta-skills to merely act like she was acting badly in Kiernan Shipka, who got her big break at age eight on AMC’s Mad Men.
Now 17, Shipka is one of the leading actresses of her generation, but as B.D.’s story reveals, not every wannabe star’s path to success is as clear as Shipka’s, even when they’re Hollywood royalty.
Born Barbara Davis Sherry to Davis and her third husband, artist William Grant Sherry — then adopted in infancy by the actress’ fourth husband and All About Eve co-star Gary Merrill — B.D. initially used the stage name B.D. Merrill during the period depicted in Feud.
Episode 3 dramatizes a throwaway attempt by filmmaker Robert Aldrich to “stunt-cast” B.D., then 15, as a teenage neighbor in Davis and Joan Crawford’s comeback vehicle Whatever Happened to Baby Jane — an effort that went spectacularly awry.
The young girl didn’t have the performance chops one might have expected from Davis’ offspring, causing the otherwise no-nonsense star great anxiety: should she unconditionally support her often difficult daughter’s fledgling dreams, or, by throwing cold water on them, steer her towards more realistic goals?
Their relationship remained a thorny one in the years to come, especially after B.D. took a leaf out of Christina Crawford’s playbook and authored two bestselling tomes about her tumultuous relationship with Davis — My Mother’s Keeper (1985) and Narrow Is the Way (1987). The tell-alls portrayed Davis as a self-involved, alternately controlling and neglectful alcoholic – characterizations disputed by many Hollywood insiders, including Merrill and most vociferously by Davis, who disinherited her daughter and didn’t speak to her again through to her death in 1989.
Davis called the implosion of her relationship with her daughter as being as “catastrophic” as the series of strokes she suffered toward the end of her life. The history between the mother and daughter was certainly toxic, but Shipka also recognized the inherent drama embedded in their struggles, as she revealed to Mashable.
You have some experience portraying a troubled mother-daughter dynamic, but this also feels like a fresh take. What got you excited about portraying B.D.?
Oh my gosh, what didn’t? I love this project – and I love this project as a fan too: I am just eating up these episodes! They’re amazing. But working with Ryan [Murphy] was something that had always appealed to me.
I thought that B.D. was a very interesting, cool character, and obviously the chance to get to work with Susan Sarandon was just insane. And working with her really did not disappoint. She’s an absolute delight. Getting to play that complicated mother/daughter dynamic with someone of such great talent was amazing.
Although it wasn’t quite as well-known as the conflicts between Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina, the differences between Bette and B.D. were still pretty well-established, especially after B.D. wrote her tell-alls. What did you find intriguing about their history?
What I thought was really interesting about this dynamic, and really about the show as a whole, was that you know where everyone ends up, so it’s more about capturing them and these raw, honest moments before their fate comes to get them. So that was what I was super concerned with.
But obviously, knowing their history, and knowing what happened after the show took place, it was all super-helpful reading about B.D., reading what she had to say – she has her book – as well as just getting my hands on as much video footage as I could, too. Luckily, there’s some out there.
As I grew to understand her, I believe that she had kind of lived her childhood as Bette Davis’ daughter, and I think that she always probably had this internal struggle of trying to just be herself.
I think my character goes through almost a really premature existential crisis. Like, “What am I doing? Who am I?” Because her whole life, she has this beautiful relationship with her mother, but everything has always been about her mother, not about her. That’s what was very much an interesting part of B.D., what I tried to really dive into and play up.
As we learned, she did not share her mother’s talent for acting.
We know that you’re a good actor. How hard is it to act poorly, in character?
You know what? It is so fun, let me tell you! I was having a ball. I thought it was really great. The way that we shot it, too, it was all very loose. It was tons of different variations on everything. I love how it ended up. I didn’t even know what to expect. It was super fun. I’ve always loved comedy and improv, so to bring that out was just a joy.
What was eye-opening to you about what women faced in that era? And what felt all too familiar, unfortunately, because it still goes on, to a degree?
Yeah, I think this show, in some ways, shines a positive light on how things have changed, and in some ways, it shows that not much changed.
I think it’s a real balance of, “Oh wow, we’ve come far, but we’ve got work to do.” That was my takeaway from it in the message it’s trying to make. Just to be part of this really female-driven show is awesome. Working with Ryan, who’s just such a champion of women, it’s just amazing.
What do you love about being a young woman working in Hollywood right now?
You know what I love? I love these complex roles. I love roles with depth. I love that more women are creating, and writing, and directing, and I think the more women behind the camera, and the more women around the production, just the more balanced and excellent things will become. I think I was born in the right era. I think that this is kind of the time, in a lot of ways, and I’m happy to be here, proud to be a woman in Hollywood.
You certainly know what it’s like to play a character living in a very specific era. What was fun about the early ’60s and playing it at the age you are now?
I know! I got to go back to the ’60s a little bit. I didn’t really get much time in the early ’60s. I was excited to go back.
B.D. is wearing adult clothes! I get to wear all these clothes that I always wanted to wear in Mad Men when I was like ten that January [Jones] got to wear that I didn’t. So this is kind of just living out my childhood dream, in a lot of ways. But just the sets, and the costumes, and everything, it was so fun, and a lot different than Mad Men, so it was cool to kind of go back and get a different taste of that.
What was the challenge here, the kind of thing you hadn’t really gotten to do before that you were either really charged up to do, or maybe a little apprehensive about, going into it?
Something that – and I used “scared” with positive connotation – kind of scared me about this role was that she’s a firecracker, she’s sassy, she makes really mean comments to her mother. My concern and my hope was to make sure that there’s still love behind it all; that their relationship makes sense; that there’s vulnerability.
I think especially you see in the first episode and definitely in the second episode that B.D. is going to say things to her mother, and to fight, and to be mean, but you see in this third episode that she really is a daughter, and she really doesn’t want to disappoint her mom. I think that kind of shows the real balance, and the reality, and makes everything that much more complex.
Once you wrapped Mad Men, how did you approach what you were looking to do next? Your career’s at the very beginning, and that’s a gold standard to start with.
Yeah, for sure – I know! “Mad Men ruined me forever!” I know what I like, and I want to just work on things that I’m absolutely passionate about. That’s why I’m an actress, and that’s what’s important to me, and that’s what I want to continue to do.
I don’t want to take my time, I don’t want to be in a rush. I kind of just want things to happen as they do, and do the stuff that excites me the most. It’s a little open-ended. I don’t know what’s next. Still, that’s the plan.
Have you developed a taste for old movies like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Are you still discovering classic cinema?
Yeah, there are so many movies in this world. It’s so cool. I feel like there’s always a new movie that I haven’t seen, or an old movie that’s new to me that I haven’t seen.
I actually saw Baby Jane — they screened it downtown as an event for this. Just to watch it up on that big screen was amazing, and to hear the audience recite every single freaking word, it made me realize, “Oh yeah – this is why I want to make movies, to hopefully have some sort of lasting impact on people that means something.”
As you said, Ryan Murphy was a great part of the allure of Feud. What was the most interesting thing you learned about the way Ryan does things, and the way a Ryan Murphy show comes together?
This is a fascinating set to be on, because this is my first Ryan Murphy show, but for most of the people on it, it actually wasn’t. He works with a tight-knit team of people, and just a fantastically talented crew. So getting on set, no one felt like strangers. Everyone felt like this family already.
So it didn’t feel like you’re being plopped into this new thing where no one knew each other, and you’re trying to make this ambitious thing. He really knows how to work with fantastic people, and keeps on working with them, which really, that was something that I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s why everything that he does is so good.” Besides the fact that he’s wildly brilliant, it’s because everyone around him that’s working on it is too.
Can you imagine that, in the way that you’re playing B.D., one day somebody might be playing you in “The Mad Men Story?”
Oh my God! Hopefully! Oh my God, that’s so funny. Gosh, that would be crazy. Hopefully they portray me as someone nice and kind.
Feud airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.