Walking onto the Lessons in Chemistry set near Downtown Los Angeles, I expect to see a bustling operation with crew members dashing around, cameras and lighting strewn about, and actors preparing for their scenes. But I also find myself suddenly transported back to a 1950s television studio. The walls are pretty in pastel pinks and blue, and there’s a charming kitchen set laid out in front of rows of audience seats. The cameras are big, hulking machines, and there are “Supper at Six” logos across the audience bleachers.
It’s the last week of filming for the new Apple TV+ series, a hotly anticipated adaptation of Bonnie Garmus’s 2022 bestseller about a 1950s chemist named Elizabeth Zott, who, as the reluctant host of a cooking show, turns cooking and chemistry into tools of liberation for women around the country.
The Ace*Mission Studios have been transformed into the various spheres of Elizabeth Zott’s life. There’s the lab where she meets and falls in love with fellow chemist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman); their Southern California home; and the bustling TV set where she’ll eventually find employment when she’s shut out of the lab for having a child while unmarried. “The first time I stepped onto it, it kinda took my breath away,” says showrunner Lee Eisenberg of the exquisitely designed sets, by production designer Cat Smith. The only giveaway that this is actually December 2022 is the crew members wandering around behind the scenes in modern-day clothes and masks.
As the production prepares for its next scene, star and executive producer Brie Larson appears, wearing a long-sleeve black blouse and a flowy off-white skirt that’s perfectly cinched at the waist. Larson has been playing Elizabeth for four months at this point, and carries herself with a similar grace. When the adaptation of Garmus’s book finally hits Apple TV+ on October 13, viewers will get to meet this riveting, unique character—smart, kind, flawed, and very much ahead of her time—who battled a sexist 1950s establishment every step of the way.
“It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read,” says Eisenberg of Lessons in Chemistry. “I thought the character was just so vibrant and really unlike anything I’d ever seen.”
Lessons in Chemistry has spent an incredible 68 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It’s become so popular that you can’t help but spot people reading it out in the wild. Garmus’s debut novel is both entertaining and insightful, and has an irresistible character at the center in Elizabeth Zott. The story begins with her working as a lab tech at a prestigious lab, where she’s treated like a secretary even though she has all the training and ability to be a real chemist. “As the story begins, Elizabeth is siloed,” says Eisenberg. “When you are alone, you don’t experience loss. You also don’t experience love, you don’t experience friendship. So you kind of protect yourself from all of these things, from heartache.”
But then she meets Calvin, a brilliant chemist who has also been a bit of a lone wolf. They at first have a tense relationship but soon bond over their passion for chemistry, and fall in love. But after tragedy strikes, Elizabeth discovers she’s pregnant and is left to find a way to support herself. Because of her passion for healthy, delicious cooking (and using chemistry within her recipes), she’s recruited to host a cooking TV show, Supper at Six, creating an empowering environment for female viewers—and a new life for herself.
“It turns into this amazing ensemble, and she really creates a community. She creates her village,” says Eisenberg. “That was something that was incredibly important to me, that I felt in the book. And all these different people whose lives she touches, and then how those people end up interacting with each other. It becomes this kind of tapestry of these characters.”
The supporting ensemble for the series includes Aja Naomi King as Elizabeth’s neighbor Harriet, Stephanie Koenig as her friend and coworker Fran, and Kevin Sussman as Supper at Six producer Walter. The series gives each supporting character their own storyline, from interpersonal relationships to political and cultural battles of the time. While the main timeline spans the 1950s to ’60s, the show also features flashbacks to Elizabeth’s and Calvin’s lives both together and apart.
Eisenberg, a fan of shows like Mad Men and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, wanted the 1950s-set part of the story to feel rich and lush, something that “really transports you to another time.” The key was in the details, he says, which also speak to how Elizabeth Zott—a woman who renovates her kitchen at home to function more like a science lab—would live her life. “One thing we talked about early on was, ‘Where does Elizabeth keep her spices?’” says Eisenberg as an example. “I had the idea that Elizabeth keeps her spices in test tubes, and I just thought it was a cool image and different from the way I would keep my spices. And we talked to one of our science consultants, and they were like, ‘Yeah, that would make total sense.’ Those little things, some of it you catch onscreen, some of it you don’t, but it makes the actors, it makes the directors, it makes the world feel so lived in and so specific to these characters.”
Lessons in Chemistry also had to get every detail right when it came to the costumes, enlisting Mirren Gordon-Crozier for the task. She aimed to use Elizabeth’s clothes to reflect her growth and journey. “Elizabeth is a career woman and wants to be a successful chemist, but is stuck in a position as a lab tech, and so she cares less about what she wears,” says Gordon-Crozier of the start of the show. Gordon-Crozier often dressed Elizabeth in a signature color—olive green, which was more popular in that era than it is now. “Every time I see her in a new phase or a different era in her life, I make sure she’s in green,” she says, adding that a lot of Elizabeth’s costumes were custom-made, and that there were often 10 to 15 costume changes per episode.
By the time she’s taken control of the TV show and made it her own, Elizabeth is wearing pants and her signature lab coats, which meant Gordon-Crozier created dozens of different lab coats for her for the show. “She’s always very true to herself, but she has allowed herself to have fun as well with her clothing,” she says.
Gordon-Crozier, who has now worked with Larson on four projects, adds that Elizabeth “has a lot of similar characteristics to Brie.” “She’s very strong. She’s very highly intelligent. One of the smartest people I’ve ever met—and really puts her foot down,” she says.
Back on set, there’s food everywhere, and far more than the average craft services table. “The food is kind of its own character, in a way. It’s a massive, massive part of the story, and it facilitates so many of the storylines,” says food consultant Courtney McBroom. For each scene of, say, Elizabeth making a lasagna, McBroom and her team would need to make 20 lasagnas, capturing every possible step of cooking a lasagna.
And the food didn’t just have to look delicious, especially as Elizabeth becomes more polished as a TV host. It had to taste delicious too. “We make everything edible because a lot of times the actors are actually eating it, so it can’t be like weird, fake stuff,” she says. “Honestly, the main biggest secret that we use is spritzing stuff with either water or oil right before they say ‘action,’ because it has that glisten and gleam and it gets kind of shiny.”
For the story, food is often how Elizabeth connects with those around her, along with nourishing her own daughter. She makes lunches as a way to bond with Calvin.
She brings food to the neighborhood cookout to connect with Harriet. And she wouldn’t have ever gotten the job at Supper at Six if she hadn’t made Walter a chicken pot pie. “The show is about human connection even more so than chemistry, and food really facilitates that,” says McBroom. “It’s the medium through which all of these connections happen, and it’s the catalyst to so many things in Elizabeth's life.”
Lessons in Chemistry will debut on Apple TV+ on October 13.