With Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham transforming Penny Marshall’s 1992 movie A League of Their Own into a Prime Video series, Canadians have a lot to celebrate with Kelly McCormack, from Vancouver, starring in the show and discovering Canada’s extensive history with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).
McCormack plays Jess in the A League of Their Own show, an outfielder from Saskatchewan on the Rockford Peaches. She’s largely the strong, silent type, and takes the game very seriously.
“Jess is really that strong, silent type who shows instead of tells about who they are and what they're passionate about, and that was really thrilling,” McCormack told Yahoo Canada. “It was a really fun challenge to play someone who's sort of just smouldering in the background and brooding and smoking.”
“I think Jess is, at first, kind of prickly and untrusting and has been through a lot of stuff, and probably has some darkness and struggles, and doesn't come from a lot of money, and…probably got on a train with a backpack and her glove and a bat and her guitar, and that's sort of it.”
For McCormack, diving into Jess for the show meant really researching what it was like to be a queer woman playing baseball in 1943, which led her to discovering significant real-life links to Canada. That’s when the actor, in collaboration with Jacobson, Graham and executive producer Desta Tedros Reff, made Jess Canadian.
“I knew that a lot of the women in the AAGPBL were from Canada, actually it's rumoured that the film is based off of two sisters from Vancouver,” McCormack said. “I was always thinking about what it would mean for a Canadian to come down to the States,...when there's this hyper-masculine war time military ethic that we didn't really have in Canada, not in the same sort of patriotic ilk."
"For someone who, without saying it, is clearly not on the feminine gender line, as someone who's exploring more masculine presentations with themselves, I think that it would be an interesting time to be not at war, I imagine that Jess is probably not stoked that they can't go overseas and fight with all of their brothers, that's when she makes baseball her fight.”
While McCormack was developing a backstory for Jess, it became clear that Moose Jaw, specifically was the right home base, so to speak, for the character.
“I was looking for a rural place in the ‘40s, where a farm boy would also be near bars and brothel houses,” she said. “In the ‘40s, apparently they called Moose Jaw 'Loose Jaw' or 'Little Chicago' because of all the rum running from prohibition, and so it sounded like a kind of cool, gnarly place, that if you worked on a farm you would come to the city."
“It really excites me when I'm researching about the eight-year Dust Bowl that descended on Saskatchewan…and I'm like, ‘OK, so she's dirty, there's dust,...and what kind of music does she listen to? And how many siblings did they have? It’s just what gets me off as an artist and I don’t know how to not be like that.”
'If I'm being perfectly honest, it was kind of heartbreaking'
While a strong focus of the A League of Their Own series is really diving into the stories of queer women inside and outside the AAGPBL, when Jess joins the team, she’s the first character we see really judged on how she looks. In fact, the character is almost kicked off the team because, as D'Arcy Carden’s character Greta Gill puts it, the league doesn’t want them “looking like a bunch of queers.”
It’s a sting that’s rage inducing for a viewer, but Kelly McCormack also remembers that being a very tough part of the narrative to handle on a personal level.
“In this profession, the expectation and the social capital that has been placed on me since I was seven years-old and started doing theatre, [has been] to be incredibly feminine," McCormack said. "Not that I don't like playing incredibly feminine roles, but there is this sort of sing for your supper, put on the red lipstick, where the A-line dress, be the leading lady on and off stage thing.”
“It wasn't actually a very chill experience for me to go through that narrative. If I'm being perfectly honest, it was kind of heartbreaking.”
Ultimately, what McCormack highlights as being particularly “heartbreaking” for Jess is that the league is making her choose between the sport she loves, and conforming to what officials deemed to be the appropriate woman.
“So I think this moment where the Peaches are asking her to choose between the thing that she loves the most, which is baseball, and the thing that she is perhaps most afraid of, which is being a woman, I think is a really upsetting thing to put before someone," she said.
“It was upsetting for me to do, it wasn't a fun day on set, it really was one of those times you're like, this is getting a little too close to home.”
'Even if it's gotten easier, it's not gotten easier'
For the creators of the series, there was a goal was to expand on the storytelling from Penny Marshall’s film, specifically putting queer women front and centre in the narrative after, as Kelly McCormack highlights, the movie received a notable queer fan base.
“The film has a huge queer following…and I think the reason is because a woman deciding to choose a different road to express self-determination in such an intensely wild way, we can't forget the amount of sacrifice that it took for these women to just get to tryouts in the ‘40s, to say, 'I won't be a housewife, maybe I won't be a mother,'” McCormack said. “Women were getting arrested for wearing pants, it's not a small thing and there's something inherently queer about that, about just choosing a different lane.”
“I think there's this fallacy that sports attracts queer women because queer women want to be masculine or want to be like men, but I think that's such just a gross misunderstanding of what it means… It's an interesting function as an athlete, to kind of…bet on yourself and choose yourself... Especially for queer women to be like, I'm going to believe in myself in a different way that is outside of…all these realms where people feel like they're singled out and marginalized.”
For McCormack, while she celebrates that the show is able to broaden the scope of how women are featured in the series, compared to the film, she also highlights the barriers Marshall herself would have faced to get her movie made in 1992.
“In the ‘90s, it's insane that Penny Marshall was even able to make this movie," McCormack stressed. "As a female filmmaker myself, who makes movies about women, let me tell you, it's impossible to finance them. Even if it's gotten easier, it's not gotten easier.”
“Penny Marshall was doing an impossible thing, probably her hands were tied, talking about those queer stories, talking about the diverse stories, and that's why it's our job now to sort of continue it and give these women more airtime, and let it breathe a little more.”