‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Creator Lee Eisenberg on Trusting Actors: ‘I Want People to Discover and Experiment’

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Photo Source: Courtesy Apple TV+

According to “Lessons in Chemistry” creator Lee Eisenberg, everything his wife says is right. So when she told him he needed to read Bonnie Garmus’ 2022 debut novel, “Lessons in Chemistry,” and turn it into a series, he didn’t hesitate. “I saw exactly what she saw in it,” he says. “I was obsessed with the writing. The characters leapt off the page, and I was so moved.”

But Eisenberg, who created Apple TV+ miniseries “WeCrashed” and co-created Amazon Freevee’s faux–reality show “Jury Duty,” had never done a book adaptation before. Luckily, he’d already inked a multiyear deal with Apple, which had “Lessons in Chemistry” on the docket to adapt for its streaming platform—and executives just so happened to be looking for a writer to head it up. Still, Eisenberg says it took some “begging and pleading” for the studio to bring him onto the project. 

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Within two days, he got on the phone with Oscar winner Brie Larson, who was attached to star as chemist Elizabeth Zott, to pitch his take on Garmus’ novel. “We immediately connected,” he says. “All of the qualities that I wanted in Elizabeth, Brie has in equal measure.”

Beginning in the 1950s, “Lessons in Chemistry” chronicles the life of a fiercely feminist scientist who battles sexism in the workplace and goes on to land a job as a television chef. The eight-episode series tackles topics ranging from romance to grief to motherhood to systemic racism and sexism. 

The casting process, spearheaded by Emmy-winning CD John Papsidera (“Oppenheimer,” “Yellowstone”), took place entirely over Zoom. Eisenberg says the team found themselves with “dozens of self-tapes” that would usually yield three great options at a time. “It was an embarrassment of riches.”

Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson

One actor, Aja Naomi King (“How to Get Away With Murder,” “The Upside”), impressed him so much that he decided to write a brand-new composite character for her. Eisenberg and Papisidera had originally pinned the actor for a different role that was ultimately cut from the show. 

King co-stars as Harriet Sloane, a young Black lawyer and community organizer. (In the book, the character is a white woman trapped in an abusive marriage.) “It felt like giving Brie a contemporary who was going through her own struggles—not just dealing with the misogyny and sexism of that time, but dealing with the overt racism,” Eisenberg explains.

The team tapped Lewis Pullman for the role of Calvin Evans, an award-winning chemist who finds his soulmate in Elizabeth. The actor, who’s the son of Bill Pullman, first drew Eisenberg’s notice in 2022’s “Top Gun: Maverick”; the writer was captivated by his “incredibly soulful” presence. “Like his father, [Lewis] has leading-man qualities but [also] has the ability to not be center stage,” the writer says—which made him a perfect fit for Calvin.

Eisenberg’s approach to the series was grounded in “character and emotion.” He sought authenticity, focusing on making the characters’ growth “feel earned” in a story marked by heaviness and grief. To establish a sense of trust and collaboration with his directors and actors, he gave them “a tremendous amount of latitude.” 

That meant offering performers the space to tweak dialogue to make it sound more natural—though there were times when Eisenberg insisted that they work directly from the script. “I want people to discover and experiment throughout the process,” he explains, “and not feel like if they don’t say [the lines] exactly—if the comma is not where I put it in my script—that somehow they fail.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Backstage Magazine.