“Have your tissues ready,” warns Nuclear Family director Ry Russo-Young of tonight’s third and final episode of the docuseries about her moms, her sister and herself and the landmark battle for the parental rights of same-sex couples that defined their lives in the 1990s.
Having premiered on the premium cabler September 26, the docuseries from The Sun Is Also a Star helmer examines the legal and media battle Sandy Russo and Robin Young fought in the closing decade of the 20th century to hold on to custody of their daughter from a former friend, who donated sperm and now wanted access to Ry as his own offspring. In an America at the time where the notion of a lesbian family found almost no protection in the courts or the court of public opinion, it was a struggle not just to keep the family together, but also the very notion of their family.
One of my favorite series of the year, Nuclear Family not only opens up some recent and perhaps unknown history for viewers, but also brought new perspective to Russo-Young herself on the motivation of her biological father Tom Steel, who died of HIV/AIDS in 1998. Confident in not offering easy answers in the docuseries, the director spoke with me about tonight’s conclusion, turning the lens on your own clan, her plans for a fictional version of the story. Additionally, Russo-Young discussed the process of discovery that Nuclear Family brought for her and her audience.
DEADLINE: With the third and final episode in the docuseries airing tonight, and all the reaction so far to this new take on your family’s story, where are you at right now?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I’m in a good place because it’s been so rewarding to see the series touch people emotionally and just how…I’m really touched. I was just crying, literally, before this interview because I was talking to my moms and we were sharing some stories of just recent reactions, and, well, I’m just going to read you a reaction that I got through someone I don’t know, never met this person. This is what they said: Watching you guys all together makes me so happy, it makes my heart full. I feel like you are all a family I never got to have, and that’s all I need. Love will always conquer all, hope our paths cross one day.
DEADLINE: Oh my god.
RUSSO-YOUNG: Yeah, you’re just like, oh my god, right? It’s so meaningful to me that I can tell my story and that it can resonate with other people, and on an emotional level, on a love level, they can think about their own family.
DEADLINE: In that context, one of the many reactions I’ve seen Nuclear Family elicit is that there are members of my own family who realize they will never have to go through what your moms, your sister and you went through. That their family is legally and culturally recognized and protected. Has it struck you how many gay and lesbian families look at Nuclear Family and see a tale from not just another era, but almost another world?
RUSSO-YOUNG: Yes, but it’s so interesting because I was just having a conversation yesterday with a 23-year-old, who is a child conceived of a sperm donor, and she was saying how much my sister Cade’s experience, basically, trying to be straight and then realizing finally that she was a lesbian resonated with her own experience.
RUSSO-YOUNG: Yes, and we were surprised and I’m saying, wow, we figured out you’re 17 years younger than I am and that narrative still resonated with you and you experienced it yourself, so I think it’s just every generation is changing. Also, as we know, every generation affects the next one, and so I think this history is critical to passing on the lineage, and I think that it’s not over. I don’t think kids of gay parents have nothing now, I think it’s a valuable history but one that will resonate with them in ways today in terms of what they’re going through, is what I mean.
DEADLINE: To that, like almost all classic stories, this docuseries is a three-act drama, how for you in putting it together, and I know some things, like the new perspective interview with Tom Steel, came later in the piece, and you went back and talked to your moms about another point of view on this. So, as the tale comes to its docuseries conclusion, looking at it now and going into this third episode, what would you have done differently, if anything?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently.
RUSSO-YOUNG: Because I’ve spent a lot of time with this project and topic, and with this edit. I say that because I’ve put in the hours, and hours and hours, making sure it’s right, you know. I’m confident that the film is what I want it to be. I can’t say that for most of the things that I’ve made, but I can say that about this project because it’s been sitting with me for so long, I’ve been working on it, you know, in a way, a lifetime.
DEADLINE: Now, I know that you have plans about doing, for lack of better expression, a fictionalized version of this. where is that sitting with you now, now that the docuseries has come out?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I’m excited about it, creatively, and I get a little tunnel-visiony when I get excited about something, I just want to dive in, so I’m jazzed up.
DEADLINE: In the realm of jazzed-up, I have to ask, what do your moms, Sandy and Robin, think of Nuclear Family? I mean, as the series makes clear, it is not their first time in front of the cameras talking about this and your family, but this is you, one of their daughters, telling the story of them and your family …
RUSSO-YOUNG: They’re very proud of me. But I will say, I think they’ve felt differently over the course of it, they’ve had all kinds of feelings about this and we’ve had all kinds of conversations throughout the life of putting this docuseries into the world.
Right now, they are filled with pride and love, and I think they are really grateful that they’re…well, not grateful, that’s not the word, but they’re finally recognized as a family, people today do see us as a family. When we did press in the ‘90s, the last time we did a lot of press, people didn’t see us that way, so it’s really meaningful for them to finally have that recognition.
DEADLINE: You know, it’s interesting you bring that up because one of the things that really struck me about the series is that looking at the media sensationalization of the ‘90s. A time that is, in some ways I guess, the last great American decade, so to speak, when America had peace and prosperity, at the very least. Looking at today, that feeding frenzy that surrounded your family, what are your thoughts now on that, as you’re contributing to the narrative with your own work?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I mean, that’s part of why I wanted to tell this story. So not feel like prey, but to be able to communicate my version on my own terms in a complicated and nuanced language that I felt that our culture was ready for.
DEADLINE: So, going into this third and final episode, what would you say to people who have been watching the first two episodes and now, they’re kind of waiting, they’re waiting for a conclusion, they’re waiting for a resolution.
RUSSO-YOUNG: Have your tissues ready.
DEADLINE: The straightforwardness and the warning are both appreciated …
RUSSO-YOUNG: (laughs) Thanks. But my family has never been afraid of tears, you know? I mean, we have always embraced them as a part of life and a part of what it is to live beautifully and honestly. So when someone tells me they cried, I’m beaming. It makes me very happy because I feel very cleansed when I cry and I cry a lot, so you know it means you’re present.
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