In ELLE.com’s recurring feature Character Study, we ask the creators behind our favorite shows to go deep about what went into creating their memorable characters: the original idea behind them, how they were tailored to the actor and elements of them we might not see on the screen.
Only Murders in the Building presents a dynamic rarely seen on TV: three intergenerational leads, with two actors performing very much in their established roles and one entering a whole new world. As Mabel, Selena Gomez embodies the youthful perspective in a trio of New York City apartment dwellers who come together to solve a murder and acts as the straight woman to Steve Martin and Martin Short’s over the top characters. John Hoffman, the show’s co-creator, sees Mabel as a strong young woman still searching for ways to cope with childhood traumas revealed in both seasons 1 and 2. He spoke with ELLE.com about Mabel’s need for self-protection, the tiny nods to Gomez’s career he embedded in the series, and why she hit it off with two 70-year-olds.
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What was the genesis of Mabel? What were the first brushstrokes made in creating her?
Ultimately, we wanted to create a sense of mystery around her in season one. I think the badass entry she makes as a representative of a young woman in New York City, and that mix of style and armor that Dana Covarrubias, our costume designer, supplied us with for fabulous Selena Gomez to be walking down the street, give a very different experience of her perspective and her view and her life in New York City as a woman on guard in certain ways.
That was key in understanding a fairly isolated young woman getting entry into New York City by her wealthy aunt who lives in this building. She has a chance to really explore what she wants, what she can do and through this ticket that comes to her from her aunt to “renovate my apartment because I’m away for many months!” It’s combination of, she’s tough, she’s shrewd, and yet she’s alone and she’s forming herself.
That was the beginning. Then these recurrent dreams she has that were described in season one as very protective but very much to the extreme. There’s a little bit of a sense of an overweening reach for protection and I think that proposed questions to the writers’ room as to what was the source of all of that. Then we took a longer lead look at what are we going to get to for Mabel ultimately. What is the source of the fears that she has and what is she covering up? There’s the part of her that has these absences in her memory that we wanted to unlock slowly between season one and season two.
How was the character at all shaped by Selena?
This is a comedy that gets very deep in personal ways. It’s very intentional that way. You have three fascinating people as the leads of your show. With all three you make assumptions, you think you know and sometimes they share very forwardly, in Selena’s case, with their fans in an intimate way. One of the things that makes her so unique is the openness, sharing and honesty with which she walks through the world, which makes her so attractive to so many.
We were really interested in flipping that idea. There’s a sense of mystery and we’re peeling back the layers of her onion in this way. I like to play on the public persona of the actors who are playing these characters in subtle ways. Little homages to their careers in certain scenes we’re doing.
What do you think Mabel’s role is in this trio? What does she bring to the relationships?
No question, she is an emotional center but I also think she’s the center. She’s our audience’s viewpoint. The guys are a little more set in their ways. They’re fully formed in their demeanors and their behaviors and their insane ways sometimes. Of the three, Mabel is the one most in formation. She’s a bit of a late bloomer and I think she’s a bit of an old soul that matched with these hugely youthful spirits in 70-year-old bodies. They’re just beautifully intriguing as a trio to me. We play on the paternal issues, in season two particularly. That is echoing constantly between the three of them and the protective nature the guys have towards her.
If we introduced a character in the beginning of season one whose first MO that we’re reading is self-protection, I can think of no two softer landing places for friends in a pre-war apartment building than Oliver and Charles. They’re safe bets. Are they there in their apartment when I need? I can knock and most likely yes. There really is a reassurance.
What do you think her life was like before meeting Charles and Oliver? Do you think she went to college, do you think she’s had jobs?
In that transition between high school and college I think most of her friends were heading in that direction, certainly Zoe. I think because of the trauma around the incident with Zoe, everything kind of stopped [for Mabel].
We go right there as to really unlocking a part of her more distant past to understand what’s really going on with her in this season and what’s been rippling through her life since a very young age regarding trauma, regarding dissociative protection.
What have you established as a backstory on her family?
I think we all do this, with Oliver being in that elevator in episode one and he’s like, “Oh my gosh, she’s fabulous, I have to know her, I like her Beats, I can’t wait to talk to her, who is this person, who is this creature?” He keeps saying that because she’s fantastic. Yet that flip again, she’s a girl from Long Island who’s had a hard time. And then your heart is opening up in some way and of course all girls who are fabulous sometimes are Long Island girls who had their heart stomped on.
That felt true, in many, ways, to Selena. I think there’s a fabulousness about her that’s undeniable and people are riveted by the things she does and who she is in the world but at the heart, when you talk to her, just a doll with a really complicated, interesting story.
Selena is, of course, a fabulous actress and didn’t need any help but the fact that she’s had very hard experiences and health concerns seems to resonate in the character.
One hundred percent right and that is what helps to create the alchemy between the three of them that was just magic, nothing we could predict. It was all due to them.
How did you establish what you wanted Mabel to look like?
Those meetings with both our production designer and our costume designer, Curt Beech and Dana Covarrubias, in establishing the look of our show, along with Chris Teague, our unbelievable director of photography, were something I could not wait to dive into. I had a lot of opinions and we got into the deepest stuff. We really worked in great concert together to land the looks. Especially for the initial look [where Mabel wears a yellow sweater, coat, and hat]. Dana is brilliant at sorting out color theory and I love that as well. It’s landing on the marigold and what that means in Mexican culture and the depth of that and how it reflects Mabel’s character but also just looks fabulous walking on the Upper West Side.
Where do you think Mabel will be in 20 years? What do you want for her?
We’re writing season three now and we’re mapping out what we’re doing for season three with these characters and it is time, I feel like, to take a look at really landing the direction for her. We’re aiming towards that and I think it’s exciting and she’s got her foot on the gas, a bit. Mabel, I just love her arc because it does point to a lift at the end of season two that feels right on time. You feel a sense of an opportunity of a restart.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Adrienne Gaffney is an associate editor at ELLE who previously worked at WSJ Magazine and Vanity Fair.