How the wild queer history of 1940s Moose Jaw inspired Kelly McCormack in A League of Their Own
The new adaptation of the classic 1992 film nods to a little-known era in Saskatchewan's past
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
When Kelly McCormack was sent the script for Amazon's new series re-imagining of the film A League of Their Own, she had a moment that she says is "very rare" for a Canadian actor.
"I'm constantly swimming in a pool of self-doubt and fraud syndrome, just being Canadian where, you know, you don't often get to have the kind of cockiness that is associated with the American star system," she says. "But I read the breakdown for the character and had this very quiet voice in my head being like, 'Who else is going to play this part?'"
McCormack still went through the various typical processes: an audition, a callback, the chemistry test, the studio test. But in the end, her intuition proved correct when League's co-creator and star Abbi Jacobson came up to her and said: "You were the only person we were considering for that role from the very beginning."
That role is Jess McCready, a shortstop for the Rockford Peaches, the same World War II-era women's baseball team from Penny Marshall's beloved 1992 film. McCready hails from Moose Jaw, Sask. — a detail that wasn't in the script until Vancouver-born McCormack came on board the show.
"I very, very fervently demanded it," McCormack says of her character's hometown. "And there was no opposition to that demand. They're like, 'Ok!' You know, a lot of the women from the AAGPBL [All-American Girls Professional Baseball League] were from Canada. The two sisters that the film is based off of are rumored to be from Vancouver. That's sort of an understanding. And there were lots of women from the Prairies and from rural Canada."
McCormack says she went with Moose Jaw because in the 1940s, it represented a combination of factors that might seem surprising to anyone unaware of its history.
"It's obviously surrounded by so much prairies and farmlands, with a lot of rural blue collar workers and people struggling with the poverty from the Dust Bowl that was happening at the time," she says. "But it was also this very kind of metropolitan, happening place because they were doing a lot of rum-running from Chicago. So there was crime and brothels and sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll."
"I kind of wanted that combo for Jess — to be this rural farm boy who was really dirty, but then has also seen a lot and has really lived a life. So that's why I chose Moose Jaw and now I'm excited to represent that particular place. Plus the name is so good."
The 1992 film did not have any Moose Javian representation, though that is far from the only deviation taken by the new series. While the adaptation, like the film, is set in 1943 and centres on the Rockford Peaches, the direct comparisons more or less stop there. The new League is instead very much interested in exploring issues of race, gender identity and sexuality in ways the film didn't (and, in some cases, couldn't).
With regards to the latter, McCormack's Jess is one of the show's many queer characters (and I mean many: this show is incredibly gay), with the original film's Rosie O'Donnell even showing up as the owner of a gay bar. And in doing research for what queerness might look like in the context of 1940s Saskatchewan, McCormack ran into some really fascinating history.
"Moose Jaw — and Canada at large — was a lot more progressive and accepting than I think history has blanketed it with," she says. "There was a lesbian parade in the 1940s where all these women were dressing like men and just being driven around the streets of Moose Jaw. And in the brothels, any type of sex was allowed, as long as you're willing to pay for it. So yeah, I was really happy to find this kind of vibrant queer scene that existed then in Moose Jaw."
She says this was an important consideration for her development of Jess (whom McCormack uses various pronouns to describe).
"I think up until she goes or they go to the league, I don't think that they had ever really been asked to be someone different than they are, coming from so many brothers and farmland and this small town with a happening queer scene. I think when they go to the States in the middle of this war machine and this hypermasculine space, suddenly they're being asked to dress like a woman and put on makeup. And I think that's where it was really disruptive for the character."
As for McCormack's own upbringing, she says she couldn't have imagined what it would have meant to her to see a show like A League of Their Own growing up.
"My childhood was so sterilized of queer narratives," she says. "It would have been so important. And what I love about the show is that it's obviously very progressive, but it's very accessible. And I think a lot of people from different ages are going to love it."
"We're not treating these queer stories as like, wholly horrific or wholly traumatic. There's a lot of queer joy and queer love. And so it's almost like Trojan Horsing. We're treating them as normal and germane and commonplace as straight narratives have been."
Hopefully there's much more of that to come, for our sake as viewers and for McCormack's — so she can continue having the time of her life with this role.
"I cannot understate how there were times where I was having an out-of-body experience of like, 'What did I do right?' Particularly when we were in the gay bar and Rosie [O'Donnell] is there — it was an absolute fantasy. Like, [as] if someone had reached inside of my brain and were like, 'Ok Kelly, we're going to give you your dream scenario.' I'm wearing the best cool pants. I'm wearing a zoot suit-looking thing. I look rad as hell."
That dream scenario was only expanded by McCormack's relationship with her fellow cast members, which include Jacobson, Chanté Adams, D'Arcy Carden and Kate Berlant.
"We were shooting during COVID, so it was like a summer camp," she says. "We could only hang out with each other at the apartment complex we were living at. And there's not a bad apple in the cast — we are all genuinely in love with each other. So yeah, a million pinch-myself moments, and moments followed by this idea that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."
"I made a few choices about myself and who I am, and what I'll say yes to and what to say no to, and how I present myself. I made those hard decisions like ten years ago, and this felt like me walking through a door that I'd opened then. It felt really like I'm supposed to be here."
The entire first season of A League Of Their Own is now available on Amazon Prime.