“There is no comparison,” Whitney Sudler-Smith assures me, when I ask whether there’s another show to which he could compare Southern Charm, the popular Bravo reality TV series he created, produces and stars in.
In more ways than one, Sudler-Smith is right: Southern Charm is not your average reality TV show. Revolving around a group of old-moneyed bon vivants in Charleston, South Carolina, the show exudes an air of sophistication scant amongst its Bravo compatriots, like Vanderpump Rules or The Real Housewives franchise. Club-going boozehounds infamous for sloppy make-outs and embarrassingly stupid remarks these people are not: Thomas Ravenel, the 55-year-old mainstay, was formerly the South Carolina state treasurer; the mother of his children, Kathryn Dennis, is a direct descendant of John C. Calhoun—yeah, err, that John C. Calhoun—and the granddaughter of an influential state legislator; Shep Rose, who got his own spin-off dating series this past winter, routinely quotes Shakespeare; Patricia Altschul, Sudler-Smith’s mother, who doles out acerbic critiques as the show’s de facto wisewoman, used to lecture in art history at George Washington University, and employs a personal martini-making butler.
This doesn’t mean the cast isn’t prone to the kind of petty infighting, relationship drama and outrageous arguments as its analogues are—quite the opposite. Yet these preoccupations are uniquely buttressed by an aristocratic refinement; the show’s most fixating tension lies at the intersection where the cast’s anachronistic Old South politesse and the exhibitionist demands of modern reality television meet.
Perhaps no single person embodies this tension better than Sudler-Smith himself, an Oxford man, independent filmmaker and documentarian, who now not only produces Southern Charm, but also its two spin-offs: Southern Charm Savannah and Southern Charm New Orleans, the first season of which premieres on April 15th.
I caught up with Sudler-Smith to discuss Southern Charm’s much-anticipated fifth season (which premieres tonight), the making of New Orleans, Thomas’s new girlfriend and what it will take for his buddy Shep to finally settle down.
How did you initially conceive of the idea for Southern Charm?
Initially, I come from more of a film background, and it started out as a documentary. I’d become friends with Thomas Ravenel, who lived in Charleston, I think hed’ just gotten out of prison [Ed. Note: Ravenel was indicted on federal drug charges for possession of and intent to distribute cocaine in 2007, and served a 10 month sentence in 2008; he was also arrested for driving while intoxicated in 2013.]
I felt he’d be this really compelling character. And I figured he’d make interesting subject matter for a documentary and/or TV show. I did this pilot thinking it was going to be a documentary kind of exploring the myth of the Old South and reconstruction and all this bullshit. And my agent said at the time, “No, no, no, this should be a TV show, these characters are all compelling,” and we just kind of built it out from there.
Something I love about Southern Charm is that it does have the gloss of the Old South. The characters seem flung together more by class than age or occupation, as is often the case on other reality TV shows.
There is this myth of the Old South, however misconstrued or not... It does have this kind of dark, mythic, kind of gothic quality to it that I found interesting, and all these different layers to it as well, some good, some not. The idea of southern aristocracy...it’s interesting that even though they’ve lived this fairy tale existence, they have real problems like everyone else in America would.
Was it hard to convince Thomas and the other members of the cast to be a part of the show?
They really didn’t know what they were getting into—like me. I think at the time, Thomas and I were really interested in exploring his whole political situation. [Ed. Note: Ravenel ran as an independent against incumbent U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham in 2014, receiving 3.9% of the vote.]
Thomas himself is kind of a Shakespearean character, with this momentous rise and fall—just a really compelling, great story. So the initial idea was just to explore that. But the show took off and it took a lot of different avenues. Funnily enough, the hardest character to convince was Craig [Conover]. As if he had something to hold onto...
He seems like the most traditionally would lend himself best to a reality show, being the young, up-and-coming outsider.
[Laughs] They’re all special in their own right.
What is it like being the producer of the show and a cast member? Do you have an incentive to stir up drama, as both a player and a coach in a way?
[Laughs] No. It’s not like I’m Jodie Foster on Contact directing myself from behind the scenes. [Ed. Note: Jodie Foster did not actually direct Contact. Still.] You don’t have to do anything; there’s no prompting. That’s what makes them so compelling, is they have a lot going on in their lives.
This season serves as a big reset on a lot of the central relationships from season four, what with Austen and Chelsea and Craig and Naomi breaking up. It seems like there’s a lot of potential there in terms of new drama.
Dude. I’m sorry. [At this point, Whitney has to pause the interview to scold fellow cast member, Shep Rose, who’s staying with him in L.A. and is evidently talking on the phone very loudly.]
I feel like I’m part of the show, with you and Shep arguing.
He’s visiting for the week. It’s like having your younger brother [stay with you.]
Speaking of Shep, what did you make of his dating show, Relationshep? Will what happened on that show inform this season?
No. He is who he is. There’s nothing changing, for good or for bad. He does what he does.
What will it take for him to settle down, given that the whole Relationshep thing didn’t work out?
[Sighs] God. It’d be hard to tame the beast. She’d have to be an extraordinary women of incredible talents which...it’s more unicorn than not. We’re hoping she or it will magically appear at some point.
What was your first impression of Ashley, Thomas’s new girlfriend, who seems like she’ll be pretty involved this season?
Definitely a character. The initial perception was that she’d be good for him and a stable influence on his life. But it’s hard to say [laughs].
Your mother, Patricia, is probably one of my favorite cast members. What was her response to you creating the show and asking her to be a part of it?
She had no idea what she was getting herself into, nor did I for that matter. She’s so funny and she doesn’t take herself seriously. And I said to her, “Look, it would help show who I am and what’s going on in my life, so would you just come on...”
The first couple scenes were pretty innocuous, but then she obviously comported herself. The fact that she was so funny on camera...her role just got bigger as the seasons went on. And, for me, I love having Mom on camera—imaging having your mom on TV talking about your love life. It’s kind of a nightmare, but funny nonetheless.
Coming from a film background, are there any non-reality TV reference points that inspired you, or that you think of when you think of Southern Charm?
You always have lofty ambitions to transcend the genre and the format...We kind of wanted to have a bit of that Downton Abbey, upstairs/downstairs thing...We wanted some of the fun tone of Animal House, a little bit of The Bachelor thrown in. And all of it with a Bravo feel. I think we’ve stayed true to that vision for the most part.
What is the biggest misconception people generally have about the cast members on the show?
People think we’re a lot more degenerate than we really are—people think I live with my mother and don’t work, which is the complete opposite. Shep is not the kind of ne’er-do-well people think his in some regards. People always ask, “Oh, is it scripted? How much is real?” And all of it is real.
Let’s shift gears for a minute and talk about Southern Charm New Orleans. Why New Orleans? How did that come about?
I wasn’t necessarily looking to shoot Southern Charm in New Orleans, it just kind of came organically. I’d met a couple people that I’m now friends with, and thought it was a great opportunity. No network had really done a show in New Orleans, [one] that really captured the flavor of the people and the city. I know they tried, but they never really tapped into it. I think one thing I’m good at is knowing people that would be good for TV. And I met a bunch of people, and kind of got this cast together with the help of Bravo. It’s different from the other Southern Charms, because it’s more family-based, and everyone has a creole background.
What were the challenges in translating the tone and style of Southern Charm down to a new city and a new cast?
The challenge was that most of the cast members are married, [though] there are a couple of rapscallion characters. You want to keep the general tone of the brand, but also do something completely different and original, and I think we’ve done that.
One thing I always wondered: what was Michael doing before he was your mom’s butler? How does one become a butler?
I think there’s the butler academy in London.
Is that an actual place?
I don’t know the name of it, but yeah, there are a couple, for sure. He worked for a family on Long Island. And he worked for them for a long time. He was the butler just under the chief butler, I forget what that exact title is called. They were this old Long Island family with the estates and this house...But when [the matriarch] passed away, my mom’s interior director suggested he come work for her. He’s incredible.
I love that aspect of the show. It feels so out of time.
Mom’s very anachronistic. She’s not watching Bravo, she’s watching Turner Classics. She’s very Bette Davis circa 1935.
I feel like the cast members on the show, generally, are so much more cultured and literary than your usual reality TV stars, who tend to be...not dumb, but often there just to act ridiculous.
Yeah, I should fucking hope so. That’s one of the inherent charms of the show—that we kind of transcend that BS and we’re actually quite funny and literate, and make semi-intelligent references here and there. I think that’s the strength of the show—there’s a comedic tone that many [others] do not capture.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity.