Before Kyle Richards joined Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and became a reality star, she was a working actress.
Like her sister Kim, a “Real Housewives” alum, Richards, 49, began her acting career as a child, landing feature roles in “Little House on the Prairie” and the Disney classic “The Watcher in the Woods” (in which her co-star was Bette Davis) and went on to rack up a long list of guest-starring credits on big shows such as “Fantasy Island,” “CHiPs,” “7th Heaven,” “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “ER.”
This month, the reality star and mother of four returns to her scripted roots with “American Woman,” only this time as a co-executive producer.
Set in the 1970s, the series is inspired by Richards’ childhood and her late mother, Kathleen. It stars Alicia Silverstone as an unconventional mother, Bonnie, struggling to raise her two daughters after leaving her cheating husband.
The dramedy, which premiered Thursday, is the latest series to stock the shelves of Paramount Network, a rebranding of Viacom’s male-skewing Spike channel that was launched this year.
Q: You were an actress. How was it to go behind the scenes with a series you created?
A: Yeah, I had been in front of the camera my whole life. It’s completely different, obviously, when you’re behind the scenes. I didn’t know all the details that went into it. I remember the first time that we had a conference call, talking about the palette of the show. And I was like, “Um, what?” I was sweating bullets. I finally said, “Guys, I just have to be honest with you. I’m not sure what you mean; I’ve never heard these words used for a TV show.” I knew the idea of the story I wanted to tell, I knew the look of the show I wanted, the feel, the vibe, the music, all of that. But there was just so much more to it than that. And I didn’t realize it.
Q: When you signed on for “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” were you thinking you’d have to say goodbye to scripted TV?
A: I thought I’d be doing the show for two months. Two months shooting turned [into] four months shooting, and that turned to going onto nine years now. Once people started knowing me as Kyle, I started seeing like, “Oh, this is going to be a situation. I don’t know how I go back to acting.” And I love acting and I’m good at it, but now so many people know me as Kyle. That’s when I started really thinking more about being behind the camera. And the truth is I’m an introvert who lives in an extroverted world. So for me, I was like, “This could actually be the best situation ever. I will never have to audition ever again; this is amazing!”
Q: The reality franchise has a lot of A-list fans, such as Jennifer Lawrence, Lady Gaga and Elisabeth Moss. What’s your theory on why that is?
A: That part is very surreal. When I get the call that Lady Gaga wanted us to be in her music video, I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And then I saw an interview with Jennifer Lawrence and they said, “Who would you pick as your three horsemen?” She picked me and Hugh Jackman and I was like, “What? I can’t believe this.”
Q: A lot of the “Housewives” women have created mini empires. Talk about how the show has been beneficial as a platform.
A: When I first signed on to do the “Housewives,” I had no intention of any of that. And in fact, Bethenny [Frankel of “The Real Housewives of New York”], because we’ve been friends for 25 years, said to me: “What’s your plan? Like, what do you want to turn this into?” And I’m like, “I don’t have a game plan.”
Once I saw that it was such a hit and people started coming out of the woodwork approaching me to do things, I was like, “Well, wait a minute, hold on. Let’s see what I want to do.” I didn’t want to just slap my name on just anything. I wanted to be smart about it. I did write a book, which was really fun, because that was something I always had on my bucket list. I did my clothing line, my stores — and I’m grateful for it because I ended up doing “American Woman.”
The producers of “Shameless” were fans and they wanted to meet me. And in that meeting, having lunch and just chitchatting, is how the show came about.
Q: How long had you been thinking about doing something based on your childhood?
A: I like to write, but it’s hard when you have four kids. But I would write sometimes when, you know, everyone was sleeping or whatever.
When my mom passed away, I thought, “I really want to share who she was, because she really was a special and unique woman.” And it took my being a mom and an adult to have that extra appreciation for her. I always appreciated her, you know, but I had perspective as I got older. She’s strict, and she could get, you know, a temper sometimes or whatever it was.
But as an adult you’re like well, yeah, hello, she was raising these kids on her own. She was stressed. She wanted the best for us, and you know, she was doing her best like we all are trying to do. And I just really wanted to share that story once I lost my mom as a, I guess, sort of love letter to her, too. And just inspire other women.
Q: Viewers of “Real Housewives” know the new series is a source of tension in your family — particularly with your sister Kathy Hilton. (Richards has said that Hilton is concerned that viewers will think that the show is a factual account of their childhood.) Has either of your sisters seen it?
A: It’s so funny ’cause I sent Kim the DVD and I think as of yet, she still has not been able to figure out how to work her DVD player. (Laughs.) … And then she couldn’t come to the screening, because she was babysitting her grandson, who she will never turn down one second with him.
I think everyone has a story to tell, and everyone has a right to tell their story. I would never tell someone else’s story. My POV of my mom, I think that I have the right to share that story. And it’s done with love, and the utmost respect for my mom, who I love more than anything. …
It is a fictionalized version; it’s inspired by childhood, but this is not autobiographical. The show has two sisters. It’s not three. My dad’s a jerk in the show; in my real life my dad was not. Yes, he cheated on my mom. That part of the story’s true. The other stuff, the way he talked to my mom, no. My dad was a good guy. But you know, that’s what happens when you make a TV show. It’s inspired by, not based on.