Sophia Bush’s career is coming full circle.
Alongside her “One Tree Hill” co-stars Hilarie Burton Morgan and Bethany Joy Lenz, the actor is reliving the show’s 187 episodes — and watching some for the first time. Bush spent 35,000 hours playing Brooke Davis, the sassy cheerleader who evolved into a Clothes Over Bros entrepreneur, on the teen drama. She also stepped behind the camera to direct three times, which may explain why she describes the experience as a “bit of a blur.”
Now, with new iHeartRadio podcast “Drama Queens,” Bush, Burton Morgan and Lenz are ready to revisit the fictional town of Tree Hill and reclaim their experience.
“The show itself is a thing that we have had all these mixed emotions about for so long,” Bush tells Variety. “This is an opportunity for us to lean into everything that was good and we’re going to take back everything that should have been better.”
“To be in that position of empathetic power feels really good,” she adds. “Because there was no one in power who showed us all that much empathy, and we want to do it differently.”
The podcast made a major splash when it launched in June, with more than 2.5 million downloads of the first few episodes. Part of the recap show’s fan base comes from a new generation of viewers who’ve recently discovered the show on Hulu and other streaming services, while the rest of the credit goes to the teen drama’s die-hard fans, who Bush says “kept the spirit of the show alive.”
In some ways, “Drama Queens” is reminiscent of the “One Tree Hill” fan conventions, which would invite the actors all over the world to talk about the show. “We owe such a debt of gratitude to all the fans,” she says. “We just felt so shocked — flattered and grateful, but shocked — that this [show] had this other life. And it’s their spirit that really seeded the idea for this podcast.”
As the trio have looked back on the episodes, they’re remembering things about the show that they’d long forgotten, and Bush says half the fun has been fully understanding why — to borrow the line from “One Tree Hill’s” second episode that made all three actors cry when re-watching for the show — fans believe their “art matters.”
“There is something about our show that feels like home, and not just to us, but to so many people,” she says. “It wasn’t some glitzy show about kids in high fashion or vampires or werewolves, which we’re all into for a reason, but it was a place where a lot of people felt recognized, where they felt seen, where they felt represented.”
Of course, there were plenty of ways that the show wasn’t representative of everyone — the melodrama wasn’t known for its racial diversity or realistic storylines (a dog did eat a heart in Season 6, after all) — but it struck a chord with fans anyway.
“[Audiences] saw their struggles and saw their small towns,” Bush explains. “I really love that we got to be that for a lot of people. It’s wild that so many people still feel that way watching it today.”
However, like most people who hesitate before attending their high school reunions, going home again was a complicated notion for this trio.
It’s been four years since Bush, Burton Morgan and Lenz were among the 18 women who spoke out in support of former “One Tree Hill” writer Audrey Wauchope, who first divulged allegations of sexual harassment from creator Mark Schwahn and other misconduct by producers on the set. And while some fans, including this writer, have found it difficult to re-watch the series in light of the damage done behind the scenes, Bush explains why the show itself shouldn’t be ruined and how she came to terms with what they’d experienced.
“This show, this place, this experience for us is wrapped up with anger, and betrayal, and mistreatment, and violence, and really inappropriate behavior,” Bush admits. “[But] we had moments of joy, and laughter, and catharsis. And we had days on set where we didn’t have negative influences around, where we got to be together and do work we were proud of. So it’s all jumbled up together.”
Before the podcast began, Bush, Burton Morgan and Lenz had frank discussions about what they wanted to talk about and what they didn’t.
“We are blunt women,” Bush says. “And not having felt like we had permission to just ask honest questions, because it might disrupt the set, has made us so honest now. There’s nothing off limits.”
As such, the women are quick to share their true opinions about some of the show’s more tawdry storylines and how people would pit actors against each other behind the scenes in effort to boost the drama on screen. They also share how they fought for their characters to be less sexualized and more realistic.
Schwahn often goes unnamed when bad behavior on set is mentioned — because as Bush points out, “It isn’t just about him” — and discussions about what went on behind the scenes will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t think anyone gets the energy from us that we’re withholding, but we’re also not trying to make this about anybody else,” Bush explains. “This is ours. We’re not looking to put anyone else’s gross behavior in our play space, and we’re certainly not looking to ask our friends and co-workers who come on the show, to have like a ‘Gotcha’ moment and be like, ‘Tell me about your deepest darkest experiences and feelings.’”
“Being in the public requires each of us to figure out how to set our own boundaries,” she continues. “Sharing our story also has to feel empowering; we don’t want to feel used. We’re not looking to do trauma porn.”
Instead, Bush describes the podcast as “this really delicious feminist reclamation and pop-culture observational experience.” And with insight from the cast, who appear as special guests, it’s also a window into the soul of the show. Thus far, the “Drama Queens” have welcomed Lee Norris, who played Mouth McFadden, and Barbara Alyn Woods, who was Deb Scott, onto the show to share their memories.
“We all went through love, and loss, and success, and heartbreak. We had our best and worst moments together,” Bush shares. “There’s things that happened in the press that everybody knows about, unfortunately. And there’s things that happened behind closed doors that only we know about. It’s about so much more than that [trauma] for us. But the reclamation does feel really good.”
Though looking back on some parts of the show might be painful, Bush is looking forward to revisiting some storylines — including the era where Brooke and Haley got an apartment together in Season 3.
Another standout moment came in Season 4’s “Pieces of You” episode, where a class assignment leads to Brooke labeling a photo with all the ways she doesn’t feel she’s good enough.
“That episode happened because of a conversation I had with our writers,” the actor recalls. “Talking about what it feels like to be a woman questioning whether or not you are enough, especially when you’re doing so when you’re on a television show, and everyone says ‘You have it so easy. You must be so confident.’”
“And in a way, at the time, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to admit that I was terrified,” she says of the deeply personal episode. “It’s like the nightmare where you go into school, and you realize you’re naked; I felt so exposed.”
While Bush was terrified to be so vulnerable back then, she’s grateful for it now.
“What was so amazing is I took such a personal fear and put it up on screen for the world to see. And hundreds of thousands of women said, ‘I feel like that too,’ and they still do,” she says.
“Drama Queens” also arrives at a time when pop culture is relieving some early 2000s nostalgia, as “Gossip Girl” got a continuation series on HBO Max and “The O.C.” stars Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke are taking a look back at their series with their own podcast. But this nostalgia train has rolled in with some introspection as society is reevaluating the media’s past treatment of young female stars, like Britney Spears.
“I went through a version of that myself, and it was brutal,” Bush says. “It was and it is a strange thing when you realize that you’ve simply had life experiences which most people in your industry, and in your peer group have also had, and some of us get picked on for them and some of us don’t.”
“I just wish we had been able to say, ‘Why don’t you ask me how I’m doing? Or about what I’m doing?’” she continues. “There’s just such an oddity to constantly want to define women by the way other people have treated them. What I would have wanted is to have been asked, for instance, was how it went when I keynoted South by Southwest with Michelle Obama? Or what it felt like to build schools all over the world. The things that I really worked so hard on and count as achievements.”
Besides “Drama Queens,” Bush has been busy speaking before Congress to promote COVID-19 vaccine awareness and prepping to star in CBS’ medical drama “Good Sam”; she’s also hosting Season 2 of her other podcast, “Work in Progress.”
“Having worked on political campaigns since 2007, and being in activist spaces for longer than that as an advocate, I was like, ‘Hold on, I can have a FaceTime with Gloria Steinem. I’m texting with Cori Bush about her congressional run,’” she says of launching the Wondery podcast in 2019. “Not everybody gets to talk to women and men who are leading culture and identity, and changing politics, and advocating for all of us.”
“That’s, though earned, an immense position of privilege,” Bush explains. “And I can spend my privilege by talking to these incredible people, recorded, and letting anyone who wants to learn from them, essentially come into the living room with us.”
So far, the Wondery podcast’s lineup of guests ranged from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Dr. Ibram X Kendi to Chelsea Handler and Karamo Brown.
“The notion that you can democratize community and ideas, and also offer people a space that is non-judgmental and incredibly vulnerable, that leads with empathy, curiosity and offers up intellect felt so great to me,” she says.
Plus, both shows are a great use of her USC journalism degree. “My dad says, ‘Well, look at you. You’ve made this hybrid career for yourself.’”
Bush is co-hosting “Work in Progress” and “Drama Queens” simultaneously, explaining that both feed a different part of her desire to create community with fans. “The two shows are different and yet they feel like they have this very symbiotic energy,” Bush says.
Where “Work in Progress” is her opportunity to dig into someone’s psyche and help open up audiences’ minds to new perspectives and ideas, “Drama Queens” is a great gabfest with her girls. Where she’s very deep in her line of questioning, Burton Morgan balances her out with jokes (tapping into her expertise as an MTV VJ) and Lenz brings the laughter.
Similar to how Bush’s journalism dreams were eventually realized through the podcasts, the actor who initially planned to become a doctor is now playing a heart surgeon on “Good Sam.”
Bush stars in and executive produces the show and filmed the pilot in March 2021 after a 15-month delay due to the pandemic, saying that the long wait was worth it because the production has been such a dream. Before reading the script for “Good Sam,” the actor says she’d given up the grind of network TV and planned on spending eight episodes on a limited series or making indie films, but this character was too good to pass up.
“I really understand this woman who I’m playing,” Bush says. “We share traits, and I’m also really inspired by her. I love her humor and I love her tenacity. She’s so capable, and she’s really really fun to play.”
“The cast and crew of our show is phenomenal and our show is run by the most incredible women [including creator Katie Wech],” Bush says. And as an added bonus — or really a requirement of the way the actor works now — Bush describes the production dynamic as “restorative, creative, and kind.”
Production on the first season is set to resume in October in Canada, with Bush planning to get back into the director’s chair, but not until Season 2.
It may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but after spending nine seasons on “One Tree Hill,” the question is whether Bush is prepared for another long run on “Good Sam,” when other medical dramas like “ER” aired for 15 seasons and Ellen Pompeo has gone on an 18-season run on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“If I get to do it with these people and these creators, absolutely. I would I would love nothing more,” she says.
Bush’s one hope is to eventually move the production to L.A., so she could work in her hometown for the first time in her career. When reminded that one day “Grey’s” might be done with L.A. set, Bush says she wouldn’t mind taking over.
“Ellen Pompeo is the queen of all things, and I cannot tell you how deeply, truly, madly I love Meredith Grey,” she replies. “If she wants to hang up her scrubs, I would feel deeply honored to walk her halls. The pixie dust she’s been sprinkling in there for the last 17 years, I’d take as much of it as I can get.”
The “Drama Queens” and “Work in Progress” podcasts are available on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts and Spotify. “One Tree Hill” is now streaming on Hulu.