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'Playboy Club' about empowerment, series stars say

John Russo / NBC

(From left) Laura Benanti as Carol-Lynne, David Krumholtz as Billy, Eddie Cibrian as Nick, Amber Heard as Maureen, Leah Renee as Alice, Naturi Naughton as Brenda, Wes Ramsey as Max in "The Playboy Club."

LOS ANGELES -- What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “The Playboy Club”? Sex, sex and more sex, right?

But the new NBC series, set in Chicago in the 1960s, which premieres Sept. 19 at 10 p.m., is about much more than just getting down and dirty, the cast and producers said at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour on Monday. So what else is there?

The women – and more specifically, their empowerment.

Jenifer Lewis, who plays the seamstress, Pearl, at the club, said her character represents “many African American women who were coming off welfare … empowering themselves and educating themselves.”

Women during the era were becoming “financially independent. They were limited,” said Jenna Dwan Tatum, who plays Janie. “They had a big choice in doing what they wanted to do. I feel that freedom is what (viewers will) feel.”

“There were dirty dealings. Chaos. That was everywhere. The mob was there,” Lewis pointed out. “There was only so much control (women) had, but they had control of themselves.”

But there’s also the issue of race. Naturi Naughton’s character, bunny Brenda, is also one of the first “chocolate bunnies” in the Playboy Club.

“This is not an easy position to step into at this time, trying to be equal in a world where you know the color of your skin is judged,” said Naughton, who also played a bunny on “Mad Men.” “She wants to step into this world and say, ‘No matter what color I am or where I’m from, I’m going to make a difference.’ ”

But as much as the series may try to show women’s struggle for independence – and the Civil Rights movement as well - there’s no getting around the steamy subject matter.

“It’s like Disney World for adults,” Naughton said of the show. “There is no Disney World without the characters and the roller coasters and the fun things you come for.”

And the theme park wouldn’t be complete without the costumes, just like “The Playboy Club” wouldn’t be complete without the skin-tight, unforgiving bunny costumes.

“You don’t breathe in these costumes,” said Tatum, who plays Janie. But it wasn’t all bad. “It was like playing dress up for me the first time I put it on.”

And that make believe is a big part of the show.

“The show is about fantasy,” said executive producer Ian Biederman.  “It’s about mystery and mystique. At the end of the day, it’s about the women. Hugh Hefner said, 'It was about the bunnies, it’s about the girls.'”

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