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Kathy Baker Is the Strength Behind Her Husband in HBO’s ‘Paterno’

Kathy Baker details how she didn’t make Sue Paterno your standard ‘supporting wife’ for HBO’s Paterno

Kathy Baker provides a much-needed warmth to HBO’s Paterno. The crimes of Jerry Sandusky feel alarmingly relevant in this post-Weinstein/Kevin Spacey era, and we get a glimpse of how the Paterno family reacted to the scandal in Barry Levinson’s film. As Baker points out in my conversation with her, Sue Paterno is the backbone of the Paterno family.

Baker’s portrayal of Sue Paterno is a respectful one, and she makes her presence known in scenes where she may not have a lot of dialogue. Her faithfulness to the family and her husband is evident as her Joe Paterno takes his time to make a statement regarding the scandal. People often criticize feature films and television movies for neglecting to flesh out the roles of the women behind the famous man at the center. Baker’s Sue provides strength and resilience for the family when they are experiencing the worst moment of their lives.

That isn’t to say that Sue blindly supports her man. There is a scene near the end of the film where Sue gently confronts Joe about letting Jerry Sandusky swim in a pool with their children. It’s the best scene in the film, because of how Baker handles it. With another actress, you may have gotten overwrought theatrics, but Baker understands the relationship between this couple. She is asking questions, but she might be afraid to hear the answers.

Did you know a lot about Sue?

No, I didn’t know anything about Sue. I’m a sports fan, and I knew about Joe Paterno and his team. Of course, I knew about the terrible crimes that Sandusky committed and the connection to the school. But I didn’t know anything about his wife.

You’re a football fan. Do you follow both college and professional football?

Well, I used to be a huge 49ers fan in the Joe Montana era, and so I was rabid about professional football. And then I switched over to college football, and I love an underdog. I went to Berkeley, and of course we never have a good team. But I love Aaron Rodgers because he went to Berkeley. So, sometimes I’ll do that—I’ll follow one person and that’s why I’ll be connected to the team. Lots of times I love an underdog in other sports. I don’t follow basketball too much, but during March Madness I love the underdog team that just keeps winning. There was a team that Sister Jean was involved with and this 90 year old nun was their mascot.

So you were probably aware of how Penn State football is a religion?

Yes, absolutely. It’s kind of like Notre Dame and their alums. Your grandfather went there and now your kids. So it’s a huge, huge part of your life. And you look up to the people who run the college and run the football program and you live and die whether you win the games. Are you in Pennsylvania?

I’m from Pittsburgh, so I’m aware of how nuts Steelers fans can be.

Oh yeah. I’ve shot there a couple of times, and I’ve noticed that whatever season it is everyone is walking around with that jersey on. Whether it’s football  season or hockey season or baseball season. People are very loyal to their teams in Pittsburgh.

As soon as the hockey season ends, it’s time to put on the football jersey. When they make a movie about a man, sometimes the wives are relegated to “supporting wife” roles. Were you conscious of that or was it something you tried to make richer with your performance?

I think you’re right. Generally or historically, a great man is supported by a great woman. Don’t we sort of say that. This story is obviously about Paterno. I don’t think of her as a doormat or something. She’s extremely supportive and extremely loyal. She’s the backbone of that family. She feels equally important in the eyes of the family, and she’s very involved with the school. Sue Paterno went to Penn State. Sue was involved with a lot of charity work at the school. I did see some funny YouTube stories about pranks she helped play during football season. My main focus was to be respectful and true to who she is. Since she is of the generation of my mom (or between me and my mom, I guess), it’s no surprise that she’s a stay-at-home mom that’s very supportive of her successful husband. But she’s a lot more than that, don’t you think?

Oh, definitely. I never thought she took a backseat to anything or anyone. There’s a genuine warmth that comes through your performance.

Oh, good. I’m glad. Well, I have to credit the writers with that. We had great writers, and it’s also because of how Barry directed it. I don’t think anyone ever took a backseat. We were all involved.

(Photo: HBO)

Al Pacino really gets to dig into the title character. When you are playing a married couple with someone, how do you establish a marriage that has lasted so long?

It’s funny. When an actor meets another actor, you can sort of tell if you’re going to have that connection, and I’ve always had that. Maybe once or twice I sort of felt like I wouldn’t be able to get in there to establish that connection. I met Al on the film. From the moment I met him, we had that actor connection. We’ve both been around for a long time. He’s an actor. We both just dove in and made this a marriage. I don’t think we talked about it. We just sort of did it, because that’s what the roles required.

You relied more on the script to build that. 

Exactly. You rely with what’s on the page and the experience of the other person. You rely on looking into that person’s eyes and making that connection. Al is very personable off screen and funny and easy to talk to. On screen, I noticed he never looked directly at Sue. Maybe in that one scene when they are talking about the swimming pool, but when you’ve been married for 60 years, you don’t always look each other in the eye. And that was a cool thing too that there was a relationship without having to look at the other person. It’s sort of like they were connected by a thread an invisible thread that they knew was there. Nobody else could see it, but they knew it was there.

(Photo: HBO)

I noticed the eye connection in the scene where they both talk about the pool. It’s a quiet scene. He’s at the television. You only glance at him, I think, twice. That scene is so powerful because you feel the connection of the two of them so strongly. There’s a lot at stake in that moment.

Exactly. I’ve told this story before but I just bears repeating. When we were preparing to shoot that scene, I imagined that I’d be looking at Al. As we worked on the film together, Barry said, “No, don’t look at him. Just look at the television.” Barry was so right. It’s not a situation where you want to bore your eyes into the other person. You’re sort of throwing out questions that are very important and very serious and very meaningful and possibly very threatening to their family. You can’t just look at somebody with that. I give Barry all the credit for telling me not to look at him except that one time.

I love that scene so much. I really wondered what her motives were there. Was she testing him? Does she really want to hear the answer? That would have been a huge test of their marriage.

She’s throwing it out there and giving him the chance to say something. When he doesn’t, I think it’s the first time she really has that question. The whole time she’s completely sure that he didn’t know anything or couldn’t do anymore. That’s the moment when it hits her. Maybe there’s something to this? I’m not sure she knows what to do with that information. It’s the first time a tiny chink in the armor. Then, of course, their lives become so sad, because he had cancer and he dies. I’m not even sure if she had any time to do anything with that knowledge. I’ve seen interviews with her after he passes away, and she’s not giving an inch.

I watched in an interview with her right after he died, and there was just this terrible sadness about it.

It’s the loss of his status of a great football coach, the loss of his life, and the loss of her partner. He was her strength and he was her man. She’s very brave, though. She keeps going, and she keeps helping the school.

Have you heard anything from the family about the movie itself or the performance?

No, I haven’t heard anything. I hope it’s all right for her. I did my best to be respectful of her. I don’t think any of us have heard anything from any of the family. That must be tough.

You’ve been in feature films and television your entire career. You don’t stop. Does the state of television excite you as an actress? 

I always thought television was a great place for women to work. Way back when I did Picket Fences, that script was better than most of the film scripts at the time. Now that there’s such an explosion of opportunity. I recur on a series on Netflix and on TruTV. Everybody has heard of Netflix, but people never know there’s a scripted comedy on TruTV. There’s so much content out there right now that people have a hard time keeping up.

You’re talking about I’m Sorry and Love?

I’m Sorry and The Ranch.

Oh, that’s right, The Ranch!

If you’re in the middle of the country you know The Ranch. If you’re on the coast, not so much.  I’m Sorry is actually gaining quite the following, and I’m about to start shooting season two.

I just saw a list online about “Shows You Need to Catch Up On” and I’m Sorry was on there.

Oh, great! Andrea Savage is a genius. She writes it, directs it, she’s in it. I love doing that show.

Everyone needs to check out Paterno and see that important story, and then they can just shift gears to some comedy and enjoy you there.

Yes!

Paterno is available now on HBO.