ADTV talks to Vikings creator Michael Hirst about his on-going vision for the History Channel series

Michael Hirst is in the UK talking about the recent election results — not just in the UK, but the surprise results here in the USA.We talked about assimilation and the wave of anti-immigration sentiments being publicly expressed. “Well, you know they came over. Ragnar’s vision was to find ways of settling in good agricultural land. They were absorbed into European culture and they have affected our lives ever since,” Hirst said before we start talking about Vikings.

Politics proved something Michael and I could discuss for a long time, but we shifted the conversation to talk about his work on History Channel’s Vikings. The show consistently ranks as one of the top ten shows on cable TV and pulls in an average of 4 million viewers. Created by Hirst, Vikings is based off his interest of and extensive research into Alfred The Great and tells the remarkable tales of the lives and adventures of the explorers of the Dark Ages.

I caught up with Michael Hirst to find out more about his vision for the series and his plans for the continuation of Vikings Season 4.

Michael Hirst, you created Viking fever. There’s a lot of excitement for the new season.

One of the reason is we have two figures on the poster that was used in the promo. One is Ragnar, the other is his son, Ivar The Boneless. Ivar is coming and going to be one hell of a new character. He turned into one of the most famous vikings of all time. Can you believe that he was a cripple?

How do you manage to create these characters who are so relatable given that they are hundreds of years old?

That’s my belief that I want to connect the past to the present. I grew up watching these dreadful BBC dramas and I had no sense of it. The past is a continuum. We are all part of the past and these people are surely like us in so many ways. My whole effort is to make these characters and their issues relevant to today, and reverberate it to audiences today.

Even if it’s someone like Elizabeth the I who inherited her father’s business. With Vikings, think about a quiet, introverted guy who’s curious about the world. Ragnar thought he was descended from Odin. Here’s Ragnar who’s motivation is curiosity, and who knew that he’s a family man who loves his wife and kid. I want people to engage at that human level because history is quick. The distance between us, Romans and Vikings is very short actually. I want people to realize these were humans behaving in a human way, even if their beliefs were different.

I feel very passionate about it. I hate watching those BBC shows where they spoke a different, dead language.

How do you adapt this material for TV?

We actually know a lot. I have a historical consultant. Out of my research comes the storylines and characters. I tried to understand what their ambitions were. For me, that’s an important process because I’m dealing with real people. I’m not dealing with fantasy. These people affected how we live. I tried to also be authentic as I could be. As I’m writing drama and not documentary, I also had to be entertaining.

I grew up in York, and it was a viking town. A lot of the villages near where I grew up had viking names. We shoot the show north of Dublin, which is a Viking town. Our laws and their DNA is flushing all over the place. When I sold it to History. I told them to go down to the street, to walk two blocks, and that they would have met twenty vikings. Their influence was huge, so the past is always with us.

To give you another example, when we shoot, I have an apartment just outside Dublin where Enya has a castle. I’m looking out at the sea and I know in the viking age, the vikings used to come and collect women and they’d wait for ships to take them to Iceland to breed with Scandinavian men. The DNA in Iceland is significantly Irish, and I’m living on the point of history.

A lot of Irish women were kind of attracted to Vikings because they were clean. They suffer from this image of being hairy and violent, and that’s a propaganda image, but actually they always traveled with a change of clothes, they always washed their hair and beard, and Irish women didn’t mind that.

How was working on Vikings different with The Tudors?

There was too much information with The Tudors. The way I had to shape the stories on top of a huge amount of information. Tudors, for me, was more about the wives of Henry the Eighth. It was more about the women. The History Channel is a male skewed channel, but I was determined to introduce women characters. Lagertha is this amazing maiden, wife and warrior. The show actually has a huge female following that I’m really proud of.

The other aspect is I’m very involved in the spiritual aspect of what I write. With The Tudors, there was the conflict of Catholicism and Puritanism. In Vikings, it’s the conflict between the pagan Gods and the Christian Gods. I don’t think I could have written without getting involved with those conflicts.

What else can we expect over the remainder of Season 4?

Just about everything is a spoiler. It’s the most momentous and emotional season that we’ve done so far, and it’s huge in every way. All the major characters have changes in their lives. It has two of my favorite episodes ever that involve Ragnar.

Michael Hirst’s Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET on The History Channel.


I’m not going to lie. I was bit starstruck as I was introduced to John Turturro. In my view, Turturro is one of the finest actors of the last few decades. A formidable talent, he is renowned for disappearing into an eclectic career of roles. His most recent performance is HBO’s The Night Of which unsurprisingly lends his excellence to what has turned out to be a very successful TV venture indeed.

john turturro
(Photo: HBO)
Nice to meet you, I have been a fan for a long time.

Thank you very much.

We’re going to talk about your latest TV venture, The Night Of, which was really good.

Thank you.

But not before we delve into your film work ever so slightly first. A great, varied career, so much variety. Do the Right Thing, Quiz Show, and very recently you did the Italian film Mia Madre – which did well in Cannes. A very varied career. Has it all gone to plan?

I don’t know if anyone can have a plan. Initially I wanted to do a variety of material, challenging material – be it theater, then in film. And some stuff on televison. That was sort of the goal. There are a lot of different kind of roles, contemporary, classical. You are dealing with terrific writers, and they gave me a window into a world. A way of thinking, exposing you to what you have not felt. Whenever I have worked with a good director or writer, I have been very fortunate.

Barton Fink might be my favorite film of yours, but it is my favorite performance of yours. It’s an astonishing film.

Well, that film, they wrote that for me in the middle of trying to write Miller’s Crossing when they had writer’s block. So they told me. We did that movie, and it was an experience for me. My wife was pregnant, and our first son, Amedeo, was born. Such an odd film. A lot like doing a play some days. I had no idea how people would like it at all, so I was susprised. When you work with good filmmakers, every little thing counts. It was a pleasure working with Joel and Ethan.

That collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen, a famous one. Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? What was that relationship like? Was it a case of begging them to take you back, or was it them not letting you go?

I knew them from Fran McDormand. I went to Yale with Fran, and they saw me do a lot of plays. They wrote Miller’s Crossing, and they ended up writing Barton Fink. And it changed the trajectory of my career. I was not just playing the tough Italian guy. And Spike’s [Lee] movie kind of opened it up. I wanted to play all different kinds of characters on film. They [Coen brothers] were my executive producers of Romance and Cigarettes, we worked very closley. They are really good friends. You need people who get you, appreciate you: John Patrick Shanley, Spike Lee, or later on I got to work with [Robert] Redford, Francesco Rosi.

Great. The Night Of, then.

Yeah, I mean, that goes back to that time. Steve Zaillian talked to me about doing Searching for Bobby Fischer years ago. I really loved the movie. We knew each other back then, and know Richard [Price] from The Color of Money.

Was TV something you wanted to do at this stage? Were you looking to go back into it?

I have done a couple of TV movies over the years, one with Sophia Loren. I did a TNT movie, and played Howard Cosell. And did a mini-series for ESPN, where I played the manager of the Yankees, Billy Martin. They just did not have the money to do it like HBO do it, but had a good time doing it. I always like the BBC long form series. I’m a fan of Dennis Potter, Brideshead Revisited. I have worked on so many adaptations of books. The two hours of a good book just doesn’t make it. [With The Night Of] I read the material, and was like “Wow.” I did not know the original series. I was basing it on what I read.

john turturro
(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn / HBO)
So you had not you seen the British show [Criminal Justice]?

I watched a few minutes, but thought, “You know what, I will have to find my own way anyway.” Now I can see it. That sometimes works. I like reading the books, I am a big book lover. Always find that very helpful.

[Your character] John Stone feels like a real survivor. What do you think keeps him going? How did you prepare for the role?

I had a lot of months to think about it, meet a few laywers, did all the things you normally do. I thought there was a lot on the page – thinking about the costumes, the eczema. And it started to remind me of people I know, people with great intelligence, and maybe didn’t end up doing what they wanted to do. I thought this guy probably has everything that would make a terirfic lawyer. Some good lawyers explained how exhausting it can be, I just started thinking about it like that. I thought there was a lot of Richard Price in it, and thought we had a very good relationship. It was a fascinating character, had so much wrong with him, but had these attributes that offset that.

The Night Of is a very New York story. Did you draw on personal experiences for the role?

Well, I mean there are a lot of different people you meet – journalists, lawyers, actors. Sometimes the more specific something is, the more universal it is. It did remind me of Dennis Potter, the black humor. So many interesting characters, I was so happy to be working with them.

Yeah, huge cast.

Really terrific cast.

How close to James Gandolfini were you before he passed? Did you have concerns with taking a role originally intended for him?

He was my lead in Romance and Cigarettes. He was a friend, someone I really cared for, since the early 90’s. I really loved the guy. I was heartbroken when he died. Someone I really wanted to work with again. When they first approached me I was not sure I wanted to do it, but then I saw him. He had worked one day on it, and I thought about it and read everything and thought I have to do this.

Really good show. A lot of people talking about it, for audiences it seemed to come from nowhere – and people loved it straight away.

The response was really strong.

What is next for you work-wise and personally? Any big plans with Christmas looming?

Looking forward to the holidays. Editing my new film, which I have just finished. An adaptation of a book and movie, and we are getting to the first full cut of the film now. Very challenging, it has been very different form The Night Of.

One last question: Are you working with the Coen brothers again?

Oh my God, of course. I’m under a lifetime contract. Anytime.

Real pleasure talking to you. Good luck with the show. And Happy Holidays.

You too. Happy Holidays to you. Thank you.

john turturro
(Photo: HBO)

Long-term fans may know actor Tim Matheson as “Otter” from the cult-classic Animal House, but new fans may recognize him for his portrayal as the 40th President of the United States in National Geographic Channel’s film Killing Reagan. Matheson slipped so deeply into the role, capturing Ronald Reagan’s mannerisms and charisma, that it earned him a Critics’ Choice Nomination for Best Actor in a Movie Made for Television or Limited Series (the film also earned a nomination, along with co-star Cynthia Nixon).

I had a chance to talk to Matheson about this role, the fine line between character and caricature, and whether he’s up for his next presidential challenge.

Congratulations on your Critics’ Choice Nomination. Was that a surprise?

Yeah! I was so thrilled and honored. It’s good company. They nominated a lot of presidents. (Laughs.) [Bryan Cranston was also nominated for playing LBJ in All the Way.] It was really a treat. I just thought it was fantastic.

I’m always amazed by actors who are able to take these prominent figures and make them more than just impersonations. How do you tackle creating a character without creating a caricature? You do it so well. I’m sure it had to be challenging.

Thank you. I find it’s very intimidating. What I really didn’t want to do was an impression. Yes, it has to have elements of the character, because he’s so well-known and revered by so many people. I just wanted to make sure that I honored that. But I thought the most important element for me was the heart. That, to me, was really what it was all about. You found out what was going on inside the man. It’s really a love story between Ronnie and Nancy. Of course, I constantly was listening to his voice. I had a dialect coach to work on getting the Midwestern accent, sanitized by Hollywood. He had a very distinctive, warm quality to his voice. So I would work on those things and the physicality of it, then I just let go of that and just tried to get his heart.

Killing Reagan
Courtesy of National Geographic Channel

You did an excellent job. Did you read the book before taking on the role? What kind of research did you do?

I started with the script. Once I felt there wasn’t a political agenda there, that it wasn’t slanted politically in one direction or the other, then I jumped in and read Killing Reagan and every book I could find on Ronald Reagan. There are libraries full of stuff. I also read most of the stuff that he personally wrote, like his autobiography. I read Nancy’s books, all of the books his advisers wrote. I just tried to get as much under the skin of the man and the backstage of it all. That’s really what our story was, a peek behind the curtain, into the palace. I just wanted to make sure we weren’t taking license and captured exactly what was going on.

You and Cynthia Nixon work really well together on screen, and she was also nominated for a Critics’ Choice award. What was it like to work with her?

She’s a champ. (Laughs.) I had so much fun working with Cynthia. She makes it very easy. She’s a wonderful single partner, if you’re just playing opposite her, or doubles partner, if you’re playing scenes with her opposite other people. It was wonderful. When we were together, we were this united team. I always felt she had my back and was protecting me as Ronnie. I could always count on her. They just had a very intimate connection, Ronnie and Nancy.

Personally, I didn’t realize how much of a role Nancy had in Ron’s campaign. In the beginning of the film, she fires someone. What surprised you when working on this film? Was there anything you didn’t know about Reagan until taking on this role?

I was surprised they were such a singular couple. She was his closest aid and ally. She was the bad cop, he was the good cop. That was in his nature. He was an optimist and didn’t like confrontations with people or firing people. But when he had to do it, he could rely on her to be a good judge of whether it needed to happen. She was that person who really was always so honest with him and he could trust her judgment in that regard. She had a good read on people. He’d see the best in people, and she’d see the truth in them.

You have a Netflix movie called 6 Balloons coming out soon, with Dave Franco, Jane Kaczmarek, and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City. What can you tell us about that?

killing reagan
Photo by Kate sZatmari

It’s a very intriguing story about codependency and how families deal with having a drug addict, what they do, and how they deal with those things. It was wonderful to do something so out of the ordinary and so unique. There are certain sequences in it that are ultra real, and then there are certain scenes that are fantastical. I’m always looking to do something new and innovative and daring. It was a great chance for me to play in a whole different way. I have high hopes for the film.

So you’ve played JFK. You’ve played Reagan. We have a new president now. Are you up to the challenge to play Trump?

Well, I think Alec [Baldwin] did the best. I’d like to put on a white wig and go back and play the early presidents. I think the Trump story is yet to be written, so we’ll have to see about that.

That’s true. Are there any other presidents you’d like to play?

I think they’re all fantastic and fascinating. Because it takes a singular individual to want to be president and then to become president. It’s really the American version of Shakespeare’s Histories. I love doing character roles. I just look for the next one to be hopefully as challenging as working on Reagan was, with as good of a cast and director like Rod Lurie.


Check your local listings for showtimes of Killing Reagan on National Geographic Channel. 

Cinematographer Todd Williams discusses the crossover challenges built into The CW’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.

Cinematographer Todd Williams rides a wave of strong buzz thanks to his latest television project. The CW’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow premiered January 21, 2016, to solid critical notices thanks to a sharply focused, energetic pilot. Now in its second season, the DC comic-based series received a vote of confidence in the form of an extended second season – 17 episodes up from the original 10 episode order.

Filmed in Vancouver, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow hails from the Greg Berlanti factory and exists in the same DC universe as Berlanti’s other hot properties The FlashArrow, and SupergirlTomorrow‘s narrative offers a wild, time-traveling ride exploring outer space, Feudal Japan, and the wild, wild West. The opportunities for expansive, challenging cinematography drive Todd Williams and lensing partner David Geddes to create visually stunning pastiches of comic book lore. They’re loving every second of it.

I mean, who wouldn’t love filming Civil War-era zombies?Todd Williams

What drew you to The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow?

Number one, the time travel aspect of the show was one of the main things that… opened the door creatively. All of the creative team get to go to different time periods every episode and have a lot of fun creating that specific look. You don’t get that very often with TV shows or movies. Dave [Geddes] assembled an awesome crew, and I’ve really enjoyed working on the show as a result. Plus, the Berlanti group has been super gracious and want us to strive for the best. They keep pushing the limits of storytelling.

You know, the first time you read a script with such fantastic sequences, you think, “This is huge! I don’t know how we’re going to do it.” Somehow, every episode, we do. For me, it wouldn’t be as fun if you read the script and, at one point, didn’t have a bit of a heart attack. This is not a feature film. We don’t have 60 to 100 days to shoot a show. We’re able to pull it off and do an awesome job. The end result looks fantastic. I don’t know that I would be involved in the show without those challenges.

Is there a scene in particular that gave you more of a heart attack over others?

I guess there’s a couple. When you read a script as a cinematographer, the one line you read in the stage notes that’s always a tricky one is “…and the power goes out.” They’ve created a situation in which there’s no light, and you’re not allowed to see all the relevant information that you need to see as a viewer. There’s a scene last season (“Marooned”) where the guys had to enter a ship that’s been floating in space, and the power was out. This season, there was some tricky stuff in “The Justice Society of America” where there were 12 actors in a scene. That multiplies the camera angles you need to shoot. Technically, that becomes very challenging. The Western episodes with Jonah Hex were cool because it’s a different time period with a lot of interior lighting that needs to be based on lamp light. You don’t have the luxury of putting practical, 2016 lighting into a scene. You have to use lighting coming through windows, so you try to move action closer to windows for more natural lighting.

One of the things that is unique about the way The CW runs the DC universe is the high degree of crossover potential. How do you maintain consistency across the various series?

The crossover episodes are slightly different. We try not to duplicate exactly what’s happening on other shows. Each show has its own universe, but, when characters cross over, we tend to apply the visuals of the show they’re entering. We tend to use a lot of closer, wider lenses. The mandate on our show is to keep the camera moving, and we try to keep the camera as fluid as we can as we introduce characters or move back and forth between characters through their dialogue. No matter what characters enter the show, we still to the style we created on episode one of our show. The tight lens choices allow you to see the size of the sets built by the production design team. Last season, the Waverider set provided a complete set. It offered a ceiling which allowed us to tilt the camera up. You could get onto the Waverider with a steadicam and do a 10-minute walking/talking scene without seeing off the set. It’s amazing that way, and it’s a mandate of the show… that designers build a full set as a complete design. You’re in that world when you’re in there shooting.

That’s fairly unusual for a series like this to build a set of such scale and completeness.

Yeah, it is. We’ve been able to go and do some crossovers with some of the sets from The Flash and Arrow. A lot of their sets are built the same way with some exceptions. You can still go there and do these wider shots where a lot of other shows – CSI comes to mind rely heavily on super long lenses. The backgrounds are out of focus. You can cheat a lot when you’re using lenses like that. It still looks pretty and still tells the story, but it tells the story in a different way.

What cinematography have you drawn on to inspire the look and feel of Legends of Tomorrow?

Well, it depends. There are bits and pieces in every episode, depending on the time period that we’re in. I have a library of blu-ray and DVDs that I’ve collected over the years, and I’ll use those as references. The Terrence Malick films’ usage of natural light is an inspiration. Some music videos… I recently borrowed bits and pieces from Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” We’ve pulled some stuff from Scorsese… it’s really an endless list of references. Sometimes, it’s just a single shot where the style of lighting hits the actors across the face. Sometimes, it’s big, wide scope John Ford Western vista shots that have inspired us. There’s a lot of horror movie influence where we’re positioning actors on the extreme right of the frame, but, on the left side of the frame, there’s a lot of empty space. You see the back of the room or the back of the hallway, and there’s a lot of darkness there. It’s alluding to the fact that (the villains) are out there, in the shadows watching the guys.

Yeah, Halloween did that a lot.

Yea, they did. And they did an awesome job. I rewatched that last season for the first time in I don’t know how many years, and I couldn’t believe how awesome that was. I remembered liking it, but I’d forgotten technically how good that film is. It’s very simple, but it really tells the story well with the use of framing and simple techniques. It’s great storytelling.

Legends of Tomorrow airs Thursday nights at 8pm ET on The CW. 

Code Black‘s Benjamin Hollingsworth talks to Megan about Wednesday’s harrowing episode.

Remember when NBC’s E.R. would crank out a very special, everything-goes-wrong episode (like when a helicopter fell on Dr. Romano, after it already took his hand!)? Well, that’s every episode of CBS’s Code Black, where every day at Angels Memorial Hospital is disastrous. (“Code Black” signifies a hospital that is overcrowded with patients and understaffed with resources.)

benjamin hollingsworth
CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Benjamin Hollingsworth plays Mario Savetti on the series, and in November 2’s episode titled “Landslide,” you guessed it, a landslide sends an influx of patients to the Los Angeles hospital. But one patient Savetti doesn’t count on seeing is his father, played by Eric Roberts, who returns after appearing in the episode “Life and Limb.”

I had a chance to speak with Hollingsworth about this episode, what’s in store for Mario, and whether my favorite character will survive.

Mario is a little rough around the edges. Do you think this episode will give audiences more perspective on why he is the way he is?

I don’t think you’ll get a full dictionary about Mario, but you definitely get to see him deal with how he responds to his father.

How do you tackle playing a character that’s not necessarily always likable? That has to be challenging as an actor.

It’s both challenging and rewarding, to not have to worry about the way your character is perceived. I think sometimes you get hung up trying to make your character likable. Real people aren’t always likable. A character like Mario doesn’t have the same social awareness. He doesn’t care what people think of him. It’s actually freeing.

What was it like working with Eric Roberts in this episode?

He’s such a powerful actor, one that’s been around for a very long time. He’s magnetic. He brings something that I really get to play off of. You see this connection that a father and a son have, both of them want the same thing. Eric has a very charming, charismatic way of playing Vince. I think it’s going to make for great TV.

benjamin hollingsworth
CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Mario and his father both have a history with substance abuse. Do you think that’s something he’s even more resentful of, being that he shares this quality with his father?

Of course. It’s something Mario resents that his father wasn’t more of a role model for him. Maybe he’s better off for it. I don’t know if Mario believes this, but I believe that the best lessons are learned the tough way. What’s part of what makes Mario so interesting is that he’s a lot like the patients he sees come in to the hospital. He’s never had a silver spoon lifestyle.

In “Life and Limb,” the episode Mario’s father appears in, Mario also treats a patient who’s a transgender woman. Why do you think he connects with her?

He sees her as someone that’s been misunderstood by society, that has had to struggle. I think that’s Mario’s fight, too. He puts up a lot of borders with people.

What else is in store for Mario this season? Can you give us any sneak peeks?

Richard Lewis comes in and Mario’s paired with him. And also an interesting relationship develops between him and Dr. Noa Kean (Emily Tyra).

What about the bromance between Angus (Harry Ford) and Mario?

Of course! Harry Ford and I have a lot of fun playing those scenes out. As characters on the show, we’re kind of frenemies.

You had that nice little moment with him in “Demons and Angels” when you told him to stand up to his father (Angus’s brother is currently in a coma on the show). Speaking of which, Mike Leighton (Tommy Dewey) is my favorite character. Can you tell me anything about his future? (In “Demons and Angels,” it ends with some signs of life for Leighton.)

I can’t. You’ll have to tune in to see.

Code Black airs on CBS on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET.

ADTV talks to Divorce‘s Talia Balsam about her co-starring role on HBO’s new series.

I didn’t recognize Talia Balsam the first time I saw her on HBO’s Divorce. Many viewers will probably remember her from her stint as Mona Sterling on Mad Men (“I became really attached to those girdles,” she joked early in our conversation), but I was thrilled to see her take on a more comedic role in one of HBO’s high-profile shows of the Fall TV season, Divorce.

When I spoke with Balsam about her involvement on the freshman show, I could tell she was excited and grateful to be part of such an anticipated project. The half hour show is one of the more talked about comedies to come out in the last few weeks, and it’s positioned in a very strong Sunday night lineup (Divorce airs along with Insecure and phenomenon Westworld). Balsam was only on 11 episodes of the AMC ad drama, but it definitely always felt like Mona was around more. She always made an impression on her audience. The same can be said about her work as Dallas in Divorce. Balsam’s dry delivery and strong presence leave you wanting more. You can immediately recognize that she was eager to be involved.

“When I read the pilot, I thought it took a lot of twists and turns, and I thought it was just fantastic. You just know right away. It was just so well done, you know?” Balsam said. “It’s one of those projects where you think, ‘How can I be in it?’ Even when you’re shooting and things are changing, what came out was something really great.”

Within the first five minutes of Divorce, you can already tell that you’re going to like Dallas. The first long scene in the pilot is set at a birthday party, and Dallas refers to a widower (and potential suitor) as a “human loaf of bread” — an insult that I have personally used since watching the first 6 episodes of the season. I wondered if she was allowed to contribute to any of the comedic writing on set.

“Only by accident. They would come up with much better stuff than I ever would, and they are also very open. Sometimes the camera just goes and things get said, and they are open to keeping those things,” Balsam explained. “There’s nothing that I could add that is beyond what they are doing. I wouldn’t tamper with it too much. Some of it stays in.”

Talia Balsam
(Photo: HBO)

It’s been said that the topic of divorce doesn’t lend itself to laugh out loud moments, because it can deal with real emotions. The comedy does sneak in in a dark way, and Balsam’s performance can be dark in a truly funny way. Walking that line between comedy and drama is obviously something that any actor would love to tackle. No one’s life is strictly comic or exclusively dramatic.

“It walks the line. For some people, there will be things that ring very true and stuff that they will recognize. People might think they are in for this drawn out thing, but it’s also very, very funny. And very dark. It’s sort of where you meet these people in a very heightened point in their lives, and you get to see how it all plays out. Sometimes you’re not your best self, and sometimes you are your best self. That’s what makes it human,” Balsam said. “It is about marriage, and some of that is a peephole into a person’s marriage. Each of these characters are in very different points in their lives. That’s what I love about it. It’s in the hands of extremely witty, smart, and funny people but I think the heart of it is very true. I don’t think anything has to be one or the other. Our lives are like that too. I think they did a really great job with that. I’m not sure if it’s easy to explain it, but it reveals itself as you watch it.”

Balsam has real chemistry with Molly Shannon and Sarah Jessica Parker. Since all three actresses come from different performance backgrounds, I was curious if that palpable chemistry was evident on set.

“The characters were very defined. When you do this, you’re trying to figure out a lot of stuff too, but the three of us are very different anyway. We have a mutual sensibility in what makes us laugh. Sometimes when you see stuff written, you can think, ‘Well, any character can say that’ but it’s clear who is saying what and why. The humor is out of each specific character, and that’s good writing.”

With such a seasoned troupe of actors, I’m sure we can all expect that the storylines to expand from here. Dallas is in a very interesting place in her life, and her character’s position is something Balsam is eager to explore more of.

“At first everyone is trying to figure out who’s doing what. My favorite thing is that she’s at odds with herself. You think she’s going to be one thing, and then you realize she’s completely the opposite. I found things very surprising when they came up, and that’s what I like about it—without giving anything away. Maybe it has to do with where she is in her life, but I just like that I couldn’t perceive what was going to happen next.”

Divorce airs Sunday nights at 10pm ET on HBO. Episodes are also available via HBO GO and HBO NOW.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Donna Lynne Champlin talks about Season 2 of the cult favorite series

Early in Season 2 of The CW’s critically acclaimed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, star Donna Lynne Champlin sings soprano as a Disney-esqe princess. Fans of the series have rabidly anticipated this moment since news leaked late last summer. But in reality, you’re much more likely to catch Champlin at Universal Studio Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights than in Arendelle.

“It’s one of my favorite things. I go to a lot of hayrides and haunted houses. It’s kind of my jam,” Champlin laughed. “It’s the fact that they pipe in the smells. I don’t really find that most haunted houses do that. Because they add that fifth sense, it totally freaks me out.”

A love of the macabre. A longing to sing soprano as a Disney-esqe heroine. These are two of the many wonderful things we love about the multi-talented Donna Lynne Champlin.

Donna Lynne Champlin
(Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)

On returning to the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend set

Last season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend emerged from the 2015 Fall TV season as a plucky upstart. Originally intended for Showtime, the series premiered on The CW as an hour-long musical comedy to widespread critical acclaim. Star/writer Rachel Bloom fashioned an affectionately wacky look into the fantasy world of main character Rebecca Bunch. Donna Lynne Champlin showed off her musical theater chops as Rebecca’s game sidekick Paula. Her Season 1 finale number “After Everything I’ve Done For You (That You Didn’t Ask For)” provided her finest show-stopping moment to date.

Stepping back onto the Girlfriend set for Season 2 opened a whole new set of aspirations for Champlin. With the creation of the musical-comedy television hybrid under its belt, the Season 2 production benefited from the positive experience and reaction to Season 1.

“The feeling onset is that there’s been an artistic validation of what we’re trying to do with the show, of what we’re trying to say with the show. I think we feel like we have a lot of people who get us,” Champlin said. “Because of that, stronger choices in the writing have been made, which is totally exciting.”

Season 2 sets out to explore and expand character identities, often resulting in unique pairings and experiences for all. Thank the show’s Season 1 acclaim for the creative license to evolve the characters we’ve come to love.

On those record-setting Emmy Awards for The CW

Back in July, the Television Academy bestowed four Emmy nominations on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. That nomination haul proved a record for any series on The CW. In September, the show won two of those Emmys: Choreography for Kathryn Burns and Outstanding Single-Picture Camera Editing for Kabir Akhtar, the first Indian American artist to win in the category.

These wins provided deserved visibility for the often ratings-challenged series.

“It’s just incredibly validating that we’re the Little Show That Could and that we’re even on the Emmy radar is terribly exciting,” Champlin said. “The fact that we actually won two Emmys was so exciting. It’s such a tight family atmosphere onset. The show on the whole was just so thrilled for the winners and for the show.”

Cynics need not apply. Champlin’s genuine enthusiasm for her fellow Emmy winners shows how tight-knit the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend family truly is. The chemistry represents well on the finished product.

On stepping into the shoes of a life-long wish

Donna Lynne Champlin
(Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)

The highly collaborative Crazy Ex-Girlfriend team of writers often looks for inspiration from their cast members. Champlin submitted her wish list of musical numbers and included in that list was a longing to return to her soprano roots. While she expected the brassy Paula to adopt Valkyrie horns and “Wagner” someone with her powerhouse voice, Champlin felt pleasantly surprised at the unexpected outcome.

“One of my requests was that I be allowed to sing soprano. My whole career has been me belting my face off, which I’m more than happy to do,” Champlin said. “But I’m actually a classically trained soprano, and no one knows this. I never dreamed in a million years that they would give me a legit soprano ballad and let me be a princess!”

Paula’s turn as a Disney-esqe princess definitely flips the script over traditional musical theater tropes. The big ballad traditionally goes to Cinderella, not the stepsister. Champlin and the entire creative team relished the opportunity to plunge Paula into a Disney-inspired fantasy. After the writers changed original plans to accommodate the number, the production design team created a suitable environment to match the magical moment.

“Every department went to 11 on it. It’s fully orchestrated. We had a 32-piece orchestra that was beautifully conducted. The choreography is brilliant,” Champlin gushes. “The set… they turned Whitefeather into a forest, and all of that greenery was real. There was not one piece of plastic! That costume they made from scratch. Every department poured so much love into it, and, for me, it was such a special day shooting it.”

The creative team designed this magical experience for a princess, and Donna Lynne Champlin fits that glass slipper to perfection. Just make sure her pumpkin coach makes a stop at Halloween Horror Nights. This princess likes her thrills, too.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Season 2 premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on The CW.

Prentice Penny talks about making HBO’s great new comedy Insecure

Olivia Pope. Annalise Keating. Cookie Lyon. One thing each of these black leading ladies on television has in common is their strength. But when creator, co-writer, and star of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae, initially pitched her show to HBO, she told producers, “I’m not a strong black woman; I’m a weak black woman.”

“Typically on TV, the images of black women in narratives are those that are super put-together or that ‘slay’,” said Prentice Penny, showrunner of Insecure. “There’s this idea that black women can’t be as insecure as white women or any other women. What’s beautiful about our show is just seeing black women as people.”

prentice penny
(Photo: HBO)

Insecure follows the career and romance struggles of Issa (Issa Rae), a woman who works for a nonprofit in Los Angeles, and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), a corporate lawyer. “I think at the core of their friendship is that they’re just so real to each other. They’re truly supportive and accept each other for who they are. They have opinions about how each other lives, but they’re never judgmental opinions. They have each other’s best interests at heart.”

A female narrative about friendship? HBO has certainly done this before, with Sex and the City and Girls, but Insecure ushers in a fresh era of female friendship on television and even dismantles the four-girl formula. Although this wasn’t intentional. In the writers’ room, very few discussions came up about the show’s possible relationship to Girls.

“Obviously you can draw comparisons between Issa and Lena [Dunham], both being writer-performers,” said Penny. “But in terms of the story we are telling, our show is very different tonally. We knew we were just going to be our own thing and that would be enough.”

Another change of tone is how truly real this show feels. You won’t find bonding over Jimmy Choos, something Rae, Penny, and the writers were very cognizant of.

“Issa works for nonprofit, so there’s a certain income level she exists in. Plus, her boyfriend is not working, has been on unemployment for a while. With Molly, we wanted her to be the type of person who lives a better life on paper than she does in real life. She wants her life to look like a catalog. We were always trying to anchor the show in finding the reality of people like this.”

Issa also has a rapping quirk that she uses to pump herself up during insecure moments. In the pilot, she actually ends up taking her act on stage for a very candid performance that ends up on YouTube, a medium Rae, herself, is no stranger to. She’s best-known for her YouTube web series Awkward Black Girlwhich has more than 200,000 subscribers. Based on this series, she released a book in 2015 called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

“I had read articles about Issa before I had seen her web series. I think my mom had forwarded me some information because Issa and I are both from the same neighborhood,” said Penny with a laugh. “You know, your mom always gives you stuff like that.”

prentice penny
(Photo: HBO)

When Penny saw that HBO would pick up Rae’s pilot, he knew he had to be part of this adventure. “I just know opportunities like that are so rare for people of color. I thought I could be helpful. I knew I wanted to be showrunner, so I kind of just went after it and got it.”

Prentice Penny’s resume contains varied and layered work on such shows as FOX’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine to NBC’s Scrubs to the UPN classic Girlfriends. He adds many different projects under his belt to give him more opportunities. “As a writer of color, you can get pigeon-holed. Really any writer in Hollywood can get pigeon-holed. I want to make sure stuff I work on feels different.”

Yet, for as different as each project is, each shares the commonality of representing the unheard. The funny side to life in a hospital. What it’s like to be a black, gay cop. Four black women facing life’s challenges together. When choosing projects, Penny often asks himself whether he’ll ever get another chance to do something like it.

“Things you don’t get to do every day,” he said. “That’s what I gravitate toward.”

Insecure is not a show, or narrative, you see on TV every day. And that’s what Prentice Penny and HBO are counting on.

Insecure premieres on HBO on Sunday, October 9 at 10:30 p.m. EST. The pilot episode is available for streaming now on HBO GO and HBO NOW.

Thomas Haden Church talks to ADTV about his return to television in Divorce

“This isn’t Sex and the City, I can tell you that,” Thomas Haden Church told me over the phone. “You have me shitting in a coffee can, so you know we’re in for some heavy sledding.”

Although he’s guest starred on many television shows, Church hasn’t been a series regular since he headlined Ned & Stacey with Debra Messing from 1995 to 1997. People also still affectionately remember him as Lowell Mather from Wings, but Church didn’t anticipate a return to television.

“No. Not at all. After being on TV for 10 years, I pretty much thought I was done with it. After I did Sideways, HBO offered me a deal and Showtime offered me a deal, but, ultimately, they weren’t compelling enough at the time to take them,” Church said. “I live full time in Texas, so it would become less and less appealing to move to New York or Los Angeles or Louisiana. That’s a big move for me, and I didn’t want to uproot my daughters. At the time, they were younger, so that was a big obstacle. Sarah Jessica reached out to me personally. She’s so great and thoughtful.”

In Divorce, Thomas Haden Church’s Robert is blindsided by his wife’s demand for a separation after a friend’s birthday party ends dramatically. Sarah Jessica Parker plays his wife, Frances, and the duo previously worked together on the small indie Smart People (“I loved filming in Pittsburgh,” he added). Even though their marriage is deteriorating with every episode, Church jumped at the chance to work with the beloved television star.

“I LOVE to make her laugh. We do a lot of serious stuff on the show. When we are doing serious stuff or confrontational stuff, we always make sure to check with each other beforehand. She’s so great to work with. Sarah really inspires you to be her peer. I absolutely love working with her.”

(Photo: HBO)

After details emerge about past indiscretions, both Robert and Frances are on the war path. Think of it as a less destructive version of War of the Roses. While the focus is primarily on the relationship between them, Church wanted to make sure to acknowledge that the entire family is affected by the decision to divorce.

“I read it, and it was an interesting experience. It’s not just about two people going through this. Divorce is really about a family being torn apart by what’s going on between these two people. I thought it was very unique and very challenging. Everything started off as conversations, and they even took some of my ideas—not just for my character, but for the show, too. It was a challenge, but it was a gift.”

The topic of divorce can be a rather grim subject, but HBO’s new show slides between drama and comedy. It can be somewhat satisfying seeing a couple go at each other’s throats and take jabs at each other. Making these characters relatable was a goal of Church’s, and honesty was something he seemed very determined to portray.

“The biggest challenge was making an identifiable human, so my favorite thing about playing Robert was trying to make it as hilarious and real and sincere as it was on the page. When we started doing this project, everyone set out with the same goal—we wanted to make it an entertaining and compelling human experience. People ask, ‘Well is it a comedy or is it a drama?’ but you can’t focus solely on the sad stuff,” Church said. “You can’t only focus on the cancer that’s killing the relationship. One of my favorite movies is Ordinary People, and after you watch that, you are hoping that those characters live on and heal. With Divorce, we strived for the audience to watch something they shouldn’t be watching. We wanted to make something that intimate and personal.”

Thomas Haden Church
(Photo: HBO)

A couple fighting for 8 or 10 episodes would be intolerable without any comedy, and Divorce delivers some great laughs. There’s a hilarious sequence where Robert tries to return a punching bag to a sporting goods store, and the young clerk behind the desk doesn’t cooperate (“That kid was great. He was so completely and robotically empathetic and unyielding.”). There is a running gag throughout the first season about Robert’s mustache, and I wondered if his castmates gave him the same amount of guff.

“No one harassed me on set. When I first showed up on set, I had just shot a movie called Daddy’s Home. With that movie I had long hair (it was sort of fluffy), but the producers were open to whatever. When you get to your 50’s, some people will just look at you and say, ‘Well he knows the character better than I do anyway.’ For the discussions of the character, we understood that Robert probably worked on Wall Street as a broker or a hedge fund guy—the type of guy that made a comfortable living—but then later in life he could quit and flip houses. I wanted some of that to linger. He’s moved into a more blue collar look from the white collar look. As the season went on, the mustache sort of took on a personality. By the time we finished shooting, I made sure that I wasn’t needed for anymore scenes, and I was so sick of it. The first thing I did was shave off the mustache when I got back home.”

Mustache or no mustache, Church proves himself to be a sturdy leading man (he also headlines the feature film Cardboard Boxer which is available now on VOD and OnDemand) opposite Sarah Jessica Parker. Divorce isn’t overly flashy, but it melds the tragedy and comedy together mainly due to the chemistry between these two actors.

Cheo Hodari Coker talks to ADTV about his comic book roots and what he wanted to convey with Netflix/Marvel’s Luke Cage

Luke Cage is Netflix’s latest critically acclaimed Marvel adaptation. Rather than focus solely on the superhero aspects of the story, the series paints a vivid portrait of modern day Harlem life and its historical significance within the black culture. Luke Cage also offers complex roles for its stars and not just male leads Mike Coulter or Mahershala Ali. Female leads Alfre Woodard and Simone Missick shine in complex and beautifully written roles as well. For these things and more, you can thank series creator Cheo Hodari Coker.

Of course, the ever modest Coker defers credit to the original Marvel source material, which does offer more culturally and gender diverse storytelling than people realize. Still, Cheo Hodari Coker and his team of writers should be praised for ensuring such a smooth transition to the small screen. This blend of superhero action and subtle insight into black culture makes Luke Cage a pleasantly profound addition to the Netflix/Marvel canon.

And Cheo Hodari Coker couldn’t be happier to hear that.
Cheo Hodari Coker

So, I’m so impressed with what you and the writers did with Luke Cage. It took me by surprise as to how well Luke stands out as a character on his own after being a secondary character in Jessica Jones.

I think what’s great about secondary characters is that, when you follow them home, they can have incredibly rich lives on their own. One of my favorite examples of that is in The Godfather when you follow Clemenza home, and his wife says, “Make sure you bring the cannoli.” Then, he whacks this guy next, and he says, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” It gives you an insight into his character and makes you think about what if you’d stayed with him throughout an entire story. There would be a lot more to this guy. Even though you introduce a character somewhere else, it doesn’t put a limitation on what you can do with him given the opportunity to tell a fully fleshed out story.

What drew you to the Luke Cage series initially?

It was the opportunity to tell a story that was uniquely black, uniquely hip-hop, and uniquely Marvel. Because I excel at being all three, I really wanted to assemble a team of writers that could fulfill that vision. Everybody that I worked with – [writers] Charles Murray, Christian Taylor, Jason Horwitch, Akela Cooper, Nathan Louis Jackson, Aida Croal, or Matt Owens – the grand majority were deep geeks and definitely into the musical/cultural aspect of the show. We came up with something that was a great mix, and, at the same time, Jeph Loeb from the Marvel side was always being the perfect manager. That allowed us to create the perfect combination of personality, story, and perspective. I wanted to basically tell a story that could use Harlem as something more than a backdrop. Something that still looked at Luke Cage as a superhero but still talked about much deeper things.

Talking about those “deeper things,” was that something that you brought to the material?

Well, the potential was always there. I wanted something that could show there is no one black experience. I wanted to show myriad perspectives on blackness in addition to the show never losing sight of its deep geekdom. Even while having characters and using characters as the other superpower of the show, it’s still a purely fun show. You can have social commentary without specifically calling out that it’s social commentary. Marvel has always done that. It goes way back to the very beginning where you had Jewish comic book writers using Captain America as a symbol to defeat fascism. At the same time, you have graphic novels like “God Loves, Man Kills” where you essentially have the various perspectives of MalcomX and Martin Luther King as portrayed by Magneto and Professor X. Stan Lee, from the beginning, knew you could have deep social issues and a platform for that, but by using powers as metaphors, you really have the opportunity to say these things in a way that becomes more universal. You may not understand what it’s like to be black, but, if you can understand what it’s like to be discriminated against, then maybe you can use that as a platform from which to effect change. Art has always been there to provide, to invoke and to inspire.

So I take it you’re a self-described “comic book geek?”

Absolutely. I’m 43 years old. I’ve been reading comics since I was 11 years old. That’s a long time to do anything.

Were you at all concerned about serving both the Marvel fan base and staying true to your own vision for the material?

No because the Marvel fan base is passionate about good storytelling. It’s about the quality, not necessarily being true to canon. The reason Daredevil and Jessica Jones were so successful is they weren’t so tied to the source material that they couldn’t live on their own feet. It’s done in a very respectful way. If you’re too rigid to the comic books, then you can get into trouble, but if you’re able to follow the spirit of the comic books, then that’s what the fanboys will go for.

You manage to keep a strong balance between male and female power roles in the series with great roles for Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, and Rosario Dawson. Was that something that you strived to do after Jessica Jones?

Well, I’m surrounded by strong women whether it’s my wife, whether it’s my mother, whether it’s my aunt, or whether it’s the many executives I work with. Women are an equal part in this world. My whole thing is that if you have so many compelling male characters, then you need to make sure that your female characters are equally formidable. That wasn’t as much a focus as it is, if you want a show to be watchable, then you need to have something to offer to everybody. When you have actresses that are as talented as the actresses we have, you want to give them a role that inspires them in a similar way to your male actors being inspired by their roles. In the end, it’s really about given the actors something compelling to say no matter who’s doing it.

Luke Cage is now streaming on Netflix.

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