Riley Keough as Christine. Photo: Kerry Hayes/Transactional Pictures of NY LP.
Riley Keough talks to ADTV about her complex Girlfriend character and the role of sex in the production.
Earlier this year, Starz unveiled its newest show, The Girlfriend Experience. Each week you could watch as its lead Christine (Riley Keough) joins a prestigious a firm as an intern while studying law. Her classmate introduces her to the world of TGE, where transactional relationships are made, and Christine is drawn into the world. Or you could binge all 13 episodes.
Riley Keough has starred in such films as Magic Mike, The Runaways and more recently Mad Max: Fury Road. I recently had the chance to catch up with the actress and soon-to-be filmmaker – she’s working on a movie – to talk about working with Steven Soderbergh again and what drew Riley Keough to play one of TV’s most complicated characters.
You’ve worked with Steven before on Magic Mike. How did The Girlfriend Experience happen?
Steven had gotten Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz together, and they were all working on it. They wrote the show, and he brought them on to write, create and direct. It was based on the same subject matter as the film, but he wanted a completely different storyline. So, they took it in, did their own thing, and I was his suggestion. I met with Amy and Lodge, and here I am.
Christine is quite a complex character. What drew you to her?
The cool thing is they let me read four episodes before I signed on, and before we shot the shot I got to read all 13 episodes. He’s always doing interesting things, and I love both of the filmmakers. I loved the idea of the show and Christine. I thought she was interesting and different to what I normally read. You just know when you want to play somebody.
She’s very different to the characters you’ve played in the past. She’s all about empowerment which is something I love about her. Is that right?
She’s very unapologetic about who she is. I think as a woman, it’s such a strong trait.
How do you research someone like Christine?
I didn’t really research anything to come up with her because that was more Amy, Lodge and I figuring out who this person was that was able to do this wild and different job. I met with girls to get the details on how they deal with it and how they feel about it. I didn’t really know that much about the subject. I was interested in their emotions.
Did anything surprise you when you were speaking to the girls?
I wasn’t aware there was a way to a job in which it was enjoyed by the providers. I had thought it was an oppressive situation. I didn’t know that existed. I was educated on the subject. I was really fascinated by it because it was intense and you take on a lot where you have to be the girlfriend of these people. I was completely intrigued by it.
What was it like working with Amy, Steven and Lodge on the whole show?
Steven produced it. Amy and Lodge wrote and directed it. It was great that we were all united on the same page. We had the same ideas and there wasn’t a difference in vision really between the two film makers.
Did you have any concerns about the nudity, sex, and masturbating ?
No, I like what it does to people. I like that it makes them think about things and question things. I like that it makes them think about what’s right and wrong. To me, that was a deeper profound reason to me for doing the project. That is just a part of it. I was fine with it and didn’t have the much attention on it.
How did it change how you view relationships and sex?
It made me think a lot about it and the importance put on it. It made me think about intense things and question a lot of things. I didn’t always come up with answers. When you’re doing something so much, you lose something sacred about it.
Who is she?
I think that’s the point of the show for me. I want the audience to decide. I like that we didn’t give them too much. I love letting them feel whatever they feel and not tell them things. I tend to choose projects that do that. That’s something that’s left open to interpretation.
Did you get involved in the creativity?
By the time I was attached, it was close to what I’d say was perfect. In developing Christine, this person, and the whole world, it was a collaborative thing between all of us. We get lucky and had the same taste and agreed on how scenes should go, and there was never a time when we felt differently about things. That’s why I think it turned out great.
Did you read any of the reaction to the show online?
It’s funny with this show. We’re going to do this and it’s going to get a crazy reaction, and that’s the point of it. We’re going to get angry people, excited people, bored people, intrigued people and that was the point. I didn’t go out and read them. I try not to read them because I knew it would have those different reactions, but I did get sent some reviews.
You’re working on a film. How’s that going?
It’s great. It should be done any day now. I can’t say anything yet because I’m still very protective of it.
Writer D.V. DeVincentis turned his back on television after a bad first experience. Fortunately for us, he came back to give the world “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
D.V. DeVincentis first received widespread attention as the screenwriter of two John Cusack films: 1997’s Grosse Point Blank and 2000’s High Fidelity. However, it’s his collaboration with Ryan Murphy and Sarah Paulson that has produced what is perhaps his most acclaimed work to date – producing and writing credits on FX’s blockbuster limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. We have DeVincentis to thank for the brilliant “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
DeVincentis recently returned from New Orleans to conduct interviews for the upcoming second season of American Crime Story, which will focus on the events and horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He wasn’t able to go into specifics, not because of confidentiality reasons but mostly because it’s not yet a fully formed piece. It will, however, take its cue from The People v. O.J. Simpson by featuring fact-based storylines based on real characters that, undoubtedly, will be used as a springboard to discuss larger, socially relevant themes.
The construction of such a springboard is one of the aspects of The People v. O.J. Simpson that impressed critics, viewers, and hopefully Emmy voters so extensively. The series was, of course, about the O.J. Simpson trial. It was also about race relations, celebrity, justice, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, the everyday struggle of working mothers. This final theme was personified by Sarah Paulson’s blisteringly amazing performance as lead prosecutor Marcia Clark. As strong an actress Paulson is, though, she could not have achieved such heights without the insight and vision of D.V. DeVincentis who scripted the series-best episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” one of three Simpson scripts in Emmy contention.
D.V. DeVincentis, you saw a lot of success in with High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank. How did you get into the John Cusack business?
Well, John and I were old friends. We sort of started doing what we did when we were in high school. We just didn’t know that that’s what we were doing. John became a movie star, and we kept doing things together and kept talking about things. It became a natural progression between what was happening with him and what was happening with me. I started making films and went to film school… It kind of totally made sense.
How did you get involved with writing and producing The People v. O.J. Simpson?
Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson initiated this project. They thought it was a great opportunity to tell an exciting story but also to delve into a lot of issues through it. They got in touch with Scott [Alexander] and Larry [Karaszewski] who are well known, extraordinary creators of stories based on real events. The People vs. Larry Flint. Ed Wood. On and on. [Simpson and Jacobson] brought them on, and those guys wrote the pilot. They reached out to me – I’d known them for ages through different projects we’d done in the past – and I read the script and loved it. I said, “Hurray, I’m coming on!” Like a shot. Basically, we sat around in a room, and we figured out what this show should be episode by episode and started working on it. And then this thing happened which was Ryan Murphy – this intense force of nature. He read what was going on and loved it and wanted in. That was the next phase.
How did Ryan’s involvement change the rest of the series? Or was it really baked in at that point?
No, it wasn’t baked in at all. It was one of the more interesting experiences of something developing that I’ve ever experienced. It was really fascinating. Ryan came at it with the things that we all know he’s so good at – the sort of big entertainment, the big moments. What Ryan arrived with besides his particular version of showmanship was his previous life as a reporter’s acumen. It was really extraordinary the way he plumed the ideas that we had to find really essential truths and moments and helped us stretch out even further to discuss issues that, lucky for us, arrived in a way that we were able to explore before the show came out. Particularly “Black Lives Matter.” I think that if that national explosion of consciousness had happened after we’d written the show and we’d shot the show without having that on our minds, the show would have been radically different, and not as good, I don’t think. Ryan pushed us in those directions a great deal.
Like I said, there was so much there for us, we were really lucky… The different characters represented so many issues so well without being issues… Marcia Clark and what she went through and the way we got to examine that is totally true and emotional and yet at the same time speaks volumes to what women in the workplace have to go through when they also have children. Right up to the way we saw Hillary Clinton eight years ago and the way we see her now.
Across all episodes, what was the bigger mandate: to adhere to the facts of the very public case or to create higher drama with truly fleshed out characters?
The truth is there was so much there to work with. There’s so much material and research in the [Jeffrey] Toobin book [The Run of His Life] and beyond that we could use to get to know the characters and to get to know the dynamics between them and the conflicts between them. Unlike writing something that’s 200 years ago where you have to create a lot of things, we had a lot to work with and a great deal of understanding that we could get about the real people. We’re always looking to create drama and create conflict, but it was really always in service of getting the dynamics of the story across and the dynamics of the themes across.
Like I said, there was so much there for us, we were really lucky… The different characters represented so many issues so well without being issues… while still being real characters. Johnnie Cochran’s past and his history and the things to which he dedicated his life were on the tip of everyone’s tongue last year. Marcia Clark and what she went through and the way we got to examine that is totally true and emotional and yet at the same time speaks volumes to what women in the workplace have to go through when they also have children. Right up to the way we saw Hillary Clinton eight years ago and the way we see her now. Again, it’s right there.
You’ve written three episodes of People v. O.J. Simpson – “The Dream Team,” “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” and “Conspiracy Theories.” How were the writing assignments made?
To be honest, it was sort of a long story, and there were a lot of moving pieces. I always was totally dedicated to the idea of writing “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” It was something that really spoke to me, and I had a lot in my mind about it, even from my own background in being raised by a woman who had a lot of the same burdens and conflicts. I wrote episode three because Scott and Larry had already written episodes one and two. So, there wasn’t a great deal of specificity in who wrote what other than my intense need to write “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
Which is a great episode.
Thank you so much. I appreciate that. I’m very happy about it. I have a background in writing and being around while things are made. I was on-set writing after episode two for the rest of the production. I got to stretch out into a lot of different stuff that I’m really proud of and happy about.
You were submitted for Emmy consideration for writing “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” That’s the right call… It’s my absolutely my favorite episode of the entire series.
Oh wow, man. Why?
Why? Because it means so much as a father to a young daughter as a husband to a wife to see all the shit she went through. To sort of rehabilitate her reputation which is what, I think, this episode really produced – the writing and Sarah Paulson’s performance. People have such a massively different opinion of Marcia Clark after this series than they did 20 years ago.
Well, I’m glad to hear it because when one looks at what she went through and what she was up against, it’s really just a reflection of the time 20 years ago that she was looked on so badly. She was so picked on, you know? Nobody else in that case had to go through what she went through. You’re right, it’s awful to think how little things have changed. It’s lovely to think that things have changed a lot in the last 20 years, but, you know, stuff still goes on. You must see it with having a daughter and wife…
Absolutely. You mentioned Hillary Clinton… A lot of people comment about her aging and her physical appearance constantly. It reminds me of that moment in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” where [Marcia Clark] gets that tight perm and walks into the courtroom feeling good. Everybody is making fun of her. Everybody is staring at her, and she doesn’t realize it until she gets all the way to her desk. The trajectory of Sarah Paulson’s face when she walks out of that elevator to the moment she gets to that desk is absolutely heartbreaking.
I totally agree. From the second I started working with Sarah in episode three, I started to get an understanding of what she was capable of and started to become so completely inspired by how she does what she does. It really became a partnership. Sarah is not only the actress that we all know she is, but she’s also kind of an incredible dramaturge. If she had a note or something that she wanted to discuss, I knew that it absolutely had to be discussed. There was no conversation that she and I ever had about a script or a moment or a beat that did not result in my writing looking better and getting better.
That’s amazing. That’s a great partnership to have.
It really is. It was so incredible. Besides just the acting in that episode, I owe her a great debt towards her getting my writing to where it was.
So, who was responsible for the line “Goddamn, who turned her into Rick James?”
[Laughs] I think somebody actually said it. When I heard that – I can’t tell you where I heard it or saw it – but I wrote it down in bold and was absolutely determined to get that line in. Even though there were times I was worried about the tone of that, but we played with tone a lot in the show in general because there is so much that is.. absurd. There’s a great deal of absurdity in the actual situation.
One of the things I was surprised about with the series was given Ryan Murphy’s predilection to tabloid culture, why was the decision made to not include in the series Judge Ito’s decision to allow cameras in the courtroom. There has been a lot of conversation around that moment, and a lot of people point to that event as being critical to the case. Why was that left out?
Well, I believe that we actually discussed it and wrote it. I just think that we either shot it, and it got cut or… I mean, I almost want to ask, “Are you SURE it wasn’t in there?” I know it was always on our mind, and it was always a big deal that he was very aware that what he was doing was being watched just like everybody. It did completely change the entire tenor of the case, and it was one of the factors that certainly led to so much material showing up in the courtroom…. God, now I want to go back and look and see if you’re wrong. [Laughs]
Maybe I am! I remember watching it, waiting for that moment, because I knew that was going to play into Ryan’s wheelhouse… Maybe I missed it, but I was pretty glued to the screen for all ten hours.
Well, then I’m going with your recollection. [Laughs] It’s a great question. American Horror Story, you know, is a fantasia. I think that Ryan indulges that part of his interests in that show, but he’s also incredibly interested in and passionate about social issues and what’s happening in our country and what has happened in it. I was not entirely surprised to see him more interested in that stuff in this work than in the more fantastical or tabloidy stuff.
Before The People v. O.J. Simpson you wrote/produced a WB show called Dead Last. Are there more TV projects in the future for you other than American Crime Story or is this 100 percent of your time?
Right now, it’s 100 percent of my time because it’s all-consuming. Yeah, I made this show called Dead Last with a couple of friends of mine maybe 15 years ago, and it was the classic ridiculous television experience of going in with one idea and being coerced into changing it into something entirely different. It turned me off of television for a long time until I became one of the last screenwriters to realize I could get much more done on television than I could on film and jumped onto this. As far as what’s in the future, I definitely am hooked on making television. My experience with it has been so rewarding, and, once I come up for air from this next season, I will definitely be trying to figure out what’s next.
Tell me about Where is Rocky II.
[Laughs] Where is Rocky II was one of those calls you get that sounds so crazy that you’re like, “Well, I guess I have to do this.” It’s sort of a creative, semi-documentary about the search for a lost Ed Ruscha sculpture that is rumored to be somewhere in the desert. The film was made by a man named Piere Bismuth who is a fine artist who also had the original idea for the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He wanted to make a film in which you saw an object being sought but also creators creating a story about the object being sought. So, he sort of prosecuted these two different cases and then blended them together into a film. It’s quite interesting. Even if you don’t like it, I guarantee you it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen. Guarantee.
I’ll have to check that out. Thank you so much for your time, though. Best of luck to you, and I think good things are coming your way this year because, again, I’m just a huge fan of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
I have to tell you… Thank you. To that, there’s something that’s so gratifying about watching something develop over time for an audience. Watching people watch successive episodes. It’s so different than the movie business where you write something that gets made, it comes out, whatever reaction to it happens in three days, and then it’s over. And, hey, I’m coming after you if you’re wrong about that question…
If you were ever bored in history class, maybe you just weren’t learning the right hilarious anecdotes.
Actress and writer Elizabeth Shapiro’s The Crossroads of History on History takes a look at yesteryear’s watershed moments through a comedic lens, chronicling stories that fell through the cracks of importance, like when Hitler was rejected from art school (twice) or why “Mona Lisa” del Giocondo and her husband refused what many believe is da Vinci’s greatest work.
It mixes real-life history, with some surmising (maybe Lisa just didn’t like her “smizing” look in the painting?), but unlike many in-class lessons, it will most definitely leave you rolling in the aisles instead of sleeping in them. All of the episodes are available for free on YouTube, with guest appearances by notable comedic actors like Paul Scheer, John Michael Higgins, and Justin Kirk.
I chatted with Shapiro about how this short film series came about, truth versus fiction, and what we can gain from these short lessons. With the Emmys expanding the short-form series categories to include Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Series and Outstanding Short Form Series (replacing Short Form Live Entertainment), writer/creator/executive producer Shapiro may be on track to make history herself.
AwardsDaily TV: How did you come up with the idea for The Crossroads of History? Are you a history buff? Elizabeth Shapiro: I would not say I’m a history buff. I was a humanities major in college and certainly studied history. My aunt is a historian so she’s an honest-to-god history buff. I would say history to me is this fascinating train wreck that I can’t look away from and I’m trying to understand. I grew up watching Mel Brooks and Monty Python, so the idea of playing with comedy and history is definitely something I’m really into, and sadly history provides a lot of great comedic fodder.
I’ve been fascinated by this moment when Hitler applied to art school two years in a row. That moment in time has been really interesting to me for a long time. Just because that must have seemed so mundane. These admissions officers trying to decide who gets into the art school. How could they have known that rejecting this guy, who literally painted still life of pansies and daisies, would literally set him on the path to screwing the entire 20th century? To me, that’s morbid, but it kinda makes me laugh. What is this roller coaster that we are on? These little twists of fate can completely change the entire world. That was the jumping off point and I think in some respects, the fact that I’m not a history buff allows me to look at things through a slightly different lens. I wanted to zoom in so much that you’re really getting the mundane stuff of everyday life that I think humanizes the characters and the stories. The dramatic irony we get is really sad and scary, looking at today’s landscape, that I realize truly one moron can screw up the world.
ADTV: A lot of it is so naturally funny. In the Smallpox episode, with John Michael Higgins, the fact that his puritan friends suggest curing smallpox by using “the powder of a sole of a shoe of a man who walks a lot.” Did any of these real-life facts surprise you? Did you wonder if anyone laughed at this at the time?
ES: I’m with you. This is just naturally funny, right? I guess it’s a matter of perspective. I look around at things that we do today and think, “I have a feeling that people in the future will be like, ‘What dumb idiots thought it was a good idea to radiate their food?’” But at the same time, yeah, it’s the context of the time. What’s so interesting is that history is told by the victors, so it’s super random. I often think that certain historical characters must have had really good PR people. Why do some people make it into the books and others don’t? It’s been fun for me to bring to life these people who are accidental heroes or villains.
ADTV: What was the research-to-script-to-filming process like? How long did it take?
ES: You’re going to laugh when you learn how little time we had. This is one of the exciting things about doing short form. There’s this incredibly exciting, adrenaline, frenetic, energy to it. We shot the Hitler pilot on spec in March of 2015. Then, we sold the show in October, and Maker Studios ordered eight episodes, which started airing in February on History. In October, I had nothing else written. It was definitely a challenge, but it was also awesome because it forced me and everyone else involved with the show to work on instinct and just be very bold with what we were doing. We didn’t have time to second-guess stuff. It was a thrilling creative experience, even if it probably took a few years off of all our lives. I had some great help, too. Colton Dunn co-wrote some of the episodes, and he’s like written on Key and Peele, you may have heard of it. (Laughs.) And because the production process was so fast, we luckily got all of these incredible people together to lend their talents who weren’t busy at the time. The stars aligned a bit.
ADTV: What did you use for research? Wikipedia? (Laughs.)
ES: (Laughs.) I didn’t use Wikipedia. My main researcher was this woman who has like seven PhDs and teaches at Oxford and we would Skype. She’s intimidatingly brilliant. Serious, serious historical academic. And I would Skype with her and be like, “Um. . .do you think you could do some research on King Louis’s anal fistula for me?” (Laughs.) I felt horrible, right? She did a lot of the research from primary sources. She pulled stuff written by people there at the time and historians. Wikipedia was helpful for the initial thread, but we never relied on it. A lot of times, unfortunately, I’d get really excited about something I read on the Internet, and then when you pulled the thread, you realized it wasn’t that true. People only think it is. There were some stories I had fallen in love with and then had to realize, nah. Too much bullshit about it.
ADTV: How much would you say is fact versus fiction in these episodes?
ES: The title cards are all true. I always try to bookend each episode with what we know is factual. These moments are so zoomed in that we don’t totally know what happened, but I try to factor in a lot of facts about that era or facts about those characters. For example, with the pilot of Hitler trying to get into art school. That’s probably not exactly how it happened. But the reason why I wanted to tell the story that way is that we know it really messed him up. Did it make him Hitler? No, he was an asshole to begin with. But when you’re an asshole who’s not well-adjusted, to have your dreams shattered like that, he didn’t take that well. I think there’s something emotionally true, that in that rejection, it set him on a different path. I think that was a really pivotal moment in his life and I think what’s so interesting is to tell the story in an emotionally true way, so you understand what the consequences were. As an audience, we know you shouldn’t tell Hitler to work on his execution. (Laughs.) My first job is to make people laugh. This is definitely a comedy. Don’t write dissertations about this show as your primary research. But that being said, I did really want to draw on as many facts as possible. That’s why we used his real paintings. But as a creator, it’s also really great to have these cracks in the story. Like why the hell did Lisa and Francesco not take the painting home that they paid for?
ADTV: Were you able to find that out at all? (In the Mona Lisa episode, Lisa and her husband reject da Vinci’s painting.)
ES: It’s a mystery.
ADTV: In your story, she just didn’t like the way she looked. (Laughs.)
ES: And I don’t blame her. (Laughs.) She looks kinda weird in it. It also made me laugh because people are people throughout history, and girls, you have to take a thousand photos of yourself to get one you like. I don’t care if it’s Leonardo da Vinci painting your painting. There’s a decent chance you won’t like what you look like. Who knows if that’s how it happened. But it felt relatable in a way that I understand. The amount of information we have is very thin. As an academic, I’m sure that’s super frustrating, but as a writer/creator/actor, it’s super thrilling to fill in the gaps.
ADTV: That had to be a lot of fun.
ES: There are some things I do intentionally to make it anachronistic. With the Hitler episode, I wondered, “Should everyone have German accents?” I decided it would be funnier, and more relatable, to have everyone talk in a more modern and colloquial way.
ADTV: The whole episode reminded me of American Idol.
ES: (Laughs.) That’s hilarious. But again, so immediately you relate it to something that is of now. Something I always struggled with with history is that it’s hard to imagine these people as real people, that I might know in my real life. There’s a certain kind of alienness to some of these figures when you read about them, at least for me. That was a choice early on, for people to feel like they know these people. That’s anachronistic, obviously, but I also think it worked.
ADTV: Oh, I loved it. I thought it was great the way you weaved in those anachronistic details. The joke is that da Vinci didn’t know that Mona Lisa was going to be such a big deal, so it teaches you a bit about how this history applies to the future.
ES: Exactly. I hope people look at the show and realize that right now consequential things are happening and we don’t even know it. These moments we don’t pay attention to have consequences.
ADTV: Related to that, what do you think Trump’s “crossroads” moment might be?
ES: Oh man. I don’t know. I keep thinking there is going to be a crossroads where people remember this dude was on The Apprentice and had birther conspiracies.
ADTV: I wonder if it’s when he went to the tanning booth for the first time and said, “Give me orange.”
ES: His signature look. “You know what, I think that my skin and my hair should be the exact same color. No, not natural. Not anything that remotely comes from nature. Really fluorescent.” Yeah, it’s so hard to say what leads to what. On my show, there are some people who accidentally led to great things and people who accidentally led to awful things. The world is much more fragile than we realize, and one idiot can really screw up things for a long time.
ADTV: Do you have other “crossroads” you’d like to cover?
ES: I’m hoping we’ll get a second season order. I’d definitely love to do one. There’s no shortage of great stories. It was such a blast. The show aired on History, which launched a new comedy block. That was really fun to be a part of. Not just because I’m a huge fan of the History channel, but also my show splits a half hour with Dan Harmon’s show, Great Minds with Dan Harmon. I’m just a colossal fan of his. It was one of those things that was just surreal, to have one of my first shows ever made alongside his. That was a super honor. To get to do that again would be really amazing. I think there are a lot of fun stories to tell.
And I also think that it’s a way of telling stories that’s a fun hybrid of the traditional and the new. You can see it even in the people who made my show: Maker Studios is the studios and History is the network. You have these two real powerhouses, one more known for digital and one more known for television. And the fact that the show aired on TV but you can find it on YouTube is just really cool. We’ve developed this audience that’s super eclectic. It’s been cool to see the audience have all these great dialogues with each other. They’re so damn smart. I’ve been excited by where that can go. Maybe crowdsourcing future episodes, what they want to see. Everyone from the cinematographer to the production designers blew me away with how much passion they had for telling these stories, even if we didn’t have the kind of budget of bigger shows. Regardless of what happens, I’ve had such a magical experience working on this show and really excited that it’s finding its audience. It’s surreal that the Emmys have opened up to recognize short-form content. It’s an interesting time with the emergence of the Internet as a real player, and for a creator like me, it’s cool to get to work on something that was quickly able to go from conception out to the audience.
ADTV: In like six months’ time, too? That’s amazing.
Sounds like the perfect description for a crossroads moment.
Watch The Crossroads of History episodes on YouTube here and follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @LizzyShaps.
THE WIZ LIVE! -- Television Academy Event at The DGA, Los Angeles, June 1, 2016 -- Pictured: (l-r) Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Executive Producers -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)
The Wiz Live! producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan talk about the making of NBC’s latest live musical sensation.
When Neil Meron and Craig Zadan’s The Wiz Live! aired on NBC last December, it hauled in over 11.5 million viewers and was a huge hit on social media posting 1.37 million tweets during its East Coast airing. One publication wrote that it saved Christmas and critics love it. It currently holds at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.
If you haven’t seen The Wiz Live!, set aside three hours to watch the genius musical production that is packed with plenty of high notes, stunning costumes and even vogueing. Watch as Shanice Williams slays her role as Dorothy. Her rendition of Home is enough to give you goosebumps in her breakout debut. The whole production is nothing short of enchantment, magic, and talent.
There is no doubt that The Wiz Live! was a great musical feat. It managed to do what no other televised musical production had done before – it got people who wouldn’t normally watch musicals watching. It converted fans. It aired at a time when racial violence was plaguing the airwaves. The Wiz Live! deserves to receive acting and directing nods from the Television Academy. It is a shoo-in for craft nominations for Best Production Design and Costume Design. Have you seen the stunning costumes? The Wiz Live! should also be seen in the Makeup and Hair categories as well as Best Original Music and Lyrics. Expect The Wiz Live! to be a strong contender when Emmy nominations are announced.
Of course, The Wiz Live! would be a faint memory without the dedicated brilliance of producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. It’s hard not to look at Neil and Craig’s body of work without having one “I loved that” moment after another. The Oscars – remember when Lady Gaga came on stage and performed that Sound of Music tribute? Chicago.Hairspray.The Sound Of Music Live!. Now we can add The Wiz Live! to that endless list. I recently caught up with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan to talk about bringing the musical extravaganza to live TV.
AwardsDaily TV: Hello you two!
Craig Zadan: How are you?
ADTV: You guys are my favorite people in the world.
Neil Meron: Oh, you say that to everybody.
ADTV: No, no! You did Chicago so much justice. It was my favorite show when I saw it on the West End and then, you did the movie. Now, we have The Wiz!
CZ: It’s true. But, Ruthie Henshall wasn’t in The Wiz.
ADTV: No, she wasn’t. Did you approach her?
NM: [Laughs] No, I think we forgot.
ADTV: Can you stick her in Hairspray?
NM: Maybe [laughs]. If it would make you happy.
ADTV: Ruthie is so sweet. I love her. I’m living in LA, so I haven’t seen her on stage in a while.
NM: I haven’t either.
ADTV: What is she up to?
CZ: I don’t know. She’s recovering.
ADTV: I do have to congratulate you on The Wiz. It’s another one of my favorites. And, I’m not saying this to everybody. I love musicals.
CZ: Well, obviously, so do we. Thank you. We appreciate that.
ADTV: There was so much negativity towards musicals.
NM: That’s so true. Musicals were like a dirty word for a long time.
ADTV: The Wiz was one of the main ones, on social media, that actually saw the shift from negative to positive reactions. What do you think was the cause for that?
NM: I think that The Wiz has some sort of undeniable power. It’s one of these classic stories that is so beloved and then when you put that together with this dream team of artists that were lucky enough to assemble, you get an embarrassment of riches that you would feel bad saying anything bad about it. They are so brilliant individually and collectively.
CZ: The thing about The Wiz for us is sort of that we had a feeling on the show that I don’t think we had on any other show. It felt like the Olympics. It was like each one of these people came out and they did their number and they killed. Then they left and the next person came out and killed. It was like one topping the next, topping the next, topping the next. It reminded me of the Olympics because they were like great athletes coming out. Each one in this cast was just astonishing. We haven’t had that ensemble in a long time. It was just unbelievable. We’re so proud of them because they loved it so much and it was a very interesting experience because they were in love with each other and they loved being there. When they had days off, they came in anyway. They just wanted to be around each other. It sounds corny when people talk about movie sets and stuff like that and say, “it was a love fest,” but in this case it really was. They were like a family. At the end, I’ve never seen actors so sad and they went, “wait a minute, we do one performance live and that’s it?”
ADTV: You had your reunion the other day at the DGA’s.
CZ: Yes, we did! It was so much fun.
NM: It was pretty amazing. It was a great evening.
CZ: We said it at the time, but one of the other things about The Wiz is that in this moment of time, especially when it was airing, there was so much of a return to attitudes of the 50’s and 60’s in terms of race relations and all these horrible things that were going on in the country. We wanted to put everything on pause and have just a chance to appreciate the talent we assembled. Just to go back to what it’s all about which is just trying to appreciate the goodness in the world and that was one of the things that we were so happy about with The Wiz.
ADTV: I have to commend you on the casting. First of all, I loved her in Chicago, and she was phenomenal in this, Queen Latifah. When did you decide to make the Wiz female? In Wicked, you’ve got a male and, in The Wizard of Oz, it’s a male.
CZ: Yeah, it’s a traditionally male role.
NM: It’s one of those things that we have adopted her. We did Chicago with her and then we did Hairspray with her and then we did Steel Magnolias with her. Then, when it came time for The Wiz, of course she’s always on call. I must say that the phone call was very surprising because we started to say, “Hey, do you know the show well?” and she said, “Do I know the show well? It was the first Broadway show I ever saw! I sat there, as a little girl in the audience, watching Stephanie Mills and when she sang ‘Home,’ I decided that I wanted to become a performer.”
NM: So the emotional resonance of having someone who has that attachment to The Wiz was so remarkable.
CZ: It was Kenny Leon, our director, who came up with the notion that Queen Latifah be the Wiz because she is our go-to girl. We always think of her first, but we had to think about we fit her into this. We love her and want her to be a part of everything we do and we talked about her playing the Cowardly Lion. Then, Kenny Leon said that he thinks she should play the Wiz. There was nothing about that role that suggested any sort of gender so Kenny said, “Let’s make the Wiz a woman,” and we thought it was great. We approached Queen Latifah and she said, “Yes.” She got it immediately.
ADTV: Another great find is Shanice Williams as Dorothy. What were you looking for when you were casting the role and how did you know she was the one? It was another phenomenal performance.
NM: It’s very hard to find people like that because you do an open call and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people show up. You have to depend on them being the right age, the ability to sing those songs, somebody who can act, and somebody who can carry an entire show with no experience. None. When somebody like that shows up, they basically tell you, “This is my part.” They tell you that it belongs to them and it’s theirs and you just go, “Okay, you’ve claimed it, it’s yours.” Shanice showed up and she was able to do all those things brilliantly having had no experience whatsoever.
ADTV: And you couldn’t tell that at all when you were watching her. She looked like she had years of experience.
NM: It’s amazing. I think the day that it dawned on us what we were doing, was the day of the telecast. We were about to start the live telecast and we said to ourselves, “We never even thought about this before, but Shanice is going out there on live television doing the first lead in her life and, my God, we hope that it comes off.” It’s kind of a scary prospect to put somebody on live on network television. We sat there in the truck with the director and with Bob Greenblatt from NBC and were in awe. She just was flawless.
ADTV: So, I want to talk about your casting because you guys are so great at it. There’s never been something of yours I was watching where I thought, “Oh gosh, I wish they’d put someone else in there.” What is your process when it comes to casting?
NM: We look at the material and we think, “what could we bring to this just in terms of creating a sense of excitement and creating a sense for the actor doing something new that they haven’t done before or finding something that is so right that it just fits like a glove.” We just throw everything just up in the air while trying to be true to the material and then try to put a certain spin on it that seems right, but then will cause some sort of want to see to the whole enterprise. That’s what we do.
ADTV: You’ve worked together for so long, and you’re so good at it. What’s the secret to this long-term working relationship that you have that is hugely successful?
CZ: I don’t think that there is a secret. I think that everything in life is about chemistry, everything. It’s like what you were talking about, how you put a cast together. When you put them in one project, they become exciting together and great together. I think the same thing happens when Neil and I work on a project. We just make it happen because we know each other’s taste and we have had the same judgement that we’ve shared on projects for so many years.
NM: And we can also challenge each other too.
ADTV: On the subject of challenges, with The Wiz, what were your biggest challenges in bringing it to life as a live musical performance for NBC?
NM: The Wiz was a particular responsibility because it felt so near and dear to the black community, especially, but a lot of people wanted it to be good. Our particular responsibility was to make sure that we didn’t disappoint and so we just really had to make sure we were making the proper choices in what was right. It’s what we do for every project, but I think we felt a little bit of an extra special motivation to make sure that The Wiz can live for this next generation. It is such an important piece for so many people and has the right message and it is the right time for this message to be out there. We cared so much.
ADTV: Did you follow the reaction on social media? One thing I noticed, and you mentioned it earlier, was that so many people that I know who don’t like musicals were watching this and were so impressed. You turned them!
NM: I was watching Twitter.
CZ: I remember one of the most common things we heard when we did the movie of Chicago was that people would come up to us and say, “Now, mind you, I don’t really usually like musicals, but I loved Chicago.” And it’s sort of been one of those things that like how do you create something that those who love musicals love the project and those that maybe don’t necessarily seek out musicals to watch love the project too. It’s sort of a challenge, but we try to appeal to everybody.
ADTV: Where are you in terms of going to Broadway? How far along are you with that?
NM: There’s a particular problem, which is a great thing for the theater on Broadway, just in terms of the availability of theaters. We’re in the process now where all the planes have lined on the airstrip and are ready to take off. We’re a part of that runway group looking for the right theater.
ADTV: It is all about the theater sometimes.
NM: Yeah, you don’t want to do The Wiz unless it has it’s proper environment.
ADTV: It’s like when they brought back Miss Saigon to London, they needed the right theater for the helicopter scene.
NM: We only have a yellow brick road [laughs].
ADTV: No landing things. What is left out there that you would love to do? Is there anything left? You’ve done the Oscars, and you’ve done great adaptations.
CZ: That’s an interesting question because we always think that there has to be something else because in the musical field. We started by doing TV musicals with Bette Midler in Gypsy and Whitney Houston and Brandi in Cinderella and those musicals on TV. There hadn’t been musicals on TV at that time and we did those and they were really successful, thank God. After that, we said “It’s time for a big screen musical,” and we moved away from the TV musicals and did Chicago and then Hairspray. We did the big screen musicals and then we thought, “Well, there’s room for musicals on TV.” We always wanted to do a series with music in it so we did Smash.
The very next thing we thought was, “What do we do now? Do we go back and TV musicals again?” And we knew that we had done that already and then we thought about the fact that it had been probably around 50 years since they had done live musicals on TV. We thought, “Why not?” It’s been 50 years, it’s time to make it fresh again and so we went to Bob Greenblatt and, to make a long story short, he basically said to us, “You know, if you think of something or find something that we can do together that is unique and special and something that’s not on television right now that we can pull off together, call me.” We told him that we didn’t have to call him because we had been thinking about it and decided we wanted to do a live musical and we had found out that the rights to the show, not the movie, of Sound of Music were available. The Rogers and Hammerstein foundation told us that if we wanted to do a live Sound of Music, they would give us the rights.
We told Bob that we had the rights to The Sound of Music and, on the spot, he said, “Let’s do it.” He didn’t think about it. He didn’t pause. He didn’t need to talk to people. And so we did it. I think that the one thing that we knew was that it was special and unique and hadn’t been done in such a long time, but we never expected 22 million viewers [laughs]. We just never expected it and it was shocking. That was quite a surprise. We even went back and rechecked and rechecked the ratings because we thought they were wrong. We thought that it couldn’t be 22 million viewers, but it was. It was like, “Oh my God!” We’ve tapped into something that people really wanted to see.
ADTV: Then you brought it to the Oscars the following year when you produced it with Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews which was just indelible. That is just a forever moment. There is an audience out there for musicals and Hollywood didn’t think so until you came along.
NM: We turned a dirty word into a beloved word.
ADTV: Next, you’re doing Hairspray.
NM: We’re bringing Hairspray to the next iteration of our live musicals.
ADTV: So you’ve got the casting of Tracy, but what else can you tell us?
NM: We’re currently casting the other roles and hope to have announcements int he next couple of weeks as to who else is joining us. I’m hoping for some very exciting names. We have a kickass cast already.
ADTV: Are we going to see Queen Latifah in Hairspray?
NM: We already did Queen Latifah in Hairspray [laughs], so that’s one thing we won’t go to her for because she’s already done it.
CZ: We have Jennifer Hudson. Let’s review the cast.
NM: Harvey Fierstein is going to be recreating his Tony award winning role as Edna, which we are so happy to do because he created it and he has the particular ownership of it. And we found him an amazing daughter. She is next in line for our discoveries. Martin Short is playing his husband. We have always wanted to work with Marty, and he’s been a long time friend. This seems to be like the perfect role for him. And, of course, Jennifer Hudson, who we’ve worked with several times. She was in Smash, and we worked with her in two Oscars. She’ll be joining us as reinventing the role of Motormouth. Another person that we’ve always loved is Derek Hough and I think we’re just beginning to see his abilities blossom into more than just a dancing star. He’s like a triple threat and he’s going to be able to strut his stuff in Hairspray live.
ADTV: I’m looking forward to that. I saw that on Broadway.
NM: It’s another show just about pure joy and also has a message which, I think, is maybe even more relevant now than when it first opened. CZ: Going back to your question earlier about when we’ve accomplished something and we feel “okay what’s next, what do we want to do now,” one of the things that Neil and I have privately said to one another is that if musicals work and they last and happen each year, we’d love to do a drama. We decided to do Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. We’re doing that right after Hairspray. It’ll be the first time there’s been a drama done live in a very, very, very, long time. It’ll be on network television with an incredible cast that we’re in the process of casting right now. We’re very excited about it. Working with Aaron Sorkin has been a dream because we’ve always admired him and wanted to work with him. It’s been a joyous experience
Amy Brenneman as Laurie Garvey. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.
Amy Brenneman talks to AwardsDaily TV about The Leftovers‘ Laurie Garvey.
Great acting comes from a few places through the creative process. An actor should first be matched with great writing (Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta. Check.). An actor should then be matched with a great director (Carl Franklin. Check.). An actor should finally be matched with the right material, something that truly resonates with that actor and gives them something to dig their teeth into (The Leftovers. Check.) Talking to 5-time Emmy nominee Amy Brenneman revealed a perfect collision of these events that resulted in her astonishing performance as Laurie Garvey, a survivor of the Guilty Remnants who uses her knowledge of their inner workings to successfully (and unsuccessfully) rehabilitate disillusioned members.
Laurie’s journey through The Leftovers season two – particularly her focus episode “Off Ramp” – provides an enormous range for the actress. She’s the vengeful spirit, resentful of the cult’s influence. She’s the proud and determined survivor, eager to share her remarkable story. She’s the concerned mother, realizing she’s pushing her son too far into her dangerous quest. She’s the former psychiatrist, helping her ex-husband Kevin (Justin Theroux) work through a psychotic break.
The amazing thing about Amy Brenneman’s performance is that it never once feels untrue. All of these wild circumstances, no matter how far-fetched they may be, feel remarkably grounded in the human experience. A lot of that is due to the fantastic writing, but you must recognize the extraordinary talent and commitment displayed by Amy Brenneman. As she says in our conversation, there’s nothing else quite like The Leftovers on television today. Logic would tell you that the Television Academy should flock to the series and reward its uniqueness. Yet, it’s a show that sadly struggles for recognition amidst the other great series on air. Should the Academy pay attention, they would be hard-pressed to bypass Amy Brenneman’s stunning work.
AwardsDaily TV: You’ve built a healthy résumé of TV work over the years. How did you get your start in acting, and did your career go in the direction you wanted it to?
Amy Brenneman: You know, I was one of those kids that was in a play when I was 11 and never stopped doing plays. My soul found its home no doubt in plays and in collaboration with people – that’s also what I love. I come from a family of lawyers from New England, so the whole “profession” of acting was a little foggy to me. I always say the one deal breaker for my college/graduate school parents was, if I’d said at 18 I’m going to New York, they would be like, “No, you are not.” [Laughs] So, we all – my brothers and I – went to college. I went to Harvard, and they didn’t actually have a theater major at that point, which they just got one going a couple of years ago. However, there was a ton of theater going on, so we all majored in obviously different things. I was always doing plays, and the kind of plays we were doing were very influenced by The Wooster Group downtown, by theater collectives, and we actually ended up starting a theater company called Cornerstone Theater. So, I travelled around the country for about five years after college and did community-based work and loved it.
I feel like it was an organic progression. There was a moment where it was time to lead that group full-time, and there was also a moment where it was time to try to make a living. [Laughs] But the whole film/television/head shot/agent thing didn’t happen… I didn’t really think about it until I was in my late 20s. And then it was sort of a surprise, to be honest with you. I thought theater would want me, and Hollywood wouldn’t but it was actually sort of the opposite.
ADTV: Jumping forward to your tremendous work on The Leftovers. This show seems to be one of those series with critical acclaim but not broad viewership. It’s fans though are devotees of the material. Why do you think people form such a deep connection to this series?
AB: Well, there’s nothing else like it. I think about The Leftovers in a lot of different ways, and some of it is through my religion major lens. I’m very interested in spiritual systems both individual and collective. I think that Damon [Lindelof] is writing an elegy. It’s really about grief, and in the first season everybody was sort of stunned by grief, literally paralyzed. The second season, everybody gets very industrious. That’s why I love the second season. It’s the opposite of the 4-quadrant entertainment – “It appeals to everybody! Happy! Sad! Young! Old!” [The Leftovers] appeals to one pretty specific swath in the human spirit, but it’s the truth. A dear friend of mine had just lost her father very suddenly. The show came on a month or so later. She always watches everything I do… I was like, “Oh no, you are not allowed to watch it.” Anybody that’s tender, anybody that’s put off by the depth of it… I never try to convince people to watch it. I think it’s like going to church. For people that get it and need it, there’s literally nowhere else to go on television.
ADTV: As you’ve mentioned, you graduated from Harvard after majoring in comparative religion. Do you consider yourself a religious person, and how does that background help you navigate The Leftovers and, more specifically, the Guilty Remnant?
AB: Yeah, I definitely have a spiritual practice that’s sort of eclectic as most Americans are. I am a theist. I do think about God a lot. It’s really funny too… I’m pretty unstudied formally in terms of acting – I never went to acting school – but I realize that the way what I studied in college and the way that I naturally think, the way that fits in, is that I literally look at a character and, I didn’t realize this until after the fact, but I’ll think, “OK. What is Heaven to this person. What is Hell? What are they striving for? Where is their soul at peace?”
The Guilty Remnant is interesting because all of us, especially in the first season, were like “What do they believe? What are the tenants of their belief?” But it’s really like the Occupy movement. It’s less about what they coalesce around and more what they’re collectively rejecting. I think for Laurie… And again I think this is Tom Perrotta’s absolute parallel to post-9/11… The people were saying, “Go back to normal!” You try to do that, but then you realize the foundations have entirely changed… I think she was about to crack up. I think she was not doing well by her family. She’s a shrink, so she realized she had to remove herself for a while. She realized it’s sort of extreme, but it’s what she had to do. I think Laurie’s journey in that first season is sort of like MLK versus Malcolm X. I think she really saw what she was doing was… confrontational but in a gentle way if you will. Just by their presence, they make people realize things, and people get upset and people do all sorts of things. But [the Guilty Remnant] doesn’t strike back, and I think that, as Patti [Ann Dowd] took over as the season progressed – the ending of the first season when she’s realizing that it’s not what she signed up for… The whole second season is basically revenge.
ADTV: Yeah, that’s very interesting. In “Off Ramp,” you have a few (what I like to call) “Breaking Bad” moments – breaking and entering, running over the two Guilty Remnant members, choking the publisher. Was it challenging for you as an actress to play those scenes so that they felt real and truthful given how out of character they were for her?
AB: They didn’t feel that out of left field for her. The stealing of the computer certainly didn’t. She has a goal. She’s fierce. She’s going to get that goddamn computer, and then the hitting of the guys in the car… I did sort of have to talk to Damon about that, talk through it. Honestly, in Laurie’s mind, she gives them a chance. It’s a game of chicken, right? It’s like pressing the button on the atomic bomb. She gave them a chance. You can judge Laurie’s thinking, but, if she’s trying to wake these people up for them to realize they’re being duped just like she was – that they’re in this cult and being used like cannon fodder, she gave them ample opportunity. She slows that car down. There is a definite face-off, and then it’s just a matter of power. She’s desperate to show them that she’s more powerful than this system they are involved in.
ADTV: There’s also something somewhat obnoxious about the Guilty Remnant standing there just staring and smoking.
AB: Yeah. Well, it’s like she’s not intimidated by them. She comes from them. She gets the whole thing. I think that probably what the audience might have been thinking in season one is that this creepy cult has taken this woman’s family… I think that was the big passing in the night moment between me and Meg [Liv Tyler] because she’s a novice and she’s delicate and [Laurie’s] showing her the ropes, but then she’s the one who becomes the jihadist. Maybe because Laurie has kids or because she’s not very good cult material in the end… Meg just lapped it up.
ADTV: Absolutely, and the parallels between those two characters are fascinating, but I want to get into that in a minute. First, tell me what it was like working with Carl Franklin, who I think is one of the great directors working today.
AB: Ohh, I agree. I agree. It was great. I think we just did a smudge of stuff in the first season. He was a great director for me. He really was. Maybe because he was an actor, he put a lot of confidence in us. He was really lax… There were a couple of moments where he would say to me, “Yeah, I didn’t believe that.” And then I’d laugh because that’s my number one job as an actor – to make you believe it! [Laugh] Have another take there… He was fun. He was playful. There’s a sneaky feminist agenda in this where the women are just really allowed to fly and, in a way, as misguided as they are they have a very, very clear sense and a lot of agency in the world…. I think he’s one of those good directors where it’s not about “action scene,” “love scene,” whatever. It’s all relational. It’s basic stuff. What are you trying to get from the other person? He is a 4-quadrant guy. Male. Female. Young. Old. Black. White. He’s interested in humanity. I loved it. I really, really loved it.
ADTV: So, I want to go back to Laurie’s relationship with her son. I go back and forth on this question of whether or not she is using him in the second season. She pushes him into the Guilty Remnant. She pushes him to take the Holy Wayne mantle. What are your thoughts on her relationship with him?
AB: I think he’s her mirror. You know, it’s funny, early on in the first season… Tom and Laurie were always positioned as seekers. They always had that questing quality. They were interested in different ways of living. Different ways of thinking. The Departure really just exploded your natural tendencies, and Laurie and Tom were the ones to seek out some big new idea. Kind of what we talked about, which you never really see, Tom committing to Holy Wayne – like really going off on this path – probably emboldened Laurie to make a big choice as well. Temperamentally, they’re actually very, very similar. And, you know, you think about Orthodox families… Yes, there’s something very bullying about indoctrinating someone, including a child, but you really think you’re doing it for their own good. There are certainly a lot of religious traditions where children follow because they want to please their parents… They are coerced into the family religious practice. I think there’s a little bit of that where [Laurie’s] like, “We agree that the Guilty Remnant has to be stopped, and I happen to have this beautiful, sensual, smoking-hot, charismatic son, so let’s use that!” [Laughs] I do think it’s genuine. When Laurie realizes that it’s gone too far and she wants to pull him out… I think that actually is genuine. I don’t think she’s a sociopath. So I think it’s very complicated…
ADTV: Yeah, in that episode, he did not disclose what happened between him and Meg – the rape scene. What do you think Laurie’s reaction in that moment would have been?
AB: Well, I think that would have been the tipping point if for no other reason than to prevent this woman from having any access to him. However, even without knowing [what actually happened], that’s the moment Tom brings up Meg’s name, and my “Spidey-sense” goes up. I think [Laurie] would have absolutely changed the game, which is ultimately what happened because [Meg’s] tentacles go really far…
ADTV: Laurie’s book undoubtedly describes her break from the Guilty Remnant, but we don’t know much about that period in her life. Did you generate a backstory for this to influence your performance in “Off Ramp?”
AB: We don’t get into that, although that moment at the end of season one where I almost let my kid burn up in the fire because of their crazy/loco thing. During the first hiatus, I would have been shocked if I was still a part of the Guilty Remnant, so I think the assumption is that… Jill is my precious Achilles heel. When she shows up at the Guilty Remnant headquarters at the end of season one, it’s like Laurie is a crackhead, and her kid is seeing her in the crackhouse. You don’t see her detach from it, but I think it’s really pretty immediate – “These people are crazy and they led me astray” kind of thing.
What I love about Laurie in the second season is that she reclaims all of her knowledge and awareness as a shrink. The way I kind of lay it out for Kevin about his psychotic break and she lays out her own journey. I told Damon that it’s very rare that you have a character that does sort of an inexplicable thing, a strange thing like joining the Guilty Remnant, and then the next season I have a 4-page monologue where I explain exactly why… in very shrink-y language, in very grounded and undeniable language, I am just laying bare. It’s like in [Going Clear] and Scientology. I’m telling the truth about this secret society, and I think [Laurie’s book] was a good book and was about to be published but she just wasn’t ready for prime time.
ADTV: Oh no. Especially not after receiving that call about Susan’s death… So, in closing, I’m not even going to ask about season three because, whenever I do, no one knows or isn’t saying. Instead, what is next for you professionally?
AB: Before I go to Australia to film season three, I’m writing a theater piece, which I’ve never done before. And then, my husband [Brad Silberling] and I are going to set up a production deal somewhere… I have writers and other people coming to me with ideas. I created a show in Judging Amy and to have that come out of my head… that was a lot of work. [Laughs] I kind of feel like I love working in these different venues, and I feel sort of wide-open to whatever comes next. I am interesting in producing a show that I’m in again because I like that.
ADTV: Yes, and it seems like a really are at time in television history where there are opportunities for women to take that ownership of a series. How are you benefitting from that now?
AB: It’s amazing! I have a few different writers I’m working with, and one of them can work on spec which is amazing because… there’s a version of that idea that can work on network, there’s a version that could work on cable. It allows us to produce the thing and then find a home for it.
I think I benefited it way back in 2000 when I created Judging Amy. Because television is not based on the impossible model of movies (seeing what a performer is “worth” in Japan to secure foreign sales, etc), there is more opportunity for everyone who has a good idea and is ready to work hard. Because of the explosion in streaming, premium and basic cable — all outlets needing material — there is even more opportunity. Sadly, I think film (at least the business model) is still in the dark ages, which is why all they seem to be able to churn out are Marvel movies!
It’s also important to contextualize “opportunities for women” with opportunities for ANY voice which has been historically marginalized — folks of color, LGBTQ, the disability community, older artists of every stripe. Sadly, women are not the only group underrepresented! But the expansion of venues will no doubt mean more opportunity for all of us.
Amy Brenneman and The Leftovers can be seen streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now. Season three is now filming.
ADTV talks to Oscar-winner Paul Haggis about his HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero
Speaking to Paul Haggis, a man who has been behind the camera and keyboard in both the film and TV industry for decades, proves there is often more to filmmakers than meets the eye. I discovered he is a perfectly pleasant guy and, as we’ve witnessed on a few occasions, does not shy away from expressing his personal opinion.
I spoke to Paul Haggis while he was in Canada visiting family. We discussed not only his HBO television miniseries Show Me a Hero, but we also dug into his background with Scientology, the rise of his TV career, and of course the homophobia theories surrounding his film Crash defeating Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture in 2006.
AwardsDaily TV: Hello Paul Haggis. It’s not often you get to speak to back-to-back Oscar winning Best Picture writers. That’s pretty rare.
Paul Haggis: [Laughs] I was very blessed to have good material.
ADTV: Let’s break the ice a little bit then. So you’re the audience now. Think about the last year. Which films and TV shows have impressed you the most? Do you have time for anything?
PH: Oh yeah. My daughter got me into watching Bloodline, which I quite love. On the second season of that, it started very slowly, but I really love it. And I finally started up on Game of Thrones. I knew I would enjoy it too much so I avoided it for many years. I just knew it would take up too much of my life. So I am just now on the second season and devouring it. It’s nice to be so far behind everyone else.
ADTV: What would you say is one of your proudest moments outside of your TV and film work?
PH: There’s what I do in Haiti. I’ve been doing that for nine years. I really love that – the Artist for Peace and Justice. We head down there again this week, taking a great big group of people down because were celebrating the very first graduating class of our high school. So we got 2,700 kids, and we are graduating 300 of them this year for the first time. The amazing thing is it is the only high school for the kids in slums. I am very proud of that accomplishment. And of course the Artists institute, with film school and audio engineering school. That makes me very proud. You stand on that ground we bought, you know, with Olivia Wilde and Ben Stiller. We all went down there and did it. You stand there now and watch two 2,600 kids run past. [Laughs] It’s pretty extraordinary. I can’t help but smile.
ADTV: Now, I am not going to delve too deep into Scientology.
PH: Yeah, it’s been done.
ADTV: The question I will ask, did you receive any kind of blow-back from Going Clear in relation to future projects like the one you have just done, Show Me a Hero?
PH: No. Everything they do is gossip and rumor and stuff online, anonymous things they post to try and influence people. Like my work is not very good or whatever. Not just me but loads of people, especially celebrities or minor celebrities that end up leaving. They try to trash their reputation, but I don’t give a damn what people think of me. [Laughs]
ADTV: Say someone who doesn’t know you asks you “What do you do for a living?” What do you respond with? Writer? Director? Producer?
PH: I tell them I am in the film business.
ADTV: You don’t see yourself as one thing more than another?
PH: No, I love writing. I love directing. I especially love whatever I am not doing at that particular time. If I am writing I would dearly love to be directing. If I am directing, I would much rather be writing. But that’s just because I am a contrarian and a miserable sop. [Laughs] In this case with Show Me a Hero, I just directed and produced. I did none of the writing, which was just fabulous for me. That’s the first time I have ever done that. It was such a relief. You get an actor come to you with a question, and you say, “Oh that’s a really good question. Why don’t you talk to David about that?” [Laughs] It’s wonderful to have people to collaborate with. [Producers] David [Simon] and Nina [Kostroff-Noble] were such wonderful collaborators. We all made each other uneasy, and that’s the best thing for artists.
ADTV: So thinking about TV. You’ve worked on popular shows like Due South and L.A. Law, shows I watched when I was a teenager. And you have already grabbed two Emmys for writing and producing Thirtysomething. What do you remember about the success of that show? And that time.
PH: Oh yeah, I was in my early thirties and working with two terrific filmmakers in Marshal Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. I’d only written comedy, I had never written drama in my life, other than some failed screenplays I had attempted. They were so generous to me. They really allowed me to find my voice and prodded me to look inside and find dilemmas, find questions, that I could not answer myself. That went with me through my career, so I am eternally grateful to them.
ADTV: Earlier this year I know Oscar Isaac won the Golden Globe for his performance as Nick Wasicsko in Show Me a Hero. Are you feeling the award buzz for this show going into Emmy voting?
PH: I don’t really pay much attention to the Golden Globes to be honest. It’s more of a show than anything else. They are lovely, but I don’t really take to awards shows. I got one, really like them. I know it is a shitty thing to say this, but I don’t take them that seriously. I think when you get rewarded from your peers you take them more seriously, like the Emmys or the Oscars. Though you get the serious press like the New York Film Critics, I have never got one but I appreciate it. Even the Gotham Awards I like. I liked the fact Oscar [Isaac] won, and I would like to win another one. I am as shallow as the next person. Perhaps they are getting more legit. What do you think?
ADTV: I think it’s really tricky now with TV. Five years ago with something like Limited Series Emmys you could maybe predict it, “Oh there’s only two that can win it.” Now people are talking about the Limited Series because there are so many now that the competition is ridiculous. And if you get in you’re lucky, I think. Your show is there or thereabouts.
PH: Yeah, yeah, we’d be very lucky to be on the shortlist. I would be thrilled, but it’s not why we do things. It does bring attention to the work of of others. The actors we had – Catherine Keener, James Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Alfred Molina, Oscar [Isaac] – amazing work. I would love to see them recognized.
ADTV: It’s a fine series. Well acted and well executed on a very consistent level too. Many six parters can dip. For example, episodes four and five were not as good, but Show Me a Hero was consistent all the way through. So congratulations on the show.
PH: Thank you. That really is the collaboration with David. He brought out the best in us.
ADTV: Did the series turn out how you envisioned it?
PH: Well I was very happy. The thing I was most scared of, we had to shoot this on a schedule and a budget, much smaller and faster than most of us had ever done before. I was shooting six to ten pages a day on five or six locations in different time periods. And also shooting riots with a thousand people, a hundred, fifty, so finding a way to make it feel like you are in a crowd like you were under attack, bombarded with hatred. That was that was my biggest fear but my biggest success.
ADTV: Does your directing style alter when shooting the six-hour series to, say, a TV episode or a feature film?
PH: First of all I don’t have a style, so that helps. Directors shouldn’t have a style. I know some that do, but I think the style should be dictated by the piece and the story itself ought to tell you how it will be shot. And you better listen, if you don’t you might be forcing it into something it is not. I was happy with the way Show Me a Hero turned out. If you look at Crash and In The Valley of Elah, those are two different styles of films, visually. In one the camera never moves, and has short lenses, in the other it’s handheld or Steadicam and probably moving.
I let the story dictate, and you have to have humility to do that. I don’t know how much I have. You can’t be the guy going “Look at me, look at me, I am the director.” We should disappear. The director should disappear. That’s what I loved about Spotlight this year, he [Tom McCarthy] just disappeared. He just served the piece. And yes there are some really flashy directors out there, and they do things that leave us in awe, thinking “What a cool shot.” I mean I love cool shots, love doing them, but you have to fight the ego. All the time. What’s the best way for this story to be told? It’s to put the camera down and do a close up you idiot. [Laughs]
ADTV: Looking at the surface of it from the outside, if that is possible, do you think the political subject matter, the knowledge of public housing, and class affairs in the 80’s and 90’s could have been a tough sell? What made this compelling to you as a potential directing project?
PH: Oh yeah, I would never buy that show. Thank God we have HBO. I mean, a 6-hour miniseries about zoning and public housing – come on! I loved the minutiae of the storytelling. The same thing we did with Thirtysomething, finding the drama in the small moments and decisions and portrayals. Hoping for someone to have your back, and they don’t omit the pettiness of life, the real drama. It is hard to do, but if we celebrate who we are as human beings… The wonderful thing about Oscar, he just dove in. Didn’t care if I made him look bad, knowing that it would make the character all the more heroic.
ADTV: Do you have plans to make more movies as a writer and director? Or TV?
PH: I have some TV ideas, trying to push them forward. Hoping to start shooting a movie in the UK.
ADTV: How did you land Million Dollar Baby and Casino Royale? Great gigs.
PH: Weren’t they great. I loved those so much. Million Dollar Baby I wrote for myself and tried to sell it, get financing for six years. As I was shooting Crash, Clint Eastwood stepped up and said he wanted to direct it. That was a decision I had to make as I owned the material and was going to direct it.
ADTV: Yeah you must have had to think hard about that. It is only Clint Eastwood. [Laughs]
PH: Yeah. Shit, it was Clint Eastwood, one of my favorite directors. And I got to work with him two more times.
ADTV: Before I let you go, we have to touch on Crash. Probably sick of it. For me, and I saw it twice on the big screen, two scenes stayed with me for a long, long time. The “crash rescue” scene and the “magic cloak” shooting scene with the little girl. Great scenes, hairs on the back of your neck scenes. That’s why we go to cinema.
PH: Thank you, thank you. I’m very proud of it.
ADTV: Of course Mark Isham helped.
PH: Yes, yes. Absolutely great music. Someone caught me at some premiere, the press are always trying to do this, they asked if I really thought Crash was the best film at the Oscars that year. I mean, what sort of asshole is going to say yes? [Laughs] No, there were great films that year. How fabulous it was to be on that list, and then of course it comes out and wins the Oscar. These bullshit theories with Hollywood being homophobic, oh please. Half the people we work with in Hollywood are gay. Ridiculous. Would they rather be called racist, is that more comfortable? If your favorite film loses, and I love Brokeback Mountain, and the others, beautiful films, but people are sore losers. I lost with Million Dollar Baby, and you didn’t see me saying Sideways is not a good enough script – it is a great script. People should grow up.
ADTV: You can’t please everyone.
PH: You want to be up there with other great films. It is the luck of the draw. These writers and directors I admired so much. That was the thrill for me – to be mentioned in the same breath as Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, and George Clooney.
ADTV: So is that how you saw that whole homophobia thing and the racial thing with your film? You thought it was nonsense?
PH: It is nonsense to say Hollywood is homophobic. It’s like saying Broadway is homophobic. Just ridiculous. So much of the artists in our community are gay – and proudly so. They are a big part of our creation on every show. However, there are things that are true, like with women, it was a long time before they were included. Women directors are being recognized. More people of color are being recognized. Those are the walls. I demonstrated against Prop 8. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone on Broadway or in the film business that are homophobic.
ADTV: Okay. Are you going to the Emmys this year?
PH: I am not big on awards shows or film festivals. I go, and am very happy if I am nominated, to go and represent the picture. I haven’t been to the Emmys in a long time. I live in New York now. The awards seasons are a bit distant to me.
* * * * *
Directly following our conversation, I received the following email from Paul Haggis, with additional comments to his previous opinions on the supposed homophobia in Hollywood:
As a longtime proponent of gay rights, as a guy who was demonstrating in the streets of LA when our state government was trying to ban gay marriage with Prop 8, I didn’t want to give you the impression that I think there is no homophobia in Los Angeles. Of course there is. There’s homophobia everywhere, as there is hatred of minorities everywhere. You saw what happened this weekend – hateful intolerant small minded people are hateful intolerant small minded people.
What I was saying is that the gay and lesbian community is a driving creative force in Hollywood. For people outside of LA to accuse the Academy, which draws its entire membership from our creative community, of being homophobic, based on comments made by one actor, might be a tad self-serving. Do you really believe they watched Crash, which accuses liberals of harboring racist feelings, and thought “Yes, I love being accused of racism, let me vote for that one.” There were two nominated movies that year with gay protagonists. If the academy is so homophobic, how did that happen?
To my mind, a much more compelling argument was made last year, when activists called for more women and people of color to in central creative and decision making positions in our industry.
Emmy-winner Jeremy Piven talks about the inspiration behind Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge
When talking to Emmy-winner Jeremy Piven (HBO’s Entourage), one thing becomes immediately clear: the actor is incredibly passionate about his involvement with Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge. The role of Harry Selfridge, a department store impresario who moved from Chicago’s Marshall Fields to start Selfridge’s in the United Kingdom, is a significant departure from Piven’s most famous roles. His near-encyclopedic knowledge of Selfridge’s life provides evidence into the great deal of research Piven did to fully become Harry Selfridge.
Despite having won three Emmys as Entourage‘s Ari Gold, Jeremy Piven’s turn as Harry Selfridge feels like a fresh start for the actor who allowed himself to explore emotional depths not seen in your typical Masterpiece production. An Emmy nomination would be a recognition of this growth and of the merits of the series itself which ended its four-season run this spring on PBS.
AwardsDaily TV: So, Jeremy Piven, Mr. Selfridge is a departure for you as an actor. What drew you to the material initially?
Jeremy Piven: I think, like a lot of Americans, we’ve been drawn to British period dramas. When this came about, it was an opportunity to attempt to inhabit a guy who was an American in the midwest from where I’m from in Chicago. He made his way in Marshall Fields and ultimately kind of invented the department store and the culture of shopping. He was a authentic guy that was someone we never knew about and created Selfridge’s which is, to this day, a very prominent store in the UK. I thought his story was fantastic. He was someone that was incredibly innovative and creative. He was this beautiful contradiction. He lived in these dualities, and that’s what I find fascinating in characters.
He was such a hard-working, prolific guy during work hours, and then, when he wasn’t at the store, he kind of rabbled a bit. He had this incredibly colorful life. The more I read, the more I was fascinated by him. [The creative team] really knew what they wanted to do. They had it all mapped out. Unlike American shows, they knew what they wanted to do for four years and had it all outlined. In terms of his trajectory, it was as true as it could possibly be, and then they used dramatic license with the rest of the characters that surrounded him. I just thought it was an opportunity to go over and work with these beautiful, brilliant, British actors in a piece that I thought would be a really fun adventure. And it was!
ADTV: Ironically, your iconic role as Ari in Entourage was far flashier than Harry Selfridge, but Selfridge is far more deconstructed as a human being. Far more of a mess. Ari is kind of toothless comparatively, don’t you think?
JP: Ari had an incredibly volatile presence obviously, and he was totally overly emotionally invested. As an actor, it’s just so fun to play in that space. And Harry was a turn of the century gentleman. He was one of these guys that you wouldn’t suspect would go out galavanting at night and was a risk junkie. He fancied himself a creative entity – an artist. He found art in retail, and he was very drawn to any type of risks. He was a gambler and fell in love early on with a stage star at the time and then ultimately with the Dolly sisters who represented energy and youth… It was well documented that he lost most of his fortune gambling with his twins. It kind of plays out almost like a Greek tragedy, but yet he kind of did it his way.
It’s interesting because… PBS is such a brilliant station with an incredible pedigree of shows that they purchase from the UK and put on their station. And the Downton Abbey‘s of the world, they’re co-owned by NBC Universal that has deep pockets. Mr. Selfridge has no help whatsoever. iTV did such a brilliant job. The show was purchased by PBS and put on the air without any advertising, so I went from this HBO juggernaut to this beautiful “ma and pa” organization. It was very interesting. The show being a hit overseas and then having it kind of make its way in a very kind of sweet under the radar way in my own country. Does that make any sense?
ADTV: Absolutely. It’s definitely one of those “word of mouth” building shows.
ADTV: Tell me what kinds of acting cues did you use to define the character of Harry Selfridge for yourself?
JP: Well, he was enamored with P.T. Barnum, and, if you look at everything he did, he was always taking a page out of P.T. Barnum’s book. He would create events that caught people’s attention, and, ironically, he depended on advertising that he bought himself to gain the success of the store. He would purchase full-page ads in the paper advertising Selfridge’s when no one else was doing that. He was there every morning at 9am on the dot to greet all the customers, and he really believed that they should all be treated decently and as his guests. I’ve spoken to my mother about this, and she remembers as a child going into Marshall Fields and being treated so well as a child. That was part of Harry Selfridge’s doing. He wanted to make it an event that was special. It meant the world to him. So, that’s part of the perspective that I incorporated into the character. The showman aspect of Harry Selfridge was eventually beaten out of him.
That’s what I really love about doing a series – you get to explore the trajectory of the show, the character, and all of that stuff. He was a guy who loved his wife but wasn’t faithful, ran around, and then came to terms with how important she was in his life. When he finally got that and was totally present, she became ill and died. So, he then threw himself into another relationship, and she ended up being a charlatan. Took him for his money, and he kind of was beaten down. You see these layers being stripped off the guy through the journey of the show. The show works when you see all four seasons. It plays out like a heightened version of a mini-series spread out over 40 episodes, but it definitely has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It can exist on its own. That’s the way they envisioned it over four season, and that’s the way it played out.
I know I’m too old for graduate school, but it still felt like it to me. – Jeremy Piven on working in Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge
ADTV: In the final episode during the 20th anniversary celebration, Selfridge thanks his staff for their dedication as he leaves the store. The emotion in that scene feels startlingly real. Was the scene filmed at the end of your shoot? Was that real emotion at play in you?
JP: We were filming that at the end of the run. It’s interesting because the Brits really like to incorporate the thing about the stiff upper lip. Sometimes, there’s a hesitation to engage in male emotions, if that makes any sense. Harry was an American, and he was incredibly proud of that store and the store was his life. What people don’t know is the reason he went to London was that he didn’t want to compete against his mentor Marshall Fields in Chicago. That’s why he got on the boat… and started over there. He did it, and what a great accomplishment it was. And then it was taken away from him by his board and by his son! And that’s true!
As an actor, you hope to be as present as possible. That’s your wish. That was that moment. He’s looking around at all this staff that he loves… he took great pride in that and treated everyone on an equal playing field… So, he’s looking around at all of these people, and all you have to do is just put yourself there in that place. The emotion is a result of that. If you juxtapose his emotion with the British stiff upper lip, then that’s kind of what the show is about and what the journey was and who he was. He was an American navigating over there. He loved the culture. They loved his energy, and, having been over there myself for four years, I loved it. I learned so much. I loved played him.
ADTV: You’ve won three consecutive Emmys for Entourage, and there’s conversation about your performance in Mr. Selfridge. How would recognition for this series register differently with you?
JP: This is one of the great things about being an actor. No two days are ever the same on a set. Obviously no two endeavors are ever the same. Filming over there in London, the entire experience was very much like Harry’s experience. I was the lone American, trying to navigate through this. I’m really proud of the time that I had there. I know I’m too old for graduate school, but it still felt like it to me. I think it would be great because I’m just so proud of these other actors that I played with. They deserve recognition and were so good. Every single one. They all had this specific intention whenever they played a scene, and it was a gift to be around. It would mean a lot to me to draw attention to their work and to the show.
ADTV: What’s the next big challenge for Jeremy Piven?
JP: I’m working on something myself, an idea that I’ve been wrestling with for a while, and I just want to be a bigger part of the process. I want to create something here and see where it goes. It’s too early to discuss it until it comes to fruition though, but I figured I’d give it a shot. Why not?
Jeremy Piven and Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge can be seen on iTunes and Amazon.
Susanne Bier talks to AwardsDaily TV about ‘The Night Manager.’
I connected with director Susanne Bier in her home land of Denmark to discuss the gripping American-British TV production The Night Manager. It’s yet another successful John le Carre adaptation – this time airing on AMC – for which she directed all six episodes. It’s also her debut TV outing, I might add.
An avid advocate of women filmmakers and a true fan of her work, I tried to contain my excitement with Susanne and remained professional enough to delve into her experiences in film, TV, the processes of directing and telling a story, as well as touching on the Dogme film movement in Denmark.
AwardsDaily TV: Hello, Susanne Bier. Wow, you’re speaking to a massive fan, genuinely, which you’ll see shortly. I fought to get you from the AwardsDaily TV staff.
Susanne Bier: [Laughs] Hello.
ADTV: So let me just start with the football. Will you be following the European Championships even without Denmark?
SB: [Laughs] I will follow it second hand. That year Denmark won the European cup…
ADTV: Ah yes, ’92 I believe.
SB: Yes, that’s right.
ADTV: My wife is Greek, and they’re not in it anyway. so… On with the entertainment questions. I know you studied art and architecture once upon a time – which direction were you looking at going back then?
SB: You know, I think I did want to be an architect at one point, then I started being more and more interested in the people who would inhabit the buildings I was supposed to design. It was a kind of gradual, quite organic transition for me. I trained in architecture, in blueprints, in a view of the whole thing, and all of that has helped me greatly in movies and television.
ADTV: We obviously have to talk about the Oscar-winning film In a Better World. On my own website I ran the 100 Films Made by Women series, and I wrote about it passionately. It is a great film. I described it as packing an enduring punch to both the gut and the heart. That you proved yourself on a par with the male contingent of filmmakers, crafting one of the finest films of the last decade. That was without doubt for me.
SB: You know, however, the female thing is truly important for me. I see myself as a director. I do see myself as a female director – a director. I am just happy doing the traditional things I am doing.
ADTV: Also, I run an annual film honors list and in 2010 you were named Best Director by me. So congratulations on that too.
SB: Oh good.
ADTV: It was close. I mean we had films like Inception and The Social Network – a good year for film.
SB: Oh I am glad. Thank you.
ADTV: I am going to touch on the Dogme Danish film wave. What was your relationship with this movement? Did it encourage you? Did you bounce away from it?
SB: It was a really strong movement. It did push European film back on the map. At that point when Dogme started there was a type of European film, like independents or like American big budget film, those films were sitting comfortable, but not telling a proper story. What Dogme did, it had a kind of austerity, the whole sort of a lot of what is tradition movie making, you are not allowed to do. The characters are the story-line. It did actually bring films back into a shape that was interesting, because suddenly we had writers, directors, focusing on storytelling. It was incredible for all of us, an educational experiment, because it was true storytelling. It was quite a long time ago, but since then I have enjoyed the film-making, all the things you can do with film. There was no doubt it was inspirational, and incredibly exciting.
ADTV: Did you have any kind of relationship with the likes of Lars von Trier or Thomas Vinterberg and another woman director, I saw Italian for Beginners…
SB: …Lone Scherfig. We all went to the same film school. We all have the same educational history, and we all knew each other.
ADTV: You still speak to any of those now?
SB: I do. I was kind of the second generation of Dogme, and the first generation probably had more to do with one another – but there is definitely communication, yes.
ADTV: So, The Night Manager, then. Which I have just watched with the wife. This is your first TV adventure, right?
SB: Yes, yes.
ADTV: John Le Carre, the author, if you don’t know who he is here in the UK, and what he has done, you must be from Mars.
SB: [Laughs] Yes, you must be from another world.
ADTV: How familiar are you with his work?
SB: I have always been a great admirer of his, always loved him. His stories have a clear thriller [plot] and a lot of psychology, the characters are interesting, flawed, and sort of complicated. I have always been secretly envious of anyone who got to touch his novels. So when I heard there was a project around I really wanted to do it.
ADTV: So it that how did you land this great TV project? Did you chase it? Was it on offer?
SB: I sort of chased it. They weren’t terribly resistant. I guess because I had not done television before, they were quite open to my suggestions and point of view.
ADTV: So is TV something you wanted to do, or was it that it just happened to be a TV project?
SB: I did want to do TV. I was searching for TV. I have enjoyed a lot of TV myself over the last few years. I found the writing, so much great writing on TV, and I was keen to do a big project. There was something interesting and challenging for me to do six hours as opposed to two hours and having a complicated story-line. And shoot it like a six hour film… It was shot randomly, as opposed to by episode, so it was incredibly exciting.
ADTV: I’ve seen The Night Manager – a really solid drama, hard to fault. Finely directed and acted. What a super-talented cast that was, all of them. I know it is a cliche, but I am a big fan of those main actors. There’s three that everyone knows [Hugh Laure; Tom Hiddlestone; Olivia Colman]. They were all brilliant. I mean, that must be a dream come true for you, right?
SB: Yes, it was a dream come true. It was the kind of project were everything fits together, the casting was very exciting and intriguing. We did change some of the source material, the character of [Angela] Burr, who is a woman, in the novel that’s a man. And we did, in the update of the piece, one of the things we wanted to do was take it out of the white, male, public school world. And Burr’s office was a slightly diverse group of people, it was so joyful. Th update of the novel is very timely, dealing with illegal weapons is not prevalent in Britain, and because of that it came to a shape naturally.
ADTV: Even early on I felt it echoed the tone of In a Better World – the location, the tight drama. That’s a testament to you and your talent. Is there a specific directing process, or technical trait, that follows you with each project?
SB: You know, its funny you say that, there is. I did shoot it the way I normally shoot. I guess I am a director who very much, like every morning, it is about what is the main focus of that scene, where is that exact point where everything turns. So I keep asking those questions and rehearse them with the actors and work it around those questions. And that procedure enables the process to not lose intensity at any point, and there is a danger of that with six hours of material – that some stuff could be bleaker than others. But we keep it alive with constant questions, searching for the right thing so it does not lose intensity.
ADTV: I suppose it is like making three back-to-back films. It is the stamina isn’t it? Like can you maintain that for six hours, not just one hour forty-five or two hours?
SB: Yeah, its stamina. Also exiting with stamina comes way more natural kind of… invigoration. It’s hard work, and you don’t do anything else. I sleep at night and work. It is thrilling work.
ADTV: I know you tend to cover themes of family, human relationships, a certain amount of suffering, redemption as well. Those are some of your common themes. Did The Night Manager allow you to incorporate your style relatively easily? That type of story.
SB: Easily, easily. There is a very strong family theme and certainly a revenge, redemption theme, which is very strong. The great news is I don’t try consciously to push into things I am doing. These themes were already in the novel. They are quite often in way broader films, even in some of the great action films, things I am more obsessed about that many other directors.
ADTV: Are you going to continue making films or TV in your creative terms and not, how can I put it, pander to the industry? I have seen people ask you about women directors – that [Hollywood] has to do this now and hire female crew. Maybe that is not for you. You just want direct or don’t want to follow what Hollywood or whoever else tells you to do.
SB: I would be happy to do a big action film. I think it is making the differentiation. I have always felt there is a little bit of a snobbish, arrogance, to what American movies have been, which is a misunderstanding. To me a great story is a great story. I don’t really care what the setting is. I want to do great work. If it is an action film it takes great action but also great story-lines, making those scenes work. The sort of sort of arrogance about the commercialism. I find it a bit silly actually. Really, a great film is a great film, it does not matter if it is American, Russian, or French, I don’t really care. And I want to watch it, or make it.
ADTV: Well, it would be interesting to see your version of Spider-Man, for example.
SB: I’d be interested in that as well. [Laughs]
ADTV: That would have family and suffering in there, but I guess most super hero films have that.
SB: That’s my point. It’s almost like, when you look at those films, they need a very distinct story-line, for my taste, to work. Then all the fun comes on top of that.
ADTV: I could talk to you for hours and ask you a thousand different questions. But one last question, what is next for you? Back to film? Looking for more TV? Or both? In America, UK? Back in Denmark?
SB: I have not decided what the next thing will be. It is not that long since I finished The Night Manager. I will be excited to start the next thing.
ADTV: I will certainly keep my eye out. I could talk to you for much longer, so thank you very much indeed.
Jazz Tangcay makes a plea for Emmy to consider both Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin for their superb comedy work in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie.
Last year, Emmy recognized Netflix’s Grace and Frankie with one nomination for Lily Tomlin in Lead Comedy Actress. However, this season the Television Academy should be honoring it with far more. Comedy is quite a cramped category with Veep, Transparent, Silicon Valley and Modern Family predicted to receive multiple nominations. In the Lead Comedy Actress category, it’s equally as crowded. However, the Television Academy should make room for veterans and Hollywood royalty, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
Tomlin is almost certain to be nominated, but what about Fonda? Both were stellar this season. Let’s be honest, we’d love to see both actresses receive a nod because can you imagine Grace without Frankie or vice versa? There’s an episode this season where Grace gets to meet some friends from days gone by, and by the end, she realizes how much her friendship with Frankie means.
Estelle Parsons, another veteran made an appearance this season. Her character plays Babe, Grace and Frankie’s neighbor who confesses she has terminal cancer and wants Grace and Frankie to throw the mother of all parties. Despite the subject matter, Parsons gave an outstanding performance, standing toe to toe with Fonda and Tomlin in delivering sassy one-liners and excelled in her episodes. If anything, the Television Academy should reward her with a nomination for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy.
Comedy featuring female duos is at a high this season with plenty to offer from shows such as Broad City and Playing House. Then there’s Grace and Frankie, now in its second season and currently shooting its third season. In case you’ve not seen it, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are back on the small screen together in Grace and Frankie. Brought to you by Marta Kauffman (Friends), the show follows two 70-year-old divorcees whose gay ex-husbands leave them for each other.
Season one spent much of the time developing this complex relationship between Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin) as they dealt with the post-divorce fallout. Season two gives us more of the friendship between the superior actresses. They’re together. They’re besties.
Frankly, there’s nothing more rewarding than watching both Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin interact both on and off-screen. Watch this moment at a recent NY Times Look West Event. Watch as they bounce off each other, support each other, and how Fonda helps Tomlin with her necklace. Will this moment make it into season three?
An Interview with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin
I recently paid a visit to Stage 24 on the Paramount lot where cast and crew are filming the third season and was able to speak to both Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in their beach house.
AwardsDaily TV: What’s a typical working day like for both of you?
Lily Tomlin: A lot of it is busy work. We have to get our hair done. We have to do our make-up.
Jane Fonda: We run lines a lot.
LT: We run lines.
LT: She’s looking at dailies on her iPad. What am I doing? I’m not doing anything. I’m staring at the wall.
JF: I tell you what, neither one of us is reading a heavy book. Sam’s the only one that brings a book.
LT: Sam’s addicted to that Montaigne or whoever.
JF: I have a book with me at all times, but I’ve never read a book since we started.
LT: I have a book with me at all times, and I’ve never read it.
ADTV: I think we all have that bookjust in case.
JF: Just in case.
ADTV: Was it as if no time had passed since 1980 when you did 9 to 5?
JF: I feel like it was a different lifetime. I feel like a different person.
LT: I feel like no time has passed. In terms of the real concept of time, there is no time.
LT: I was in my costume room the other day, and I saw several objects. It was silly things like a doll or a lamb that a friend had given me years ago. I quickly put two stuffed animals together so they could be friendly. [laughs].
JF: [Laughs] Did you really?
LT: Yes. I feel so goofy. I said, “Oh Lambie.” There was a little bear, and I put him next to the shelf so they could sit next to each other.
JF: You know what I found in storage the other day?
JF: A box of the rat poison. It’s the prop of the poison that she accidentally puts into the coffee.
LT: Oh, that’s going to be worth a fortune.
JF: My favorite line in the film is her line, “I killed the boss, you think they’re not going to fire me for that?”
LT: The boss was pretty great. We loved our boss. That Dabney Coleman.
JF: It does seem like a long time ago, that we did 9 to 5.
LT: It does. If you only had complete recall like Marilu Henner. You had to remember all those days, one after another. What you were wearing. Who you ate with. What you ate. It would just be mind-boggling.
JF: What does she have to do with it?
LT: She’s got that memory that she remembers the day she met you. She remembers every day isolated in her whole history. It would be great. Important days you do remember. I remember when you came backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre. You had a cape on. You were very glamorous and down to earth.
JF: Oh my gosh, I remember epiphanies. I have a good memory for those. So much has happened since 9 to 5. Wonderful and important things for me. Like On Golden Pond, and other life altering things.
ADTV: What’s it like being one of the few shows that represents women of your age on TV?
JF: It feels very good because older women are the fastest growing demographic globally. We live longer. There’s more of us in the world. It’s great to be doing a show that speaks to older women. But, it also speaks to young girls and that’s what’s so interesting. We didn’t expect that.
LT: It seems like so many young people really love the show. They stop me everywhere. They write on her blog.
ADTV: Lily, you talked about costumes earlier. Where does Frankie get her clothes from?
LT: There is a place by my house called Layers, and you really just find different items. Someone actually wrote to me telling me they had dressed up as Frankie for Halloween.
LT: People like the look of Frankie… that’s part of her character.
JF: People write to me all the time asking where does she get her clothes and jewelry.
LT: People send us jewelry and contribute it.
ADTV: How has season two compared to season one?
LT: Season two starts out in that first episode where we’re plucking the hair out of each other. I say, “I’m going to be a new Frankie.I’m going to see what my life is like without Sol.” I think we were seeing what’s going to become of us. After we got over the shock of the separation, the second season dealt with us coming to terms with the fact that we were separate and alone.
JF : I think at the very end of season one, Grace began to realize that with all her oddities that Frankie has a gift that Grace needs. It’s a gift of openness, forgiveness, and flexibility. We come into season two ready to become friends, and we do. We end up in business together.
LT: [laughs] We could have done that in one episode.
ADTV: What lies ahead?
JF: Marta Kaufman sees the arc of season three as exploring their vulnerability.
LT: For everybody in the show really. They’re all coming to terms with their vulnerability, their weaknesses. Everyone is calling everyone on what they’ve put up with for years and how that needs to maybe looked at.
ADTV: How does the show continue to challenge you both as actresses?
JF: I just find it challenging to find the right line between comedy and drama. It’s challenging. I don’t want ot phone it in.
LT: We have to work at it every day. We’re doing it in thirty minutes, and we cover alot of ground. As Jane said, you have to bring a reality to it, and yet you have to have a light enough touch in that the comedy isn’t overwhelmed.
Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, Ann Dowd as Patti Levin. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.
ADTV talks to award-winning actress Ann Dowd about her character’s journey in The Leftovers
Any nerves of excitement or apprehension I may have before diving into an interview with great actors, writers, or directors soon vanishes when you speak to someone so warm, and humble as award-winning actress Ann Dowd. Our pleasant conversation started with discussing our respective children, showing an encouraging enthusiasm for my little newcomers, and wishing me luck with them. And then I got to ask her about her terrific body of work on TV, film, and in the theater.
Dowd’s scene-stealing role as Patti Levin in HBO’s The Leftovers was a delight to watch, even in her most sinister moments. In season two, Patti makes an unimaginable evolution, filling the screen with the elusive partnership she shared with co-star Justin Theroux. The grounded, grateful actress behind Patti Levin is still learning, simply happy to be here, and enjoying the challenges of her work. This would be a walk in the park.
AwardsDaily TV: So, Ann Dowd, what would you say are the best things you’ve seen on TV and film this year so far? Anything you are watching?
Ann Dowd: I have three children and don’t watch very much. A little here and a little there. Trying to catch up on a few things, there is so much that is good. My children like The Golden Girls. My 11-year-old son is a fan of The Leftovers, but he only watches five minutes then can’t watch it. [Laughs]
ADTV: What are your earliest memories and aspirations about being an actress?
AD: I loved it in high school, doing plays, and loved thinking that I could not do this for a living – you don’t get to do the things you love. I went to college, and I was pre-med and had been doing plays in school. Also my organic chemistry teacher said to me, “This is great, but is it what you love?” I said “Well, not as much as acting.” She answered with “Well, that is the direction to go in.” And so I had some real encouragement. So instead of medical school, I auditioned for a conservatory and never looked back basically.
ADTV: You have a pretty heft theater background.
AD: Yes, fortunately.
ADTV: I know you played Sister Aloysius in Doubt on the stage. No offense to that “nobody” Meryl Streep, but would you have liked to have done the film?
AD: Well, you know I would love to have done the film. And who better than Meryl Streep. I think you have to have been raised in catholic school, it really helps. I have two aunts who are catholic nuns. [Sister Aloysius] is not mean like she is in the film. She is duty bound and feels that is her job, follows a very righteous path. To her it is all about doing what is right and what is expected of you, doing your job without complaint – that I thought was an important distinction. The thing is, who am I? The playwright directed it. He must have felt pretty good about it.
ADTV: Yes, but you don’t know what happens in between theater and studios making it a certain way for film.
AD: That’s true. Playing that part was one of the finest experiences I have ever had. She was a stranger to me. She is a loner, given her choice she would have gone in the garden or served to the poor.
ADTV: What are you passionate about outside of your vast acting work? Anything you are particularly proud of?
AD: I live in New York you see. Space is limited. I have a balcony and have flowers there. I love to paint the walls of my apartment on any given day. A bit of a joke with my family. [Laughs] That is a passion of mine, to change everything as often as I can.
ADTV: Sounds like my mother. When we were kids, decorating every room in the house, then going back and starting again.
AD: [Laughs] That is adorable. That is funny.
ADTV: Impressively, you’ve been in films during a time when I was really getting into films, like Green Card and Lorenzo’s Oil.
AD: Oh my gosh. My first film, Green Card.
ADTV: A lovely film.
AD: Yes, lovely film. And Peter Weir, phenomenal. It was extremely nerve-racking, I was thinking, let me do it right today somehow. A wonderful experience, many years ago.
ADTV: Plus you’ve worked with directors like Jonathan Demme, Steven Soderbergh, and Clint Eastwood. What stands out for you from your film work?
AD: Well, Compliance changed so much for me in terms of being accessible. I don’t know if you saw Compliance.
ADTV: Oh I did.
AD: It was shot in fourteen, fifteen days, on a very low budget. I love the director Craig Zobel, and he was involved in The Leftovers as well (director). I remember thinking, every now and then when a role just clicks, and we count on that, using our skill to connect with a character. [Compliance‘s Sandra] made perfect sense to me, her choices. I found her very clear and got it. If you are raised in a religious home, as I was, full of love, etcetera, you defer to the church. You defer to authority. And if you are built with a constitution that doesn’t know how to say, “Excuse me, what?” I don’t like that. You don’t have that in this character. You put a few elements together, parts of life, and you have Compliance. It was a role I loved.
ADTV: So you went to the Sundance Film Festival with Compliance.
AD: Yes. A fascinating experience, my first. We were sitting in the premiere, a nice big room, packed. Sundance I find to be an alternate universe if ever I saw one. I watched the film, and I don’t tend to watch the things I do. Often the experience of doing it is so strange while you’re watching, it changes everything. I watched Compliance on my computer and now on a big screen. A bit of time had gone by, and I was so intrigued by it. As the film was coming to a end, a man was screaming at the back, just criticizing the film, and really screaming. And everybody was joining in. It triggered so many people. It was unbelievable.
ADTV: I didn’t know that happened.
AD: Yeah. You realize how it affects people. You do a lot of things that don’t see the light of day and that can have an impact on people, which I love.
ADTV: Yeah, I think some people don’t realize that [the disturbing events in the film] actually happened. The film is very short, but it is the equivalent of someone scraping their fingernails down a blackboard. It is awful to experience, but you have to anyway.
AD: Yeah. There was a woman in the screening who was going to walk out, but said “I have a granddaughter and want to educate her.”
ADTV: Yeah. It says at the end of the film that this happens to so many Americans.
AD: That’s right.
ADTV: There was no Oscar nomination for that. I know you were in the running, but a film like that can fall at the last hurdle, which is a shame as it was a perfect supporting role. I think you should have gotten in.
AD: Oh thank you, I appreciate that so much. I have not really been in that arena, in that situation where there is a thought of any nomination of any kind, as all of a sudden you want it, but you keep focused on the work. It took me a fair amount of time to say, “You know awards are wonderful, and I am grateful to be honored, but you must keep your feet on the ground.”
ADTV: Let’s talk about The Leftovers then. The second season was more of a success because I think not many saw the first season, which was also very good. Then at the Critics Choice Awards, you and Regina King were nominated and Carrie Coon won. That was great for the show.
AD: Yeah, that was a thrill. My family watches, and they love it. My brother John can’t make heads or tails of it. He was looking for something more linear. You go here then you go there, a natural progression of story. That is not what we have here, to our great delight. The first season was fascinating to do because putting it together and not knowing what the Guilty Remnant was and their beliefs. Then in the second season Patti is in a different place. People asked me what it was like to not speak. Quite daunting, as I rely on words. We all do. I had to learn what she wants and just get it and not use words. It was a very powerful experience, an extraordinary position to take. Damon [Lindelof] and Tom Perrotta know her so well. The whole group was so phenomenal.
ADTV: Yeah, a really great cast. The stuff with you and Justin [Theroux] was so good.
AD: He described it later as a kind of love story with just those two in the scenes. They were drawn to one another. They achieved something, which was intimacy. Justin understands the shape of a scene when you are playing the scene he is right there – it is a very safe place. As the material is daunting. Everyone had to be on their game, the writer, directors, actors, costumes, make up, hair.
ADTV: Do you empathize or support the Guilty Remnant’s plight? Did you get on board with it? Why they were like that?
AD: It is a terrific question. When I first read the material I remember thinking, “Well what is this now? What is going on here?” This show has taught me so much. I am a kind of kitchen sink actress with everything in front of me, but, hello, that is not what we are doing here. I found her very intriguing, and by episode three I am all in. Then I find out as I am fully attached to the show that my character is going to die. Damon gracefully wrote me an email, and I was heartbroken that I was now going away. When I started to realize what they were preaching – to let go the attachment – I didn’t know I could ever do that. What it did teach me to do was just let go. Do the work, enjoy the work as it is happening, but let go. A miraculous experience that whole thing. I remember asking Damon what does it matter that he kills her? What does that mean? He is always clear when you ask him. He said it is a new religion and are putting it together for the first time.
I had such empathy for the Guilty Remnant and that whole experience. You can come home to your family, have dinner together, go to work, pay your rent. Life offers its own kind of suffering – your children grow up and stop nursing. We wave goodbye. That is a privileged sadness. The Leftovers throws in from the start a catastrophe. And watching people trying to put their lives back, to get to get some semblance of grief, it made me think of my own life, and if such a thing were to happen, how it would change you. So I connected to their way of seeing the world.
ADTV: It must have been nice to get that email to say your character is going to die, but now you get some lines.
AD: [Laughs] Oh yes, you have something to say. They wrote it like a play.
ADTV: Season two was great, and you were fantastic. Patti’s haunting of Kevin was extraordinary – you were outstanding by the way. Chilling, funny, and then sympathetic. At the end it was a little bit like hero and villain falling in love. The well scene is very sad.
AD: Yes. We were talking about this, watching that little girl, and the things they made her say. When you realize you have the privilege of spending time with a character, and having time with her and then realizing it is time for her to go. She was in his life and did not know why, then able to say out loud how she failed in her life. I could not get over the writing, that well scene, that is a long day ahead sitting in a well. [Laughs] That was the day I realized Patti is going to die. Anyway, it was emotional. And thank god for Justin.
ADTV: He has worked with David Lynch so he is used to weird.
AD: [Laughs] Right, yes.
ADTV: Well, good luck with everything, the Emmys, the show’s reception, and just keep doing what you are doing. It is a pleasure.
AD: Thank you. And good luck to you with your children.
HBO has renewed The Leftovers for a third and final season of eight episodes which began principal shooting in May 2016.