In “Olive Kitteridge,” a lot of the subtext is derived from looks and inflection. I was curious how much of that was written into the script and how much was worked out on set in rehearsals?
We definitely acted everything out rather meticulously for each scene. I myself haven’t seen it yet, so sometimes you never really know how it’s going to be pieced together in editing […] but there are a few specific moments in the script that call for a knowing glance or a rather suspicious gaze of my character working his emotions out in his head, channeling his relationship with his mother as he gets older. So, a lot of it I can imagine — again, because I haven’t seen it yet, I don’t know precisely — but I would imagine that a lot of those moments that you probably are speaking of are mapped out in the script.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted well before the “Olive Kitteridge” premiere on November 2.]
READ MORE: Lisa Cholodenko on Getting Under the Skin of Frances McDormand’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’
This miniseries is unique in that it has a singular perspective, from the viewpoint of someone suffering from depression. It wasn’t your character, necessarily, but you were working closely with a character that was depressed. Did you do research for that or did you trust the script and go with the director?
You know, depression is obviously a massive being in the story of the film: Who has it, who’s suffering from it, how does that color your life? And though I’ve never been medicated, so to speak, the darkness of feeling clouded over either by events in personal life or a general feeling of unease is certainly something that I am no stranger to. So it wasn’t too difficult to access some of those darker corners and depths, either from myself or from those around me, people that I’ve known that have struggled with it in their time. So it wasn’t very hard to get into that zone or that mindset, imagining what it is day to day when you feel like a prisoner in your own skin.
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I think Christopher is one of the characters in the story that is actually trying to fight back and battle it by taking care of himself as he get older. He’s going to therapy, seeing a doctor, etc. He’s, I think, really terrified of falling into that abyss himself because he knows he’s just as prone to it as his mother is. It runs in his family. It’s something that he has watched destroy his upbringing in his family in a lot of ways — in a lot of subtle ways — because obviously it isn’t that black and white. It has an argument. Frances says, “You know you had a very happy childhood,” and Chris is like “Oh, well, thanks a lot! Thanks not quite how I remember it!”
So, I don’t know, it gets into some really interesting questions about bloodline and being legitimately and clinically mentally depressed. The writing is so beautiful, in the script. It was all so there on the surface. It wasn’t difficult to dig into that. I didn’t do a ton of research, I didn’t go and read any medical volumes on the history of it for this project. I have done things like that in the past, but I didn’t rush out to “bone up on it,” so to speak, before shooting.
You’ve done a lot of dramatic projects before. Is it hard to get out of that zone?
Absolutely. I feel like it’s one of those things that is kind of insane. Sometimes, in many ways, this industry, this profession, it can be rather masochistic, where creative people are drawn to this and this process. Obviously I know that I certainly have been, and I’m lucky enough to have been awarded some of the great parts, in some really deep dramatic material and characters. But yeah, you do have to try — you live in it all day, and you have to try to find some balance or some compromise to be able to not take on that weight. It can be very easy to, because you want to think into it and make sure that you’re surrounded by it so that you can go to the place in order to tell the story in the most truthful way that you can, while being loyal to the material. But, at the same time, you don’t want to abuse yourself the whole time.
Luckily when you’re doing something like this, it helps if you’ve got Frances McDormand around and Richard Jenkins. Then you’re in good health insurance. They’re all such professionals. Frances is just — I really don’t know how she does it, I’ve been such a fan of hers for years, but being able to see her process up close is like watching somebody put together an ancient artifact. She has such a skillful hand in painting the picture of this character, and allowing herself to go to some absolutely dark depths, and come out of it and find some happiness at the end of the day.
I feel like some of the happiest sets I’ve been on as an actor were the films that have the darkest subject matter. When I shot “Short Term 12” a couple of years ago — which is obviously a film that inspires some very upsetting scenes and concepts — that set was like a playground. I think it has to be, in order to make sure that you’re not just going to go crazy by the end of it.
Working on this was really great because we have Lisa and Frances, who’re these lovely, kindhearted people telling the story. I remember shooting the argument scene that I have with Frances in the kitchen of the house. I remember that there was a feeling of going into battle, like, you’re putting on all your armor and you’re like “Okay, here we go.” It’s going to be a couple of hours living inside of this. It’s going to take a while and it’s going to be hard and upsetting and we’re going to have to go there. Then at the end, they’re going to be like “Okay, cut! That’s it everybody, have a great day, I’ll see you tomorrow!” and you’re released and liberated. I just remember Frances and I collapsing into each other’s arms, hugging each other.
You’ve worked in TV — both series and miniseries — studio films, indie films, you’ve worked on stage. A lot of actors I’ve talked to get pushed to work on one specific thing, like “You are this kind of actor,” and you’ve managed to escape that type-casting. How do those opportunities present themselves for you?
That’s a really great question. Yeah, it’s funny. I do look back at the last 10 years and I really feel so fortunate to have been able to cover that kind of ground, because I’ve always been a fan of everything. I love theater. I love TV. I love movies. I set out as a hopeful and idealist teenager getting into the business, wanting to do it all. I did a couple of musicals on Broadway — I did the show called “Spring Awakening” when I was in my early 20s, and it was a big success. It was a long time ago, and certainly I’m doing more film and TV, I’ve moved on to this next step, but more so than anything else, people still come to me and say, “‘Spring Awakening’ changed my life. You were amazing.”
The truth of it is, I didn’t come to New York thinking I’m going to be in musicals. I came to New York and quickly thought, “Oh, I’ll never be in musicals.” I mean I could do a musical in a community theater in Delaware, but I’m never going to get into a Broadway show. These people have voice lessons and dance lessons. But it just so happened that I stumbled upon a show where they wanted people that weren’t formally trained, so it all worked out.
No one’s ever pushed me in one direction and said “You’re this kind of guy, you’re this kind of actor.” When I was 18 or 19, I really wanted to be in independent movies. I had moved to New York a year prior and I signed with my agent and I saw all of these cool, risky, independent films with young people being made in the early 2000s I guess, and I totally wanted it. And I could not get in. Looking back on it now, I ended up doing five to six years of theater, and somehow it organically worked out.
I learned then that the best thing to do, I think for me, was to let go. I’ve felt the least happy when I’m trying to push myself into one direction and assert myself into things and go, like, “I’m going to be this kind of actor now, I want to do this and that.” It’s never really felt like that. I’ve taken the opportunities and followed the breeze wherever it’s gone. […] I feel really really lucky because quite honestly, once I let go, my dreams have come true more than they did before when I was trying to force it into one realm.
What was different to you about doing “The Newsroom” as opposed to the other stuff that you’ve done — as opposed to a Broadway musical?
It was really exciting and a little nerve-wracking. Stepping onto a big television set. I remember the day that I got to Los Angeles to start filming “The Newsroom” pilot, I walked up to the sound stage and they were like, “Okay, right this way, come in here, walk though these doors — here is this massive expensive newsroom set that we’ve built.” I remember walking on there for the first time and going, “Oh my god I hope I’m cut out for this, because I don’t know if I am.” [Laughs.] I always get the first-day-of-school jitters, of being like “Oh, man, am I going to get found out — are they going to find out that I don’t really belong here?” [Laughs.] As you ease into it, that fades away.
The thing about coming into “The Newsroom” that made me feel very much at home was the fact that Aaron Sorkin himself has such a background in theater. He started as a playwright, and they were casting a lot of theater actors — Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston to name a few — and so I thought there must be some kind of correlation here between the dramaturgy of working on a play and then doing something like this. I learned that they weren’t as similar as I would’ve thought from afar. Then, getting into it, I was like “Oh, I understand it now. We’re all trying to learn big passages of dialogue,” the type that you would learn when working on a play, and now we have to learn immense passages of dialogue for Aaron Sorkin’s scenes because his scenes as a television writer exist on a different playing field than they do on some other network television shows.
Yes, the stories are stuff of legend.
“The Newsroom” is so theatrical and dramatic and fantastical in a sense. The way Aaron phrased it, it is like an old true-of-all comedy, or a Wilder film or something. It does exist on some other plane. It’s not quite naturalist, but it’s not quite a play. It’s somewhere where the two meet. So that was a great transitioning point.
When did you hear that this season was going to be the last of “The Newsroom”?
We found out before we went into production of the third season — so last winter, I guess? We filmed about March to July, the last season, so we knew from day one going into shooting that the third season was going to be our last. So it was a labor of love being like, “Okay, here it is, this one of the last table reads, one of the last times I’ll walk down this hallway, one of the last times I’ll walk to my characters desk in the newsroom.” And so I felt really lucky about it because sometimes you’re doing a show and you might get canceled on your hiatus and never get to do that last season or put it to rest. You never get to wrap things up. So we all felt really lucky that we were going to have the opportunity to all say goodbye to it for ourselves and for the audience.
Do you think six episodes is enough to cover everything going into the final season?
You know I wasn’t sure. I think I was reluctant, hesitant and nervous. I thought, “Oh my God — am I going to be able to get everything tied up?” With Aaron, though, I should know better than to have any doubts at this point because he absolutely wrapped everything up in such a wonderful way, in a way that I think is going to be really pleasing to the fans of the show. But also he manages to make it so it’s not totally expected. There’s room for some surprises and twists in there, so I think he masterfully did it — a hybrid of making it a nice and neat end, but not so neat that it doesn’t feel real.
Well, that’s great. I’m a big fan of the show, so I’m glad it worked out.
I wish for the fans that it was longer, because I know that feeling of wanting more.
We’re always going to want more, but that’s how fans are.
Yeah, you know. I wish there were two more seasons of “The Wire.”