It turns out that pretending to be a self-help guru can still give you a new outlook on the world. At least, that’s what we got from talking to Michael Vartan, who stars in the E! drama “The Arrangement” as the outwardly positive but morally compromised Terence, leader of the Hollywood-based Institute of the Higher Mind.
“It’s a daily struggle,” he said to IndieWire, while reflecting on the difficulties of life, “but every once in a while I think of some of the Institute’s tag lines, and I roll up my sleeves and get after it.”
“The Arrangement” tracks what happens when an aspiring actress (Christine Evangelista) is offered a contract marriage to a major movie star (Josh Henderson) who belongs to a secretive organization ostensibly devoted to the betterment of mankind. (Any resemblance to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes is, of course, completely coincidental.)
The ongoing question with the Institute of the Higher Mind, the fictional self-help group that may have been inspired in some way by Scientology (given the litigious nature of that organization, it’s hard to fault the show’s creators for only acknowledging it as an “inspiration”) is whether or not it truly is a cult.
But it certainly has a dark side, which was one of the reasons Vartan was interested in the part, as it was an opportunity to stretch beyond the roles for which he’s known best, like CIA agent/love interest Michael Vaughn on “Alias” or “Never Been Kissed” teacher/love interest Sam.
“I’ve never really been given a chance to do any other roles than the good guy, or the boyfriend, or that kind of stuff,” he said. “So I was really excited at the potential of playing a bad guy, someone who definitely has some skeletons in his closet and some deep-rooted flaws, and some manipulative tendencies. As the season progressed, he got darker, and weirder, and meaner, and more manipulative. It’s a lot of fun.”
It’s a journey that he said was enabled by the scripts: “When the writing is really, really good, a lot of the character development and choices you make are sort of done for you. So I didn’t have to really do that much homework, per se, I just had to access the dark side of my personality and try and do it justice in that way.”
But he also credited another element of production for helping him get into character. “We have a ridiculous wardrobe budget on this show,” he said. “That’s why everyone looks so good. And it’s funny, sometimes I’ll just show up on set in my sweatpants and my tennis shoes, then I put on my three-piece suit and my shirt and my tie, and just by doing that, I feel, ‘Okay, I’m ready to go to work now.’ I’m ready to be Terence and be whatever is needed to be during that day or that specific scene.”
The Institute is just one aspect of the dark version of Hollywood depicted by “The Arrangement,” a darkness that may (or may not) be heightened for the purposes of drama. “No one wants to see people’s perfect lives. We want to see failure and redemption and struggle,” Vartan said.
This is because, from Vartan’s perspective, “I personally feel that the aspect of Hollywood that we sort of describe and talk about, and sort of live in the show itself isn’t all that accurate, to be honest with you. I mean, I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and I’ve never seen levels of deceit and manipulation the likes of which we portray on the show,” he said.
But he also admitted that he’s “never been in a $250 million blockbuster movie. Most of the movies I’ve done have been feel-good movies, things of that nature. So I’ve never been in contact with too many people that are really on the shady side of things, thank God. Whether it’s Hollywood or any other walk of life, when there’s that much money involved, I guess sometimes people will go to disgusting lengths to get what they want, and apparently don’t care about potentially ruining people’s lives. It’s a great little business I’m in.”
That said, Vartan did take heart in the recent changes that have been emerging. “In my experience, as we’ve seen in the last six months to a year now, we’re already seeing signs of it changing. This business, for a very long time, has always been a very different animal for a woman and a man, and I think that gap is closing very quickly now. Thank God. It’s about time.”
Because he portrays the leader of the Institute of the Higher Mind, many of Vartan’s scenes involve him espousing philosophy created for the show. And during production, it had an impact on him for personal reasons. “Shooting Season 2, I was going through some rough stuff. The love of my life, a 14-year-old Labrador, was going through some medical issues, and it was touch-and-go there for a minute, and I was in Vancouver and she was in Los Angeles, and it was just a really emotional time for me,” he said.
“And I know it sounds weird, but every once in a while, I’d read one of the lines in one of the scenes we were shooting that day, and I thought, ‘Wow. Yeah, let me apply that to myself and stop being so negative and just embrace the fact that I’ve been blessed to have this amazing dog in my life for 14 years,’ as opposed to thinking about her dying.”
Vartan’s dog is still with us today and doing all right, in case you were worried. But embracing a positive outlook isn’t the only bit of philosophy he’s taken away from the show. “Thinking about accessing your better self is another one,” he said. “Obviously the Institute has a very specific verbiage, and the vocabulary they use is not necessarily the way I would say certain things or speak, but the notion of, on a daily basis, trying to be better than you were yesterday, in whatever capacity that may be — whether it be running an extra mile, or eating an extra vegetable, or whatever it is to whoever it is, we can all strive to be a better version of ourselves the following day.”
But while he said that the broad strokes seemed relatively simple — “just try and be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you were today, that kind of thing” — he also admitted that it’s something that’s “a very hard thing to do.”
Said Vartan, “You know, it’s so funny. I don’t know about you, but when I was young, and I’m talking about … So like I was 35, maybe 35, 38, life was pretty easy. And by easy, I mean, I really didn’t worry too much about things, and man, once I hit 42 or 43… everything got complicated. Not in an unmanageable way, but I feel life is much more complicated and harder as you get older. And maybe that’s part of the master plan, because as you get older, you have more emotional and mental tools to deal with situations. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? C’mon, let’s have a nice cruise to the end, instead of this struggle that’s just daily. I’m tired of trying to better myself. I can’t get any better.”
But that’s when he said that he’ll think about the Institute’s taglines, and try to move forward. After all, we all have the power to rewrite our own narratives.
“The Arrangement” Season 2 premieres Sunday, March 11 on E!