SHAK­ING THINGS UP

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - BY YVONNE VIL­LAR­REAL

Re­mem­ber when you got scolded for watch­ing more than an hour of TV at a time? Or when binge­ing was fol­lowed by a hang­over? Those days are long gone, as the guests on The En­ve­lope’s an­nual Emmy Drama Round­table made clear in a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion. ¶ Gath­er­ing to chat were Alan Cum­ming, chief aide to the gover­nor on CBS’ “The Good Wife”; Taraji P. Hen­son, the jail­bird hip-hop pro­ducer on the Fox hit “Em­pire”; Felic­ity Huffman, the grief-stricken mother on ABC’s “Amer­i­can Crime”; Michael Sheen, the cold re­searcher on Show­time’s “Mas­ters of Sex”; and Sissy Spacek, the ma­tri­arch of a trou­bled clan on Netf lix’s “Blood­line.” Be­yond the art of the binge, they took on such top­ics as moral am­biva­lence on tele­vi­sion (it’s a good thing) and the art of touch­ing your co­work­ers. Here are edited ex­cerpts from that April 24 con­ver­sa­tion.

So, what do you find fas­ci­nat­ing about the cur­rent state of TV?

Alan Cum­ming: I think the word “binge” com­ing into our lex­i­con is a re­ally great thing. Peo­ple say on the street, “I binge­watched you last night!,” and it’s sort of a weird new verb. I like that. But I’m most ex­cited about the fact that there are so many op­tions and so many chan­nels and so many ways to stream and see things that when peo­ple are pas­sion­ate about some­thing, they re­ally let you know be­cause you might not have heard of it.

Taraji P. Hen­son: And so­cial media, be­cause that’s where I find a lot of shows. You know, I’d heard of “House of Cards,” of course, but then when I saw peo­ple talk­ing about it on my timeline, it made me go, “Whoa, what’s this?” and then I watched it and I was hooked.

Did you binge-watch?

Hen­son: I did. That’s ac­tu­ally the only way I can watch tele­vi­sion, be­cause I never have time to sit down and catch an episode of any­thing. So it’s a great way to catch up and not have to wait through the agony of, “What’s go­ing to hap­pen next?” You can just watch the en­tire se­ries in one sit­ting with a bot­tle of wine.

Michael Sheen: But we start to lose our abil­ity to put off short-term grat­i­fi­ca­tion. The idea of wait­ing another week to watch a show, I’ve al­ways hated that, but maybe it’s good to hate that. Now you can just plow through. I mean, I love it. I’m the same as you, I just want to keep go­ing with some­thing, but I won­der what that’s do­ing to us in­ter­nally now.

Know­ing peo­ple are some­times watch­ing five or six episodes — and some­times they’re watch­ing on a phone — do you feel like you need to be more sub­tle with some of your choices?

Felic­ity Huffman: I try and do very tiny, tiny ges­tures be­cause, if I’m on a tiny phone …

[laugh­ter]

Sissy Spacek: I never even thought of

that.

Cum­ming: I think sub­tlety’s an over­rated — yeah, I’ve never thought ... Hen­son: Now I’m all con­fused. Spacek: Or ac­tu­ally, when you know peo­ple are go­ing to watch it on their phones, you do ev­ery­thing real big. [laugh­ter]

Sheen: One of the things I find — in the same ways cin­ema in the ’70s in Amer­ica got to a point where the peo­ple who were in charge were like, “We don’t re­ally know what works. Things are re­ally work­ing well, and we can’t an­tic­i­pate it, so, OK, go and do that.” It feels a lit­tle bit like that with TV, where you’ve got peo­ple like Louie C.K., for in­stance, sup­pos­edly mak­ing a com­edy that’s not a com­edy a lot of the time, and peo­ple re­ally re­act to it. And dif­fer­ent shows with dif­fer­ent for­mats, like “True De­tec­tive” or “Fargo,” where it’s a one-off sea­son, ev­ery­thing’s be­ing shaken up, and no one can re­ally an­tic­i­pate what’s go­ing to take off and what’s not. It’s a very re­spon­sive medium. Taraji, you came from “Per­son of In­ter­est,” and peo­ple were sort of up in arms about the death of Carter. Were you hes­i­tant about jump­ing back into a show?

Hen­son: I didn’t want to do tele­vi­sion any­more. I felt trapped on TV.

Why?

Hen­son: TV’s a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal, you know, when you come from a fea­ture world where you have — you take one day to do two scenes, you know? In tele­vi­sion, they’re like 10 pages. It’s like, “Wait a minute!” It’s all com­ing at you so fast, and it’s like, “We’ve got it,” and you’re like, “Wait a minute! I didn’t — can I ex­plore that beat a lit­tle more?” So it was just odd, but I’m glad I did it. And par­tic­u­larly a show like “Per­son of In­ter­est,” be­cause it’s a spe­cial rhythm; you have to say the words ex­actly the way they’re writ­ten on the page, and so it keeps you in a cer­tain rhythm. It kind of throws you off but in a good way, be­cause it’s a chal­lenge.

I en­joyed that we shook tele­vi­sion up a bit, be­cause peo­ple weren’t ex­pect­ing that, and I think some­times TV can be a bit safe, don’t you think? Like the good guy saves the day and the bad guy goes to jail. Well, life is messy. It doesn’t hap­pen that way in real life, and some­times the good guy gets it, and I think that’s why peo­ple still mourn her death, be­cause they just never saw it com­ing.

Sheen: But shows like “So­pra­nos” shook that up, didn’t they?

Hen­son: Oh, yeah, ab­so­lutely. But that’s HBO. I’m talk­ing about prime-time net­work tele­vi­sion, where al­ways the good guy saves the day and the bad guy goes to jail. That’s so not life.

Let’s talk about mak­ing the leap, then, to some­thing like “Em­pire,” which re­ally shook things up.

Hen­son: Yeah, I didn’t read that script for weeks. I was do­ing a play at the Pasadena Play­house. I was done with tele­vi­sion. And my man­ager was like, “Hey, this is ... ” I said, “Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want to do tele­vi­sion?” So then I ac­tu­ally sit down and I read it, and I was like, “Hiphop. This is stupid. This is go­ing to be — oh, my God.” And it scared the life out of me. But, you know, I like tak­ing risks, and that was a def­i­nite risk that worked, you know? That’s what art is about. It shouldn’t be safe.

Cum­ming: Even within “The Good Wife,” what I re­ally like about it is its sort of moral am­biva­lence, that thing you were talk­ing about that some — you know, now Ju­lianna’s char­ac­ter is start­ing to be a bit of a bitch.

Yeah, you said it, I didn’t.

Cum­ming: I love that it doesn’t tell the au­di­ence what to think, and a lot of tele­vi­sion in the past, un­til this kind of re­nais­sance that we’re all a part of now, told peo­ple what to think. And now you’re chal­lenged and you have to make up your own mind — and some­times peo­ple you hate sud­denly are sym­pa­thetic and some­times the lady that you think is the good wife, sud­denly is do­ing things, and you’re like, “What the hell is go­ing on here?” So

it’s more ex­cit­ing as a per­former to be in some­thing that is not just cor­re­spond­ing to kind of old pa­tri­ar­chal ideas of what it should be like.

Felic­ity, how was it get­ting into that mind frame where Barb has these sort of bigot kind of be­liefs but she’s not a hard-and­fast sort of bigot?

Huffman: I think she’s a racist, not a bigot. You al­ways have to find some­thing that you en­dorse, so no, I didn’t play her like a racist. I played her like a mother who’s try­ing to take care of her son, which in­deed she is. So I say her mo­tives are noble, but how it man­i­fests is some­what ques­tion­able, so I tried to hew to that line so it looked like she was driven to­ward some­thing as op­posed to just be­ing un­pleas­ant.

Michael, do you sort of re­late to that, given Mr. Mas­ters?

Sheen: Yeah, I sort of per­versely de­cided that I was go­ing to try and play the most un­lik­able char­ac­ter on TV and see if peo­ple could still em­pathize. And that was part of what was ex­cit­ing about the pro­ject, and also the fact that he’s not just the main char­ac­ter. There’s two main char­ac­ters that kind of bal­ance it out.

But they had wanted to make him a bit warmer, and you pushed against it.

Sheen: I re­sisted it ev­ery step of the way. I thought the na­ture of the episodic way of telling the story al­lowed for a greater com­plex­ity, and I wanted to see how far I could go with that and whether an au­di­ence would go with it. And given that the char­ac­ter is a real per­son, and when I was read­ing about his real life, you come across the fact that he used to have the ... beaten out of him by his fa­ther ran­domly, so you kind of go, “If we’re go­ing to tell a story about a man who is a dif­fi­cult man, and there are very real rea­sons for why he’s a dif­fi­cult man, then I re­ally want to go on that jour­ney. And that’s been hard, be­cause peo­ple then come up to you and go, “He’s such an ass, your char­ac­ter.” You don’t want to get into, like, “Yeah, well, ac­tu­ally he’s been abused. Do you say that about ev­ery­one who’s been abused?”

Sissy, you’ve been on TV be­fore, but

“Blood­line” was the first time you were there from the be­gin­ning. How was that?

Spacek: I call it the year of not know­ing. It was an in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence not know­ing where the char­ac­ter was go­ing. Hen­son: Yeah, that’s what’s scary. Spacek: You know, you couldn’t play the re­sult. That was one good thing. I re­mem­ber when I fi­nally saw it, I thought, “Oh! That’s what it’s about.” [laugh­ter]

Spacek: It was a com­pletely new ex­pe­ri­ence for me. I loved it. I think one of the things I loved the most was de­vel­op­ing these deep re­la­tion­ships with the other ac­tors. I’d never ex­pe­ri­enced that be­fore, and I loved that. And I look for­ward to next year, think­ing, “OK, now I kind of un­der­stand sort of what’s hap­pen­ing.” But I find this [con­ver­sa­tion] very in­ter­est­ing. I’m think­ing, “OK, let me make a note of that.” I can use these things. You men­tioned fam­ily. A lot of these shows deal with the fam­ily bond, and that’s a cru­cial el­e­ment for a lot of these char­ac­ters too. How do you de­velop that bond so it feels like you’ve known these peo­ple all your lives?

Spacek: I started touch­ing a lot ...

You started touch­ing?

Spacek: I looked around at this room full of adults, think­ing, “I gave birth to all of these peo­ple. I need to touch them.”

And there’s a lot of tur­moil within Barb’s fam­ily. How was it get­ting there?

Huffman: I had to ac­tu­ally re­ally con­cen­trate on that one and I didn’t end up talk­ing to any­one. And the [di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy] thought Ti­mothy Hut­ton and I hated each other be­cause he never ac­tu­ally saw us talk­ing. And, well, that wasn’t ex­actly Method; it was just I had to con­cen­trate that hard, so I couldn’t go from chatty-chatty to the scenes. So it was a lonely ex­pe­ri­ence.

Pho­tog raphs by Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

‘I like tak­ing risks, and that was a def­i­nite risk that worked, you know? That’s what art is about. It shouldn’t be safe.’

TARAJI P. HEN­SON was fin­ished with TV, un­til “Em­pire” came along.

ALAN CUM­MING likes the moral am­biva­lence of “The Good Wife.”

Pho­tog raphs by Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

‘I played her like a mother who’s try­ing to take care of her son, which in­deed she is.’

FELIC­ITY HUFFMAN’S “Amer­i­can Crime” mom has ques­tion­able views.

SISSY SPACEK has en­joyed dis­cov­er­ing her char­ac­ter on “Blood­line.”

MICHAEL SHEEN re­sisted mak­ing char­ac­ter nicer on “Mas­ters of Sex.”

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