Television dramas in recent years have taken the lead in exploring themes of human angst, conflict and determination, the same themes that have fueled recent headlines nationally and internationally. Their artistry and achievements have placed them front and center on the pop culture landscape when it comes to issues that provoke and inspire — race and class dynamics, religious rights, life and death.
The Los Angeles Times recently gathered stars of some of the buzziest projects of the season — Laura Dern (HBO’s “Big Little Lies”), Regina King (ABC’s “American Crime”), Justin Theroux (HBO’s “The Leftovers”) and Milo Ventimiglia (NBC’s “This Is Us”) — who shared thoughts on making deep audience connections, the emotional pain and joy of fight scenes, David Lynch — and cursing the guy who invented HD.
Q: Dramatic TV, more than ever, has become a sounding board for people who are feeling angst in the country right now. You all have shows that have touched a nerve and there’s a lot of expression that’s going on in your shows about what people are experiencing.
Ventimiglia: Things are moving in directions at a speed that we’re having a hard time hanging on to that basic humanity. I think a majority of it is escapism, but also it reminds us of, at least on my show, goodness and kindness and a want to connect through all of our differences.
King: I totally agree with Milo. Our shows offer a space to feel like there are other people that are going through what I’m going through and it’s not so scary or it’s not so unreal. Because so often we think it’s only us, it’s only our family.
Theroux: Some of the best storytellers are now gravitating toward television (where you can) communicate on a human level and not have to think about the politics and get more into the emotional interactions because that’s the real storytelling as opposed to picking sides.
Dern: We all have this great opportunity to bring humor or irreverence to these broken places, too. Which I think, for each show, speaks to why people are so connected to them, because they are also laughing at the heartbreak.
When you’re doing intense scenes, and you’ve all done really raw scenes of arguing, of fighting, of emotional violence, how do you know when it’s working?
Dern: With a great director, when we feel we’re in the hands of someone great, I don’t think there’s ever been a moment, I would assume for any of us, that we look up knowing it’s not feeling honest or something’s not right. And the director is not going, “Yep, going again.” You all feel it together. It is an incredible thing when it’s a team.
King: You go into it — when it’s an actor that you know, you come to that scene like, all right —
Theroux: — This is going to be fun.
Ventimiglia: Yeah, it could be the biggest knock-out, drag-down fight. You’re crying your head off, and at the end of it you’re like, wasn’t that fun?
Speaking of knock-down, drag-out fights, Milo, “This Is Us” really had an incredible fight, something like I’ve never seen. What was that day like doing that scene?
Ventimiglia: Mandy Moore, my TV wife, and I were both excited. It was one of those scenes that you get and you think this is going to be so much fun. And then there’s the reality of, I need to say these horrible things to someone that I care deeply about. And then there was this crazy isolating moment where — Mandy and I, our chairs are right next to each other, she’s my friend and we sit there and talk all day long — but I knew I couldn’t be around her. I picked up my chair and I walked out. And I was like, “Oh, I think I just set the tone of how the day’s going to go.”
Ventimiglia: We were in it all day long and it hurt and it was painful. And the one thing that I kept waiting for was the moment that it was over, I can look at my partner, give her a hug, and be like, “I’m so blown away by your work” and then turn to the crew and shake everyone’s hand.
Laura, you had a huge fight scene with Reese Witherspoon in “Big Little Lies” — and she’s one of your best friends.
Dern: It had to be said. (laughter)
Dern: But only a friend can say it. I loved hearing how Milo just described that experience because I feel like it is such an amazing privilege when you are doing any kind of deeply emotional scene.
Ventimiglia: It’s a moving, 24-headed hydra — we’ve got Billy with the brick light, and the cameras are moving around —
Theroux: We talk a lot about the scene partner and who you’re acting against and blah-blah-blah, but, you know, the way we’re shooting things now, there are sometimes cameras right up on you so our guy, Chris Cuevas, on “Leftovers” was just as much of a dance partner as co-star Carrie Coon because you’re having to be emotionally vulnerable so they have to be invested in it. Hopefully they like the show. And all our crew I know loved our show as much as we did, so when it had to get quiet, it would get quiet. Everything has to work in tandem.
One of the amazing things about all your performances is that so much of drama seems to involve close-ups. There’s absolutely no place to hide. You can’t fake it.
King: So the vanity comes in here. You know, when they made the switch over to HD ...
Theroux: Yeah, thanks, whoever invented HD.
King: The first time I saw myself (in HD), I was like, “That’s not me. I don’t have that. Well, surely there was a bad light or something?” But the beauty of it is I think it made me an even better actor because it made me really say, I shouldn’t even be worrying about a line or a wrinkle or that something looks harder because I’m part of the storytelling and that character is — I’m not playing a woman that’s worried about that, so Regina, get out of your way.
Dern: My favorite memory of the experience of a close-up —
Theroux: — I know what you’re going to say.
Dern: Justin and I did a movie together and our director, David Lynch, was holding the camera, handheld —
Theroux: ’Twas a love scene.
Dern: It had to be so romantic. And we’re there and our faces are coming together, and he’s coming in and suddenly, as our eyes closed, we feel something weird and we don’t know what it is —
Theroux: — and then we start feeling, like, a dunk, dunk (touches his forehead). And David’s operating the camera and he’s banging into our heads. We’re like, “Hey, man, you might want to just back the camera up.” And he’s like, “Shh, stop it. Just go ahead. This is amazing.”
Dern: So there are limits to the close-up. (laughter)
Laura, people just went nuts over “Big Little Lies.” What do you think people gravitated toward?
Dern: Speaking to what made me get into it, was five actresses together. We were filming it during our last election, and examining women and honoring them on a deep level at a time that we felt we weren’t being seen in the way we wanted to be seen, politically, culturally. And playing a character that was, I think, perceived because of her intellect, power and ability to be scathing in a world of men, that she must be cold, the B-word, a bad mother. That was an amazing part to be playing and see what labels we put on women when they’re powerful and when they’re coming up against the men for certain jobs, and, you know, whether it’s the corporate world or the banking world or politics. When I watch it, I loved as an audience thinking I knew someone and judging them and then being ashamed at my own judgments. And any time television or film can do that, it’s the great reckoning.
In watching “The Leftovers,” Justin, sometimes I feel such angst for your character because for two seasons Kevin has been so tortured and gone through so much. This season you’re saying goodbye to this character.
Theroux: It’s a very kind of “What is the meaning of life?” type show. And obviously that’s impossible to answer. No artist has been able to answer it, no painter, no, you know, composer. I wouldn’t say there’s any character that gets off easy in our show. You know, they’re all put through the crucible at some point or another. So I feel like, I love playing the character, but I would never want it to go on and on and on. I would never want to put (showrunners Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta) in the position of going, “Oh, boy, we’ve got to come up with another season because we’ve been picked up and I guess we’ll just put you through some more hell.” I think they really did craft a beautiful sort of triptych of television that has a beginning, a middle, and an astounding ending. They’ve really created this beautiful arc for everybody, not just my character.
Regina, this season you had a really heartbreaking scene. Your character, Kimara, is a social worker who is trying to get pregnant and she’s also trying to help a very troubled teenage girl. And there was a scene where the teenager is getting a sonogram and you convey so much in your face.
King: In that scene we’re talking about a woman who really wants children and a young girl who the last thing she feels she needs to deal with is a child, being a mom, and Kimara’s desire to be in her position. Obviously, a lot of women can relate to that moment, but I think people can relate to that moment because it’s a heartbreaking thing to look at something you want, can’t have, but you still have to be there.” Kimara represents a lot of our heroes, our heroines that don’t get the light shined on them because they’re constantly giving, giving, giving of themselves.
Milo, so many fans of the show are interested in knowing how Jack dies. And that seems to be kind of a sticking point with you.
Ventimiglia: People want everything now. There’s not that reverence of waiting. I always tell them, “Don’t worry about how he died. Focus on how he lived. That’s the more interesting journey.” I just try to turn the dial a little bit. You know, the most important thing about the man is how he impacts his kids, which you see in the present day, and then beyond that, how he impacts his wife, who you see in the present day. I think it’s a more lasting memory to understand how a human being has lived and inspired the people around them than that one singular moment of how they passed away.
I wanted to talk about social media. Does it help? Does it annoy?
Ventimiglia: I think there’s a value in the marketing of a show and the understanding of, you can call it ancillary content to what the main story is. But if I personally am in the spotlight more than what my characters are, are people going to believe the characters that I’m playing? So I try to pull that back and minimize that.
Dern: Now that I’m raising kids, I’m watching how social media is defining — that someone is watching at all times. If you care enough, you’ll have more followers. If you wear the awesome thing or hang out with the right people — and so what is the sense of loss to truly be one’s self and let all of that go away? I hope there’s a generation of kids that as filmmakers and actors and writers and musicians, are wanting to escape the false story —
Theroux: Social media is great for fans to discuss things among themselves. If people are tweeting or Instagramming about a show, they’re essentially having the lobby discussion you would have after you’ve seen a good play or a movie on the walk home. I mean, I learned long ago I don’t check myself on social media, you’re going, like, “I need someone to bully me right now.”
King: They’re keyboard gangsters.