Timothy Hutton reveals all about the upcoming A&E series Nero Wolfe
I know there’s a lot of excitement on the set about being moved from a single film to an ongoing series. Tell me about how that happened.
Well, first of all, everyone knew that there were these wonderful books, some 70 stories that could be told on film. And when we did The Golden Spiders (the movie aired on A&E in March of 2000), nobody was thinking about doing any more. Nobody really was that interested in it becoming a series. The approach became, why not just film a group of these books, see how that goes? And then we have others. That’s kind of how we’ve approached it.
For this series, you are not only acting, but serving as an executive producer and directing several episodes as well. Let’s start with producing first, because that’s big enough.
Michael Jaffe is the executive producer. He’s the one that brought us all together. He is the biggest fan of the books, and he knows them better than any of us. And so, it starts with Michael. My involvement on a producing level really just consists of trying to maintain what it is that the books are about. Casting and things like that. But it’s such a great team, and everybody now has got into the Nero Wolfe world.
What’s it like to act and direct at the same time?
To act and direct at the same time is not a lot of fun most of the time, because you’d really like to be just concentrating on one thing. But then again, being able to be much more a part of the storytelling is what the director part brings. And so, it’s a matter of managing one’s day and figuring out what’s needed to be prepared. Obvious things like dialogue learned on the acting side, and on the directing side, knowing how you want to approach shooting a scene. Once you have those things pretty well figured out, then the day goes by okay.
Is there one particular scene that just went exactly the way you wanted to do it? Are there moments that really stand out?
Well, anytime you approach a scene, your goal has to be exactly that. You need to walk away from it and say, ‘That’s exactly how I imagined it.’ Because really, you’re showing up to record something. If you walk away feeling like it’s not quite how you imagined it, or it didn’t turn out the way it should have, then that’s nobody’s fault but your own, because you have everything in place. You have a set, you have costumes, you have actors, and you have a camera, so you should always walk away having that feeling.
Let’s talk about Archie and Nero, the characters. How has your character’s relationship with Wolfe changed, evolved, expanded?
When Maury Chaykin and I first started last year, we worked well together from the beginning, from day one. So, it was in a pretty good place to begin with, and now it’s just become more comfortable. The behavior of these two people in a room is just very, very easy, loose. So, it’s fortunate that it’s turned out that way.
Maury actually said that you’re mean.
Oh, that I’m very mean to him. Yes. Because I make him work hard. (Laughs)
One of the most distinctive elements of this series is the writing. It has a really clipped, snappy, crisp dialogue. Tell me where that comes from, and what you’re thinking about when you’re working.
Well, the dialogue comes from the books. Except for a few places, none of it’s invented, it’s all just lifted right from the books. The adaptations are pretty straightforward.
My feeling was, it seems pretty clear that a movie like His Girl Friday, The Thin Man, Preston Sturges’ movies, Dinner At Eight—there are a whole bunch of them—there’s a style of those movies where the dialogue was very rhythmic, it wasn’t sentimental. You know, nobody took these long, realistic, emotional pauses, there wasn’t a lot of contemplating going on. A great example of that is The Front Page.
Under other circumstances, someone might find a certain passage to be extremely difficult to say, but not in Nero Wolfe. It all has to have a certain kind of rhythm to it, so that it becomes musical, and people don’t get bogged into naturalism, you know?
Let’s talk a little bit about an interesting development that occurs in some of the episodes this season. We have Wolfe breaking from his phobia, the big outdoors.
In a couple of the books, there are stories where Wolfe does leave the brownstone. He’s either forced to, or he decides that he needs to in some way. A great orchid expert might be available to come work for him, so he writes him a letter, doesn’t get a letter back, so he decides to visit him. And, they’re interesting stories, because most of the time, Wolfe is inside.
There’s also Archie’s impending wedding.
Yeah, Wolfe finds out from Archie that he’s going to be getting married. This is terrible news to Wolfe, because it may mean that Archie moves away or settles down somewhere else. In many ways, Wolfe and Archie have a sort of odd kind of marriage, especially from Wolfe’s point of view. I mean, Archie does everything for this guy. And, so it’s a real threat to the organization, in a way.
Tell me a little about working on the overall look of the series. The costuming, the set design, and so on.
It’s kind of great being involved in the design of the costumes, the overall concept of the production design, the sets. We all get together and talk about what it could be. One book might have a certain theme or general kind of concept, and it gets honed in, more and more specific. Some of it can be from our appreciation of a specific movie from the ’40s or ’50s. And sometimes it’s just about what looks good. You know, it’s a group of people just kind of building it all together. The worst thing is to let those details go and get general about it. And, so everyone’s been very careful to just make sure that those elements are really thought out.
Of the whole series of books, how do you pick and choose which episodes you’re going to adapt?
You go through the books, and some just lend themselves to being translated to film. All of them do really, but some more so than others. There’s a whole bunch of them; and as far as doing more, I don’t think anyone’s thinking about that right now. There’s enough on the plate.
I know you are adapting from a Rex Stout character that’s already established. But, as an actor and director, are there dimensions to him that you feel you want to take liberties with?
These books are so well written, and the characters are so well drawn. Wolfe is Wolfe, Archie’s Archie, and all the other characters are very specific as well. So the great thing about them is that there’s sort of a wide range you can go within the parameters of what’s been established by Rex Stout. But going beyond that is probably not appropriate, and would be a big mistake. It is what it is, and should remain so.