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.
The Miniaturist Interviews: Romola Garai
Romola Garai plays Marin Brandt in The Miniaturist, premiering soon on BBC-1, here she talks about what drew her to the drama and being in a costume drama where she pretty much only gets to wear one costume.
What attracted you to the role of Marin?
I’d read the book shortly after it came out and I thought it was a really surprising novel, really interesting and with very strong feminist themes in it, so I was very excited about it. Time passed and then an email popped into my inbox with the subject, The Miniaturist. I thought it was fantastic they were making it and I was really excited to read the script.
It’s a very genre-bending novel; it appears to be like a costume drama we have seen before, but very quickly we realise that it’s not that. It’s about a woman coming into her own in a society that’s very patriarchal, it’s about a love affair, it’s about discrimination, and it’s about people trying to survive in an incredibly controlled state. It’s a thriller and it’s also a story about political and emotional awakening.
Marin is a particularly interesting character, I think she has one of the best arcs. When I first read the book, she was the character that stayed with me, and when I read the scripts I immediately remembered everything about her. She’s told in beautiful detail in the novel, which John has retained in the script. Marin is just a great character to play, it was a real treat.
Tell us about Marin.
When you first meet her, because the story is told through Nella’s perspective, you meet a woman who seems very cold and intimidating. Then gradually you get this drip-feed of information about her; you see she’s been helping Johannes run the business and you learn that they were orphaned at a young age. She’s very intellectual, she’s very well read, and she’s not married, which is very unusual at the time.
One of the reasons I found her such a fascinating character is that she’s full of secrets and she’s layered; very conflicted and has great faith, but also passions. The house they live in is essentially a tinder box of secrets that Marin has been sitting on to try and stop the secrets exploding out. However although it seems she is trying to keep a lid on it I think she believes that they could subtly break all the rules and be free within the house at least, if only her brother stopped acting so recklessly.
Hopefully audiences will question what is driving her hostility towards Nella. Marin needs Nella a lot to maintain the appearance of being a normal household but it’s also very important that Nella is afraid of her so that she doesn’t try digging and discovering the secrets that they are all trying to keep – because if anyone finds out then their futures are ruined.
What was it like doing the scenes between Marin and Nella?
I loved working with Anya, she’s an incredibly accomplished actress. She’s got a difficult job in this, because Nella has to be very innocent at the beginning of the story, which is always difficult for an actor to play, and also more innocent that a woman of that age would be now. She’s constantly making discoveries, she doesn’t have the information that the rest of us do so she’s always learning new things, and she’s done that with real beauty and subtlety. I really enjoyed doing all our scenes together.
Tell us about Marin’s costume.
Marin only had one costume until a very late stage of the story. Her costume is typical of the puritan values of the period which rejected anything that smacked of luxury or louche values. They also didn’t wear make-up in this period at all, certainly not women of this class and station, and the hair was very simple and scraped back. Her head would have been covered at all times, so I had a black cap that I wore, but to be honest when I wore it I couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying and also talked incredibly loudly because I couldn’t hear myself, so essentially I was shouting at the other actors!
What makes The Miniaturist stand out from other period dramas?
I’ve done lots of historical pieces but there’s something very unusual about this. When you do contemporary novels set in the past the writers are able to do a lot more, and tackle complex themes which writers writing at the time weren’t able to do. More than that, it’s interesting in that it explores a number of different genres. It has elements of a thriller and then it becomes a family drama and then it becomes a polemic about what happens in societies that are so controlling.
I hope people will sit down to watch the show because it’s a pretty costume drama and will be surprised that it is actually rebellious and constantly bringing up important issues – and that they’ll be so engaged they won’t be able to look away.
Trust Me Interviews: Sharon Small
Interview with Sharon Small, who plays Dr. Brigitte McAdams in new three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs this August on BBC One.
What attracted you to this project?
I liked the character and the premise of the piece – I don’t think we’ve seen this before. And everyone is like an armchair detective, everyone is an armchair actor or doctor, so I thought that people would get off on that and think, gosh what would I do in that circumstance? The audience are the people who are privy to the truth and not us. With my character, Brigitte, I like her neediness, her sassiness – she’s fun and quick-fire talking – and quite honestly I rather fancied myself as a doctor [laughs].
How would you describe your character?
Brigitte is a good person; she’s sassy and is a really good doctor. She has got some issues, but she is trying her best to run this ward and with great intentions, which I think a lot of NHS doctors are.
How did you prepare for the role?
I grew my hair so that I could tie it up – normally I have short hair. We had a fantastic medical training day with Dan and got to do airways and cannulas and stitching and things like that, I loved that. The most important thing for me was to go around the actual A&E department (or ED department as I now know it’s called) in Edinburgh. We met this fantastic doctor – just watching him and really getting to observe what goes on in a ward, the dynamic, what people do and noticing that people are always looking at folders, everyone’s always collaborating and talking to each other. Everyone is always moving around, a lot more than you think and not that quickly. It’s less dramatic than you think.
Is your character challenging to play?
She was. Similarly in something that Jodie mentioned, I had quite a lot of medical jargon to say quite quickly, but I had less of the procedural stuff to do in terms of operational things. As the character is more and more revealed I had to make sure that I took care of how that happened, and that it was subtly done.
What makes a hospital a good arena for a drama?
It’s an ever-changing landscape, a hospital. Every new sort of event that you’re presented with means that you’re having to make life-saving decisions. People’s lives really are at stake, and honestly, my little taste of pretending that I was an ED doctor made me feel quite powerful. If I could fix people so that they survived, that would be an amazing ability.
What are the biggest challenges that you have faced so far during filming?
Saying the medical words Metronidazole – Met-ron-ida-zole, Metron-i-dazole – and trying to make scrubs look even remotely interesting, I don’t rock scrubs like Jodie does, I’m way too curvy for that!
What do you hope audiences will take away from this drama?
I hope that they’ll find themselves in that dilemma of wanting Cath/Ally to succeed, because she’s a good person and she ironically is brilliant at the job. I’m hoping that they’ll see the dilemma that she has, and as you want her to keep succeeding, it means she’s going to keep compromising people as she goes, as well as herself.
Trust Me Interviews: Jodie Whittaker
Jodie Whittaker plays Cath in three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs on BBC One this August.
What appealed to you about this project?
I was sent the script for the first episode and it fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to. Particularly at the beginning when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job. It could have gone so many ways, and the fact that she takes on this new identity isn’t the way that I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious – they certainly aren’t black and white. She makes decisions that are quite challenging to justify, even though we know her reasons. I’ve never acted in anything medical before, so it felt completely new.
How does Cath’s lie come about?
Cath starts off by having a conversation with her best friend, Ally, who is a middle grade doctor in A&E and is giving it all up to emigrate to New Zealand. Ally is packing up the life that Cath would have loved to have had, leaving it all behind to go and do something completely different. Suddenly there is an opportunity for her to take on the identity of her friend and in that panic, not necessarily the clearest thinking moment in her life, she does it. Once you set off on a path of lies it’s very difficult to undo it without bringing everything crashing down.
Did you receive any training on medical procedures?
Yes! The writer, Dan, who is also medical consultant and a doctor outside of TV production, showed us a load of stuff that he used when he was training people. He brought in the CPR dummy and showed us how to do a cannula and he, very bravely, let me put a cannula in his vein. I did it right, thank God! Also, YouTube is amazing. The genius of the internet is that you can basically sit at home and Google medical procedures, and TV shows such as 24 hours in A&E, which I watched hours of.
How else did you prepare for the role?
With regards to the technical stuff, we had an on-set consultant so that there was always someone to help when we had to do the procedures. The best thing for me was that my character was also out of her depth and didn’t always know what she was doing, so it kind of covered my own personal fumbles. I’m not someone who likes to over prepare for dialogue scenes, because I think that makes me not listen to what the other person is saying as I’ve already decided how I’m going to do it. It immediately makes it interesting and new and you can’t plan for that, which is great. You can’t ‘wing’ the medical stuff so I had to do my research for that. One of my friends is a Sister in A&E and I sent her a lot of messages asking ‘how do you pronounce this?’ and ‘what does that mean?’, so basically she was my personal medical coach even though she works full time!
Is it challenging playing someone who leads a double life?
Yes, but no more challenging that playing someone who has had something happen to them that I haven’t personally experienced. What’s hard is trying to gauge how good a liar she is, or how in a panic she is. You’ve got to be careful, because you can’t make the other actors seem stupid. These are intelligent, fully formed characters that you’re working with, so it was a fine line of being able to deceive and it not being something that comes easily to her. However, it can’t be that it makes everyone around her feel a bit like an idiot for not working it out. That was tricky, but the director is there to help guide you through it.
Did the uniform help to get you into character?
Yes. It feels odd when you put it on. I did five weeks of studio filming, back to back – all the medical stuff was contained so everything started to become a bit like second nature. The first few times I had to put on an apron, the ‘take’ ended up being about 15 minutes long. Then I worked out that you shouldn’t put the gloves on before the apron! There was lots of daft stuff like that, but you then get into a rhythm. It’s good because it makes you immediately feel like you look the part and then all I had to do was make sure that I knew the lines!
What were some of the challenges that you faced during filming?
I’m not very good with learning dialogue when there are lots of medical terms! I enjoy the adrenaline of being on set because I’m quite good at choreography, I respond well to being taught something physically. That’s why I was terrible at school, because they talk you through things rather than physically show you. I enjoyed doing the different types of surgery as it was fascinating, it’s nerve-wracking but you realise that you can do it. Also, the team who created the props put in so much hard work to make sure we didn’t mess up our bits. I struggled with having massive speeches that involved these medical words. I don’t have a brain for that!
Did you enjoy working in Scotland?
I absolutely loved Glasgow! The crew were phenomenal and the city is wonderful. I could move my family up there and we had a great time as there were loads of brilliant restaurants and everyone was lovely. It was brilliant and I would snap up another job there very quickly, although it does get very dark and cold over winter!
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