Q & A: Oliver Platt

This month marks the debut of Platt's new Stamford-filmed Showtime series, "The Big C."

 

Roger Ascroft/Showtime

The actor and western Connecticut resident, now 50, co-stars with Laura Linney in “The Big C,” which premieres Aug. 16. For more info, visit www.sho.com/site/thebigc/home.do.

Tell us about your character Paul.

He’s a fella who, at the start of the series, has just been kicked out of his house and doesn’t know why. So he’s really confused. Nominally, there’s this idea that he’s been doing some slightly infantile things, but he’s done similar things in the past and this consequence seems really extreme. I think he’s pretty confident that he’s going to be able to charm his way back into the house, but it doesn’t work, so over the first few episodes he becomes even more confused and frustrated. And his wife doesn’t tell him what’s going on with her for a long, long time.

What drew you to playing the role?

I think it's really interesting. I loved the idea of working with Laura Linney. And I think the writing's smart. I think the characters are subtle. And there's a lot of these kind of screwed up love scenes, where my character's about to get back into his wife's good graces and something happens. What's interesting to me about it is it's a contemporary relationship.

One thing Paul does in the first episode is take a huge bite out of a raw onion. How was that for you?

It was gross [laughs]. On set, they said, “Let’s rehearse it to get it right,” and I said, “I don’t want to do it until we’re filming. I’ve never eaten a raw onion before, and that’s the reaction we’re trying to capture.” Thank God we got it in a few takes, because I was literally getting nauseous.

“The Big C” seems to be going in a different direction from the usual movie-of-the-week style weepies about a person fighting cancer.

I think the main focus of the show—instead of hospitals and blood tests—is how someone starts to live when they find out they’re going to die. To me, that’s really interesting: Why do we have to find out we’re gonna die to start to live honestly and fully in the moment? We’re all dying anyway, why don’t we start now, you and me? But we don’t. We play it safe, we try to do things “right,” we’re scared a lot. The show’s not glib about the disease, but it has a really healthy sense of irony about the way people behave when they’re exposed to it, whether directly or indirectly.

Is there a particular reason it's being shot in Stamford?

That I really can't answer; I know they wanted to shoot it on the East Coast. Otherwise that question is above my pay grade, but it's great for me because I live in New York.

Accounts of your background point to a patrician family: career diplomat father, social worker mother, one grandfather who was an equestrian, the other an architect. And your grandmothers were both socialites. How did you become the actor of the bunch?

Well, first of all, they leave out all the horse thieves, so I wouldn’t get carried away with the “patrician” label! I moved around a lot as a kid, and kids like me—army brats, or in my case, foreign-service brats—tend to end up either in communications or the performing arts. There’s been a study that coined a name for us: “third-culture kids.” We’re not of the culture we were born in, nor of the one we’re raised in, because we’re raised in all these different places. You’re constantly having to adapt to new surroundings, having to get your bearings, so you build your own culture. I started acting in school plays, and I'm pretty sure that's why. For me, on a very practical level, if I could be in a school play I could instantly plug into an already established group of friends at any school I attended.

Do you remember the first time that you were on stage?

I do. I was the inn keeper that turned Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus away from the inn. And I had one line . . . I must have said it so wildly inappropriately that the whole place went nuts. I was the new kid, and not very happy at the time. So when I got such a dramatic reaction, I thought "Oh . . . I'll have more of this."

You also went to Tufts University, where you were a classmate of Hank Azaria. Several prominent actors have gone there: Peter Gallagher, William Hurt . . . is there something in the water?

They have a sensational drama department . . . what I was looking for was a great drama department in the context of a really strong liberal arts program. And it totally delivered for me. What an ambition to be 18 years old and say, "I'm going to be an actor." I really didn't know what that meant. But lo and behold, the stuff that I learned in the Tufts drama department I carry with me every day, and I use it all the time—whether it's about collaboration, what good writing is and isn't, what good directing is and isn't. Especially about collaboration.

Yeah, it's funny—people often talk acting as a very self-involved sort of thing. But collaboration is critical, isn't it?

Are you kidding? If you don't know how to collaborate . . . that's what's fun about it. Connecting the dots from the earlier part of our conversation, you can see why that would be appealing to me.

Speaking of Hank Azaria, he's said that you have a rebellious streak as an actor—you like to subvert preconceived notions of who your characters are supposed to be. When I think about your work, it seems to me you've often played a character . . . not that I "love to hate," but hate to love. He has issues of some sort, yet I feel very drawn to him.

It's not surprising that I get those kinds of roles, because those are the ones I find interesting. Our job is to try and make something fresh, and there are a bunch of different ways to go about that. One of my earliest visible movie roles was as Porthos in a popcorny Disney—but ultimately very successful and entertaining—version of The Three Musketeers. Anytime I’m playing someone who’s branded a “hero,” the first thing I do is locate what’s unheroic about him. The truth is, of course, that there's no such thing as a hero—it's just that people find themselves in certain situations, and sometimes they do the right thing. They act heroic. So, you look for the humanity in your characters. And if you read Dumas, Porthos is a deeply flawed Musketeer.

You're right, we do tend to think of heroes as having this veneer of perfection, which simply isn't as interesting.

It's just not. And those people don't actually exist; they really don't. There are amazingly noble people who are incredibly brave and do a series of amazing, heroic things. But if you look under the surface, everyone's a human being.

Who's your image of a modern day hero? Is there anyone, even in real life, who you’d really like to portray, who’s enticing because of their inherent richness of character?

You know, it's a really good question, but I really don’t think in those terms. I'd be sitting here hemming and hawing for five minutes, trying to come up with an answer. But let me answer that a different way, from a different perspective—a few years ago I played George Steinbrenner in the miniseries The Bronx Is Burning, about the Yankees and New York City in the summer of 1977. I was at that point, and still am, a Red Sox fan, having gone to Tufts and having had an earlier team I loved—the Washington Senators—desert me, run away and disappear.

So I was asked to play Steingrenner in this miniseries, and I’d grown up with a really low opinion of him, because his public profile made that very easy. He was one of those guys you love to hate. And that's really a unique challenge, because as an actor you have to love all the characters you play. And wouldn’t you know, once I really did my research and got under his skin, I started to develop an extraordinary amount of respect for him, and realized that the truth is he was incredibly precocious about the trends in baseball. While not everybody likes the trends in both the business and entertainment aspects of the game that he chose to develop, he was immensely successful, and a seminal modern team owner. And profoundly successful both financially, and on the field. Over time, I started to realize how impressive a character he actually was, despite this somewhat buffoonish manner that he had.

The reason I asked the question is that for a while now, you've supposedly been attached to a movie biography of former Providence, R.I. mayor Buddy Cianci . . .
 

There is a wonderful script, but I haven't heard anything about that for awhile.

Here's a Connecticut question: You and Stanley Tucci worked at Yale Repertory Theatre, in Moon Over Miami. I've read that you both devised your characters for the movie The Imposters during that experience.

That's where Stanley and I met, and we became fast friends. Our relationship was essentially based on this moronic delight that we took in making each other laugh. We would warm up backstage doing the ridiculous exercises that are in the early scenes of The Imposters. And we started to talk about these two characters. Then Stanley went off and wrote the wonderful screenplay. We would just laugh ourselves silly talking about these two actors who weren't so bad they couldn't get jobs, they just took it all too seriously. I'm happy to tell you that Stanley and I continue to delight each other with our moronic behavior to this day.

I understand that you, as you said, have been a Red Sox fan for a long time. But I hear you're also fond of the Mets.

What happened was, I moved to New York—and I had kids! Well, actually, a couple of things happened. First of all, the Sox won . . . and if you ask any Red Sox fan who's really honest with you, that changes everything. I still love them, they're my American League team—but I needed to take my kids to ball games. And God knows I was never going to become a Yankee fan. Not that I'm at all a hater, because I love individual Yankees and I have a lot of respect for what they've achieved. It's just that with my history, it was very difficult to make that leap. And it's not that much of a distance to go from being a Red Sox fan to being a Mets fan. I love both teams dearly.

How do you feel about both of them this season?

You just have to enjoy the day with both those teams. Pat, you have to remember it's entertainment and take it one day at a time.

Q & A: Oliver Platt

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