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A ROUNDTABLE

'Big Love' cast talks it up

Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin discuss the series' philosophy and the challenge of understanding their characters.

March 01, 2009|Kate Aurthur

"Big Love" has been blazing through its third season. Will Scheffer, who created the show with Mark V. Olsen, his partner in work and husband in life, said, "Everything that we hinted at, that we were building to, we said: 'Let's just do it -- let's go as far as we can this year and burn through it.' "

The results: Love has ebbed a bit for now, and we have been left with big. The polygamous Henricksons -- Bill (Bill Paxton), Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) -- have fought over birth control, the fleeting affections of a fourth wife and, most of all, the continuous and escalating tension between their sparkling suburban lives and the filthy Mormon fundamentalist compound that haunts them.

In an e-mail, Olsen wrote: "It's important, clearly, that our characters aren't singularly snarky or sour all the time, and there's got to be an underlying love and devotion between them, but the fact that I may love you, or whomever, is just not particularly interesting unless it's blended with the fact that you really piss me off too -- it's that combustion, negotiating that mix of feelings that I think keeps an audience coming back for more."

Yes. And also: "It was about a family staying together," Scheffer said on the telephone. "And I think what we finally got is, this family will stay together."

Despite a cast that sometimes appears to be thousands, Scheffer said: "The scenes, still, you most want to see are between the four married people. Because we love them."

Those four married people, the Henrickson quadrangle, provide the axis of "Big Love" (9 p.m. Sundays on HBO). In a roundtable discussion, the actors talked about their characters, polygamy as metaphor and how the show's fictions have intersected with real-world news.

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This season in particular, every episode is packed with an incredible amount of plot.

Chloe Sevigny: We would sit at the table read and be like: "Is this serious? Is all of this going to remain?"

Jeanne Tripplehorn: By the eighth or the ninth episode, I remember having to write down what had already happened.

Sevigny: It was "Big Love" on crack.

Tripplehorn: Steroids.

Ginnifer Goodwin: We need some "Big Love" Ritalin. This show films like a movie: 14, 16 hours a day. Now we're doing what, six months straight?

Tripplehorn: I've never hit a wall like I did with this season. I mean, I was baked.

Bill Paxton: Oof, me too. I started smoking again.

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"Big Love" has a unique tone, simultaneously funny and sad. Is that a hard balance to achieve?

Tripplehorn: I think it's a really grounded humor. We have to pull ourselves back. When we're trying to be funny it doesn't work.

Sevigny: But the lines -- you have to say them so flat because they're so funny.

Goodwin: I think what makes it so relatable is there is something so real, even though this is a drama, about how funny these situations are. In real life, people don't try to live dramatically, people try to live in a light way. People try to laugh.

Sevigny: I was watching some episodes the other night and I was like, "This is the weirdest show I've ever seen in my life!" And then my friend was over, and she said, "Yeah, weirdest show since 'Twin Peaks.' " As normal as we play it, as straight as we play it. But you can't. It's weird!

Paxton: It's so subversive, but with the family values, it's almost a throwback to the early '60s. With the family home evening and all of the things we do together. But it's so damn bizarre because we're polygamists.

Goodwin: Will and Mark, the first thing they said in pitching the show was: This is a story about a family that works. Which I love.

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Yet there's an air of menace in characters from the compound, like Alby and Roman and Rhonda. What are we seeing about the world these people live in?

Paxton: Bill's kind of always making a deal with the devil for a greater good. There's consequences to dealing with these people.

Sevigny: In all of my research reading about the fundamentalists, the different sects and the different groups, there's just so much drama, so much action -- the way they conduct their lives. I think it's a huge part of that religion, and we have to address it in some way on the show.

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How much do you think your characters think about their own situation?

Tripplehorn: I think Barb is very aware of the situation. That's why she's always conflicted about it. She knows very well that aspects of it are archaic and patriarchal.

Paxton: Bill's resentful because he feels like they've been tarred with the same brush as these other people, and we don't live like them.

Sevigny: Nicki, through three seasons, her through line is she loves the compound and has fond memories of it. Of course, she loves Bill and her sister-wives, but she's torn between the two.

Goodwin: I feel like a through line for all of us is honesty in our home, but we're living a lie world.

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