James Wolk and Sigourney Weaver star in "Political Animals." (David Giesbrecht, USA Network )
It's past 11 p.m. on the set of USA Network's "Political Animals" in southwest Philadelphia and Sigourney Weaver has just wrapped an emotion-packed scene. She hustles to slip out of her Ann Roth-designed black evening dress and into morning attire for a breakfast scene. She probably won't finish until 3 a.m., but she's not tired.
"This is possibly the best role I have ever played," says the veteran film actress who is taking on her first regular role in a TV series in USA Network's six-part "Political Animals," which premieres Sunday.
Weaver plays a character that may sound awfully familiar to anyone who has ever watched the evening news or read a newspaper. She portrays a former first lady who loses her bid to become president. But after stumping for her former opponent — who is subsequently elected to the White House — she is appointed secretary of State.
But Weaver says hopefully that's where the similarities between her character, Elaine Barrish Hammond, and Hillary Rodham Clinton end.
"When I first heard about it I thought "Oh, it's about Hillary," she says. "But really from the first page on I knew that Elaine Barrish is her own person. Her circumstances are completely different to Mrs. Clinton's. This is the story of the Hammond family. It's definitely not the story of the Clinton family."
But the Clintonian echoes make for an intriguing beginning to the Greg Berlanti series that is a prime-time take on dirty sexy politics. The story soon veers away from recent American history and sets its own course, throwing in a boozy, straight-shooting ex-Vegas showgirl mother (Ellen Burstyn) and twin sons: one a by-the-book ambitious politico (James Wolk) with a beautiful and bulimic fiancée (Brittany Ishibashi), and the other a troubled son ((Sebastian Stan) with a substance abuse history, who also happens to be the first out gay child in the White House.
"We were looking for something that would take us out of the mold and would be a summer event that is timely and provocative," says Jeff Wachtel, co-president of USA Network.
The new series, which includes an upcoming guest spot by Vanessa Redgrave as a lesbian Supreme Court justice, seems to be a very different beast for one of cable's most successful networks, with its roster of "blue sky" programming: slick and sunny procedurals like"Burn Notice,""White Collar" and"Covert Affairs."
"It's more a genuine evolution than a departure," says Wachtel.
The series is being shot in Philadelphia, and an abandoned industrial warehouse about 15 minutes from the city center serves as various locations in the nation's capital. The warehouse has been fitted with a replica Oval Office (the same one that was used in West Wing), a situation room, an interior of Air Force One, and an expansive townhouse set for the Hammond family with a dining area, kitchen, bedrooms and patio. Upstairs in the building is the newspaper office (complete with paper- and book-littered offices) of the fictional Washington Globe, where reporter Susan Berg (a longtime nemesis of the Hammond clan), played by Carla Gugino, works.
"It's great writing and it's a wonderful cast," says Burstyn, a political junkie, who calmly nurses her 9-year-old rescue dog, Zoe, between scenes. "I'm the comedy relief."
Between camera setups the actors all sit together in a bare, no-fuss room. No time to retire to any fancy trailers.
"It's where they corral us," laughs Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, who plays the salty-tongued, Southern ex-President Bud Hammond, whose character "is an amalgam of many presidents."
"I think Bud is ripped from the cloth of an LBJ more than a Bill Clinton," says series creator Berlanti, who also wrote and directed the first episode. "He is more of a good ol' boy, rather than a smart academic."
Berlanti's bungalow at the Warner Bros.lot is punctuated with reminders of his past TV series successes. His couch is decorated with embroidered pillows — a gift from his mother — for each of his series including "Everwood," "Jack & Bobby," "Eli Stone,""Dirty Sexy Money" and "Brothers & Sisters."
"I call this political porn," he says. "It's what a peek behind closed doors might really be like. Sure, we are taking résumés from across the board from the Kennedys to the Bushes and we are not being coy about it, but we take certain political headlines and make them our own."
Weaver may have a busy schedule ahead, including a new Christopher Durang play in New York and a trip back to Pandora for the upcoming "Avatar" sequels, but she is keen to return to the role.
"I often play women who are on the periphery of things like Dian Fossey or Ripley [from 'Alien']," she says, slipping out of her heels and taking a short break on one of the empty sets. "It's rare for me to be offered someone as normal as Elaine, even though she is a secretary of State. She is committed to public service and she is also a divorced parent. I am often in things that are not to do with the reality of life, so it's been exciting and challenging to play someone like her."