While researching the new Starz series Blunt Talk as I prepared my review of the first two episodes, I came upon several interesting interviews, several with the show’s creator Jonathan Ames, one joint interview with stars Patrick Stewart and Adrian Scarborough and another with one of the co-stars, Jacki Weaver. Rather than file these away now that my review has been posted [you can read it here], I thought I’d highlight the best parts of the various interviews for anyone interested in the show in which Stewart plays Walter Blunt, a deluded Piers Morgan type who hits rock bottom with a public scandal and pledges to become a better newsman for American (if his show isn’t canceled first).
- Ames details how the show came about and what it’s been like working (or not working) with apparently hands-off executive producer Seth MacFarlane.
- Stewart shares some hilarious ancedotes from his days on the stage and living in Los Angeles throughout the 90s and learning how little social currency he had in town as the star of some syndicates science fiction TV show (Star Trek: The Next Generation).
- Jacki Weaver favorably compares her experience on set to the environment she encountered on the set of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.
Moviefone: Where was the point of inspiration that made you want to spend this much time in this world?
JONATHAN AMES: I got an email from my agent that Seth MacFarlane was looking for an idea for comedy for Patrick Stewart. And this was very intriguing: a chance to work with Seth MacFarlane and a chance to work with Patrick Stewart. And the night before my phone call with Seth, I happened to be channel surfing, and I saw Piers Morgan on CNN. And I was kind of struck. I hadn’t maybe looked at a news show for a while. I don’t know why. I was kind of struck by like the electric blue pop of his set. I thought, “Wow, you know, Patrick Stewart would look really cool in front of such a background. Patrick Stewart could play a cable news host, and we could live behind the scenes.” I’d always loved the show “Larry Sanders.” And so for me, it wasn’t so much about the news, but an environment where characters could gather, and we could study this central character, this Walter Blunt.
Moviefone: As far as creating Walter and figuring out who he was, keeping it of the world, but also funny, what did you want to say with him?
AMES: Well, through this character, I wanted to create a hero. Maybe a deluded hero, maybe a Don Quixote, but someone who would like to do good in the world, to take his position and try to help humanity in some way, because I like to create characters that you root for and I want the viewer to enjoy rooting for these characters, to love them and I guess maybe one of the original definitions of the word catharsis, to experience catharsis. Are they going to make it? Am I going to make it? And then creating a world around him of people who have issues and problems, but they try to help each other with these issues and problems.
Moviefone: As you dug into the news talk format, what were things that you found there that you wanted to explore or tweak?
AMES: Yeah, that’s a good question. I guess I was more into these characters than the world of the news. And in later episodes, we begin to address serious topics like the death penalty, genital mutilation. We come back to the environment. The impact of the Internet on journalism. PTSD. Shifting human sexuality. So I enjoy having this bully pulpit myself in a comedy, to be able to actually look at some important topics. And it’s kind of like the iron fist in the velvet glove: it’s a comedy, but we were bringing up these issues. So I think my observations of the news world -– I don’t think I was so fascinated by anything so much that, but I was more intrigued by [the film] “Network,” and the idea of news as entertainment and the idea of an eccentric newscaster. So I think it was more about those things rather than being intrigued by what goes on actually at Larry King or these kind of shows.
Moviefone: Seth [MacFarlane] has characterized his role as just making the introduction and letting you guys run with it. What has been interesting about being in business with him?
AMES: Well, he made all this possible by introducing me to Patrick Stewart. I should have done something on the panel about, [singing] “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match…” So he very much played matchmaker between Patrick and I. And then, yeah, he’s just kind of been like, “Hey. This is great. Keep going, keep going.” And then he’s been very busy with his own stuff.
So I think he’s a fascinating fellow. He’s one of the most successful people in the industry, but he’s really just a humble, sweet guy who wants to make interesting work. And so I’m just very lucky to get to associate with him and find him personally, kind of fascinating. In some ways, he’s a little bit like a Gatsby figure. He catapulted to such levels of success at a fairly young age, but he wants to keep experimenting and trying new things. And also, he’s got a variety of talents. He sings. He dances. Voices, drawing, I mean, he really is a Renaissance man.
The Hollywood Reporter: The way Blunt Talk came about was a bit different than some of the other shows on television. How did that experience compare to the more “traditional” pilot process?
AMES: I’ve written a few pilots. This is the second show I’ve written that will get on the air. The biggest difference with this is Seth wanted a comedy for Patrick Stewart. I came up with the idea for the comedy, which is why I’m the creator of the show. The first big difference was I wrote this with Patrick Stewart in mind. Normally when you write a pilot for a TV show, you don’t have an actor in mind, because you haven’t cast them yet, and the network will want to weigh in on that. So this was written specifically for Patrick Stewart — that was the first big difference.
When I wrote Bored to Death, I didn’t have Jason Schwartzman in mind. I had met him and I did want him for the role, but I was not tailoring it for him. Though later he came to inhabit it perfectly. This, I wrote with Patrick Stewart in mind. I made him English because of Patrick. And a man of a certain age. This was written for him. That’s the biggest difference.
THR: The show was given a two-season order right out of the gate. When you sat down to craft the story, did you look at arcing the two seasons together, or did you just focus on the first season?
AMES: I always look at one season [at a time]. It was enough to figure out who all of these people were, what the stories were. Let me lay the groundwork, let me see what this world is, let me see who those characters are, and season two will flow from that. Then as you work, you think, “Oh, we can do that for season two” or “Let’s remember that for season two.”
THR: When viewers first meet Walter, he’s in a bad place — he’s just been publicly disgraced. What is his big goal this season?
AMES: He states it in episode two: he wants to be a better father to the American people, and then to his own children. [In episode four] we meet his young son, and he wants to rebuild that relationship. When we first encountered Walter Blunt in episode one, he’s hitting bottom. The rest of the season, he’s on an upward trajectory. As he says, he’s been given a second chance. He wants to make the most of this second chance: to do his job well and to be a good father. It’s about trying to be the man he should be.
THR: Walter does have a delightful relationship with his man-servant, Henry (Adrian Scarborough). What can you share about their dynamic in season one?
AMES: I’ve always been fascinated with the master and the man-servant relationship. I’m a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse. My logline for this show is, “It’s a cross between Network and P.G. Wodehouse.” And P.G. Wodehouse famously created the character, Jeeves, and the Wooster and Jeeves stories, which were first written in the beginning of the 20th century, and he wrote them for 50-60 years. And there was the PBS series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the roles. Not necessarily a lot of Americans are familiar with the Jeeves character — they might know the Ask Jeeves website, which I think is defunct. But I was a longtime admirer of this relationship in the Wodehouse canon, and wanted to re-create it in a TV show.
THR: The show also has breaks from the norm — in the first few episodes, there’s a cut to an older movie clip, and a dream dance sequence. What balance did you find worked best when figuring out when to go more outside of the box in storytelling?
AMES: That’s just the whimsy of making art. When I wrote the pilot, I knew, for some reason, I wanted him to have a vivid dream about a film. It was originally [Federico] Fellini‘s La Strada, but we couldn’t get the rights to that, so for some reason Trapeze came to mind. It was the perfect clip to capture Walter’s perfect flight and fall. And then I was like, I’ll have him collapse in the end.
And then episode two could begin with a near-death experience — I used to watch all these Busby Berkeley videos on YouTube, because I like the Magnetic Field song, “Busby Berkeley Dreams.” And by listening to and watching that song on YouTube, there were all these complications of Busby Berkeley choreography. Which I may have seen a little of as a child, Saturdays, watching movies, but I wasn’t very exposed to Busby Berkeley. But I just loved all these kaleidoscopic images he would create, and I wanted the chance to try it myself.
Vox: You’ve both had such extensive experience on stage, so I’m wondering, in each of your careers, what has been the single worst night on the stage you’ve ever had?
PATRICK STEWART: I was in a production of King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing an important but minor character, the Duke of Cornwall. He gets killed off halfway through the play. There’s a long scene, which is a huge scene for Lear and for his daughters. Cornwall only has one or two comments. It’s a scene that goes on and on and on, and it’s one of Lear’s great legendary scenes. I had this line in the scene, “Hullah! What trumpet’s that?”
God, we were doing two Lears that day, and Eric Porter played Lear. One afternoon, I think I lost concentration a little bit, and I came to and there was silence, so I said, “Hullah! What trumpet’s that?” There was a snort of laughter from all the soldiers, the lads lined up in the back.
Eric Porter turned and looked at me, with these big eyebrows. I thought, “Fuck. Fuck, maybe it wasn’t me.” Then he went on talking. He paused. That’s all it was. I come in with this line, and of course, then I realize, “Oh my god. What is hurtling toward me now? ‘Hullah, what trumpet’s that?'” The line came up, and I said it, and of course all the lads start snorting, laughing.
The moment the scene was over, I went straight to Eric’s dressing room and apologized. “I lost it. I’m sorry, I lost concentration, and I thought it was my cue.”
He was very tough with me. “Don’t lose concentration again. It’s very hard, that scene, and I need you to be paying attention.”
Saturday night, same play, we’re in the middle of that scene, and I am concentrating. I’ve got beads of sweat. I’m listening to every line, and looking at everybody. Then there’s a silence, and I hear my voice saying, “Hullah, what trumpet’s that?” I have no control over it. I’ve said it again, in the same wrong place. This time Eric whips around, and I swear, I thought he was going to tear my throat out. He was so angry, quite rightly so, too, because he thought it was a gag.
And then I have to say it a fourth time! Humiliating, embarrassing, and shameful.
Vox: You two have a somewhat codependent relationship in Blunt Talk. Did you know each other before you worked on this?
ADRIAN SCARBOROUGH: We had worked together before, but only very briefly.
STEWART: Two days.
SCARBOROUGH: Two days, in a radio studio.
STEWART: I knew who Adrian was. He knew who I was. The theater world in England is a very small world, for those actors who work regularly in it.
Vox: What were you most surprised to learn about your characters over the first season of this show?
SCARBOROUGH: I was far more three-dimensional than I’d first thought. The way Jonathan rounds out a character is incredibly thorough, and he has very, very clear ideas of where those characters are headed. He doesn’t necessarily tell you. You pick up a script, and you find a development in your character that you didn’t know about two episodes before, keeping you constantly excited about what you might find out about the next bit of your journey through the series.
STEWART: We were about a third of the way through the series when Jonathan said to me, “You know, you keep introducing an infantile element into the character.” I had not thought of it, but I realized that I was, and I was enjoying it. There was this aspect to this powerful and intimidating newspaperman which was actually childlike. Seeing that clearly helped with so many of the strange situations that I found myself in.
Vox: In England you can do film, you can do a TV show, you can do a play, you can do a radio show. What’s edifying about bouncing between those things?
STEWART: When I lived [in the US], which I did from ’87 to 2003, 2004, I often felt that people would ask you what you did because they could classify you. When I discovered being in a syndicated science fiction show actually was pretty low down the status ladder of Hollywood, it surprised and saddened me a little bit. When Star Trek was all over, I went to see this director whose movie I was really desperate to be in, and we had a great meeting. Then he said to me, “But tell me, why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?”
Our generation, we got so many opportunities. Nobody’s going to say, “Oh, you’re doing radio plays, are you?” Meaning, “Is that all you can get these days?” We work in the Young Vic, where you’re getting 180 pounds a week, and everybody understands why you’re doing it. Usually you’re doing it because of the work, because the work is absolutely unique and special.
Collider: Did you know just how wild and crazy it would get?
JACKI WEAVER: I had a fair idea because when I heard Seth MacFarlane was producing, everything he does is risque and shocking. I adore him, and I’m unshockable. Also, having read Jonathan Ames’ books and having seen his other series, Bored to Death, I was expecting it to be pretty raunchy. When he took me to lunch to ask me to do the series and described what it was going to be like, I had a fair idea of what we were in for. It’s great to see characters behave and speak the way people do, in real life. On cable TV, you can say anything.
Collider: Could you ever have imagined that, at this point in your career, you’d be doing a TV comedy series with Patrick Stewart?
WEAVER: It does seem bizarre. I never thought I’d ever meet Patrick Stewart, nevermind work with him. And then, to be playing an American in America with Patrick Stewart and a whole lot of other English people, it’s very funny. Of course, I play an American in this. Being Australian and having done a lot of American characters, I usually don’t have much trouble with an American accent, but I had my work cut out in this one because I’m surrounded by English people. My mother was English, and the script supervisor was an Australian, so I was hearing all of these other voices while I was trying to be American. It was quite an exercise, but it was fun.
Collider: Would you say this show has a good balance between the comedy and the drama?
WEAVER: Yeah. I love stories that are like real life, and are funny one minute and sad the next. One minute you’re laughing hilariously and the next minute you’re crying, and life is like that. Blunt Talk has got all of that. The situations we’re put in and the foibles of our characters are what makes the show amusing. You can laugh with them, even if you haven’t got the same problems. You can see that these people are like all people, weak sometimes and strong other times.
Collider: What did you think of the journey your character took, this season? Were you aware of where things were headed, ahead of time, or did you learn with each script?
WEAVER: Sometimes we didn’t know what was going to happen two episodes ahead. Sometimes what happened was a big surprise, which is such fun. Some writers keep things pretty close to the chest. I’ve done a Woody Allen film, and some actors don’t get to see scenes they’re not in, which is fine. I think that’s fine, if that’s got nothing to do with you. It’s frustrating, though. If you’re used to working in the theater, where you know exactly what happens in the play, it can be frustrating. It’s also a good exercise. One of the things you learn at drama school is not to play the result, but just to play the moment.
Collider: What’s it like to work with Patrick Stewart and explore this dynamic between your characters?
WEAVER: It’s great. Patrick is so sweet, and he’s very hard-working. He comes on that set knowing every line. He almost never forgets. He’s really sweet and very humble. There’s not an ounce of arrogance in him. For all his success, you’d think he would have at least a bit, but he’s a very sweet, gentle, funny, self-deprecating guy. To do tender or sensitive stuff with him is very easy because he invites closeness.
Collider: Do you guys ever get to improvise on this, or do you stick pretty close to the script?
WEAVER: It’s a bit of both. We have some really good improvisers on the show, especially Timm [Sharp], Mary [Holland], Karan [Soni] and Dolly [Wells]. We’re all okay at improvisation and we do a bit of it, but we also have great scripts because it’s Jonathan [Ames] and a team of eight or nine really good writers. We always shoot exactly what’s written, and then sometimes we play around. It’s always at the director’s and Jonathan’s bidding. Jonathan is on set, all the time. With a one-camera show, because the production values are pretty strict, you can’t improvise too much, like you can with different set-ups. But, that’s how working with David O. Russell is. You shoot the scene exactly how he wrote it first, and then you start playing around with it for other takes. I always think that must be very hard for editors.