More to ‘Big Love’: Co-creator Will Scheffer talks Season 4
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Can’t wait for the “Big Love” premiere Sunday? Check out this extended Q&A with co-creator and executive producer Will Scheffer as he dishes on the HBO extended-family drama’s new season, including casting Sissy Spacek, why Teenie was replaced, and who’s primed to have the best season ever.
Where does Season 4 pick up? Right after Roman’s death?
A couple months have passed…. We thought we’d be dealing with the aftermath of Roman’s death, and mopping up what it was like to have everyone find out he was dead, and what happened, was there a murder investigation, and la la la la la. And opposed to doing that, we started up with a new mystery, which is, no one seems to know Roman is dead, and he has disappeared.
What are some of the themes that you’re touching upon this season?
This is a season that deals with identity in a profound way. The wives are all coming into different parts of themselves that they never really explored before, and that’s really driving a lot of the emotional stories. Also, Bill’s decision to seek office is driving the entire season. Bill’s desire for the family — that they not have to suffer as second-class citizens, as polygamists — is a major motivating factor for his running for state senate.
So Bill’s campaign has to do with polygamy?
It has to do with the fact that the threat to polygamy that’s happening as a result of Roman’s demise, and his need to break new ground with how the public sees polygamists.
Bill is planning to come out, then?
He plans to. If he wins and when he wins, he can bring his family out of the closet.
What do the wives think of this?
Well, Margene [Ginnifer Goodwin] has her business, and it’s really starting to take leaps and bounds, so clearly coming out in public would be very threatening to her and her business career. So she is probably the most viscerally threatened of any of the wives in terms of losing something of her new identity, which also is providing a great deal of financial income.… Margie, clearly, is finding her own voice, and her own strength in this [new business]. I don’t think she wants to go back to being just a housewife.
It seems like she’s striking out on her own without much regard to the family.
It’snot like she doesn’t have allegiance to her life as a third wife, or any less love for living this kind of plural marriage. But in fact, that was what plural marriage always promised women: that you can go and do anything that you want, because you have two other wives who will watch the children. And Margie is sort of saying, well, I watched the kids when Barb was getting her degree. What’s wrong with this?
That seems like a really modern take on polygamy.
For me, it was one of the things that made the idea of suburban polygamy — consenting adults participating in a plural marriage — seem like a possible lifestyle choice. Because even though there was a patriarchal center, there seemed to be women in a kind of sisterhood supporting each other towards making their own dreams come true. So that seemed like that was a really intriguing and valid part of this lifestyle.
How are things with Nicki (Chloë Sevigny)?
Kind of rough. Bill and she are having a tough time, and the wives are aware of it. And I think everyone’s trying to help Bill and Nicki work through the sense of betrayal and distrust that has been created.
So Nicki and Bill want to make it work.
Well, I think they do for their own reasons. … [Also,] Nicki’s journey this year [is] very much about trying to separate from the compound, now that her father’s dead, and come to terms with what she was brought up into and her assumptions of who she was because of that upbringing.
What about her ex-husband, J.J. (Željko Ivanek)?
Well, he’s definitely a prime antagonist for the season. Nicki and he have a complicated relationship — she ran out on him, so there are a lot of really dark, deep feelings between the two of them.
Is J.J. also making a bid for Roman’s empty seat?
In his own way, he is.
Does that also figure into the course of the season?
Well, definitely there’s a power vacuum. There’s a trustee that’s been assigned to the estate — which is like what happened with Warren Jeffs and his compound — to handle the enormous assets and its business arm. And so there’s a lot of talk about reform on the compound, and a fight between Alby [Matt Ross] and the trustee for control.
And that trustee, Dale (played by Ben Koldyke), is Alby’s love interest as well?
So he’s fighting with him even as he’s…
...falling for him. Yes.
It’s all so complicated.
Wait till you see it.
What’s going on with Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn)?
Barb gets thrust into being the main operator at the casino because Bill is focusing on his campaign. So she’s really holding down the fort, and is kind of forced up against the issues there, and Tommy Flute, Jerry’s son [played by Adam Beach]…. She’s really our eyes and ears into the reservation, and casino life. And it’s the first time that she really has a responsible, meaningful role in a business sense.
So this is a productive change for her?
It’sdefinitely productive in the sense that she’s forging an identity for herself…but it’s also destructive in the extent that she’s kind of rubbing up against a boundary of what the patriarchy is. … Her understanding of her life as a Mormon woman was that her husband is her key into heaven. She doesn’t get there without a husband. And I think that in this season she becomes in relationship to an idea that she may not necessarily need a man to get into heaven.
I’m assuming this causes strife between her and Bill?
Yes. And then again, her relationship to his campaign is kind of ambivalent too, because she’s being asked to be the first, the only wife in public again. She is supportive of Bill, though – all the wives kind of get behind the campaign in their own way, but they all have certain issues with what it means for them personally.
How does Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson) fit specifically into Nicki’s story?
There’s conflict between them, in terms of someone coming from the compound into the suburbs, and Nicki’s allegiances to the compound versus the suburbs. But more so than anything else, it’s about the two of them forging trust after a big traumatic abandonment and dealing with the legacy of the compound and plural marriage, and what it forces young girls into. Nicki is ferociously involved in mothering Cara Lynn so that the same mistakes that she has made and have been foisted on her by the compound are not repeated again.
She’s really kind of folded into Nicki’s story. I think next year Cara Lynn will come into her own, and become a fully fledged character and have her own story lines, and I think next year the teen franchise of the show will be majorly reinvented with Teenie and Cara Lynn and Ben.
What about Ben’s flirtation with Margie? Ginnifer Goodwin said it would be “100% addressed.”We’ve been playing around with Margene and Ben’s relationship for the last three seasons, and this season we pay off that story.
Can you talk about the decision to recast Teenie, now played by Bella Thorne?
Because our show is structured so tightly, we usually don’t have year-breaks between seasons in show time. We never have time for our characters to age with our actors, which is OK generally. Luckily Wayne, God bless him, hasn’t had a growth spurt yet, knock on wood. He just gets older and older and stays Wayne, you know? But unfortunately our Teenie [Jolean Wejbe] — our cute little pixie — just shot up. By the time she was 13 playing 11, she started to become tall and looked like she was turning into a 15-year-old.
So what we decided to do was recast. And I think we’ve handled this in a way that is very flawless, so that when Teenie comes home from camp…it’s almost like you don’t even realize that there’s been a change. You kind of get a sense of how Teenie’s changed over the course of her time at camp, and how she’s gone from being this confused girl showing pornography to the neighborhood boys, and comes back as this more controlled, LDS kind of girl. You almost think well, that’s the same actress: Her character’s changed because she’s been away at an LDS camp. It was a very difficult decision to make, and we were afraid that it would bug people. But I feel now that it was the right decision, and it just gives us so many opportunities now to play more of Teenie, and have that character much more active in the life of the series.
How has this season been without Harry Dean Stanton, who played the departed Roman Grant? Do you still talk to him?
We’re in touch. He’s good. He misses being on the show. [Long pause] Hischaracter was so crucial to the show. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean that his presence doesn’t hang over the life of the show in many many ways unexpectedly. I’d say to a degree it feels like he’s still alive, even though he’s not.
And certainly…between Alby and Marilyn Densham, which is Sissy’s character, and J.J. Walker, there are plenty of antagonists going around this year.
Let’s talk about Sissy Spacek, who plays a Washington lobbyist. Did you write the part with her in mind?
We always knew we wanted to have someone of great stature for the role…. We were really writing it for a star in mind, and hoping we could attract someone of that kind of magnitude. We knew that the role had legs, and that it was going to be a large part of the season. As we got into kind of developing it more, with Sissy in mind, we even realized that this sort of character was going to have a crucial role at the end of the season that would be a game changer for the family.
How does Marilyn fit into the show?
She meets Bill in Washington, D.C., … and I’ll just say they have an oil-and-water kind of meeting. They come to terms with each other by the end of that third episode, and then Marilyn and Bill become intertwined, and the family becomes intertwined with this woman, who has her own agenda. It’s a story that will become familiar to people once they see what they’re doing with that character…it’s taken from the headlines.
What’s going on with Bill’s parents Lois (Grace Zabriskie) and Frank (Bruce Dern)?
Frank’s back from Mexico, and he’s looking for Lois and revenge is on his mind. But Lois has ideas about how to protect herself from his revenge, and in fact, succeeds. And a large part of her story this year is being in business with Frank.
So they finally agree on something.
There will always be love and hate in that relationship, and there’ll always be deep love and murder in their souls for each other. You’ll understand their relationship more fully and more deeply than you’ve ever really understood what came between them and made them who they are today.
What about Bill’s brother Joey (Shawn Doyle), who actually killed Roman?
Joey has transgressed. It’s a bit of a ‘Crime and Punishment’ story. What happens when one transgresses one of the most basic moral human laws of our religions, our society, our culture, dealing with the sin of murder.
And erstwhile fourth wife Ana (Branka Katic) returns, after all?
Later in the season. She comes back and she complicates the lives of the family in ways that are unexpected.
What about Rhonda?
She’s gone. There’s a storyline that got dropped. You know, we have so many characters. I have to say -- just for the sake of storytelling I’m happy that a couple got killed off last year.
This is the most ensemble season that we’ve ever had…. Alby comes forward as a fully dimensionalized, understandable, sympathetic, mad person this year. Matt Ross has an Emmy-worthy season. … Lois and Frank become accessible to us, Wanda becomes accessible to us, like oh! That’s why she’s poisoning people. And I’m really excited about that, because these are not crazy people. Even though some of them are challenged with madness, you know? You really get to see why they are the way they are, and they become immediately sympathetic.
Why only nine episodes?
HBO [was] really pushing us to get the show airing in January again, after last year’s January debut. So that was difficult for us — the way the show works, the kind of hands-on quality that [co-creator] Mark [V. Olsen] and I have on every single aspect of it. And the only way that they could make post-production ready to have an airable episode for [Sunday] was if we shortened the order to nine. So that’s the only reason. And so hopefully next year we’ll do 11 or 12, to get back to a fuller place.
Even with everything that you’re putting into these episodes, it’s still sort of like, wait: only nine episodes?
I know. It was, well, OK, we’ll do it, because we wanted to get the show to the people sooner.… If circumstances could have been different, we could have just gone on in March. And hopefully we’ll go on in March next year, instead of January. And that’ll give us the time we need to do a couple more episodes, and also have a little bit less of a hectic season. How do you feel this season stacks up with last?
I think it’s better. There’s more happening, definitely. … For some reason, that kind of compressive reality forced us to kind of go to the heart of things. So I feel like the stories are bigger, the emotional life is bigger. I think that it’s going to be delivering what people got used to last year, but more so.
-- Allyssa Lee
Photo credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO