‘Rooted in reality’: Chatting with the cast and creators of ‘United States of Tara’
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Dissociative identity disorder wouldn’t normally be a laughing matter.
But for two seasons of Showtime’s hit “United States of Tara,” the psychiatric condition where a person displays multiple distinct identities or personalities, known as alters, takes center stage and has provided plenty of laughs on the way.
The show (read our coverage of Season 1 here) features Toni Collette as a wife and mother who suffers from the disorder, and on any given episode she switches from a loose (and we do mean loose) teenager, perfect “Stepford”-esque housewife, a crazy war vet, an animal-like monster and this season saw her transform into a new alter: her own therapist.
Creator Diablo Cody said blending this very serious – and incredibly complex – disorder with comedy was “such a fine line to walk on the show.”
“We want things to be funny. At the same time we’re dealing with some pretty intense issues,” Cody said. “At first it was a challenge to write funny stuff and still keep it emotional.”
Cody said that pulling off the show, which scored an early third season pickup, is a daunting task because of the intricacies of DID.
“There’s so much research, and it’s ongoing. I think in the beginning we kinda believed we’d cram for it and move on from there,” Cody said. “That’s not the case. We’re constantly working with the consultant and psychiatrist. You have a real show and it’s rooted in reality. We don’t imagine things that happens to a person with DID. We always have an anecdote or data to back it up.”
Helping to keep the show “rooted in reality” is Leah Peterson, who serves as a consultant for the show. The 39-year-old has lived with DID from the age of 4 and lived with several alters: Claire served as a savior; Leah II was stuck at 6 years old; Sidney; Gatekeeper, who made sure no information came forward before she could handle it; Protector, who had the power to make sure if things were overloaded he could shut it down; Predator to hold the rage and anger that dealt with the abuse she suffered. Predator later became a friend and changed his name to Steve.
Peterson was brought onto the show after Cody, who executive produces the show with Steven Spielberg, found her online journals that chronicled her experiences with the disorder (she also self-published a memoir about dealing with the disorder).
“It’s been fantastic. The reasons I put my journals online is because people aren’t talking about [DID]. Because I have this disorder people they think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna stay away from you.’ Working on the show meant I was going to talk about it more, and be well-rounded. I wanted to be able to put some input. I’m a mom and a wife, so a lot of stuff that I went through. Yes, it’s a bit sensationalized and doesn’t work the same in real life, but people are talking about it.”
Collette, who has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as Tara, said although the show is lucky to have direct input from someone who lives with DID, she has purposely not spent much time with Peterson.
“I was afraid that I would feel obliged to tell her story, or be too swayed by one individual. But I do know that she brings a clarity and an authenticity to the show,” Collette said in e-mail from the set of a new film. “It’s such an obtuse disorder and we’re all juggling and hoping to strike the right chords. But with Leah on board we know that we can’t play a bad note. They’re all beautiful.”
Though the disorder is complex and this season dealt with Tara experiencing co-consciousness – something Peterson experiences with her two alters (she is down to two after being integrated in 2002) – the show doesn’t aim to teach the general public about DID.
“Perhaps ‘educate’ is the wrong word,” Collete said. “But there is certainly a responsibility to be honest to portray DID as realistically as possible.”
John Corbett, who plays Tara’s husband Max, prefers to think of the lightheartedness of the show and hopes viewers are enjoying the ride.
“I’m more for the entertainment of it. I’m going to let Toni and the producers and writers worry about [the complexities of the disorder],” Corbett said. “I want to make more fun of the situations. I want to see more alters. Toni is so great, I want lots of characters.”
Corbett, who is also steaming up theater screens with an appearance in “Sex and the City 2,” said he’s enjoyed his character’s break from being the overly supportive husband.
“I’m just as curious as the audience. What’s going to happen with my relationship with the kids and my wife? That first season I knew my place. I’m the rock of the family,” Corbett said. “The second season the writers called me up. They said, ‘We don’t want Max to be the ground of the family.’ They unraveled him. I was really surprised when they had me get it on with Pammy [Joey Lauren Adams].”
Collete hopes whatever path Tara takes for Season 3 is “far and wide,” while Corbett just wants more story lines featuring Buck (even after that brutal, late-night beat down Max faced at the hands of the girl-crazy war vet a few episodes back).
“We have a couple new show runners [for Season 3]. They are really funny guys. I suspect we’re going to have more laughs,” Corbett said. “But I think the audience wants to get to some revelation.”
The finale airs Monday night after “Nurse Jackie.”
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photos: Top: (Left to right) John Corbett as Max, Brie Larson as Kate, Keir Gilchrist as Marshall, and Toni Collette as Tara, Buck, Shoshana and Alice. Credit: Courtesy of Showtime.
Middle: Diablo Cody, creator, executive producer, and writer of “United States of Tara.” Credit: Jordin Althaus / Showtime.
Bottom: Toni Collette as Tara and John Corbett as Max. Credit: Jordin Althaus / Showtime.
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