“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 (Chloë 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.
This season in particular, every episode is packed with an incredible amount of plot.
Chloë 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Paxton: Bill resents that. He’s like, “I’m a taxpayer, I’m a law-abiding citizen, I try to be a stand-up guy to my wives and my children . . . “
Goodwin: But then you’re not law-abiding.
What about your characters are you still wondering about?
Tripplehorn: A lot. No, I still don’t understand my character. You hear a lot about people who’ve done a series over a long period of time, and the writing and the actual acting kind of blur because the actors know their characters so well. I haven’t personally felt that.
Do you mean because Barb is so conventional, so why would she --
Tripplehorn: She’s not conventional, really. I mean, yes, she is, but she’s just really conflicted. And then sometimes she’s accepting of situations that I would have thought were established that Barb wouldn’t like.
Goodwin [to Tripplehorn]: Most of my questions are about your character. I understand why Nicki is here, I understand why Margie is here. I understand exactly what it is Bill is up to. But as a viewer, I have trouble wrapping my brain around your decision.
Sevigny: Toward the end of the season, it gets hard for me, because my character is so --
Sevigny: It’s just that Nicki has so few kind moments or tender moments, and she’s always doing something --
I feel like Nicki is an incredibly sympathetic character and really funny.
Sevigny: But people don’t see her that way!
Is that still true?
Tripplehorn: I find her to be very sympathetic.
Paxton [to Sevigny]: I think the way they keep revealing the things you went through, you can’t help but get why she is the way she is. I like her resilience.
Tripplehorn: She’s damaged.
Goodwin: Give her a break.
A lot’s been written about polygamy on the show as a metaphor. Do you feel like it’s a direct parallel to gay marriage? Or are there larger issues about the intersection of love and the law, and the regulation of people’s relationships?
Goodwin: I know that as a human being I have been made more open-minded by being on this show. In understanding Margene, I understand there are things that would not be right for me, but that doesn’t make it any less perfect and appropriate and magical.
Paxton: You can’t put a law or jurisdiction on love and belonging. I don’t think they’re trying to hit a heavy message. But it does come out.
Sevigny: I also think the mainstream, perhaps, has a harder time embracing our show. But they have these shows with gay characters that are really embraced; it seems that’s more acceptable.
Do you feel that way? That the mainstream doesn’t accept the show?
Sevigny: I think mainstream America does have a problem with the show. Because of the subject. Even awards and things like that, we were thinking perhaps --
Tripplehorn: Well, we talked about the “ick” factor. Polygamists, “ick.”
Goodwin: Even though there are hundreds of thousands of these people living in America.
What do you think of polygamy now versus when you first took the job?
Goodwin: I feel strongly that there is a huge difference between how the Henricksons live polygamously -- is that a word?
Tripplehorn: It is now.
Goodwin: -- and the world of Warren Jeffs. Bill is not coercing young girls into inappropriate sexual situations. These women are all here by choice.
Tripplehorn: I can relate to the Henricksons. It’s consenting adults, it’s a lifestyle. And after having been in this world for four years, there are aspects of this that work. I think children sometimes do get the best of a relationship like this, because they’re not under the care of people who don’t know them -- it’s family.
Paxton: I think people have accepted the show in a lot of places you might think that they wouldn’t.
Sevigny: I met three men in a Tiki bar once in Texas who were married to each other.
Tripplehorn: That was a conversation stopper! What do you call that? Gay-lygapous? Gay-lygamy.
Sevigny: They loved the show.
Obviously, the world has changed around “Big Love,” and current events seem to chase it. Mormon subcultures have become more just -- culture.
Goodwin: Isn’t that bananas?
Sevigny: I feel like “Big Love” has been ahead of the times. Our story lines hit what happens in these communities before they actually do.
Tripplehorn: How about this last thing with Texas? We were ready to go with the scripts, and then the writers strike hit. And then how many months later, the Texas thing happened.
Paxton: We thought, “Gee, we’re going to be off the air a long time, maybe people will forget us. Oh, thank you!”
And there’s Prop 8, which many Mormons famously lobbied to pass. Obviously, that has to do with marriage and defending marriage, and Mormons seem to be more interested in that than other people.
Paxton: An editorial I read was, “It seems hypocritical for people who’ve had this in its past” --
Goodwin: Its recent past.
Paxton: " -- to vilify same-sex marriage”? I just feel like, God, live and let live. As long as somebody’s not trying to make me live a certain way, or people are consenting adults, I have no problem with it. But I’m a libertine and a liberal.
Sevigny: But there are so many young people raised in polygamous situations who don’t have a choice, who are kept repressed. We’ve been addressing that more and more on “Big Love,” and in the third season, you hear about Nicki’s first marriage and other things from her past that address that issue. How wrong that is, and how something should be done about that.
What sorts of scenes do you like doing the most?
Tripplehorn: We love the scenes as a family.
Goodwin: We keep asking for more lovin’. And I don’t mean more sex.
Tripplehorn: Just more of us. We got away from it.
Paxton: There’s a scene at the end of the first season when Barb is exposed and they kick her out of the governor’s mansion. There’s a beautiful scene where she’s upstairs and Nicki comes in and Margie comes in, and then Bill appears at the doorway. And it makes people kind of well up, like, “God, look at this solidarity. These people care about each other.”