On the Set: Uncovering the Secrets of Political Animals
Usually, the secretary of state keeps company with foreign dignitaries in exotic, far-flung locales, not Teamsters in the shell of a business park by the Philadelphia International Airport. Then again, this Madame Secretary has saved the planet from some really illegal aliens before taking office, so who are we to judge?
As Political Animals' former First Lady-turned-Secretary of State Elaine Barrish Hammond, Sigourney Weaver is back in badass form, only on a civic-duty level rather than a sci-fi one. And although she has three names and a philandering ex-husband, Elaine is not based on you-know-who. "I had to get over the slight feeling of, 'Oh, it's Hillary,' which she really isn't," says Weaver, citing inspiration from countless women in power, including a childhood headmistress and yes, Mrs. Clinton. "We need more female leaders like Hillary...women bring a different spirit to leadership. It's much more 'Roll up your sleeves and let's get it done.'" As for what drew her to this work, her first TV gig since 2009's Prayers for Bobby, let's just say she knows a meaty role when she sees one. "I haven't read material this satisfying in a long time," she says. "It was like being offered a big juicy steak after you've been a vegan for five years."
USA's six-hour miniseries about the messy world of a D.C. dynasty rounded out by Elaine's boozy mother (Ellen Burstyn), her libidinous, bigoted former president ex-husband Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds) and their twin sons — engaged political strategist Doug (Lone Star's James Wolk) and openly gay train wreck TJ (Captain America star Sebastian Stan) — could be written off as Primary Colors: The Good Wife Edition. But executive producer Greg Berlanti has forged a richly layered and addictive tale of power and familial ties that mixes the heart of his Jack & Bobby with the dysfunction of his Dirty Sexy Money. "There'd never been a former first family on TV before, so I thought it would be interesting to look at what it means to be 'out of power,'" says the self-professed political junkie. "There's also a lot of wistfulness in the show, and I think the country is experiencing a bit of that right now. Like, 'Man, the '90s were awesome!'"
Animals is like all USA projects: It's about characters. "We never simplify them," offers Carla Gugino, whose Washington Globe reporter Susan Berg is responsible for much of the Hammonds' previous miseries. Sitting in the fictional newspaper's offices above an empty beauty-supply distributor, Gugino makes for the hottest print journalist ever as she explains her newsie's link to Weaver's newsworthy politico: "Elaine was absolutely somebody she idolized from the start. So when she stayed with a man who was repeatedly unfaithful to her, that was something Susan couldn't understand." After a damning piece of Hammond scoop falls into Berg's lap, she sees a chance to finally get some answers by leveraging her silence for a week of access to Elaine's world. Says Gugino: "She makes a little bit of a Faustian bargain."
What she gets may be more story than she'd imagined. In a perfect storm of bad timing, several Hammond secrets start bubbling up, Elaine faces a career crossroads, and golden-child Doug is forced to risk more than just his romance with an interior designer (Brittany Ishibashi) to protect the family. "He likes to think of himself as morally righteous," says Wolk of his Bobby Kennedy-ish role. "But he does find himself in some pretty murky waters." For his drug-addled brother, things are even more dire once his past comes back to derail his future. "TJ's place in this family is that he has no place in it," says Stan. "I don't want to label him as tragic. I would use the term martyr."
Does that mean tragedy awaits? Berlanti is mum. "The final episode has lots of twists and turns," he says. But since it remains to be seen if USA will want more of the show beyond this run, he's also built in "moments of resolution" and has his fingers crossed. "We just have to hope as many people watch as possible."
You've got our vote.
Political Animals premieres Sunday at 10/9c on USA.
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