Showtime's United States of Tara tackles fresh territory with its portrayal of a woman with dissociative identity disorder (DID, played by Toni Collette) through the prism of a suburban family. TVGuide.com spoke with co-writer Alexa Junge (Friends, West Wing) and Brie Larson (who plays Tara's daughter, Kate) on how the show balances quirky moments and the delicate subject material, what it was like working with the show's creator and co-writer, Diablo Cody, and why real life isn't PG.
On their first reactions to the script:
Alexa Junge: When I read it I thought, 'this is so lovely' ... dissociative identity disorder is not a frivolous topic at all, and yet I felt it had a kind of light touch that I think is actually inspiring in the long run, so it felt like it was really rich material.
Brie Larson: It seemed shocking at first, and so incredible I didn't think it could be real. ... I also thought at first that it was odd, because you never see a family who just deals with it. [Something like DID] always has to become a huge plot point, and it breaks up the family, and there's all this turmoil and drama. But it's not the case in this script. There are times when people get their feelings hurt ... but, at the end of the day, it's not even the main topic of their lives.
On how Junge approached the writing:
Junge: [Cody] said that one of things that attracted her to this — and I think it was part of [executive producer Steven] Spielberg's original attraction as well — is that it's a metaphor for the ways that women have to be different people to get by. You have different parts of yourself... the mother part, the girlfriend part, the work part. I think, initially, when she first broke down the alters, they were connected to her looking at that aspect. ...What I learned, and what coincides understandably with that, is that in every situation like this, every alter has a purpose in this system — a psychological purpose. ... [Diablo] had set it up intuitively in a way that fit with these things that happen. And then we were able to flesh it out.
On how Larson approached her role:
Larson: My main concern was no one wants to watch an annoying teenager on TV. Everyone has one at home. So, I wanted to make sure that even in those times when [Kate] was annoying, you knew where it was coming from. You have to think of each alter as a completely different human being, and I decided different backstories for [them], to learn why I liked each one. ... [I was] trying to ... show the audience how important each alter is, and how they change the dynamic of the household.
On which alters were more challenging to work on (and with) than others:
Junge: They each have their own unique challenges. Not just the alters, but good writing, to keep the characters dimensional. What's interesting, too, is that you start to uncover who knows what, and how much they all know about each other. That's actually why I made the decision that we needed to stay close to the four for the first season ... because what we were trying to do was help people invest in them, and feel like they could relate to them and love them and get the rules. ... And then we can really, hopefully, move around and open it up a little bit.
Larson: There's an alter [who appeared later in the show who] was the hardest for all of us, because she [was] still extremely unknown to everyone in the family. You have these alters that you've been dealing with that you understand, and then...
On balancing the show's light moments with a heavy situation:
Junge: I feel like there are almost no families anymore that are, quote unquote, normal. We think of [Tara's] disorder as a way of looking at normal family life, as opposed to her being some kind of oddity or butt of the joke. ... We couldn't just do 'Here comes the funny episode this week,' we had to create a mythology and almost a mystery element to keep the viewer interested in her, and what's actually so beautiful from a storytelling standpoint is that the character's trying to find out what made her the way she is as much as the viewer is, so that makes it a heroic journey.
Larson: It's refreshing to be a family that, through all these mishaps and weird circumstances, we all have this great love for one another. And the family does, 100 percent, stick by [Tara's] side.
On pushing the envelope ... and the public's reaction to the show:
Junge: We're hoping it's a prism for normal life. The thing about [DID] is that people don't really know about it. They have their ideas about it if they're old enough to remember Sybil or the The Three Faces of Eve. ... I'm hoping my job is to take people through the same process that I've been through, in terms of not seeing it as an outsider, but being able to look inside of it.
Larson: That's the best part! ... Pushing the envelope — I don't think it's anything new, maybe pushing it to a surface that people haven't seen before. It's just real life, and sometimes real life isn't PG.