POLITICAL ANIMALS: James Wolk Interview (2012)

"Political Animals"
“Political Animals”

The new television event from USA Network is the six-part series POLITICAL ANIMALS. With its third installment about to air this Sunday, the political drama is only ramping up the tension between the various Hammond factions. This is no ordinary family, each is motivated by political and personal aspirations that infuse the very blood in their veins. In part two last week, we watched with interest and shock as Elaine Hammond’s son, Douglas, sold out her secret plan to re-run for President of the United States to a tenacious investigative reporter. Whether he is acting on his mother’s orders or in her best interest, it is still incredible to watch as the layers upon layers of political intrigue unfold. In a recent press conference call, co-star James Wolk shared some insight into the inner mind of Douglas Hammond, the “good” son.

In this upcoming episode Doug’s relationship with his dad kind of hits a critical point. Where all that’s coming from and what’s going to come after?
JAMES: So this week the show really takes an interesting turn for Douglas. What’s going to happen in this episode is the audience is going to see where his angst and anger comes from. And a lot of it, and what you’ll see play out in the episode, is exactly what you’re saying. The kind of anger he feels towards his dad, which is borne out of growing up as a young man watching the infidelity, the rampant infidelity that went all around and his father’s just dishonesty all towards Elaine. When Elaine fell to the ground and when Elaine fell to pieces, Douglas was the one that picked her up time and time again. And when she was publicly embarrassed, Douglas was the one that was there for her. He really feels like his father is responsible for tearing the family apart, and kind of tarnishing his mother who he holds in such high esteem.

Does episode smooth out whole infidelity issue or is that going to play out throughout?
JAMES: Such a good question. I mean Douglas loves his dad, but there’s like a thin line between love and hate. You always hear that phrase and that’s exactly what Douglas feels for his dad. He loves him and he wants his respect, which Bud doesn’t give to him at all, for his own reasons. Then combined with that is his anguish for his father’s infidelity. So it does comes come to him in this episode. It kind of all comes to a point and we get into a big screaming match. It’s while we’re away fishing on this kind of fishing trip, and all these memories start trickling back to Douglas because we’re kind of jumping back into a campaign. That’s when the last time his father really let the family down in a big way, in Douglas’ mind, is when his dad kind of went AWOL during Elaine’s last campaign. So all these memories start rushing back to him and he just kind of can’t take it anymore and the pop tops off, which I’m so excited for audiences to see because this kind of perfect, pristine guy is really going to crack in this next episode.

Douglas makes the leak and then has second thoughts about it. But it looks like he’s sort of over the barrel a little bit. Will he be pumping information or leaking information throughout the rest of the season?
JAMES: Oh, the web we weave. Yeah, it gets bad. It gets bad for Doug. He is totally over the barrel and I think it’s going to be really interesting for audiences to watch him try and navigate the murky waters he’s put himself in.

Can you talk about how you became involved in the show?
JAMES: Sure. Greg’s script for POLITICAL ANIMALS was a really hot script around town and it was one that was talked about. We’re just as excited for the series as I think the kind of community out here was when this script was circulating. So when the script came to me to read, I had access to the script. And I had a meeting with Greg and he kind of talked about where this is going and I expressed what I thought about the character, and I was just so enthused. I remember leaving the meeting and just going “I hope he feels as excited about this opportunity as I feel.” And it happened to work out thankfully and that was kind of the start of my role in POLITICAL ANIMALS. At that point nobody had been cast either. It was really early in the process when I came to the project. But it just jumped out at me. I love playing characters that seem like they should be perfect on the outside but are just totally screwed up when you kind of pull that veil away.

Can you talk a bit about working with Sigourney Weaver?
JAMES: Sigourney, she’s wonderful. She’s a consummate professional. She’s an amazing actress. Kind of what you see and what you think she will be as a person, she lives up to that and more. It’s a real treat to work with her. You learn a lot from her both behind and in front of the camera of just how to kind of carry yourself on a set. And it’s a joy, you know. It’s like being a young tennis player and being able to play tennis and volley with the pros, and she is a total pro and it’s a real joy to work with her.

Do you think it’s possible for a politician at such a high level to be a good parent, or is it in the nature of their work to be prone to be self-indulgent and selfish?
JAMES: You know that’s a really good question. The first thing I think of when I think of a politician being a parent is Obama, because he’s constantly talking about his two daughters and constantly talking about his family. So you really do get the idea that he puts family first. And I want to believe that and I think that’s true of him. What I would imagine and what I’ve learning from playing a neglected son in a political family is that I think there is a lot on the plate of these politicians. I think that whether it’s a self-centered thing or whether it’s just that “Hey, this is my profession and it requires so much of my energy,” I do think it would be very easy for the children of those politicians to get sidelined unless they were truly made a priority. And I’d like to think that some politicians can do that. But with our show there’s this great dynamic between Douglas and Elaine where she loves him but she does just kind of expect him to kind of be okay with being pushed to the side because she has so much on her plate. And it kind of really screws his act and it makes him a total head case, which is awesome.

Do you think the media crosses the line when it comes to the families of public figures, whether it’s photographing the children of celebrities or in the case of your TV brother T.J., reporting his suicide attempt, or do you think its par for the course?
JAMES: I think it’s crossing the line. I think that that’s the unfortunate part of being in the public eye is that in this day and age with all the social media we have and the easy access to just posting things on line and taking pictures with your phone, there’s really no privacy any more. And I think that people who are in that public eye, whether it be a politician or some other person in the celebrity life, you kind of have to realize that that’s going to come with the job. It’s unfortunate but that’s the world we live in I think.

What challenges you about playing Douglas?
JAMES: I think the greatest challenge playing Douglas is when I first read the script and I saw the character, my only concern was that he was going to be the straight man and that what can we pull out of him; where can we find conflict in him to make him an interesting character? And I think that as the scripts have gone on and this series has been written, the challenge I think has become almost like a group effort with the writers as well as myself making him very layered and dimensional. But initially I thought, “Well how do you take someone who seems very perfect (because in the pilot episode he does) and kind of tear him down?” And that has been a challenge that I’ve enjoyed rising to because it’s so fun to find the duplicity in Douglas and the kind of screwed up dark nature that he has deep within. But it was a challenge to find it.

Can you talk about the dynamic between Douglas and T.J.?
JAMES: Yes, Douglas and T.J. are kind of the only people in each other’s lives who they fully trust and who they can always count on. So it’s been a blast to play that out with Sebastian Stan, who’s playing T.J., to kind of find that brother relationship. They’re twins, so they feel responsible for each other and I think they feel like either one could have gone either way, like had one been born before the other — I think they feel entirely responsible for each other. So that will play out really interestingly in the limited series that we’ll see initially here. It’s been a joy to play that. They are each other’s rock and they are there for each other through thick and thin. They both go through some really bad shit, so it’s fun to see them there for each other.

What is it you think about the show that really attracts people and makes it such a favorite?
JAMES: I think quite frankly it is because politicians are such a celebrity in our culture now. It’s kind of one in the same; they go along with each other. And when we watch the news and we watch our President and our senators and candidates running, they become these celebrities. Then they step away from the camera and they step away from where we’re able to see them very clearly, and you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors unless of course leaks happen or what have you. But the point is that with this show, we’re pulling the veil back on this former first family and we’re stepping inside where you usually don’t get to follow them and you’re seeing how these pristine people really do have flaws and really do struggle. I think it’s really putting the magnifying glass on a portion of it that we don’t get to see in real life but, that we imagine in our heads and that we’re curious about finding out. And I think that’s what so fun about watching this family.

What do you think it is about Anne that Douglas finds so attractive?
JAMES: I think what Douglas has with Anne is very outside of what he has with his family. I think that is what he is so attracted to in Anne is that his family is this very tumultuous group of people and there’s so much turmoil within the family, and they love each other and they care about each other but it’s a very tough dynamic within the Hammond family. I think that just comes from being inside that fishbowl; from being inside that pressure cooker; and when he steps into a room with Anne and when he’s alone with Anne, it’s a real escape for him. It’s an ability for him to extract himself from this fishbowl that he’s grown up in and kind of relax and kind of put his inhibitions away and just be and be present. And that’s what he enjoys about being with Anne.

Will we find out more about Anne’s backstory and her relationship with Douglas?
JAMES: Well, I can say this: that relationship is going to grow and it’s going to evolve., and there are certain things that happen in the series. They find out about sides of each other they didn’t quite know existed before, and I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how they deal with that. How Anne deals with Douglas when he tells her that his mom is running again and that he may be a part of this. When Anne came into the picture she was kind of Douglas’ escape from what he does. But Douglas kind of gets sucked back into this political world and it’s really interesting — Brittany does an amazing job of playing this — about how Anne deals with that and how she deals with Douglas kind of turning the tides of the ship back towards his political ambitions. I think Doug has also learned a lot about Anne in this series and I think it will be really wonderful to watch that unfold.

Before taking on the role did you do any research or watch any political stories?
JAMES: Yes, when I took the role right away I went out and I bought Bobby Kennedy’s biography. I read his biography because Bobby Kennedy was his brother’s Chief of Staff, and he was a very kind of dark character. I mean, we see pictures of Bobby and he’s this very kind of all-American kind of affable fellow. But what you find out about him is that he was the family bulldog he really was the runt of the family so it kind of turned him into this just ambitious kind of ruthless guy. I thought how interesting would it be if that’s what Douglas had if that’s where Douglas came from. I really read it and I really wanted to take Douglas in that direction and it was something that Greg [Berlanti] felt when he created the character as well. So I immediately went out and bought the biography and it was really helpful in creating the character.

Is there anything you’ve learned since you started filming this; whether from an acting standpoint or just in general about yourself?
JAMES: That’s a good question: what have I learned? I’d say I’ve had to go to some really dark places to play Douglas and that’s not always easy to do. But it’s been a wonderful stretch as an actor to go to these really dark places and these unlikable places and it’s been a real great exercise and experience doing that.

Is there a point where Douglas will just get completely tired of T.J.? Do you think he could ever reach that point with T.J.’s antics and screw-up’s?
JAMES: Yes, I so badly want him to get sick of T.J.’s antics. Like I actually read it and I’m like, “Come on man. Can’t you say ‘no’ to T.J.?” But he can’t. He puts T.J. in his place and you’ll see that. They come to a head just as some of the scenes you’ve seen between Bud and Douglas. But I think once it’s all said and done it just really goes back to that twin thing which is so heartbreaking to see because he just doesn’t have the willpower to completely dismiss his brother. I think he feels so connected to him. So that’s an interesting one to navigate. He’s a really good co-dependent; Douglas. He’s terrible in that way.

Who do you think is actually more messed up, Doug or T.J.?
JAMES: I think that Douglas is more messed up because I think he’s keeping it all down below. If you ask T.J. he would probably say that he thinks T.J. is more messed up. But I think Douglas has some real shit going on with him. I think he needs to get a psychiatrist fast, but unfortunately he won’t and it kind of all comes out.

Why do you think Douglas feels more responsible for the family? Ad why are he and T.J. such extremes?
JAMES: Well I think that T.J. and Douglas, they are as you see them in the show, totally different. Yet as you’ll see as the show progresses, there is actually a line where Douglas says to T.J., “We’re not that different, you and I.” Because the truth of the matter is that Douglas, his perfect pristine exterior starts to crack and he really does become unraveled as the show goes on. But I think that each of them found themselves in these two positions: Douglas as the caretaker of the family; T.J. kind of as a drug user, and I think that they both came from places of hurt and places of being frightened and it just manifested in different ways. One of them said, “Okay, I’m going to fix this,” and the other guy said — I don’t want to speak for T.J. –but maybe he said, “I’m going to fix it or I’m going to find a way to deal with it” and they just went in different directions with it as you can see.

Can you talk a little bit about why Douglas’ relationship is different that T.J.’s with their grandmother?
JAMES: Well I think Margaret, the character being played by Ellen Burstyn, I think she has a quiet strength in her. She herself is kind of always looking over the family and taking care of the family. And little does anyone know that Douglas probably needs a lot of caretaking, but it seems like he can take care of himself. So I think that Margaret really reaches across the table to T.J., because she sees the anxiety and the fear in him. And I think that she came from a life she was a dancer — a go-go dancer in Vegas — and I think she’s been around a lot of alcoholics. She’s been around a lot of addicts. And so she really reaches across the table to take care of T.J. as best as she can. And I think that Douglas’ job and his role in family as the strength and as the caretaker kind of doesn’t make him an easy person to take care of. HE kind of pushes that away a little bit and I think that’s why you’re seeing a difference between those two relationships.

How do you think he sort of cultivated his sort of “hero complex” that he has where he wants to take care of everybody and everything?
JAMES: It started with his father’s infidelity. I think it started with just growing up, and I think two things played into it. I think it was his father’s infidelity and having to take care of his mom, and I think it was T.J. being the squeaky wheel of the two and him kind of being sidelined by that. So not getting the attention he wanted from his parents. And I don’t just want to make it a “mommy and daddy” problem that he’s dealing with here, but it’s borne out of that. I mean he cares so much about his family that it’s borne out of that. But then it grows and that’s just like the seed for it. And I think when the audience meets him in this series he has a total “hero complex” that gets the best of him quite frankly.

To see how Douglas continues to struggle with his need for perfection and control in a family where neither is really achievable due to their thorny personal history and problems, and the pressures of the political spotlight, be sure to tune in for a new episode of POLITICAL ANIMALS on Sunday, July 29th at 10:00 p.m. on USA Network.

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