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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
What was your most traumatic or challenging acting moment in the most recent season of your series?
American Horror Story: Coven FX
For one of our episodes, I was told that I would be working with snakes. Four of them to be exact. I have never been around snakes in my life. One of them is this huge albino boa constrictor, and then there are these three swamp snakes. Mind you, my character is supposed to be totally comfortable around these things and in charge of the moment, but I was introduced to them just before we shot the scene. My stomach was jumping around even though there was a snake wrangler on set, because these guys are so unpredictable. They don’t just sit and behave. Sometimes they slither, other times they dart. What I really wasn’t prepared for was the hissing. I had no idea. It turns out they aren’t these silent little creatures, but very loud. One time, the boa wrapped itself tightly around my waist, rose up and hissed in my ear. Oh, my God. I worked to try to stay as Zen as possible, but I really earned my money that day.
For the episode where my character, Amy, finally kisses Sheldon [Jim Parsons], there had been all of this buildup. It was a huge step for our characters, requiring a lot of delicateness in the presentation. It wasn’t something that we could really plan out during the table read. Jim and I talked quite a bit about it beforehand, just to design the sort of physicality of it. Does Sheldon put his hands on Amy’s hips or not? How passionate should they get? I was happy to go on Jim’s instinct and ideas. I look to him for guidance, and he’s never let me down. When it went down, everyone got real emotional and applauded, and I’m happy we were able to strike the right tone to carry it through.
Breaking Bad AMC
Oh, Jesus. There were so many traumatic moments for both me and Marie during the final eight episodes. That scene where Skyler (Anna Gunn) and I are fighting over her baby Holly was so emotionally exhausting, one of the longest days of my life. I also waited until the last possible moment to read the script where I knew Hank (Dean Norris) would be shot. But the worst was shooting the guacamole scene in the Mexican restaurant. I mean, I had to tell Walt (Bryan Cranston) that he had to kill himself. After the first take, I asked Bryan if I could hug him for support. He let me, but then he said, “I want you to look me straight in the eye when you say it, and you have to mean it.” So I did, over and over. When we finally had the shot, I just broke down and started crying. Then we all started downing margaritas. God, I’m starting to tear up just thinking about it again.
There was a scene in the season finale when my character, Lucille, has to slap the Sheriff, played by Matt Craven. We’ve been friends since doing a play together in NYC 30 years ago. When we got the script, Matt kidded me, “Well, you’re finally going to get some justice, Franny,” because his character had slapped me onstage eight times a week. When we discussed it, Matt told me that he didn’t want me to hold back but really slap him. He would cue me on which take to actually slap him so he’d be prepared. But when we got into the meat of the scene, during one take I got so emotionally involved that I actually hauled off and smacked him. It was this automatic reflex. Seeing his pain and shock was horrifying. He was so pissed — and justifiably so. I was mortified. I’d betrayed the sacred trust that actors have with each other. I’d betrayed my friend. I felt embarrassed, unprofessional and untrustworthy. Out of control. We talked. I apologized (and still do apologize). We worked it out and we continued shooting, because I still had to really slap him for his close-up. I cringed when I saw the scene later.
The Goldbergs ABC
When our first AD called, “That’s a wrap on Wendi McLendon-Covey!” on our final shooting day, that was very difficult. I’d had a rough time the entire week because it was our season finale, and it occurred to me that I might not ever get to work with these people again. At that point, we had no idea if we were going to get picked up. (If you happen to watch our finale, you’ll notice that I sound really stuffy. That’s because I was crying constantly the entire week.) So when they wrapped me, I lost it completely. I went around giving awkward hugs to our cast, crew, writers, producers, everybody, getting makeup and snot all over them and thanking them for a great season. I gave a big bear hug to a man who said, “I don’t work on this show.” But I was on a roll and thanked him anyway. I think he appreciated it.
True Detective HBO
I’m thinking of the scene where my character, Maggie, goes to Rust Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) apartment to reclaim her independence from Marty (Woody Harrelson) and finally be free of him. She’s betraying the person she’s closest to with the man she is most threatened by. It was a very explosive moment in the show. It was kind of primal and fast and desperate and cathartic. You could feel the energy in the room as we were playing it. Maggie had spent 15 years with this person and finally came to realize she had to beat him at his own game. So she went to Cohle to have sex with him and use him and is almost immediately devastated by what she’s done. Then I tell Marty and crush him with the reality. It was extremely intense to play, and I carried that raw emotion around as I prepared for and played it.
LENNON PARHAM and JESSICA ST. CLAIR
Playing House USA
Parham: When we shot the pilot for the show, I was eight months pregnant and Jessica was three months. As we were writing and shooting the season, we both had had our babies and were pumping out breast milk.
St. Clair: Then for our ninth episode [which airs June 17], we did a little life-imitates-art thing and Lennon’s character, Maggie, actually gives birth. It was so weird, like a deja-vu flashback, and really intense.
Parham: Even though we were a comedy, we were determined to portray birth in a real way that women and their partners could relate to. So my character is in labor for a week.
St. Clair: I was writing this birth episode while 9 ½ months pregnant, telling my unborn baby, “You’ve got to stay up there until Mommy gets this script done.”
Parham: And I’m saying, “Don’t worry, kid. Come out whenever; we’ve got it covered.”
St. Clair: I turned in the finished script, and that night at 2 a.m., I went into labor.
Parham: The script was just like real life, down to pooping on the table during labor.
House of Cards NETFLIX
I love playing Jackie Sharp. She is a complex character — flawed and brilliant and strong and vulnerable. She has remarkable courage. The greatest difficulty is in just not knowing what she is going to do next. That’s also the difficulty of acting in a TV show. It is to commit, completely, to an action that she takes while knowing that committing in that way might get her killed off and me out of a job! There was a certain point last season when I realized Jackie had made enemies of all of the powerful people in the show. Yikes! I thought she was dead for sure (or at least that she would lose the midterm elections and be replaced). As an actress, in portraying Jackie, I have to give up all hope of controlling her or what she will do while playing a woman who is deeply invested in control. That’s a great challenge.
This was a really loaded year for my character, Kristina. Not only did she battle breast cancer, she also ran for mayor. The most difficult scene for me came when Kristina lost the campaign and had to stand up in front of everyone and give her concession speech. Even though it’s what we actors do, I felt especially nervous doing it. At the same time, it felt very powerful. I mean, Kristina’s got balls, man. Nothing keeps this woman down. I have maybe one ball, at most 1 ½. She’s got a bunch. It sounds funny to say this, but this character teaches me how to be a better woman, how to stand up for things and fight for what’s right in my own life. But that stuff all kind of went out the window during the speech. I felt like I must have really been channeling Kristina to feel it so deeply.
Inside Amy Schumer COMEDY CENTRAL
I find that the hardest days when shooting my show are the ones with the biggest production. We traveled to Dubai with a small crew for this one location shoot. I was to hang off the top of the Burj Khalifa, this very pointy skyscraper that’s hyped as the tallest man-made building in the world. The plan called for me to be suspended upside-down, Mission: Impossible-style, while peeing my pants. And we had only one take to get it. The director was going to pre-wet my pants so I didn’t really have to pee, right? But then he forgot, so I had to actually urinate. And no stunt double! So there I am … Wait, forget it, it’s bullshit, sorry, I just made that whole thing up. Here’s the real anecdote: We did this spoof of The Newsroom with Josh Charles playing the anchor with completely ridiculous dialogue, and I had to try not to break up while keeping the Aaron Sorkin timing. It was f—ing impossible.
Six days into shooting our “Beach House” episode, I had my most difficult moment of the season. We had been living on Long Island, filming for longer than we usually do. One of the underlying conflicts in the episode is that my character, Marnie, has planned this very elaborate and controlled bonding weekend with her friends. Hannah (Lena Dunham) wants nothing more than to thwart those efforts and invites over a bunch of people, so the (mostly improvised) dinner scene turns into a free-for-all where insults directed at Marnie — and characters coming to her defense — are flying back and forth. After filming for an hour or so, my exhaustion started to blur the lines between myself and Marnie, and I started to become genuinely upset. When they finally wrapped the scene, I fell apart. To this day, I can’t quite figure out why I was so sensitive. I guess after playing one person for so many years, I started to feel her feelings.
The most traumatic moment for me in season three came when my character, Mellie Grant, was raped by her father-in-law, played by the wonderful Barry Bostwick. The scene was shot as part of a flashback sequence on-location. We had to do it in a single day, so I prepped hard. We don’t have trailers when we’re on location, but I found a quiet corner where I could have a safe little space. I fasted all day so that I would feel pure, clean, empty. I felt a great responsibility to that scene, and I tried to live the beautifully crafted story with honesty and with a grace of non-judgment. It meant a lot to me to be able to portray that story because I feel like it is a staggeringly familiar situation to far more women than we would like to think. I wanted them to be able to see themselves not as victims, but as survivors.
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