Sigourney Weaver never wanted to do TV.
Not because she was being a snob, mind you — although after having thrived in the film world for more than 30 years, including her iconic stint as Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies, she certainly would have had the right. It was more of a timing issue, with her busy cinematic career (five films last year, three this year) not leaving her much of a chance to keep up with what was happening on the small screen.
Then came Political Animals.
“Sometimes the universe brings you something you should have been looking for but you weren’t,” Weaver says of the six-episode USA Network miniseries that airs Sundays beginning July 15. “In fact, I’ve turned down a couple films to do this, so I’m just having a blast. She’s such a delicious, rich, interesting woman to play.”
“She” would be Elaine Barrish, a former first lady and presidential candidate who is now serving as secretary of state for the man who defeated her. Meanwhile, Elaine’s gregarious ex-husband and former president, Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds), still looms large in her political and personal life, even as his public profile diminishes. Also serving as a not-always-welcome presence is her brassy, ex-showgirl mother, Margaret Barrish (Ellen Burstyn), whose blunt manner often conflicts with Elaine’s more measured approach. Then there are her twin sons: Douglas (James Wolk), who acts as Elaine’s devoted chief of staff, and T.J. (Sebastian Stan), a drug addict still dealing with having been the first child of a president to come out as gay. Outside the family, Elaine has a complex relationship with reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who seems to make sport of writing critical stories about her.
It’s the rare political story told largely through the point of view of women, women who are not simply restricted to being wives or mothers of powerful men, but who actually wield power of their own. Certainly, it doesn’t take much insight to notice similarities in Weaver’s character and a real-life first lady turned presidential candidate turned secretary of state, but Weaver says Political Animals is far from being a thinly veiled Hillary Clinton biopic.
“Almost from the moment I started reading it, it felt like Elaine was completely her own invention,” she says. “I’m sure there are things that she and Mrs. Clinton have in common like their moral compass and their passion to serve the public and do an excellent job. … But I think it’s also about women’s leadership and what women bring to leadership. There isn’t a lot of posturing and role-playing, it’s much more about team-building and inclusion and ‘Let’s roll our sleeves up and get to work.’ You see women senators working across the aisle, they’re always trying to help each other. One of the reasons Greg [Berlanti] wrote it is to encourage more women to go into politics because I think we need them.”
Power At What Cost?
The series — which everyone involved hopes will continue beyond the initial six episodes — doesn’t shy away from laying bare the unique obstacles women face in politics and the workplace, especially the double standard of being ridiculed for showing ambition while a man is celebrated. Then there is the more universal issue involving the cost of obtaining power and holding on to it.
For Elaine and her family, that usually involves a complete loss of privacy. Every detail of their lives is fodder for the public and hungry reporters like Gugino’s character.
“Susan is so much about the fact that these people’s personal lives are not private and that they shouldn’t be,” says Gugino, who describes herself as “fiercely protective” of her own privacy. “That’s been really interesting to explore that and see the validity in that side. It’s always easier to project onto people what we don’t know. There’s a wonderful quote I read years ago — I wish I could remember who said it — that kept coming back to me, that it is the plight of the well-known to be misunderstood. That makes perfect sense, because if you only know someone from their persona or what’s in the public eye, how would you know them? There’s a larger chance that you’d get it wrong than you’d get it right.”
Much of the drama in Political Animals centers around Elaine and Susan overcoming their inherent adversity and developing empathy for each other. Susan gains more insight, for instance, as to why Elaine would stay with her husband as long as she did despite his many public affairs.
It was the chance to show the private side of such a public figure that initially hooked Weaver on the role.
“What’s fascinating to me is she’s so good at spinning these plates internationally and knowing what’s right, and yet when it comes to her own family she often is so clouded by emotion she can’t figure out what she should do,” she says. “I think that’s true for a lot of people who are very effective in life and very succeessful. Their work, in some ways, is much easier to deal with.”
Taking To TV
When we spoke, Weaver was only two episodes into her transition to the small screen, and admits that she hadn’t even seen scripts for the final three episodes. It’s been a big change for the superstar, but one she’s found worthwhile.
“I love making movies, I love the vision of a big movie — but there’s something very satisfying emotionally about having these different segments,” Weaver says. “We keep embroidering on the story and showing other aspects of it, and it’s all about the relationships. It’s just such a different focus, and I’m having a wonderful time enjoying that. I didn’t really expect that to be so incredibly satisfying, but these days I think with a lot of big movies the emphasis is on action and 3-D and special effects, so I feel like I’m doing a great independent film that doesn’t end.”
Photo: Credit: Andrew Eccles/USA Network