Since winning a supporting actor Academy Award for 1980’s Ordinary People, Timothy Hutton has worked regularly in film, theater and TV. His most recent turn as ex-gambler Russ Skokie in John Ridley’s limited series for ABC, American Crime, squares him off against Emmy-winner Felicity Huffman, who portrays Russ’s bitter and bigoted ex-wife, Barb. As their characters navigate the aftermath of their son’s brutal murder, their scenes together are riveting—Russ just trying to hold his own opposite Barb’s maelstrom of revenge and disappointment—a result of a trust-filled working relationship and Ridley’s deft behind-the-scenes touch.
John Ridley said that you made contact about setting up a meeting to discuss the role of Russ Skokie. What was it about the script that made you want to be involved with American Crime?
Well, right from the beginning it was written differently than anything I had seen in a long time. The way the first paragraph was written, there was such an interesting tone about it. The introduction to the Russ character, which in the beginning was just a man waking up in the middle of the night getting this horrible phone call, and I thought, “What a starting point for a character and what a starting point for a story.” Then I continued reading and started to see all the other characters and how the rest of the story was unfolding and coming together with Barb—Felicity Huffman’s character—that kind of very odd, forced, grim reunion that they have. I liked that it wasn’t front-loaded with backstory. I finished the script and I didn’t know where they were in the casting process but I just wanted to get in a room with John. I think the way I put it was, “If I could just have 10 minutes of your time I’d like to just tell you how much I really was taken with the script.”
Ridley said that after that first meeting he and the producers couldn’t shake it, that you were Russ. What did you intend to do when you walked through that door?
It’s an interesting thing, a meeting like that, because when you’re really taken with a character and their story and you’re going to go and then meet the person who wrote it and is going to direct it, obviously you want to be prepared first and foremost, which I felt I was in terms of having read the script many times before the meeting. I got there early. I had a couple of hours between the time I landed and the meeting so I went over to the Disney lot. I was in the parking lot and it was way too early to go in at that point. You know, in these things usually what happens is that the director or the writer will ask, “What you think of the character, what drew you to the character, what do you think of this guy?” Sometimes you leave a meeting like that feeling like that question was answered reasonably well and sometimes you leave remembering all the things you should have said.
Because I was there earlyI started writing things down. I made a list of this guy’s life, what a typical day was like for him. In answering those kinds of questions just for myself as a kind of warm-up to the meeting, I ended up writing all these things: If he was in a relationship, who was she? Where did they meet? Is he a sports guy? What are his teams? What food does he like? What movies does he watch? So anyway, after that it got to be close to the meeting. I went in, we walked over to get something to eat—and I was very happy that it wasn’t going to just be 10 minutes, that they invited me to join them for lunch. We were talking and John and (co-executive producer) Michael McDonald were talking about how the project came to be. At a certain point the question came up and I started to answer it. Then I said, “I wrote down something. Do you mind if I tell you what I wrote?” I took the list out and started reading it. As I was reading these thoughts on Russ Skokie, I thought, this is either the worst idea in the world that I’m reading this list that has nothing to do (with the script). Or it’s a good thing. Then I finished and John said, “Wow, well thank you for reading that and there are some interesting things in there.” He didn’t really give anything away. I don’t think I walked in as the character. When you’re that taken with something and, in particular, this character, it’s all I was thinking about. So I guess maybe there’s something that just kind of gets inside you a little bit, gets into your psyche. I don’t think the meeting would have gone well if I literally had been Russ Skokie. I don’t know, maybe they saw a kind of appreciation for the character.
How much time passed before you found out you had gotten the role?
Two of the longest weeks I’ve ever experienced.
Do you regularly make notes on a character and take them into meetings like that?
Well, sometimes I’ll jot some thoughts down but I never take them with me into a meeting. I’ve never done that. Maybe I should start.
Felicity Huffman was cast days before production started, and yet your characters have such a backstory. How did you two set out to build in all that history in such a short amount of time?
Right away we just hit it off. Just from that first moment forward we really kind of clicked as people. The way in which we approached work was similar. There was a trust. When we were on the set we didn’t talk to each other. We had discussions during rehearsal about what was going on. Then we would get together and run dialogue for scenes that we had together and for scenes that we didn’t have together. But when we were on the set we very much were in our own kind of chambers. We didn’t talk to one another except to dialogue, except when we’re playing the scenes. Then at the end of the day we were like little kids saying, “Yay, let’s go get some dinner, what a great day.” But we didn’t comment on anything that was happening during the process of the shooting.
There’s a scene after Russ identifies his dead son’s body where he’s in the police bathroom, he’s broken down, and then next we see him standing at the sink with the water running over his hands. It’s quietly powerful. Was that a tough one to film?
John had an incredible ability to not just communicate really interesting things to think about for the scene or going into the second take—a great ability to communicate adjustments that he’d like you to try—but he also had this great ability to create an environment that was very, very appropriate to what the scene needed. For that scene I walked onto the set, they were ready, and there were very few people there. The camera was set up. The frame was just shooting the bathroom. On the right side of the frame was a window and on the left side was a sink. In the middle was a bathroom stall and he said, “So I kind of feel like you might be over there in front of the bathroom stall and whenever you’re ready just begin and just take your time and go in there and let it happen.” The whole atmosphere and environment of the set was such that everything felt right. There were no distractions. It was quiet and kind of perfect. I went in there and took a moment and then just kind of felt the weight of what Russ was going through. I loved the writing. There was a sink and so what happened, in terms of the grief of everything that he felt, at a certain point I just kind of walked over and turned the faucet on. I don’t really even remember. It was a very raw kind of place to be. There were no cuts. It was just one long take. There’s something about just letting the camera run and seeing what happens with a person in a space.
The remarkable thing is that John really liked to work that way in all of the scenes. There would sometimes be a scene that would be rehearsed, blocked, and then we would shoot what would be the master. Then he would say, “OK guys, I just want to tell you we’re going to do this a couple of more times. I’m not going to do any coverage because I really feel that it plays in just a single frame.” You get to see the evolution of what’s happening of everybody without any cuts. That’s very inspiring and very liberating. It’s also incredibly scary.
Without giving too much away, Russ’s end in the season finale was sudden and unexpected. You played him so subtly all season long and then he just loses it. How hard was that arc to portray?
Russ had been lost for so many years. What happened wakes him up a little bit but it’s way too late to be woken up. As far as the ending goes, in terms of his mindset it’s not an extreme thing he’s doing, it’s just he’s run out of options, he’s run out of what the definition for doing the right thing is, and that becomes the last definition. He doesn’t have the house to fix up anymore. Barb has told him to let go. His son, who calls him Russ, not even dad, has said just go on with his life. There are a couple of scenes where (Russ) is making phone calls in the final episode trying to reach out and he just keeps getting people’s answering machines, their voicemail. I don’t think (what he did) was well thought out. It was just kind of, “I need to do something. I need to do something for my family. I need to make things OK.” He’s obviously misguided.
You’ve signed on for season two of American Crime. What is it about this series that appeals to you?
I think the most important thing for me and the reason I wanted to do it again is because of the way John Ridley writes, they way he thinks, and what he’s interested in, in terms of story and people. He’s not going to misrepresent anyone. He’s not going to tell a story from one perspective. He does not fall into any kind of formulaic way of storytelling. I think the second season is going to be very, very different in tone, the way it’s shot, everything. He’s interested in not doing the same thing and that’s very exciting. Also, I have to say, to be working with the same people but begin as a new character in a completely new story, that’s really something. So I have absolute full faith in the way in which John likes to tell a story and the way he directs and all of the writers that we had. It’s just a very unique experience.
Any hints as to what you’re going to be doing?
When there were discussions about another season, with a new story and new characters, absolutely the first thing that came to my mind was that it would be great to play someone very different—not just different from Russ but different from any role that I’ve played. The thing about John is that you don’t even need to have to have that conversation because he’s so far ahead that when we did have the conversation and he told me the character in mind and the story he had in mind, it was so wildly, radically different than the first year of American Crime in terms of the story and the character I would be playing that there was never a need to say, “Yeah, I like what you’re saying but how about such and such?” There wasn’t a need.
To see a short scene of Hutton in American Crime, click play below: