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April 23, 2009

'Big Love'

Jeanne Tripplehorn (Getty Images photo)

By Marlayna Slaughterbeck

Notwithstanding the spring in Harry Dean Stanton’s step as he crossed the stage at Wednesday night’s PaleyFest panel event, Roman Grant, his character on HBO’s “Big Love,” is dead. This time for good.

While the audience might have been taken aback by the directness of the show’s co-creator in answering arguably the most important question regarding next season’s lineup, none seemed more surprised than Stanton, who immediately began pitching his next potential role to the packed room.

“Well, they should come up with something -- another series or reprise the role from the dead,” he said. “You know, ‘Where do you go after you die?’ or ‘Where were you before you were born?’ ”

Stanton went on to suggest that in such a series, religions would be represented by gangs and he would be the ultimate gang leader.

The audience clapped wildly, but series creators Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen seemed less receptive.

“Roman is definitely dead,” Olsen said, to which moderator Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times posited, in a nod to another HBO hit, “In Treatment”: “Maybe we can get Roman in therapy. Is Gabriel Byrne in the house?”

And later, in an attempt to finally put an end to Stanton’s many disruptions, McNamara drew laughs when she referred to yet another HBO series and offered that perhaps where Stanton really belonged at this point was “Six Feet Under.”

None of this seemed to deter Stanton, however, and he chimed in with various non sequiturs -- ruminating on what he saw as his character’s unfair demise and other topics such as religion and its ultimate futility -- for the remainder of the evening.

Although Roman apparently is gone for good this time, not so the show’s resident teenage troublemaker, Rhonda Volmer, played by Daveigh Chase.  “Rhonda is a gal who makes her way around,” Olsen said with a chuckle, implying her return to the show’s next season despite her final scene on a bus headed for Phoenix at the end of Season 3.

In addition to past and future plot lines, the panel discussed character development in some depth. Matt Ross, who plays Alby Grant, remarked on the temptation to dismiss his character as evil and how it is his job as an actor to humanize the role and not to judge it.

“I like the idea that Alby can be both cruel and kind in the same scene,” Ross said. “I think it would be too facile to define him as a sociopath.”

Keeping with the thread of sociopathy, Grace Zabriskie (Lois Henrickson) was asked how she copes with the chaos of playing such a mad woman.

“You know, my character is insane,” she said, “so it seems best not to dwell on it because people who are dealing with insanity think they’re perfectly normal.” Asked about her favorite scene, Zabriskie didn’t hesitate to name the one in which she “practiced” murdering her character’s husband, Frank Harlow (Bruce Dern), by placing a plastic bag over her own head just to see how it feels.

“I love how, after I pull the bag off my head, that I kind of check my hair in the reflection of the toaster,” Zabriskie said, exhibiting that unique look of sheer madness for which her character is so well known.

Despite the murder in the hearts of its characters, cast members said the set of “Big Love” is a pretty warm place.

“We all have lunch together every day we’re on the set,” Jeanne Tripplehorn said. “My feeling is that if you have to spend this much time away from your real family, then it has to really be worth it -- and it is.”

Olsen couldn’t agree more.

“These are warm people,” he said. “And it’s their amazing performances that get me out of bed in the morning.”

Those performances, combined with the strenuous pace of this past season, took a toll on at least one of the actors. Asked if he was tired after the whirlwind final two episodes that aired last month, Bill Paxton confirmed that getting married and divorced in a single episode is not for the faint of heart.

“They put me through so much,” he said with a sigh, then deadpanned, “I have a twitch ever since the show wrapped, and I can’t seem to get rid of it.”

As the cast rests up for next season, creators Olsen and Scheffer are busy creating plot lines and character arcs.

While Season 2 mostly dealt with empire building -- that is, building family and business -- and Season 3 largely dealt with the question of what to do when those empires implode, Scheffer said Season 4 will focus on the subjugation of women.

“We’ve dealt with that somewhat already, but we’re going to kind of do it in a deeper way,” he said.

Unsure how much specific detail to give away, Scheffer deferred to Olsen, who proceeded to tease the audience with a vague but tempting glimpse into the next season.

“I will say this -- which is kind of like saying nothing at all,” Olsen offered, “but we do kind of feel like it’s a signature of the show now to throw so much spaghetti and just see what sticks.”


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