Sissy Spacek on 'Big Love': "I'm the new kid on the block"
Starting Sunday, the Oscar-winning actress joins the HBO series, now in its fourth season, for a multi-episode arc. Only, it's not in the coal-miner’s-daughter way one might think. “When people say, ‘Sissy Spacek’s going to be on 'Big Love,' it’s like, 'Oh, she’s going to be on the compound, right?' And it’s like, 'No, she’s not,' " said series co-creator Will Scheffer. “I don’t think anyone has ever seen Sissy Spacek do work like this before. It’s new ground for her.”
Spacek plays Marilyn Densham, a hard-nosed Washington lobbyist who gets embroiled with patriarch Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his family when he seeks political office. And once the esteemed actress expressed interest in coming on the series, the creators knew that they had to beef up the part.
“To do a guest arc on an ensemble show is very unusual for an actress of her stature, so we knew that we had to offer something substantially exciting,” Scheffer explained. “As we got into developing it more with Sissy in mind, we realized that this character was going to have a crucial role at the end of the season that would be a game changer for the family.”
“Big Love” marks the six-time Academy Award nominee’s first recurring TV role. Though we're hoping it won’t be Spacek’s last. “Glenn Close has her own show,” said Scheffer. “Sissy is the type of woman who would have her own show – and hopefully she will now.”
We spoke with the actress in December. Here’s what she had to say about her character, her history with Bill Paxton and why she likened this television experience to being in the twilight zone.
Had you been looking to do something in TV?
Well, you know, over the years I have done TV — I’ve never done a continuing role on episodic TV. Different networks have talked to me about it, and cable, and this was just a good way to get my feet wet. … I’m a fool for a good role in a creative piece where there are really such talented writers and wonderful actors.
How were you introduced to this part?
I think Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, the creators of this show, sent me this script. … I’m a fan of the show, and it was a character that was unlike anything I’d done before, and Bill Paxton is an old, old friend of mine. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers. He’s a dear friend, and I just thought, “Why not?”
What can you reveal about your character?
Well, she’s career driven — she doesn’t have a family, so her career is her life. She’s a Washington lobbyist. A lot of my stuff is with Bill Paxton, and we’ve had great fun working with each other. We have a lot of chemistry. … I become his nemesis; I guess I’m at liberty to say that. I think it’s quite different for the show, and it’s quite different for me, and it’s been so much fun to go into different territory. … The worst thing is that I’m in high heels all day every day [laughs]. That’s been rather painful, but other than that, my wardrobe is just spectacular.
Did you have to do any research for the role?
I did. I live in Virginia, which is right up near Washington, and I have friends in NPC and in that world; that was helpful as well. But the writers are just pretty spectacular. And Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen in particular have really talked me through it, and they’ve said the research that I needed. They’re the brains behind the brawn.
“Big Love” seems to have great roles for women despite the fact that it's about a patriarchy. Did that influence your decision to sign on?
Well, you know, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin were three of the big reasons that I wanted to do the show, because they’re each so incredibly talented, and they’re so different. And all three have just been given such great material. Their characters are so unique. And the other thing that I love about this show is the mix of drama and comedy. Tonally, I don’t know how they do it, but the writers keep it on track. You have to go for the humor, and the drama, and it’s just very very clever.
And all the side characters are so strong as well.
Unbelievable. The cast is phenomenal. And huge! And everybody’s really happy. It’s just a very happy set. Am I in the twilight zone? Everybody’s so happy.
Can you go into more detail about how you knew Bill Paxton?
We met him when Jack [Fisk, her husband] was working on a film in Dallas. He was very young, and he worked in the art department, and he was great. I’m sure you get that from talking to him; Bill’s enthusiasm and his love for the industry has not waned since he was 17 or 18 years old. He’s enthusiastic about everything. I would say, more than anyone else, he sets the stage on the set. He’s so gracious and positive and upbeat and welcoming to all the cast members. He’s just a scholar and a gentleman. And I think he and the three girls, particularly, carry the weight of the show. Those lucky ones like me come in, and we do our stuff. But they really carry the weight of the show, and he does it with such grace and good humor that it really just bleeds into every department.
Do you think that this will lead you to do more TV roles in the future, or do you just follow the roles?
I follow the roles. But, you know, it’s interesting. It’s a whole other way of working when you work in films: You know exactly the arc of your character. You know everything that you’re going to be doing way ahead of time. With television, it’s like an Easter egg hunt: You depend solely on the writers; they’re in control. You kind of understand the arc of the character from the beginning, but you don’t see the script until right before the episode starts to shoot. You kind of have to give yourself over to that, and there’s a lot of trust involved. … Glenn Close once, on some show, was saying, oh, it’s the writers, it’s the writers, and I just can’t wait to see what they give me next year. And you know; that really is it in this. You just can’t wait to get the next script to see what’s happening.
So for me, coming into this new season — all the other actors know all the writers, the writers understand their characters and the actors know all the directors. And that was new for me, and that was really scary. But you know, it’s also invigorating. And now I’ve worked with a season full of wonderful directors, I look forward to working with them again. It’s just a really cool thing, you know? It’s a well-kept secret.
This TV thing is a well-kept secret?
[Laughs] Who knew?
As a fan of the show, how do you feel this season compares with the previous ones?
You know what, I haven’t seen anything. I’m the new kid on the block, so I just do what I’m told [laughs]. The scuttlebutt around the set is that it’s going to be a very unique year, with a lot of fireworks. … And this has been like a carnival ride. So, like all the other audience members, I’m going to be sitting in front of the TV with my popcorn, hanging on to my hat and just ready for the ride. And I think it’s going to be a pretty good carnival ride this year.
Is there any chance that you could return for Season 5?
I have no idea. It all depends on what the writers have in store. It’s a great gig, so you know, it would be tempting, but I just don’t know at this time.
What’s next for you after this season finishes shooting?
Well, I have a film coming out [this] year called “Get Low” with Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, and I have some projects in the works but nothing that we have any start dates for yet. I’m just working away. It’s pretty exciting to be back home, actually. I’ve been away from home for a while. I’ve been back and forth, but I’m ready to get back to my farm routine.
Back in Virginia?
Back in Virginia, yes. I am a woman of simple tastes.
— Allyssa Lee
Photo: Lacey Terrell / HBO