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'Rooted in reality': Chatting with the cast and creators of 'United States of Tara'

Us_tara_gal2_kal_vertical_cDissociative identity disorder wouldn’t normally be a laughing matter.

But for two seasons of Showtime’s hit “United States of Tara,” the psychiatric condition where a person displays multiple distinct identities or personalities, known as alters, takes center stage and has provided plenty of laughs on the way.

The show (read our coverage of Season 1 here) features Toni Collette as a wife and mother who suffers from the disorder, and on any given episode she switches from a loose (and we do mean loose) teenager, perfect "Stepford"-esque housewife, a crazy war vet, an animal-like monster and this season saw her transform into a new alter: her own therapist.

Creator Diablo Cody said blending this very serious – and incredibly complex – disorder with comedy was “such a fine line to walk on the show.”

“We want things to be funny. At the same time we’re dealing with some pretty intense issues,” Cody said. “At first it was a challenge to write funny stuff and still keep it emotional.”

Cody said that pulling off the show, which scored an early third season pickup, is a daunting task because of the intricacies of DID.

Us_tara_201-202_0955 “There’s so much research, and it's ongoing. I think in the beginning we kinda believed we’d cram for it and move on from there,” Cody said. “That’s not the case. We’re constantly working with the consultant and psychiatrist. You have a real show and it’s rooted in reality. We don’t imagine things that happens to a person with DID. We always have an anecdote or data to back it up.”

Helping to keep the show "rooted in reality" is Leah Peterson, who serves as a consultant for the show. The 39-year-old has lived with DID from the age of 4 and lived with several alters: Claire served as a savior; Leah II was stuck at 6 years old; Sidney; Gatekeeper, who made sure no information came forward before she could handle it; Protector, who had the power to make sure if things were overloaded he could shut it down; Predator to hold the rage and anger that dealt with the abuse she suffered. Predator later became a friend and changed his name to Steve.

Peterson was brought onto the show after Cody, who executive produces the show with Steven Spielberg, found her online journals that chronicled her experiences with the disorder (she also self-published a memoir about dealing with the disorder).

“It’s been fantastic. The reasons I put my journals online is because people aren’t talking about [DID]. Because I have this disorder people they think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna stay away from you.’ Working on the show meant I was going to talk about it more, and be well-rounded. I wanted to be able to put some input. I’m a mom and a wife, so a lot of stuff that I went through. Yes, it’s a bit sensationalized and doesn’t work the same in real life, but people are talking about it.”

Collette, who has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as Tara, said although the show is lucky to have direct input from someone who lives with DID, she has purposely not spent much time with Peterson.

“I was afraid that I would feel obliged to tell her story, or be too swayed by one individual. But I do know that she brings a clarity and an authenticity to the show,” Collette said in e-mail from the set of a new film. “It’s such an obtuse disorder and we’re all juggling and hoping to strike the right chords. But with Leah on board we know that we can’t play a bad note. They’re all beautiful.”

Though the disorder is complex and this season dealt with Tara experiencing co-consciousness – something Peterson experiences with her two alters (she is down to two after being integrated in 2002) – the show doesn’t aim to teach the general public about DID.

“Perhaps 'educate' is the wrong word,” Collete said. “But there is certainly a responsibility to be honest to portray DID as realistically as possible." 

Us_tara_201-202_1418 John Corbett, who plays Tara’s husband Max, prefers to think of the lightheartedness of the show and hopes viewers are enjoying the ride.

“I’m more for the entertainment of it. I’m going to let Toni and the producers and writers worry about [the complexities of the disorder],” Corbett said. “I want to make more fun of the situations. I want to see more alters. Toni is so great, I want lots of characters.”

Corbett, who is also steaming up theater screens with an appearance in “Sex and the City 2," said he’s enjoyed his character’s break from being the overly supportive husband.

“I’m just as curious as the audience. What’s going to happen with my relationship with the kids and my wife? That first season I knew my place. I’m the rock of the family,” Corbett said. “The second season the writers called me up. They said, ‘We don’t want Max to be the ground of the family.’ They unraveled him. I was really surprised when they had me get it on with Pammy [Joey Lauren Adams].”

Collete hopes whatever path Tara takes for Season 3 is “far and wide,” while Corbett just wants more story lines featuring Buck (even after that brutal, late-night beat down Max faced at the hands of the girl-crazy war vet a few episodes back).

“We have a couple new show runners [for Season 3]. They are really funny guys. I suspect we’re going to have more laughs,” Corbett said. “But I think the audience wants to get to some revelation.”

The finale airs Monday night after “Nurse Jackie.”

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy


Photos: Top: (Left to right) John Corbett as Max, Brie Larson as Kate, Keir Gilchrist as Marshall, and Toni Collette as Tara, Buck, Shoshana and Alice. Credit: Courtesy of Showtime.

Middle: Diablo Cody, creator, executive producer, and writer of "United States of Tara." Credit: Jordin Althaus / Showtime.

Bottom: Toni Collette as Tara and John Corbett as Max. Credit: Jordin Althaus / Showtime.

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Comments () | Archives (3)

I adore this show. (Even apart from the fact that I'll watch anything with Toni Collette.) I hope we do get some revelations about what happened to Tara, and I don't think that has to be the end of the show. After all, the revelations wouldn't automatically result in integration. I think the show could go on until Tara becomes integrated. There's still plenty of ground to cover before then!

I've been watching this show since Day One, and generally I've liked Season 2. The segments with Tara having split-screen conversations with her alters is good, and having Shoshanna actually "treat" Tara and Max is brilliant. And I can't say enough about Toni Collette. I think she's the best actor (as opposed to entertainer) in the business.

However, Season 2 has taken quite a turn from where Season 1 was headed, and the finale was a massive disappointment. Somehow this show has gone from an exploration of a uniquely troubled character(s!) to a showcase for gay teens (stop right there, gay activists, I fully support your right to lead your own lives, but that doesn't mean I want to watch it on TV) and now a political diatribe. Why they attempted to equate Ron Paul with anti-gay feeling is just beyond me. Not only does it show that the writers don't get libertarianism (Google it -- Ron Paul opposed any anti-gay-marriage amendment to the Constitution) but they want to browbeat those of us who happen to be hetero. Are we supposed to look to Lionel as an example of how to live our lives?

Maybe the writers ought to get out of Hollywood and try living in the midwest where the show is set. Real folks watch TV to forget real life. If I want to be preached at, I'll tune to Keith Olbermann.

I get that the whole season was probably filmed a year ago, but don't the producers see which way the national mood is headed? The most successful, most "normal" characters in this show -- Kate's and Char's boyfriends -- are made out to be losers, yet that's the kind of people they main characters want to be. (Ask Char.) I can see that maybe that's the point of the show, but if that's how they want to portray "normal" people then they're going to narrow down their audience to patients at mental wards and members of NAMBLA.

Also, and even worse, the writers really seem to be struggling with the story. They churn out new alters for Tara about every other episode, as if the existing ones aren't enough already. What happened to Alice threatening to take over? Why do we need Chicken when we've already got Tee to disrupt things? For that matter, what happened to Tee? What happened to Gimme?

Even the other characters are starting to act out of character. Why would Kate be thrilled to go live with her new boyfriend at the beginning of the final show, and then dump him in the same episode, just a few minutes later? Why bother to have Neil leave town at all if he's just going to come back in the next episode?

I realize the show has to keep pushing back the source of Tara's issues, because if she ever finds it & resolves them it's all over. And I can see why the closer she gets to resolving her torment, the more bat-crap whacko she gets. But that's enough story for one series. USoT ought to concentrate on that, rather than trying to send a "progressive" message. I get enough of that from TV already.

It is unbelievable to me that the writers and producers of United States of Tara took the time to smear Ron Paul! A principled man who is NOT AGAINST GAY MARRIAGE or GAY PEOPLE. As a gay Ron Paul supporter I am done with this show! It clearly has an absurd political agenda.


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