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John Benjamin Hickey finds liberation on 'The Big C'

September 14, 2010 |  1:00 pm


It didn’t take much to convince John Benjamin Hickey that he needed to join Showtime’s “The Big C.” 
He just needed to jump through a few hoops, despite being good friends with the show’s star, Laura Linney, for more than two decades.

"My agent called me about the script for the role of Paul, Cathy’s husband," Hickey said. But he didn't think he was right for the part -- "I'm not," he said. Oliver Platt took the role. Linney called Hickey three weeks later "and said, 'I want you to come in and read for the part of Sean.' "

Hickey didn’t think he was right for that role either: Sean is Cathy’s free-spirited, homeless freegan brother.

"I’m like,'Dude, it’s written for a 29-year-old,' " said the actor, 47, between sips of a foamy latte at Hollywood’s retro 101 Coffee Shop diner. "But she said very smartly, 'My husband is a man-child, my kid’s a bit of a brat; Cathy needs somebody on the show that she looks up to or has looked up to. I want to be your slightly younger kid sister. So even if you do act a fool -- which Sean does a lot of the time -- I need you as a shoulder for my life.’”

After Hickey reread the script about dull schoolteacher Cathy, who took life by the horns after being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, he thought she was completely right.

“If I hadn’t gotten what she meant, I couldn’t go through all the hoops of fire I had to go through to get the part,” Hickey admitted." Getting a part as good as this ain’t easy. You have to go into a lot of rooms and impress a lot of people with suits over and over and over again, so I obviously knew she was right and had an instinct about the part."

It’s a good thing he listened. Despite the show’s tough subject matter, there are plenty of laughs and -- thankfully for Showtime, Hickey and the rest of the cast, including special guest stars Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) and Idris Elba (“The Wire”) -- plenty of viewers. When the show premiered in August, it drew the largest audience in eight years for an original-series premiere on the network, drawing more than 1 million viewers.

Thebigc_101-102_0577 Though he nails the role of Sean seemingly with ease, there are some obvious distinctions between Hickey and his character.

He’s not homeless, he’d prefer not to get his meals from trash cans, and he doesn’t say whatever he wants whenever he wants. But as over-the-top as the character may seem on the show, he says he's careful not to play Sean as a cliché, something that's important to the actor, who, like Linney, is a stage veteran.

“In many ways, I feel liberated getting to play this part. Even though I’m not homeless by choice, I’m not a freegan, and I’m not as free-spirited as Sean is, he’s the character that’s closest to me than any I’ve ever played,” he said. “I don’t think he’s particularly crazy. I don’t even find him that eccentric. I actually think the guy makes a ... load of sense. I think there could stand to be a bit more Seans in the world.”

Much like the character he portrays, the series isn’t conventional. The lead character is dying. There isn’t much that can be done for Stage 4 melanoma, as Cathy learns. And that doesn’t always make for the most entertaining television. (Each season of the show will represent a consecutive season in Cathy’s life, so six TV seasons will represent roughly 18 months.)

Despite the shows grim backdrop, Hickey says he has been astounded at the response.

“People are coming back. From what I keep hearing from people, they really have sort of fallen in love with Cathy, and they are ready to go on this journey with her. This isn’t a conventional show; sometimes people are diagnosed with a disease on a show as ratings grabbers and then they are miraculously in remission, but I don’t think there is any chance of that happening on this show,” he said. “I think if we have the chance to live and grow, I think it’s gonna go all the way to an end.”

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

Photos, from top: John Benjamin Hickey stars as Sean. He is big brother to Cathy, played by Laura Linney, in the new Showtime series "The Big C." Credit: Showtime