Among the many “Big Little Lies” gamechangers in “Living the Dream” (Mar. 5) was the long-awaited reveal of the circumstances behind Ziggy’s (Iain Lawrence) conception. Did she come to Monterey to escape his father… Or track him down for revenge? Is he the figure she hallucinates breaking into her house, the reason she sleeps with a gun under her pillow? Are these seeming flash-forwards of her hunting him down the beach actually memories, dreams, or all three?
Quiet newcomer Jane (Shailene Woodley) finally unburdened herself to Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) — in flashback-punctuated misery — the night she was raped by a man calling himself Saxon Banks. With four episodes left, Banks is poised to make an appearance that — knowing this show — may explain everything… Or nothing at all.
Screener spoke with actor Stephen Graybill about playing this challenging and mysterious character, his experience onset, and what it was like working with Shailene Woodley and director Jean Marc Vallee.
We’re so excited to talk to you this week — the timing is so great, with Saxon’s big reveal. What’s it been like playing a character on a show this full of secrets, when you can’t really tell anyone when to expect you to turn up and in what context?
It’s kind of exciting, I’m not going to lie. My friends who are watching the show are like Oh my God, I didn’t know you were a bad guy!
Were you familiar with the book beforehand?
I had read the book, so I knew who my character was — and the book really helped flesh that out. That said, the creators of the show took creative liberties — because Saxon is mentioned in the book, but he’s never actually shown. The fun of that is, I was able to be creative about it, discovering new things as we were in the middle of doing it, in the middle of shooting.
Did you have a sense, going into your first audition, how big this would be? Did you know who was already attached?
I knew that Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman were involved — and obviously, that’s very exciting! But you never really know how a project’s going to go until it starts to be released, and you see how much marketing and PR they put behind it. After shooting it, I had a lot of faith in the creative team that it was going to be huge… But I still didn’t know going into the audition — I was just excited to do the audition, and excited to be a part of the project.
So you’ve got this character who — though of course, as we always say on this show, nothing is as it seems — but it seems hard to imagine he’s not going to be a, or maybe the, bad guy. How do you go into that, knowing you’re going to be playing sort of this antagonist? Knowing that your presence is going to be causing this chaos in the show?
It’s super exciting! I think bad guys are the more fun characters to play, because there’s so much deception that goes along with it. I’m shooting a feature film right now, and I’m playing the bad guy in that as well, and it’s so fun — because you get to play both sides of it. You get to play the really nice character who’s charming and kind, then you also get to play the deceiving character underneath that, giving you more dynamics to play with.
Tell me about what it was like working with Shailene, who’s such a huge talent.
Yeah, she is! As a viewer of the show, she’s amazing. I love how understated and subtle she is in her performance. I didn’t know what to expect working with her, because you never know how forthcoming or vulnerable big names are willing to be. Shailene was all in, from the moment go. I first met her when we sat in the truck together going to the set, and we just started talking politics. I was like, Wow, she’s really willing to be open as a person to some complete stranger.
I come from a theatre background, so I’m always willing to run lines before a scene. So I walked up to her like, Hey do you want to run lines and she was like Oh, we don’t do that. I learned that there was no rehearsal on this project, we just jump right in. I felt like I was being shot out of a cannon, which keeps that tension and that excitement alive. But she was always willing to play, always willing to meet me halfway. The scene is just the two of us, a real two-person dialogue — and rather than feeling like I was bulldozed over, or like she had to be the focus of the scene, she was very much an ensemble player.
So it almost sounds like a bit of an improv feel on the set? Something like that?
Absolutely, yeah. The benefit of working with Jean Marc and the crew is they shoot all available light, so the set-ups don’t take that long. That means you can move and change and improv, and everybody was on board to do that. Jean Marc was very enthusiastic about shifting things very quickly with the camera and changing lines. I felt a bit intimidated changing David E. Kelley’s lines, but it sort of frees you up to play, and gives you the permission to enjoy your time with everybody. We were supposed to shoot for four hours, and we ended up shooting for six or seven.
What I find so striking on the show, and I think it comes from what you’re describing as the creative process on this project, is that sense of honesty. Even in the smallest moments, all of the performances are so vulnerable and real, which I guess you get from that sense of safety on the set. Like everyone feels safe to take a risk, knowing you’ll be supported…
Yeah, exactly. In TV and film, and especially with big names, there’s a lot of hesitation and fear — because of the money, and all the things that go along with it. I would say from the top down, because that sort of stuff rolls downhill, from the top creatives at HBO down through to Jean Marc, everybody did an amazing job of allowing us to create and be real and vulnerable and express the true struggle of what the characters might be going through at that time.
Reese Witherspoon and Nicole, everybody in the series, even Alexander [Skarsgård, who plays a violent husband], everybody’s doing an amazing job at riding that fine line of being really honest and dramatic, without it falling over to the melodrama side of things.
I think it’s really that subtlety that sets the show apart. It’s a quiet show, and it’s so tense and it’s so honest — and then there’s this murder mystery thing so you can’t look away…
I think they’re doing a great job of building up the tension in that way. I’ve always loved Jean Marc’s work. If you’ve ever seen “Demolition,” he did an amazing job in the same way — keeping it so internalized, but a slow burn of a candle.
And everybody is doing a great job in that same sense as well — especially in Nicole and Alexander’s storyline. I’ve never seen an abusive relationship shown with such honesty on screen. Alexander will walk in and suddenly you understand the threat and the fear and the oh my God is he going to hit me right now kind of thing — like: If he gets upset, how upset is he going to get? Witnessing it as an audience member, you’re right there with them.
So much of the show is those in-between things: In a Lifetime movie you see the abuse, and it’s so clear, and the woman runs away… But here, you see her coming back and you kind of see why. You see his apologies, and you kind of understand what’s keeping her there — not that she should be there, but it’s not one-dimensional. It’s so multifaceted.
Right, it’s her coming back, and you understanding why. My grandfather was an alcoholic and my grandmother basically followed him around the country. They broke up and they got back together and they broke up and they got back together…
Standing outside of that relationship, you can easily say, Just break up with him and move on with your life. But in this, you see why someone might return to the relationship because this time is different, because he’s going to change, because they’re going to therapy, because he’s making an effort, because he buys her a diamond necklace, because he has so much passion and it just comes out in these crazy ways… All these explanations we’ve all heard — but you see why she would come back to the relationship.
Which episodes are you in?
I’m in three episodes, and they’re coming up very soon. Next week is the first of three, I think.
So we finally get to meet Saxon. I look forward to seeing how your character is involved in the show.
I’m excited to see how they edited it. Jean Marc told me, Oh man, you’re going to be so excited about this, and I was like, Great! What happens? And he’s like, I’m just going to let you figure it out.
Because my character is this character that in the book you never meet, you just hear about… He’s this idea. It’s an idea of a guy. And here in the series, there’s a bit there’s more to that character than in the book — so I’m just curious, that meeting could go either way! I could be in the background, I could be some idea in her head, or I could be more of a person… We’ll see what happens.
I love that you’re watching it week to week not knowing what to expect, like the rest of us. That just speaks to what the show is really all about, it’s so mysterious even to the actors who are in it.
Yeah! And I love watching it, it’s such a great series. I’m so glad it’s on.
“Big Little Lies” airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, throughout March; the finale is set for Apr. 2. Edited for length and clarity.