Sigourney Weaver never wanted to do TV.
Not because she was being a snob, mind you â although after having thrived in the film world for more than 30 years, including her iconic stint as Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies, she certainly would have had the right. It was more of a timing issue, with her busy cinematic career (five films last year, three this year) not leaving her much of a chance to keep up with what was happening on the small screen.
Then came Political Animals.
âSometimes the universe brings you something you should have been looking for but you werenât,â Weaver says of the six-episode USA Network miniseries that airs Sundays beginning July 15. âIn fact, Iâve turned down a couple films to do this, so Iâm just having a blast. Sheâs such a delicious, rich, interesting woman to play.â
âSheâ would be Elaine Barrish, a former first lady and presidential candidate who is now serving as secretary of state for the man who defeated her. Meanwhile, Elaineâs gregarious ex-husband and former president, Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds), still looms large in her political and personal life, even as his public profile diminishes. Also serving as a not-always-welcome presence is her brassy, ex-showgirl mother, Margaret Barrish (Ellen Burstyn), whose blunt manner often conflicts with Elaineâs more measured approach. Then there are her twin sons: Douglas (James Wolk), who acts as Elaineâs devoted chief of staff, and T.J. (Sebastian Stan), a drug addict still dealing with having been the first child of a president to come out as gay. Outside the family, Elaine has a complex relationship with reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who seems to make sport of writing critical stories about her.
Itâs the rare political story told largely through the point of view of women, women who are not simply restricted to being wives or mothers of powerful men, but who actually wield power of their own. Certainly, it doesnât take much insight to notice similarities in Weaverâs character and a real-life first lady turned presidential candidate turned secretary of state, but Weaver says Political Animals is far from being a thinly veiled Hillary Clinton biopic.
âAlmost from the moment I started reading it, it felt like Elaine was completely her own invention,â she says. âIâm sure there are things that she and Mrs. Clinton have in common like their moral compass and their passion to serve the public and do an excellent job. âŠ But I think itâs also about womenâs leadership and what women bring to leadership. There isnât a lot of posturing and role-playing, itâs much more about team-building and inclusion and âLetâs roll our sleeves up and get to work.â You see women senators working across the aisle, theyâre always trying to help each other. One of the reasons Greg [Berlanti] wrote it is to encourage more women to go into politics because I think we need them.â
Power At What Cost?
The series â which everyone involved hopes will continue beyond the initial six episodes â doesnât shy away from laying bare the unique obstacles women face in politics and the workplace, especially the double standard of being ridiculed for showing ambition while a man is celebrated. Then there is the more universal issue involving the cost of obtaining power and holding on to it.
For Elaine and her family, that usually involves a complete loss of privacy. Every detail of their lives is fodder for the public and hungry reporters like Guginoâs character.
âSusan is so much about the fact that these peopleâs personal lives are not private and that they shouldnât be,â says Gugino, who describes herself as âfiercely protectiveâ of her own privacy. âThatâs been really interesting to explore that and see the validity in that side. Itâs always easier to project onto people what we donât know. Thereâs a wonderful quote I read years ago â I wish I could remember who said it â that kept coming back to me, that it is the plight of the well-known to be misunderstood. That makes perfect sense, because if you only know someone from their persona or whatâs in the public eye, how would you know them? Thereâs a larger chance that youâd get it wrong than youâd get it right.â
Much of the drama in Political Animals centers around Elaine and Susan overcoming their inherent adversity and developing empathy for each other. Susan gains more insight, for instance, as to why Elaine would stay with her husband as long as she did despite his many public affairs.
It was the chance to show the private side of such a public figure that initially hooked Weaver on the role.
âWhatâs fascinating to me is sheâs so good at spinning these plates internationally and knowing whatâs right, and yet when it comes to her own family she often is so clouded by emotion she canât figure out what she should do,â she says. âI think thatâs true for a lot of people who are very effective in life and very succeessful. Their work, in some ways, is much easier to deal with.â
Taking To TV
When we spoke, Weaver was only two episodes into her transition to the small screen, and admits that she hadnât even seen scripts for the final three episodes. Itâs been a big change for the superstar, but one sheâs found worthwhile.
âI love making movies, I love the vision of a big movie â but thereâs something very satisfying emotionally about having these different segments,â Weaver says. âWe keep embroidering on the story and showing other aspects of it, and itâs all about the relationships. Itâs just such a different focus, and Iâm having a wonderful time enjoying that. I didnât really expect that to be so incredibly satisfying, but these days I think with a lot of big movies the emphasis is on action and 3-D and special effects, so I feel like Iâm doing a great independent film that doesnât end.â
Photo:Â Credit: Andrew Eccles/USA Network