Michael Vartan on His Sinister Character in ‘The Arrangement’ and the Legacy of ‘Alias’

     March 27, 2017

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The E! drama series The Arrangement tells a Hollywood love story about the darker side of being a celebrity, where no one is what they seem and you never know who you can trust. Not long after Megan Morrison (Christine Evangelista) auditioned to play the female lead in a summer blockbuster opposite movie star Kyle West (Josh Henderson), she was presented with a contract to cover every detail of their burgeoning relationship. At the same time, Kyle’s mentor, Terence Anderson (Michael Vartan), who runs a self-help organization called the Institute of the Higher Mind, is concerned that whatever secrets Megan is hiding could tear down everything he’s built alongside Kyle.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Michael Vartan talked about what attracted him to The Arrangement, why this is such a fun character to play, whether there’s anyone that Terence can truly be himself with, the Terence-Kyle dynamic, why Megan is such a threat, how this is not a depiction of Scientology, and that we’ll eventually learn what Terence’s motives are. He also talked about the incredible experience he had on the ABC series Alias, in which he played Michael Vaughn for five seasons, and how he’d be game to do a reboot of some sort, even though there’s not been any actual concrete talk of it among the powers that be.

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Image via E! Entertainment

Collider: This is such a fun show to watch because it’s soapy, but also a bit sinister. Is this a fun character for you to play?

MICHAEL VARTAN: Yes, it was a lot of fun. When you’re shooting, you don’t really ever get a sense of how things are going to come together, or at least, I don’t. But my character is so much fun to play, especially based on my track record, in my career, where I’ve played mostly the nice guy or the boyfriend. It’s nice to play a character that’s a little dark and has a sinister quality going on. That’s always much more interesting.

Do you enjoy how unpredictable this guy is?

VARTAN: Absolutely! As we got the scripts, one after the other, and I kept reading, I thought, “Oh, wow, he’s got issues, this gentleman.” You never know what he’s going to do or how he’s going to react. Jonathan [Abrahams], the creator and writer, is such a good writer. I’ve found, over the course of my career, that if the writing is really good, the character plays itself for you. The worse the writing is, the more research and preparation you have to do. The better the writing is, the less you have to do. When I think of Terence, I think about how every single word he says, anytime he speaks, is very calculating. He never says anything by chance. There’s always a reason for why he’s saying whatever he’s saying. That makes him a little off. You don’t know if he’s dangerous, or what’s going on with him. So, that’s definitely a lot more fun to play than the boyfriend next door.

Does Terence have anyone in his life that he can just be himself with, or is he somebody different to every person that he interacts with?

VARTAN: That’s a great question. He probably doesn’t. When I think of him, I think of someone who, 20 or 15 years ago, when he first started the Institute, was probably a lot less manipulative, flawed, strange and dark. Over the years, with fame and money, he probably lost his way, a little bit. Even if you’re playing Hitler, you have to find some redeeming quality about the character that you’re playing. Otherwise, it’s really hard to play someone that you despise. So, at the core, I think Terence is a really normal, good person, but he lost his way, over the course of time, and has fallen victim to the world he’s created, in a way that is so manipulative. I think he’s a lot less sinister than it appears, if you were actually be able to break him down.

Why do you think that, out of all people, Terence stays with Kyle and makes sure Kyle continues to need him?

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Image via E! Entertainment

VARTAN: In terms of story, Terence is a failed actor. He once wanted to be an actor, at a younger point in his life, and didn’t really make it. He met Kyle when Kyle was young, and he turned his life around. Basically, I think Kyle is not Kyle without Terence, and Terence isn’t Terence without Kyle. As flawed and twisted and interesting as that relationship is, it’s also very clear to me that it’s a very even relationship. They’ve both, at several different points in their lives, needed each other, and still do, to this day. Let’s be real, Kyle is Terence’s meal ticket. The Institute is much lesser, if it isn’t for that celebrity face attached to it. There are a lot of honest qualities to that relationship, but I think it’s also a loaded relationship, for sure.

Is there an actual genuine friendship in all of that, or is it a means to an end?

VARTAN: I think there is. There’s a father figure role that he plays in his life, as a mentor. I think he does genuinely love Kyle, to a certain extent, but there’s a lot of jealousy and a lot of envy. When you needed someone to be successful, that’s a very tricky thing to navigate. So, I do definitely think there’s a true element of friendship there, but I wouldn’t suggest that that’s the main make-up of that relationship. 

From his point of view, it’s easy to see why Megan is a threat and why her relationship with Kyle would need a contract.

VARTAN: Of course! She’s someone who could derail everything he’s worked so hard to build with Kyle. The main thing for Terence and his view of Megan is not so much that it’s Megan, it’s that he knows nothing about her. She could take Kyle for all he’s worth. It’s funny, a lot of people have asked me, “Is this about Scientology?” No, it’s literally about a contract marriage. I know of contract marriages. I don’t actually know people who have been a part of them, but it’s been happening since the ‘20s. It’s a very old and common practice, in this business. To me, it’s like a really expensive pre-nup. If you were to ask me the difference between a contract marriage and a pre-nup, I don’t think there really is.

With the fact that this guy micro-manages every aspect of things, do you think “control freak” is a fair professional diagnosis of him?

VARTAN: Oh, absolutely! And I think he’s like that with everyone in his life, including himself. I think he’s a very measured person. Everything he does and says is calculated and for a very specific reason. When he drinks, he likes to drink his Scotch, but he knows exactly how many sips it takes to get tipsy and, at that point, he will stop drinking because he wants to be in control. He’s definitely a micro-manager. If he were a real person, what a horrible way to live! I don’t know what Terence does for fun.

What sort of relationship do Terence and his wife, Deann (Lexa Doig), have?

VARTAN: Lexa and I joke about it all the time, and we say that they love each other as much as they can. My take is that they were probably high school sweethearts, or they met in college, and they’ve been married forever. In the beginning, I think the relationship was very pure, honest and loving, but over the course of time and being business partners, God knows, being in business with someone you’re friends with or that you love is a tricky situation. We know how many times that’s gone bad. They’ve managed well to still be together. They obviously have an agreement that they’re allowed to have certain extra-marital affairs, as long as it’s out in the open. They’re a very strange, progressive couple. It’s not the kind of relationship I would ever be able to survive in, but it works for them. In a weird way, they’re more business associates than husband and wife. 

It’s easy to make the leap to Scientology with something like this because that’s the only organization like this that we know of, with somebody so famous in the middle of it all, but there are a lot of organizations that are like this. When you were finding who this guy is and how someone like this would be, did you look at any specific organizations or leaders of them, or did you try not to get so specific with it?

VARTAN: I’m glad you said that. Honestly, I’ve done a lot of interviews about the show, and you’re the first person that said that. Normally, I’m the one that has to defend it and say, “Hey, it’s not Scientology.” The main difference is that the Institute is not a religious organization. As you said, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of self-help organizations around the country and the world, that really just want to help people find their better selves, to quote Terence. One of the things I always say when that’s brought up is that, if it was like Scientology, I didn’t do my homework because I didn’t do any research into that. I didn’t really base Terence off of anyone specific. When the writing is as good as the writing is on our show, the characters almost create themselves. You just do your best to stay out of the way, not mess it up, just deliver the lines, and let the story take you where it goes.

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Image via E! Entertainment

Should we continue to question what Terence’s motives are, throughout the season, and will we learn what some of those motives actually are?

VARTAN: Yes, and he actually questions his own motivations and why he’s doing what he’s doing, and how and why he’s gotten to the point he is in, in his life. He has a hard look at himself and makes a few changes in his life because of that. That’s always an interesting quality, when a character who is flawed and a little bit questionable, ethically, has a self-check moment and tries to make some adjustments to change the course he’s on. At his core, if you really strip him down, he’s created an organization that, in his mind, really helps people achieve higher and loftier goals for themselves. That, in itself, is a positive and great thing. He’s doing good things for people. Along the way, he maybe got a little sidetracked with fame and money, and everything that goes along with that. When you remove the word no from somebody’s vocabulary, strange things begin to happen to them, and he’s a victim of that, to some extent. But his intentions were really always to help people better themselves, really.

Do you think there also has to be a certain level of arrogance and self-importance to think that he knows how to help people better than they know how to help themselves?

VARTAN: Oh, of course, absolutely! That’s a very good point. I think if you were to ask Terence who the smartest person in the world is, he would say, “Well, it’s me, obviously!” Clearly, he thinks he knows what’s best for everyone. Without a doubt, he definitely is a very self-important person and regards himself very highly. Giving advice to Terence would probably be a very tricky thing.

You’ve said that you’d be game for an Alias reboot, if that were to ever happen, but do you think, rather than a full return as a series, a short-term thing, like a handful of 90-minute episodes or a movie would be more fitting?

VARTAN: It’s funny, every time I’m asked that, the quote ends up being, “Michael Vartan says he wants to do a reboot.” First of all, I’ve never, ever once been contacted by J.J. [Abrams], or any of the producers or writers. It’s never even been a thought, as far as I know. But I think you’re right, maybe an Alias movie would be an easier way to go. The quote I keep using – and I joke but it’s true – is that, “If there ever was going to be a reboot, they better hurry up because we’re not getting any younger. I cannot run as fast as I used to, and I’m sure Jennifer [Garner] would be tired of running down all those hallways, with different wigs and in different parts of the world.” So, maybe an Alias movie would be fun, but I’ve never heard talks of that happening.

Are you surprised that, all these years later, fans of that show still want to see more and still ask about the possibility of getting more?

VARTAN: This is going to sound arrogant, but no, I’m not surprised. It was such a great show, mostly because there really wasn’t any kick-ass leading female characters, at the time. When the show aired, it was just such a new phenomenon and she was so amazing in the show. And to have this beautiful woman who’s a martial arts expert and a disguise expert, with a comic book flare to it, it was just fun. I think a lot of fans were maybe not thrilled with how it ended. They feel it ended too abruptly. The show finale didn’t wrap up or answer enough questions for them. It was a unique show. There were a lot of copycat shows that emerged after that. I loved that show! What’s funny is that everyone seems to think that it was a huge hit, but it really wasn’t. We didn’t do very good numbers. The core group of fans that we had were just absolutely faithful and passionate about the show, but our actual numbers were not hit show numbers. Far from it.

I think we aired on different nights, every season. We were trying to find our slot, where we could get better ratings for the show. We’d get beat by reruns. How is that possible, when you have Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin, who’s won a Tony? With such a great cast and this awesome chick who’s kicking ass around the world, how are people not watching this? When the show first started airing, I thought I’d get to go to Japan, every year, and do a beer commercial, like Brad Pitt does, but that never happened. What’s really odd is that, as a cast, we’d go do events and, when we would do those events, there were so many people there that we were like, “How is this happening and our ratings aren’t better?” We just had a loyal group of core fans who really loved the show.

I’ve been doing this almost 30 years and, to this day, it’s still probably the best experience I’ve ever had. We had the luxury of being on network, which meant we shot 22 episodes. From late August to mid-April, we were working, and we had the same crew for five years. When you work 14 hours a day with the same people, you become a family. I spent a lot more time with them than I did with my own family, and you really form some strong relationships. I’m still friends with many of the crew members I was fortunate enough to work with. So, I would totally be up for a reboot, if it ever happened, but I haven’t heard anything about it.

The Arrangement airs on Sunday nights on E!.

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