Carla Gugino on ‘Manhunt: Deadly Games’ and the Strange Circumstances of ‘Jett’s Cancellation

     February 7, 2020

From show creator Andrew Sodroski (who also ran the season about the Unabomber, featuring Paul Bettany and Sam Worthington, that aired on Discovery), the Spectrum Originals drama series Manhunt: Deadly Games chronicles the deadly bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games and the complex manhunt that followed. After first pointing the finger at the wrongly accused and innocent Richard Jewell (Cameron Britton), whose life was turned upside by the FBI and the national news media while he fought to clear his name, the FBI then focused their hunt on elusive serial bomber Eric Rudolph (Jack Huston), who had a very clear and dangerous agenda of his own.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Carla Gugino (who plays real-life former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs) talked about why she wanted to play Kathy Scruggs, exploring all of the sides of who she was, always gravitating towards the grey areas in characters, whether she personally found this woman to be frustrating, the incredible wardrobe, and how much the clothing can inform the character. She also talked about the recent announcement that Cinemax would no longer be making original programming, which as a result meant that the network won’t be airing a second series of her TV series Jett, which previous characters she might want to revisit, the TV series she’d love to do a guest spot on, and what made her want to return to the stage for the play Anatomy of a Suicide.

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Image via Spectrum Originals

Collider: This story is interesting because it’s really about three very imperfect people doing what they think is right, but still sinking deeper into their mistakes. When this came your way and you read it, what most interested you in the overall story, but also specifically in Kathy Scruggs’ story?

CARLA GUGINO: One of the things that I always gravitate towards are the grey areas in characters because I feel like we’re all filled with them, as people. The fact that she was excellent at her job, she was really good friends and very tightly knit with the whole police department. And by the way, the person who was in her position before, at the paper, was a man, and an older man, and he had a tight knit relationship with the cops, as you do in a town that you work the beat on. It was very unusual for her, as a woman, to be in that position, and it was because she was really good.

She also definitely partied, during the time that drinking and doing coke, and all of those things, really was not as much of a taboo, as it is now. The lines were a little bit more blurred. I was really intrigued by this woman who kept trying to get out and be able to really move forward beyond that. She clearly was at home in Atlanta, but wanted to be able to go further than that. And this story that came to her, with a source from the FBI, it was a story that seemed like it fit everything perfectly.

What intrigued me, thematically, was the notion that everything can look a certain way, depending on the point of view you’re looking at it from, and that we all have a sense of what our truth is and it might be very different than somebody else’s. Obviously, a journalist’s job is to dig into that, and in this particular case, it was a perfect storm. There were political reasons, because it was the Olympics in Atlanta, to try to get a suspect very quickly, in order to make people feel very comfortable to go back to the Games. The story basically fell in her lap, and she was then pressured to do it quickly, otherwise somebody else was gonna run the story, which is the nature of that profession, and she ended up in very deep.

For me, an addict’s behavior is also interesting. She ended up dying of a morphine overdose. One of the things we don’t really touch on in the show which I would have loved to have, is that she had a lot of real physical problems, so she was also on meds for that. In her deposition, she was majorly medicated and also using drugs and alcohol, and yet was sharp as a tack. She really tried to get her life back in gear and, ultimately and unfortunately, wasn’t able to. Part of that behavior, just from a character standpoint and a human standpoint, is when we have addictions. I have a strong belief that you’re not trying to destroy yourself, but you’re actually looking for the light. You’re looking for some moment of respite and some feeling of elevation, and this story was like that for her. This was an opportunity that she had never been given before. It was career-changing for her, and perhaps also somewhat blinding, in regard to certain elements of it.

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Image via Spectrum Originals

Did you also find her frustrating, in the sense that she’s driven and ambitious, but she also seemed to be unwilling to recognize the mistakes she made?

GUGINO: Yes, I did find that frustrating. Obviously, my job, as an actor playing someone, is to see it from their point of view, but it was one of the things I talked to Andrew [Sodroski], our writer and showrunner about. I said, “She is really a dog with a bone. What about when there’s a new suspect? Why doesn’t she move on to that story and start covering that aspect of it?” When you’re dealing with somebody who was a real person and who you can’t speak to anymore, you have to go with the facts. My job felt like it was to explore as much as I was afforded, in the context of this show, why she wasn’t willing to accept her mistakes. The other thing is that she did proper journalism. Her paper required her to write in a voice of God. That was the style of the paper. That was an editorial decision, and not something she had any say about. She did check sources. I think she would have checked more sources, had there been more time. But at the moment in which she reported that he was a major suspect and the FBI was investigating him, that was, in fact, true. There’s also a certain compartmentalization that has to come, if you’re that kind of journalist, where you know you may be affecting people’s lives, but if you stopped every story because of that, you would never be able to fulfill your position at your paper.

So, yes, Carla feels like, “My god, couldn’t you see?!” But, we’re looking at this from a lens of the future. We’re looking back at something with 20/20 vision. I remember this happening, but I was young and I didn’t really know the details of this story. But when I speak to people who really did, everybody said that everyone thought it was Richard Jewell. It absolutely seemed like it was him. He had the same backpack, he had bomb training, he was highly uncomfortable around people. There were so many things that, if you were there, in that moment, pointed in that direction. I think the terrifying thing that the show explorers and is something that we all have to remember, is that people can jump on a bandwagon so quickly and once that happens, there can be a groundswell where it takes a huge amount of energy to turn it back around. We see that happening, all the time. We have terms now, like fake news. The point is that we, as a society, get one piece of information and, all of a sudden, it’s being spoken about like it’s the truth, and it may not be and it may be destroying people’s lives, in the meantime.

So, to me, it’s absolutely terrifying and awful, what happened to Richard Jewell, but I didn’t want to back away from or soften [Kathy Scruggs], in any way, because I wanted to give people perhaps a chance of empathy, seeing a little bit of the world through her eyes. When they first asked me to do this, I was speaking with (director/executive producer) Michael Dinner, (executive producer) John Goldwyn, and Andrew Sodroski, our creator, and he said, “There is a version of this story where, at the end of it, you say that Kathy got what she deserved, but I’m not interested in that story.” That made me intrigued to play it because I didn’t understand that story, either. It’s just too simplified of a story. She was caught up in this much bigger game with very high stakes that she ended up being a pawn in, as well, but she is culpable. I think responsibility needs to be taken by all involved, for sure.

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Image via Spectrum Originals

One of the most obviously noticeable things about Kathy Scruggs is clothing and just how brightly colored all of her outfits are. What did you think of her wardrobe and how did that help you define who she was?  

GUGINO: Oh, my gosh, it helped me so much. Wardrobe, for me, is always hugely defining because it’s usually relatively early on, in the process, where you’re having your first wardrobe fitting. Sometimes I have a very clear idea of wanting it to be a particular kind of coat or hat, or a specific thing. But even if you have those ideas, when you start to put these kinds of clothes on, it becomes very clear, what feels like her and what doesn’t. We only had one picture available to us, in existence, of Kathy, which is crazy considering that she was a journalist who was gonna be sent to jail. Our amazing genius of a costume designer actually picked a jacket, even before we ever got the photo, that was almost identical to what Kathy was wearing. So, when I saw that, and I saw these short skirts, which were talked about a lot, it was actually extremely helpful to me.

She was a southern woman and, at that time, without any kind of shame, that was a part of her whole package. She was a really beautiful blonde, and a southern, smart lady. The costumes were so much more right on than I ever thought they would be. They were all completely period pieces that were found. It made me realize what a big personality she was, and how she was not afraid of attention. She was this great, huge spark. She made everybody laugh and she told dirty jokes. She was a big personality. If she wasn’t such a big personality, I don’t think she could’ve gotten a lot of the stories that she got. That story she talks about, where she showed up before the cops, and the rookie cop came into the crime scene and she was already there, that’s totally true. She was a go-getter. 

I was very sorry to hear recently that Cinemax would no longer be making original programming, meaning that we won’t be able to get a second season of Jett there.

GUGINO: Thank you. It’s been the strangest thing. You’re actually the first journalist that I’m talking to about it. I knew before it officially happened, but it is the strangest set of circumstances because the show has been so embraced, both by fans and by critics. I couldn’t love it more and want to do more of it, and I hope that we will find a home for a second season and be able to continue the story because anyone who’s seen the whole first season is adamant about wanting that. Life is funny, right? It’s something that was absolutely and completely unforeseeable, and out of our control. And Cinemax is obviously disappointed, as well, because they really loved the show, and we had such a wonderful working relationship with all of the people over at HBO and Cinemax. It’s a corporate decision that doesn’t have anything to do with the creative aspect of things. As one of the creators and creative people, it’s certainly disappointing, but people have been speaking up and asking for more, so we’ll see. I hope that we are able to do that. I’d love to do that, for us and for the fans. It wasn’t as if the show was singled out. It was just across the board, for Cinemax. It actually just recently came out in the UK on Sky, so it’s still continuing its life. And who knows? Maybe we’ll be in Europe making it. I don’t know. We don’t want to make a second season, if we can’t make it in the way that we want to, since we got to do that with the first season. But if we can do it right, we’d be open to it. It’s that thing where your work in the business that we’ve chosen, outlasts you. I feel very proud of that first season, and hopefully we’ll be able to make another one, or more than one, that we feel equally proud of. If not, I’m so grateful we got to do it.

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Image via Spectrum Originals

You’ve played so many great, fun, and memorable characters, in TV and film. Do you have a character that you’re particularly fond of, that you’d love to check in on and see how they’re doing, if there was ever a sequel or a way to revisit any of the previous projects that you’ve done?

GUGINO: Wow! Well, for a lot of years, I felt that way about Karen Cisco, and I still feel that way about her, even though, for me, somehow we were able to dig even deeper with Jett, so because they could be distant cousins, I feel like maybe that switched to Jett, a little bit. It’s a good question. It’s funny, if I were to go way back, because I love period pieces and it’s been so long since I’ve gotten to do a proper period piece, when I did The Buccaneers in my early 20s, which was based on an Edith Wharton novel, and we did that for the BBC, I played a character named Nan St. George, and it was a really incredible experience. We filmed all over England for five months, they had these exquisite gowns made, and it took place in the 1870s. I’d love to revisit where Nan St. George might be now. Perhaps that’s because I’m hankering to do a period piece, but it was also just such a rich world that Edith Wharton crafted. Then, there are ones that I only got to touch on briefly, that I would’ve loved to have touched on more, but I’m not sure it’s about revisiting them. With American Gangster, I loved playing that character so much and she made a real impression, in only a couple of scenes. I think people really responded to that, but that was one where I felt like I just got to dip my toes in the water. There are those, as well.

Is there a current TV series that you watch, that you’d love to do a guest spot on?

GUGINO: Oh, wow! I’m actually about to start doing a play. I’m in rehearsals in New York for Anatomy of a Suicide, which is an exquisite play written by Alice Birch, who also writes Succession. Succession is something that I would love to be on. There are just so many. I don’t know that there would be character for me in it, but I really like Sex Education. Gillian [Anderson] is just so good in it. And I love Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fleabag so much. There’s just so much good television now.

What made you want to return to the stage and why was the character in Anatomy of a Suicide, in particular, appealing to you?

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Image via Spectrum Originals

GUGINO: I’ve been really, really wanting to get back to the stage. I didn’t realize, until I read it in Deadline, when they announced it and said, “Carla Gugino returns to the stage, after six years,” and I was like, “What?! It’s been six years?!” It felt very long to me, too. The last play, which I loved doing, was at Lincoln Center and was called A Kid Like Jake. I love the theater. It’s just a big part of my life, so I’ve been really looking. But because it has been quite some time, and with theater, you’re doing eight shows a week, it had to be something that I really love and I’m committed to, in every ounce of my body. This play is exquisite. It’s about inherited suicide, so it’s profound and deep and painful, but it’s also witty and human and exhilarating, in the way in which she’s written it. It’s really incredible piece of theater. I’m honored to premiere it in the States. So, that’s the reason I wanted to do it. I read it and thought, “This is brilliant. If there’s any way that I can figure it out with my schedule, I want to do this.” So, that’s what happened.

Theater, to me, just always seems simultaneously exciting and terrifying, so I’m always impressed with anyone who does it.

GUGINO: That is an absolutely accurate description of it. It is profoundly terrifying, and also incredibly exhilarating. There are different kinds of theater. I seem to never choose really light, bubbly theater, for some reason, so the ones that I’ve chosen have been soul-excavating, on some level. Also, there’s the really cool thing about just the ritual of an audience, every night being different, and sharing that moment together. There’s something really tangible about the practicality of it, and the storytelling nature of it. Just the fact that stories have been told for so many years, in every culture, and they are what keeps us alive, and allows us to know our history and ourselves, it’s a pretty amazing medium.

Manhunt: Deadly Games is available to stream at Spectrum Originals on February 3rd.

Television