The CBS drama series American Gothic centers on the prominent Hawthorne family, reeling in the wake of the chilling discovery that someone in their midst is linked to an infamous string of murders. As shocking secrets from the past and present are revealed, their mounting suspicion and paranoia that one of them is a killer threatens to tear the family apart. The series stars Virginia Madsen, Antony Starr, Juliet Rylance, Justin Chatwin and Megan Ketch.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Juliet Rylance (who plays eldest daughter Alison Hawthorne-Price, who is also running for mayor) talked about why American Gothic appealed to her, how people love to watch dysfunctional families, how different her experience on The Knick was, always being in the dark about where the story is headed, keeping the show fast-paced and moving, Alison’s place within this powerful family, and how her character has become more human, over time.
Collider: People not only love watching dysfunctional families, but wealthy dysfunctional families are even more deliciously evil to watch.
JULIET RYLANCE: It’s a lot of fun. We’re having a lot of fun with it. Every time the script comes out, each week, more questions arise and nothing is solved, and that’s great fun. It’s getting to watch how the other half is because we’re fascinated by that. To see a family that’s come up with nothing and made their millions, only to discover they have all of these dark secrets, I don’t know why we’re so obsessed with that, but it definitely fits that mold.
The Knick was such a great show, and everyone on it was really terrific. How was that experience for you, compared to American Gothic?
RYLANCE: Steven Soderbergh is a master storyteller, and the whole team for The Knick was so perfectly picked. That show was such a highlight for me. It was just so beautifully portrayed and so carefully researched. I loved that about it. It’s interesting to do something now that’s such a different story and such a different beast. We shot the 10 hours of The Knick, all like a big film and all out of sequence. With American Gothic, we’re going week by week and have no idea where the story is going. It’s a challenge in a completely different way, and that’s really exciting, as an actor.
Did your experience on The Knick make it more difficult for you to want to pick up another TV script, or were you anxious and excited about jumping into the next thing?
RYLANCE: For all of us, The Knick feels like it’s still living with us, so it doesn’t feel finished. I don’t really know what I mean by that, but there are jobs that come along, in one’s career, that you know, at the time, are very special. The Knick lives in that place, for all of us. So, after doing something like that, you have to jump right in to something else. Sometimes it’s good to jump into something completely different, in terms of a story or a period, just to shake it off a bit or to shake it up. This came along, and I wasn’t expecting to do any other television. I just really liked the challenge of working episodically, week by week, of moving very quickly, and of dealing with this kind of story, which couldn’t be more different. The challenge seemed fun.
What was it about this character that appealed to you and made you want to sign on to play her for what could be multiple seasons?
RYLANCE: What appealed to me, more than anything, was the ensemble nature of the piece. That’s actually a similarity to The Knick. It’s an ensemble piece about a family, and I really was gripped when I read the pilot. I got hooked on the murder mystery and the psychological aspect of it. And I like the fact that Alison is very different from me and very different from the normal roles that I play. It was exciting and intriguing to go, “Okay, how would I play this kind of woman? Is she just a cold, calculating, determined woman, or is there something else? Is there something that makes her that?” It is always really interesting, as an actor, when you get to delve in and dig underneath a little bit to discover the whole person, as opposed to what’s on the surface.
You’ve talked about not having the answers and not knowing who the killer is, but do you come up with your own theories?
RYLANCE: It changes, all the time. Obviously, we need to know a certain amount of backstory to know where we come from, but we’re in the dark about some of that backstory. Something happened 14 years ago. One of us knows what it is, and maybe several of us know what it is, but we don’t know. That aspect is hard, at times, but also really fun, at times. You have a real blank canvas. You can play anything, really, and that is really fun. Often, we forget, as actors, to listen. We’re so busy doing and performing that we forget to listen to the other character. But with this, we really have to because there may be some clue that they’re giving you that you could miss. That’s an exciting part of the day, each day.
Clearly, this is a family full of secrets. Will we start to learn about some of those secrets and get answers to questions, or will this be more of a situation where, every time we think we know what’s going on, we learn that we really have no idea?
RYLANCE: I like that (show creator) Corinne [Brinkerhoff] and the writers have written the show in a way that’s very fast-paced and moving, all the time. It never feels like it’s stopped anywhere or stays in one place for too long. And as we move through, the family secrets, as they try to figure out who did this, all start unraveling. What’s interesting to me about the show is the dynamic between each family member, as they other align themselves with another family member or distance themselves from the family member they think did it. It gets very psychological with the family. Everyone’s good traits and bad traits reveal themselves. There are definitely a lot of twists and turns in each episode, and I hope that it keeps people hooked on the mystery of it.
How would you describe Alison’s relationship with her parents?
RYLANCE: That’s a really good question. Alison is the eldest daughter. Her eldest brother, Garrett, left the family 14 years ago, so it’s a little bit like the prodigal son returning. Since he left, Alison has taken over the mantle of being the eldest child, who will make something of herself and keep the family in ascendency. There’s a lot of pressure that goes along with that. As it’s developing, I’m realizing that her relationship with her mother is very complicated. She has a lot of pressure to succeed and please her mother. There’s an interesting dynamic between them.
Is there someone in her family that Alison feels closest to, or is she very distanced from them?
RYLANCE: I think she’s very distanced from them. I think that often happens when people are acting out of fear or a deep, desperate need to succeed. It becomes a very isolated path and journey. She’s focused on one thing, which is her goal of becoming mayor. Once she’s mayor, there will be another goal. That’s almost the most important thing to her, at the beginning of the story. In my mind, I’ve decided that Alison was closest to her older brother, and once he left, she felt quite separate from the family. I think she’s actually the black sheep of the family. She doesn’t really fit in, and I think that’s something she probably feels quite insecure about.
How are things within Alison’s own family, compared to how things are in the Hawthorne family?
RYLANCE: That’s a really good question. She seems to have the perfect family, with her husband, her beautiful little twin girls, and a lovely house. Alison compartmentalizes everything. Everything is in its own place. The family is the family. Her family at home is her family at home. She’s a mother when she’s at home, but she’s a powerhouse when she’s at work. As we go on, you’ll probably see more of that. She seems to be able to have numerous different relationships without one really impacting or affecting the other.
Her siblings discover a box in the family house that will obviously have further implications, and they let Alison in on that. Is she more concerned about what they found than she lets on?
RYLANCE: I think she’s definitely more concerned about the discovery of the box, but she’s a strategic thinker. That’s why she’s good at what she does. It is the perfect play. It’s a November 6th problem that can be dealt with after the election. At the moment, the election is the thing. I love the fact that that is something I would never have the gall to do, in my own life. I like that it’s very simple for her. She knows that it will lead to negative press coverage, which will destroy the campaign and the family, so she wants to shelve it for now. I think that takes a lot of balls. And actually, I think it’s probably done far more than we realize.
We know that Alison is running for mayor, but what kind of politician is she? What kind of mayor does she want to be?
RYLANCE: I think she’s actually quite progressive, in a lot of ways. There are things that she feels very strongly about. Boston leans Democratic, but I think she’s trying to push the boundaries even further. She stands up for gun control, for the right to choose, for women’s rights, and for working class Boston. She says all the right things, but I guess that depends on who the audience is. But, I think she really does believe in those things. She’s someone who, for lack of a better word, gives a damn. I like that drive, on both a large level and an intimate level.
As you’ve gotten deeper into this season and learned more about who this woman is, did your opinion or idea of her change, at all, or has she turned out to be exactly who you thought she would?
RYLANCE: I guess she’s becoming more human to me. Maybe it’s the background that I come from or the fact that I’m not so immersed in this world, but I see these characters as archetypes. They’re all different archetypes, and she was a little two-dimensional in my mind. But as with anything, the more you play and discover, and repeat repetitive patterns in a person’s behavior and put them together, you see more of that person. I think one of the things I love most about acting is how, with any character, their edges become more defined. The things that make them happy and sad become more defined. That’s the exploration and why we’re interested in storytelling, and why we bother to tune in or turn up to the theater. We get to explore our very nature of being by seeing all these aspects portrayed in front of us. So for me, Alison surprised me. I probably wasn’t as fair as I should have been.
American Gothic airs on Wednesday nights on CBS.