From co-creators Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver, and executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, the Fox drama series Prodigal Son follows Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), the son of the notorious serial killer “The Surgeon,” who has dedicated himself to helping the NYPD solve crimes and stop killers. With a manipulative mother (Bellamy Young), a TV journalist sister (Halston Sage) and a homicidal father (Michael Sheen) interfering in every aspect of his life, it makes it challenging for him to ever take a break from murder and have a normal life.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Bellamy Young (who plays Jessica Whitly, an upper class New Yorker that has no problem sharing her opinion about how her children, Malcolm and Ainsley, are living their lives) talked about her journey since the end of Scandal, what a “perfect little gem” the Prodigal Son pilot script was, how clearly she was able to understand Jessica, playing a mother who had no idea what was going on in her own family, what drew Jessica to Martin, her hope that she’ll get to work more directly with Michael Sheen, the awkward family dynamic, what Malcolm’s ideal life would look like for Jessica, and why the writing on a project is so important to her.
Collider: This is such an interesting show, and I love your character. Did you know that she would be so fun, when you read this? Because this is a pretty dark show, was it apparent that there would also be some humor in this world?
BELLAMY YOUNG: It was, 100%, all in that pilot script. Sam [Sklaver] and Chris [Fedak] wrote a perfect little gem. They really did. The crime-solving is intricate enough and smart enough to really pull you through, but what gets you and hooks your heart is this family. It’s so nasty and delicious, just the what if of, what if your father was Hannibal Lecter? That’s a good enough jumping off point. And then, Ainsley (Halston Sage) was such great character. And when I read Jessica, I just couldn’t believe my luck. I could hear her voice. I could figure out what she drinks. I could see her walk. It was all there, on the page.
You spent a number of years on Scandal. When you learned that show was coming to an end, did you start to think about what you wanted to do next, and did you have a plan or a list of things that you did and didn’t want to consider?
YOUNG: As Scandal was ending, Shonda [Rhimes] was kind enough to give us enough notice that it wasn’t a horrible, heartbreaking shock. It was, when she told us. We thought we had a year, but because the election surprised everyone, we wound up getting two years. I don’t think Mellie would have been president. It ended differently than Shonda had imagined, but we had a good denoument together. It was really more about how we would structure a way to stay in each other’s daily lives, and we have. That family of people was so close. We show up to everybody’s everything, and we’ve got a text chain that will not die. We’re just as close as we ever were, so in that regard, that was the priority.
But I was lucky to get a pilot, last year. We finished the last shot of Scandal, I slept in an empty house on the hard floor for 45 minutes, and then went to LAX and went to Dallas and did a pilot. So, I knew what I was headed into, at least short term, as we were shooting the last frame. And I had picked, pretty particularly, last year. I wanted a sibling to define an opposition, so it was a comedy, and it was a more working class woman, and I had this beautiful honey strawberry blonde wig. It was just a very different character. We had a great time shooting it, and almost got picked up, but then we did not. We were on hold until Halloween, when Channing Dungey left. That’s when it all didn’t go for us at ABC.
So, I really did think I knew what was gonna happen next, and when that fell apart, I had a wonderful year of travelling around, feeling like I was on a hiatus instead of being jobless. It was a very different energy. And then, all of a sudden, there was quite a sobering moment when I went, “Lord, what’s gonna happen now.” So, I’m lucky that I got to do the movie with Dolly (Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings). Dolly Parton has done movies for Netflix, and I got to do that. While I was couch surfing, I got to do Whiskey Cavalier with Scott Foley. And then, [Prodigal Son] came up early in pilot season. It always comes back to the writing, and the writing attracts the incredible acting talent. And (pilot director) Lee Toland Krieger made it so beautiful. It was just so beautifully done. So, I’m just inordinately proud to be a part of this project.
Even after the first few episodes, your character still feels a bit mysterious. Do you find her to be a bit mysterious? Do you feel like you really know her, or does it feel like there’s still some layers there that you’re learning about?
YOUNG: The interesting thing about Jessica is that she’s still hiding from herself. She had to really do 180-degree turn in 1998, and just start living a life of survival on the Upper East Side. She has a life of privilege, absolutely, but she was a pariah, in an instant, and had to protect her children. So, I think she started repressing, with nuclear force. As Malcolm starts to remember and starts facing his dreams, which are his truth and his past, she can’t help but be drawn into the vortex of that. And so, I think we will just see very new layers of Jessica, as everything starts to spin out of control, more and more.
We quickly learn about who Malcolm (Tom Payne) and his father are, and what drives them, but you’re not really sure of what to make of Jessica.
YOUNG: But isn’t that a woman’s role? We are the glue. In a more traditional, gender defined society, the men go and do their vocation, and the women have to hold everything else together – the family, the money and the house – and they have to bend themselves into a million different forms to keep all of those balls in the air. So, we are, just by nature of it, a bit more of a mystery because we have more balls to keep in the air.
She certainly portrays herself as a concerned mother, but at the same time, you also get this feeling that part of it comes from her wanting to force things into boxes that make her more comfortable about what else is going on.
YOUNG: 100%. At this point, she’s hardwired for safety. She wants safety, but more than anything, she wants her kids to be safe. She might demand of them that they make choices that stunt their grow, in many significant ways, but her impulse is to save them. She still hasn’t admitted that you can’t keep people from the truth. The truth will always come out. It’s also okay for life to be messy. We all have to learn. We learn in our own way and at our own rate, but we only learn by being honest with ourselves and with each other. So, she’s not quite there yet, but she’s getting there.
Because we’re seeing her at a point where, all of these things have already happened to her, and all of these things about her husband have already been revealed, leaving her to figure out how to deal with the aftermath of it, how does she feel about not only having been married to a serial killer, but not knowing the full extent of what was going on, under her nose and with her children there?
YOUNG: I think she’s racked with guilt over what she didn’t do, to save her children and to save all of those innocent people, and what she did do to save her marriage. She says, “My mother taught me that marriage was long and you make sacrifices.” She just didn’t realize the scope. She had no idea of the stakes. That’s what she wakes up to, in the middle of the night, every night, and that’s what she sees in the mirror, every morning. What really drives her as is never being able to forget.
Have you thought about who she was before she met Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen) and what it was about him that reeled her into his world?
YOUNG: Oh, yeah. Michael and I have had great conversations about that. They have crazy chemistry, and some of that is written in the scripts, but some of it’s just because some people are just shiny, and that’s a big Venn diagram for sociopaths. That’s real. There’s real overlap there. So, I think she was very drawn in by Martin’s sparkle, his intellect, and his drive. It was a rebellion for her because she was from privilege and walking a very predestined path. He was a risk and he was dangerous, but he was also safe because he was smart and he wanted the right things. I think she thought she could have it all, but there’s no such thing, in this life.
One of the challenges with this show is trying to find ways to bring you in and Michael Sheen together for scenes and to have reasons for you guys to be in scenes together. Are there a lot of conversations about ideas that could bring you guys together, so that you can work together?
YOUNG: Man, I hope so. I’m not in that conversation, but I surely hope so. When they conceived of Episode 3, they were very excited to bring the news to me, and I was extremely excited to receive it. Hopefully there will be more. I love that they’ve set up the conceit of the flashbacks because it allows us to see some happier times. It gives context, and that context really makes everything land emotionally, in such a richer way, without being didactic. You don’t wanna tell people how to feel. If you just show them the story, they can feel about it the way they decide to. So, I hope there’s more of that, coming up. Our scripts just keep getting better.
What do you most enjoy about the family dynamic and getting to play those scenes?
YOUNG: They’re so delicious. Just to play those horrible silences that I literally run from, in real life, is delicious, on screen. I love it. I love everything about Jessica, I really do. I absolutely delight in her. She cracks me up.
Those are the moments that are so relatable. It’s hard to relate to having a serial killer for a parent, but everybody can relate to the awkward family dinner.
YOUNG: Exactly. The overbearing mother and the lack of boundaries is all very relatable stuff.
When it comes to the bigger picture for the show and your character, how much are you told and made aware of, how much do you try to question and find out for yourself, and how much do you feel like you have a voice with your own ideas, when it comes to who this character is?
YOUNG: Having been blessed, twice in a row, with ridiculously talented writers, I would never presume. I love to get the scripts and try to find the deepest truth of it and make it come alive, even more. I have a lot of friends who are pitchers and who go, “My character should do this,” and I’ve never been one of those. I really trust our staff. I don’t know where it’s going, and I don’t know what’s coming. On Scandal, we used to get pages hot off the copying machine at rehearsal, very last minute, but that’s like life. It does the work for you because you just meet it in the moment, in a very honest way. On this job, we have a different situation because we have very pocketed time with Michael because he is wonderful, and therefore busy. And so, we get to see a bunch of scripts at once, which is a position that I’ve never been in. Honestly, it made it a little harder to keep my innocence about some things, to know what was coming. The bottom line is that I just feel lucky to be in the hands of this wonderful writing staff ‘cause I don’t worry, at all. It’s so surprising and delightful and deep. I just let the masters do their work and I try to rise up to it, when it gets to me.
What do you think this woman would like for her son, if she had her way? What would she want for him? What would she want his life to be?
YOUNG: I think Jessica would want Malcolm to lose interest, entirely, in this father and never want to see him again. She’d want him to marry the right girl and become a lawyer. I think she’d just be so happy for him, if he had a wonderful, stable, appropriate life. I think it’s still a little scandalous for her that Ainsley works in TV, but she still thinks Ainsley dresses nice and is appropriate. She believes Ainsley to be safe, and she just worries constantly for Malcolm.
As Ainsley gets more and more interested in what she doesn’t know about her father, will that become a thorn in the side of Jessica?
YOUNG: I don’t think Jessica can see that coming. I love what the writers are doing. With siblings, you take up the room that you can find. Malcolm has been the squeaky wheel for so long, that Ainsley has had to be the good child. And now, Malcolm is doing the work on himself, and really looking at things, and really walking through the fear, and getting stable, in a strange way, even though he’s headed into the eye of the storm, and it’s allowing Ainsley to explore her crazy. I like that. I’m interested in that. I’m a fan of this show, and I love this show. As a fan, I’m so excited to see Ainsley peer into the darkness, and what effect that has on her.
Is there a type of character, whether it’s a real-life person, or someone from some sort of source material, or something entirely fictional, that you would love to play, but haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
YOUNG: Oh, wow. What I love about being an actor is that you get to live a thousand lifetimes in one lifetime. For me, it really is about the writing. I haven’t developed, so I haven’t gone after material, but my mom was an English teacher and I was an English major, so I really am a writing snob and when something is good, it just melts my whole being.
Prodigal Son airs on Monday nights on Fox.