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Ron Livingston on Tackling Sobriety and Suicide on TV

Ron Livingston is having a moment.

The actor known for such films as “Office Space,” and TV series as “Sex and the City,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Search Party,” is starring in three high-profile small-screen projects this fall: “A Million Little Things,” which bows Sept. 26 on ABC; the second season of “Loudermilk,” which hits Oct. 16 on AT&T Audience Network; and “The Romanoffs” episode titled “Bright and High Circle,” which streams Nov. 2 on Amazon.

“The way that I pick stuff, it’s not very cerebral. It’s not like, ‘I would like to play a senator who …’ It’s more like, I read it, I get a gut feeling from it, and if it affects me — and honestly my favorite thing is if it kind of scares the hell out of me a little bit, then I pick that,” Livingston tells Variety.

But he admits that there is some connective tissue between all three of his current television characters, as “it’s all you — it’s just different parts of you.”

“The interesting thing is in the course of playing the role, if you do it right, you’re kind of changing who you are as a person a little bit so for the next one, something different will grab you,” he says.

Here, Livingston talks with Variety about tackling sobriety and suicide on-screen, finding parallels between seemingly polar opposite characters, and the topicality of his “Romanoffs” episode.

You’ve had a year between when the first season of “Loudermilk” premiered and when the second one will launch. What have you learned about the show, the character, and from audience response that informed your work on the new material?

Sometimes what happens is you do a character in Season 1 that has sharp edges and is kind of risky and angry and maybe people aren’t going to like him, and then if the show does well and you come back for Season 2, sometimes there’s a danger of sanding it all down. … I want to try to make sure he’s still the guy he is — there’s something about that that is not going to go away — but he’s been through some different stuff and how do you see the motion of somebody through some events without it all of a sudden not being the same guy?

What did you find most challenging about slipping back into such a character as Sam Loudermilk?

I was nervous for maybe 30 seconds right before the first take of Season 2 because I was like, “This was a year and a half ago, am I going to remember how to do this?” But of course you do, it’s like a bicycle, and you’re fine.

What is Sam’s biggest challenge this season?

If Season 1 was kind of about Sam’s world coming apart, Season 2 is about, “How’s he going to put it back together — and does he want to put it back together, or does he want to put it back together in a different way?” It throws him for a loop a little bit because as a character, he’s very comfortable in the role of critic, but when you put something back together again, sometimes you have to be the creator of something, and I think he’s got a lot of vulnerability there. I don’t think he has nearly as much confidence about that.

How solid is Sam’s sobriety this season?

I don’t think it’s ever solid — it’s one day at a time, as anyone who has experience through recovery knows. I think, if anything, Sam is kind of humbled by the fact that he’s had [a] slip. He’s aware of the fact that he’s kind of starting over and that affects his status within the [recovery] group, and I think that’s a moment where you’ve got to find some humility and say, “All right, I can’t hide behind my four years sober because I don’t have that anymore.” But it’s still important to him — it’s still essential to who he is.

Is it important to you that he maintain his sobriety, or do you find more interesting things come up in the role when he slips?

I want to tell the story the way the story really is, and the truth of the matter is people have relapses, people slip all of the time. … So I don’t think it’s ever a forgone conclusion that Sam’s going to be able to maintain that. It’s something he has to fight for every single day, in every single situation.

While Sam is brash, your role of John on “A Million Little Things” appears to be the perfect guy to everyone in his life. Was the juxtaposition of personality type what drew you to that character and that project?

It just kind of fell in my lap that way — not only that I was doing both of those characters, which are, I think, polar opposites, but I was doing those characters at the same time. I was doing “Loudermilk” Monday through Friday, and then I was going and doing John on Saturday. So that does kind of connect them a little bit because if I’ve got a sore back, both characters are going to have a sore back that week. But Sam Loudermilk is sort of the most grating person in the world with no friends and no desire for friends and always says the wrong thing, but underneath that is a kind of romantic that’s there. And John is different — John’s got it all together and he’s gregarious and everybody loves him and he loves everybody, but underneath that there just has to be an unexamined part of himself that he wasn’t willing to look at and that brought him to where he ultimately ended. And so they’re kind of kindred, and it’s fun to play those guys at the same time because they are kind of in line with each other.

With which character do you find yourself more in line personally?

I’m way more like Sam — way more. I’ve quite often had people like John in my life, [but] I’ve never been that person. So I totally relate to Sam’s kind of loner, crotchety thing. There’s a lot of me in John, but I don’t think it’s on the surface.

John in “A Million Little Things” kills himself in the pilot, but the other characters and the audience don’t find out why he did it. How important was knowing the reason in order to convey certain emotions in the scenes leading up to his last moments?

I always tried to get as much information out of [showrunner] DJ [Nash] as I needed for the scene we were about to do. He’s got a lot of the answers in his head, but he kind of doles it out on a need-to-know basis, and one of the things that’s been amazing about the way the show is built is this ensemble of actors, which is really, really strong, they all have very, very different perspectives on what the show is and what the show’s about, and it all orchestrates itself into a group. So you’re not really watching the same show from scene to scene; it’s a little bit of a symphony.

How does John’s presence in his friends and family’s lives continue to linger throughout the rest of the first season of “A Million Little Things”?

There’s a thing that happens where when you lose somebody, it’s a shock at first and you kind of can’t believe it because it feels like the person is still there, and then you slowly get used to the idea that they’re not there anymore — they’re not going to be there. But every once in a while a song comes on the radio or you smell a certain smell or you look and see a certain jacket hanging in the closet, and bam, it’s like all of a sudden that person is there in vivid color. And I think that’s the effect that DJ wants to have on John’s reappearance in the show. So it’s not on a schedule, and it’s not super predictable — he likes to use it to effect. He does a lot of things where a scene will start, and we think it’s in present day until all of a sudden John walks in from around the corner and we realize, “Oh this must be a flashback.” So there’s a lot you can do with that.

Are you altering your performance depending on from which character’s memory any given flashback scene is told?

No, I’m not doing that. I think it’s written like that, so I don’t really have to do that. The thing is, even if two different people have two different ideas — that “Rashomon” thing — of what happened, for each of them theirs is the only truth. Theirs is how “This is how I know it to be,” even if they’re different. So for each scene I’m doing, I’m playing it as if it’s the objective truth. And DJ will write it so there’s different things that trigger people’s memories, and that affects what flashback we go back to and what we’re going to see, and that differs from person to person.

You also have a role in Matt Weiner’s anthology series about characters who believe they are descended from the royal Romanov family.  

He is not one of the descendants — my wife in the episode has that connection. It’s just one or two small lines thrown in, and that’s all they tag it with. … We’re an affluent, successful family, and with that comes a certain image to uphold.

Much of the Romanov story is mired in tragedy; is that a theme that runs through your “Romanoffs” episode and into your character’s family’s life?

I’ll go so far to say something happens and there’s a dilemma where we’re sort of at a loss of how to respond [because] there’s a conflicting feeling of what needs to happen here because there’s a course of action, but there’s the image and then there’s the remedy to the situation and then the fog of not fully knowing what the situation is. I know that’s super vague, but I love the idea that people are going to be able to sit down … in front of the show that they’re watching and have no idea what story they’re going to see tonight. I think it will slowly start to dawn on people what [Matt’s] trying to do overall, and I think it’s a great experiment.

What is the situation in which they find themselves?

It’s pretty topical. I won’t go further than that, but it’s very current. I don’t know that it was planned to be that way, but the way that it worked out, it’s going to be a very relevant topic.

With “The Romanoffs” being a close-ended story, was your approach to breaking down the character different than how you work on the other shows?

I kind of roll with it. I read the story, and I try to see what the story needs, and I try to see how that relates to what I’m dealing with in my life because I find that fresh stuff is the best stuff to be able to take into it. So it’s different every time. There’s a little bit of alchemy to it. It’s not like a Lego project I’m building brick by brick and it’s all going according to plan — it’s kind of like a big, bubbly soup that I have no idea how it’s going to taste at the end.

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