Like her character on Big Little Lies, Robin Weigert is remarkably present and empathetic in every conversation she participates in. The daughter of a pianist mom and a psychologist dad, it's kismet that she entered a profession that mandates she be uniquely tuned into people—both fictional and in real life—in order to excavate their deepest vulnerabilities. In doing so, she exposes some of her own.
What makes Weigert's portrayal of BLL's Dr. Amanda Reisman—the hardest working therapist in Monterey, California—so intriguing is that it demands a level of emotional restraint that is sometimes in direct contrast with her own instinctual responses. Weigert has to tow the line between empathizing with her patients—the upper-crust glass-house dwellers of Monterey who are accomplices a murder—and confronting them about the lies in which they've wrapped themselves.
It’s a challenge Weigert embraces because she, like so many fans of the series, believes that beneath the Monterey Five's desperate smiles, fragile (and in some cases, abusive) relationships, and deep-rooted personal and collective trauma, these women are heroes. They haven’t just—so far—managed to dodge culpability in Celeste’s husband Perry’s murder. Season 2 has compelled them all to take steps toward their own healing that extends beyond that one fateful event.
Weigert talked to BAZAAR.com about why compassion and interrogation are necessary to confront the personal demons on Big Little Lies, why she’s more optimistic than ever about the sisterhood of women on TV right now, staying connected to her Deadwood character Calamity Jane, and stepping behind the camera for the first time at age 50.
Harper's BAZAAR: Season 2 finds the Monterey Five dealing with their traumas as they come to terms with their truths, all with the help of the great Dr. Reisman. What role does empathy play in Dr. Reisman’s sessions, and what role does getting her patients to recognize their truth play?
Robin Weigert: It’s a very interesting balance, and I don’t think she always gets it 100 percent right. In taking an eagle’s eye to the whole thing, I see that there are places where my methodology as a therapist needs to be somewhat less successful because it’s important that these heroic characters stand on their own. To give them counsel is an important function and at the same time, failing to do it to a certain degree allows them to give it to themselves. In watching our protagonists, we want to see ourselves. We want to see the humanity and the flaws, and we also want to see them in a heroic light because they’re our girls.
As far as the acting goes, even when the lines dictate that I am confronting the patient, I have felt a strong need to play the opposite, which is to say create a safe space or a container for the patient so that the patient can handle the confrontation. So I made efforts to deliver even the harshest-seeming lines with empathy and give the patient the opportunity to rise to the challenge that is confrontation. [Laughs] I speak like a doctor when I say that, but I’m trying to protect the integrity of my therapist although she has an unorthodox approach in some moments. I want to defend her credibility, nonetheless. There will be the words written on the page, and there will be the demand that those words make on me, and then there will be the dance that I do with those words, which is different each time.
"I’m trying to protect the integrity of my therapist although she has an unorthodox approach in some moments."
HB: You speak of Dr. Reisman being confrontational, but most of the time I feel like she’s really just asking them questions. It’s not so much her challenging them. It seems like she’s trying to get them to decide what they ultimately want to believe to be true.
RW: I think that’s absolutely true. Nonetheless, there could be certain questions that can be experienced by the patient as confrontational. There are certain approaches a therapist can take that would trigger a fight or flight response. That’s not destructive unless the patient terminates therapy. It can be a very constructive thing because you want there to be a situation where the patient brings their most intense issues in the therapy. But I think the challenging thing is, are you in danger of taking that so far that the patient feels so alienated that they terminate the therapy? So, there’s a risk. That’s why, when I am asking them questions that are the most sensitive, I am simultaneously creating a safe space for them to be able to answer those questions within a therapeutic context so they don’t flee the situation altogether.
One of the reasons those scenes in the first season felt so vital to me was that a few times it did feel like Celeste might leave because she was in such a rage, which is a tribute to Nicole’s work. Sitting there, I felt intensely that if I say this wrong, she’s going to need to get the hell out of here and I can’t afford to have her do that. I was really holding that in my body. I loved the way Nicole worked because we never dropped the character’s truth while we were on set with each other. Even between takes, we wouldn’t drop out of it and chat. She would hold onto the place where she was coming from emotionally. She would arrive on set ready with that and I would arrive there open and ready to receive her, and the scenes would evolve from there.
HB: There is a particularly provocative question that Dr. Reisman asks Celeste: Whether she’s an addict. In other words, is Celeste addicted to Perry’s abuse, and is that preventing her from moving forward?
RW: That’s a perfect example of the kind of beat that I’m talking about, where it really could go either way in terms of how that would affect the patient. How premature would it be if Dr. Reisman was genuinely asking Celeste, Why aren’t you dating? She might be trying to interrogate what the obstacles are in the way of Celeste dating. But Celeste might be hearing Dr. Reisman say, What’s the matter with you? Why aren’t you dating? Those are two very different things. So in that area, I feel like I can defend my therapist. I’m interrogating what’s in her way, like, That really tells me something about you. Does it tell you the same thing about yourself? which isn’t bad therapy.
What’s important is that when Celeste interprets me as pushing her to date, that’s her projection. That’s not Dr. Reisman. In the case of Dr. Reisman calling her out about being an addict, I think sometimes this character [Dr. Reisman] seems to use the very starkest way of saying something, as she was laying out for her as a lawyer would, the consequences of her not telling anybody about the abuse. But when she hits her with something stark, like this is the behavior of an addict, I think it’s to rattle [Celeste] and make her see something in herself. It’s a risk every time. When Dr. Reisman hits her with the full weight of something like that, those are the moments where I think, Celeste could need to get the hell out of here right now. Somehow that has to be a risk worth taking. I think Dr. Reisman must feel like unless Celeste snaps into an awareness, she could sleepwalk into either getting into a car wreck or doing something very destructive to her children. She’s in a dangerous relationship to herself. Hitting her with something that will make her a little self-aware is a technique—albeit a harsh-seeming one—to say, Wake up!
HB: Would you say there’s a similar motivation in the scene when Dr. Reisman asks Celeste to recall a particularly abusive episode with Perry, but replace her image with Madeline’s? It’s a little disturbing to watch, but Celeste wakes up from it with such aggression that it almost felt like Dr. Reisman looks a little fearful or startled by the reaction.
RW: You’re reading it as fear, but I think what Dr. Reisman was experiencing was, Let’s see what this moment is for her, because something big just happened. She wanted to seize hold of, What was that for you? But it presents like fear because it’s supercharged because there’s a real possibility here of a recognition.
Without saying who this person is, a very good friend of mine was very affected by that session and called me to have a long talk about it afterwards. There are not so many techniques [Dr. Reisman uses] that a traditional therapist might use. But at the same time, a friend of mine had this recognition [after watching that session] that he wouldn’t do to someone else what he does to himself. He doesn’t quite imagine having these hurtful things done to anybody else. It was a very effective device for him as a viewer. I found that very moving because you hope with television, or anything that you do, that there might be some real-life repercussions in a positive way.
A lot of TV—and I think this is changing—is theater of cruelty, where unfortunately, it feels like feeding a hungry audience with a high degree of cruelty. This is not a show like that. This is a show that shows us sometimes at our worst, but at the same time there’s a redemptive undertone. It’s about people trying to rise to their better natures. I do feel like there’s genuinely an appetite, and if you want to be crass about it, a market for that that is growing. Because the other thing can only go so far. [Laughs]
HB: We are seeing that evolve a little more on TV as series like Big Little Lies explore the healing process amid, to use your word, cruelty. There are so many disturbing flashes—flashbacks, really—that we see right before the scene jumps back to a more accessible present.
RW: Yes, moments of recognition exist all over this series. It’s so funny to me because I’m watching these almost unimaginably rich people—so wealthy!—[Laughs]—but at the same time they’re so dimensional and so human, and so funny and all of that. I can see just about any class or station in life watching and having moments where they’re like, Oh my GOD, I do that too!
"This is a show that shows us sometimes at our worst, but at the same time there’s a redemptive undertone. It’s about people trying to rise to their better natures."
HB: Oh, absolutely—for better or worse.
RW: [Laughs] They’re still recognizable somehow. There’s something very humanizing—even having the screen populated by so many A-list, fancy actors revealing such deep and human sides of themselves, that they’re frankly not really called to do often. I think it’s a treat for them. Often, once an actor has risen to that level of prominence, they’re sort of called upon to perform hat tricks all the time, like, Show us that thing that we loved the last time. I love the genuine sorority among the women. It’s very wonderful and very beautiful to see. And it’s a great cultural moment of sorority right now even among female political candidates who are doing a great job.
HB: And so long overdue. That especially resonates on this season of Big Little Lies more than last season, though I think what ultimately binds them is this shared cycle of trauma in a lot of their lives—save for maybe Renata, who’s on a whole other level.
RW: She’s definitely next level. [Laughs] But that is what binds us all. I don’t see them as having an extraordinary level of trauma. When you peel away the layers, I see that most people have trauma. Most humans do. You have to get to know them a little bit better to find out about it. I don’t know too many people who don’t have some.
HB: Yeah that’s true. That makes me think about that session between Dr. Reisman, Madeline and her husband Ed, because Madeline—who before this point hadn't been revealed to have any trauma outside of the effects of the murder last season—realizes that her parents’ flawed marriage may have influenced the demise of her own marriages. It made me wonder if the characters on this show, and people in real life, are constantly contending—either consciously or subconsciously—with our past experiences.
RW: I think that’s very true. There’s a whole brand of therapy called imago therapy that has to do with the idea that when we’re choosing a piece of work, it’s an effort at healing something from our past. We’re repeating certain things because those are things we need to work on and work through. So we are actually conditioned to choose a partner who will help take us through some of the same experiences until we genuinely work through and beyond them. It could be a totally destructive thing, but we are destined, hopefully to a degree of greater health, to repeat some of the stuff from our childhood—whether that’s the stuff we’ve experienced or saw our parents experience with each other, or whatever the force of the instability of the household was. We might find ourselves experiencing some of that same instability in a different form. What is that and how will I survive it this time now as an adult with different things at my disposal? That’s how we grow.
So you can focus on the trauma and the compulsion to repeat, or you can also focus on the upside of it, which is that we do this for ourselves and to ourselves so that we can grow beyond these injuries. We repeat for the sake of healing or fixing something that we couldn’t figure out how to do the first time. I’m more of an optimist about human beings than thinking that if we’ve had trauma, we’re doomed to repeat that trauma over and over again and never get out of the cycle. I think that if we’re going back in for more, we’re going back in so that we can finally slay the dragon.
HB: That’s a really healthy way of looking at it.
RW: I hope that’s true, and I think for many people it can be. But you do have to have a change of mind, a shift from feeling like the victim of circumstances to the master of circumstances. You have to have a change in mind about your relationship to the events in your life; that they really have everything to do with your choices. When you realize that, you can make other choices.
HB: You sound like an actual therapist. I would totally book a session with you.
HB: I read that both your grandmother and father were therapists. Is that where you first developed an interest in psychology?
RW: It does feel like the road not taken. I sometimes wonder [about] if I hadn’t been so lit up specifically by Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice. The entire reason that I wanted to become an actor was because something happened to me in that theater when I was 13 that I still can’t explain. It was like eureka, when I realized that this is what I wanted to do. But I think had acting not worked out, [psychology] could have been a very interesting life. I’m very interested in people and how we work, and I do have the kinds of relationships with my friends where we sometimes counsel each other. It is part of me. But so are so many of the characters that I play. If I think of Calamity Jane, who is as different from how I present as I can imagine, she’s a part of me too. I’m almost sadder to have put her away—and put her away twice, after Deadwood the series and then again after the movie—than most characters I’ve played.
HB: Why is that?
RW: Because there is no outlet for that side of me other than that character. I feel like this therapeutic part of me gets expressed in my friendships and other places [in my life], but the part of me that is Jane has no place to go but that character. There’s no possible other place to go. It’s much more based in my id than in my constructive self. It was sad for me to say goodbye to her.
HB: I can understand that. Calamity Jane also has no outlet for parts of herself and the painful experiences she harbors. And as a result, she self-medicates with alcohol. But this isolation makes her gradual relationship with Joanie [Kim Dickens] that much more crucial. How do you think empathy and love, particularly among women, fit into the world of Deadwood?
RW: It’s a major, major part of it. One of the things that I am so grateful to [Deadwood creator and writer] David Milch for is that he created such wonderfully complex female characters in this very masculine landscape. We all were three-dimensional people and extremely different from each other. Nobody stood in for Wife, or Other, or Pretty Girl. They were just very developed human beings, flaws and all. Certainly addictions abound in the series and characters struggle with their demons. But rather than someone coming to the other side of them or saddled with their addictions and then they get better, these characters are heroic in a different way. They’re absolutely messed up and in many cases broken. But at the same time, the knitting together of a community and the fact that they can function together as a whole is redemptive.
There’s something about Jane being deep into her alcoholism and at the same time showing up for people who have the plague in a way that nobody else can. It’s almost as if her deeply low self-esteem was an aspect of why she didn’t think twice about sitting at the bedside of someone covered in sores and swabbing their forehead. It’s because she doesn’t hold herself above anyone. She finds the beauty in these damaged souls and what we’re really seeing there: the power of community, what happens when people come together. Everybody has a role to play.
That message is very resonant in this cultural moment when we feel like we’re faced with tremendous amounts of tyranny, because there is power in people finding each other and common ground and reaching out to each other and creating something together. The Deadwood movie, as well as the series, is kind of a wish fulfillment, which is to say that the fabric that connects people in this lawless community is what they’re all discovering as the series goes along. It’s a beautiful trajectory and dream for America.
HB: It must feel great to have been a part of two shows, Deadwood and Big Little Lies, that have in many ways marked a much-needed shift on screen, particularly for women.
RW: I feel really, really lucky because of the sorority, which is genuinely important to me. The trend needs to move this way now. My hope for this next decade that I’m entering—I just turned 50—is that there will be more interesting, dimensional ladies to play. It’s such a cool decade. I really like women in their 50s. [Laughs]
HB: Because we’ve talked a lot about the process of catharsis and the choices we make for our own happiness, do you think that after everything that happens in the Deadwood movie, Calamity Jane has finally found peace?
RW: There is a growing up process. She is able to claim love for herself, not just experience it. I think she begins the film recognizing that there are two roads in front of her and one leads straight to death and the other leads to a chance of some fulfillment. She makes a choice that she’s going to pursue the latter course, even if she may fail. I think she’s given herself every opportunity to have as good a slice of the good life as any of us get. None of us are going to be able to defeat old age and death, and in Jane’s case you may not be able to defeat the demon of alcoholism. But she has given herself as good a shot as she would ever have, because she was able to make some strong, good choices for herself. I’m really glad to have left her in that place, where she can be the hero of her own story.
HB: You have a directorial debut coming up, The Interpreter. Why did you decide to step behind the camera now?
RW: Part of it is the new year’s resolution I made this year, when I told myself that I wanted to be more of a leader. I don’t mean that in a grandiose way. I just wanted to see what it would feel like. As an actor, there’s a glorious thing about being a follower that’s a requirement and a necessity, but I also wanted to see what it would feel like to lead. It was like my growing-up process. It was a now or never feeling—either I was going to learn how to do this or it was never going to happen.
We shot the short over four days in April, and it was an incredible experience for me to try. I think I’ll be wanting to do more of it. I had to give myself more of an experience first to see how it felt, and I absolutely loved it and all of its aspects.
You Might Also Like