Interview: 'Halt and Catch Fire' star Kerry Bishé on not being a wet blanket wife
When it comes to Kerry Bishé's character on AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire," it was a Speak and Spell that caused me to pivot.
In her opening moments, we fear that Bishé's Donna is going to be the latest in a series of cable drama wet-blanket wives. Her husband Gordon (Bishé's "Argo" co-star Scoot McNairy) has big dreams in the world of '80s computing and we think that Donna's role is going to be the one telling him to think of his family rather than chasing his dreams. [I've seen some people suggest that's all the character continues to be. Those people are wrong.]
Then we see Donna go to work on her kid's Speak and Spell. She isn't meek or tentative with the poplar piece of juvenile technology. She attacks it like a woman who knows her way around a computer. In that moment, and as we hear later hints about Donna's work at TI and her computing past with Gordon, we realize -- or we *should* realize -- that the character has skills of her own, that she had dreams of her own. When she allows Gordon to follow his path, we sense she's not just being permissive to her husband, she's permitting herself to have dreams again.
I got a lot of that from a Speak and Spell, but when I sat down with Bishé and mentioned that scene, she was immediately excited and eager to discuss a moment she also viewed as crucial.
In a wide-ranging interview, the "Virtuality" and "Scrubs" veteran talks about making sure that Donna seemed capable, what her own technological capabilities are, reuniting in the '80s with McNairy and much more.
HitFix: So my first reaction as I watched the pilot and your character comes out and in like the first scene I go "Oh no, it’s gonna be another wife who’s the wet blanket to the husband."
Kerry Bishé: That’s right.
HitFix: And then almost immediately that’s not what she is. Did you have concerns reading the script when you got to her first appearance like, "Okay, this is not something that interests me" and then was there a moment where you said, "OK. This is something..."
Kerry Bishé: Well, first of all, reading the script, instantly you can tell that it’s an incredibly high quality wonderful story. And I knew that I would love to be a part of it. The character concerned me in what direction it might be headed in. I really did not want to play that TV trope that we’ve seen recently of the, I think you put it well, the wet blanket wife, sort of raining on the parade of the antihero, which I think is really an unfair characterization because there are people that are taking really big risks and doing dangerous things and to have to be the responsible one and take somebody back down to earth, that we hate these people that we have such a vitriol for these women is really, I think, unfair. And I don’t know how realistic it is. I don’t know how long a marriage could last if that were the sole metric on which it operated. So I’m really glad that even just in the pilot script you get little glimpses and you get to discover her complex history and it hints at the landscape of her ambitions in a way that I was really intrigued by. And then I talked to the Chrises and they, you know, talked about some of the things that they wanted to explore, some of the questions they wanted to ask about relationships under these circumstances. And I was totally in.
HitFix: It's a dialogue-free moment, but for me sort of the turning point for the character comes very early and it's when she’s taking apart the Speak and Spell, because that instantly lets you know, "Wait a second. Look at how easily she’s doing that. She’s got skills." How important was that scene for you?
Kerry Bishé: I’m so glad you said that. When we were shooting, it I remember Juan [Jose Campanella], the director, who’s amazing, I was sort of fumbling with it and I was like, "I can’t... We need to do it. I need five more minutes to rehearse this because it needs to look like I am an expert." And he was like [she does a Juan Jose Campanella impression], "I don’t care Kerry. Maybe you are uncomfortable. Maybe you are rushing. It’s okay." This is how Juan talks. I love him.
HitFix: Now I eagerly await interviewing him just to do a compare-contrast.
Kerry Bishé: I’m very good at doing Juan. So it’s pretty accurate. But he’s like, "It’s okay if you aren’t so good at it." I was like, "No, no. I need to be amazing at this. It needs to go super quick." So I’m really glad that you noticed that and that is the story that I want it to tell, that you think she’s this mom who’s trying to get her engineer husband to help out in the family and, "Fix the thing that’s broken. Gee whiz!" And then she’s a totally capable intelligent passionate mind as well as. But it is a turning point.
HitFix: And it does come through. My reaction was, "Okay, this is a woman who actually knows her way around this stuff as well." [She puts out her hand for a high-five.] So do you know your way around this stuff?
Kerry Bishé: No, I don’t. I really don’t. I’m kind of a Luddite myself. I’ve got a bunch of typewriters at home. I’m a big fan of old technology. So the tech stuff is a little bit of a challenge and I’ve tried really hard to understand it, but more than understanding the way the technology works, my job is to understand the people that understand the way the technology works. My brother is a biochemist. He set me up with a friend of his in Pasadena who is, among other things, a computer engineer. And so we went out we actually bought some Speak and Spells on EBay and he taught me how to take them apart and we looked at some stuff. While I tried really hard to understand what he was saying -- it literally gave me a migraine one day I was so overwhelmed -- what was more influential was spending time with him. You know he is a nerd, like a high class quality nerd, this guy. But he has this sense of self-confidence that is completely beguiling. He just knows that he is making things that are gonna influence the way the world works and not even just that, he’s making the world a better place. It’s amazing to see the confidence these people have.
This is a little bit of a tangent. I just built a boat, for my birthday, iit’s a 16-foot Sassafras canoe and I walked around for a week afterward feeling this sense of what I was capable of and feeling like it was a lot, because it’s this very physical thing and I built a thing that you can float on in some water. It was a palpable feeling of being implicated in the world and the things around me. And I think I relate that to how these people are. Technology is ubiquitous and so if we pulled out, you know, this guy [She points at my digital recorder] or our computers in our pockets that we talk on the phone with sometimes and you knew the way it worked and where it came from? How powerful do you think that would make you feel? I think it would make me feel all the time really like a little bit of a, like a Master of this Universe.
HitFix: In the canoe, how long were you out on the water before you had confidence that you weren’t gonna sink?
Kerry Bishé: [She laughs.] I knew it was water-worthy. It took about three minutes while I was still looking for leaks. But it’s a good boat. It’s a good and beautiful boat.
HitFix: Do you ever get the same feeling out of acting?
Kerry Bishé: What feeling?
HitFix: The accomplishment feeling. The confidence feeling. The making something feeling.
Kerry Bishé: Oh, it’s a completely different. I think the reason I wanted to build a boat was because the satisfaction that I get from being an actor is a very different kind of satisfaction. And to me, one of the things I love about being an actor is that it’s never done, it’s never perfect and so it’s the process. It’s like practicing being okay with things not being perfect and things being outside of your control. I did a lot of theater, so especially as an on-camera camera actor, there are so many things that aren’t in your toolbox. They’re somebody else’s job. You think about editors and rhythm. Volume isn’t even in your control. The storytelling in a movie is in the cut, it’s in the edit. It’s not an actor’s job really. Your job is such a tiny little thing and I love the feeling of juggling or tightrope walking. And it never is gonna be perfect and you just have to accept that as an actor. And it’s hard, it’s hard to do in life and it’s hard to do at work. It feels like it’s like ceding control and so to me this feeling of getting to do something physical with my hands that has a very apparent result, which is a boat that I can sit in and take on some water, was a really unique experience for me and a really different kind of satisfaction.
HitFix: So what are you gonna build next?
Kerry Bishé: I don’t know. I kind of want to build a little sailboat later. It might take me another ten years to get used to that idea but...
HitFix: So you like being out on the water it sounds like.
Kerry Bishé: Yeah, I don’t really know anything about it, but it’s wonderful.
HitFix: I talked with Scoot about this: Are you guys recreating the '80s one project at a time together?
Kerry Bishé: Yeah, I’m hoping one day to get to the 90s.
HitFix: Okay. Who came first on this project and was there sort of a naturalness to reuniting in this decade I guess, together?
Kerry Bishé: I think it was just really like a funny coincidence. I’m not totally certain. I’m pretty sure it happened about simultaneously. And I imagine that it was almost an afterthought. I don’t think it was a concerted effort to try and get this couple back together. I like to think about this: So Ben [Affleck] had us live – the six houseguests -- live in a house together that was all dressed for the period. We had our wardrobe in our closets. No computers, no email, no phones.
HitFix: For how long?
Kerry Bishé: We weren’t allowed to leave for a week, for five days.
HitFix: Whew. Not the entire shoot.
Kerry Bishé: No. But it was a little terrifying, meeting a bunch of strange actors. It could have gone horribly wrong and it turns out they were wonderful people. And we learned a whole lot. But in an effort to stay appropriately in the period and not have anything anachronistic, I brought my old Polaroid camera and a bunch of film and I took a lot of photos. So we have in set-dec on this show, there’s these really great old Polaroids of me and Scoot dressed in clothes from the '70s, like hanging out in this house. So it was a really funny feeling of already coming into this with an elaborate history of us in this period. It’s very strange and I think just like a funny coincidence.
HitFix: Well did that experience make it easier for you personally to just sort of segue back into the world?
Kerry Bishé: Well yeah. I think we spent months on that movie figuring out how each other worked, how to work together and playing this, you know, a marriage. This, I think, is a very different marriage than the one in "Argo." I really love in "Argo," it feels really period to me in this way that I think that wife character was very much a soft-power, I think she very much deferred to her husband. And that feels true to a lot of marriages. I kind of can remember Imagining from that time. But I think this one navigates very different waters, which is nice to get to play something divergent like that.
HitFix: Do you have any sort of '80s tricks that you used to get into sort of costume. Do you have a mix on your iPod that you listen to?
Kerry Bishé: Oh no. You know, the thing is, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the '80s. I think the show feels very 21 Century to me in the way that it navigates like marriage relationships, the way that it treats gender and sexuality. It feels like it’s a show very much from now. So yeah, sometimes I look in a mirror and I look exactly like my mother and it freaks me out. But mostly I think the feelings are still the same and the questions, it just feels very modern tt me. And I think the makeup and the wardrobe, that does all the period work for me.
HitFix: Now talk about the other side of the character. The motherhood side of the character? How was it working with the kids?
Kerry Bishé: The kids are great. One of the things we did in the pilot, and sort of establish early on, was just talking to them and playing with them. And I love... Some of the scenes in the pilot that are my favorite are the interactions between our little family unit. And they feel really real and detailed to me because Juan kind of empowered us to just play around with them and improvise and they used, I think, really good moments. And so we do some of that throughout the series with the kids and that’s a really great way to work with them and they’re really, they’re great.
HitFix: Now how much at this point do you feel like you know that your character knows? How much research did you do. How much is stuck in your head regarding what this woman’s knowledge and skill set is?
Kerry Bishé: Right when we started I tried to do a lot and I had a really high expectation for what I wanted to know and be prepared for, which I think is good and makes me feel like I can show up at work and not be terrified and totally intimidated. But then doing the show, doing 10 episodes of it, I kind of learned what I needed to know and what I don’t need to know. And we have consultants who are wonderful and it’s great whenever they’re there to ask really specific questions. So to me it’s really important. I need to be able to look like I know exactly what I’m doing here. I don’t have to know exactly what I’m doing here. So, you know, I’ll be really specific about like, "Is it a quarter turn when I turn this plate? Do I need to have my fingers on the edges of it and like what is the..." I’ll try and understand and he’ll say, "Oh, what you’re trying to do it’s like a record and this thing is taking off the information." I’m like, "Okay, great." So it's just to make it look really specific, to be really specific about what you’re doing, what you’re saying, how you pronounce these words or like the rhythm that you say this kind of, you know sentence or whatever is important. Because some of it’s just jargon.
HitFix: Well you talked about the Speak and Spell. Have there been dialogue scenes where when you got to the end you felt particularly proud of yourself for having reached the end of the sentence?
Kerry Bishé: You know, I love that stuff, like the jargon things. I remember so David Mamet has a bunch of acting instructional manuals basically. And one of the things he says is you could be speaking a different language or gibberish and as long as you’re really clear about what your intention, is it will be received. So in things like that, in the jargon things, if I know, "What I need to do right now is I’m in a scene with someone who questions my ability to really do this stuff because they don’t know that I’m also a really qualified engineer. I’m gonna say this jargony sentence that really is basically like I don’t even know what I’m saying like it’s ridiculous." But what I’m doing with it is "I’m gonna allay your fears and make sure that you know that I’m completely confident about what I’m saying here." So if you say it in that tone and it’s all gibberish but it’s that same with that intention, then I felt like I’ve accomplished my goal.
HitFix: So eye contact or body language or whatever – let those things stand in for actually understanding hexadecimal whatever, whatever?
Kerry Bishé: Exactly. Exactly.
HitFix: Is that something you had to learn over the years in acting to do to let go of the responsibility to know everything?
Kerry Bishé: Yes, absolutely.
HitFix: Was there a specific moment at which you did that?
Kerry Bishé: I remember I had an audition for a play called "Come Back Little Sheba," which is in some ways like a sad, dusty old play, but can be really vital and amazing. And there’s this character in it who’s like, she says things like, "Golly gee, you’re a peach," you know? And I felt like such a doofus. I was like, "I feel so dorky saying these things." And I was like, "Okay, just think about what are you trying to do in this scene. You’re trying to make this old man feel good about himself. You’re trying to like build him up and make him feel great." And then you can say whatever you want and as long as you’re really trying to just make him feel great you can say, "Golly gee, you’re a peach" and just really think about what that’s doing to this person and not feel like, "I look like a jerk for saying these dorky things."
HitFix: Now I talked with Jonathan about this and the pilot we have sort of this clear idea of who appear to be the visionaries here. That it’s possible that maybe the people we think of visionaries maybe aren’t and people we don’t think are visionaries maybe are. Give me the pitch for why your character might turn out to be a visionary.
Kerry Bishé: [She laughs enthusiastically.] I think it takes all kinds of intelligences and creativity to create a successful product. I think about that for art projects. It’s like a Hegelian Dialectic kind of thing. You need true conflict to create something new and different. And that’s what I think is happening here. There’s all these people fighting really ardently for their point of view and they think they’re right. And it requires all of them to come up with the ultimate way to solve this really complex problem. And I think I just gave a really good kind of character answer. I think Donna is a pretty detail-oriented, conservative mind when it comes to this and she’s got a very practical sense about her. And I think that’s really valuable to a project. You know I think it really requires someone like that to keep it grounded in reality to a degree.
HitFix: You had me at Hegelian Dialect. I totally bought that jargon.
Kerry Bishé: Oh I know what that means!
"Halt and Catch Fire" airs Sunday nights on AMC.