Just because someone may be imagining a world where their wife or son has not died, does that make the person mentally unfit? In the new thought-provoking series AWAKE, Cherry Jones and BD Wong play the psychiatrists in each world (one real and one imaginary) that Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) lives. They are the voice of reason as Det. Britten tries to sustain a simultaneous existence in two very different worlds. Due to the impact such a revelation could have on his job, they are literally the only people who he can trust and rely upon to figure out what is real or not real – or how to keep both realities alive. Taking a few minutes to talk with press in a recent conference call, Cherry and BD candidly shared what the characters are doing to help Det. Britten navigate his very complicated psyche.
What was it about this role that made you want to play another psychiatrist/psychologist?
BD: I didn’t really want to play another psychiatrist or psychologist, but I was looking for a change after being on SVU for 11 years, and I just liked the script, the AWAKE script, which was then called REM, so much that I kind of just jumped at the chance and I did it rather blind to the fact that the characters were in the same job, actually. I just really thought the script was great and I wanted to be on the show.
Cherry, what brought you to the role?
CHERRY: Well, I was contacted by Howard Gordon a while ago. I mean a long time ago, about this show. And he, like producers do and writers do, he just told me this very, very rough, rough sketch of the show. And I thought, “Well that sounds awfully intriguing.” And then I guess when they wrote the part they wrote it for a, like a 29-year-old blonde, very inexperienced, very enthusiastic psychiatrist. And at that point, you had Britten’s beautiful young wife, you had the tennis instructor for Britten’s son, who was a beautiful young woman, and then you had this young psychiatrist who was a beautiful young woman. And I think finally the producers said to Kyle, “We’ll give you one, we’ll give you two, but we ain’t going to give you three.” And so they upped the age of the psychiatrist and called me and, like BD, I read the script and I just thought it was really intriguing. I had no idea how it could work or sustain itself, but wanted to come along for the ride. And again it’s like the thing with pilots, you never have a clue whether they’re going to get picked up or not. And we just we just didn’t know, except the quality of it sure looked good while we were making it.
Is this role feel a little bit like you’re doing a play? Because in both worlds, it is just two actors sitting eye-to-eye and nothing else going on for your scenes?
BD: Oh wow.
CHERRY: Lovely question.
BD: I do feel that the style of this show affords me more of an opportunity, even though it’s on television, to access some of the fun and the depth of the work that you can possibly do on stage. I don’t think it’s at all similar really. I always find television completely different from working on stage. But I do feel that there is a kind of depth to this particular show that is a new thing for me. And I would kind of compare that in some way to the writing and the execution of a good play. But it is still kind of different.
CHERRY: I’m like BD. I can’t really say, it’s so different. And of course our roles are rather just physically rather static. So it really is about my brain trying to figure out his brain. And that’s about as — I don’t know if micro is the right word, but in acting it doesn’t get much smaller than that in a way, because you’re just going from one brain to the next, and just trying to — we have very different techniques, the two doctors, which is fun to play, although I wish we could be in a court of law sometimes the way he goes about it, just trying to help Detective Britten. But I can’t even begin to say that it’s like a play. I mean, I guess it’s like if you string them all together then it’s like a play. If you string all 13 episodes and our scenes together, then it’s like a play. Then it’s our play and Britten’s play.
BD: Really not like a play in that we never see each other face-to-face as characters. We’re not really going head-to-head in that way, except the editor is making us go head-to-head. We are never even in the same room. So we don’t have the action of playing off of each other in that way that you do when you’re on stage. We definitely are robbed of that.
Cherry, how did you enjoy doing “24” and then coming into this show?
CHERRY: Well, I loved being the president of the United States. You get a lot of respect in airports, especially from the screeners. No, it was a great job. And things have gotten much more quiet for me now. I’ve gone from president of the United States to a psychiatrist with seemingly only one client, so my responsibilities have become smaller. But it’s cool to just sit in a chair. I don’t even think of it as acting. It’s something about when it’s that small, and so intimate, it becomes something else. Of course it’s acting, but it’s a very different experience from anything I’ve had before.
And for you, BD?
BD: Well, who else is there, right? The thing that I would agree with is that definitely that its focus is taken off of your body entirely when you’re sitting on that chair and emphasis is put on your face and inside your brain more. So I know exactly what Cherry’s talking about when she says there’s a completely different feeling to the kind of acting that you’re doing. I don’t think there really is a name for it. It’s just not body acting at all. I mean it’s very rarely at all related to anything you’re doing physically. And so that causes a kind of uber-cerebralness to it, I think, it makes you really aware of the thoughts and the ideas that you’re talking about in a way. It’s almost like turning the lights out or something like that, and hearing a person’s voice and really being able to concentrate on what it is that they’re saying because you’re only looking at their face and listening to their voice and not processing their body language. So I totally agree with that. I think that’s really an interesting aspect of the part. And on those very few times when I’ve actually stood up or been in a situation there have been a couple of situations in the course of the season in which I was not sitting in that chair, it was a little bit of an adjustment to make, “Oh wow, this person actually walks and talks and does behaves differently outside of that chair.”
CHERRY: And if I had anything to do over — I have a gorgeous chair in my office that I sit in, but if I had anything to do over, I would have made it much more comfortable. Nice padded arms, I have spools, wooden spools for arms, I would have done something about that, since it’s my one little stage, that chair.
BD, you were on LAW AND ORDER for 11 years. Did you jump or were you wooed from that to do this?
BD: No, my time was not up. I was kind of just looking around and I decided at the time when new shows were starting to be cast, I decided to just kind of throw my hat in the ring again and see if anything would turn up. And I was lucky that this came along, and so I just basically kind of quietly transitioned from one to the other. They never even really explained what happened to Dr. Huang on [LAW AND ORDER] and I suppose that left the door open for some kind of reappearance or something, but it was very quiet and uneventful, and so no, I was kind of by my own doing kind of lured from one to the other, really.
Do you think your reality in AWAKE is the real one or the imagined one, and why?
BD: Well, obviously mine is the real reality. There can be no other, and there’s no even questioning it as far as I’m concerned. In fact I’m not even sure who it is that we’re talking to right now.
CHERRY: Of course, I’m sort of amazed that Detective Britten’s psyche would come up with a therapist like Dr. Lee, but we’re going to be working on that. [Laughter]
BD: Really, to be honest, there is no other way to play any of the scenes than that you are the one that is real and that the other person is the one that’s imagined. If you start thinking about it too much, you’ll go crazy, literally.
CHERRY: I mean it’s ludicrous, I mean of course we’re the real ones. And that’s as real as we know we are, that’s the dilemma for Detective Britten. Each world is as real as we know we are. I mean it’s like a hall of mirrors.
BD: Yes, I think that he that, as far as it being also a television show, one must always be open to any possibility. I mean the show can be. Who knows what the writers have in store for what really is real and what is not. And there are times when I’m not clear about it at all, and I like it that way.
CHERRY: What I love about it is — I mean when you think about our own dreams and how we can create, flesh out living, breathing people that we know intimately or that we’ve never met before, and yet our brains are capable of these incredible scenarios. And even when we dream about famous people that we know, our brains are writing all the dialogue. I mean, we’re brilliant in our dreams. And what makes this one unique is that he has ordered this other dream in such a completely realistic way that of course you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not.
Jason said that his relationships with both of you shifts as the season moves along and the end of the pilot he basically kind of rejects both of you from helping him. So can you share a little bit about how you approach being his psychologist. Do either of you come at him aggressively, and how does that relationship kind of evolve in both of your offices?
BD: I think he’s probably most resistant to me and that’s partly because I’m the one that’s more aggressive and challenging and a little bit less pleasant, to be quite honest. And also who wouldn’t be more irritated by me than by Cherry Jones? What’s funny to me is that he really is, from my perception, Britten is resistant the entire time from the whole idea of treatment or even dealing with any of this, as well as he should be to support the premise of the show. And so that’s just an evolution that continues throughout the season until there’s finally a kind of breaking point. But I find him very resistant the entire time, don’t you, Cherry?
CHERRY: Yes, because he just can’t, you know, it means giving up one of his loved ones, so of course he’s going to resist. Dr. Evans’ approach is, it is much softer and she understands that he is in tremendous pain. And rather than trying to confront him with the absurdity of what he believes to be true, my character really does want to try to create a very safe environment, so that he can feel free to tell me everything and through this we can maybe create a blueprint for him to move back to one world.
BD: It really does make you realize how it’s very rare that you have a character that has two therapists. I mean, none of us has two therapists, not that I know of anyway. So it’s very rare that you can make a comparison between two different doctor’s techniques. And it makes you realize how crucial that relationship you have with your therapist is. I mean there are all these other therapists out there, is there a one that would be better for me than the one that I’ve got? And that kind of thing. I just think that’s really interesting. Their techniques are so different, and he seems to be equally uncomfortable or comfortable with either of them. I don’t think he’s more or less comfortable with one of us than the other. But he is uncomfortable with the whole idea of being treated, and yet he knows that something’s really not right with himself, and so he continues to stick it out. But I just find it really fascinating that you get to see how two people deal with the same problem. Two different doctors are dealing with the same situation, because it’s quite different.
Jason said that he was told which world was real and which wasn’t. Are you saying that you don’t know, or you do know?
CHERRY: Had you heard that BD?
BD: That he said that? No, I did not. I wouldn’t be so surprised that he would say that. But, I don’t know. You may be able to tell from our reaction that we were not [in the know]. . . I won’t speak for Cherry, but I prefer it that way. I don’t really want to know.
It works better for you as an actor, right?
BD: Yes, absolutely, and I think the longer that we suspend that mystery and suspense about one being real and the other not being real, the better it is for the show in some ways.
CHERRY: I am intrigued by that statement. No, well, not yours, but that Jason knows. I am stunned. And now when we see him again we can just throw him down on the floor and tickle him until he tells.
BD: Which would be fun in any case anyway. [Laughter]
CHERRY: Yes, but you’re right, we must not know until the fat lady sings with this one.
BD: That’s what it feels like to me. I’m shocked. But I mean it is kind of a Jason-y thing to say, don’t you think?
CHERRY: So you don’t think it’s true?
BD: I’m not saying that he would lie about that. Because I think that he probably has some kind of perception of the resolution of the show, possibly, maybe as the co-producer of the show and as the leading man of the show, he does have a better understanding than we do of what’s to come. But I’m just guessing that, because you know when I spend the day-to-day with him, I feel like he really doesn’t know.
CHERRY: I forget the co-producer part, that he has more responsibilities than just acting Detective Britten.
BD: Yes, and he also plays a role as the person who’s the centerpiece of the whole show, as the leading man of the show. And I suppose he could if he wanted to demand to know what their thoughts and plans were. I don’t think I personally would if I was him, but maybe he’s done that.
CHERRY: Maybe the writers in both worlds have told him which one is real.
BD: That’s right.
CHERRY: Maybe he’s splitting off into many different characters and maybe — I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I’ll just stop right there. [Laughter]
It almost seems as though there are two casts on the show, the red and the green. Do you guys get to see each other on set, like to compare notes or sit down and work out ways to exacerbate the differences between the therapists?
BD: We don’t really act with each other, but we do pass each other in the night as it were. Our sets are next to each other. Cherry’s office set and my office set are right adjacent to one another. So invariably they shoot our scenes on the same day and one of us will be first and the other one will follow, and they’ll call us in a kind of overlapping way. So we definitely see each other and we see each other as we’re preparing in makeup and all of that stuff. But we also like — I’ve taken to kind of leaving notes for Cherry on the set and stuff like that, that she might find randomly.
CHERRY: Little Easter eggs, yes.
BD: Easter eggs.
CHERRY: Dr. Lee was here.
BD: There is a kind of — well I don’t know there’s the Rex and Hannah thing, and I never get to act with Dylan, who plays Rex, but I may be there on the same day as Laura as it turns out. I’ve run into everyone. But for the most part, my scenes are all with Jason, and I only really work with Jason and then everyone else I run into is just based on whether they’ve been called a little earlier or later than I am and I’ve just run into them in the makeup room or the trailers or at the food table or something like that.
CHERRY: And I’ll tell you what, we all kind of fall on each other when we see each other, because it’s a really, really sweet group of people.
BD: It is.
CHERRY: Everyone gets along and supports each other, and when we do run into Wilmer or Steve or Dylan or we all are just so happy to see each other and do a quick catch-up on how their world is going.
BD: Yes, I do really like everyone, it’s a really nice group of people. One of the nicer groups.
CHERRY: Yes, it’s one of those groups, and the crew is so great. You’d love to see it go on and on, just because it’s not that they’re rare, those kind of families making a show, but it has, I think this one must be particularly pleasant.
BD: I mean, they often say that there’s always one kind of icky person, and we don’t have that. I don’t think we have it even on the crew, which is kind of amazing to me.
Although your characters have really different approaches to the therapy, are they on a parallel journey with each other to the same place with Britten, or different? How do you both see it?
BD: I would imagine, I think that we are on a parallel journey, don’t you think?
CHERRY: Yes, yes, towards one world in health.
BD: And I think that parallel journey has to do with the fact that the arc of the season is following the central character, Britten, and so his issues are bouncing our work with him is bouncing off of what he’s experiencing. So he’ll come in one day and say, “This happened.” And then either of us will say, “Oh, well tell me about, I’ll tell you what I think that means that this happened.” And so we each have a different take on that one central theme of the episode or something like that. And so I do think that that forces us to be kind of running alongside one another, where nobody’s every way off in a different place, because we’re linked by this character.
Can you both tell us how your characters were different when you first read this script, and how they changed to fit you as the actors? What you’ve brought to the particular role?
CHERRY: Well, I know that because mine was originally written as a very inexperienced, very enthusiastic young psychiatrist, obviously, and I don’t know if she was almost written originally as some kind of comic relief. Because she was sort of almost gee whiz about everything — everything was “fantastic” and “wow.”
BD: She nodded a lot.
CHERRY: She nodded a lot and was just sort of blown away by every revelation. And obviously when they hired a more mature actress, they had to, through the first two or three episodes, they’re still trying to figure out who she is, and I think they still wanted to keep this, this very extreme contrast between the two psychiatrists. So, and I think maybe the second episode, they have my character be very I’m talking about Greek mythology and aboriginal dreams and you know I’m doing all this sort of almost more academic stuff, but with a great deal of enthusiasm. And then they sort of settled her down into more of a Mother Earth kind of character as it goes along. So I was just along for the ride for the first two or three episodes till they started to hear her voice. So that’s my journey in the first few episodes.
BD: I think that my journey has maintained a certain kind of thread of consistency. Although I did discover at the end of the season a kind of a — I don’t want to give away what happens so I’m going try to be careful about what I say — but I did realize how much I cared about him at the end of the season, because in the beginning of the season I found that I was very challenging to him and kind of giving him a lot of ultimatums and tough love, in a very clinical kind of way. And I think somehow either just naturally or partly naturally, partly written into the arc of the character, was the sense that he was not only very invested in the outcome of the health, of mental health of Britten’s character, but that he actually was invested enough to care, to have emotions that had to do with either his happiness at his success or the sadness of his failure.
Do you think they have different motivations, because at times it seems they’re not. Like Cherry’s character is concerned with the dreams helping him see other things where Lee is more like, “You have to stop these dreams because they’re hurting you.” Do you think that they both are after something different, or do you think its just part of the approach?
BD: Ultimately I think they really want him to admit that he’s dreaming. And how they go about that, or how they view it may be very different. I’m all about, “You are dreaming” and “Fess up that you’re dreaming,” almost. And Cherry I think finds, well I’ll let her speak for herself, it seems to me she finds it useful that the dream is actually happening and as a tool, it’s part of a tool.
CHERRY: Yes, I mean I think that’s a very interesting question because, yes, we both want him to come back to living in one world. But I think Dr. Evans’ approach may bring him back to one world with a greater understanding of that one world. Because she is delving into “why.” I mean and I know your character is too, BD. “Why are you dreaming this? And what does that tell you about the here-and-now in this world?” But I if they can get him back in the same world and he’s learned something about his real world from those dreams, that’s, yes, that’s what we’re looking for.
BD: Except that you and I will no longer have a job.
CHERRY: This is true.
Are the characters going to start delving more into kind of about the accident somewhat? So we can learn more about that?
Did you do any research kind of on psychology before the role, I mean BD you may have before, but did you need any of that?
BD: I didn’t. I mean I didn’t even do it very much before, although Neal Baer, who was the showrunner on LAW AND ORDER, is a doctor himself and that’s partly why my character was added to that cast was because the medical perspective was brought in by the showrunner. And so all the research that I was able to do on that show came from Neal and his understanding of and his knowledge and all of that. I didn’t really do much on my own, except for years of my own therapy.
CHERRY: I guess I haven’t done much research either. I guess because whatever the writers have us say sort of becomes our instruction manual as psychologists. I almost don’t want to delve too much into other techniques since the only techniques I’m going to be given are from the writers, so that becomes my bible for Evans’ approach. I don’t want to start knowing so much about it that I go to the writers and say, “Well, Jung said…”
BD: I don’t either. And I also just like to be — I mean that’s the strange thing about being in a television show as opposed to being in a play or a movie — you have to be as open as possible to any number of things that are going to turn or twist in a way that if you had made a decision about something, or know something very specific, it could be wrong, actually.
CHERRY: Yes. You chisel out your character as you get the scripts in a way, too.
David Slade directed the pilot. So what was it like working with him and some of the other directors?
BD: We had some great directors. I like almost every single one, I don’t recall not liking any of them, which is kind of rare for me, I hate to say. He was great. He was very helpful. Actually he was my best memory of David Slade is that he was very helpful for me during the audition process because he was the director for the pilot and involved in the process of coaching me before my final test, and that was extremely helpful. And he gave great notes. He has a great cinematic eye and I think one of the reasons the pilot looks so great is because there’s a lot of interesting camera moves and interesting lighting choices. In the pilot — kind of sad to me that we didn’t ever go back to this — but there was this dreamy kind of thing that he did. If you’ll notice in the pilot, that it’s as if the clouds are covering the sun while we’re talking in the office. Did he do this in your room, Cherry?
BD: He dimmed the lights down and brought them back up at very weird times during the scenes, as if the sun was peeking behind the clouds and it was really interesting, and when you see some of these scenes in the show, I don’t think you really will notice it unless you’re looking for it. It’s quite beautiful and very cinematic.
CHERRY: Yes, so much more about making television and film, — and if that happens in my office I wasn’t aware of it — what a neat way to bring in nature that way. To illuminate and darken the scene, that’s really interesting. I enjoyed him immensely too. I mean he’s a very eccentric man.
BD: Very quirky.
CHERRY: Very quirky, and I believe he told me that he was incredibly shy as a young boy and he’s a bit of a performer now. He’s gone the other way, and he’s really delightful. And you just never know what he’s going to do or say next. And coming from the theater where you have if you’re lucky and you’re in a successful production, you have one director, and that’s the only director you’re going to see for months – and, or in my case with “Doubt, “was the only director I saw, I had worked with in a couple of years, and yet I was on stage every night of those couple of years. And with this every week to have a completely different personality come in and take the helm, it is fascinating, because you go into the makeup trailer each day of the newest episode and you start polling everyone and say, “Well, what do you think?” and “What is their approach?” and the answers are always completely different. But they have been terrific, all of them.
BD: They have. I was really very pleased with all of them. I enjoyed it.
CHERRY: And there’s some that work incredibly quickly, and then others that take their time. But they were, for the most part they were always, they were all very, very gentle with us.
BD: Yes, and mindful. Many of them had done a lot of research on the show and watched all the episodes. You would think that they would have, but they were very articulate about the show, which gives you a real nice sense of trust when you’re working with someone new like that, that they really know what they’re talking about.
CHERRY: And then they always Jason will often have conversations with directors about things in the script because now he’s been living this part since August, and he knows it better than anyone. So it’s always fascinating to hear his conversations with the directors about a moment. And there are times when Jason with the permission of the writers and the director, when we’re about to shoot something, he’ll change again — with the consent of the writers — he’ll change a line because he realizes that it’s going to make more sense in whatever world it applies to. He just knows it backwards and forwards now.
BD: Yes, and so that’s built in to the relationship that any director comes into this particular show with. That dynamic with Jason.
CHERRY: Because it is complicated.
BD: It is.
CHERRY: I can’t imagine what it’s like to play two different realities at once. And such dynamic worlds.
BD: Yes, every one in some ways turns to Jason as the fulcrum to what is really Jason will often say things like, “Well I can’t say this, because on the other side I said this, and this relates to this and this is why I’m saying this.” He’s the only person that knows in some way. And that’s really interesting to see revealed. He is extreme. Jason himself is really on top of the two realities and what each of them, how each of them functions in the episode. And so, we’re actually lucky that he takes such care and is so diligent about keeping track of them.
CHERRY: He also plays great music in between set-ups.
Is there a specific like scene or moment that you can talk about that you’re excited for the fans to see?
BD: There is, definitely. I’m not sure how to describe any of them without giving too much away. What do you think, Cherry? I would just say that there are rare occasions when, like I said earlier in the interview, when I was not sitting in the chair for one reason or another and I think those times are going to be really interesting for people, for the fans of the show. Without saying too much about that, I mean I found it interesting for me and I found I think it was a really interesting aspect to the show.
CHERRY: And I have to say that I think what I’m looking forward to the most, and this is not to be a tease, but the final moments of the final episode.
BD: Yes. Cherry and I were both there for some of those moments as they were shot and some of it was really exciting and really wonderful and beautiful, as well. It had that Awake kind of beautifully shot, beautifully lit and extremely evocative and thought-provoking and mysterious.
CHERRY: Shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh.
BD: Well, yes. [Laughter]
To see the careful dance between patient and psychiatristas Det. Britten tries to balance his conflicting realities, be sure to tune in for the premiere of AWAKE on Thursday, March 1st at 10 p.m. on NBC.
“Awake: A Double Life, But Is Either Real?”
“‘Awake’: NBC Has A New Unique and Captivating Drama (Advance Review)”
“NBC Releases Full ‘Awake’ Pilot Two Weeks Before Premiere (Video)”