In the comedy TV series “The New Normal,” Ellen Barkin plays a character who has political beliefs that are the total opposite of what outspoken liberal Barkin has in real life. Her “New Normal” character is conservative traditionalist Jane Forrest, a grandmother to a single mom named Goldie Clemmons (played by Georgia King), who is having a baby (as a surrogate) with a gay couple David Murray (played by Justin Bartha) and Bryan Collins (played by Andrew Rannells). Naturally, Jane strongly disapproves of this situation. Goldie has an 8-year-old daughter named Shania (played by Bebe Wood).
“The New Normal” premiered on NBC on September 10, 2012, and the network has ordered a full season for the show. “Glee” and “American Horror Story” executive producers Ryan Murphy and Dante Di Loreto are also executive producers of “The New Normal,” along with executive producer Ali Adler. “The New Normal” has already proven to be a fan favorite, since it won the 2013 People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy. Here is what Barkin had to say about the show in a telephone conference call with journalists.
You mention this on Twitter, but can you talk some more about the Utah TV station KSL that’s not airing “The New Normal”?
I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot, but this is such an important show, and there are so many important questions that I really don’t want to lead off with my Twitter account.
Why do you think “The New Normal” is such an important show?
Sure, absolutely. And I am in no way speaking for the creators of the show, Ryan Murphy or Ali Adler, but for me personally as an actor when I read the pilot script, aside from thinking it was like to be sent out as an example for how to write a pilot, I just thought, “Oh, Ryan Murphy with his big beautiful brilliant brain, along with Ali, have come up with a way to reach out to a very divisive country about some very, very important issues.” And I guess the big overriding issue is, “What makes a family?” And they’ve done it with an enormous amount of love, sensitivity, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
And your character is very much of an Archie Bunker kind of character; very outspoken and not politically correct. Could you talk about the appeal of playing her?
I think any actor who wouldn’t be interested in bringing Archie Bunker types back into the conversation at this point in our history would need to have their head examined. So the appeal was great. I don’t mean to be abrupt with you, but right off the bat this is a very un-PC [politically correct] character, but she is whip-smart, she is extremely well-informed, and extremely articulate.
So this isn’t a stereotypical liberal’s version of, you know what someone who doesn’t disagree with their positions, whatever they are, anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-any ethnic, anti-foreigner xenophobic character. She is not that. She’s informed, she’s passionate about our commitments, and they are informed positions.
And I would just, like Ryan Murphy did, beg people not to judge this character until they get to know her, because they are going to be very surprised. And like all TV series, no character is fully revealed in the first episode or the pilot episode or the second the episode. I would beg that audiences stick with her and hear her arguments, which are just extremely intelligent, they come from her heart, from her gut, and they come from her own life experience.
In “The New Normal’s” first episode, it really seems like Jane is kind of against everybody else, and of course we hear all her dialogue. As the show progresses will we see her kind of connect with these people. Is there one character she connects with before the others that you can kind of tease us about?
I don’t want to give away the arc of the show or of the pilot, but the show is a very open show, in terms of how it approaches these, you know seemingly very different characters on the opposite ends of the spectrum. And my guess is that they will all learn from each other. And I can only say that, in terms of my character, there is not going to be a stereotypical representation of just some un-PC, uninformed lunatic.
This woman is passionate about her beliefs. That passion comes from her own life experience. It comes from fear. She is informed. Now, whether or not she’s misinformed or not by the media that she’s surrounded by you’ll see. But, the point is she’s not someone who doesn’t read and she’s in no way an ignorant bigot. I take great offense at that. She’s coming from her heart and she’s very passionate. She’s very, very articulate. And whether or not she’s right or wrong, my job as an actor is not to judge her.
My job is to put myself in her shoes and find the truth in this woman, and I’m finding it easy to do that. And the way I’m doing it, if that’s interesting at all, since I think my own personal politics are pretty clear, is by just flipping my own passion, and that’s not hard. Certain actors start from themselves, and then you build outwards and I’m finding that all I have to do is just flip things and there’s my passion.
Do you feel that this show will have an impact on the masses, so to speak, in order to really, as the title suggests, make gay a little bit more the norm in society?
I hope so. God, I hope so. I think that’s one of the main purposes of the show, and I think that in my character, you know what you have is a very articulate informed in her own world. Now, it might be a bubble and it might be misinformation, but as far as you and I might be concerned, but she’s not uninformed. And she has real reasons for her position and they come from her heart.
And what she will hopefully learn is that her idea of normal no more applies to her family than it does to a same sex family, because as you know, this has been written about, so I’m not giving anything away, she is a 58-year old … Anyway it’s close to my age, great-grandmother, which means that for three generations women have had babies between the ages of 15 and 16. And I think there are a lot of people in the world that do not consider that normal either.
And I think that they would even have to admit that in their own world of same-sex parents aren’t normal, I would say then is a 15-year old mother normal? I’m just curious, like who’s more fit to raise a child, a loving, committed same-sex couple or an unmarried 15-year old with no income and really no skills to parent?
So God yes, I hope that everyone starts maybe opening up tiny bit and are able to redefine what normal is. And, like Archie Bunker, I mean yeah, he was very un-PC, but every now and then, you know like I remember the Edith Bunker rape episode and you saw a humanity in Archie where it wasn’t just coming from hate. It’s not just hate. It’s fear of the other.
With all of the divisiveness that is going on in the country we live, so much of it is based around just fear of the other. And anyone who does not look like me, walk like me, talk like me, have sex like me, they’re the other and I’m afraid of them. And hopefully we will learn that it’s just not scary. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
“The New Normal” is your first actual television series that you’ve starred in, correct?
Yes. I did do a guest spot on a Michael Patrick King pilot starring Don Johnson last year, but it is my firs. I did my “Modern Family” guest thing, but it’s my first regular experience in any way. I never even attached myself to something that get picked up. So yeah, this is my first time in this world.
Why did you make the decision after all these years to go ahead and do television?
Because I actually think that television is the best way right now to reach the broadest population, and not just in terms of the numbers of people you reach on network, again I’m talking about network TV, and to be able to say important things to the biggest audience you possibly can.
And this obviously was important enough for you to get out and do it.
Yes, and working with somebody like Ryan Murphy was important enough to me to get out and do anything, to tell you the truth, and his partner, Ali Adler on this.
How did you get the role?
Ryan [Murphy] offered me the role. I read the script, I met with Ryan, and yes, I was in.
It sounds like you were really intent on creating a very well-rounded character, which is always fantastic to hear. Did you draw any inspiration from life, people you’ve had discussions with to make sure that that you were creating someone who was not just a stereotype?
I always work, as we say in the Method acting business, from the inside out. So I started with me, and quite frankly I educated myself [about] different politics than mine, and then I just flipped my own passion.
What’s been the rapport with the cast? NeNe Leakes is probably better known for being a reality star on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.“
I love NeNe Leakes. Yeah. I’m in love with that woman, flat-out. She’s fantastic.
Why is that? What about her draws you to her?
She’s a real life force. She’s a very strong presence. She’s a very hard worker. She’s there to work and to learn. We have two extraordinary chiefs onboard here in Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler. So that’s where we take our queues from, but we also very much rely on each other on that set while we’re filming, in terms of our work. So we’re developing a pretty tight little family of our own, and it’s extremely satisfying.
Does it feel great to be back acting?
Well, thanks. I kind of don’t understand why, quite frankly, people are missing me. I’ve been working non-stop for the last five or six years. I’ve been doing a lot of indie movies. I did a Broadway play last year that I felt very strongly about, so I haven’t gone anywhere in the last six year. I’ve been out there working hard with projects that I feel very strongly about and it’s been extremely satisfying.
With the exception of “The Normal Heart,” I don’t remember being so inspired and excited, which is not to say I haven’t been, but this show, these characters, the show’s message, it’s extraordinary for an actor, not to only have, and given the gift of a great role, which I have, but also to be doing important work that you feel can affect society.
And I think that after my experience on Broadway with “The Normal Heart,” I felt so impassioned about that, and this came so soon after that that it was obvious, like this is where I want to be and the kind of work I want to be doing, and the kind of people I want to be working for. And I applaud, applaud, and can’t stop applauding NBC for taking the show and really understanding the love behind it and the sensitivity behind it, and obviously the hysterical humor behind it.
Can you talk about being outspoken and a role model for women?
Thank you. Actors say it, but you know sometimes we actually mean it. I don’t mean to be a role model for anyone. If I am in a good way, I’ll take it with pride. I am an opinionated woman and I’m as educated as an average person would be. I’m not a politician, so I don’t know the ins and outs of every bill, and I haven’t read the budget plans entirely, but I just think that just by nature, you know I speak my mind when given a forum. And it’s hard for me not to, quite frankly.
Can you give us an impression about how you felt about the response you got to your Twitter remarks? What did you feel about the way that people, the media in general, responded to what your comments were?
Quite frankly, I felt good about it. It is their right to Barnes & Noble something, but I do think it’s a form of censorship, and to ban a show because I think the word “explicit characterizations” and “inappropriate behavior and dialogue,” yes, I did look at KSL’s lineup.
And I don’t understand why a show that I happen to love, like “Law & Order: SUV,” is not in family viewing time. Like, that’s what they kept talking about. Why that show, that I hope nobody is allowing a 10-year old watch, is acceptable, but a show about a very loving, committed, same-sex couple wanting to raise a child, why that is explicit and offensive, and rape, murder, child slavery, in very graphic detail, is not; with very graphic language.
So yeah, I did take a position on that and, you know being responded to by both sides meant that people paid attention. And I think that that is what matters. And whether you agree that KSL should ban the show and let your children watch a TV show where they use words like anal tearing and vaginal tearing and child slavery that’s OK, but watching two men kiss each other and cry because they’ve decided to raise a child together, I don’t get it.
So let both sides weigh in and defend their positions. Like, that’s fine with me, as long as they weigh in without slander and without misinterpretation anyone’s remarks. I’d let them stay honest on both sides.
And then, yeah, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about it. I sent out a tweet asking the One Million Moms who are, I think, 3,000 moms, to meet me for tea and let’s talk about it. They didn’t answer back.
I guess their position would be, “Well, we know where she stands and Ryan Murphy stands, so we have nothing to say to them.” And that’s what makes this country divisive. And am I guilty of extremism on my side? Yes. But, if you read my Twitter feed it would pale in comparison to what I get back.
At the end of the day, the show is a sitcom, it is entertainment. Can you talk about how the show balances the efforts to entertain the audience and make a joke with keeping the characters real and sympathetic and not character-like?
Just stay tuned and you’ll see it. I think that all the characters on the show are true and honest, and they’re not stereotyped. And the characters, their positions are from the heart and from life experience. Now, some people’s positions are more fear-based than others. And I do reference “All in the Family.” I don’t know if anyone ever tops [“All in the Family” creator] Norman Lear, but I do think that is a good template for hat we’re going for.
And at the end of the day, Archie Bunker was a humane person. He was afraid of the other and as you watched the show progress you saw, you know why he was afraid and he became a very complicated character. And I think all of our characters are very complicated and deep. And I was saying before, like quite frankly we can barely get through a table read without breaking up and laughing, because our writers are brilliant, and the humor is just inherent in who they are.
Remember, none of these characters are dummies, so that’s where a stereotype comes in for me. And our characters are very well informed on their own side. I do not watch Fox News, so one could say, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on on the other side of the world because I don’t watch Fox News, but I read enough mainstream news that I feel that I get an idea.”
I’m not watching a news station that is not only telling me they’re not even telling me their side of the story, honestly, quite frankly. So I stay away from that. And do I read right-wing blogs and online websites? Yes, you bet I do. Some of them are less prone to misinformation, shall we say, than others. Did I read what William Buckley said in the ‘70s? You bet I did, along with Gore Vidal. You bet I did.
You were saying before just about how you guys would be at a table read and sometimes you’ll crack up. What makes you laugh the most?
There are a lot of people sort of on either side of this political fence who will come into this with opinions. There are also a bunch of people who are just, for lack of a better term, neutral on these issues. And it’s just going to have to be funny to get them in. You know what I mean?
What was it that drew you in about Ryan Murphy’s humor? What can appeal at the basis level to the massive audience out there?
Yeah, definitely, I do. And I think it’s like a spoonful of sugar kind of thing. And Ryan Murphy has more than a spoonful when it comes to the humor side. The show is absolutely hysterically funny, and I hope everybody who watches it, and those who have drawn opinions before they watched it will give it a chance and realize that they’re going to be wildly entertained.
Were you fan of any of Ryan Murphy’s other shows before you signed on to “The New Normal”?
I was a huge “Nip/Tuck” fan, so Ryan Murphy had me there. He had me at “Nip/Tuck.” And I do have to say with “American Horror Story,” like I had never in my life seen a horror movie until about four years ago. I never saw “Jaws.” I never saw “The Exorcist.” I’m terrified of horror movies, and I became addicted to “American Horror Story.” I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself in the middle of the night. I have yet to watch the last episode because I’m too afraid.
I go to work every day and I say to Ryan, “I tried, but I just got too scared because it was night time.” And then, sometimes I’ll watch it like at noon, but then I know that when I fall asleep I’m going to have nightmares about the shows. I’m going to watch it someday with a crowd of people and I’m going to make them all sleep at my house.
Do you think that Ryan Murphy is changing TV with these types of shows?
I definitely do, yes, and I’m very proud to be a part of it.
And how do you think he’s changing TV?
Ryan is presenting worlds to mass audiences on network television that they might not be so accepting of that all of a sudden they love, because Ryan Murphy knows how to entertain. So the world of “Glee,” for instance, if you just like told somebody what that show was about they might say, “Well, this is not for me.” Then, you watch “Glee,” and you’re just wildly entertained. So you get past it and you come to love characters that your pre-judgmental self might not be so interested in, but because he’s Ryan he does it in a way where you just love them or love to hate them, or whatever it is, you’re kind of glued to them.
What challenges you about playing Jane?
Oh, it’s so challenging and so inspiring and so exciting. The character is so well-drawn and so complicated, and the reveal of her throughout, what will hopefully be a long run, is fascinating. It’s kind of in a way like a little bit of the metaphor for the show, she’s not as simple. She’s not as easily categorized as you might think she is. And she is a very, very passionate, informed, intelligent woman who is speaking from her heart, and it’s always challenging to play complicated, impassioned characters.
And what do you think it is about NBC that makes it such a good fit for “The New Normal”?
I’ve got to say, like I can’t give them enough credit. I think what makes it a good fit for us, quite frankly, is that they are airing the show, which means they’re realizing that, and they realized from the beginning that this is not anything to be afraid of; that controversy is a good thing. And the way Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler did it, hopefully it will open a dialogue.
And as the show reveals itself, yes, people might move a little bit closer to understanding what they would consider the other side, to understanding where they come from and why they think the way they do on both sides. And, for me, it is a very profound opportunity to redefine the idea of love and politics in a very mainstream way with an enormous amount of humor and heart.
What your connection is with the gay community. Is it a family member? Was it being part of “The Normal Heart” on Broadway?
I have a hard time answering that question because I know there’s a big fight to be fought here, but if I considered the gay community a separate community, I don’t think I’d have a community. This has been a part of my life since I was in junior high school and high school, and I went to a public high school in New York, LaGuardia now it’s called.
And so it was my community and it was a very mixed community with heterosexuals and same-sex couples. And my friends outside of the entertainment industry are a pretty mixed bag of all kinds of different people. So let me just say that I did not grow up with a kind of ingrained fear of the other. I was raised by liberal Democrats, and we were very much working-class Jews in a very mixed ethnic neighborhood, and there were all kinds of people there.
Now, when I was 15 years old, did I know anybody who had two daddies or two mommies? No, but I did, even in junior high school I certainly did have older friends who were same-sex couples. They didn’t have children yet because that wasn’t invented yet, that science. I guess they weren’t old enough to have been adopting children at that time, and I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think it was legal then. I’m for anybody who’s being ostracized and treated with inequality. So I just want to let you know.
Is there anything that you’ve kind of been surprised to learn about yourself as you continue to delve into, you know the development of this character?
That’s a great question. Well, I am learning things about myself as an actor. Like when you read a character that’s very unlike me, usually I have, you know an enormous amount of work to do. Now, sometimes they can be unlike me in the fact that they’re a lawyer, and I never knew what it meant to go to work with a briefcase.
This character was unlike me in her politics. And so I thought, “Wow, I’m going to have an enormous amount of work to do.” But quite frankly, and I said it earlier, but I just flipped me and I found it all inside me: her passion, her commitment, her incredible outspokenness, and sometimes inappropriate outspokenness.
I can be inappropriate. I’m overly opinionated. On occasion, I talk first and think later and I realize, “Oh God, should I have really said that?” And so I have a very strong connection to this character on a human level, and politically I just flip her?
What are you personally most passionate about?
I’m passionate about everything, for better or for worse. I’m passionate about my family, I’m passionate about what books I read and what movies I see, and if I love them I love them passionately, and if I don’t, I don’t love them passionately. And I’m passionately passionate about the work I do, and the older I get the more passionate I get about my work, oddly enough. And it is a great gift that I did not expect.
Who would be your dream guest star to have on the show?
Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that yet. I mean, I’m sure that list would go on forever, and I’d love my best friend Julie Moore to do a cameo.
You have some of the funniest lines on the show, so I’m just curious if you get to improvise at all, or is it kind of all in the script?
I’ll be honest with you, I’m incapable of improvising, I don’t like it, and I’m happy to say I don’t need to. These writers are fabulous and on occasion, there just might be something where I might say, “A 58-year-old just wouldn’t phrase things that way.” And then, I just maybe, change the grammar but always with them. -I can do it, as I’ve said, and I’ve worked with brilliant actors who are brilliant at it, so I learned from them, but I don’t like it.
I can turn my head and see a writer sitting there, which we also can, I can say, “This doesn’t like come out of my mouth easily, and since most everything you write does maybe that means it needs to be tweaked a little, and can you help me out?” And they do. I don’t improvise. I haven’t the need to, and I don’t see it coming because these scripts are getting better and stronger. And I guess, look, I’ve never done any episodic television before, so I’ve never done a sitcom before, but what seems to be happening is as they learn who the actors are who are inhabiting the already brilliant, complicated characters they created, they’re obviously writing to our strong suits.
And they’re really fast and successful at picking up what those strong suits are, in terms of how we’re defining the characters, because it’s all layered. Writers come in and write it, and then a director comes in and directs it. Now, our director is our creator and with Ali Adler of the writing staff, so it’s just they’re really doing an extraordinary job and it’s getting better all the time.
And obviously, we get scripts a little bit in advance, not much in advance of our shooting them, and you know as we read every script I kind of just say, “Oh my God, I can’t wait for the next script.” And I’m very, very happy at work. Let me just say that, and it’s very inspiring for me.
Do you think it’s ultimately good to have all this social or digital information going out all the time? Or do you think it’s a deal we just have to deal with now?
I think it’s a double-edged sword. I’m just learning about it. Quite honestly, I can’t operate a computer, so I’m very behind the curve with technology. I learned to text and send an email literally three-and-a-half years ago. Like the other day someone tweeted something at me and I said, “What’s FB?”
And they thought I was joking, so you know I really didn’t know that meant Facebook. Now, I kind of know what Facebook is. I don’t have the Facebook page, whatever it’s called. But, what I’m experiencing just through Twitter is that, and just reading online news and bloggers, which that I learned to do last year, really only last year.
So it is a double-edged sword because unfortunately, you know on the good end it becomes a meritocracy, and everybody can speak their mind and say what they want. On the very, very bad end is that no one is held accountable to the truth. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Like, I found sh*t out, quite frankly, about what people can do personally to my [Wikipedia page] and stuff like that … That’s like going in and changing like where Alaska is.
I’m going to decide that Alaska is in Japan, and I’m just going to write that next to Alaska in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and they’re going to print it. I hope that as this progresses, since it is fairly new, that there is an accountability brought into what people say, and that slander laws, which by the way to apply to some extent, but it’s complicated. But they are not allowed to slander you online when it’s a blatant lie, and they have quotes around it. They’re not allowed to do that.
But hopefully, as time progresses those technological wizards will find a way that people are legally held accountable for not just the lies they tell, but if people think I’m inflammatory, they should come on my Twitter feed and really read what the word inflammatory means, because it’s already happening to some extent where there are celebrities that are obviously in danger. And, you know the FBI is all over it and things like that.
So I think that legally, we are starting to realize that this can be threatening and dangerous, and that there really has to be better controls. This is a whole other world. When I see a sentence with quotes around it on some news site started by a lunatic, and then that’s picked up, and then it’s on CBS News, and it’s like, “Really? Where are your fact checkers? And what do I do about it?” For me, it’s all very, very shocking because [at] my age and I never caught up, you know?
I have friends who are obviously in the media and/or who are in the media and are obviously much more aware of this, like telling me and they’re like, “Go to so and so and, you know they said this.” And I’m like, “How do I even get to this page, because it doesn’t even seem legitimate.” And then you realize, “Oh, it is legitimate for a lot of people, and I guess they really believe that.”
And then there’s a personal thing where I think, “Wow, so now people believe, like some really bad sh*t about me.” And I’m not afraid of my opinions and I’m not afraid of the controversial one. My position on equality for everybody, my position on how I feel about pro-choice, and votership, I’m not afraid of those things, but when I read crazy [things], like I wished so and so was dead or I was happy that a certain right wing individual died, I’m like, “Wait, I didn’t say that.”
And then you go back to the Twitter feed and you realize, “Oh, I see what they did. They left out this and this and this, took out somebody else’s name, and put in my Twitter name instead.” And then, you’re just like, “Wow, so am I powerless to go to this place in outer space and say you can’t do this.”
I asked someone the other day where the Web was, and I wasn’t kidding. I said, “Like, where is it? Where’s the hub of it? Is it in a bunker in Idaho? Where is it?” It was with group of people who were trying to explain something to me, like, how to work iTunes, I think it was. And they were like saying, “Wait, is she serious?”
And a close friend of mine said, “Oh yeah, she’s really serious.” And I was like, “OK, so it’s not in Iowa, so is it in a satellite in outer space?” So it’s all new to me. But yes, it is a very, very dangerous double-edged sword, and there’s good and there’s bad. And I think that if we don’t find ways to control it, even like online could just become some extremist fanatical online thing on both sides. It could be just taken over because they’ve got nothing else to do but like spout inflammatory lies, whatever it is.
For more info: “The New Normal” website