The actor explains how he helped turn a song he despised into a scene he savored.
welcome to My favorite moment ! In a new week-long series, IndieWire spoke to the actors behind some of our favorite TV performances of the year about how the on-screen moment they’re proudest of came together.
During Hulu’s “The Dropout,” Naveen Andrews brings the full emotional spectrum to former Theranos Chairman and COO Sunny Balwani. Through Balwani’s strained relationship with future tech-world fascination Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), Andrews finds a certain combination of charm, menace, paranoia, anger, pity, and bewilderment.
All of these elements are present in the Episode 5 sequence that takes place in the sunny Theranos office. Holmes’ impromptu dance to Lil Wayne’s song “How to Love” became one of the memorable moments from “The Dropout.” But for all the unexpected quirks of this moment, Andrews is an anchor that keeps this scene from being an awkward ball of curveball in the middle of focused character study.
Not only is the dance a pretext for one of the pivotal Elizabeth-Sunny conversations of the entire season, but it comes just before Elizabeth receives some sobering family news: her uncle has just died. Yet even in this busy moment, Andrews’ incredible delivery of “Who’s Uncle Ron?” is “The Dropout” in miniature, showing powerful people completely unaware and unaware of anyone’s circumstances outside of their own immediate sphere. It’s drama and humor that gets darker the longer you sit with it.
And, as Andrews explained in a recent interview with IndieWire, the scene surrounding it almost played out in a very different way.
You definitely have plenty of scene choices from this show that are pivotal to Sunny. What stood out to you in this one?
It turned out to be everything I wanted it to be in the script already. And at the same time, it was unpredictable. He shows you how it’s done in the editing room. The Lil Wayne song was shot on both sides, where we were both singing verses to each other. So you saw Sunny do a verse to her. Having seen the finished scene, I realize that it would have been too much. I mean, it’s so close to the edge anyway. You want to laugh, but because it’s really uncomfortable. It’s such a nice balance. You don’t do it for comedy, because it’s not fucking comedy. It is very dark. [laughs] This should be awful, in a good way.
When you read that scene in script form, what was the first thing you hung onto as a performer?
Damn, I really hate this music. I am old. I can’t relate to it. There are other people who could benefit from it. It fits the piece for obvious reasons I hope.
So the first thing I did was familiarize myself with the melody, so you could lip-sync it. Maybe you could sing it if you want to get the breaks and the rhythm. And then, because I’m English, I watch playwrights like Dennis Potter, who use music where the characters would actually be syncing entire songs for dramatic purposes. So it must come from a real place. That’s what I tried to do. Also for Elizabeth and Sonny, it’s their song. “They’re playing our song, honey.”
I can’t speak for Amanda, but I find it difficult to act. It is not easy. And there are so many different levels that you need to be aware of, especially when there are subterfuges and intimate partners hiding things. The way we played it was, at the end of the song, the screens come down outside, for them to have sex. Of course, that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen for a reason, which is why I think this scene is important. For the first time, Sunny wants the truth. He’s able to articulate that it’s not fucking working. “Are you really there for me anyway?” Why am I here? What am I doing?”
And everything seems to be working in terms of the writing and the location of the characters at this precise moment. What they’re doing to Stephen Fry’s character is pushing him to his death. But they are completely oblivious. And that’s where it becomes, if I may say so, Shakespearean. They have come to this point like this line from “Macbeth”: “I am in blood soaked so far” and to continue would be tedious.
By this point, they’ve basically convinced themselves that they’re gods, so it makes sense that they’re oblivious to other people’s fates.
What kind of world do they live in? I mean, again, the scene expresses that very well with the screens coming down. There are only them. For Sunny, my whole guideline for this character was that he was in love with her. Hopelessly in love. The best thing that ever happened to him. And obviously the worst. We know it, but he doesn’t. The way she moves towards him, it’s so unsightly and spasmodic. For me, it’s terribly not sexy, not sensual at all. But he looks at her as if she were the goddess Aphrodite, drifting and gliding towards him. I believe he is still in love with her. I could be wrong, but that’s just my guess.
It makes it even more telling that her first reaction upon hearing the song is always, “I can’t believe we’re doing this right now.”
“Not tonight, Josephine. For both of us, and I think this has been said, we could not approach these people as human beings with any judgments or preconceived notions of morality that we might have as people about what is wrong and what who is not. It’s one of the few places where you see his vulnerability and his humanity at this point, all things considered.
Playing this whole scene seated takes away some of the physics you can bring. What does it do for you as an actor, when you’re physically constrained to a position and can’t really move?
This can be a huge advantage. Physically – how to say – he doesn’t look like me as I am, I guess. So as an actor, you’re aware of what weight can do to you, what it’s like to carry weight, how you move. I wanted it to have a kind of pervasive stiffness. Even when he apparently relaxes, he is too rigid. Once you arrived at this place, you tried to make it as real as possible during these four months of filming. It gives you a lot of freedom. You don’t care about your appearance. [laughs]
Since the original version was so different, it seems like there was plenty of room in the day to find other things that might work as well. How much did you and director Francesca Gregorini talk about having the space to find those different choices, if they felt right?
There was always that on this particular show. Sometimes the same day we would get new dialogue, because of texts that had been sent between the two that had come out in court the night before. So again, you have to be ready for that. But it also put us in a unique position, because there’s a certain kind of confidence that comes from, “Well, they really said that.” As ridiculous as that may sound. Who said “I love you, Tiger”? I mean, we should all be so lucky.
It’s not completely specific to this scene, but your hair and costume seem to be fundamental elements of Sunny. How much do these elements help you get into a certain headspace?
I can’t stress it enough, reviewing the costumes with Claire [Parkinson]. And I gained 20 pounds to weigh down my face. But for the growing belly at different stages, all of this is invaluable in plotting where your character is. When they meet in China, he is noticeably slimmer. Some people age well, some don’t. You have the luxury of exploring why this character may seem a bit more middle-aged.
I was born in 1969. He was born in 65. That’s four years apart. Maybe I’m completely wrong and flattering myself, but if I saw him on the street, I consider him an old man. It is therefore extremely important, in terms of psychological orientation with these people. And it helps you when you’re in the trailer, before you go to the set, when you literally put on a wardrobe and check the bulge. It sounds funny, but all of those things are so important, and they were to Amanda too. I remember when she was in her 19 year old outfit and we were doing camera tests. I was doing mine and then she came up behind me dressed as Elizabeth with the black turtleneck and eyes. It was chilling, but electric.
It’s basically a cameo at first, since she puts it down before she starts dancing. But it looks like green juice could also have served a similar purpose.
Without being too flowery, how to say that? It’s like the elixir. When she’s in the mirror as Elizabeth, it’s almost like putting on armor before battle. Then he comes with the green juice and hands it to her. Something that was initially rejected is accepted.
You know, there was something almost messianic about the effect she had on others. A conscious creation of iconography, if you will. And he was the best disciple. He was Harvey Keitel’s Judas Iscariot to Willem Dafoe’s Christ.
Amanda and showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether talked about how you were able to show intimacy between these characters in different ways. This scene seems to be an important part of that.
We had four days of rehearsal before we started shooting, which was invaluable. These things have come up: what kind of sex life do they have? And in a way, these things kind of become mundane because of what’s already the script. I mean, there’s a sleeping bag. Sleeping bag. To me, that gives you volumes of information. Volumes. You don’t have to dig.
Then we had to find some intimacy about why they were related. It came from a place of safety and the feeling that they felt safe together. The only way to do that was, and me and Michael Showalter and Amanda all said, it has to come instinctively. It has to happen on camera when we do it. Either he is there or he is not. We both thought it would happen organically, hopefully. Our first day on set was the scene where she got shot in the car and she calls him and he comes up to her. And it just happened. It was our first day.
Now that you’ve been through this scene, has the song stuck with you at least a little bit? Did you end up liking it?
Sure! [massive grin] He’s got that kind of silly hook, I guess.
“The Dropout” is now available to stream on Hulu.