HBO's "Luck" is a show that is trying to do a lot of things and nothing all at once. The characters speak all the time, in all different accents, but they're not really saying much, and whatever they do say is never what they really mean. The bulk of "Luck" -- a show that's about horse racing, on the surface -- is that there's nothing that "surface" about it. Subtext is the mantra, so if you're not into working hard to be entertained, this one might not excite you right away.
But they say slow and steady wins the race, and while "Luck" definitely starts out slow, with a cast and a pedigree this strong and a premise that has plenty worth exploring, I'm hoping it can speed up to a gallop sooner rather than later in its first season (premieres Sun., Jan. 29 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO).
I, along with a select handful of fellow journalists, sat down with "Luck" stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, creator David Milch and executive producer Michael Mann, all of whom are known for being rather offbeat in their own ways.
Joining Hoffman and Nolte to round out the cast are Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy, Richard Kind, Kevin Dunn, Jason Gedrick, Kerry Condon, Joan Allen, Michael Gambon and John Ortiz, among others. ("We've got all these great character actors -- we've got the crème de la crème," Nolte said.) Milch, the man behind "Deadwood," wrote and created the show, and Oscar-nominated director Mann -- the man behind such films as "Heat," "The Insider" and "Ali" -- shot the pilot and serves as executive producer on the show as well.
My chat with the "Luck" foursome can only be described as informal considering Nolte was in sweatpants and immediately asked if we'd mind if he took off his shoes (we didn't, so he did). That was just the beginning of an entertaining parallel to the quietly controlled chaos that happens onscreen ...
As an actor, do you decide to do something because you read a script and can see yourself playing a part? Or do you prefer to choose parts that aren't as easy to imagine yourself playing?
Hoffman: "I always look for the reason not to do it! I've turned down a lot of good movies with a lot of good directors, so I'm trying to get away from that. [Laughs] Michael Mann called me and said, 'I know you don't want to do television ... you're not gonna do this, but this is one of the best scripts I've ever read. Would you just read it?' So I read it, and I said, 'I really liked the parts I understood.' [Laughs] I don't know anything about television, and I'd never seen David's work. I took a meeting with both of them, and just listening to the way they were talking ... I said, 'Who was your first choice?'"
Mann: "He was the first choice, and I said I hadn't seen him play this kind of a role. That's always great territory, to bring an actor into something he hasn't done. In many of Dustin's great roles, he's been reactive -- reactive to other characters, reactive to circumstances. And he's brilliant. This character is very different. This character is proactive -- he's the man with the plan; he's the architect. And consequently, when you know where you're going, and you know what's happening and you're able to predict other people's reactions before they react, what that brings to Dustin work ... is a power in stillness. He's still quite often, and you feel the power located within him. There is the opposite of interesting agitation -- it's just the power in stillness."
Hoffman: "There's certain instruments set up, which I didn't see when I read the script, because the script is kind of an amorphous thing. A movie's either better or not as good as the script -- it's there to jump off from. To begin to see the elements that these guys set up ... here are these beautiful horses that have, in generations, abstracted themselves down to only winning and losing. And being at a window where you're betting ... I'd never really been to the track, and David takes me, and they make their bet and they watch the race on television, and right out there, it's happening. It's extraordinary."
What is it about doing TV that's so attractive to an actor?
Nolte: "It's a great way to work, if you have great material. It's better than film and I'll tell you why. Film, you know the beginning, the middle and the end ... You can really focus and create a very interesting character, make the transition seamless and everything else, but you've got the end. In this, when we're handed a script every two weeks, some of the actors go, 'Oh my god.' [Laughs] It's a surprise! It's a challenge ... and it's creatively challenging."
The show looks at every element of horse racing: horses and jockeys, owners and trainers, and, of course, the gamblers. How did the people at Santa Anita racetrack respond to you shooting there?
Milch: "It's like the way people are protective of family, and you don't tell any secrets outside the family. I think that it becomes our responsibility to be truthful in our portrayal. And if someone is going to get upset, that becomes their business. I think that Michael was so responsible in his evocation of that world, and in the authenticity of Nick's and Dustin's performance, that that goes beyond the superficial correspondence to any kind of lived character."
Mann: "Yeah, they've been pretty good ... I think they get it. We're responsible. We're authentic."
You really start to feel for these horses. They are as much characters on the show as the actors are ...
Mann: "We try to tell you a lot of things subliminally -- not in the opening credits stuff that's cut to Massive Attack, but after Ace is released from prison, that first horse montage. We're trying to tell you lots and lots and lots of messages subliminally. One is that the horses have personality ... They're characters -- it's a life around them."
Hoffman: "Look at what our society does: They have a winner and a loser, and it's by a nose. Whether it's Phelps in a pool or racing horses ... how extraordinary that we have to do that."
What was your biggest surprise, your biggest "oh my god" moment as an actor, while shooting this first season?
Hoffman: "My biggest surprise, my "oh my god" moment, is that it's the closest thing to life I've ever done. I've always felt that acting was a bastard art form because you're supposed to be able to get up in the morning and paint what's inside you -- your demons or whatever -- or write. And actors have to get something delivered, and then you try to do what the originator wanted you to do. When I did 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' it was the first time I was like, 'Oh, thank God. I get to work on a man getting a divorce as I'm getting a divorce in real life. Now it makes sense!' The best way to say it is that you hear yourself on a tape recorder and you think, 'Do I sound like that? I don't sound like that.' We don't know what we look like at this very moment -- we don't know the information that the person that's looking at us is getting. We can assume we know, but we don't know ... So that's the closest thing that I have been able to equate to working 45 years trying to learn this fucking racket ... I am learning about this character as I am learning about myself. That's the biggest revelation, not to know, really, who am I going to be in a year? We've lived so many different lives. Being a human being is a frightening experience! I say, 'I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know who this guy is.' And they always say, 'Just keep doing what you're doing.'"
"Luck" premieres Sun., Jan. 29 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.