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How to Be a Political Animal: A Sit-Down With the Cast and Creators of Political Animals

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Refreshing is the TV series that features a three-dimensional family played by a killer cast of actors. On the surface, they appear to be whip-smart, accomplished, self-assured, dedicated and passionate overachievers (at least many of them are). Look a bit deeper and watch them derail like train wrecks.

Now imagine that said family is the former first family of the United States.

That makes for good drama.

In Political Animals, USA Network's new six-part series, which debuts July 15, the first family veneer is stripped away as viewers get a glimpse of this damaged all-too-human clan and all the melee. Greg Berlanti, creator/writer and pilot director explains that he longed to make a series about a former first family, our closest thing to American royals. "I hadn't seen that on TV," explains Berlanti. "They're out of power and they're just like us: There's a sex addict, an alcoholic, a rageaholic kid, a drunk grandmother. They are as flawed as we are and all we want is to see them get them back in the White House."

At the epicenter of the story is the former first lady, Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), now Secretary of State and a compassionate, (yet sometimes lovesick), voice of reason. There's her still-wildly-popular, womanizing, ex-president, ex-husband, Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds). Their twin sons, TJ and Douglas (Sebastian Stan and James Wolk) have their own demons to battle in the political pressure cooker. (Hint: T.J. is the first out gay kid in the White House.) Elaine's mother (the legendary Ellen Burstyn), is a firecracker with some of the sauciest blush-worthy lines. Then there's the unstoppable reporter, (Carla Gugino) who has fallen very far from her Pulitzer Prize-pedestal. Even more drama unfolds with the president (Adrian Pasdar) and vice president (Dylan Baker) in the mix.

I recently sat down with the Political Animals cast and creators. "Getting this close to the politics of politics is fun for actors," says Pasdar who plays President Garcetti. It's fun for us too. Here's what I discovered.

Many of the actors remember their introduction to politics:

Sigourney Weaver: "My father was Governor {Nelson} Rockefeller's campaign manager. I actually worked on Capitol Hill and campaigned for Rocky to get the nomination as opposed to Nixon. That summer in Washington made me feel cynical about the system and that was the 1970s. Actually, I've always been one to do very cause-related things. For me, it's not so much about candidates, but about issues."

Sebastian Stan: "I believe I really started to pay attention when Bill Clinton was around. I remember knowing, even at my young age, that we were in a good time. That started to influence me a little bit more."

Ellen Burstyn: "You know the famous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago? I was there. I was very involved in the peace movement during the Vietnam War. That was my initiation into politics. Now I am a political junkie and I pay a lot of attention to political commentary. Rachel Maddow is my favorite commentator. She's so smart, so sharp and she lets you know what's going on behind the scenes."

Dylan Baker: "I was around to watch my mother [experience President Kennedy's assassination]. I couldn't understand her crying and how she was just destroyed for a week, a month, a year. What was this all about, I thought? And I remember watching a little boy who was my age saluting his dad go by in a coffin."

Brittany Ishibashi: "When I was 7, I knew that I needed to do something, so I tried to have a tea and cookie sale for a friend's mother who was running for a school board. I had set up a little teapot and glasses. And people would come and I would give them a cookie and pour a cup of imaginary tea. And I said, 'that will be a quarter please.'"

James Wolk: "I remember a dinner conversation years back with my dad's friend who was a very liberal guy and involved in protests. Changing the government and politics was his life. And he said, 'In your generation no one seems to care like we cared.' But I think it's a different time. I believe we do care but we express and show it in different ways."

There's the occasional real life brush with the United States President:

Adrian Pasdar: "When Barack Obama held a fundraiser for his presidency at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I had an opportunity to attend. I introduced myself to him. He said, 'I know who you are. We have your {Heroes} DVD of Season 1 on the campaign plane. That's what we watch when we're done at the end of the day.' I said, 'Get out.' And he said, 'Really.' So I said, 'if you win, how about we have lunch in the rose garden?' and he said, 'You're on.' I'm still waiting for that call."

Playing a complex character is far from easy:

Ellen Burstyn: "I find it's challenging to play someone with a foul mouth. It's interesting to feel my own inner barriers and boundaries with language. I wasn't really aware of it until I got the script, read it and said, WHAT! I'm always negotiating with Greg [writer/creator Greg Berlanti] on the language. I trade him one bad word for another, like, 'I'll say this if you don't' make me say that.' But Greg has been very generous."

Ciarán Hinds: "To be quite honest, I was a bit scared of saying yes to play an American president. I'm from Belfast. I was working on the dialect, the accent. At first it doesn't sit so easy in the mouth, but now, it's starting to muscularly be more present in the character. And I'm thrilled now because it's a great adventure to work on something as complex, rich, human, compassionate and political. It's a big feast of stuff."

Carla Gugino (who plays an intrepid newspaper reporter): "I'm the least prying person. I don't even ask questions of my closest friends. If they don't offer it up I'm like, OK, they don't want to talk about it. Here my job is to get to the nitty gritty, which is challenging but fun."

No matter how messed up your character is, it's important to be on his/her side and find the loveable aspects:

Sebastian Stan: "There's great potential in TJ. I really like that about him. He won't stop at anything until he gets what he wants. The problem is that he hasn't applied that in the right way. But he's capable. He's operating from a place where he wants love. But half the time, he doesn't realize he's doing that."

Ellen Burstyn: "My character is the truth teller and cuts through the bull."

The mark of a brilliant actor is to convincingly play someone else, even if that person is your polar opposite:

Sigourney Weaver: "I'm so weird. And Elaine is so... You know how people in school are elected to office? I was never that person. Elaine was always that person. I'm the freak looking at her. If it was The Parent Trap, she'd be the girl scout and I'd be the goblin. That's how I look at Elaine, but I love putting on her clothes and playing her."

When doing a series like Political Animals, take a least a few creative cues from real life:

Executive Producer Laurence Mark: "It's very difficult these days for fiction to trump fact. And that's part of the inspiration here. Fact helps us enormously, because we can go nuts. Because fact has gone nuts."

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Image used with permission.