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Rich Sommer On How Run Completes His Bad TV Husband Trifecta

The good-guy actor discusses his not-so-good-guy roles, and the board games you should be playing in quarantine.
  • Rich Sommer in Run. (HBO)
    Rich Sommer in Run. (HBO)

    There I was, at the end of the second episode of HBO's Run, when all of a sudden Ruby (Merritt Wever) was getting off a train in Chicago and realizing her husband Laurence (Rich Sommer), having figured out she was on a cross-country trip with another man, had canceled all her debit and credit cards on the accounts they shared. I had to tweet.


    A couple of hours later, I was delighted to see that Rich Sommer himself had retweeted it. The next week, I reached out to him via Twitter to see if he might want to talk with me about this facet of his career, among other topics — and since he happened to be at home (thanks, pandemic), he was gracious enough to say yes. What a treat to confirm that only a true mensch could so convincingly play the jerks we know him for!

    Setting aside the tweet that started this all, by no means is "bad husband" your only lane as an actor. Obviously you've played lots of characters who are great guys, easy to root for, as well as guys who are bad, but are single. Yet when the role of Laurence in Run came across your desk, was there a moment when you thought, "This is the hat trick"?

    Funny thing about Laurence. Look, he does some dicky things, no question about it. Now, obviously things sort of shifted as we went and he did some more dicky things and whatever, but when I got the offer I was like, "Oh, finally just a nice guy." The guy got screwed, he wasn't the guy doing the screwing. Which is still partially true, but it turns out that he's maybe not, like, the greatest co-parent, not the greatest co-habitant. Even going back to the first episode — and this was more explicit in earlier versions — when he's expressing frustration at Ruby not being there when his speakers arrived, I immediately was like, "Uh-oh, this just might not be the nice guy I was looking for."

    And then there are other things. Obviously, the big one is the canceling of the credit cards. I rooted for Harry Crane all seven years even though he was a total douchebag. But I was rooting for him because I was kind of hoping he'd find the light, because it would just be nice for me to feel like he did. He never did. And probably, were there a Mad Men Part 2, we'd find he never ever did. But I think that with Laurence, I just sort of thought, "This guy, I get it, he had a really knee-jerk reaction to this thing." But you know, I've talked to my real-life wife about it a number of times, and even trying to imagine a scenario where she just vanishes one day, even if she told me, "I'm at a yoga retreat for a week," I'd be like, "Yo, if you wanted to go to a yoga retreat, just tell me, don't just leave for a week with me and the two kids, we've all got shit to do." But I also wouldn't cancel her credit cards.

    Right. I mean, that's dangerous, potentially.

    It's dangerous. It's abusive. It's controlling. It's super-gross. And he rectifies it. Well, I shouldn't say he rectifies it: he un-cancels them, but that doesn't exactly rectify the damage. I feel like I'm already in dangerous waters here, but I want to say he's one of the more ambiguous characters I've played as far as his true, reprehensible nature. There's some aspects to him that are reprehensible, but I also think he's in a stickier situation than many of the characters that I've played. You know, you're not the first person to notice that a lot of my characters have done some moderately untoward things. There was an article in an online publication called Decider.

    I read it!

    The one that says Rich Sommer needs to stop playing sleazebags?

    Yeah!

    I mean, I like working so I'm never going to — Well, I will say no to some jobs, but it's rare for me to say no to a job that is good, even if it means playing a reprehensible character. That said, I feel like somehow Laurence falls slightly more in the gray area even though he did a thing that is, like, not physically violent, but I would see as a sort of violence in a relationship. That thing, again, of cutting her finances off is so tough to fight for. It's so tough to be like, "He's okay, he was just mad." Like, that's so bad.

    I agree, it is more ambiguous, but at the time that it came to you, did you know that Ruby would be played by Merritt Wever? Because I feel like that's another thumb on the scale against Laurence, if the audience knows she's the wife, because she's such a sweetie. We love her.

    Yes, I knew it was Merritt and I knew it was Domhnall, and I also know that my wife is in love with Domhnall Gleeson, and so I figured otherwise Ruby will probably fall in love with Domhnall Gleeson along the way. And so I knew that Laurence was going to have a big hill to climb anyway — for anyone to root for him over Billy is a tough one. Although Billy ends up, thankfully for Laurence, being sort of ambiguous as well, morally. And so that part sort of helped. Anyway: I was excited to play a good guy for once. My long-ass answer to your question is, I was excited to play a good guy for once, and we all see how that turns out, because I have a tendency to turn good guys terrible.

    Sure. But even in terms of like Laurence versus Billy, you know, Laurence is a Silicon Valley guy: that's shorthand for trash. But then Billy is a life coach; that's hardly much better. And as we learned from Billy's online stalking of Laurence, at least he does philanthropy, he has a wholesome hobby -- he's in a ukulele orchestra. Maybe that also kind of balances the scales a bit.

    Sure. Well I hope so.

    Before Run, did you know that was a hobby it was possible to have? Because I didn't and I used to live in Hawaii.

    No I did not. And if you knew the amount of hours I put in to preparing for what ended up being 14 frames of a ukulele orchestra, you would feel sadder for me. It was a lot of prep work. I really, by the way, learned the ukulele from zero to playing. We were playing a song, which went on for, I mean, a minute and a half. It was like I learned a minute-and-a-half song with a solo — which I learned — and it is, I mean, truly less than a second of screen time, it's awesome.

    I mean, I think it's reasonable for you to approach HBO's social media person and have them release the full footage of that, at least to, like, Twitter and Instagram.

    That's sort of a lose-lose. Actually, the whole time it was happening, I was like, "I hope none of this airs." And then when it did, it was...yeah. Yeah. No, no, I don't think I'll do that.

    All right. Back to the ambiguity of Laurence as a character. Obviously the viewer spends much more time with Ruby, but as you said, he's also the victim, and we're reminded of that in the fifth episode, "Jump," where we see that he's known about the "RUN" text exchange the whole timeor maybe recently discovered it; that's unclear. He's seen the text exchange, anyway. So just because the viewer only rarely sees him doesn't mean that Laurence isn't also having a hard time. So I think that helps.

    Absolutely.

    Rich Sommer in Run. (HBO)

    Ruby also does just keep lying to him, although they have that great exchange, also in "Jump," where it's clear they both know she's lying. He's basically prompting her to lie. What was it like to play a scene that's that pivotal with your scene partner in, I assume, another state?

    Yeah. With the exception of doing the family photos, Merritt and I didn't get to spend a ton of time together. I've done lots of one-sided phone calls in my life, as we actors tend to have to do. And I think, you know, I knew that Merritt Wever is one of the best actors who's working today. I mean, that's my opinion. I think she's outstanding.

    I think we all agree.

    And I knew she was going to be playing the shit out of the other side of that phone call. Sometimes I had footage of her: they would show me her side of the phone call so I understood, emotionally at least, where she was, so that I could try and kind of come close to a reason that, you know, inspired that kind of emotion from her. You know, she was sort of leading the way there and I had to kind of help her justify without us even being there together.

    But yeah, like you said, no one's innocent in this story. And I think that the way he handles it is not necessarily how I would hope an adult would handle this kind of a situation, in both, like you said, trying to extract a lie from her essentially and punishing her the way that he does. But for his flaws, he is also getting the short end of a stick. And again, it's tough to stick up for him when he's a guy that would respond by, for example, again, canceling credit cards. But I do feel for him in this moment. In my initial conversations with Vicky Jones, who created the show, she sort of laid out what the deal was with the whole season, what was going to happen. And I said, "Oh my God, this sounds like a horror movie to me." And she said, "That's so funny because when I tell people the story of this, they respond in one of two ways, basically. One is saying it sounds like a horror movie and other people say it sounds like wish fulfillment. I think it's sort of a barometer of how happy you might be in your marriage." For me, I've been married almost 15 years and would be absolutely obliterated if something like this happened in my life. I really like my wife and I think she likes me back and I would like to keep it. So for me it was a very scary sort of premise. But their marriage is built on a different foundation than mine, so it allows for different outcomes.

    Yeah. The other thing about that conversation in "Jump," which your and Merritt's performances get across so well, is that Laurence and Ruby had been doing a version of this pantomime for a while.

    You're right.

    Because it's why she's gone. But maybe Laurence doesn't get why it suddenly one day was not enough for her anymore.

    Right, absolutely.

    Also, Laurence might not be great at being a husband, but at least when his kid had an accident, he only broke his arm and didn't die, so there's that.

    That's true!

    So let's back up. One of the big moments in "The Wheel," the Season 1 finale of Mad Men, is, of course, when Don's presentation makes Harry so emotional that he has to flee the room because he's separated from his wife after cheating on her. But would you agree that Harry's bad husband attributes are almost at the bottom of the list of what makes him objectionable?

    Yes, I would agree with that. However, at that moment in the series, we didn't really fully understand that yet. The whole first season I was approached by people on the street saying, "Thank God for Harry because he's the only good guy in the office." And I, of course, knew, "Well, wait 'til you see 'Nixon Vs Kennedy,' because he's going to blow it." But I would say, "Oh, thanks, well, I'm glad you like it." But I also would argue, and have had this fight many times: sometimes people would say that they felt that Harry sort of, as a character, from a meta perspective, went off-course. It didn't feel real to them that the nice guy would then turn into this giant sleazebag by the end. And my response was always the same — and I still stand by it — which is that he hadn't really been given the opportunity to be that yet. I think it was all there. There's that saying in life, or in writing, where you say that people don't change or characters don't change, their circumstances do. We talked about that in script analysis class in grad school, where Professor Gordon would say, "Your character is the same person they were at the beginning of the play that they are at the end of the play, but they've gone through something and you need to find how you can create a character that responds in the way that this character responds to these elements." And I didn't know at the beginning of Mad Men where Harry was going to go, but I did know that he was ambitious and that he would do just about anything to move forward. You know, he opened someone else's paycheck, things like that. That stuff began to lay the groundwork for a guy who would make some morally terrible choices to get ahead. And that could mean in business or in just, you know, sex. He's a guy who was willing to do whatever it took, really, or say whatever it took.

    Elisabeth Moss, Rich Sommer and Jon Hamm in Mad Men. (AMC)

    That's the root of every story, right? That people and institutions, all the way up the line, will do what they think they can get away with. And that's just nature.

    We don't like to believe that. We like to believe that people are good or they're not good. We're not really good at ambiguity. But then if we weren't good at ambiguity, we would not be able to fall in love with anti-heroes like Don Draper or Tony Soprano or Walter White or whatever. I mean, we root for their ambiguity. We are excited by their bad decisions. We hope they'll make it out okay in the end at whatever cost. But sometimes when it's not that person, we still try to categorize into black and white. We're cool usually with, like, the Peggy Olson character — we're like, "Yeah, kick them in the face and do whatever it takes and walk down the hallway with a cigarette hanging out of your mouth and look like the coolest person ever, at any cost," because we like her. Harry was just put into the bad guy category. Whereas I like to believe he was always just a messy sort of mostly shitty guy who had some good qualities, and I feel that way about any character.

    The other thing that he has in common with Tony Soprano and Walter White is that these are all sort of corrupt institutions that we see them in. Mad Men was not set at the food bank. This is a situation where people have to kind of step on each other's faces to get ahead.

    Right. But, you know, we like to think of a food bank as just a sort of unambiguously good thing. But I guarantee you there are food banks that are fraught with politics from within and messy sort of hierarchies and I would absolutely watch a show about a corrupt food bank.

    I know. I mean, how many times do we have to reshare that ProPublica story about the Red Cross, like, no, even the Red Cross is bad.

    Nothing is cut and dry.

    That was my point about institutions: any institution ultimately exists for the purpose of its own perpetuation and that usually breeds corruption.

    Absolutely.

    I guess that's a long way of saying, let's be a little gentle on Harry. I felt bad because researching for this interview, every interview with you from the Mad Men era was like, "Harry's the worst shitbag that ever lived." That seems like an entry-level kind of opinion on Harry.

    It's true. I agree. I mean, I do think he's a complex guy. And look, if you make a list of every action he took on the show, I think you're going to find fewer actions that make you feel good than actions that make you feel icky. That's how we got to see him. And I'm not one of those actors who will say, "You know, when he was offscreen, he was donating to charity." I didn't do anything like that to justify him. I think he was mostly a dickwad, but I would just stick up for the writers in saying that it was not as simple, like he took a left turn and never looked back. He was always on a trajectory where he would do what it took. We just didn't see him given those opportunities until a little later.

    Yes. Well, you know, if you want to watch a show about people where the drama comes from people being paragons of virtue, that's what Call The Midwife is for. Also a great show. Very different. Let's talk about GLOW, a show I am so sad we are about to lose, where you play Mark. And unlike Harry, Mark's cheating is one of the first things we learn about him. Did it give you pause to play a character who is introduced that way?

    Not too much gives me pause. What I loved about that introduction of that character was that when he was introduced — I mean, when he was truly introduced — you don't know that that's what's happening. And when it's put together at the end of that first episode, it's a revelation and yes, then, of course, he's disgusting and awful. But look, an overarching theme to my whole career is that I would prefer to play morally complex people than morally unambiguous people. I just would rather play someone who has faults, and whatever those faults might be, based on my age and sort of my look and everything, I think it often ends up being the husband that you didn't think was going to be a total piece of shit, but then it turned out he kind of was. That's kind of the market I seemed to have cornered. Not really "cornered" — there are many of us who are playing these types of roles. But for my career — Brett White in Decider wrote something like, "He just needs to play a nice guy for once." And again, I kind of felt that that's what Laurence was going to be, and I still think he's more nice than total dick. I mean, "nice" is the wrong word. I don't know what the word is. But I will always choose someone interesting over someone simple. If you know that the character is always going to make the quote unquote "right" decision, the good decision, the kind, loving decision, then what's the fucking point? Where's the drama? There's no drama. I don't know if you've seen the show In The Dark on The CW....

    I have, and you might want to tread a bit lightly. The first season just went up on Netflix, so people might be discovering it.

    I'll just say that that's another character who has a dark side. For me, the meat on the bone is a character who will make a decision you don't see coming — a decision that, when they're faced with a problem, you wonder as they wonder which direction should this go, which direction will this go. And if you know ahead of time, well, they always make the good choice, that's fine, as long as we know someday you're going to make the other choice and you go, "Ooh, now we have a story." That is obviously what drama is. There's some incident that changes the stasis. When things are in stasis, there's an inciting incident, and the rest of the story is how that gets fixed or solved or dealt with. And I would just rather always wonder where one of my characters is going to go than know it's just the straight path.

    Casey Diedrick and Rich Sommer in In the Dark. (The CW)

    Yes. And we get to see in Season 2 of GLOW where Mark, after a bad start with Debbie (played by the great Betty Gilpin), tags back in and really comes through for her as her agent when he negotiates her contract. And she is the only one who's like really protected when the show actually gets on TV.

    Look, my parents got divorced. I don't think of them, either of them, as bad people. I think they were good people in a marriage that wasn't a perfect fit. And I think sometimes, I think it's in the minority, but you see people who get divorced, who end up still remaining a strong team in some way, whether it's a child or two that binds them or some shared project or even just a shared respect for each other. Debbie still harbors some anger about Mark, and that's fully understandable. But it becomes clear they were two people who worked well together, even if they just weren't right being married. I think that they seem to find how this is mutually beneficial to remain a team. And I love that about those two. And in fact on these lists, when people say here are all the shitty characters you play, Mark is low on the list of straight assholes, as far as I'm concerned. I think he blew it, no doubt about it, he blew it, but as you said, he does sort of rise after the initial fallout settles, they find each other again in a different way and I am so appreciative of that.

    Yeah. Later in that season when Ruth and Debbie finally have it out after Debbie breaks her leg, Ruth basically says, "Yes, I cheated with Mark, but this was just the excuse that you were looking for. It gave you a pretext to leave your marriage," and that does feel true.

    Yep. Absolutely. Absolutely.

    Obviously GLOW is a story about women. It's right there in the title. What is it like being a man on that production, and have you ever been that outnumbered by women on any other job in your acting career?

    No, I've never been that "outnumbered," to use your word. I did take a Women in Theater class when I was a sophomore in college and I was only one of two men in the class, and once made the mistake of saying, "Can I just say something, like, on the behalf of males?" And three women said, "NO." And I said, "Okay." That was the last time I tried.

    Well, first of all, there are very few sets where I have been that outnumbered by, like, immensely talented people as well. It's a hell of a group that Liz [Flahive] and Carly [Mensch] and Jenji [Kohan] put together. The only day that it felt even sort of weird was, I worked at GLOW maybe three days after the whole Me Too thing truly began. I don't even remember what the exact moment was where the world cracked open, but it was in the midst of a Harvey [Weinstein] revelation. And I just remember coming to set and everyone was sort of shook up, like if you went to work during the coronavirus, I think. Everyone sort of stood a few feet from each other like [very formally], "Hello, hi, how are you? Yep, good to see you. Yep." It was an interesting world to step into, because I think everybody obviously had strong feelings about all of that. And it was an empowering thing for a lot of people, even in the midst of how awful it was to hear about it. That was one of the more interesting sort of cultural experiences for me, stepping onto that set in the midst of all of that, seeing how it was being received, how some people seemed emboldened by it, how other people seemed sort of scared of what the fallout was going to be, and sort of upset by the way it had had happened and not enough was being done, you know? It was just an interesting time to be on the set.

    Rich Sommer in GLOW. (Netflix)

    If I may briefly detour away from TV and also lighten up: I know you're a big fan of board games. A lot of people who are home right now might be looking for your expert opinion, so what would you say is a good game to play with just two people, if there's only two people in your house?

    My favorite is one called Codenames: Duet. Codenames is a party game. You could play with four, but ordinarily you'd have six or more people in two teams. Codenames: Duet takes the competition out of it and turns it into a cooperative game between the two of you. Still sort of the same core gameplay. So if you like to Codenames you'll like Codenames: Duet, but it's a cooperative sort of exercise and it's really super-fun. That's a great two-player, easy for anyone to pick up, takes no sort of skill level. It's just a nice thinky little have-a-cup-of-coffee, 20-minute game.

    Love it. What's a game that's fun for parents and kids to play together?

    Well, one we just picked up, and we haven't gotten to play it yet, but I hear only good things: another cooperative game called Heist, which I think you can get just about anywhere. It's a cooperative game where you are a team of bank robbers, safe crackers. There's a box that's in the middle of the table that has a plastic lid that you push down at the beginning, and that slowly rises up throughout the game play. If you succeed, it pops open and all these little gold bars fly all over the table, and each level is increasingly more difficult. I've only watched videos and I have it sitting in our house ready to play, but it looks to be a perfect four-player real-time focus game. It's a lot of passing items back and forth and trying to track where things are supposed to be.

    One more. When parents just need an hour or two to not parent, do you have a recommendation for a game that kids can play by themselves?

    If you just look up these two publishers: Haba Games and Ravensburger Press. Ravensburger have a ton of puzzles, but they also have some really cool tactile board games. They're not just on a board — they have magnets and little things to spin. They're really cool. So those two publishers: I think you have a safe bet with either of those.

    Back to TV: what is your most formative show -- the show from your youth or your early days that had the biggest influence on you?

    Probably The Simpsons. I think it's the cornerstone of my sense of humor. I still rewatch episodes from when I was in seventh grade and I get new jokes that I didn't get, you know, the other 40 times I've watched those episodes. I wasn't allowed to watch it until I was, I think, 14 or 15, and most of my Simpsons viewing happened in college, because I was catching up. But I still watch it when I can. I guess it's a little like SNL where everybody says there are good years and bad years and I suppose that's true. But I think for my money, The Simpsons are in a really good place right now. I still am laughing at brand-new episodes and I am grateful for it whenever it's on.

    And what is your favorite show right now? Or just something you've been watching?

    We just started Mrs. America, which is, whoa — as somebody said on Twitter, "I think I like Mrs. America, except it's hard to tell because I keep screaming, 'I fucking hate you.'" It's just a real good show. And then we had been watching those National Theater live presentations that have been such a kindness. We haven't sat down and watched all of them front to back, but I will tune in to the live ones. Yesterday I caught a little of Twelfth Night. I have really appreciated how creatively some media arms have dealt with this thing. The Disney Family Sing-Along: look, we're all cynics, that's fine. But I will tell you that the first number on The Disney Family Sing-Along — and you can see it on Disney Plus and on the ABC app — the first number is "Be Our Guest," and it's entirely done by these people — obviously professional dancers, but they're in their home and they choreographed this whole number using their kitchen, their living room, it was incredible. I fucking loved it. We watched it four times in a row, just that number. It was so good. And the rest of the whole show: we like Disney over here, so it was nice and comforting. But that initial "Be Our Guest" number is awesome and totally worth five minutes, if you have it, to just watch that first number. It was so good.

    Rich Sommer can currently be seen in In the Dark on The CW Thursday nights, and in Run on HBO Sunday nights.

    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Run, HBO, GLOW, In the Dark, Mad Men, Merritt Wever, Rich Sommer