You're starring in a new movie, Canvas, in which you play a husband who must cope with his wife's schizophrenia and keep the family together. What did you learn about schizophrenia while preparing for or playing the role??
When Joe [Greco, the director] brought the script to me I had just come off
winning the Emmy award for The Sopranos. I was specifically looking for
a part that would be a 360 from the character I played in The Sopranos.
I chose to play this part for selfish reasons: to be a loving, caring husband
who's victimized by this illness.
Marcia Gay [Harden] is an old friend, and Joe wanted Marcia to play Mary, so
once I convinced Marcia to do it, in preparation we went to a place called
Fountain House, which is a clubhouse for people who are dealing with their
everyday lives with all forms of mental illness. While I was there I kiddingly
said to the people who were showing us around, "When do I get to meet the
crazy people?" and they said, "We are the crazy people."
Sometimes recognizing hypochondria takes a little time.
It wasn't until Rebecca Serrano (not her real name) had been married for a
full year that she realized her new husband had a problem. Once, he was
convinced he had testicular cancer -- but he wouldn't go to the doctor. Another
time, when he got a sinus infection, he thought it was a brain tumor.
"This anxiety literally led him to feel more pain than a normal person would
feel. He had panic attacks and was in such a slump over any minor...
So in the course of working with them and working on the picture and
watching Marcia evolve as this character I started having dreams about my own
mom (my memoir Who's Sorry Now, which came out three or four years ago,
is about my family and my dysfunctional, humorous, crazy mom.)
And three days before we started shooting, one of our closest friends, who
actually had married my wife Nancy and I, had committed suicide. I had talked
to them four days prior to that about Thanksgiving dinner and making plans.
What happened to me -- it was a revelation. For whatever reason, I thought
mental illness was a minority illness and it didn't affect a lot of people.
When we were making the movie, about four weeks into shooting, I said to our
crew of about 75 to 80 people, "If you have mental illness in your life, or
you know somebody with mental illness, raise your hand." And about 75% of
the people in the room raised their hands. So it just started to dawn on me
that it was prevalent.
Eventually I started to look into my own past, and I realized that my mom
had issues that I always thought were issues of choice, when she behaved that
way or that she would freak out. In my book (Who's Sorry Now) I
absolutely describe somebody who suffers from bipolar disorder, but I didn't
know what bipolar disorder was. They had my mother on tranquilizers, but her
behavior was explained to me, by my aunts and uncles and father, that she was
going through a change of life or she was moody.
We screened the movie at Penn State recently, and I hadn't seen it in a
while. And watching it I realized I'm playing my father, Monk, in the movie. My
father would always surrender to my mother's whim. He would always give up, and
he would give up at our expense. He would do anything to make sure she wouldn't
go off. I see that I do that with Chris (played by Devon Gearhart), especially
in that scene when he wants to go to his friend's house. It's Friday night, and
[Mary] is starting to go off, and I tell him maybe it's not a good idea. That
just broke my heart. It just hit me like a ton of bricks.