Grace Zabriskie on Big Love and marriage

Lynch's lady
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  March 16, 2011

Through the course of 80 films and countless television guest spots, actress Grace Zabriskie has worked with directors as varied as David Lynch, Werner Herzog, and Michael Bay. She is also an accomplished visual artist, and she's recently published her first book of poems. Over the past five years, Zabriskie has alternately amused and terrified Big Love audiences as cracked matriarch Lois Henrickson. On Sunday, HBO will air the Big Love series finale. Zabriskie spoke to me from her home in Los Angeles.

HOW DID YOU LEARN HOW TO PLAY SUCH HYSTERICAL CHARACTERS? Working with David [Lynch], who loves to take an actor and push them just that much over the edge, so that an audience that has tears rolling down their cheeks will start laughing — or some of them will look very angrily at someone who just laughed. You know the scene in Twin Peaks where Sarah Palmer finds out that her daughter is dead and she starts freaking out? I was in an audience watching. People are crying — they're crying with Sarah's grief — and some people are laughing because I've just gone that little half-step too far. They got it. They're laughing, but the other ones, they didn't get it, and they're pissed off that someone would dare laugh at this terribly sad thing.

Everything for me comes down to tone. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to make someone laugh and cry at the same time, and it's rare material that offers that kind of opportunity. And it means basically, as an actor, you have to invest so completely in what you're saying that the end result is funny. It's just that tiny little push.

WHERE DOES LOIS COME FROM? Lois is based on both mothers [of series creators Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen] . . . . and both of their mothers were clinical narcissists. So the dynamic over the years has pretty much been my saying, "You know, okay, I'm a clinical narcissist. I am incapable of love. Except, here's the thing: I love my grandchildren. Now make room for that."

AND SHE LOVES HER HUSBAND, FRANK! She did love him, she loved him terribly. He loved her as well, but he was raised to be rather a pig of a man, and not to revere her in any way or support her, really. I think they had a brief period of almost loving equality. I think love becomes need, need becomes love . . . and if there's any truth in that, then you can bet the writers are saying that's the way it is, and not just for Lois and Frank. This is part of what our love is.

Nobody has gotten Big Love as a critique on marriage. They all talk about love and family, but I don't think that is what it's ever been about, except as a way to suck you in, and I think it did that very effectively for a few years. Now it's coming out. I have thought for some years that marriage is an institution that has its antecedents in all kinds of really unfortunate messes, which include property, slavery, and such as that.

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