It was mid-April when I sat down with Monica Potter at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena to talk about the most recent season of “Parenthood,” specifically about the tremendously played cancer arc for her character, a powerful piece of acting that has many people talking Emmy.
Most of our conversation was about the choices Potter made in depicting Kristina’s struggles and the gratification that comes from feeling like a job had been done well. We talked about all of the crying she got to do and she explained her decision to go with a bald cap for Kristina’s post-chemo hair, rather than shaving her head.
We also discussed the fact that “Parenthood” was, at the time, on the bubble and the hopes for a renewal. I meant to transcribe the interview immediately to support the Save “Parenthood” campaign, but then NBC renewed the show less than a week late and that became moot and I decided to save the interview for the pre-Emmy nomination period.
The ballot deadline is June 28 and whether or not you have a vote, I still think it’s a good conversation about what was one of the season’s finest performances.
Click through for the full Monica Potter Q&A.
[I sat down with Potter immediately after she did her first real Emmy blow-out, a live chat on GoldDerby.]
HitFix: Is it fun for you to think and speculate in that Emmy area?
Monica Potter: No, it’s terrifying. It’s interesting. It would be fun to do and fun to go and fun to win and fun to whatever… Let me be honest! But it can’t be the thing that’s driving me, because it gets me nervous. I don’t know about it.
HitFix: But do you sorta look at the work that you did last season and are you able to go, “Yeah, I was pretty damn good”?
Monica Potter: I feel like if I go to work and I do the best that I can, to me I have a sense of serenity-kind-of-thing and sorta am centered and I do OK and people respond to it, that to me is the most gratifying thing.
HitFix: So let me try that approach. Did you sense that the people responded to the work this year?
Monica Potter: I did, this year especially. It’s weird, but in a good way. A lot of people have responded, men and women and children, people who have gone through it or gone through it with their parents or their moms. It’s very gratifying and very cathartic for some people to say that. It was cathartic for me, that’s for sure. It felt very cleansing this season, if that makes any sense. I just went to work every day with your A game and hopefully it worked out.
HitFix: Was it harder to leave the job behind when you went home at the end of these days?
Monica Potter: I have said this to one other journalist, but I felt crazy at the end of the year. I felt like I was crazy, because I felt an amount of guilt and paranoia, like guilt being coming home and not having breast cancer, but also paranoid that it was coming. Does that make any sense? I actually have to go again in another month to get a check-up, because I go every six months now because they’re monitoring something, but it’s a little scary, but in a good way it’s made me more proactive about my health and getting rid of habits that weren’t healthy and focusing on taking better care of myself. It was really an eye-opener.
HitFix: How much did Jason Katims tell you last season before you began when he was telling you about what Kristina’s arc was going to be?
Monica Potter: He didn’t. You know what? The less that I knew the better, because I wanted to go on the journey through Kristina’s eyes with her and I didn’t want to know anything about if she was gonna make it. I had a feeling, because his wife Cathy had breast cancer and she’s in remission now and I just felt like it was going to be OK. But he didn’t tell me too much and I think that was by choice. I think he trusted me enough to sorta see where we went and if I started screwing up, he would probably veer me back on course. So it was good.
HitFix: But is there there part of you that’s the “Monica the Working Actress” who starts worrying about things there? Because you’ve got a good gig and apparently…
Monica Potter: Yeah, I did a little. I did in the sense that I would be sad because I love my co-workers and my castmates. There was that for sure. But I’m also a big believer in just letting it go and then something else will come along. Or you work for something else and not just sit around and eat Cheetos and think it’s gonna fall into your lap. I mean, sometimes it does, but not always.
HitFix: Have you always, as an actress, been a good crier?
Monica Potter: No! You know what? I felt like… This is a little trick… I’m a jokester by nature and I like to laugh and so this role, in the past four seasons my kids are like, “Mom. Are you gonna ever laugh on this show? Can you stop frickin’ crying?” They’re like, “Enough’s enough!” And I’ve said that the next show I do is going to be a comedy. But, you know, it’s just sorta one of those things where the more I would try to cry in other movies or television shows or whatever… I tried *less* this year and it was easy to do because of the writing. You just sorta sit there and center yourself and let it go and don’t worry about the result, if you’re gonna cry or not cry. I feel like the more I tried not to, the more I cried.
HitFix: But Kristina had many different modes of crying this year! You spent like half the season on maybe a “1” or “2” and then a lot of the season on “8” or “9” in crying. [She laughs.] Were you able to differentiate between the levels?
Monica Potter: That’s hilarious! Like it’s a science.
HitFix: Or mathematics.
Monica Potter: Or mathematics! See, I’m terrible at both. It’s like it’s Mork from Ork or maybe more like “Small Wonder,” remember that show?
HitFix: Excellent. I always enjoy a good “Small Wonder” reference.
Monica Potter: I mean, who the hell thought of that show? I want to meet them and work with them. So no, it was just one of those things where if I felt it, but I never tried to do it, because then it doesn’t work. So yeah, there were some moments where it was one way or another.
HitFix: It also seemed like you spent a good part of the season right on the brink of tears if you weren’t actually crying.
Monica Potter: I know. Yeah, I kinda did.
HitFix: And “Parenthood” is a show where all of you get to cry at some point or another. Sometimes five or six or seven of you per episode.
Monica Potter: Yeah, I was told that there’s actually a drinking game that people do when they’re watching the show and… Yeah. I feel like all of us have the storylines where we’re able to show emotions from A-to-Z and it’s kinda cool to see. We can do crying, laughing, anger, whatever it is. But yeah, there’s a drinking game that people play where if somebody cries on “Parenthood” you have to drink. It’s like quarters or something like that. I’m like, “Well you must be pretty loaded by the time the episode’s over.”
HitFix: You must have killed a few people last season.
Monica Potter: Totally. All of us were like, “That’s so funny.” Somebody made up a drinking game.
HitFix: It’s an honor.
Monica Potter: Yeah! It’s cool. Hey, maybe we’ll have a board game next. You never know.
HitFix: Is there something, though, about the set and about the environment that Jason and the producers have set up that allows you guys to go to that place?
Monica Potter: Yeah, I think so. They’re so secure with who they are as producers. Larry Trilling is one of our producers and directors and he’s so easy and he doesn’t have an ego and I feel like the less ego that’s involved, the easier it is and the more comforting it is for us as actors and the more inviting and the more we want to do well for them and for ourselves, because we’re not intimidated or fearful. There’s a lot of that psychology and I think it’s unbeknownst to them. I don’t think they did this intentionally. Or if they did, they’re genius. But I’ve worked on other shows where it was a little tougher to let go because you’re so worried if you mess up. I think I told Larry that once. He’s like, “You’re allowed to make mistakes.” And that, to me, was like, “Just open the floodgates,” so to speak.
HitFix: In that vein, were there mistakes that you felt like maybe you made at the start of last season as you were figuring out what the cancer was like for Kristina and how you wanted to play it? Or course-corrections?
Monica Potter: What I did was, I really didn’t… I don’t want to say “try.” I tried to not try. I tried to just let go. Usually I’m on top of the script. The second I get it, I’ll break it down, I staple the separate scenes and meticulously highlight. Sometimes the boys make fun of me because I’m just so That Girl, like “Type-A Personality, has to have this…” And I get so frustrated if I’m not getting it right. So I guess you’d say that this season, that was what I corrected. I did it so that I wasn’t so worried about making a mistake and if I did, it was OK. And whether it was forgetting a word or saying the wrong sentence, we just kept going and doing. I was a late bloomer in that sense, because everybody else was raring to go with the way that we were working and how we worked. I just wanted it to be perfectly said. So I let go a lot and it was helpful.
HitFix: Were there specific things that you wanted to make sure that you honored for cancer survivors?
Monica Potter: Oh, absolutely. I didn’t wing this by any stretch, but I also didn’t do a lot of research, because I knew it would be in the script. I wanted to find out what was gonna happen or how things were going to happen along with Kristina, discovering with her, because I didn’t want to cheat myself or anybody watching. I’m glad that I did it like that, because it just gave me the element of surprise and fear and wonder and strength and all of that.
HitFix: What was the process of getting the bald cap right and did you give any consideration to cutting off your hair?
Monica Potter: I did right away and my little girl Molly said, “Mommy, please don’t shave your head.” I thought about it for a minute, but then I also thought that I might not want to do that because… I don’t know… This is so hard to explain. I felt like if I shaved me head off… [She laughs at herself.] I felt like if I did, it would be just sort of, not “gimmicky,” but like, “Look, she’s so brave as actress, she’s shaving her head.” I felt like that was somehow cheating the people that actually went through chemo. Does that make sense? I can’t explain it and I don’t want this to come out the wrong way. I would do it if a friend had chemo, but I can’t explain it. I just didn’t want to do that as a “brave actress.” Now, having gone through the four or five hours of hair and makeup, in hindsight… [She laughs.] I would shave my head.
HitFix: Did the makeup time at least get shorter?
Monica Potter: It got shorter over the course of time. It was good, though. It taught me how to meditate. It really did. I learned how to meditate. You go in and you’re there and it was good. I had good people to work with. It was all very positive.
HitFix: So many with your scenes obviously tend to be with Peter and Max. what do they have to do as actors when you have to be in that specific place that you were in last season?
Monica Potter: Just what they always do. They never waver. I relied heavily on everybody this year, for sure. It was such a magical season for me to be able to play and I don’t want to ever forget it. If our show ended — because we’re not picked up yet — I would be really happy with what I got to do on the show and grateful and then I’d pound the pavement for the next job.
[We talked for a few minutes about the relative confidence or at least optimism that “Parenthood” would return, though Potter warned about making any assumptions.]
HitFix: Have you been able to get a feel yet for how this past season and the work you did, how it’s gonna impact things rippling forward for you processionally?
Monica Potter: I don’t know. I just feel like I’ve been in a vacuum. As soon as I finished the show, I just started working on my home and cleaning out my garage and trying to not do too much professionally, because I do have the hopes that we’ll come back and I always look forward to a hiatus, because I’m able to spend time with my kids. I like being barefoot in my garden and I like planting and just doing things. I will say that things have been coming in a lot easier. For sure. Definitely. And that’s great. But I forced myself to… My little one’s only seven and I have two boys that are much older and I saw how fast time went with them when I was traveling a lot for movies and I just wanted to slow it down for a second.