Bill Irwin has an intimidating resumé: As America’s premiere clown and mime, not to mention an actor with a mantel full of awards, he’s been packing houses with both his own work and in the plays of others for decades. His TV work, however, is no less varied or less fascinating: Kids love him as Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street, he offered a chilling turn as serial killer Nate Haskell on CSI, and right now plays Cary Loudermilk, the unlikely scientist and mutant with a strong relationship with Kerry (Amber Midthunder), the woman who lives inside him on Legion. Irwin took a few minutes with us to discuss episode four’s climax, and the physical work of being home to two people.
This episode features you essentially mirroring what happens in a fight scene elsewhere. Can you walk us through the process of how that came together?
We tried to be meticulous in our planning. This show especially is wild and you’re reacting to different ideas, because that’s who it works in Noah Hawley-land. We had in mind though my character is too old and icky to go out in battle, but he’s experiencing it all back in his lab. Little did we understand Noah had in mind this bit of story colliding with two other stories at the same time. So Cary is in my lab, thinking, worrying about my other part. She’s so eager to go out and do battle, like all young people. I wish the director and I had realized there was an opportunity to get my reaction to her being sent out. As the older part of the equation, I must, I should, have been horrified!
Is stage combat and martial arts a new area for you? Did you find you had relatable skills from your clowning and mime work?
I kept pulling out anything from the bag of tricks and thinking “Would this apply?” Because we were simultaneously watching the best stunt people I’ve ever worked with on this meticulous fight choreography. There was a little bit of clown shtick, a little martial arts, a little breakdance vocabulary. They said “Yeah, do that!” Then it went into the editor’s hands, and it was a wild dream-like mix in the end.
How closely do you work with Amber Midthunder on the physical aspects of your scenes together? You seem to reflect each other physically.
We’ve been trying to reflect each other from day one, hanging out in the makeup trailer and trading ideas. We’ve got 45 years difference in age, and it makes for a translation process! We were fascinated by the idea that they share the same body space. And as she gets older, and only ages when she’s outside my body, there’s more reason to separate, and more desire to separate. We were just always looking for ways to reflect the fact, that at some deep mythic root, Hawley created two characters who share the same root, one a tough young fighter, the other an older geeky male.