In FX’s latest thriller (from the creative team behind The Americans), The Patient, Steve Carell, and Domhnall Gleeson face off in a psychological battle of wills.
Carell’s Alan Strauss is a celebrated therapist and author at the top of his field. Gleeson’s Sam Fortner is a squirrely health inspector who likes to sample dishes from the eateries he judges. But his appetites don’t end with food and both men are masking devastating struggles in their personal lives. For Strauss, it’s the recent death of his wife and the estrangement of his ultra-Orthodox son. For Fortner, it’s the compulsion to kill total strangers over the smallest slight.
Throughout the show’s 10 episodes – each a brisk 30-minutes filled with dizzying amounts of dramatic highs (and lows) – it becomes clear that theirs is a twisted, potentially lethal doctor-patient relationship. Gleeson, known for his franchise work and his ability to play a relatable every-man across a wide array of genres – see Ex-Machina, About Time, and Frank of Ireland – is at his most menacing as Sam, a Kenny Chesney groupie with major daddy issues who wavers between genuinely wanting to fix the broken parts of his psyche and his need for utter control. He’s a character who’s hard to pin down, even for the man playing him.
“I don’t know how to describe him still, but I think that’s a good thing,” Gleeson told UPROXX over Zoom. “I shifted back and forth on where I felt about his instincts and his nature over the course of the show … over the course of takes, sometimes.”
He lands somewhere in the morally grey space between man’s desire to change and his ability to do so, making Sam an erratic, reprehensible, and at times, oddly empathetic weirdo so desperate to be normal that he thinks kidnapping his therapist is his only recourse.
We chatted with Gleeson about the show’s strange premise, lurking on Kenny Chesney forums, exotic takeout, and which version of The Office he likes best.
What’s it like to chain Steve Carell up in your basement? I think the world would like to know.
[Laughs] I think it’s important to point out that I didn’t chain him in every day. There was the props guy. Steve would do it himself on occasion. I didn’t knock on his trailer in the morning and say, ‘Steve it’s time.’
Did that prop influence how you guys interacted on set while shooting?
It is interesting because in normal scenes, in normal shows, the control is seesawing back and forth and that’s what keeps things interesting. Physically, Sam is in utter control at every moment of their relationship. He’s got him chained up. If Sam decides to walk out and leave the house, Strauss is dead. That’s it. So that’s a huge amount of control that’s on Sam’s side. And on some level, he must understand that and possibly enjoy it. But psychologically, the advantage weirdly is on Steve’s side. He is more intelligent. He is more in tune with how people work. And so the seesaw there, you were still able to do it. It was just on a different basis than it normally is.
This is a very lean show. Most of it is just you and Steve in a room together, playing off each other. How does it compare to some of the more massive franchise projects you’ve been a part of?
I think the focus is easier in a situation like that. The scripts were all wonderful, were written with plenty of time to learn everything, to dig into everything, to have the important conversations early. There was no scrabble to try to work out something suddenly on set. The important conversations had already happened and then you’re free to play and push around and all the rest of it. It’s tiring work, it’s intense work, but it was in all the right ways. I absolutely loved it. I wish I could work like that nearly all the time. I think being able to change things up is part of the joy of being an actor. But I mean, I would choose that experience over most other ones I’ve had really.
Sam is one of the few serial killers we’ve seen on TV who is actually trying to not kill people. What was the most challenging part about playing him?
I think initially it was trying to find where to place the truthfulness of his ambition to get better. How much does he understand that there is an alternative, which is just to hand himself in, and that that is by far the most human thing to do? And how much does he understand that he’s actually driven almost purely by selfishness, even in his desire to get better? That this is more about controlling himself than it is about being good for other people?
I think, when anyone does something as monstrous as killing another person, the question is always, ‘Why?’ Why do this? Why are they like this? Is it nature? Nurture? Is there an answer in Sam’s case?
That’s one of the central questions of the series and one of the central questions when you’re kind of tackling Sam. And for me, it was important not to make a decision on exactly where it came from. I think he had a terrible childhood, but plenty of people have worse childhoods and never do what he did. So where does that come from? Are you born different? Do you become different? Is it a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B? I think those questions are endlessly interesting. I think if you just answer them… I don’t think you can just answer them. I think that would be a mistake. And the series doesn’t imagine that it can offer an answer for the whole thing, tied up in with a nice bow or with a manacle would be more appropriate.
What kind of research did you do into serial killers to figure out where Sam fit in?
I read plenty about the way that serial killers are classified, the different types of serial killers, and the way that people drift between the definitions. And Sam didn’t seem to fit any one definition totally. There are not many that fit just one definition. But he seemed to float in between them in a way that I found worrying and that I would imagine, in a way, he would find worrying himself.
He has a lot of quirks. A Kenny Chesney obsession. A love for exotic takeout. A Dunkin Donuts habit. Where did those eccentricities come from?
That all came from the Js [showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg]. They had this great understanding that even a serial killer will never be just that one thing. If you’re really looking at the person, they will have other interests. There will be other things in their life that do not define their lives in the same way or other people’s lives in the same way, but that are true aspects of their character. And so they added in the normal human interests that everybody has. And then they just gain bizarreness because of this other aspect of his character. If you just had a character who listened to Kenny Chesney and enjoyed food, you’d be like, ‘Yeah, that seems like a normal person.’ But it changes it.
Did you just do something with your head like you don’t think that’s the case?
I don’t know if it’s normal to go to that many Kenny Chesney concerts.
I don’t know, man. I’ve been to a few Strokes concerts in my time. Those message boards exist. There are people who follow the band around and go to every gig. It’s a real thing.
Are you on Kenny Chesney forums now?
Under a fake name? That would be great to have Sam Fortner as a name. We should have done that as a publicity thing from the beginning.
Like the way you guys marketed Ex Machina back in the day.
I was just thinking that … the viral marketing, we should have done that.
Or some kind of Grubhub coupon code. You eat a lot in this show.
[Laughs] I mean, there’s a well-known thing that actors will try everything not to eat in a scene. You don’t want to have to eat 17 plates of pasta because you make the mistake in the first take of eating too much. But Sam is meant to have this appetite. I’d asked the Js ahead of time, “Listen, where do you see him physically?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, have a good Christmas.’ You know what I mean? ‘If you arrive back with a bit of weight on that’s all good.’ So I arrived full and just got fuller over the course of the thing. But it is not fun eating that amount of cold, not very nice food.
There are plenty of shows about white men doing bad things. Is there something that made this story feel different?
Well, I think the therapy thing as a centerpiece of the whole thing, and I think the notion of loss at the center of it, what Steve is going through — that to me is really what the show is about. That’s the bit that I find almost most interesting. But the de-mythologizing of a serial killer, just showing it to be a person who lives in a place with a life that they’re not happy with — that other people would be happy with, but that they’ve decided is not good enough for them … they feel there’s a pathetic element to what will be a very good life for a lot of other people. That ego, and just … the banality of that. Do you know what I mean? That doesn’t sound exciting, but I found them tackling that to be really a good way to do it. Because I think there’s a version of the show, which is just keeping a serial killer as this unknowable, fascinating mind. And he is that in some ways, but not in a way that I think is just interested in the guts. This was interested in the sadness, the pathetic element of his life.
Basically, let’s stop idolizing serial killers.
Let’s not make them cool. Let’s not make them sexy. Let’s not make them like, ‘Oh, who’s that guy? That guy is interesting.’ It’s not that. The notion of being sexy and all the rest of that or being unknowable in a sexy way, I don’t really have much time for that.
Final question: When it comes to The Office, do you prefer the British version or the American one?
Look, this is all me and Steve talked about. I love both. And here’s what I think. They basically have the same title. That’s it. They’re both just at the very top of the list in terms of the sort of show that they are. Both those shows make me so happy but in totally different ways. So I’m not getting into the weeds on this with you. I refuse to follow you into deep water. That’s so many metaphors in a row.
‘The Patient’ premieres Tuesday, August 30 via FX on Hulu.