BIG SKY premieres its first season on ABC on Tuesday, November 17. Adapted by executive producer David E. Kelley from C.J. Box’s series of mystery thrillers, BIG SKY chronicles the efforts of two private detectives (played by Kylie Bunbury and Ryan Philippe) and an ex-cop (Kathryn Winnick) to find a pair of kidnapped sisters (Natalie Alyn Lind and Jade Pettyjohn) in Montana. The case may be connected to a string of disappearances of other young women.
John Carroll Lynch plays Rick Legarski, a Highway Patrol officer who becomes involved in the investigation. Lynch, a prolific actor originally from Colorado, can currently be seen in the Netflix film THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. He has played multiple roles over seasons of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. Lynch’s feature credits include SHUTTER ISLAND, THE INVITATION, ZODIAC, and FARGO; his other television work includes THE DREW CAREY SHOW, CARNIVALE, CLOSE TO HOME, K-VILLE, BODY OF PROOF, DO NO HARM, THE AMERICANS, TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES, CHANNEL ZERO, CRAWFORD, and VEEP.
Speaking by phone from Vancouver, Lynch talks about his work on BIG SKY in an exclusive interview.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did you become involved in BIG SKY?
JOHN CARROLL LYNCH: I worked with David Kelley on a television show called THE BROTHERHOOD OF POLAND, NEW HAMPSHIRE, which was short-lived, on CBS [in 2003]. I had a great time. It was an amazing cast of actors I worked with there. And although the show wasn’t commercially successful, it was really one of the best experiences I had ever had on a show. So when David called and talked to me about this show, not only am I fan of his work in general, but in specific, that experience, so I knew I was going to be in good hands in the writing.
AX: What can you say about your BIG SKY character, Rick Legarski?
LYNCH: [laughs] They’re very clear about his role. He is a highway patrolman. He’s very proud of his work, loves his space, is very protective of it. I think that the story that that we’re telling is one that is a wonderful, suspenseful thriller. What can I tell you about Rick Legarski other than he’s involved in the investigation? I think that he’s a surprising character, very complicated. One of the things that seems to follow me around are [playing] complicated people, and he is certainly complicated.
AX: You don’t need to name which characters they are, because that might give the game away, but is Rick like or unlike anybody you’ve played before?
LYNCH: I’ve had a lot of experiences playing various and sundry people, from the most morally clear people in the world to the most depraved. And oftentimes, those things are equidistant from each other. By that, I mean I’ve played characters like in THE INVITATION. It’s an amazing film. The character I played in that movie, Pruitt, is most morally clear, although he’s a sociopath. He thinks of himself as morally clear, but he’s a sociopath. Rick Legarski is an incredibly human person. He’s complicated. He is morally conflicted. He loves his wife, he doesn’t necessarily know that to start when we meet him, he’s not quite sure how that relationship is going to go. But it’s interesting to see the importance of his marriage coming to his understanding, which is, I think, an interesting journey.
AX: You’ve played all sorts of people through your career, including a fair amount of law enforcement personnel. Did you have to learn anything particular to play a highway patrolman for BIG SKY?
LYNCH: I had to learn a few new skills, some of which I’d prefer not to talk about now, because they’re spoilers. But the overall relationship with the Highway Patrol is different. This is a new area of law enforcement for me, in terms of, one of the great things about the United States legal system is what a patchwork it all is with law enforcement. There are all kinds of different agencies. Each one has its own kind of relationship to the people they serve, and also to the community.
Highway patrolmen seem to have almost a cowboy mentality. They have a certain level of autonomy in their day to day work lives that other people in law enforcement don’t have. For example, I live in New York, near the Taconic Highway, and there are always speed traps on the Taconic. You see highway patrolmen who spend most of their day either setting a speed trap or capturing somebody from a speed trap. In other words, it feels like you serve the road and not the community. Does that make sense? So, there is kind of a sense of lone wolf about highway patrolmen. And Rick Legarski certainly fits that mold.
AX: BIG SKY is set in Montana. Do you shoot in Montana?
LYNCH: I’m sure we would have liked to shoot in Montana. There are a lot of different reasons logistically why we’re not, COVID being one of them. We were going to shoot in New Mexico, actually, and then we were shut down because of COVID, and then we had to find a new place to be, because we lost our soundstage to remote learning at the University of Santa Fe. And so, we ended up here in Vancouver, Canada.
AX: Although you’re originally from Denver, which is a big city, you’re more broadly from Colorado, which is arguably also a “big sky” state. Does your upbringing give you any kind of affinity for BIG SKY’s environment?
LYNCH: Well, mountains were a big part of my growing up, and the Rockies particularly, that particular range. I live now in New York State, and I live near the Taconic mountain range and near the Catskills, and the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania. Those mountains are older, rougher, and more like crooked teeth than the Rockies are. The idea of tree line, the exposed rock of the Rockies, is true in Montana, but it’s true in Colorado [as well]. And I love that about the venue. The feeling of alpine is a good part of this.
Due south of here [where BIG SKY shoots in Vancouver], there’s the Cascade mountain range, and they have a different character [than the Rockies]. It’s really interesting to be shooting it in the Cascades. The trees are different, and the feeling is different. It still gives you the sense of alpine, which is great, and they’re doing beautiful things with the color timing to make it feel more like Montana. But for me, the Rockies in New Mexico would have looked more like the Rockies in Montana than the Cascades in Vancouver. But that’s me.
AX: How is it working with the COVID precautions?
LYNCH: I’ve described it to a friend of mine who’s just starting to direct an episode of television up here. She said, “How is it working under the protocols?” I said, “Well, imagine that you are COVID. That’s how it is to work as an actor on a COVID set.” We’re the only group of people who work without masks, so we are a prime vector for the transmission of the disease, if we were to get sick. So we’re tested all the time, and on top of that, everybody scatters when we’re around. I was working on a scene yesterday in an enclosed space.
The COVID protocol manager, who they have on every set now, said that only the actors and six crew members could be in the set at any one time. Well, that meant that the lighting crew had to go in separate from the camera crew, and then when we came on, everybody had to leave, except the camera crew. And even they had to shuttle in and out. Because there are three members of each camera crew, and there are two cameras working, so that’s six people. But you also need at least one sound tech in there. So, the people who are the third camera operators, the people who mark [on the floor where the actors will stand], have to leave, and only one dolly grip can work. So it gets very complicated. You have to make really strict choices in order to keep everybody safe. So, it gets very complicated in a way that it wasn’t complicated before.
AX: Does having fewer people on set provide a greater sense of intimacy, or is the whole COVID thing just an unadulterated pain?
LYNCH: The difficulty of the COVID for us is, among many things, the [U.S./Canada] border is closed. So, loved ones can’t come up easily, and you can’t leave without having to re-quarantine for fourteen days, and during production, there is no time that actors won’t be used for fourteen days. So, you’re just here. That was part of the deal, that’s part of the job that you chose. So, the separation is much more severe for most of us. And also, the socialization is really within the cast, and mostly outside, because whenever I go out, I think of two hundred-and-some people who are relying on me to stay healthy, to keep the train running on time. Those are things that you didn’t have to think about before.
Now, in terms of the day to day work, what you described as the intimacy, I think most people who are actors have long since given up any sense of dignity around how many people are looking at them [laughs]. I think that’s part of the deal, is that there are a lot of people who are working in a very enclosed space. It’s part of the reason why I love the job is, I love working with crews, I love working with other people. I love that, I love the collaboration of it. Yesterday was a great example of people [coming up] with solutions for story points, from every spectrum of the room. Every person, from the dolly grip to the script supervisor, came up with a solution for something that we were struggling with. And it’s how it should work. It’s a hive mind, and it’s a delight. And COVID gets in the way of that. It’s not the worst thing that COVID does – obviously, people dying, and especially people not being with their loved ones while they die seems to me to be the hardest thing about COVID. This [the filming protocols] is a minor inconvenience in comparison to that.
AX: Well, obviously, keeping people alive is the most important thing, but since this is your work, the protocols are important in context.
LYNCH: It’s what we can do. We can make it safe. And in general, it has been quite safe. There have been very few sets that have gotten COVID, and none of them have been in really huge outbreaks, which is good.
AX: You work in both feature films and television. Do you have a preference for films or television?
LYNCH: I love the care and crafting of filmed work at every level of it, the ability to create a world, and to fully express a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As a filmmaker, it’s exciting. It’s a director’s medium, obviously, for that reason, because somebody has to be the final arbiter of the issues and what the completed work has to be.
Television has the opportunity of unfolding like life does. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my life, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next on the next week of television that I’m going to be shooting. Different things happen, and are surprising to the characters in a way that you can’t expect when you start, so that’s much more like life.
And the theater is the best for actors, because they’re in charge from the get-go. They’re the only people who start from the first day of rehearsal, and finish the last day of performance. So, they are the primary interpreters of the work. So, each different medium has its own charms, and own values. I’m missing the theater a lot, in particular, in COVID. I’m missing that exchange. I haven’t done theater in a long while, and for whatever reason, coronavirus is making me want to be in the presence of that live space again, in a really deep sense.
AX: In terms of genre, do you have a preference between comedy, drama, horror …?
LYNCH: It’s all about the writing in the genre. But I’d like to do another comedy pretty soon [laughs]. It’s always fun to go back and forth to different things, and I love the challenges of all of it. But I’m missing comedy the way I’m missing the theater. I’d like to have people laugh again.
AX: And what would you most like people to know right now about BIG SKY, the series?
LYNCH: I think they’re going to be thrilled by it, I think it’s exciting. It’s always going to surprise the audience. I think there are compelling characters in a really beautiful setting that isn’t seen on television very often. And I think it’s going to be a ride. As the character says in one of the trailers, “Brace for impact.” That’s definitely true. Buckle up.
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Article: BIG SKY: Exclusive Interview with actor John Carroll Lynch on Season 1 of the new ABC mystery series