Brothers & Sisters is a family affair both in its story and behind the scenes. The weekly drama deals with the Walker family's issues concerning their father's corrupt business practices, the siblings' opposing political views and everyone's romantic relationships. Executive producer Ken Olin brought in some of his regulars from Alias and Thirtysomething to keep his TV family intact. Ron Rifkin and Balthazar Getty come from the former, and Patricia Wettig from the latter series (and she's Olin's real-life wife!)
The connections run even deeper than the obvious though. "Balth and Ron I came to know through Alias," said Olin. "But Ron and Robbie have a long history of collaboration in the theater."
Robbie is the nickname for series creator Jon Robin Baitz. Olin continued, "I think the thing that's really special is that when you have relationships that actually can migrate, it's a privilege."
Brothers & Sisters brings back other TV favorites including Calista Flockhart, Rachel Griffiths and Sally Field. Flockhart plays Kitty Walker, a right wing talk show host whose extreme views upset many of the more liberal Walkers. It's a stretch for most Hollywood actors, but outside of her career, Kitty is a character to whom Flockhart can relate.
"Her political views are fundamentally different from mine for the most part, but it is really interesting and compelling to learn something about somebody else's point of view," she said. "That definitely attracted me to the part. But having said that, I also think the character is a woman who is at a point in her life where she's making decisions that will carry her through the next 10, 20 years, so she's going through a stage. So it's ‘by the way, she's a conservative' but she's still a young woman who is making decisions about her family and about her boyfriend and about marriage and about having her own family, and I think a lot of issues like that will come up."
She should know about making family decisions. In the last five years, Flockhart took a break from acting to become a full time mother. She adopted son Liam with long time fiancé Harrison Ford in 2001, and only began thinking about work again this year.
"My son is five," she said. "He's off to school." She continues, "I miss acting a lot. I wanted to stay in L.A. I don't want to travel. I was sort of thinking about, ‘Well, it's time for me to go back to work. I really want to go back to work. And then I got a phone call from Robbie, who I've known for a long time from doing theater in New York. And it just seemed like the perfect time and the perfect project. And the fact that the show is an ensemble with so many wonderful, amazing actors, I wasn't going to be responsible for carrying the show and I would have a better schedule."
It can be a difficult talk when you first explain to your child that mommy won't be home all the time anymore. Perhaps growing up with two actors made Liam more understanding than most kids. "Fortunately, it's been a rather easy period of adjustment. For whatever reason, we talk about it a lot and he's really okay with it. He always says, ‘Well, you're a mom but you're an actress too.' So for me it was exciting. [But] it was a hard period of adjustment [for me]. I can't say that I had an easy time but he had a pretty easy time."
Like any working mother can tell you, the first time you drop your child off and head for the office can be more traumatic than you expect. "I loved being a mom but as any mother can tell you, you stay home with a two year old 24-7 and you get mush brain and you start wishing that you were working. And then when you're working, unfortunately you're wishing that you were home. It's a tough dilemma that I have a new appreciation for."
If you take the fact that Flockhart played such an iconic title character on the hit legal comedy Ally McBeal, it's understandable that if she were to return to her former TV glory, it had to be a big change of pace. "I also really liked that it is different from the show Ally McBeal because Ally McBeal, as you know, is very high comedy. Sometimes it was dramatic and sad and poignant, but for the most part, we weren't living in reality. This is a very real show about very real issues and that attracted me."
Ally's creator David E. Kelley is also such a highly regarded writer, the actors treat his script like a Shakespearean play. Most other gigs, like Brothers & Sisters, are more flexible. "I keep calling the script supervisor and saying, ‘What is that word? Is it ‘is' or ‘it'?' I'm very specific about the words I say and Robbie and Ken are like, ‘Who cares?' and I say, ‘I care.' It's funny because Robbie writes it better than I do, so I'm the actress that stays right on the script unless it's asked of me to improv. But usually I like to stay right on the script."
Rachel Griffiths plays Sarah Walker, the sibling who first discovers dad's sordid business affairs and must add that to her usual list of daily dilemmas. "I'm really comfortable in this character," said Griffiths. "She feels like what I want to explore right now. I'm a working mom. I have newfound and great empathy for working moms around the world, on all continents and all classes of life. We have to make tough choices and this character is firmly rooted in that world. And I'm just really happy that I can kind of bring my full self to playing a mother of two in a family that also has a stepchild and struggling to be effective in the world."
As matriarch Nora, Sally Field was the last addition to the cast. Her role was played by Betty Buckley in the original pilot, so Field actually had the rare opportunity to see the cast work together before she decided to join in for reshoots.
"I saw the pilot, and I had a meeting, and went ‘wow,'" said Field. "I heard what they wanted to do and heard where they wanted to go, what they were exploring, what they wanted to explore, what they wanted to do and accomplish, and I went, ‘Wow, how can I actually say no to that? That sounds pretty amazing.' So it it's been ‘shot from cannons.' I'm sure everyone feels, to an extent, ‘shot from cannons.' So you just hit the ground running, and that's all I know. Anything else of what they were thinking of how they needed to change the mother, I really can't answer that. I know what they wanted from me and what they wanted to explore. And that's all I know."
The recasting of Field's part led some press to speculate that the show was in trouble. The revised pilot was not ready to present at July's summer press tour, so the show seemed like a dirty little secret.
"I never got the sense, not having made television before, that we were ever troubled at all," said Baintz. "It was more a matter of, in recasting, opening it up and finding the most alive version of the story. But I never had a sense of anybody's panic about what we were doing. In fact, exactly the opposite. The network and the studio seemed so enthusiastic that they invited us to try it again."
Executive producer Marti Noxon explained why reshooting parts of the pilot, including replacing Buckley, were necessary for the long term benefit of the series. "Creatively we went in some different directions with characters," said Noxon. "And then also, we felt like we wanted the temperature to be a little bit different, to have an opportunity for the family to be shown having a little bit more fun. It's the exact same story, just told from a slightly different point of view."
With a lineup of TV's veteran ladies, including Patricia Wettig as Mr. Walker's secret mistress, Brothers & Sisters represents a rare opportunity for actresses of all ages to explore meaty issues together.
"One of the really interesting things about this, certainly for me, is that Robbie wants to write some great stories about women of varying ages," said Field. "Just the women alone, we are all various types and various ages. And that's really, really interesting to me and not done very often."
The Walker women don't just stand around talking about their problems though. They also have fully fleshed out lives as characters.
"This show is also wonderful in that the female characters in it are very effective in the world," said Griffiths. "We build businesses, we communicate ideas, and we hold together our families."
No one thing seems to define the Walkers. They're not doctors or lawyers who happen to have relationship problems. "I thought the characters were so smart, and they banter and they're smart and they're funny," said Flockhart. "They're complicated grown-ups. This is a very real show about very real issues and that attracted me."
With all the women showing off such power, will the Walker men get the short shrift on Brothers & Sisters? Ron Rifkin, who plays the Walker business manager and Nora's brother, doesn't feel treated unfairly.
"You are only as good as the people that you are playing with," he said. "I'm a better actor because I'm working with these extraordinary women and men. So I celebrate the fact that I can look at these faces, and I'm learning. We're learning to love each other in a way that only a family does. A family of actors, a family of brothers and sisters."
Brothers & Sisters airs Sunday nights at 10 PM et/pt on ABC.