Peter Krause: The Rakish Interview

HBO unveiled Six Feet Under in 2000, at a time when nobody thought TV could top The Sopranos in terms of first-rate drama. But Alan Ball’s show, centering on a family that runs a funeral home in Los Angeles, immediately proved to be as addictive as the mafia saga, and even more so. Having just begun its fourth and much-anticipated season, the show has become as rich and engrossing as a skillfully written novel.

Despite their improbable setting, Six Feet Under’s characters are hardly preoccupied with death. They’re struggling, like the rest of us, to find ways to be happy during the short time we’re here. At the center of their sometimes poignant, often lyrical stories is Nate Fisher, one of two sons of the recently deceased patriarch, who reluctantly agrees to help his brother keep the family business afloat. A refreshingly modern protagonist, Nate is at once difficult and eminently relatable. In television’s lineup of cardboard male types—gruff cops, happy-go-lucky dads, wise-cracking slackers—Nate’s intelligence, wit, and despair are so three-dimensional and vivid, he starts to feel like someone you know.

What’s it like to act in the role of such a complex, smart, and often overwhelmed character, particularly for so long? Peter Krause, who plays Nate, explains that it’s just as rewarding—and sometimes exhausting—as it sounds. Krause, who grew up in Detroit Lakes and suburban St. Paul, took time out in between filming Six Feet Under and rehearsing for a Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall to talk to The Rake about the show—as well as suffering, the irrelevance of marriage, and how Nate’s misery has helped Krause find more happiness.

THE RAKE: I find it interesting how people refer to Six Feet Under as a soap opera—they don’t know how else to classify it.

PETER KRAUSE: It’s a family drama. There are soap-opera elements to it. It’s like a soap opera in its sensationalistic storylines.

Yeah, but all shows have sensationalistic storylines. Six Feet Under is a family drama, but it’s not a happy, upbeat family drama. It’s about the regular course of human lives outside of hospitals, courtrooms, and police headquarters. It’s amazing that there aren’t more shows that just focus on ordinary life and do it really well.

Well, how do you get those sensational storylines? How do you make it dramatic, you know? A funeral home is something that nobody thought they could get away with, but of course it has the same backdrop of life and death that M*A*S*H did, except it’s not wartime, it’s just everyday life. People live and die and battle demons and each other and their own self-destruction every day, and it’s just as dramatic as any two politically opposed countries, or showing the hospital where the wounded go. On Six Feet Under, the wounded are everywhere, the war is happening on a personal level everywhere.

And how, especially for Nate. I can’t believe he is having such a tough time again this season. How is it for you as an actor, to play a character for whom the stakes are so high for such an extended period of time?

It’s very intense. I didn’t expect his downward spiral to be never-ending, which is what it’s been. It’s difficult because it’s not like doing a movie for a couple of months where you play a tortured character and then you move on.

What’s your overall take on the show, now that you’re wrapping up your fourth season?

I’m still really enthusiastic about what the show has to offer. I don’t think there’s anything else like it on television. We’ve never seen the role of Nate Fisher before in any fashion that I can think of, except perhaps David Janssen in The Fugitive, years ago. I don’t think anybody has suffered quite like Nate has on television. He’s also quite an original character in terms of what he does. He’s not a cop, he doesn’t carry a gun, he doesn’t wield any great power. He’s not a doctor, so there are no life-and-death issues. He doesn’t hold any political office. He’s just a guy—and what’s more, a guy who isn’t living where he wants to live or doing what he wants to do for a living. He hasn’t experienced a satisfying relationship, and tragic things happen to him.

Those are the reasons why people can relate to him. He may be the most honestly average character that television has seen in quite some time.

I think so. The departure at this point is that having a number of tragic events happen to you, and to those around you—I think it starts to change you. It wakes you up, and you’re gonna go one of two ways: You’ll get so despondent, you’ll be in such despair, so depressed, maybe to the point of putting a bullet through your head. Or you’re gonna move the other way and choose to be really happy in the face of everything, and develop a kind of “screw it” attitude and just work on your own happiness. I really lean more toward that direction, but that isn’t necessarily what’s happened to Nate, so it’s a bit strange.
Yeah, I think I’ve been expecting Nate to sort of bounce back. Particularly because Lisa didn’t seem to be making him happy.

It’s interesting to look at the show in its entirety and think about how individuals make decisions when they’re coerced by events in their lives. I don’t know if Nate would’ve necessarily married Lisa if he hadn’t just gone through what he went through with Brenda, and if he hadn’t found out that he had a potentially fatal brain ailment. Those were the things that were surrounding that decision. Then you have the specter of his own childhood, his relationship with his father. I think that he really wanted to be there for his daughter, and I understood him trying to make an imperfect situation workable.

You’re a father now, too, right?

Yes, I have a two-and-a-half-year old, so my fatherhood happened to coincide with Nate’s fatherhood. My understanding of what he’s going through as a new parent is about as good as it can get from moment to moment. Taking care of a new person in the midst of starting a new relationship, especially with someone you wouldn’t be married to if you weren’t having a child together—it asks a lot of questions of the audience: What is marriage? Why do people get married? Has marriage outlived its goodness in the world that we live in?

Sounds like you’re a little skeptical about marriage.

The reasons for getting married are baffling to me. I am not married, and based upon the vision that I had of adults during my childhood, nobody seemed to be that happy with marriage. So I always felt like if a team of wild horses can’t keep me from getting married, only then I should get married.

But otherwise, no way?

I just think that most people go into it with a sense, on some level of their consciousness, that it’s something they should do, that they ought to do. But it’s a choice.

Well, I think for some people it’s a symbol of security.

Absolutely, but it’s steeped in societal dogma. I think it’s steeped in a desire for acceptance and approval of the family and parents. That’s just my own opinion.

A lot depends on your experiences with family.

Yeah, people tend to repeat the relationships that they developed with their family as kids. It’s hard to break through all that stuff. I just think it’s deadly when you think that you have to behave a new way or a different way than you wish to because you are now a husband or a wife.

It can be stifling to the self, definitely. But there are a lot of people who prefer to have that structure.

Definitely. As a child, you’re witnessing your parents, together or separately, dealing with other adults, and that’s a template for how people get along. It’s very important to find a way to have a workable relationship, whether together or apart. And I think that’s what Nate was doing with Lisa and it felt odd to him because he wasn’t used to that much compromise. But he’s already compromised himself a lot—by moving home, by being a funeral director. You know, I don’t write the show. But there are times when it feels like the character of Nate is an average guy who gets swallowed up by the world, and can’t find it within himself to fight back and make himself happy. In the midst of things, I try to show how Nate is very happy to have his daughter and he’s trying to be a good parent. I don’t think that it’s believable or truthful that he’s happy to be living in the Fisher family funeral home, except that he’s near his family. He hates his job through and through. He finds a way to be valuable to the people who come in by consoling them, and that’s about all he can take away from his job.

So much in Nate’s life is wrong. Doesn’t it get exhausting to play him for that reason?

It does, but it doesn’t on its own. What’s exhausting is balancing it all. Last year I finished the series and the next morning I was on a plane to Vancouver to start We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

That screened at Sundance, right?

Yeah, Laura Dern and Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts are also in it. It’s based on a couple of Andre Dubus short stories about two couples who end up sleeping with each other’s spouses. Slipping right into that film wasn’t necessarily the best thing for me personally, but it was a good thing professionally. I really enjoyed doing it—the director was great, the cast was great. And now after finishing this season of Six Feet Under, I fly to New York and do Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. But that’s what ends up being hard about playing Nate—piling other work on top of it, and it just so happens that the other work is also very… tragic. And dramatic. I’m ready to do comedy again.

You started out in comedy, and suddenly you’re in this torture chamber! When did you get into acting?

During college. I had done one play in high school. I hurt myself doing track and field, and there was a girl I wanted to get to know who was into the theater, so that’s why I auditioned for that play.

I’ve made so many decisions based on that.

Based on libido? Yeah! That was how I chose my college. There were lots of cute Swedish blond girls running around. I went to Gustavus Adolphus College, named after a king of Sweden. He killed a lot of heathens during the Crusades, I guess, so they Latinized his name and gave him a college.

Your most recent Minnesota address was in the Twin Cities, right?

Yeah, it’s a nice place to be a kid. I was born up north in Alexandria. Then my parents moved to Detroit Lakes, and then to Roseville.

Your earlier work—Sports Night, The Truman Show, Carol & Company—was mostly comedy. Were you drawn to comic roles when you began acting?

Not so much. I had gone to graduate school at NYU with the idea that I wanted to be able to play anybody or anything. I had the idea that anybody around me was a character I might play. My job was to study human behavior, to be as flexible a person as I could possibly be so that I could understand another person’s circumstances and life rules and desires—fears, belief systems, all that stuff. That was part of the training at NYU, learning how to neutralize yourself. You learn how to do that physically, mentally, emotionally…

In other words, erase your influences?

Let go of your own identity. Of course, you can only do that to a certain extent, but that training certainly teaches you a lot about how identities are fashioned and accumulated and how there is the essential self that each individual is born with. How do I put it? You could look at it like God has done a gesture drawing, and that gesture never really changes. So the essential self basically stays the same. But of course, tragic things happen to people and, you know, they get banged around a little bit.

How did you make the transition from Sports Night to Six Feet Under? Did you audition?

I auditioned for the role of David first, then they called and said, “You know, we’ve been having a difficult time finding Nate, Alan really feels like you’d make a great Nate, and we have some strong choices for David.” I kind of felt like, “Oh great, now I’m going to be neither.” But I reread the script from the viewpoint of Nate and realized that was the character that was probably more terrifying for me to play because it’s closer to myself. But the transition was a very nice one. Sports Night was very language-oriented. It was very verbal, we talked really quickly, and picked up our cues. It was also, though, a very modern show. Casey McCall on Sports Night and Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under are a couple of modern men in imperfect relationships. For Casey, his work was his home, and he really loved being there, but that’s not the case with Nate. The relative tone of the shows is quite different, but both feature conflicted modern men. I was happy to get more into the acting after that, rather than just delivering the language. The behavioral and emotional terrain on Six Feet Under is far more sophisticated than it was on Sports Night.

What do you think Nate’s essential self is like?

Nate is like a lot of people. I think Nate just wants to be happy, and unfortunately for him, he finds that difficult sometimes. He doesn’t let suffering move past him or through him. He’s very frustrated by the fact that there is so much suffering in life. But of course, that frustration causes more suffering. So he definitely has a few things to learn about hanging onto suffering. The more you can let things that are damaging and miserable pass through you, the happier you can be. Nate gets pummeled around pretty good by the cosmos.

It’s kind of remarkable that he doesn’t really have any coping strategies after all the hell he’s been through.

Well, he’s been shutting down. I mean, over the course of time on Six Feet Under, you see Nate sleeping a lot. And a lot of things happen in his dreams that he needs to work out in his conscious life. You know, that’s certainly one way of moving through life. If you don’t address something on the conscious plane, your growth is just going to be slower. So Nate in some ways chooses to be asleep. He’s a person for whom what’s happening to him is simply too much.

I just have to say, I’d like to see Brenda and Nate get back together.

As an actor, Nate’s relationship with Brenda is confusing to me, too. Once your father dies, you’ve encountered a fatal neurological condition, you’ve had a child with someone you didn’t plan on, and you got married and it wasn’t all that great, and then she’s dead and now you’re a single parent with this job you don’t want, living in this house you don’t want to be living in… At some point, you have to start thinking a little more consciously about what you’re doing. I just can’t believe you’re gonna stay fast asleep, continue to stumble all over the place.

Do you think Nate’s relationship with Brenda is destructive?

I don’t see it as necessarily destructive, but I don’t find it to be overwhelmingly happy or healthy. At a certain point, I think the unrelatable issues are things that either the writers don’t know how to write about, don’t want to write about, or haven’t chosen to write about yet. I disagree that dysfunction is the only conflict you can show on television. I think you can show functioning conflict and have it be compelling. Brenda and Nate are ripe for having a very expressive, communicative, conflict-filled relationship—one that’s not about what isn’t said, but about what’s said: disagreeing about things, having disparate experiences of reality, but being able to allow their realities to overlap and also have realities that don’t. They don’t always have to be so protected and uncommunicative.

For someone who doesn’t believe in marriage, you sure sound like a marriage counselor! But I get it. Instead of always showing wildly dysfunctional behavior, they could focus more often on low-level conflict within a functioning structure.

Yeah, exactly. I feel like we’ve seen that, and after Brenda loses her father and Nate loses his father, and they deal with the infidelity in their relationship… and don’t forget about her crazy brother Billy. I mean, they’ve gone through a lot separately and together, and I don’t buy it that they wouldn’t communicate on a very high level.

It’s true, there are so few movies or TV shows about real, slightly flawed relationships. Seeing Nate and Brenda actually work things out could be dramatically interesting.

Yeah, I think it would be fabulous to watch that.

Sometimes TV writers tend to dream up more fantastical stuff instead of going back to the characters and figuring out what the next stage in their development might be.

There’s nothing wrong with telling really great, compelling stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did it wonderfully with Sherlock Holmes, but I don’t think that’s ever been Six Feet Under’s strong suit. I think its strong suit has always been the revelation of truthful human behavior.

So you’re trapped in the abyss of the incredibly tragic character!

Yeah, but it’s therapeutic. It’s actually made me a person who gravitates towards happiness a lot more when I’m not working. I’m not very serious outside of work these days. I just like to screw around.