BWW Interview: Norbert Leo Butz Discusses Season 2 of BLOODLINE & MERCY STREET, Feinstein's/54 Below, More
Two-time Tony Award-winner Norbert Leo Butz is in not one, but two small-screen series that are gearing up for Season 2 releases. The second season of Netflix's original series, BLOODLINE, premieres today May 27, with Butz as Kevin Rayburn, one of four siblings who "aren't bad people but did a bad thing" as one of the show's voiceovers goes.
Butz also plays Dr. Byron Hale in the PBS original Civil War drama, MERCY STREET. The show is currently shooting in Richmond, Virginia and will air Season 2's six episodes at a later date to be announced.
I spoke with Butz by phone about both series, as well as his Feinstein's/54 Below appearance in August and whether we can expect to see him on stage again anytime soon.
BWW: It's always difficult to talk about shows without revealing spoilers, but do you know the whole trajectory of BLOODLINE's Season 2? Or do you only know the parts that you shot?
N.L.B.: I pretty much know the whole trajectory, or I did when they started. But I can really only speak to my parts because the way that these guys work, they continually add scenes, take away scenes, re-film sections. They shoot alternate endings for scenes. So, what was interesting was like when I watched season 1 - which I didn't even look at for a long time - I just was not able to be objective at all. But I eventually sort of gave up because I was watching it, going, "Wow, I'm in this show, and I don't even know who that person on the screen is. I don't even know what's happening in the story" because that storyline would have changed. That's what's kind of fascinating about these guys - they create the story really in editing and in post-production as much as they do in the writing of the scripts. It's really cool.
They're using the whole long-form streaming, binge narrative to their advantage to tell the story how they want. It's being made for binge-watching. Having said that, yeah, I know what happens to me. Sometimes, you don't know what's going to happen to your character until the night before you shoot the scene. So, sometimes, you get a great big surprise at the very last minute, which is scary sometimes. You don't have a whole lot of time to prepare.
BWW: Can you tell us anything about what happens to Kevin?
N.L.B.: In a nutshell, at the end of the season, they're all left in this sort of really emotionally and spiritually scary place where they've just done this act, and you see them maybe just become aware of the enormity of what they've done. So, obviously, in the second season, the first thing that I thought they did that was really great was that they pick immediately up. They don't go a year later or two years later or six months in the future. It's immediate. So, it really hits the ground running.
And with Kevin, who, out of the three remaining Rayburn siblings, is sort of the most overtly emotional and reactive - he's the least skilled at hiding secrets really because everything's on his sleeve because of the emotionality. That becomes a huge problem for the other siblings. My veneer starts to crack first, I think it's safe to say, or at least in the most overt way.
So, yeah, he has a real rough start to the season. He's almost paralyzed from the guilt and really haunted by the specter of Danny - not literal specter. There's not going to be a Danny ghost or anything. He really starts to lose, I think, his mental faculties, but then, there's an interesting arc throughout the season. I guess he maybe bottoms out first, but then he starts to get his mojo back a little bit. He starts to pull it together...
BWW: Have you seen the trailer for season 2? I thought it was amazing.
N.L.B.: I did see the trailer. I thought it was amazingly done, but it also, I have to say, made me kind of sick to my stomach because a lot of that stuff - it was a tough season to shoot. Obviously, every single scene, you're just playing different versions of terror, acute anxiety, grief, rage, existential sadness. At least for Kevin, it's like a real swirling eddy of trauma. Trauma is really the word.
BWW: The partying Kevin is not there.
N.L.B.: Nope! That really gets inverted in the most scary way. So, yeah, every day was kind of emotionally draining. But having said that, this show is just the greatest job I've ever had. I love, love, love shooting in the [Florida] Keys. I love living there. My cast mates are ... I mean, it's the best. You just don't get better actors to work with. It's like the highest level of performers and directors and writing. So, it's a really great, great gig.
BWW: I was thinking that it must be a master class working with those people. What have you learned from them?
N.L.B.: Oh my gosh, so much! I've learned a ton, and I think I had the steepest learning curve because I've mostly been on stage in my career. I've sort of left the theater just for little shoots here and there - little one-off series or small roles in films or whatever. This is the longest experience I've had on camera.
One of the first things I learned and I continue to learn is Sissy [Spacek], Kyle [Chandler], Ben [Mendelsohn], Linda [Cardellini], Sam [Shepard] - these are incredible film and television actors - and they understand that on camera, your energy has to be extremely relaxed. It has to be extremely focused for very short periods of time.
It's almost the opposite on stage. We have to sort of ramp our metabolism up because it's mostly a kinetic experience performing on stage. So, you kind of ramp your energy up, and then you have extended periods of concentration, like the entire scene, and then the entire act, and then the entire play. Over a three-hour period, you're really heightened.
And in film, they're looking for extremely focused sections of like 45 seconds or a minute and ten seconds or seven seconds. It's essentially the same skill, but everybody uses this metaphor - I do think it's apt - the sprinter versus the distance runner. And those are really different beasts. They're totally different athletes, the sprinter and the distance runner.
So, I've been a distance runner my whole life. I've had to learn how to be a sprinter, and I've watched how those actors that I mentioned bring a real stillness and a real clarity and a real restraint to a lot of their work because they understand that they're in a frame of a camera. So, anything extraneous, anything layered onto their work, any extraneous movement or vocal inflection is going to read so false. So, it's been a great, great learning experience for me.
BWW: That's one of the things I like about this show. It's really naturalistic. It's easy to think that you're watching real people and not actors.
N.L.B.: Yeah, and I think that's intentional. I think that's really important because the circumstances are so unnatural. They're so crazy dark and twisted, and there's so much damage and trauma and drama that if you were to "act" it in any kind of inflammatory or overly emotional [way]... It's actually a really tricky thing with Kevin because he's so reactive all the time. It's like, "Wow, how do you do rage in eight different shades as opposed to just two or one?" [Laughs] What other colors does rage have besides red, you know? It's tricky, but it's definitely fun to work on and think about.
BWW: Can we talk about "Mercy Street" for a second? Are you shooting that now?
N.L.B.: Yeah, I'm shooting it now! As soon as I get off the phone with you, I'm heading back down to Richmond, Virginia. I commute down there right down the turnpike. So, we're on, I guess the third of six episodes that we're shooting.
BWW: So, what kind of adjustments do you have to make when you do a character of a time period like that?
N.L.B.: I don't know if I can say that I'm making any conscious adjustments. It is a really different beast - mostly the language. Like you mentioned, "Bloodline" is super real language. They let us veer from script. Kevin's not particularly an articulate guy. And then, the writers of "Mercy Street" - David Zabel - he's trying to do an amalgamation of mid-19th century speech with some modern inflections to it. If you read the diaries of some of the people who lived at the time, they're writing in much longer sentences, much larger vocabulary, some words that are really no longer in the vernacular of today. That's really the hardest part. The sentences are much longer, the thoughts are much longer. They're just more verbal people.
Last year, I went straight from "Bloodline" right into a Civil War uniform. I think that was the trickiest part was memorizing lines that had lots of parenthetical thoughts and run-on sentences and interesting words, as opposed to Kevin, who's "f*** that, f*** this, f*** you." [Laughs]
But I feel so lucky that I've been able to have both these jobs. It's like being in a rep company. I used to do a lot of repertory theater. You're playing different roles all the time, and I love that...
BWW: Do you know much about what's going to happen on "Mercy Street" for Dr. Hale at this point? You've only shot three episodes so far.
N.L.B.: Yeah, but we've gotten all the scripts. It's a really great season for me. The first season was so many characters, so it was really just setting up a lot of situations. Then, the second season, they've made it a point to really delve into the nuts and bolts of what surgery was.
BWW: Sounds a bit gruesome!
N.L.B.: Yeah, that part of it gets - I don't know if "gruesome" is the right word - but it's definitely up close. I think it's really fascinating to see - wow, this is what they did for pain relief or this is how they did stitches or this is how they set a bone or this is how they got rid of what they thought was a blood infection. So, I get to do a lot more medical procedures in this season, which has been cool because he's kind of an oaf, but he's actually a really good surgeon. He's still an oaf, but you see that he's also excellent at what he does - kind of rough around the edges, terrible bedside manner, but he's really good. And there's lots of fun spatting and lovers' quarrels that go on between Tara Summers' character [Anne Hastings], and my character. It's really, really fun.
BWW: I wanted to also ask you about stage plans. I know you're doing Feinstein's/54 Below in August. I'm going to come see you. And they're recording it, right?
N.L.B.: They did record it. We did it two years ago. I didn't even know they were recording it. I did five shows, and they recorded them all from the board. Then, they mixed it down and made it sound fantastic. And it's really a cool record. So, yeah, we're going to do another five or six performances of it. Then, the CD will be for sale after the shows.
It's a real personal show for me. People really dug it, and we've been asked to perform it in different venues around. Because of the TV schedule, it's been really, really hard to do it live anywhere. So, I had August off, and I love this band that I play with. They're my best friends. We just love doing it.
It's an exploration of how women think, what women need, why they have remained so mysterious to me my whole life, which is ironic because my whole family is women. I sort of chose the songs and wrote the show as a way for me to say, "Wow, I've been raising girls for 19 years - I have three daughters, I have three sisters, and my mom and my mother-in-law. I have an ex-wife. I have all of these women who are still really huge relationships in my life, and I feel like I've learned so little about them after having so much experience with them." It's sort of a look at some feminine archetypes through mythology and Jungian psychology. It explores the emotional psyche of certain women - not all women.
In terms of any other stage work, that remains to be seen. Definitely, there have been some cool opportunities, and they just didn't work out. I'm really beholden to these two [TV] shows. Theater is a time commitment. It can be years, so I hope it's not years until I'm able to do something again. I've done a couple of workshops. But it's been interesting - I haven't been on stage in a few years - the longest in my entire life that I've not done stage work. I thought I would miss it more. [Laughs] But I'm having such a great time. I'm sure I will miss it, and when that happens, I will probably beg, borrow, and steal to get into a show somewhere.
BWW: Well, I know a lot of people will be happy to hear that because we miss seeing you on stage.
N.L.B.: Oh, thanks. That's nice to hear.