Look past the glittering battles between Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis and Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford in Feud and find the man behind the curtain: studio chief Jack L. Warner, who had a long history with both actresses and pushed them together for fun and profit. As played by Stanley Tucci, Warner’s a short-tempered ham who takes meetings from a massage table and demotes subordinates on a whim, even as he’s secretly dreading the end of the studio system and, like Bette and Joan, is somewhat in the twilight of his career. Vulture caught up with Tucci to talk about the script that sold him on the project, how there are more good roles on TV than ever, and whether he’s interested in staying on with Ryan Murphy’s group of regular players.
You hadn’t worked with Ryan Murphy at all before going into this show. What got you involved with Feud?
Well, they talked to my managers about it and they called me and said “this is what Ryan thinks you should do for this,” and I said it sounds great and read the scripts and it was. So that was that.
Did you know much about Jack Warner before?
No, I really didn’t. It was very interesting to learn about him because he was not a nice guy, but he was a very interesting guy; very charming, very well-groomed. And very smart, but had a pretty dark soul.
As far as I can tell he was almost a little bit of ham, too. He loved to tell bad jokes.
He was. I think he fancied becoming a performer when he was younger but he hadn’t. He was smart enough not to go into that.
As you were looking into him and researching him, were there any specific scenes or moments that really helped you understand him?
There was some archival footage that I found of him on the internet that was the most helpful. I got to see how he moved, how he talked, how he laughed, all that stuff, and that was crucial. There’s stuff written about him, but the images and the video footage I found of him were really the most helpful.
In the show, Warner ends up embodying the studio system and the men who were really pushing these women against each other, fueling the feud.
I didn’t know about any of that, and I think it’s very interesting. As I read the scripts, it came through how much of it was really awful. It’s just weird. The psychology behind it was really disturbing.
He’s really willing to play games with people, too. It’s so fun to watch these scenes with Alfred Molina where you’re bargaining and wheeling and dealing, taking a meeting while having a massage. Were you pushing things, or was that all in the script?
That was all there. That was what made it so intriguing! First time you see the guy, he’s on the massage table. Who does that? It’s funny and weird and gross, but eccentric. It’s fantastic and it’s also very old-fashioned, too. He was a larger-than-life character. But it was just such a pleasure to play that guy, and then to work with Alfred Molina again. I worked with him many years ago in a movie [Molina was in The Imposters, which Tucci starred in and directed], and it’s just so nice to work with an old friend like that. Also, Susan I had worked together a few times. One time I directed her in a movie [Joe Gould’s Secret] as well. It’s so great, I mean, you have these wonderful and talented and just like nice people.
It’s interesting that it felt old-fashioned. A decade ago this would’ve been a studio movie, and now it’s a TV show. Do you feel like the business is changing?
The beauty of it is that television has changed, in a lot of ways, for the better. Not reality shows, I’m not talking about that. But stuff like this. Long-form stuff, all the different channels you have now and the accessibility with Netflix and FX and Amazon. It doesn’t have to fit into a movie, a two-hour time frame. It’s really wonderful. The roles can be really juicy for actors, and it’s just a really exciting time. There’s more work for everybody in front of the camera, behind the camera. It’s just, there’s nothing bad about it.
With all those new opportunities, do you find yourself looking at TV projects more?
You know, I’ve always done television. I hadn’t done American television for a while. I’d done a British television series [Fortitude] two years ago, but I haven’t done American television for quite a while. It was great to do it again. I spent a lot of time running back and forth between television and film because the opportunities are great. I never was a real believer in “Oh, I just want to do movies.” A lot of times you just simply don’t have that choice, but a lot of times if the role is there, for a TV movie or whatever it is, you just do it. I mean, what’s the problem? Just do it. I think the business is much happier now than it ever was in that regard, because things were categorized: You’re a film actor, you’re a TV actor. To me, you’re an actor. Just act.
It does feel like actresses, like Susan Sarandon or Jessica Lange, or in something like Big Little Lies, are also having to prove themselves again on TV. We have to be surprised by how good they are every time.
Yeah, and men don’t have to do that as much. It’s not fair. As men get older, their wives get younger on film and movies. That doesn’t happen in real life.
In female-led projects like Feud and Burlesque and The Devil Wears Prada, you’ve carved out of kind of a Stanley Tucci role as the adviser. I guess it’s much darker in Feud, but is that a kind of character you always find yourself interested in?
I don’t know. It just seems to keep happening. I don’t know why. I can’t figure it out. But I’m glad. They’re nice roles.
And you get to work with great actresses
I know, I’m very lucky, to be able to work with Susan and work with Jessica or Cher or Meryl or, you know … It’s fantastic.
On a totally different note, what was it like to play a piano in Beauty and the Beast?
It was so much fun to work with Emma Watson and Ewan McGregor, whom I have not seen for a while. It was one of those very rare experiences where you go and you all work for like a week and you just have a great time.
Finally, Ryan Murphy, has built this troupe of actors on TV, with Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson and more, where he calls on them for many different projects. Have you thought about continuing on in the Ryan Murphy universe?
Oh, I don’t know, that’s up to Ryan [laughs]. I’d like to, doing something like Feud is really fun. I mean, I live in London so that’s kind of tough.
But, I guess, if there’s another great script?
I might have to get on a plane.
This interview has been edited and condensed.