Adam Scott went home to film Big Little Lies in the Monterey Peninsula. The actor, who grew up in Santa Cruz, California, plays Ed, the husband to Reese Witherspoon’s wound-up Madeline. Scott got to grow a thick beard for the role, impersonate Elvis, and break some hearts with his devotion to a wife who often makes him feel like her second choice. Scott hopped on the phone with Vulture while walking his dogs in Los Angeles to talk about what attracted him to the role, working with Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallée, and that disgusting dinner-table barf scene.
We haven’t seen you in a dramatic role in a while. Why did you want to do this?
I had not read the book, and so I read the script over a weekend as if it were a page-turner of a novel. I had six of them. I did not have the final one, but I read them all quickly over a day and a half and just thought it had all these really rich characters and was addictive and fun, but also had this heartbreak. It’s kind of a hat trick to have that, because there’s this sense of fun to the whole affair, but then also there’s a melancholy to it that I think we all can relate to. It’s a really difficult thing to grab those two things at once. I immediately wanted to be a part of it, and I auditioned for Jean-Marc to get the part.
Did you audition for Ed? Is that who you wanted to play?
What struck you about him?
I thought Ed was a certainly interesting character, and there’s something sort of curious about Ed that I thought could be fun. A lot of that is [creator] David E. Kelley. In the book, Ed is just different. He’s the one I was drawn to.
He’s a really good guy who loves the hell out of his wife. But then he does some things that are a little off, like tell Bonnie that he loves sweaty women. What did you walk away with feeling about him in the end? Who is this guy?
I think that Ed might be the kind of guy who has a very deliberate plan for who he is and how he’s going to behave and be in his life, and how he’s going to fit into the world. He thinks he’s one of those people, but then you get into a situation, any given situation, and suddenly you have a couple balls in the air, and you start improvising, and you end up doing or saying things that you weren’t anticipating. I feel like Ed could be that kind of person.
What did you think when you got to that script, where he makes that comment to Nathan’s wife, Bonnie?
I think we all say things that, as it’s coming out, we’re not quite sure what we mean by it, you know?
You said that Ed is different than in the book. How so?
That’s a good question. I don’t want to potentially ruin anything.
The other actors I’ve interviewed spoke about how different it is to work with Jean-Marc. From my understanding, he doesn’t rehearse a lot. You’re pretty much in character from the moment you arrive, and filming just begins. What was your experience like?
I loved it. He and his director of photography, they don’t spend a lot of time lighting. They use whatever lamp happens to be in the room, or a ceiling light, or whatever’s available to them. It’s immediate, there’s no video village where there’s a bank of screens. He can shoot 360 degrees as it’s unfolding and really feel out where it’s going. So there’s a lot of room for spontaneity. And it’s a terrific way to work. The scenes, while we were shooting, felt really alive and intimate. And the intimacy is just inherent because while we’re shooting a scene, say with two people in it, there are the two actors, but then there’s Jean-Marc and Yves [Bélanger] holding a camera, or Jean-Marc holding a camera, and then a sound guy. There are only four or five people in the room. So there isn’t this feeling of a lot of eyes on you. Which, you know, crews are professional and you don’t really tend to worry about eyes on you anyway, because all the crews I’ve worked with are terrific and professional. But there’s something about it being just a few people in the room, that it didn’t hit me until later, oh wow, that really felt small and intimate. It’s just a different feeling.
How was it for you not to rehearse? Was that a little unnerving or was that actually freeing?
I didn’t even notice that, to be honest. I guess I’m used to TV where we don’t really rehearse. You block it out and then you just start shooting. Like in TV and indie movies where you’re on a tight schedule, you don’t really have time to rehearse anyway. That was fine with me. I liked that, actually.
Was there anything you brought to the character that David didn’t write in the scripts? Like the beard?
Yeah, the beard was my idea. I guess I can take credit for that monster.
Why did you want him to have a beard?
Well, I grew up in Santa Cruz, which is really close to Monterey. I grew up looking across the bay at Monterey, right where the show takes place. It’s just a 20-minute drive. I felt like I knew him, this guy that works at home. I felt like he should have a beard and a fleece vest. And Jean-Marc was really cool and let me grow the beard. So there it is.
The house where Ed and Madeline live is actually in Malibu. What was it like in that beautiful home?
That was, as you can imagine, a lovely place to work. At lunch we would just go sit on the beach. You know that spot where Reese and I have a couple scenes, right near the ocean? That’s a great spot to sit and you could just fall asleep. It’s just perfect.
You mentioned the argument with Madeline. There were some really great scenes between you and Reese that were very serious and tough. What was it like working with Reese and filming that scene in Sunday night’s episode, where he’s just brutally honest about how he feels about their relationship?
I found working with Reese to be easy, breezy. There’s something extraordinary about working with someone who is that good. The transition between just being a person to acting is seamless, and it’s like watching a magic trick. So you just let go and go with that person. The whole thing just felt so easy and clicked into place. And that’s because she is so good and connected. You realize how lucky you are when you get to share a scene with someone like that.
In that conversation, Ed tells Madeline that the essence of marriage is sometimes the ability to pretend, and she seems kind of devastated by that. But when she starts to talk about having been a bad wife and making a mistake, he stops her. Does Ed know about the affair and has forgiven her or does he not want to know?
Well, I loved the ambiguity of it, you know? But I also think Ed’s clearly a smart, smart guy. And something he takes very seriously, as far as his role in the family, is keeping an eye on Madeline and dusting her off and making sure she’s ready for the world. And, through doing that, protecting her. Someone who’s keeping that close an eye isn’t going to miss something big. But, at the same time, you never know. You never know what exactly he’s talking about.
Let’s talk about the ill-fated dinner scene with the projectile vomit. So gross!
Yeah. It was really gross.
Was it at least over with quickly?
As far as I remember, that was all day. And it’s funny how even fake barf is disgusting. It doesn’t matter that it’s real or fake. It’s just a total bummer when barf is involved. I think it was Campbell’s soup or something? I actually don’t know. I don’t know about Campbell’s. But some sort of canned soup. I’ve barfed in movies before. It seems like it always ends up being Campbell’s soup mixed with something else.
Did you have any prior experience doing Elvis?
[Laughs.] No. No, I did not. And my apologies.
You were good! Did you have fun?
It was fun. That outfit is pretty incredible. It was embarrassing.
Was that your most embarrassing moment of the whole series?
I guess so. I’m trying to think. Embarrassment is sort of my resting space, so I’m trying to think what would be more embarrassing than that. I think it was just a matter of, we’re about to shoot that scene and I’m standing in the dark room waiting for Reese to walk in, and I belt it out in front of her and the crew and everything. It’s just that moment where you’re like, All right, I need to put embarrassment aside here if we’re going to do this properly. I’m a grown man; it’s going to be fine. Just do it. After one or two takes there was nothing else to be embarrassed about, so I could just go for it.
What can you hint about the finale? I haven’t read the book and I’m not looking for you to ruin anything.
It may not adhere totally to the book either. You never know. It’s an eventful finale, and questions are answered. I think that’s a solid, controversy-free way to leave it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.