The sixth episode of Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs is a story about misconduct. In “Bright and High Circle,” Diane Lane and Ron Livingston play a wealthy Los Angeles couple, Katherine and Alex, who learn that their sons’ piano teacher, David (Andrew Rannells), has been accused of some sort of vague, unspecified behavior with minors. Over the course of the episode, elements of David’s character slowly come into focus: He’s lied, often to exaggerate tragedy in his past or grandeur in his family line. He has sketchy friends. But the more Katherine investigates David’s life, the more it seems that although he’s not perfect, he also hasn’t done anything to suggest he’s a threat to her children.
As “Bright and High Circle” moves into its final act, the episode becomes less about David and more about the abstract injustice of false accusations, culminating in an impassioned speech from Alex about the cruelty of letting any kind of accusation ruin relationships. Seen in the light of former Mad Man writer Kater Gordon’s accusations against Weiner — Gordon alleged that the showrunner said she “owed” it to him to get naked, in an incident he has repeatedly said he doesn’t remember — the episode will likely be read as a response to Weiner’s own experience with being accused of misconduct. Ahead of the episode’s airing, Vulture spoke to Rannells about his character’s complicated ethical standing, the choices that went into that ambiguous final scene, and his interpretation of the message behind the story.
Tell me about how you prepared to shoot this episode. When did you get the script? When did you shoot it?
I got the script a few months before we started shooting. Matt [Weiner] had offered me the role and he told me the concept of the entire series, but I did not get to read any of other episodes or know about them until they ran, so it was all very mysterious and very exciting. We shot this last January here in Los Angeles. The biggest chunk of prep I had was that I’m playing a piano teacher, but I, Andrew Rannells, do not play the piano.
Yeah, not my first time having to fake a musical instrument. But they were able to hire a really fantastic coach that gave me the basic Cliffs Notes version of how to look as non-fake as possible. So on top of the acting and the storytelling, that added an extra level of danger. But hopefully it all turned out.
When somebody plays piano and it looks fake, it’s terrible. I think you do fantastic job.
I kept saying to Matt, ”I can’t look like Susan Dey in The Partridge Family. I can’t have that happen, that can’t be it.” I’m glad that it came out okay.
When you first read the episode, what did you think of it?
I have to say that it took me a second and even a third read to really digest all the emotional twists and turns of these characters, particularly of mine. Where he’s coming from, where he ends, and how Katherine [played by Diane Lane] relates to him. I was excited by the challenge of playing someone who was hiding so much — or potentially hiding so much. It was a lot of layers to sort through, which was exciting. And on a purely selfish level, I was really excited to work with Diane Lane.
Did you talk with Matthew Weiner about who the character is and what kind of person he’s supposed to be?
There were two things: [David] can be mysterious and possibly a liar — or maybe exaggerator is more generous — but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s done anything terribly wrong. So it was finding a balance of being a guy who is maybe a little shady in a lot of ways, but is quite possibly still not a bad guy. I was interested in figuring out things like, why would you exaggerate something like this? Why would you make up little details about your past? For me, they’re all stemmed from insecurity. Things that, you know, I was certainly guilty of that when I was a kid. You would maybe exaggerate a vacation or toy you got. And for a lot of adults, that continues into adulthood. I was really intrigued by playing somebody who felt the need to do that — huge elaborate stories that he’d come up with in order to feel like he belonged in this community.
In the end, they accept you back into the family and you have a piano lesson with the youngest kid. And then Diane Lane’s character closes the door on the both of you. How do you interpret that ending?
This is really a question for Diane, but my feeling was that [her character] did her due diligence in hearing out what the validity of these claims were, and that at a certain point, you just have to trust that you’ve done enough and that everything is going to be okay. She decides, “I have not had any problems personally with this person. My kid does not have any problems with this person. Much the opposite — in fact, he likes this guy. So I guess that I just have to trust that it’s fine.” She does her own detective work, but in the end, you just have to trust your gut.
I love the whole tangent that Ron Livingston’s character goes on, the whole story about the kid that he was friends with [who was presenting herself as a boy]. It turns out the story was true! But did he still like the kid? It proves this point that, yes, the story can be true, but in that case, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything wrong with it. And the fact that, for my character, nobody really figures out what the rumor is, nobody really gets to the bottom of it, it’s a strange and very compelling story that Matt and Kriss [Tucker Towner, the episode’s co-writer] have put together.
One thing I noticed about that final scene is how you have your hand right behind where the boy is sitting, in a way that seems sinisterly close. I’d heard from other actors on The Romanoffs that Matthew Weiner can be very precise about exactly how everyone sits and moves and arranges themselves. How purposeful was he about that particular moment and how you’re sitting?
As we were filming it, I asked him if that would be too far if I put my hand there. The actual distance between my hand and where that child was sitting was pretty far, but in that shot it looks right on his back.
Right? So I asked if that would be too far, because in the story we’re telling, [my character] is completely unaware of all of these accusations and I don’t know that any of this has been happening behind my back. So it would just be business as usual for David. And there is a familiarity with these kids and a comfortableness with them, a comfort level that he has with this family. It’s not that I wanted to plant any sort of doubt in anyone’s mind about that character, but I think it was sort of an unawareness. He’s just being, you know, normal. Thanks for catching that! I wasn’t sure how it would play.
So we have the sense that the ending is ambiguous, but I feel like a lot of the audience is going to watch this episode in the light of the accusation that was made against Matt Weiner.
Rannells: Um …
PR representative: Chiming in here, sorry, just chiming in here. I wanna keep it solely just to the episode questions.
Okay, let me ask a different question then. One of the big messages of the episode is in this speech that Ron Livingston’s character gives about how damaging false accusations are. He says, “Bearing false witness is the worst crime that you commit.” Is that something you agree with? How do you think like that plays into the ending?
Well, I’ll be curious to see what the general reaction is to it. In my mind, it is very ambiguous, but I think that people — particularly parents of kids — will pick a side pretty quickly as to what they would do in that situation and whether or not what [Katherine] did was right. As I said, I think that David’s definitely got some demons that he’s chasing, but it doesn’t mean that he’s a bad guy. I love that there’s that scene between him and Katherine where he explains why he likes to teach. I love that Kriss and Matt included that speech in there, because it does give you a glimpse into why he does feel so insecure and feels like he needs to tell these stories. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just a little confused and very insecure, and unfortunately that all plays into this story. Again, I’ll be very curious to see how this lands with viewers.