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The Chair Gave Holland Taylor a Crash Course in Chaucer

Holland Taylor. Photo: Toni Anne Barson/WireImage

This interview discusses the events of the finale of The Chair. Be aware!

Every college English department needs a medieval-studies professor who’s just so excited to tell you about all the fart jokes in Chaucer. On Netflix’s The Chair, that crucial role is filled by Holland Taylor’s Joan Hambling, who has been with the fictional Pembroke University for several decades, and acts as a friend and mentor to Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon Kim. Things get more complicated once Ji-Yoon becomes the chair of their department, however. The university sees Joan as a dead weight, given that her enrollments are low and her student evaluations are terrible, which puts the two of them at odds. Plus, Ji-Yoon’s relationship drama distracts her from helping Joan get out from the new tiny office in the gym where she’s been reassigned.

By the end of the season, however, things end up breaking in Joan’s favor, when a group of professors from the department’s old guard vote out Ji-Yoon, and then, at Ji-Yoon’s suggestion, vote in Joan. That was a twist that thrilled Holland Taylor, who told Vulture that she played Joan as a woman who realizes she “has no fucks left to give.” Over the phone, Taylor discussed learning about Chaucer for the part, the “Kafkaesque” experience of filming in the midst of the pandemic, and her other professor roles.

First of all, you’re playing an expert in Chaucer. How familiar were you with Chaucer before going into the role?
Not at all. I did nothing with medieval studies when I was in school. Just trying to read passages from Chaucer was challenging. Of course, Joan says, “you just sort of feel your way into it and soon enough it feels natural to you.” Well, not to me! I have a friend Jack O’Brien, a wonderful Broadway director, who still can recite those first lines from the introduction.

I had to memorize that too! It was one of our requirements when I was an English major. The whole “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote.”
We filmed a little bit of me teaching it but it didn’t end up in the show. I guess it’s 18 lines and everybody had to learn it. Not everybody can retain it. Do you have it retained?

I could try, I feel like I would stumble somewhere in the “smale fowles maken melodye.”
Jack O’Brien can spin right through it, and what’s more, he sounds like a monk from the 16th century. I never really got a good handle on it at all. But I am an actress, remember, so.

Did you have consultants from the academic world that were helping on that?
Amanda Peet is very well-educated herself and had a number of professor friends she consulted throughout her writing and preparations for it. I doubt that anybody from the academic world will fault much about this show. There’s also the sociological feel of what the professors are like together. I think it’s very fun to see a show that takes place in a world that’s a microcosm of a larger world. You see the generations: the elders, the middle-aged people who are still solving life’s problems and dealing with life issues, and then the kids, who are a different species altogether. It’s a very fun world, though I was not all that interested in academia when I was in college.

Speaking of that group of elders, it’s interesting to see you and Bob Balaban and the other older professors as these people who thought they were comfortable, but suddenly feel under threat due to the budget cuts.
Well, in America, I don’t think elders are particularly respected or sought after for their wisdom, or honored or protected, in a way. They’re put aside, like, “we should take care of grandma and grandpa.” But some of the greatest intellectuals were teeming with intellectual vitality well into their 80s. You can’t discount them — and the great stars aren’t [discounted] — but for the most part the assumption is just that you’re all done. Other cultures do not feel that way. So it’s very sad. And as an elder, I’ve been very fortunate in my show-business life in that I haven’t been put aside.

I do love the moment where Joan snaps and shouts at a student about how The Canterbury Tales is full of farting, shitting, and pubic hair. It nails what a lot of medieval-literature professors are like. They love the raunchiness.
It’s trying to get away from the idea that it’s just romantic and airy. It’s very visceral. It’s a fleshy, evocative representation of life. It’s messages from 500 years ago, and what social life was like, what communication was like. It’s fascinating.

How did you think about playing Joan’s dynamic with Sandra Oh’s character Ji-Yoon? There’s a close friendship between them as colleagues, that suddenly gets shifted when Ji-Yoon becomes the chair.
Joan is caught up in a very microscopic view of her own dilemma, and she does feel abandoned by Ji-Yoon. She goes along with it, until the moment where the actual reality of taking a vote of confidence against her [as happens at the end of the season] becomes an unbearable thing to do, because of her friendship with her goes beyond that political move. Joan is in between a rock and hard place, in that she’s been the author of her own marginal place in the university, in a way, and has to accept that she didn’t have the wherewithal to fight some of the things that sidelined her during her career.

Have you seen the whole thing?

Yes, and I wanted to ask you about the ending!
The ending is quite wonderful, I think.

What did you think of the twist that Joan ends up becoming the new chair of the department?
Well, I’m a literal person, and I thought there was a wonderful redemptive quality to it, and a reward. But by the same token, the chair’s job is not really academic, it’s also practical, and political and human. That’s the kind of thing she’s been doing throughout her career, having to handle people arrangements, and things that the department needs to do. In a sense, she’s rather equipped to be chair. It also gives her agency. How long she might have it, who knows, but we all need a certain machinery to exercise our talents and ability, and she has a position and a job to do, which will exercise her fully, and that has to be wonderful for her to experience.

The show also outlines how Joan had to do a lot of the administrative work coming up in academia, because the men would sideline her, so in a way, she’s built those skills that way.
Probably everyone in that room who would vote said, “Oh, Joan will be a great chair. She knows how to do all that other shit!”

Do you have things you would like to see her confront in a second season of the show, if there is one?
I haven’t daydreamed about that. I consider it imprudent in show business to daydream ahead into anything.

But it was a very deft thing for Amanda to write. Amanda as a writer is really extraordinary. I know her other writing. I’ve seen a couple of her plays and read one rather closely. And the thing that’s remarkable about her writing is that it sometimes seems like a transcription of real life. It’s like overheard conversations. When I read the scripts, I just thought, “Oh, I can’t wait to do this.”

Did she approach you for the part? How did you first get involved?
I actually know that someone else had the part, and then because of COVID health considerations in traveling to Pittsburgh, the person had to respectfully withdraw. It was rather late, close to the production time, and Amanda and I are friends, and she just offered it to me.

What was it like to film it in Pittsburgh? It seems like you were there in the middle of the winter.
It was the absolute height of the pandemic, and it was Kafkaesque. Very frightening, to me anyway. The hotel was a first-class hotel, but did not have an operating kitchen because they had so few guests. So I had to get food from the restaurants that were open. You were scuttling along in the dark, huddling against freezing buildings to get takeout dinners. It was a very weird experience. The beauty of it was that with all the fear and discomfort and stress, none of that was anywhere near my consciousness. It was wonderful to be at work and do that work and be engaged in the problem-solving that acting is. So it was joyous at work, and I discovered what a sweet balm it is to be involved in something creative. It took me away from the larger grotesquerie of what we were going through.

I think people will probably see you playing a professor and think about your law professor in Legally Blonde. Do you think of playing professors as a type in your wheelhouse?
Well, the Legally Blonde professor is standing on a structure, which is law. It is not the same thing at all. Joan is a specialist in a tiny little field, which opens an eye on all of humanity, but there’s not a structure. The Legally Blonde professor is like a giant standing on a mountain, and Joan is like a butterfly. There’s a certain delicacy and frailty and vulnerability to her. Amanda gave me a key in saying that Joan’s less and less edited. She has no fucks left to give. She’s lost so much, and is jumping from stone to stone in a roaring brook. She knows she’s vulnerable, and she’s just moving ahead, as we all have to do.

I was going through your filmography to see if there were other professor roles to bring up, and I noticed you played a dean in the college edition of Saved by the Bell. Do you have any memories of that?
Very few. I don’t think there was much that was academic in the subject matter of that — I was just an authority figure. It was right after I did this fantastic show for Norman Lear called Powers That Be. The network didn’t really understand what they had on their hands, and it did not have a long life, much to everyone’s sorrow. It was a wonderful satire. But jobs come and you go, “well, I need this job,” even if it seems very much out of character. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t have much psychological connection with it. It was a teen show. I couldn’t have been in a teen show when I was a teen. I don’t have the vibe.

The Chair Gave Holland Taylor a Crash Course in Chaucer