As The Bear’s lovable Pete, Chris Witaske has a thankless role. The husband of Abby Elliott’s Natalie is a bit of a clueless chipmunk caught within the tortured and twisted branches of the Berzatto family tree, and as a result tends to catch the brunt of the family’s insults, whether at Christmas dinner, when he brings a very ill-conceived tuna casserole to the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or in passing at the restaurant.
And yet it’s Pete who gets one of the most pivotal scenes of the season-two finale, pleading with a tearful Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis) to attend the restaurant’s soft opening, and it’s Pete who keeps Natalie grounded as she hurtles between clogged toilets and kitchen disasters. In fact, Pete loves his wife so much that Witaske says the tears he shed in the finale were on her behalf: “Seeing his wife and really feeling how much he loves her and how much pain she has gone through in her life, I think it finally just comes out of him.”
You’re in two of the most crucial episodes of The Bear this season. Let’s talk first about “Fishes,” the cameo-packed flashback episode. When did you know what that was going to be?
I didn’t know until I got the call that I was going back to Chicago. I read the script and couldn’t fucking believe it. In Final Draft, there’s a thing called dual dialogue, where two lines are written side by side because they’re delivered on top of each other, and there was so much fucking dual dialogue in that script that I had to take breaks while I was reading it because it was overwhelming.
What was great was that the last line in the script, after all that shit goes down, wasn’t even a line of dialogue. It just said, “Merry Christmas.”
Figuring out the rhythm of all that dialogue had to be a challenge.
We were filming at some house on Chicago’s North Shore. Chris [Storer, The Bear’s creator and co-showrunner] really just trusts everybody. We walked into that dining room and he sat everyone around, and then we ran through it a couple of times, and that was it. Everyone in that room was such a pro and everybody trusts each other, and so it kind of happened naturally. That day was insane, I was sitting at that table with all these huge names. Bob Odenkirk’s wife is my manager, and he’s kind of been my mentor for a long time, and so having him there was really cool for me.
They work really quick on this show. We’ll film for a little bit, and then Chris will be like, “Okay, we got it.” And I’m like, “We got it? For real?” He knows what he wants and has this really clear vision. It’s like no show I’ve ever worked on. He hires the best people possible and trusts the actors, and that’s it.
I suppose it’s good you didn’t have to run through that scene for hours on end. That feels like it would be emotionally exhausting.
You could feel this palpable tension in the room and the toxicity coming from this fucked-up family. I got to sit right next to Jon Bernthal, who plays Mikey, that whole day and, man, that was like watching a fucking master class in acting. The intensity and the full commitment that that dude brings was wild to watch.
When did you know who else was going to be in the episode? Did you just walk into the makeup trailer and see Sarah Paulson?
Probably a couple of weeks before. They really wanted to keep it under wraps, but Abby Elliott and I text. She was like, “Hey, don’t tell anybody, but here’s some of the people that are gonna be in this episode.” I couldn’t even picture it when she said Bob Odenkirk and John Mulaney. I couldn’t imagine it until I was sitting in that room, and then it was like, Oh, I totally see it now.
What do you think Pete’s relationship is to the family? It’s pretty clear they give him a hard time, but why do you think he keeps trying? Is it for Natalie, or is it something he needs for himself?
They clearly view him as an outsider or someone who wasn’t grown in the same soil of generational trauma that they were. I assume that Pete probably grew up in the suburbs and is a business guy, and so it’s easy for them to paint him as this loser.
I’ve always imagined that he went to the University of Illinois, where he was in a just okay fraternity, and that he either met Natalie there or at some bar in Wrigleyville, where she was dragged by friends.
Totally. I think he genuinely has a good heart and loves Sugar, but he’s a fish out of water when he’s thrust into these environments with the family. He desperately wants to connect and fit in, but they don’t give him a fucking chance.
I really relate to Pete. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and went to the University of Iowa and was in a fraternity. Pete is really bullied, and I was actually bullied pretty bad growing up, and I know what that can do to a person. I also think Pete is a bit of an empath. Not to get too deep, but he can see how much pain Sugar is in and he really feels it. In that scene with Donna, he can really see into her soul and he sees how much pain she’s in. He just doesn’t know how to help her, but he wants to.
Well, let’s talk about that scene in the finale, then. What do you think is really going on with Donna? It sort of feels like she’s an onion of issues, because sure, she drinks, but what’s that masking? How was she explained to you?
She’s an addict who plays the victim. She thinks everybody is out to get her and everything is a slight on her. A lot of times, that’s how alcoholics act. They blame everybody else but themselves for everything. She has a ton of resentment and a ton of pain, though.
I think that we’ve gotten little hints about the dad too, but we don’t totally know. And, I mean, there’s that line where she’s like, “I’m going to go upstairs and get Dad’s gun out of the drawer and blow my brains out.”
Why do you think Sugar didn’t tell her mom she was pregnant?
Sugar clearly wants to put an end to that generational trauma. That’s probably also why she chose Pete as a partner, because he’s more stable and emotionally available and not as crazy. She desperately wants to give her unborn kid a different life than she had, because she knows how painful it is to come up like that. But also, she probably has a lot of buried resentment toward her mom, and anger and so much pain. That final look Abby gives at the very end of the episode, oh my God, it just crushes me.
But, yeah, to not fucking tell your mom that you’re pregnant? I mean, holy shit.
We don’t really know what their relationship is. Does Natalie talk to her every week, or does she just call on holidays? That kind of huge news can feel weirdly hard to drop.
When we see Donna in the final episode, she’s clearly the same as she was five years ago. She’s still smoking cigs, and she’s very clearly an addict. I think that maybe Sugar got to a point where she was fed up and said, “If you’re not going to fucking make an effort to change, then maybe I don’t want you in my life.” It’s so heartbreaking.
How was working with Jamie Lee Curtis as a scene partner?
Surreal and a thrill. Here’s this person who I grew up watching and the last time I saw her on TV, she was on stage accepting an Oscar. When they told me that I was going to be doing a big scene with her in the final episode, my first instinct was like, “Are you sure?” And then I read it and it all kind of made sense to me.
The writing is so fucking brilliant. To have a scene with the most toxic character and the sweetest, most kindhearted person? It was a thrill. I was scared shitless, but she was so giving and supportive and there in the moment when we were doing that scene.
Were you just doing your scene on Orleans Street at like two in the morning, crying?
You know, that’s what I thought was gonna happen, but we actually shot that on a soundstage. That’s a little movie magic for you. We probably got that scene in, I want to say five takes? Which, again, was one of those moments where Chris was like, “All right, we got it,” and I’m like, “Are you sure?”
Why does Pete cry? Is he sad Donna didn’t come in? Is he sad for Natalie? Does he finally get Donna? Is he feeling her pain?
He’s feeling not only Donna’s pain that he just experienced outside but also his wife’s pain, because Pete is a fucking fly on the wall for this family. You saw it at Christmas. He sees this toxicity, he sees this dysfunction, and I think at that point he just couldn’t keep it in anymore. After that experience with Donna, seeing his wife and really feeling how much he loves her and how much pain she has gone through in her life, I think it finally just comes out of him.
So many shows have tried and failed to get Chicago or even just the Midwest right and fall way short. The Bear seems to have nailed at least one of the many different lived experiences of Chicago. What about the show says “Chicago” to you, other than the setting?
I lived in Chicago for ten years after college and in my heart will always be in that city. It’s my favorite place in the world. I think that The Bear shows the beauty of the city, like in those drone shots with that Bruce Hornsby song. I teared up watching that, because I think they really captured it.
I also think they really capture how in Chicago you’re all on top of each other all the time. It creates these really strong bonds of friendship and family. I always talk about how, in L.A., if you want to see your friends you have to make plans and then stick to the plans and then drive 30 minutes. In Chicago, you walk down the street and see half your friend group and then go into a bar and everybody else is there. It’s a tighter-knit community.
Last question: Are there dishes you have to eat when you go to Chicago, or restaurants you have to visit every single time, no matter what?
My No. 1 is this greasy spoon diner called S&G Restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. It’s owned by this Greek family and it’s been in business for years and years. There’s really nothing that’s special about it, but they have like 30 different breakfast skillets on the menu and all the servers are part of this family. They’re all screaming at each other. There’s a long counter at the front, too, where everybody sits next to each other. You’ll see a cop sitting next to a school crossing guard who’s sitting next to a nun.
I also always go to the Athenian Room, which is this Greek place on Webster, because they have this chicken dish. I think it’s Tina Fey’s favorite chicken dish, too. Oh, and I’ve got to mention that my favorite pizza is Pizano’s. It’s also Oprah’s favorite, so we have something in common.
As an ex-Chicagoan, I was super pleased that Pequod’s got that shout-out in “Forks,” but I couldn’t believe the chef cut the crust off. That’s the best part!
I know. I think a lot of Chicago people cringed when they saw that.
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