Emmy Watch: Nathan Lane on inventing a backstory for his 'Good Wife' character

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Image Credit: Jeffrey Neira/CBS

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, EW.com will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.

The Good Wife is known for its superb Rolodex of guest stars, but in the same vein, the writers like to infuriate us with characters we love to hate. See: Michael J. Fox’s Louis Canning, Matthew Perry’s Mike Kresteva, or Martha Plimpton’s Patti Nyholm. Joining their ranks for season 4 was the Tony- and Emmy-winning Nathan Lane, who appeared in nine episodes as number-crunching trustee Clarke Hayden. Even Lane himself isn’t so sure what to think of his character.

“I think he’s sort of a damaged soul, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on,” Lane says of his character. “One of the nicest compliments I would get very often on the street is people would say, ‘I love you on The Good Wife. I just can’t tell whether I should like you or hate you!'” Here, Lane talks about signing on for the role — which almost went to someone else — and building a backstory to better understand his character.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you end up joining the show?
NATHAN LANE: It was a last-minute thing that came up. I had just come back from Chicago where I had done The Iceman Cometh, and about a week after I’d been back they called. I think someone else was supposed to do it, and at the last minute said no. I really only had a couple of days to decide and then they were going to start shooting. I had been asked once before to be on, and I couldn’t do it due to a conflict. I regretted it because I just loved the writing they do. So even though I was tired and looking forward to taking time off, I said yes. I just thought it would be a wonderful experience, which is what it turned out to be.

What did you know about the character when you signed on?
I didn’t know anything. I just read the first script, and it was obvious that it would be interesting for me because he was a rather cryptic gentleman.

He’s not the type of character you’re really known for playing, is he?
Oh, yes. All of that was intriguing. I had a brief conversation with [co-creators] Robert and Michelle King, and then we just started shooting. Along the way, they would sort of leave me little clues as to what was going on with him. And then, I just sort of started to form my own little backstory for myself about Clarke Hayden.

What kind of backstory?
Initially, it’s obvious that he can’t get emotionally involved and become too friendly with people because of the nature of his job. And it’s interesting what he says and what he doesn’t say. He can also be manipulative at times. I think just psychologically he’s trying to figure out what’s really going on with the other people. Eventually, there was something he said in an episode to Rita Wilson’s character where he said, “Why can’t people just say what they mean?” It was sort of a revealing moment he has with her. I just decided for myself that he had done some bad things in the past. He sort of abandoned his first love, which, ironically, was the law. He never took the bar. He was really good with numbers, so he got into accounting. I think he rose at some corporation. I think he was asked to do things he probably thought were not quite legal. I think he became very successful and the things he did were never caught. He never had to go to jail; he was never punished. But I always felt that it was some sort of karmic punishment in that the more successful and the more wealthy he became, the further away he grew from his family. He had a wife who left him. He had a son who got involved with drugs and died of an overdose. These are things just for myself. The reason I found that the only person he kind of warmed to over the long haul was Matt Czuchry’s character [Cary] because he sort of reminded him of his son.

People really couldn’t decide whether to love him or hate him, could they?
Americans aren’t crazy about ambiguity. [Laughs] But I think that’s sort of what makes him intriguing. I think what he’s doing now is sort of making up for what he did in the past. He does like helping people. He does like figuring things out. He is a numbers guy. That’s what rules his life in a way. So it’s surprising when he does have a vulnerable moment or express something more personal. It’s an interesting thing to play.

Do any of your scenes particularly stand out to you as memorable?
There were many, but I think that my favorite scene was in the very first episode with Zach Grenier [who plays David Lee] because you don’t quite know where it’s going. [Laughs] Clarke’s questioning him, and then eventually he blackmails him into staying. He screws him over because he doesn’t like the way he’s behaving. I found that very interesting. He becomes very moralistic for a second, and I believe he says, “I don’t like people who quit.” I’ve worked with Zach, and he’s such a wonderful actor. People have noticed this, but it’s a tribute to the writing of Robert and Michelle [King] and the entire staff. It’s really, really great stuff to work on.

So will we be seeing more of Clarke Hayden in season 5?
I’ve been told it’s being discussed, and they would like me to come back. They’re trying to figure out how that would figure into the story that they’re coming up with.

Follow Breia on Twitter.

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