Curing what ails you
This piece originally appeared on AOL.com.
I have a crush on Blair Underwood. This isn’t a particularly important or even original statement, however. He was named one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 2000 and played one of the many heartthrobs on Sex and the City. He has a versatile Hollywood career, appearing in everything from Dirty Sexy Money to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' The New Adventures of Old Christine to TMN's stark new drama In Treatment, but he never fails to look unbelievably good.
Underwood (who is immensely dedicated to his wife of 13 years and his three children) has a calm and irresistible charisma about him. As I wait my turn to interview the movie star/television actor/author/director (he makes his feature directorial debut later this year with The Bridge to Nowhere), I notice that all the women around me have crushes on him too.
“Well, he’s just so nice!” Exclaims one. Another writer gushes, “He asked all about my computer.” The next woman that emerges from the interview room declares: “Anyone who says I look like I couldn’t possibly have kids is okay in my books!”
I meet Underwood in a dimly lit theatre to talk about In Treatment. His demeanour is that of a man who is confident but not cocky, accomplished but not pretentious.
“Money and fame just exacerbate who you are,” Underwood says. “Don Johnson said that years ago. He said, 'I’ve always been a jerk, now I just have a chance to be a bigger one,' ” he says. “I find that to be true. If you love helping people, money gives you an opportunity to do more of that. If you’re a miser, you have an opportunity to hide from the world.”
The actor wears jeans (which I recognize from the promo shots on his extensive website), a t-shirt and a blazer. We delve into his most interesting role in recent years: in In Treatment he plays Alex, a Navy pilot who doesn’t believe in therapy, but seeks it nonetheless. Underwood, who grew up as an army brat, drew on his father’s military career for the part.
“I definitely understand the sense of duty that Alex wears on his sleeve," he says. "He’s protecting something much deeper – he feels weak if he’s out of control. His approach to this process is to confront and poke holes in the process and the doctor, because he has such disdain for it. But he keeps coming back.”
Alex’s character represents the throngs of people who don’t believe in therapy, who are perhaps now a minority in today’s self-help obsessed therapy-seeking culture. Underwood, who sits comfortably in his fold-down theatre chair (“We can stretch out,” he tells me when I sit down), waxes poetic on why we are so obsessed with therapy.
“I’ve never been to therapy, but I would go,” he says. “We live in such a high-pressure society, trying to do so many things, trying to be so many things to so many people. We’re on call 24/7 and it builds stress. People need ways to alleviate stress. Sometimes it just comes down to talking, not necessarily getting answers, but venting.”
Our obsession with therapy is nothing new–it’s been building for years, as Underwood is quick to point out, citing Oprah’s neo-spirituality as an example. But there is nothing neo about In Treatment. The show spends the entirety of its episodes in actual real-time therapy sessions, delving into the private thoughts of people in turmoil. The structure of the show is that of a one act play, making it feel like theatre. It shows daily on TMN, every day of the week a new session, ending on the main character’s session with his own therapist.
Gabriel Byrne stars as Paul, the therapist in each episode, who is weathering the break up of his own marriage. Byrne’s depiction of a man genuinely affected by his patient’s problems is sometimes uncomfortable to watch, but always authentic. “I love the fact that the show is risky,” Underwood says of the unusual format. “It’s accessible, you can watch on demand, so that helps. For some, it’s not their cup of tea, which is fine, but most people will watch it and want to see where it’s going.”
As our interview comes to an end, Underwood says, “That’s it?” So I ask one more question, perhaps the main thing driving people go to therapy: What’s the meaning of life? “It is to push yourself to the limit," he says, "to experience everything that God has for you to experience, to fail as often as possible, through challenging yourself. To learn from your mistakes, to grow closer to that higher power that some call God.”
'In Treatment' premieres January 28 at 8:30 p.m. ET on The Movie Network and 9:30 p.m. PT on Movie Central.