Amanda Peet on Tackling the Academic Patriarchy in Rom-Com ‘The Chair’

·10-min read

Amanda Peet has been a staple on television screens since the mid-1990s, most recently seen as the eponymous character in “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story.” But for the first time in her career, she has stepped behind the scenes to co-create and run a series. “The Chair,” bowing Aug. 20 on Netflix, stars Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon, the titular head of a small university’s English department, while Jay Duplass is Bill, a grieving professor who comes under fire for an offensive gesture caught on camera. Their relationship is complicated not only by her becoming the boss, but also by calls for his cancelation.

“The Chair” deals in some themes that we’re seeing play out in a number of industries right now, including entertainment — from agism to people of color being undervalued at work to calls for a person’s cancelation. You have such a history in this industry, but you set your show in the world of academia. What inspired that?

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I really wanted to write a romantic comedy, and I was working on this movie idea for Jay Duplass about a widower who was just coming back to life, but I was also interested in writing about a female supervisor who is very close allies with a colleague who transgresses. They were separate ideas in my head and then I started thinking about what’s going on on campuses these days and the generational tension — I loved this idea of having young idealists and then people whose idealism had softened and then older folks who once thought of themselves as progressive but are now just seen as part of the system, part of the white patriarchy. I thought that could be really rich territory for a workplace comedy. So, the bigger idea was the tension in the Academy but then the smaller idea was, “What if you were someone’s boss…?” I wanted to put Ji-Yoon in an impossible position. She loves this man and in fact he’s proven to be her stalwart ally over the course of may years and then he just makes a mistake. And I wanted to make it very hard for her to condemn him because of her sense of loyalty to him and her belief that he is a person of decency.

Which is certainly nuanced but also complicated, given the intricacies of that world. What was your research process like, especially given such specific story area as how women — and Black women specifically — are treated when it comes to tenure?

I just started calling people. [Laughs.] I just wanted to put my toe in the water and see if I felt like I could tackle it. I’m sure I’m riddled with my own intellectual insecurities and so writing about the Academy was definitely intimidating. But the more I got into it, the more these professors were telling me, “This is a soap opera.” So, the more people I spoke to, the more it seemed like it could be rich with possibility. Beyond what I was reading in the headlines, there were a lot of professors who wanted to speak about their experiences — experiences as women getting tenure, experiences with students, experiences in schools that are very old-fashioned still.

There is also some commentary on the importance of celebrity culture and needing them to get people to pay attention in the show. How personal was the inspiration behind that? And secondarily, what made David Duchovny perfect person for this subplot?

I was inspired by William Hurt’s character from the movie “Broadcast News.” I like that Holly Hunter can’t quite bring herself to dismiss him even though he’s beneath her.

No other actors have David’s academic credentials. I needed a middle aged white man — and I wanted a real Ivy Leaguer — who has no idea that it’s time to sit down and be quiet. One of the hardest moments of my career was when I called David Duchovny to ask him to wear the red speedo. I practiced a few times beforehand — I think I was trembling. I felt like a creepy director asking a starlet to take her top off. But he said yes right away. I guess if my body were that gorgeous I’d be sitting around waiting for someone to ask me to put on a bikini. At first, we were going to have Ji-Yoon and David riff about how he got the red speedo out of The Smithsonian but we were on a tight schedule so we had to lose some dialogue. David puts the comedy above everything else — that’s probably why Garry Shandling loved him so much, among many reasons. When I re-watched them on “Larry Sanders” I fell on the floor. For me, they’re one of the great American comic duos. The fact that he came to Pittsburgh in the snow in the middle of the pandemic — I would take a bullet for him. As a token of my gratitude I tried to read his real dissertation from Yale. I didn’t understand one word of it.

Did you originally want to star in “The Chair,” as well?

When I start thinking about doing the role myself, I want to go off in tangents and have [the character] do an English accent or wear a corset for no reason or have a scene where she’s hysterically crying and then do heroin. I find I can’t get my ego out of it; I find I can’t get my desire to act up a storm out of it. And when I think about someone else, I’m able to write a better story.

So then once you realized this was not a vehicle for you, were you writing with specific actors in mind — specifically any who ended up in it?

In this case I did think about Sandra. I couldn’t think of anyone else who could do a pratfall and who could also be someone with a PhD in literature. I started thinking about her very early on because I saw her in “Stop Kiss” at the Public [Theater] in 1998, and ever since then, I thought she had a really exquisite combination of being really funny and also really emotional and, in particular, romantic. And I’m not going to name names but my best friend Sarah Paulson and I have this running thing about how there are certain actors and actresses who can’t play a romance because they don’t have longing.

I’m glad to hear someone else say that because I’ve said it before and been told, “Oh no, a love story is the easiest thing to play because we’ve all been in relationships.”

Oh no, with romance, there’s an opacity there [and certain people] are playing at it but I don’t really believe you have a crush on that person. And this is a chemistry piece. There’s this simmering attraction that’s a long-standing, unsaid thing. And I also loved that idea of the road not taken — if something, God forbid, happened to the person you love, who would be the candidate? We all have someone in our lives — our quote-unquote work husband or whatever. And I really loved that aspect — that both of them could have crazy dreams about each other and wake up and go, “Ew!” And then it was awakened when [Jay’s character’s wife] died and all of these latent feelings came up to the surface.

What was your timeline with this project, meaning did you find yourself writing in between takes a show on which you were acting?

I was knee-deep in writing and then Alexandra Cunningham called [about “Dirty John”] and so that was quite scary, but that was the only time that I was double-fisted. That sounds wrong, but you know what I mean. I started writing in college and I put it aside and never took myself seriously. Then when I started pitching different ideas to David [Benioff] when we were newly married, I think at some point, after telling me many, many times, “You can’t just write about your feelings, what’s the story?” eventually I had the idea and he said it was a good idea and that’s when I got serious and started buckling down.

These shows are steeped in feelings, and emotions are obviously driving characters, which drives plot, so how seriously did you take that advice?

I have to be deadly serious about it because it took me a long time to enjoy thinking about and plot narrative momentum. The mechanics of creating suspense is really interesting to me and is really important to me — but it wasn’t before. And so, most of the things that I love are, for me, page-turners — there’s an element of propulsion and an element of “I have to know what’s going to happen between these two people.” Even if it’s very subtle and emotional, I still can’t bear to not find out what happens. So that was something we talked a lot about with this show — how to make a romantic comedy that has momentum over the course of a season as opposed to just episodic. I wanted to put you in an impossible position and in order to do that I felt we had to start slowly and just crank it and crank it and crank it until she was truly — and this is such a cliché — between a rock and a hard place.

How did past series experience inform or inspire how you wanted to run “The Chair”?

[Executive producers] David [Beniof] and Dan [Weiss] are hands-on showrunners and they never left the set [of “Game of Thrones”], even in the last season. So the idea of being deeply in it was something that I guess I probably learned from them. I’m a born collaborator; I really love the idea of just getting in their with the actors — obviously I really love actors — and I think it’s an advantage that I’m not scared of them or overly-awed of them. Because we shot during COVID, there were times when I went over to Sandra and I said, “We have five minutes to shoot this, I’m not kidding, so just get together, get shoulder to shoulder and stand in the corner.”

When were you casting? Was it also during COVID, so you knew you needed actors who could be so quick on their feet?

No, we didn’t know that at the time. But I’d worked with Jay Duplass on “Togetherness” and I felt that we had that shorthand with each other and that intimacy with each other and he’s an expert director and producer on top of it. And Sandra comes from theater, so she gets the idea that it’s a single organism: the actors and crew, we all have to act like a company. Especially during COVID, that was vital. There were many times where I was like, “You guys, I’m very sorry but you have to stand right here in the light that we set up for the other scene before this and you have two takes, now go.”

With how hands-on you were here, did it give you the itch to go further and direct as well?

I don’t have the drive to do that the way I have the drive to write. Dan Longino [who directed “The Chair”] was a very, very special partner for me. He has a beautiful sensitivity with female stories, and he and I, I think, share a similar sense of what’s funny and also a similar sense of what’s fake. And there’s something so fucking exhausting when you don’t share that sensibility, so it was a very, very special meeting of the minds. And then when you add to that Jim Frohna, the DP, it was like the three of us were a trifecta.

Things you didn’t know about Amanda Peet:
Age: 49
Born: New York, N.Y.
Cause she most cares about: The Michael J. Fox Foundation
Last show she binge-watched: “Dave”
Series she’d want to revive: “Togetherness”

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