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When we last left the hot-shot plastic surgeons of FX’s Nip/Tuck in October, Sean (Dylan Walsh) was mending another victim of the Carver — that highly creepy, plastic-surgery-hating serial slasher who played such a large role in the second-season cliff-hanger — while a very paralyzed Christian (Julian McMahon) was about to become one. On a recent visit to the show’s Los Angeles set, however, there is no sign of the Carver: Walsh is prepping to overhaul someone’s face, while McMahon and costar Kelly Carlson (who plays Christian’s feisty frequent bedmate Kimber) run through some atypically tender dialogue. Despite the calm surroundings, the actors’ fear of the Dresden-mask-wearing, knife-wielding psychopath is still palpable.
”They’re all terrified they are the Carver,” laughs creator Ryan Murphy. ”Everyone has come to me, closed the door, and asked if he or she was it. The show has been set up where any one of them could be the Carver, which is the fun of a whodunit.”
Fun is an understatement. With its fraught love triangles, so-crazy-they-must-be-true plastic-surgery cases (indeed they all are, says Murphy, from the male patient who wants breasts to a female genitalia reconstruction), absurdist story arcs (we’re still agape over Famke Janssen’s Crying Game turn as a transgender life coach last season), its boundary-pushing sexuality, and its parade of unexpected guest stars (everyone from Joan Rivers to Alec Baldwin to Emmy nominee Jill Clayburgh), Nip/Tuck has solidified itself as the frothiest, wildest soap on TV. And it’s got the ratings to show for it: The killer finale attracted an FX record 5.2 million viewers, and the show was the most popular basic-cable series among adults 18-49 last year.
In preparation for the drama’s third-season premiere (Sept. 20 at 10 p.m.), we grilled Murphy and the cast about the Carver, who’s coming and going from the Miami plastic-surgery office of McNamara/Troy, and whether the sexually charged drama is guilty of going too far (back to you, Famke!).
Dr. Sean McNamara
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s it like playing Sean?
DYLAN WALSH (above left, pictured with season 3 costar Bruno Campos): I feel like he’s ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He takes such a moral stance sometimes and then turns around five minutes later and is just as wrong as Christian. I watch him and cringe but also am thankful because that’s what brings the show home.
Does the series ever go too far?
It’s such a heightened reality. Let’s face it — it’s not like ER. Our reality is way over the top from the first frame, and then each story line kind of culminates in a season finale every week. That would be dangerous on any other show, but this is why I’m proud of ours. We’re relentless.
Are you surprised by how much actually gets on the air?
I was particularly surprised with the conjoined-twins episode [in which Sean and Christian share a prostitute]. I really tipped my hat to FX to have the nerve to show it. Ryan operates from such a boundless imaginary place, but to actually broadcast this stuff shows courage in today’s political environment. We are going further this year; I hope we don’t get any sense of having to pull back.
How awkward was it shooting that sex scene with the Kimber doll?
I cringed, of course. It’s not just 4 million people watching on a Tuesday night, it’s also shooting in front of a crew of 30 or 40 people. We needed something outrageous for Sean so he could play through his angst. Normally on Nip/Tuck we joke about everything to keep our sanity, but this was too unsettling.
Can you imagine ever doing this show without Ryan Murphy?
I have to say yes, only because I wouldn’t want the show to end — though it would be different. My fear is whether [the next exec producer] would have enough nerve. Ryan’s the one who had it all along. He can write a great husband-and-wife scene in the kitchen and can turn around and write black humor that’s scathing. I don’t know anybody else who can do both so well.
Plastic surgery: Pro or con?
If it’s something that’s not going to be life-threatening and will make someone feel better — sure, but those are such hazy guidelines. And we’re still talking about surgery. I love the paradox — mixing violent surgery with the simple vain desire to look better. I love how the show stirs that up.
Who is the Carver?
Ryan changes his mind every minute. When we get the scripts we’re a little bit on edge because we know the show can go anywhere and you could be killed. He has even gone so far as to drop hints that it could be me. But I hope not. You don’t want to betray three years of a show that people thought was one thing and then suddenly becomes something else. That would be too bizarre.
BURNING QUESTION Will Sean forgive Julia for having Christian’s baby? It doesn’t really matter, as Julia is the one pursuing a divorce in the season opener. ”They have to come apart to get back together,” hints Murphy. ”If they do split up, I believe the audience will be rooting for them to get back together. But before he forgives her, he has to learn to forgive himself.” And that also involves his medical practice: This season, Sean has a come-to-Jesus moment about his career and contemplates whether to seek a new line of work.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you surprised that Christian was the Carver’s latest victim?
JOELY RICHARDSON: At the end of season 2, no one knew the real ending [until the day before we shot it]. We did think that someone was going to die, so everyone was nervously looking over their shoulders. No one expected the Carver would go for Julian. We thought it would be one of [the supporting actors].
Does the series go too far?
It treads a very fine line. The last episode of Six Feet Under was really brave; I give full marks to it because it was so ambitious. But you can see how it would leave them open to criticism. I feel the same way about Nip/Tuck. It almost becomes a pastiche…. I don’t think you’re meant to take it completely literally. You’re supposed to just go along for the ride.
What was it like shooting the scene when Julia had her breasts augmented?
I did a costume fitting for her fake breasts, and all the producers were standing around going ”No, no, bigger!” So I would go back, stuff some more, then come out, but only to hear them say, ”No, no, we can’t even see them!” At the end I felt like a moose with these breasts. I just remember thinking how awful Julia’s desperation was.
What do you want to happen to Julia this season?
Playing Julia the first two seasons was emotionally exhausting. I remember sometimes walking onto the set and feeling nauseous because I’d be having a really lovely day in real life and would have to do some dark, horribly intense scene of emotional breakdown. It’s been nice this season to be away from that McNamara kitchen. Julia goes down a different road — she can’t forever be destroyed over the marriage.
Has it been strange having your real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave, play your mom in the series?
I was really nervous for her in the second season. I felt very protective. But the third season has been a blast. She and I smoke this bong together [in episode 3]. We’ve never used one before, so the props guy showed us. She was much better at it than I was.
Plastic surgery: Pro or con?
I feel like we’ve been swamped with this idea of a homogenized look. Beauty doesn’t come in these perfect packages. So I’m feeling a bit like, enough already with plastic surgery.
Who is the Carver?
That’s the million-dollar question on our set. No one knows, except Ryan. I just hope it’s not me. Maybe the Carver is my mother!
BURNING QUESTION Will Julia end up with Christian or Sean? ”She will finally have to make a choice by the end of the series,” says Murphy. ”When she does choose one of the guys, it will free up the other guy in a weird way. That will be one of the last images of the last season — her choice.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: This season, Julia will open a spa with Liz (Roma Maffia) and Julian’s old conquest Gina (Jessalyn Gilsig), and she’ll also embark on a wild new love affair. Even more family drama is on deck when her son Matt (John Hensley) finally fesses up about that hit-and-run accident from two years ago.
Dr. Christian Troy
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So did the Carver kill you or what?
JULIAN McMAHON (above left, with costar Kelly Carlson): Everybody has been consistently asking, Are you coming back? I knew I was [coming back] because of contractual obligations. And after playing the lead on the show for a couple of years, I don’t think they can kill you without telling you. Originally the Carver was going to go after somebody else, which Ryan Murphy told me, but by midseason he told me the Carver would come after me.
Does the series go too far?
We are too far. That’s the show, that’s what people have enjoyed. With the influence of reality TV, we have to pump it up even further to make dramatic TV with any kind of significance. Personally, I don’t think we need to continually do that, but that’s what we do. This is shock TV.
How do you get through those raunchy sex scenes?
As ridiculous as it sounds, I focus on what position I’m going to be in, how hardcore it is, what does it mean — then I’m not so giddy, thinking about how I’m naked. You know, man, I don’t think anybody in their right mind wants to hang around with a c— sock on, which is what I do quite often. But instead of being embarrassed, I just stand next to everybody and kind of rub their noses in it. I feel like Dirk Diggler.
Why are those sex scenes with Christian so important to the series?
I think the sex for my character has been a wonderful journey. Without saying the words, you see what this man is made of and what he’s going through. I think we should go for as kinky and weird as we can.
What do you want to see happen to Christian this season?
I’d like to get back to that guy who is rich and making money and having lots of sex.
Does Christian really want Julia?
I think if he got her he wouldn’t want her anymore. I think he’s one of those people who, once he achieves something he wants, he moves on. His real relationship is with Sean. That’s why it’s always difficult for him when it’s not working.
Plastic surgery: Pro or con?
I’ve always advocated that if people can do something without harming themselves physically or emotionally, then sure — it should be an enhancer of life.
What do you think of the Carver story?
Um…it’s a direction.
Is it a direction you like?
Ryan Murphy has said that the Carver will be someone we know.
I personally think that Ryan wants to fool everybody — and it will be someone who we are not prepared for. His coup de grâce would be shocking everybody, like having it turn out to be [Sean’s 9-year-old daughter] Annie.
Burning question Will Christian finally settle down this season? He certainly won’t suffer from a lack of prospects: The bed-hopping doctor hooks up with the detective (Boston Legal‘s Rhona Mitra) who’s investigating the Carver case, and later enters uncharted sexual territory (read: a four-way) with his new practice partner, Dr. Quentin Costa (Bruno Campos). And there’s always the comely Kimber — now drug-free and eager for his love. ”He tries [to settle down] and he almost gets there, but there’s a twist that upsets the apple cart,” says Murphy. ”This show is not about happy endings.”
Busy with a new film career — he’s the writer/director of Running With Scissors, starring Annette Bening and Gwyneth Paltrow — Murphy discusses why he came back for season 3 of Nip/Tuck. (As told to Lynette Rice)
There was a day last season when Julian McMahon and Dylan Walsh walked in my office unannounced and said, ”You have to stay on the show.” I love those guys and I did feel an obligation to stay with them — I just didn’t think we could make the new deal work. It wasn’t just about wanting to make more money for myself. I also wanted more money for the show. I was at a point where I was begging for extra chicken fat for the surgery scenes. A network show costs in the $2 million-plus range and we were at $1.4 million. But it ended up well. I don’t think I signed the deal until last December — two months after the second-season finale. The budget’s at $1.9 million now, and the network agreed to let me do movies at the same time.
Even if I had left, I wasn’t going to walk away and wash my hands of the show. We started the Carver story, so obviously it would be a part of season 3.
I was the only one who knew who the Carver was — now all the writers know. We signed a blood oath. The weird thing is, the Carver was a throwaway episode that immediately saw a spike in the ratings. People liked the gore and scariness of it. It’s an interesting character because what he’s doing is really no different than what plastic surgeons are doing. They are both carving and butchering people. Every time that character went on, from episode 7 to the end, our ratings grew.
This whole season will be about Carver madness. It will be somebody we know. It’s always a horrible cheat when it’s someone like a neighbor who you met once, and they’re the killer. I like how this show has not done the obvious. The Carver can be a him or a her. The last scene of the final episode this season is when we’ll learn who the Carver is.
I never feel like anything we do on this show spirals out of control. I heard that about the story involving Famke Janssen, who played Matt’s transgender lover, Ava, last season. I never thought that story over-the-top, I thought it was a delight. Her character was designed for a year, but she was such a hit she’s coming back this season. When anybody said that to me about her story being over-the-top, I reminded them how the pilot featured our two guys wrapping the villain in ham and throwing him into the Everglades, where he was eaten by alligators. Dylan Walsh always jokes about how we jumped the shark in the pilot, so it’s very liberating.
People don’t realize our medical cases are 100 percent based on fact. So when you watch the first episode of season 3 and see a 650-pound woman who is literally stuck to her couch, I’ll show you the newspaper clipping that proves it actually happened. I don’t make that s— up. We have episodes that don’t have any surgeries but people never remember that. They always remember the unadulterated madness. That’s by design. This is a modern-day horror story with plastic surgeons as dueling Dr. Frankensteins.
If the shock value gets you into the show, welcome. But I hope the legacy of the show will be the storytelling. I always thought the show was about the love triangle of Sean, Christian, and Julia and how they keep redefining that triangle. The other thing I thought would be interesting was to do a love story about two men who are heterosexual. How many more obstacles can our guys endure and still remain friends? Sometimes we write things and say, They’re never gonna get over this, we have to split them up. But we find a way of making it work.
(This is an online-only excerpt from Entertainment Weekly’s Sept. 16, 2005, cover story.)