When Flesh and Bone takes center stage on Sunday night, it’ll be the product of as much blood and sweat as any live ballet performance — which is exactly the realism the series is going for. You won’t find any dance doubles on Starz’s gritty new drama, created by Breaking Bad writer/producer Moira Walley-Beckett, herself a former dancer.
Flesh and Bone’s spotlight is on Claire, a troubled but talented dancer played by Sarah Hay (Black Swan) who runs away to New York to audition for a ballet company. Hay, a soloist with Semperoper Ballett Dresden, says of her character, “She’s soulful and fragile but very calculated and is on a search for normalcy in a very f—ed up world.”
At the center of that world stands Paul Grayson (House of Cards’ Ben Daniels), the American Ballet Company’s temperamental artistic director. “He is bipolar, bisexual,” Daniels says. “He enjoyed great success as a dancer until a career-ending injury.” American Ballet Theatre soloist Sascha Radetsky (Center Stage), who plays principal dancer Ross, adds, “Paul directs with a very strong hand — as well as other appendages.”
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In advance of the series’ Sunday premiere, EW sat down with Hay, Daniels, and Radetsky to talk about bringing Walley-Beckett’s “crazy” vision to life, learning on the job, and the importance of having real dancers on set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about the audition process. How was it split between dance and acting?
BEN DANIELS: It just said on my casting background, “Dance background a plus, nudity and sexual situations a necessity.” I thought, “Well, I can deal with one of those.” I didn’t lie — I just said, “I’ve never danced before, but I do yoga,” and they said, “We can work with that.”
SARAH HAY: I had a sort of strange audition process. They had already done the casting call in America, and they couldn’t really find anyone to play this part, so they reached out to me — I live in Germany. The choreographer for this show [Ethan Stiefel] remembered me from school and brought it up in a meeting … The final cut was a three-day process of dancing and acting.
SASCHA RADETSKY: I was asked to come in and read for it, so I did, and —
HAY: He’s kind of a big deal in the dance world.
RADETSKY: Not really.
RADETSKY: I went back again and read a couple more times. I did dance for the showrunners and producers.
Sarah, since you’d never acted before, what was the filming experience like for you?
HAY: I had an acting coach for the first few days of shooting, and then I didn’t have time for one, so I kind of was learning by doing and also learning by watching.
DANIELS: She is also an amazing, natural, brilliant performer.
And Ben, how did you prepare to play a dancer? Were they giving you pointers on set?
DANIELS: As soon as I knew I had the job, I booked a week of private ballet tuition in London, which was incredible and hysterical. Never having done it before, I was in complete agony for a week, even though I work out. It’s a whole different set of muscles. … I also met with a couple of dancers and one choreographer, particularly, in London, and I said, “Just be really, really honest with me. What is it like to choreograph young people?” And it was very shocking what he talked about. Apart from that it, was just trying to develop a physicality whereby I could sort of move amongst these guys and not stick out like a sore thumb. They edited it very well. But they were all fantastic. … The dancers were just absolutely fantastic with me. They were really encouraging.
RADETSKY: Ben has the right proportions for dance, so he already kind of looks the part in his bearing and posture. So he could pass, certainly. But he was like a sponge soaking up knowledge from other dancers.
What do you think having real dancers in the cast adds to the show?
HAY: I think it’s nice when you don’t see the person turning in a cut and they’ve got their hair in front of their face to mask the body double. To actually see into the fish tank — it’s like looking from above to see what actually is going on … I felt like it was really important for the story to see the actual reaction to the dance after you’ve done it. If you’re acting, it’s different than if you’re actually dancing and sweating, and you finish, and you have your face white and you can’t breathe.
DANIELS: Because they do class so much, there’s an awareness of each other’s physicalities, so if you scream at one dancer, number 22 down the line will react. And it’s kind of like, there were a couple of scenes where it was like working with a school of fish, and because the dancers didn’t know when they were on or off camera, because they’re not actors, they were “on” all of the time. So it was this amazing concentration in the room that you can completely see when you watch it. It’s extraordinary.
RADETSKY: I think having real dancers grounds the series. Certainly it was important for us to be able to bring ballet to potentially a larger audience … [Flesh and Bone] has the luxury of eight episodes to kind of dive in and go places that other films haven’t. I think the ballet world is so broad that to capture it fully, it would take 100 movies or 200 movies, but this show has certain perspective which is really fascinating.
And Moira Walley-Beckett obviously brings so much experience to the table.
DANIELS: She’s extraordinary. She has this integrity of creative vision — it’s like her image of Flesh and Bone was crystal-clear and laser-cut, and it really raised the bar for everyone working on it, because we were all aware of what was required of us and how best to tell our own individual stories to fill her vision. She knows exactly where all of her characters are emotionally and story-wise at any moment, so you always had this blueprint or a bible on the end of the phone, day or night, in my case sometimes, where you could sort of pick her brain about it and enter into a discussion. And she’s fearless as a writer. It’s bold, audacious writing, and it’s fun to sort of wallow around in the darker recesses of the human psyche to tell the story.
HAY: I think that dance has really influenced her as a writer as well. I find that she’s extremely perfectionist. She always described this work as like her baby. This was her dream. She wanted to be able to portray this dance world in her writing. She’s such a creature, in a way, because she’s blonde and delicate and sweet looking and has all of this crazy stuff going on in her brain that you would never guess. When you meet her, she seems very calm, and inside there are a lot of lights going on.
RADETSKY: Moira was always really supportive of me, and I think of all of us. Not being experienced actors, we were kind of foraying into new territory. She has a real sense, in crafting the episodes, of how to build tension, so it was really interesting to see her work and to follow her creative vision. She was immersed in the show 110 percent.
HAY: She was on set, like, every day.
RADETSKY: Every second of every day, she was working. This is definitely her baby, and she poured her heart into it.
Flesh and Bone premieres Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.