On American Gothic, nothing is what it seems.
In CBS’ summer murder mystery thriller, the wealthy Hawthorne family discovers that not only was their now-deceased patriarch (Jamey Sheridan) possibly a serial killer, but may have been aided by one of their own. Was it the steely matriarch (Virginia Madsen), the black sheep prodigal son (Antony Starr), the ambitious eldest daughter (Juliet Rylance), the innocent younger school teacher (Megan Ketch), or the former junkie cartoonist (Justin Chatwin)? EW turned to executive producer Corinne Brinkerhoff to get the scoop on the new series:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about the inspiration for the show.
CORINNE BRINKERHOFF: The initial one paragraph came to me via Amblin from Full Fathom Five, which is James Frey’s company. They have all this great I.P. It was a logline about a wealthy patrician family on the east coast that started to suspect that one of their own may have been tied to a series of murders dating back decades. It reminded me of a case in Kansas where I grew up, which has always stuck with me. This serial killer who had eluded police for 15 years and gone dormant, they finally caught him and it turned out that he was a family man with a wife and two kids, he was deacon at his church and he was a boy scout leader. I was not interested at all in the gruesome details of his crimes, but I was fascinated in a morbid way about what happens after that? What happens to that family?
In that case, they knew definitively who it was and what had happened. But what if you took that framework and there’s more of a mystery about what really happened, who knew what, what happened when, and who’s holding what piece of the secret? I was interested, on a character level, in the psychological ramifications of that kind of suspicion, and what the rest of your life looks like once that suspicion is out in the world. It really became a very character-driven show more than plot. Even though it’s a murder mystery, it’s really very much around these characters in this family. In episode 2 and beyond, you see a healthy dose of dark humor in the show as well. Justin Chatwin’s character gives us that source of comedy, very dry, dark comedy, and so does his kid.
What can you tell us about the Hawthorne family?
You’ve got this very powerful matriarch in Madeline (Madsen), who is wonderful, fiercely loyal to her family, quietly powerful, and very protective of her family and her status in life. You’ve got Jamey Sheridan as Mitchell. I guess it’s a spoiler that he’s not with us long. [Laughs] He’s the quintessential loving family man and patriarch, deeply devoted to his family as well. This is a family that has very blue collar roots, which we dive into as the season goes on. Madeline and Mitchell pulled themselves up from their own bootstraps and created this company; he worked in construction and they launched a concrete company. They got a giant bid and suddenly they went from very ambitious, but blue collar, to the one percent. That changed the fortune of all their children and what opportunities were available to them
That brings us to Alison (Rylance), who has always been a very driven, very ambitious political figure, who is looking to unseat the current mayor of Boston. She’s extremely driven and basically looks at the opportunities her family’s stature affords her and wants to take full advantage and make an impact for the better. We’ve got Garrett (Starr), our woodsman. He’s quite an enigmatic figure, who mysteriously left Boston 14 years ago under very strange circumstances. Nobody quite knows why he vanished and nobody quite knows why he’s come back. We have a lot of fun with him. He’s cryptic and taciturn and there’s quite a bit going on under the surface with him. That’s about as vague as I can be there. [Laughs]
We’ve got Tessa (Ketch), who is really the moral center of the family, as a very grounded, relatable person. She’s a public school teacher. She’s seen the money, the power and privilege and has chosen a much more altruistic path with her life and her privilege. She’s a public school teacher married to a cop (Elliot Knight), who is now a detective. She’s chosen a more humble lifestyle. She’s secretly everyone’s favorite. She’s the glue that holds everyone in the family together. She’s a very moral, very centered person, but she’s also quite fragile and has some trauma in her past that starts to resurface.
Then we’ve got Cam (Chatwin), who is a single father, and has a very turbulent on-off relationship with his ex-wife and the mother of his child Sophie (Stephanie Leonidas). They’re both artists. He’s a very successful cartoonist, she’s a photographer in the vain of Francesca Woodman, who does these gorgeous, semi-surreal self-portraits. They’re quite artistic and very driven in that field, but both are battling pretty serious drug addictions that go hand-in-hand with their artistic outlet. Very complicated people in a complicated relationship. Part of the addiction is to each other. That’s a relationship that is very complex and has been interesting to unpack for us. He has an incredible sense of humor and is a big source of the comedy in the show. I know it sounds strange that there is comedy in a serial killer show, but it is absolutely there.
Cam and Sophie also basically created the spawn of the devil in their son Jack Hawthorne (Gabriel Bateman), who appears to be a serial killer in training based off the premiere.
[Laughs] He’s different. There’s a line later where Cam says, “He’s demented, he’s creative, he’s different. He’s like us!” It’s a matter of interpretation what Jack is and who he is. Certainly, one thing we’re exploring in this show is the idea of nature versus nurture. There’s a gene called MAOA, also known colloquially as the psychopath gene. There’s some scientific debate about how legitimate it is. Jack exists to tell us if that gene is real. He’s the living embodiment of it; he’s the living proof. He’s got the genetic makeup for something dark.
How do you think being in the public eye has affected this family?
There’s more to lose, so they’re incredibly protective of each other, particularly of their status and their stature in life. Their public image is of paramount importance to Alison, who is running a campaign. This is the absolute worst PR you can imagine. They all really have different stakes — Cam’s sobriety, Tessa’s marriage, Alison’s campaign, Madeline’s entire sense of well being. There’s really nobody who gets off scot free with this mystery looming.
What are the most important aspects in setting the tone for a creepy show?
For all of these characters, there is some level of duplicity, which is necessary. There’s some sort of a constant tension between perception and reality of how they’re each presenting, and what is behind that initial presentation. Each one of them has a pretty major secret or demon, as it were, to grapple with. Complicated characters, I guess, would be No. 1. In order to have a truly creepy show, you can’t ever really know who anybody is at face value. It’s a family, so it’s not the entire world as a suspect, so you’ve got to really have many layers to these people.
There’s so much we did in this show as far as, where do they live? What does their actual space look like? What is the color palette? We went with deep blues and greens to get a sense of maybe everything is OK, but it’s certainly not bright and shiny. We have a set theme involving predatory birds, because we had done some research saying that secret psychopaths tend to decorate their homes with predatory birds as a subconscious manifestation of their own predatory instinct That was interesting. If you look through the show, there are birds everywhere in subtle motifs — the leg of a table, the base of a lamp, in wardrobe — those off-kilter, bizarre details that signal something is weird here, there’s something off with this family and with this space. We had a lot of fun with that. Also, constant misleads. That’s a big thing with our show, subverting expectations, so right when you think you know where the story is going, we’re twisting it again.
How does the title of the show play into the series?
The name of the show, of course, is the name of an iconic American painting. It all has to do with fine art as a theme of the show. The Hawthorne family home is filled with it, and Cam’s comic strip plays a role in the story. Each episode is titled after a famous American painting. It resonates not only thematically, but at some point within the episode, we recreate the tableau of the painting within the frame of the show. At the end of the pilot is Whistler’s Mother — well, Arrangement in Grey and Black, which is the official title, which is the title of the pilot episode. At the very end, the frame of Madeline is the recreation of Arrangement in Grey and Black. We do that throughout. In episode 2, it’s called “Jack in the Pulpit,” after the Georgia O’Keeffe painting. We see our little Jack go to the pulpit of his grandfather’s funeral. We also have a super close-up of a flower that resembles the one in the painting. It’s just one of our motifs that we use in each episode — the title and then the homage.
American Gothic premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on CBS. Check out a sneak peek: