'Sons of Anarchy': Inside those emotional Jax, Juice, Nero scenes
Spoiler alert: All was revealed in the Nov. 18 episode of Sons of Anarchy, “Suits of Woe,” which included three of the series’ finest scenes: Juice (Theo Rossi) told Jax (Charlie Hunnam) the truth about Tara’s death; Jax broke the news to Nero (Jimmy Smits) over the phone as Gemma (Katey Sagal) stood by; and Jax later leaned on Nero as he struggled to understand both how his mother could kill Tara and how he could still love her. Peter Weller, who directed the episode—and whose character, Barosky, was also revealed as the rat—spoke to EW about shooting those crucial scenes and learning Barosky made SAMCRO’s hit list.
EW: Let’s start with Jax and Juice’s jail conversation. How did you set the tone for Charlie and Theo on set?
Peter Weller: First of all, I needed absolute quiet on set. I announced before it started, “This is not just the apex or the climax of the seventh season; it is really the climax of all revelation—the most horrific, horrific revelation in all of Sons of Anarchy. There will be wrap-ups and vengeance, but there will be no revelation like this, that your mother killed your wife. So we gotta shut up, and I’m gonna set up two angles, and we’re gonna do it twice.” I talked to Charlie, and I said, “Do you got two takes in you?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “You gotta do it for Theo.” As an actor, you don’t have many more than that in you for that kind of thing: To find out that? The rest of it’s sorta bulls–t after two takes. But I had to edit [the scene], and then they edited it perfectly, and I said, “I don’t want to see it anymore. It’s too damn upsetting.” There are certain things you can’t step away from. I’ve got a three-year-old kid. It’s very difficult to do the revelation of violence when you got a kid.
What kind of direction did you give Theo?
I just told Theo, “Whatever goes down, try to sit on it. Just sit on it, man.” His face is so strong that he doesn’t have to do much. So he just sat there telling the truth, and it was beautiful. It’s really, really, really hard to sit without acting and just tell somebody the truth and have your entire world collapse inside you. Don’t you think he was fantastic?
He was. Then you have his quietness against Charlie’s desperation and physical shaking at times. And I always love to watch Charlie steel up, which he did at the end. He can turn terrifying on a dime.
Yeah, it’s just frightening. “I’ll make sure it’s quick.”
The second scene we need to talk about is Nero getting the call from Jax. Going silent so the audience doesn’t hear Jax deliver the news was such an interesting call. That came from Kurt?
Kurt said as a tone note that he would rarely give an actor a beat where we don’t hear what he’s hearing, so it’s all played on his face, but he would definitely give that to Jimmy Smits because Jimmy Smits is unbelievable. I’ve worked with some unbelievable people: I’ve been opposite Diane Keaton, Judy Davis, and Dianne Wiest—there’s no one equal to those three in their age group. I just had to throw my car into neutral and say, “Wow, these women have so much music in them, there’s nothing that I’m going to bring up that could compare to what they got.” And when I watch Jimmy Smits, it’s the same deal. He’s just got a symphony in him. The best thing you can do with somebody who’s got a symphony in them is listen.
And you have Gemma just standing there, waiting. What kind of conversation did you and Katey have about that moment?
I said, “Look at that house you were born in, and do nothing else but step forward. You know what’s gonna go down here. There’s nothing to play. Just remember your youth while your life is over.” Another scene I really, really loved was Gemma with Abel when he says, “Goodbye, grandma.” That just about leveled me. That whole episode is all about goodbyes.
Kurt Sutter had told EW earlier in the season that Jax might have a different emotional response than people were expecting when he learned the truth, and we see it in that scene at the end when he breaks down asking Nero how Gemma could do this to Tara and admits, in spite of everything, that he still loves his mother. How did you set up that scene?
Jimmy and Charlie have a very unique relationship. You cannot do anything other than admire Jimmy Smits, and Charlie’s smart enough to know that he’s with Jimmy and Jimmy will give him the world. So all I did was suggest the staging, that he goes and sits in this area and then Jimmy comes and sits next to him. So we rehearsed the staging of it a couple of times, and then I realized there’s only gonna be two takes of this, just like we did the other scene. So I set two camera angles up: one favoring Jimmy, one favoring Charlie. We shot them both at the same time, and then we pushed in and shot them both again at the same time. Because they were next to each other, I could do that. If they were across from each other, I gotta do one and then the other. Paul Maibaum [our director of photography], bless his heart, set it up so we could shoot like that, and they gave me gold, man.
The best thing you can do as an actor who directs is you know what it takes to crank that stuff up. You know that people are gonna run dry. They cannot replicate that s–t over and over and over again. If they’re gonna do it organically, and they’re gonna pull it out of their gut, it’s two maximum—maybe three, but the third one’s not gonna be as good as the first two. You got to stage it so you can photograph it and then get the hell out of the way. They know what it has to be: There has to be a guy from the bottom of his heart trying to help another guy he can’t, because the other guy is at the bottom. That’s it.
We should also talk about that car chase. You worked with stunt coordinator Eric Norris to design a tribute to Bullitt.
In my very first episode directing Sons, the third episode of season 4, I did an homage to French Connection by having a motorcycle chase through an alley rather than a boulevard, so it’s all claustrophobic like French Connection is under the train. I wanted to do an homage to Bill Hickman, the great stunt driver of the Dodge Charger in Peter Yates’ Bullitt. He played the bad guy in French Connection but he drove the car for [William] Friedkin. Eric Norris just pulled it off like a champ.
Now I’d like to talk to Peter Weller, the actor. Before he died, Henry Lin (Kenneth Choi) revealed that Barosky was the one who ratted SAMCRO out to him. When did you learn Barosky was the rat?
I found out at the beginning of the season. [Kurt Sutter] said, “These guys like this who are treading both sides of the line end up usually on the bad side of things,” and so I understood what he was doing. I was kinda thrilled that Barosky was the rat.
You’ve directed episodes of Sons that have had some glorious blood splatter. Regardless of what will happen to Barosky, were you hoping for an epic death scene, or that he’d be a guy smart enough to get away like Adam Arkin’s Zobelle?
You’re playing a character, you always want him to get away. But I can’t always be as fortunate as I was in 24, where I sorta convinced Joel Surnow and Howard Gordon and Manny Coto when I was playing this guy Christopher Henderson: I said, “He can’t just be tortured like every other schlub that comes in here.” And then Howard came up with the idea that I would “kill” Tony, and then thankfully they kept writing me in. So that was great, because they just spun that guy into some sort of mythical metamorphosis and then he died at the end. So this is the same way: It’s good that he was revealed as the rat—he didn’t just go away and become another bad guy in Sons of Anarchy and have some prosaic end.
Kenneth Choi was hoping Lin would die a great Sons of Anarchy death, and he got his wish.
Kenny wrote me this letter after he did that scene and wrapped and went away. This makes you weep. He said, “Dear Peter, one of the reasons I became an actor was because I watched you in The New Age. And I saw it every day for eights days” or something. He said, “I want to be an actor like that guy, and I never had the courage to tell you while I was working with you that you were such an inspiration to me.” And I’m sitting there reading and start to get weepy. I read it to my wife, and she started crying. He never told me until he left. He wrote it to me the following week. I directed a scene in 705 where he comes in and gets in Nero’s face. I said, “Man, come in with your guns loaded. Like you want to cut his throat right in front of them. Don’t even wait. Just barge right in, sit right down, and let him have it.” And that guy did it in one, two takes and we’re done. So he’s just a tremendous pro. And the nonchalance he has while he’s hanging there in 711. Fantastic. What a cast.
I’ve said this before, but I love it when Unser is the smartest guy in the room, like when he lured Jax into punching him so he could have Jarry put out an APB on Jax for assault. How do you work with Dayton Callie?
Dayton is a jazz musician, and I’m a jazz musician, so we’re always talking about jazz and jazz solos. We were doing that scene, and here’s what we talk about: I say, “Crank it up one.” He says, “Okay. By the way, did you ever hear Sonny Rollins on…” I go, “No, man.” This is what we talk about.
There’s something unique about them all. I have a huge love for Charlie. Charlie’s like my kid. I’ve got so many things in common with Charlie. The first thing he said to me was talking about how Naked Lunch was one of his favorite films, but so there’s so many things about where he came from and where I came from—we’ve got so many things in sync. And subsequently, we’ve had our moments, man. We were yellin’ at each other in the middle of the street in episode 5. But there’s something so endearing, and wounding, and beautiful about Charlie in my life. I come home talking about some unbelievable thing that Charlie had done onscreen, and my wife says, “Don’t you see that you’re just like him. You admire him because that’s what you admire in yourself.”
When I said goodbye to Charlie, I said, “I hope I hear that Newcastle voice come up behind me someplace in the future.” And he said, “Yeah, I hope it’s Paris.” Ron Perlman, I’ve known for so long. Katey and I come from the same kind of family dysfunction and family love, so we had pow wows about that. Maggie Siff played my daughter—I acted with her for half a year in Frank’s Home, a play about Frank Lloyd Wright. Tommy [Flanagan] always grabbed me by the ass and goosed me. Kim Coates and I would tease each other about our vanity. He would always come up behind me and say, “My eyes are bluer than yours.” He’s one of the most splendid actors in the world. I miss them all dearly just talking to you now. I miss the whole experience. That’s four and a half years of my life. It’s the longest gig I ever had.
What did you take from the set?
[Laughs] Long ago, when I was doing a very difficult scene in a hotel room on the set, and I was having the day from hell, just in terms of logistics. The prop guys brought me a stuffed lion that they’d bought for one of the kids that they’d never used. They know I have this stuffed animal collection. They said, “Hold this lion, man. His name is Leonard.” So they’d bring it out and put it in my lap. I walked away with Leonard. I gave Leonard to my son. Leonard sleeps with Teddy now.
Kurt Sutter’s original series, starring Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, and Katey Sagal.