Ratched star Jon Jon Briones on his wild role: 'Oh my God, I have to do a lobotomy on my son'
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He had completed his stint on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story as serial killer Andrew Cunanan's father, and executive producer Ryan Murphy was so pleased with what he saw that he wanted to check out Briones' take on the Engineer in the classic musical.
"So we organized tickets for him, and he came backstage after the show," Briones tells EW. "And we were talking and then he asked me, 'What are you doing after this?' So I said, 'I guess I'll be looking for a job.' And he said, 'I guess I'll just have to snatch you up.' I thought it was one of those Hollywood talks, and it was really nice of him to even say that."
Several months later, he learned the prolific showrunner wanted him for not one, but two series — American Horror Story: Apocalypse and Ratched — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Here, Briones breaks down his complicated role as Dr. Richard Hanover in the Netflix series — which is an origin story of sorts for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest character Nurse Ratched — and what it was like to prepare for those gruesome lobotomy scenes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you got the scripts, what was your reaction to the character and story?
JON JON BRIONES: Before I got the first three scripts, I found out that I'd be playing Dr. Richard Hanover. So I thought, okay, he has a very Western name. So that's the direction we're going. And then I read the first episode's script, and there was a line there — it didn't make it in the final cut — but Sarah's character asks [my character] if he's of Filipino descent. And that made me very happy that they acknowledged my culture and the character. And in a way, it made it easier for me to connect with my character. He's Filipino, he's an immigrant, and he's a family man. And that made it easier for me to actually understand this character and to play the character.
Was the character written with you in mind?
I don't know. I didn't ask and I didn't want to ask but I'm just glad that they offered it to me. [Laughs] It's a big thing to be in a Ryan Murphy show, it's also an even bigger thing to be one of the leads. This is the first time I'm playing one of the leads in a show and for him to trust me with that, that's a big compliment. I really treasure that because he has a lot of actors, it's like a repertory. But for him to go, "Okay, newbie, come here." That was really special.
Let's talk about the lobotomies that your character performs. How did you prepare for that? Can one prepare themselves for that?
Yes, a lot of research. Thank God for Google and YouTube, right? Because I'm ignorant about this. I'd heard of lobotomies, but I didn't really realize what it entails. And researching it, I went, "Oh my God, that was an actual method of treating the patient back in those days," and I couldn't believe that. Of course, the way we did it, in the script, it was so graphic. We had a doctor on-site and we would practice the lobotomy itself on a dummy, with a drill and also the transorbital lobotomy. So we were practicing, and I had to just keep reminding myself to take my emotions away from it because it's hard when your imagination, you know, takes over you. It's hard to do. So we did that. And also it became harder when my son booked the character of one of the lobotomy patients. [I thought], "Oh my god, I have to do a lobotomy on my son."
Did you get woozy or nervous at all?
Not really. I think I was very much prepared by the time we filmed it. And also with a lot of people watching you — the main actors, the crew, the director — it's your responsibility to do this and not mess up or it's going to be a long day for everyone because that whole thing is very tedious. It needs to be the right angle, the right thing. I'm sure maybe the doctors do it that way, too, where there's no emotion there and it's just by the number. It only got kind of a little dicey when they replaced the dummy with a real actor. So I'm drilling the temple of a real actor and also putting, you know, an icepick on a real person. That's when the doctor was like, "Okay, everyone just relax, but be careful."
Between this and American Crime Story, which both have horror elements, and your stint on American Horror Story, would you say you're a fan of the horror genre?
Oh, yeah. When I was in high school back in the Philippines, we would watch a lot of Stephen King movies. I love horror.
Most of the characters on this show operate in a moral grey area. Do you feel like your character is more of a villain or a good guy?
Oh, definitely he's a good guy to me because you know, as an actor, you can't have any judgment on your character. All you have to play with is that the person is real. The person has a purpose. The purpose for him specifically is to heal people, and he truly believes that he can help people. His mistake is his ego. There's a little bit of a god complex in him, but he truly believes that he is brilliant enough to be able to heal everyone. And, you know, in all our stories, we are the hero, right? That's why when they say there are two sides of the coin, that nothing is black and white, it's just from a point of view. It's like they isolate the camera on one person to tell their side of the story, but there's also the other side of, well, why are they acting that way? Of course, you're the hero in your own story, but to the other side, you [might be] the villain and vice versa.
How do you hope the audience feels about Dr. Hanover or the other characters?
In my opinion, I hope they see that you shouldn't judge people because these are real people with painful pasts, some really traumatic pasts. And when you see people acting a certain way or making a certain decision, we don't know where they came from, and we don't know what they went through. These are our flawed characters put together in this world of Ratched, and these flawed characters are interacting and dealing with their hardships and hindrances the only way they know how. So, I think when audiences see this, they will realize that these people are just trying to survive and just trying to get through life and a lot of them actually did things out of love. So that makes it more human, and empathy is, I think, going to be granted eventually to these characters.