Jon Robin Baitz on Working with Quinto, Shaping ‘The Slap’ and ‘Brothers & Sisters’ Memories

Peter Sarsgaard (l) and Zachary Quinto (r) in 'The Slap.' (NBC)

With a series title like “The Slap,” you may not have expected a series that looks at an American family and how one incident affects every single one of them but that’s exactly what the new NBC series is.

Developed by Jon Robin Baitz (“Brothers & Sisters”) and Walter F. Parkes (“Sweeney Todd,” “Men in Black 3‘), “The Slap” is a remake of sorts to the 2011 Australian series of the same name, which was based on 2008 novel by Christos Tsiolkas. Both television versions also share an actress in Melissa George, who won the Logie (Aussie’s TV award) for her role, which she reprised in the U.S. version. The series also stars Peter Sarsgaard, Uma Thurman, Thandie Newton, Thomas Sadoski, Marin Ireland, Brian Cox and Zachary Quinto, who was profiled just before the show’s premiere right here. 

It's Quinto's character, Harry, who slaps the son of George and Sadoski's characters in the pilot episode that sparks the events that unfold in the 8-episode production. Here is a clip from last week's episode where Harry tries to apologize for the slap.

I sat down with Baitz recently at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour to talk about shaping the U.S. version, working with Quinto and his memories about selling “Brothers & Sisters” at a time when a regular gay character was not as common as it is in 2015.

Do you see this as an adaptation? How do you see it because there is source material…

Jon Robin Baitz: At a certain point, I think, our own. Walter [F. Parkes] and I we would refer to the Australian and sometimes look at see what they did. The story departs a bit. It follows the same trajectory but gets there very differently. Now I sort of think of it as my, and Walter’s, project.

It's been endlessly fascinating because it's really about behavior, and uncontrolled behavior, and what happens with the veneer comes off of our civility, and this thing that's lurking just underneath. That there are secrets everywhere.

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Especially with family. Tell me about the shifting focus and our opinions in each episode and what that brings to the show.

JRB: I think they’re going to give you more. You’re constantly changing sympathies, Harry in particular. Gary as well. There are a lot of trajectories. Everybody has a moment of truth.

Melissa George played the same role in the Aussie version. Did you think about how that could influence the show?

JRB: Yeah. I was reluctant to ask her and then Walter had thought it was the best idea. What happened, finally, as I was writing it I said, “I can’t get her voice out of my head.” I adored the Australian actors but I just couldn’t get her voice out of my head. And it was seamless. It was seamless.

I first knew your name from "Brothers & Sisters" and now I know your plays. Is television a medium that you like at this point?

JRB: I like it. This has been an adventure in being able to do whatever we wanted with the material. Yeah, I love it.

Tell me, when you assembled this cast, did you step back and go, 'OMG! We've got an amazing cast!" The caliber of people is amazing!

JRB: I did. I totally did. Part of the mandate Bob Greenblatt gave us was to eventize the cast. I think we did that, Walter, Lori and me.

I talked to Zach recently but what do you think Zach brings to the role of Harry, because I just met him?

JRB: Extraordinary complexity and humanity, and simmering conflicting emotions. More than anything, profound intelligence. He is as smart an actor [and] as smart a person as one has ever met. He brings layers and layers, and layers of conflicting emotions. He’s quite extraordinary.

A lot of your work is about family. Do you have a large family?

JRB: I have a big voluntary family. I have a very close family. I have two older brothers and my dad passed away and my mom’s still here, thank God. Life was very much an adventure because I grew up overseas, for the most part, and so we were sort of a little tribe. I never got away from feeling that the family is the microcosm of everything else.

All the conversations overlapping and the manic state when the whole family is together in the show, I related to that so much,

JRB: Lisa [Cholodenko, director] found a way to make it feel like you’re eavesdropping and that you’re, almost, a guest there.

Do you watch a lot of television now?

JRB: I like so much. I have such varied taste in television. I’ve loved “The Americans” very, very much because of Matthew [Rhys, who plays Kevin in “Brothers & Sisters.”] Then, I love the show and the metaphor in it. I loved “The Killing,” enormously. I thought it was profound. I loved “Top of the Lake.” The one that Jane Campion made.

I'm profoundly addicted to Ryan Murphy's extraordinary treaties on America, which is "American Horror Story." Each season seems to be telling a bigger story about what we are and how we came to be in the most entertaining way. It's not even a guilty pleasure. I need to catch up on other things. To me, "The Wire" is the apex of all television and I aspire to that level of acuity. "Breaking Bad," you can't escape it ever, and "The Sopranos." You can never put it behind you, it becomes part of the things you think about of life in this country.

Baitz created the long-running ABC family drama 'Brothers & Sisters.' (ABC)

I’m curious if you’ve seen “Looking” and if you have an opinion on that.

JRB: Yeah, I find it very compelling and alternately it makes me sad and feel disconnected and fascinated because I think so much of it is so accurate. I don’t know if it’s intentional but there’s a profound sense, to me, of utterly misguided people in it. I love those actors with all my heart. I think the acting in it is so incandescent; they’re so alive to the moment. They really do become those guys. My sadness might have to do with age, might have to do with how much it has cost to get to there.

We're at a point now in television where we have so many gay characters everywhere now and it's such a mainstream thing. "Brothers & Sisters" was a really big deal at the time.

JRB: Listen, that’s the best thing about “Brothers & Sisters.” I got to do that and I give them credit for being as enthusiastic and whole-hearted as they were, about full throated as they were. I don’t take that for granted.

Was that a tough sell at the time, to the network, that you had a gay character in Kevin?

JRB: It wasn’t a tough sell at all. There wasn’t even a beat. I just said, “And one of them is gay and he’s actually the most stable one.” I didn’t want it to be the wacky gay.

“The Slap” airs Thursdays at 8pm on NBC.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.