Tom Hollander might have achieved international stardom as the waspish gay trying to murder Tanya in “The White Lotus” Season 2, but it was a wildly different role that piqued casting director Alexa L. Fogels’s interest in him to play the waspish gay writer at the center of “Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans”: the 2016 adaptation of John Le Carré spy thriller “The Night Manager.”
Fogel needed to find an actor who could bring Truman Capote to life both before and after he burned bridges with Manhattan socialites by airing their secrets in Esquire and thought of Hollander’s performance in “The Night Manager.” That spy series contains a scene that plays like a dark mirror for Capote’s confidence and theatricality, in which Hollander humiliates Elizabeth Debicki and flexes a very public sort of cruel, soft power. “It is such a shocking, extraordinary scene,” Fogel told IndieWire. “I’ve talked to Tom about it since, but it’s just one of those things where you see the great depth of what an actor’s made of.”
Fogel was so convinced of Hollander’s ability to emotionally transform into Capote that she didn’t rate the challenge of taking on the writer’s distinct vocal qualities. “He’s a chameleon. He can do almost anything. I’ve seen him do pretty much everything,” Fogel said. “Whether it’s ‘The Thick of It’ or ‘Rev,’ (his) range is so enormous. And I think that’s what it comes down to. You need an actor who can become something else.”
Having found Capote, Fogel and team quickly assembled a team of A-listers around producer and star Naomi Watts as Babe Paley, women who bring a singular glamour and power that nevertheless complement one another. The triumphant walk towards a Thanksgiving dinner in Episode 2 — as opposed to Capote’s exile to Joanne Carson’s (Molly Ringwald) ranch — captures it in a single shot: Watts as Paley, Diane Lane as Slim Keith, and Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest all stride down a marble staircase with the same power and agency as “The Right Stuff” astronauts. “(The Swans) are brilliant and they’re stylish and the body of work is extraordinary,” Fogel said.
“It’s about building a tapestry that works, and it’s a lot of conversation,” Fogel said. “And, in a case like this, where these are all people that would be known, it’s really about building a world that (will tell that story).”
But Capote and the Swans weren’t the only casting challenges in “Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans.” One of the roles that required the most calibration — and which Fogel found to be most rewarding — was the late Treat Williams as Bill Paley, Babe’s husband and the business titan behind CBS. Fogel was looking for someone who could take on Paley’s stature in terms of money and influence, but his physical stature, too. “I remember pictures of Paley in the ‘70s,” Fogel said. “He’s physically sort of iconic, too, when you think about his height and his broad-shouldered-ness.”
After reading a number of actors for the role, Fogel felt there was a kind of poetic rightness to casting Williams, a “Prince of the City,” as the series’ titan of industry. “I had also cast (Williams) in ‘We Own This City,’ so for me, that is a very personal and kind of circular thing,” Fogel said. “There are very few male-feeling people who can play a part like that, where you can walk into the room and you feel like he’s the head of this major media company. That’s going to be a very, very small list, so we’re incredibly fortunate that it worked out and he’s just — it’s quite a loss.”
There’s a moment near the end of Episode 2 during which the Paleys are growing close during Babe’s cancer treatment when Williams leans in and laughs as the two eat pizza. It’s evocative of what all the actors that Fogel and her team found bring to “Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans.” Williams’ frame is bent towards Watts, and his “Mad Men”-esque assured arrogance is bent into gentleness. Fogel found the actors who can embody both the archetype and the inner contradictions of their characters; it is from this that “Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans” mines so much of its feeling.
“The script and the world is the map we use. That’s our boss,” Fogel said. “So that old cliché is not a cliché. There are no small parts. It’s all in service of what the tone is and where you have to get to, and it’s an enormous amount of work. We work so hard to build this whole tapestry in order to realize the story.”