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Jon Robin Baitz Loves the “Sorrow and the Loss” in ‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’

Jon Robin Baitz Loves the “Sorrow and the Loss” in ‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’
Jon Robin Baitz Loves the “Sorrow and the Loss” in ‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’


Feud: Capote vs. the Swans might have concluded in March, but there’s still plenty to unpack when it comes to Truman Capote and his relationships with New York’s elite. On a new episode of Still Watching, playwright and Capote vs. the Swans scribe Jon Robin Baitz drops by the podcast to discuss crafting the eight-episode series with Ryan Murphy and how he unpacked the unraveling of Truman Capote (Tom Hollander) after the author sabotaged his friendships with his “swans”: Slim Keith (Diane Lane), C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny), Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), and his favorite, Babe Paley (Naomi Watts).

“Notwithstanding the brilliance of Susan Sontag, I don’t really have much taste for camp personally,” Baitz told Still Watching hosts Hillary Busis, Richard Lawson, and Chris Murphy. “I know that’s anathema to say that, but I’m interested in melancholy and sorrow and loss, and the clock running out, and the pain of losing the things that make you you.

Below, Baitz opens up about the importance of intelligence in acting, learning from Mike Nichols, and confronting the passage of time.

Vanity Fair: How simpatico were you and Ryan about the tone of the show?

Jon Robin Baitz: We had these extraordinarily intimate conversations, usually late, late, late at night over the phone, when we were working together on the project. Usually accompanied by a martini. We would talk about what love means and what friendship means.

I think both of us were going through that moment in your life—in your late 50s, early 60s, maybe—where you’re on the other side of the seesaw suddenly, and the clock is ticking, but there are fewer hours. You’re vaguely conscious that the passage of time is now different. We all notice that life speeds up as we get older. This was also about what you value in your life as it changes, as the clock ticks away. I found Truman to be heartbreakingly reckless, and so I talked about that a lot.

This is also a show about the end of an era—not just for these individual people, but for an entire time in American life. We see this when C.Z. Guest goes shopping for a hat in episode six and realizes that nobody’s really still wearing hats.

I think that’s my favorite episode. It’s “Hats, Gloves, and Effete Homosexuals.” It’s a very sad episode for all of the reasons you mentioned. It has all of the things that I love. You realize that the glove counter at Saks is gone. [The swans] have gone from this sense of being at the center of a world—which is something that can happen to you in New York to this day. You have this illusion that it’s the most important place in the world. Suddenly, everything is gone. The fashions that were so important, that you fetishized—that you set—are laughable. And I guess the other part of the show that is so great in that episode, to me, is the way time leaves you behind. Nothing is finite, and what was beautiful today is going to be terrifying tomorrow, or a joke.

Can you talk a little bit about the casting process? Was Tom Hollander the first on your list?

Tom was right up there, in sync with Naomi Watts doing Babe. It all came together very quickly. Tom did a version of Truman which showed how much range he had and how much depth he could get. It was a profoundly psychological glimpse into the man, and it wasn’t a sketch. I always say you have to cast for intelligence. It’s how you get metaphor built in. It’s a certain kind of intelligence. It’s not necessarily someone who can do quantum physics, but it’s about living in metaphor.

Let me tell you a quick story that helps clarify this. I was helping the late, great Mike Nichols. He was directing a new production of the Clifford Odets play The Country Girl. I had done a couple of minor kind of revisions to it with the permission of the estate. I watched Mike rehearse, and his entire method of rehearsing was to tell anecdotes and to somehow convey what was wanted, what was needed, the temperature of a scene, through anecdote. You either got that or you didn’t. It was about thinking abstractly, connectively. All of these actors had that quality. Diane Lane, Calista Flockhart, Chloë, the swans, and certainly Joe Mantello. He almost—and this is a compliment—acts like a director. So you cast really well, and it’s 90% of everything, I think.


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