Emmy Hopeful: John Benjamin Hickey

By JARETT WIESELMAN

June 24, 2013

From day one, The Big C deftly danced on the razor-thin line between comedy and drama; you'd be hysterically crying one minute and laughing through tears the next. That's a big reason why I believe it's struggled to collect the accolades it so deserves. The series was too sad to be a comedy, too funny to be a drama, but too good to end its run without a little Emmy love.

Hopefully transitioning The Big C: hereafter from the comedy categories to the genre-less miniseries category will go a long way towards earning the cast some long-overdue attention. And while I'd love to shower the entire cast with statuettes (perhaps an Afterlife-time Achievement Award?), stars Laura Linney and John Benjamin Hickey are my frontrunners in their respective Best Actress and Supporting Actor categories.

Linney, previously celebrated with a nomination in 2011, was nothing short of a revelation this season as Cathy's journey came to its painful yet inevitable conclusion. And while the character has had endless support throughout her cancer battle, it was the unwavering devotion from Cathy's brother Sean -- played with awe-inspiring sincerity by Tony winner Hickey -- that lent her the strongest shoulder to lean on. ETonline caught up with Hickey to talk about bringing The Big C to an end, his favorite moments along Sean's road to "redemption" and his fondest cast memories. 

ETonline: Now that you have some distance, what's your feeling about how The Big C: hereafter wrapped up?
John Benjamin Hickey: I loved the idea that it was this miniseries as opposed to what we had done before. It was a gift from Showtime, because, let's face it, we were on the bubble in the third year and they could have easily let Cathy drift off on that boat. Also, the hour-long episodes did something to the writers, who always worked brilliantly, but it really gave everybody -- actors included -- an opportunity to breathe and all be there for the end of Cathy's story. It made the whole experience so satisfying and we were so grateful for it. I'm sad that the show ended, but happy that it ended as beautifully as it did. I mean so many people have been so undone by those last four episodes, but in kind of the most satisfying way, it is such a terrific response and it has been very gratifying after four years of work.

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ETonline: Was it hard to say goodbye to this character?
Hickey: You have no idea what our investment in these characters is. I grieved Cathy like a real person, I didn't want to see this happen to her and yet I knew it was going to. I liked how the writers handled it, that it happened when everyone was gone. It wasn't this big crazy thing with everyone surrounding her, it was just this moment, this one moment, in a collection of other moments in the show, and it was just a deeply satisfying way to say goodbye to the whole thing.

ETonline: Laura has always said she knew from day one how the show was going to end, but would never talk about it. Now that it's over, do you feel comfortable saying if Cathy dying was the plan all along?
Hickey: I can't speak for Laura, but knowing her as well as I do, I can safely say that she would have never signed on to this series, and I don't think any of us would have, if there was a magical remission. If it was a different kind of show it might have had a longer shelf life, but we all felt like it was a perfect amount of time, and it feels weird to say this, but everybody wanted it to end the way it did. It didn't hide, it really went there, which I felt was deeply, deeply cathartic. So the short answer to your question is yes, it ended exactly the way all of us wanted it to end.

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ETonline: Sean also made some big personal strides in the final episodes. Were you happy with where the show left him?
Hickey: I don't remember the line exactly, but Cathy has that great speech where she tells him, it doesn't matter if this person is a raging republican capitalist, but if you can give him an opportunity to be there for his children, you have to. It was a real come to Jesus moment for Sean. In the larger picture, over the last four episodes, Sean sort of grew up and learned how to be present for the people who mattered most to him in the world. Sometimes it meant driving a pedicab, but he always found his own nutty way of doing it. My big takeaway from those last four episodes are what I always wanted for Sean and Cathy: for them to really show up for each other. I love that Sean really spent a lot of time with Cathy in those last four hours and that he is off in surgery donating his kidney when his sister finally goes. I think that is probably the way Cathy wanted it. I think the larger gift that Sean was given this year was the opportunity to grow up and be present for his sister's life and death.

ETonline: I know you were, as a cast, incredibly close, and Laura has been your friend for years. Was it hard to say good-bye to one another with that final episode?
Hickey: Oh God dude, yeah. That whole episode was hard. The last time we were really all together, if I am remembering correctly, was Adam's graduation scene. To me, that was the emotional apex of the show, and I think that was designed so brilliantly by the writers, because Cathy's passing then becomes this strange and beautiful and very quiet coda because the emotional highlight of her entire life was getting to see her boy graduate. For all of us that was just the most brilliantly conceived scene. To see him come down those stairs and walk into that room with that huge smile on his face, was I cannot even talk about it without getting a little emotional. It was a really great moment, and the perfect way to end our time together in a celebratory way.

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ETonline: Lastly, what is it that you'll take away from The Big C experience?
Hickey: Two things. First, we never had a huge audience, but the people who loved The Big C loved it with so much devotion and fervor. I think they had that reaction because people who had dealt with cancer personally -- either having it and surviving or living with it or having lost someone -- know that cancer is with everyone. People who got the show, got it in such a great way. Cathy was not a saint. In fact, she was a major screw up for a lot of her illness and I think people found it very refreshing that she wasn't put on television to teach people how to be the perfect cancer patient. No one ever felt preached to by our show and I think I am most proud about that. Secondly, I loved the fact we were characters, not lessons. I mean if Sean went on Match.com, he'd have to list all the complex things that he is: manic-depressive, homeless by choice, dumpster diving, a walking contradiction, deeply free spirited, but very conservative when it came to his sister. He was such a wonderfully mysterious character to play and the thing I will miss most is, week after week, opening up that script and being so stunned and sometimes deeply afraid of what I was going to have to do the next week. Like, am I really now opening up a gay phone sex line? [laughs] It was just a dream for an actor because it is very exciting to read something and think "I don't know how I am going to do this" as opposed to "I could do this in my sleep." It was never boring. The writers took real chances and did some crazy ass sh*t; they were not afraid to kind of run off the rails now and then because they always knew how to find their way back knew they would always have Laura there to make it real. This show would have been unthinkable without her. Laura has everything in that smile. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you see deep inside your soul; it was just the greatest roller coaster ride.

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