On paper, the character of Sean Tolkey -- a bipolar, hyper-sexual, anti-establishment environmentalist who longs to live "off the grid" -- sounds like a dream for any actor to dig into. But in the hands of Tony-winner John Benjamin Hickey, Sean has become so much more than the sum of his dysfunctions.
And in The Big C's third season (which comes to a close on June 17), Sean was at his most stable despite engaging in an array of activities so shocking -- few characters could convincingly segue from running a gay phone sex line to being one-third of a "thruple" -- even Hickey admits to blushing a few times at table reads.
While series lead Laura Linney was nominated for an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Emmy last year (an act she'll likely repeat on July 19), odds-makers are betting on her "brother" this year as well for his fierce and ferociously funny full-bodied commitment to one of TV's most unique characters. ETOnline caught up with Hickey to talk about this unprecedented journey, where he's hoping it goes and how he's hoping it ends.
ETOnline: Looking back on season three, what have you thought of it?
John Benjamin Hickey: You know, it's been a highly controversial season, but I just continue to love that about the people who do this show. It's so bold. My partner writes for Modern Family, and says the great thing about our show is that you never know what the f*ck is going to happen when you turn on the television. It's not about somebody finding their better self – I mean, Cathy is a real f*ck up, as is everyone else in her family, but there is always a way our writers bring it back to this primal place at the end of the season. And I believe Sunday's stunning season finale does that once again. I hope we get another season to finish her story, whatever that ending is.
ETOnline: Season three has been an interesting one for Sean -- not only because of the phone sex line and "thruple," which we'll get to in a minute, but because I feel like he's in the "best" place emotionally he ever has been.
Hickey: I agree. The meds are working, but I think that in spite of all his big talk, a lot of his stability comes from finally being a part of this family. I think he likes the connection of living across the street from his sister.
ETOnline: And he held up several jobs this season, the most noteworthy being a phone sex line. Those scenes had to be odd, no matter how "professional" one is.
Hickey: Absolutely. Victor Garber, who played Willie Wanker, and I had that crazy run of ridiculous things I can't bring myself to repeat right now [laughs]. Some of it was a little too much for me and God knows my boundary are pretty out there – we always tried to make it like the really dirty stuff was happening on the other end of the line and Sean was a great, non-judgmental facilitator.
ETOnline: Were you surprised by his willingness to run a gay phone sex line?
Hickey: One of the things I've always loved about Sean as a character is that while he completely identifies as heterosexual, he has absolutely no hang-ups about sexual fluidity. Therefore, running a gay phone sex line is the same as running a straight one to him. It didn't make him defensive in any way. I love how free he is in that way.
ETOnline: That sexual freedom led him to a "thruple" (three person couple) in the last few episodes. What ran through your head when that storyline was presented?
Hickey: I remember thinking that no matter what I do in the rest of my career, I will never have this kind of journey again. It's so singular and so incredibly bold. The sh*t he gets to do is so out there. I just unfasten the seatbelt and fly. Weirdly enough, the phone sex line and "thruple" offered a more conventional storyline than last season because it wasn’t as much explaining why he is the way he is, it was just letting him unleash.
ETOnline: I felt like we learned a lot about Sean through that relationship -- it wasn't so much that he was desperate to find love, but that he was seeking to find a love that made sense to him emotionally. What is it that you learned about Sean through this process?
Hickey: Sean talks a big game about not wanting anybody to tie him down. In the thruple, it was all about his needs being met, but I think at his core he longs for a connection – for some feeling of stability and I think domesticity is probably the answer. I think that's why he's better this season – he has a home and is close to his family. For all of his unconventional ways of looking at the world, Sean's got a deeply conservative soul. He can be very judgmental, especially of his sister when he feels she's strayed or gone off her path. I think it's one of the things that makes him an interesting character. Like most human beings, he’s a mass of contractions.
ETOnline: I can't see any scenario in which The Big C doesn't get another season, so what would you like for Sean next year?
Hickey: I would love for Sean to really show up for his sister. Everyone on the show has moments of remarkable selfishness, and selflessness, but more than anything else in the world, Sean is terrified of losing his sister. If we get a fourth season, I would love for Sean to be well enough and present enough to really be there for Cathy – and for her to know that.
ETOnline: Given its premise, The Big C isn't a show that can run for 20 seasons. Do you have a sense of how many the writers are planning to tell this story in?
Hickey: I think, ideally, it would be 5 seasons. But it's very complicated and there are a lot of people making a lot of decisions and looking at a lot of numbers I have no participation in. If we're lucky enough, I know the writers would love to make each season one of the five stages – we haven't done acceptance yet. And I would love to see all the characters learn to find a way to be a family and be there for Cathy. To figure out how to be a family, and function in their own crazy, dysfunctional ways.
ETOnline: At the end of the series, does Cathy live or die in your opinion?
Hickey: I think the story was written as a character who succumbs. I don't want to put it out into the world that cancer means death, millions of people have proven that to not be the case, but I think in this story – about a woman who figures out how to live while she is terminal – it's about how she lives before she dies. In those terms, then I believe this story has a definite end and that's Cathy dying from cancer.
ETOnline: Sunday brings the third season to a close and The Big C has become known for big cliffhangers. Same true this year?
Hickey: Absolutely, there's a real question mark at the end of this season. The writers have done a great, great job this season in leaving a huge existential question mark hanging over the lives of these characters. Where they are, where they want to be, what they want and what they want from each other. This last episode is so much about Cathy -- what she wants and what she's willing to stick with or let go of in that quest.
The Big C airs Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on Showtime.