Saffron Burrows Finds the Humanity in a Sex- and Drug-Filled ‘Jungle’

by Stacy Lambe 2:05 PM PST, January 07, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

Ahead of its second season, which premiered on Amazon Prime just before the New Year, Mozart in the Jungle landed two Golden Globe nominations -- a surprise for both fans and the cast alike.

“There’s so much out there at the moment that’s really good, so I’m just really thrilled,” Saffron Burrows, the actress and an ensemble star of Mozart, tells ETonline. The nominations follow the success of Transparent, Amazon’s first big splash into original programming, which garnered five Emmys and two Golden Globes for its first season. “It’s a whole new world of watching.”

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Created by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Tony-nominated director Alex Timbers, Mozart is loosely based on oboist Blair Tindall’s memoir, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, which details her rise through the sex and drugs of New York’s classic music scene. It lifts the veil on what many probably assumed was a squeaky-clean world. Gael Garcia Bernal, who is nominated for a Golden Globe, plays Rodrigo De Souza, a character based on real-life conductor Gustavo Dudamel. (Fun fact: Dudamel makes a cameo opposite his on-screen persona as a stage manager in season two.)

While real-life experiences serve as the basis for the show, Burrows says it’s merely a starting point, not truly following the narrative of the memoir or specific details of Dudamel’s life. “It’s quite free-floating,” she says, adding a quote from executive producer Paul Weitz: “The specificity is universality.”

“That’s the thing about this show and all of these subcultures -- whether it’s Breaking Bad or Veep -- you’re taking a look at something up close that reflects all of humanity and how we behave with each other,” she continues.

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Burrows plays Cynthia Taylor, a veteran cellist who pays no mind to servicing former conductor Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) in the back of a limo or sleeping with a labor lawyer played by Gretchen Mol while serving as a mentor to a young musician played by Lola Kirke. “I can go anywhere I please,” the actress says of her freewheeling character.

Cynthia, an amalgam of personalities from Tindall’s world, spearheads the labor negotiation in season two. It’s a fight that Burrows says may normally sound dry or dull, but is really about “the integrity of their lives.” And in Mozart’s case, it gets a splash of sexual intrigue. 

Photo: Amazon

The 43-year-old actress attributes Mozart’s strength and unique appeal to its creators. It comes from the collaboration of Coppola, Schwartzman and Timbers, who form an unusual combination of elements that balance out the diverse cast. In season two, the show escapes the city limits of New York to explore the Latin American culture of Mexico City.

For her part, Burrows is London-born, but enjoys a bohemian life, splitting her time between the U.K., Los Angeles and New York City, where Mozart is filmed. Openly bisexual, Burrows is married to her longtime partner, Alison Balian, who is a writer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The two have one son together.

As an added benefit for Burrows, the family all lives with her while filming and her 3-year-old son gets to visit the set and join her for cello practice at home. “I feel fortunate at the moment that I have a job where some of it can overlap into my family life,” she says.

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Her film and TV career, which spans over 20 years, has seen her star opposite Brad Pitt in Troy, survive shark attacks in Deep Blue Sea, and play a lawyer on Boston Legal. She’s even played a cellist twice before. “It keeps turning up in my life and now I feel like I probably should be getting better at it,” Burrows jokes, but it’s an instrument that she says you can’t really pretend to play. “Sadly for me, that means a lot of work.”

Yet, the commitment is worthwhile. “The feeling of it is more important than anything else,” she says. “It should be in your body, and I suppose that’s what I aspire to -- that feeling that’s in you when you come to play it.”

That’s what the show is really about. “This is an exploration of a group of people who love doing what they do,” Burrows says.