When you were first auditioning for the show, what attracted you to Nate?
I loved the whole script. I had just finished working on Sports Night for two years. That had been cancelled in May and I was auditioning for this in June or July. It all happened really fast. I’d read the script and thought it would strike a chord. I'd never seen anything like it before.
Interestingly, the first season finished airing right before fall of 2001. I was in San Diego surfing on September 11, 2001. My son was two months away from being born into the world. After the events of that day, I remember thinking about Six Feet Under and wondering if viewership would be affected by this great tragedy that involved lots of death. I think there may have been some people who steered away from hearing about death -- and then there may have been some people who were more interested in watching for therapeutic purposes.
What made the pilot so unique?
Unlike a show about doctors or cops, this was life and death every day. People coming and going every day: What were their life stories? What is the life story you’re telling right now?
Did anything guide your portrayal of Nate?
The one thing I really keyed in upon was Nate trying to live an authentic life and how difficult that is when you have other people wanting you to be someone other than who you want to be at times. It starts off with Claire asking Nate if he can stay a little longer in the pilot episode. You can see Nate’s shoulders sink. It’s a wonderful shot that Alan Ball conceived of with Claire in the foreground and Nate in the background. That moment to me, along with Nathaniel Sr.’s death, kicks off the series because you’re dealing with a child that wanted to leave home and is now getting sucked back in.
What advice would you have given Nate?
Go back to Seattle! For some people the power of family can be really suffocating.
The series finale is universally acclaimed -- what about it resonates so deeply?
I think it was the finality of that show and that the series hadn’t tired yet; in some ways it felt like it ended abruptly. We were all kind of shocked when [series creator] Alan Ball called us and said, “This is going to be it.” The cast all felt we had more stories to tell, but I think that Alan’s decision elevated the whole series into a work of art. It shows that death frames life. A lot of people were motivated to live life more fully and make decisions that felt more true to them because of that series; a lot of us on the show made bigger decisions during that period of time.
I did some things I always wanted to do. I learned how to surf. I climbed I climbed Mount Shasta in California and then Mount Lyell, which is the highest peak in Yosemite. There were some smaller, personal things as well.
When did you learn that Nate would die?
I didn’t know when we started the fifth season, but it was shortly after that that Alan let me know what was going to happen. It didn’t come as a surprise to me. He’d already built in the ticking time bomb with the arteriovenous malformation in his brain.
Do you think Nate's story was finished?
I think it’s an abrupt, sudden death -- a life that didn’t get to totally express itself. Recently, Prince dying was so sudden and tragic. The amount of music he produced is quite staggering but still there was more to give. That seemed to be a premature death. There was more story to be told, and I think that was the same case with Nate.
He was in the midst of really trying to be an authentic human being and in some cases, was messing up other peoples’ lives. He’s been described, by Alan even, as a narcissist, but I never really looked at it that way. Playing him, I always felt like the sacrifices he was making for other people ran contrary to his actual desires. He was frequently finding himself in a pickle within himself.
Other than Nate, who was your favorite character?
I really enjoyed Nathanial Sr., who was not necessarily himself, but a reflection of the idea of who he was in each character’s mind. Some of that just had to do with [actor] Richard Jenkins; he was always a breath of fresh air when he came around. I love Nikolai [played by Ed O'Ross]. Jeremy Sisto [who played Billy Chenowith] and I are quite good friends, so we’d avoid each other when we had to work together because Nate and Billy’s relationship is so contentious.
Do you have a favorite episode or storyline?
I think the pilot is a great short film in and of itself. There’s this really great stretch of wonderful episodes -- the latter half of the first season; “Room,” “Brotherhood,” “Crossroads,” “Life’s Too Short” directed by Jeremy Podeswa, “The New Person” directed by Kathy Bates with Illeana Douglas, and “The Trip,” directed by Michael Engler and written by Rick Cleveland. The writers, actors and directors were really in step. The collective excitement was contagious, as was the collective commitment. Everybody was really deeply into it.
Any other memories from set?
Michael [C. Hall, who played David] and I had both gone to NYU to the same graduate acting program. We immediately had a language for acting with each other. That’s my greatest gift from that show -- my friendship, not only with Michael but Lauren [Ambrose, who played Claire]. We really felt like siblings. That world came alive.
I also want to call out [producer] Alan Poul, who was a silent hero on that show. He kept everything together for everybody. I can’t say enough about Alan Poul’s presence and what a stabilizing force he was.
Any advice to viewers about to start the series for the first time?
You’re in for a treat and if you have any advice, keep a box of Kleenex handy. Maybe don’t watch too many in a row.