At first glance, USA Network’s summer miniseries “Political Animals” might seem as if it’s based on the story of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
But this six-week series — billed as a “limited series event” by USA — tells the story of a fictional First Family inspired by more than just the Clintons, insist the series’ producers and its stars.
Timed to coincide with the current political fervor being churned up by the ongoing presidential contest, “Political Animals” is about the family of a former president named Bud Hammond and his wife, Elaine Barrish. Sigourney Weaver plays the former First Lady and Ciarin Hinds, who many may remember as Julius Caesar in the HBO series “Rome,” plays President Hammond.
As the miniseries begins (it premieres this Sunday night, July 15, at 10/9c), the former First Lady, who has by this time become Secretary of State, is running for president herself, but conceding defeat for the Democratic nomination. Her husband — a brash, popular president in his time, but nevertheless a philandering cad — is talking to her about what to do next. Instead of heeding his counsel, she announces that she’s divorcing him. And that’s where our story begins.
Eventually, she’ll serve as Secretary of State in the administration of the man who knocked her out of the primaries, President Paul Garcetti (played by Adrian Pasdar of “Heroes”).
Any of this sound familiar? Of course, it sounds like the Clintons’ story, except they didn’t get divorced. Seen in that light, “Political Animals” is kind of a “what if” story about Bill and Hillary — if the two had divorced after they left the White House.
But the series’ principal creator, Greg Berlanti, told us that much more than just the Clintons’ story went into this project, though he did acknowledge “borrowing” from them. “We definitely borrowed from a lot of that,” he said. But he and others cited a handful of additional sources and inspirations from the world of politics.
Berlanti said several times he was more influenced by the story of Madeline Albright, the first female Secretary of State in U.S. history, than Hillary Clinton when he created the Sigourney Weaver character. While Albright was never married to a president, Berlanti adopted elements of Albright’s experiences as Secretary of State for Elaine Barrish — elements taken from Albright’s autobiography, “Madam Secretary,” which he read while writing the series.
“I think [the Clintons] are, in a lot of ways, the preeminent power couple and so it seemed to me like that would be an element of [the series],” he said. “But once you start writing the characters … Madeline Albright’s book ‘Madam Secretary’ … was more informative. … It was sort of a blending of different things.”
Added co-producer Laurence Mark, “Once [Elaine] says after 10 minutes [into the show] ‘I want a divorce,’ it becomes our story that we’re writing.”
Indeed, much of “Political Animals” is clearly fictional. Hillary Clinton became a U.S. senator before becoming Secretary of State. And unlike the Clintons, these Hammonds have no daughter, but two, grown twin sons, one of whom is openly gay. And the name of Lyndon Johnson came up repeatedly in interviews with principals when they talked about the President Hammond character, a shrewd, charismatic southerner (from North Carolina).
Berlanti noted that, even up to the last minute, he was touching up portions of the miniseries’ script in response to things he’d read in historian Robert Caro’s newest LBJ volume, “The Passage of Power.”
Hinds, too, cited LBJ when asked about his portrayal of Hammond. Among other things, the Irish-born actor had to work hard on Hammond’s southern accent. “The behavioral patterns of the man would seem to mirror Bill Clinton,” Hinds told us, “but his speech patterns and his use of language sort of mirror Lyndon B. Johnson. They’re just a bit more southern, they’re a bit more earthy, they’re a bit more of Johnson,” the actor said.
For her part, Weaver said she never modeled her Barrish character on Hillary Clinton. Instead, she drew from female role models from her own life — teachers, a head mistress, and the like. “I was really delighted to have the opportunity to channel some of the amazing mentors I’ve had in my life, even from grade school,” Weaver said. “My head mistress, my English teacher — [the role] is much more to me about leadership, than politics, about the quality of leadership.”
“Political Animals” also stars Carla Gugino as a crusading journalist who clashes, then bonds with the Barrish character; and Ellen Burstyn, who plays the Secretary of State’s outspoken mom.
“Political Animals” premieres Sunday, July 15, at 10/9c on USA Network.