There was something about playing the three wives on "Big Love," HBO's polygamy drama, that made three fine actresses answer: "I do," "I do," "I do."
"I was really shocked at myself for signing on without knowing where it was gonna go, or much of anything else," says Chloe Sevigny, who co-stars with Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin in this unconventionally devout series (following "The Sopranos" at 10 p.m. EDT Sundays).
"But after reading the pilot, I was so moved by it," she continues during a recent communal interview. "And I was fascinated by my character" — Nicki, the sulky middle wife of Salt Lake City merchant and father of seven Bill Henrickson, played by Bill Paxton.
"I got the call about the show when I was in my car," says Sevigny (whose films include "Shattered Glass," "Boys Don't Cry" and "Kids"). "I went and picked up the script at the agency and read it in the parking lot. I had the meeting the same day and we pretty much signed the deal."
"I had months of auditioning," recalls Goodwin (seen in such films as "Walk the Line" and "Mona Lisa Smile," as well as on TV's "Ed"), who was vying for the role of the excitable, childish third wife, Margene. "They gave me a love scene to do as my screen test. I went into a conference room with, like, 25 execs and a camcorder, and Bill and I were seated in two armchairs.
"I thought, `How on Earth am I gonna do a love scene? I'm going to have to sit with him!' So I crawled over, and I kinda feel like we made out. Then, afterward, I had to leave the room to gather myself. Out in the hall, I thought, 'What was I DOING?!'
"I was pulling out of the driveway on the phone with my agent, saying, `I blew it. I made out with a stranger, and I think I must have upset him.'"
Then another call came in: "Welcome to `Big Love'!"
"I'd really been wanting to do a television series," says Tripplehorn (whose film credits include "The Firm," "Mickey Blue Eyes" and "Waterworld," and who appeared in "Three Sisters" on Broadway). "But I don't like legal dramas. I don't like medical dramas. I was looking for a comedy."
Before accepting the part of Barb — Henrickson's wife of 17 years and the matriarchal focus for the whole family — she initially wavered.
"I went through all sorts of emotions: `I don't think I'm right.' `Everyone is really nice.'" But she trusted the script. "The family situation was handled with such dignity and intelligence and class."
"Polygamy is just the backdrop," explains Goodwin, noting the Henricksons' overwhelmingly righteous lifestyle in their three adjoining suburban tract homes. The fact is, "Big Love" seldom turns out to be what you expect.
"I think it's funny how there are a thousand shows out there, and a thousand movies, that are glorifying (extramarital) affairs, while this man is being completely honest with his wives," says Goodwin. (Well, not quite honest: Spicing up his round-robin bedroom regimen, he and Barb have been sneaking around on the others.) "And all his wives love each other."
"We're all married to each other," Tripplehorn agrees. "But I did have a problem in the very beginning with Barb, with bringing dimension to her, because she is so generous in spirit. As we went along, I found subtleties — Barb is selfish in her own way — but at first I felt like she was so saint-like and boring, while Margene and Nicki were so beautifully defined."
"Margene is 23 going on, like, 10," Goodwin says. "She has a way of creating utter chaos, and still finds a way of making none of it her fault.
"But I can only define her now that I have some distance. When we were shooting, I felt messy, while, watching you," she says to Tripplehorn, "I felt like YOU were so specific."
The show was in production from last April through September, "and by the end," says Sevigny, "I was so sick of being a bitch! I thought, `Audiences are gonna hate this character.'"
True, Nicki is a snoop, a shopaholic and often a sourpuss. "But I think she is a very sympathetic character," Sevigny declares. "I fell SO in love with her! It's the greatest part I've ever had."
"I was always telling Chloe how much I wanted that role," says Tripplehorn with a smile.
"When we were shooting one of the final episodes," Sevigny reminds her, "Barb was still a saint and Nicki was still a bitch, and I was sort of freaking out. I said, 'We should trade. Just once.'"
Tripplehorn laughs. "I really wanted us ALL to gang up on Bill."
"Oh, good call!" cackles Goodwin.
"We SHOULD have," Sevigny says slyly, "in a big way. Really get him on something!"
They mean the character Bill Henrickson, who, by God's grace, has maintained a mediating, loving grip on his trio of mates.
In playing him, veteran actor Bill Paxton exhibits similar finesse, the three women report with amusement.
"When I shoot a scene with Bill," says Tripplehorn, "he just talks to me and makes me feel like I'm the MOST important person. About halfway through, I say, 'Bill, I KNOW you say that to the other actresses, too.'"
"He stays really relaxed," says Sevigny. And apparently has a knack for keeping everybody else relaxed, too.
"I don't know if he picked up on the fact that I was nervous about our love scenes," says Goodwin, "but sometimes, beforehand, he would dance around for the whole crew in his underwear."
Just chalk it up as more evidence that, often, the most surprising thing about "Big Love" is what you don't see.