Clockwise from bottom left: Paget Brewster, Anton Yelchin, Andy Comeau, Blythe Danner, Oliver Platt, and Hank Azaria in Huff
(Photo © Showtime)
Clockwise from bottom left: Paget Brewster, Anton Yelchin,
Andy Comeau, Blythe Danner, Oliver Platt, and Hank Azaria
in Huff
(Photo © Showtime)
I don't normally encourage people to watch television, since you should all be at the theater instead; but I can happily make an exception for Huff, which begins its second season on Showtime on April 2. For one thing, new episodes of the Emmy-winning series air on Sunday nights at 10pm, when most theaters are dark. (They also air at various other times throughout the week; click here for the schedule.)

More importantly, this brilliant and daring series showcases some of our finest actors -- starting with Spamalot's Hank Azaria, who plays the central character, psychiatrist Craig Huffstodt. (He is also one of the show's producers.) Also on hand are Oliver Platt, soon to open on Broadway in Shining City, as his hedonistic best friend, laywer Russell Tupper; Paget Brewster as Huff's unhappy wife, Beth; Anton Yelchin as their teenage son, Byrd; Andy Comeau as Huff's mentally ill brother, Teddy; and Tony Award winner Blythe Danner as his alcoholic mother Izzy, a role for which she won an Emmy last year.

As icing on the cake, the cast further includes two more Tony winners: Swoosie Kurtz as Beth's cancer-ridden mother Madeline, and Faith Prince as Russell's lower-class, pregnant girlfriend Kelly. In addition, this season will feature guest appearances by Tony winner Ken Howard as Danner's new love interest, Walt Callahan -- the pair played Thomas and Martha Jefferson in the film version of 1776 -- and film stars Sharon Stone and Anjelica Huston.

"Sharon actually wrote to us and asked to be on the show," says Azaria. "As for Anjelica, the part was written for her, but we never thought she'd do it. It turns out that not only did she love the script, but her husband [artist Robert Graham] is a big fan of the show. Huff really has no small roles, which is why so many actors like to come on. They can sink their teeth into the parts." (Among the other guest stars this season are Tom Skerritt, Dakin Matthews, and David Clennon.)

Azaria is very happy with the way the second season has turned out and is particularly pleased with the opening episode. "It's really heartbreaking, just like a Tennessee Williams play," he says. "Everyone is this family is seriousy screwed up, but in a realistic and poignant way. They're starting to blame each other, which is where the fireworks begin. I knew that I wanted to extend my character emotionally this season, and he really is beginning to unravel."

Has Azaria felt pressure to live up to the show's hype? "Of course, there's pressure to make it better or just as good," he says. "I think you learn from your mistakes -- like, we don't need to start every episode with a therapy session -- and improve on what you did well. I think our writing settled in and the cast began to feel more comfortable as we kept shooting. What's also great is that we're becoming much more of an ensemble, and everyone is getting his or her own storyline. We're especially going to follow much more of Teddy, who's no longer in the asylum. Andy does such a terrific job; it's very difficult playing a schizophrenic, and I really hope he's not overlooked at Emmy time. And I think Blythe could certainly win another Emmy."

Huff's relationship with Russell has resonated with many fans, and the chemistry between Azaria and Platt doesn't only exist onscreen; the pair became bosom buddies at Tufts University (where, full disclosure, I attended with them). "It's not lost on us that, 20 years later, we get to play these close friends on TV. I have to say, Oliver was a better actor than I was in college, and he really inspired me. "

As much as Azaria still loves acting, he also finds that he very much enjoys producing the show. "Being a producer and director -- I directed one of the episodes this season -- is really how I want to spend the second half of my career," he states. "I like being part of telling the story, and it's also a lot less strenuous. But on Huff, I leave most things up to Bob Lowry [the show's creator] and the writers, because it's their vision. If I see anything that seems really unbelievable or clunky, then I raise a red flag."

Faith Prince was originally contacted about doing one episode last year as Kelly, an electronics store employee who ends up having a vigorous one-night stand with Russell. "When my agents told me about the audition, they said, 'She's a bizarre character and you're going to have to show the top of your rear end,' " Prince relates. "I thought, 'I don't know why anyone would want to see that, but okay!' I have to say it was one of the most fun auditions I've ever been on. Even the guy who told me where to park the car was really nice."

Faith Prince in Huff
(Photo © Cliff Lipson/Showtime)
Faith Prince in Huff
(Photo © Cliff Lipson/Showtime)
While she was shooting the last scene of the episode, Prince recalls, "Bob Lowry gave me a long, hard look and said he had an idea. Three weeks later, I was told they had written me into three more episodes -- and that I was pregnant. I thought maybe they didn't know how old I was, but apparently that's what they found interesting." Still, Prince didn't necessarily expect to have much to do in season two, so she went to audition for some pilots. "When they heard I might get another series, that's when the producers told me that I would be a regular character for the next two years," she says.

The actress is very pleased by this turn of events: "It's the best job I've ever had, and I know it. It's the first TV show I've ever done where I run to open the envelope to see what's inside the script. I still work mostly with Oliver -- we had done Urban Blight together at Manhattan Theater Club, and we have good chemistry -- but I have some scenes with Sharon Stone that are really hysterical. I heard she specifically wanted to work with me. And meeting Anjelica was really great; she is so down to earth."

And how does Prince feel about working with Azaria? "We didn't have one scene together this year," she says, "but Hank is very overt in telling you what he thinks about your work. I find him very parental in that way. Plus, I am at all the read-throughs, and the joke around the company is that I always read the loudest. Some TV actors speak very softly, but my sentiment is always, 'Sing out, Louise!' "