From his tragic performance as Congressman Peter Russo on House of Cards to his regular appearances as the Anderson Cooper-esque Dill Harcourt on Girls, Corey Stoll has long been a familiar face for prestige TV viewers. But there was one big show that eluded him.
“I tried a number of times to get on Mad Men when it was on the air but I never managed to,” the actor tells me by phone this week. Stoll did, however, manage to land a particularly “juicy” role, as he puts it, in Matthew Weiner’s highly anticipated follow-up series The Romanoffs, the first two episodes of which premiered on Amazon this past Friday.
In the limited anthology series’ second episode, titled “The Royal We,” Stoll plays Michael Romanoff, a sexually frustrated suburban test prep teacher who sends his wife Shelly (the delightful Kerry Bishé) off on a cruise ship full of descendants of the original Romanov Dynasty so he can spend the weekend pursuing a mysterious woman he met while on jury duty.
Michael is the type of narcissistic mess that Stoll excels with best, letting just enough humanity seep through all of the awfulness that we don’t completely write him off as a monster—until the final moments of the episode when we absolutely do. This is your final spoiler alert before the episode’s genuinely shocking ending is revealed.
After spending the weekend seducing and then sleeping with his new friend from jury duty, Michael agrees to go on a hike with Shelly. When they reach the top of the mountain, he takes the opportunity to shove her off a cliff. But—surprise!—she miraculously survives. And now she knows what he really thinks of her. Michael’s attempt to gaslight her into thinking it was an accident is a sight to behold.
As Stoll explains, he “completely misread” the scene when he first got the script, adding that the attempted murder “100 percent” took him by surprise. “I think I elevated the humanity of Michael Romanoff in my mind,” he admits. In our conversation, Stoll talks about how Weiner helped him nail the episode’s tricky tone as well as what it was like to portray another emotionally flawed character—Buzz Aldrin—in Damien Chazelle’s new film First Man.
What did Matthew Weiner tell you about The Romanoffs and Michael Romanoff specifically when you were first approached to play this role?
It was funny. I got the scripts and then didn’t speak to him at all until the table read. I think he really is eager to let his writing speak for itself. Most of our discussions were about tone. Who the character is and what his motivations are is very clear and there was very little mystery about that. But the tone was very specific and I think I had it a little wrong at the table read.
He just said, “It’s a comedy, Corey.” Which was very helpful. And very liberating. It’s not that you don’t take the character seriously, there’s just sort of a certain heightened, crisp quality to the way he likes to have his lines spoken. It was a steep learning curve, but it made everything make a lot more sense on the page. And in terms of The Romanoffs in general, very little. He barely spoke to us about the other episodes. He was really good about making us feel like we were the only ones. He was 100 percent focused on this story and this genre. I definitely got the sense that each episode is almost a different genre.
It’s an anthology series, but in a lot of ways The Romanoffs feels like eight separate films. Did the experience feel similar to shooting a movie?
Absolutely. The story is self-contained with a very distinct beginning, middle and end. For a movie, it would be a very fast, scrappy schedule. But for a TV show it was by far the most luxurious schedule I’d ever had. We had like 18 days or something. And certainly the way it was shot, there was no unnecessary coverage, no sense of second-guessing what we should be filming because of what the network was going to say. The writer and director had final cut right there and it was very much one person’s vision.
That’s clearly a freedom he earned through his work on Mad Men. Were you a big fan of the show when it was on?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely up there with a handful of the best shows ever made. And his attention to detail and his commitment to telling his story his own way is so evident. I haven’t seen the other episodes, but it was really exciting to be working with the same creator who had created this incredible world that I spent six years in. But this was a whole new world. It felt like the same artist doing something new, which was really exciting. I tried a number of times to get on Mad Men when it was on the air but I never managed to.
I was going to ask if you had ever auditioned for any roles on that show.
I don’t think I ever auditioned but I certainly lobbied my agent to get me on the show and I guess there just wasn’t anything for me. In some way, this is much better. This is such a juicy role to get and to be able to tell this complete story.
Your character Michael is fairly irredeemable for most of the episode. How do you approach playing someone so flawed?
I think of acting as an opportunity to express all sides of who I am. And to be able to safely express the least noble and weakest, most hateful parts of myself is an incredible privilege. If the audience sees no redeeming qualities in my character then that’s what it is. But even when I’m playing someone so flawed and selfish I try to put my humanity into is. I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for despising this guy.
Can you talk about shooting the end of the episode where Michael pushes his wife off the cliff?
I completely misread it when I read the script first. In general, I misread the tone of the whole thing and I think I elevated the humanity of Michael Romanoff in my mind. I had a lot more empathy for Michael. So as I was reading it and got to that moment, it 100 percent took me by surprise. I didn’t get any of that sense of the foreshadowing that is a lot clearer in the movie. The way I read it was, he was trying to live his best self and really wanted to go on a hike. The opportunity to solve two problems, to kill two birds with one stone as it were, appeared to him and he very impulsively did it. The premeditated aspect of it I didn’t read. I still think it’s an incredible and surprising moment and how spectacularly it fails is really delicious.
The turn that you have to make emotionally when it doesn’t work is striking as well.
It really goes to the central weakness of Michael. He grew up with high expectations thrust upon him and internalized them so there’s an expectation that he’s going to be living this impressive, charmed life. And from the very beginning of the episode you can see he’s not living that and is not dealing with it very gracefully. And so I think he has finally decided to summon all of his faculties and do something bold and he really has no plan B. He’s miserable at it and the only thing he has to fall back on is trying to make it not have happened. Just falling back on gaslighting her.
The same day this episode drops on Amazon, you also have First Man arriving in theaters. You definitely highlight the less genial side of Buzz Aldrin. How much of that came from the script compared to your own research about what he was like then?
It very much comes from the script. I mean, I would love to do “Second Man.” I would love to do the Buzz Aldrin story. I definitely think Josh Singer, who wrote the screenplay, amplified Buzz’s tendency to say the true but inappropriate thing on many occasions. This is true and you hear it from people who meet him, he doesn’t have that particular filter. Everybody that I met who knew him, to a person, says that he’s brilliant. I think they would say he has sort of a lack of patience for people who can’t keep up with that. That being said, this is the Neil Armstrong story. So it’s helpful to have someone in there as kind of a foil for him.
Have you heard from Buzz about what he thinks of your portrayal?
I’ve heard good things. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see him after we shot. But I really hope he likes it. I put a lot of love into that character. There’s some humor in that portrayal, but I really admire him greatly. He showed up to set on our very last day of shooting and I’ve never been more nervous. These guys who became astronauts were experts in physics and they were expert pilots. They were really brilliant, talented, skilled people. They were not taught how to deal with becoming the most famous people overnight. I can’t imagine that kind of pressure.
In an interview last year you said, “there’s probably going to be more controversy about this project than anything I’ve ever worked on, because there are a lot of very passionate people who believe that we never landed on the moon.” What did you make of the whole controversy over the fact that we don’t see Armstrong literally plant the American flag in the moon landing sequence as well as the way Aldrin himself weighed in on Twitter with a photo of the flag on the moon and the hashtag “proud to be an American”?
Well, those two things are not mutually exclusive. I don’t think you could find a more patriotic movie than this, so I don’t want to give the controversy any more oxygen. I just don’t think you can question the motivations of the filmmakers. It was without a doubt the most lovingly, painstakingly researched thing I’ve ever been involved in.