Q&A: Jeremy Sisto on The Returned

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In A&E’s English-language remake of acclaimed French series The Returned, Jeremy Sisto plays Peter Lattimore, the town grief counselor, leading group therapy sessions and attempting to help the community accept this seeming miracle of resurrected loved ones. As with lead Mark Pellegrino, Sisto assured Shock that the A&E series diverges from the French version swiftly in the first season when we spoke with him after A&E presented The Returned to the Television Critics Association. 

Shock Till You Drop: After Suburgatory, were you ready to do a drama again?

Jeremy Sisto: Yeah, I am. It was really nice. I loved doing the comedy too, but this has brought back some old challenges. What was nice is, I was on two shows, Law & Order and then Suburgatory for about six years and there’s a real rigid requirement that you bring for each of those. Whether it be rhythm or punchiness or intensity, I got used to having to push for that stuff because it was necessary in the genres I was on.

With something like this or something like Six Feet Under, that’s not your requirement. Your requirement isn’t to keep up the intensity when the intensity isn’t inherently real within the moment. The requirement here is to make it interesting and to make the emotional situation find its way out in a natural and surprising and revealing way. It’s a different set of challenges, but ultimately it’s rewarding in a different way. I like both but it’s nice to be back on that side of things.

Shock: Did you find any similarities between the way the The Returned and Six Feet Under deal with death?

Sisto: No, what was kind of amazing about Six Feet Under was it was death, in a way, in its blandest form. Seeing these people go through these horribly emotional and disturbing times, but seeing it so often that it just becomes something that you don’t necessarily tie any emotion to. You fake emotion. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” because it’s every day. It’s taking a different angle about death. This is different. I know the French one, for me, felt like the conversation was about death, but it was kind of meditating on it in a more magical way. Although it wasn’t speaking to any big questions you or I have about death, it was somehow thematically or just artistically speaking to the magical and unexplainable and beautiful sides of death.

For me, that was the response I had watching the French one. I think that is maybe what I hope comes across in ours, but I’m not exactly sure. Until you see it, I’m not the filmmaker. I’m just the actor in it, so it’s hard to know what they’re putting across ultimately. I think they’re similar in the sense that ultimately they come down to the characters. They come down to the situations with these characters and their emotional needs and their relationships and all that.

Shock: Did you watch the whole season of the French show?

Sisto: Yeah. I think in one sitting.

Shock: As an actor knowing that you were going to do this version, why did you choose to familiarize yourself with that one?

Sisto: Well, I watched it when they told me, “They’re making this thing. Watch this version and see if you like it.” So I watched it first, but then I watched it again before I filmed, because for me, I’ve never done something like that before where they’ve done a complete version of something you’re doing. For me, I was like, “Why would I ignore that?” It seemed silly. I could steal stuff from it. I can leave behind [some things]. I can see how I really responded, because that’s the hardest thing about being an actor for me: knowing what’s coming across.

Sometimes I think I’m feeling something inside and it’s really right, it feels right for the character. Then I see it and I’m like, “Oh, you can’t even see it. I thought you could see it.” So being able to watch the story play out from a viewer’s standpoint I think was very helpful, especially with something as extreme as people coming back to life. There’s many times where you’re like, “Is anyone going to buy this?” Because you don’t know if you’re doing it right. It’s never happened to me. You hope the reaction is right. But you know, I know because I watched the French version. There was the same thing and the questions were still there. Is that really how you’d react? But you’re enthralled by it because of those questions, so that illumination was only possible because of the French version.

Shock: Where does this series diverge from the French?

Sisto: The French one, if I remember correctly, after a few episodes becomes a bit more of a genre zombie thing where there’s a group of zombies in the woods that are acting more like typical pop culture zombies. Their flesh is starting to rot and stuff like that. That stuff starts to take over a little from the character stuff. I think this is just continuing down a road where the characters and the relationships are king and are the story. After a few episodes, by the end of the first season, it’s a completely different show.

Even the mythology behind it is completely different. What’s happening, why it’s happening, its connection to the world; the explanation of it all is very, very different. But at the beginning, there is a similarity there. Obviously there are characters played by a different actor, but there’s a lot of similarities. I imagine for people who have seen it before, they might have to push themselves to watch a couple to get enthralled. I know there’s going to be some sense of watching it and being like “Oh, he’s that character,” especially if you’ve watched it recently. It’s like oh, he was that character and that’s that character. I imagine there’s a little distance there. It’s going to be a little more difficult for you to get invested in these characters knowing that. But if you haven’t watched it for a while, I don’t think it’ll be a problem and ultimately, as long as you stick with it for a couple episodes, I think that won’t be a concern.

Shock: Before “The Returned” return, do you think your character deals with grief particularly well?

Sisto: Well, my character is the grief counselor. He’s a psychologist and he runs the community center. He is somebody that these people, who have been through a hard few years because there was a school bus accident, I help. I’m an emotional support to those who have lost.

Shock: Is there a sense that by the books, if you will, the way he’s operating might not be appropriate for this community that’s living a different set of natural rules?

Sisto: Before, he’s actually quite typical. It’s group therapy, talking your feelings out, remembering your children with positivity and not with morbidity. Then afterwards, it becomes a wholly different thing. He invests himself in and puts a lot on the line to try to get this town to accept the returned. A lot of the people have a very difficult time accepting it and accepting them back into their community. Then my job as a community leader shifts to trying to make that happen.

Shock: Does it throw a wrench into the grieving process when you say, “Okay, stop grieving. They’re back. Now enjoy them?”

Sisto: Yeah, totally. And also, the first girl who comes back is a 16-year-old girl. So her sister, who is now four years older, has gone through hell having lost her sister. Now this girl comes back. She has no memory of it. It was like it was yesterday. I went on the schoolbus and I came home. So then as a parent, you’re trying to be everything you need to be to this daughter who is completely confused, and to the other daughter who’s been mourning in maybe destructive ways.

There’s a lot of complicated elements because yeah, you’re not grieving anymore. There’s disbelief that it’ll stay, that she won’t just disappear again. In the same way that death has almost a surreal effect on life at times, where you start to not trust the ground you walk on, in a similar fashion, that’s what happens here. They start to not believe anything they see. Everything they’ve been taught, everything they’ve come to understand is being shifted. That makes it pretty difficult to operate the same way.

Shock: Do you have any films on the way after The Returned premieres?

Sisto: Yeah, I’ve got a couple movies coming out this year. I’ve got a Fox horror movie, elevated horror movie they call it, called The Other Side of the Door. I don’t know what elevated means. It just means better than a horror movie, I don’t know. It just means it’s not a slasher film. It’s more like a ghost kind of thing.I have a movie I produced, co-wrote and acted in called Break Point that premiered at SXSW last year and will be released this year.

Shock: Oh yeah, I saw Break Point. That was a comedy too, so you really got to get back to comedy before The Returned.

Sisto: That was more of a dramedy. Funny characters, not funny [situation]. Then I have another horror movie called Hangman. I did a couple of movies, one called Girl Flu which is a pretty cool indie about a girl who gets her first period, dealing with that. A couple others and I’m hoping to direct my first film this year. I’m finishing a script with a couple of writers. I’m hustling, and I’m looking for work. Got a job for me?

The Returned premieres March 9 on A&E