Norbert Leo Butz is a two-time Tony Award-winning actor who has starred in such Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals as “Rent,” “Wicked,” “The Last 5 Years,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “Big Fish,” as well as straight plays. He’s one of my personal favorites, so I always try to catch him in a concert or on stage whenever possible.
Now, however, he’s concentrating on the small screen with two series that have received a lot of buzz and critical acclaim – “Bloodline” on Netflix and “Mercy Street” on PBS. “Mercy Street” is currently shooting its season 2 for an air date yet to be announced, but the wait for “Bloodline” season 2 is just about over. You can binge-watch it to your heart’s content starting Fri., May 27, 2016. I can’t wait to find out what the Rayburns are up to now.
On “Bloodline,” Norbert plays Kevin Rayburn, a man with two brothers and a sister in a prominent family in the Florida Keys. If you haven’t yet watched season 1, you have just enough time to catch up and watch the Rayburn family move toward destruction. In season 2, we’ll see the aftermath of what happened in season 1.
On “Mercy Street,” Norbert plays Dr. Byron Hale, a Civil War-era surgeon who is threatened by the presence of another doctor at his hospital – Dr. Jedediah Foster, played by “How I Met Your Mother’s” Josh Radnor.
I had a great conversation with Norbert on the phone about how much he loves working on both shows, what he’s learned from his castmates, and what we can expect in season 2 of each series.
According to Norbert, the second season of “Bloodline” picks up right where season 1 left off without any break in time. “In a nutshell, at the end of the season, they’re all left in this sort of really emotionally and spiritually scary place where they’ve just done this act, and you see them maybe just become aware of the enormity of what they’ve done,” he said.
Norbert’s character, Kevin, is a bit of a hot head, so dealing with the events of season 1 are perhaps hardest for him of all the Rayburn siblings. “My veneer starts to crack first, I think it’s safe to say,” Norbert told me, “or at least in the most overt way. So, yeah, he has a real rough start to the season. He’s almost paralyzed from the guilt and really haunted by the specter of Danny – not literal specter. There’s not going to be a Danny ghost or anything. He really starts to lose, I think, his mental faculties, but then, there’s an interesting arc throughout the season. I guess he maybe bottoms out first, but then he starts to get his mojo back a little bit. He starts to pull it together.”
The dynamics between Kevin and his other siblings shift and change throughout the season. “What’s cool to watch with the rest of the dynamic between the Rayburn siblings is like at different times, one of them is falling apart and one of them is keeping it together and assuming the role of the leader in the family. But it’s obviously a desperate situation,” Norbert said.
The scripts for “Bloodline” are hardly engraved in stone. The creators shape it as the show is being shot, often shooting alternate endings to scenes and episodes, so that the actors don’t even know what’s going to happen until they see the finished product. While Norbert has read the scripts for all of season 2, he isn’t necessarily sure what was changed during the course of shooting the episodes. Season 1 was a bit of a surprise to him.
“I was watching it, going, ‘Wow, I’m in this show, and I don’t even know who that person on the screen is. I don’t even know what’s happening in the story’ because that storyline would have changed,” Norbert said. “Sometimes, you don’t know what’s going to happen to your character until the night before you shoot the scene. So, sometimes, you get a great big surprise at the very last minute, which is scary sometimes. You don’t have a whole lot of time to prepare.”
Despite whatever challenges this way of working causes, Norbert said he thinks it’s an opportunity for maximum creativity on the part of the creators, allowing them to use long-form streaming to their advantage.
Every day of shooting “Bloodline” was a bit emotionally draining – so much so that watching the season 2 trailer was difficult. “[The trailer was] amazingly done, but it also, I have to say, made me kind of sick to my stomach because a lot of that stuff – it was a tough season to shoot,” Norbert explained. “Obviously, every single scene, you’re just playing different versions of terror, acute anxiety, grief, rage, existential sadness. At least for Kevin, it’s like a real swirling eddy of trauma. Trauma is really the word.”
But don’t think for a moment that Norbert finds working on the show to be a drudge. He’s quick to point out that it’s the “greatest job” he’s ever had.
“I love, love, love shooting in the [Florida] Keys,” he said. “I love living there. My cast mates are – I mean, it’s the best. You just don’t get better actors to work with. It’s like the highest level of performers and directors and writing. So, it’s a really great, great gig.”
In fact, he can’t wait to get back to the Keys. “Now, I’m at the point where I’ve had a few months since we wrapped [“Bloodline”] in February, and now, I’m really itching to get back to Florida. I’m praying we get a third season just because I love it so much down there,” he said.
Of course, when you work with high level industry veterans, it’s almost like being in a top-notch classroom. I asked Norbert what he’s learned from his “Bloodline” castmates. “Oh, my gosh, so much! I’ve learned a ton, and I think I had the steepest learning curve because I’ve mostly been on stage in my career. I’ve sort of left the theater just for little shoots here and there – little one-off series or small roles in films or whatever. This is the longest experience I’ve had on camera,” he said.
“One of the first things I learned and I continue to learn,” he said, “is Sissy [Spacek], Kyle [Chandler], Ben [Mendelsohn], Linda [Cardellini], Sam [Shepard] – these are incredible film and television actors – and they understand that on camera, your energy has to be extremely relaxed. It has to be extremely focused for very short periods of time.”
The usual comparison is that stage actors are long distance runners, while film/television actors are sprinters. Norbert said he thinks this analogy is apt. On stage, the acting requires a kinetic energy that must be sustained and heightened for up to three hours.
In film, Norbert said, “they’re looking for extremely focused sections of like 45 seconds or a minute and ten seconds or seven seconds…. So, I’ve been a distance runner my whole life. I’ve had to learn how to be a sprinter, and I’ve watched how those actors that I mentioned bring a real stillness and a real clarity and a real restraint to a lot of their work because they understand that they’re in a frame of a camera. So, anything extraneous, anything layered onto their work, any extraneous movement or vocal inflection is going to read so false. So, it’s been a great, great learning experience for me.”
Since Kevin is such a emotional, reactive character, this poses a particular challenge for Norbert. He needs to be emotive and restrained at the same time. “It’s like, ‘Wow, how do you do rage in eight different shades as opposed to just two or one?’ [Laughter] What other colors does rage have besides red, you know? It’s tricky, but it’s definitely fun to work on and think about,” he said.
As for “Mercy Street,” Norbert has shot three episodes so far and has three more to go for season 2. He commutes from New Jersey to Richmond, Virginia for the shooting schedule.
What’s the biggest difference between “Bloodline” and “Mercy Street” for him? The language. Not only are the actors allowed to improvise on “Bloodline,” but Kevin is not the most articulate guy. As Norbert said with a laugh, his lines are often equivalent to “F*** that, f*** this, f*** you.”
On the other hand, David Zabel and the other writers of “Mercy Street” have studied the speech patterns of Civil War America. “He [Zabel] is trying to do an amalgamation of mid-19th century speech with some modern inflections to it,” Norbert said. “If you read the diaries of some of the people who lived at the time, they’re writing in much longer sentences, much larger vocabulary, some words that are really no longer in the vernacular of today. That’s really the hardest part. The sentences are much longer, the thoughts are much longer. They’re just more verbal people…. I think that was the trickiest part was memorizing lines that had lots of parenthetical thoughts and run-on sentences and interesting words.”
Last year, Norbert went straight from “Bloodline” to the Civil War uniform of “Mercy Street.” The costuming alone changes his posture. “The clothes do it,” he said. “Buttoned up to the neck, full mid-19th century tie or cravat. Hair meticulously combed. It’s a completely different feel. I like that. Frankly, I was really ready because ‘Bloodline’ is such a dark place to be, and the role is much lighter in ‘Mercy Street.'”
Even the way the characters relate to what they wear is very different. “Kevin is just greasy hands and t-shirts and shorts and sunglasses. And Dr. Hale is really self-conscious of what he wears. He loves the military uniform, stiff back, thick wool, buttoned up,” Norbert said.
Switching between the roles is a real pleasure for the actor. “I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to have both these jobs. It’s like being in a rep company. I used to do a lot of repertory theater. You’re playing different roles all the time, and I love that,” he said.
So, what’s in store for Dr. Hale in season 2? “It’s a really great season for me. The first season was so many characters, so it was really just setting up a lot of situations. Then, the second season, they’ve made it a point to really delve into the nuts and bolts of what surgery was,” Norbert told me.
“I think it’s really fascinating to see,” he continued, “Wow, this is what they did for pain relief, or this is how they did stitches, or this is how they set a bone, or this is how they got rid of what they thought was a blood infection. So, I get to do a lot more medical procedures in this season, which has been cool because he’s kind of an oaf, but he’s actually a really good surgeon. He’s still an oaf, but you see that he’s also excellent at what he does – kind of rough around the edges, terrible bedside manner, but he’s really good. And there’s lots of fun spatting and lovers’ quarrels that go on between Tara Summers’ character [Anne Hastings], and my character. It’s really, really fun.”
Norbert will also do his cabaret show, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” at New York’s Feinstein’s/54 Below club in August at the same time that a CD of the show, which was recorded when he performed it two years ago, will be released. He has no immediate plans to return to the stage, which is a disappointment to New Yorkers, but in the meantime, we get to watch him play two very different roles on TV.
Don’t miss the release of all of season 2 of “Bloodline” on Netflix May 27, 2016. Check out the intense trailer below.