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Digging in for the long run

[Photos: HBO]
Embalmer Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez) works on a body while his boss, Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), watches in a scene from the first season of HBO’s drama based at a funeral home, Six Feet Under.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

Coming off an acclaimed first season, the cast of Six Feet Under faces high expectations as new episodes begin.

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- The corpse is having trouble breathing.

More accurately, actor Chris Ufland is having trouble concealing his breathing.

For most TV shows, this wouldn't be a problem (given the wooden performances delivered by some TV actors, onscreen breathing is a welcome sign). But on the set of HBO's funeral home drama, Six Feet Under, unauthorized breathing is a definite no-no.

On a crisp January evening at Sony's Sunset Gower studios, veteran director Dan Attias (The Sopranos, The Practice) has decided to start a scene set in the "prep room" at Fisher and Sons Funeral Home by moving the camera up from a focus on Ufland's body and onto Freddy Rodriguez, who plays enthusiastic embalmer Federico Diaz.

There's only one problem. The scene, in which Diaz explains how Ufland's character died -- he passed out during an act of autoerotic asphyxiation (choking himself during a sex act) -- lasts about two minutes.

So when does the actor get to breathe?

Attias eventually works out a compromise: a nearby crew member will tap Ufland's leg when he's out of camera range. It's a minor moment in the tricky challenge of assembling what may be HBO's quirkiest drama series yet.

"It's an extremely safe environment on the show," said Rachel Griffiths, who subsumes her native Australian accent to play Los Angeles-born Brenda, girlfriend to Fisher and Sons partner Nate Fisher.

"I never feel like we're being exploited to create sensational story lines," said Griffiths, who was often called upon to enact edgy sexual scenes in the show's first season last year. "To me, what would be difficult is to go to work for six months . . . to work on a show that was meaningless with canned laughter and not be able to pour into my work everything that I am. So this, to me, is actually the easy job."

Say what you will of past HBO hits such as Sex and the City and The Sopranos; at their core, both shows feature the immediate appeal of familiar genres: the sexy urban comedy and the mob drama.

But Six Feet Under, focused on the travails of the Fisher family and their oddball funeral home, fits no easy categories.

Nate and David Fisher are thirtysomething brothers, often at each other's throats; Nate went to Seattle to find himself, while David stayed to run the family funeral home. As Six Feet Under kicked off last year, Nate came home after the death of their father, Nathaniel, in a car accident. Nate was searching for ways to reconnect with his closeted gay brother, David, their slightly misanthropic sister, Claire, their detail-oriented mom, Ruth, and a genius girlfriend, Brenda.

In the process, series creator Alan Ball (American Beauty) tackled the promiscuous and self-destructive behavior of some gay men in struggling to come out, the strain of running a business elbow-deep in death every day, the myriad ways families fail to communicate and the dangers of dating a woman with a manic-depressive brother.

Somehow, buoyed by superior acting, writing and a refusal to do conventional TV -- scenes on this show end by fading to white -- Six Feet Under became a hit. Griffiths and the series itself won Golden Globe awards, becoming the toast of Hollywood's TV scene.

And now the show's cast and crew face what may be their biggest challenge.

Doing it all again.

"When we did the show in its first year, we were in our own little laboratory. . . . We finished shooting (the series) before it even came out," said Michael C. Hall, a New York stage actor who left the cast ofCabaret on Broadway to play David Fisher in Six Feet Under.

"I struggled the first few episodes back, trying to bring everything I had experienced as an audience member to every single scene, and you can't do that," added Hall. "Our job is just to be the guardian of whatever little corner of truth we're responsible for."

"It's very different this season," admitted Peter Krause, a TV veteran (Sports Night, Cybill) who plays Nate Fisher. "This season, Nate's way more f--- up than he was last season . . . way more. Nate's in deep denial about a lot of things, and isn't dealing with them. That's a difficult psychological space to exist in day after day."

Earnest and laid-back, Krause, 36, exudes a bit of California-style spiritualism when asked how the show's success has affected him. Instead of riding the show's buzz directly into a new film or TV project, he took last summer off, climbing a mountain, going to surf camp, fishing with his brother -- anything to get away, however briefly, from the needs of Nate Fisher.

"I spend so much time thinking,"What does Nate want? What does Nate need?' I found I really needed to connect with myself," he said, sprawled on a couch in the set that serves as the main area for funerals at Fisher and Sons.

This season, Nate struggles with the knowledge that he has spots on his brain that could bring death at any moment. Unable to face the truth himself, he's twisted into knots while trying to cope with medical tests, possible treatments and the most painful task: telling those close to him what's going on.

"Nate really loves himself, and he loves life and he doesn't want to say goodbye," Krause said. "He's a person who wants to ignore a lot of painful things . . . and pretend that things don't bother him. It's hard to go home with all that stuff bottled up inside. . . . I definitely bring it home with me."

A look at the second season's first four episodes reveals that every character faces new challenges: Brenda begins distancing herself from Nate emotionally; Claire must cope with her troubled boyfriend's increasing delinquency; Ruth stumbles into a bizarre self-help group with lessons built around architecture terms; David copes with an inability to find a good man; and Federico struggles with anger and shame over his inability to support his family without help.

Stars such as Lili Taylor (The Haunting), Mare Winningham (Georgia) and Grant Show (Melrose Place) make guest appearances, a sure sign of Six Feet Under's show biz success. And Krause reports that fans "get to look inside everybody's head a bit more this year," as if last season's scenes where David and Nate talk to the ghost of their dead father didn't delve deep enough.

In tonight's episode alone, Nate discovers a stray tab of ecstasy David left in an unusual place, Nate has an unusual meeting with death and life in a dream, and an up-and coming horror movie star meets an untimely end.

It's all business as usual for Ball, a graduate of Florida State University who headed the General Nonsense Theater Company in Sarasota during the early '80s.

"So far, we haven't felt hampered for a moment in the second season," he said, admitting that he's "not ever really aware of what I'm trying to say (in scripts). I just get lost in the story . . . (allowing) the characters to be fully human without trying to therapize them or cure them."

* * *

It seems everyone connected to the show has a story to tell about a fan encounter.

For Ball, it was the older couple with the New Yawk accents who couldn't seem less like your typical HBO subscribers; for Rodriguez, it was the Latino guy behind the counter at a Chicago pizza joint who could barely speak English but knew he liked Federico.

And for Hall, it was the woman at a bowling alley who "walked up, point blank, with no introduction and asked, "Are you gay in real life?' " the actor said, his native North Carolina accent creeping into his words. "I felt like I was in a junior high school dance, or something." (For the sake of clarity, his answer was no).

It's a connection that comes with fans who have stopped seeing the show's cast as characters and have begun responding to them as people -- an odd phenomenon for Hall, who has never starred in a TV series before.

"I don't have a helmet of shellacked, Sears floor (salesman) hair . . . and I'd like to think I'm a little more relaxed," Hall said, ticking off the ways he doesn't resemble David Fisher. "It's something I have to get used to . . . because this is really my first time acting in front of a camera. You really do feel, in a way, as though your soul has been captured."

Last year, Hall's David Fisher struggled with accepting his own sexuality, picking up men he barely knew in gay bars, using male prostitutes and busting up a relationship with a caring, loving police officer (fear not, his former flame Keith Charles is still in the mix this season).

"I love the first episode back; there's a dinner party where everyone's invited and everybody but David has a significant other," said Hall, 31. "He's finally come to this place of relative self-acceptance. But just because he had an epiphany in church and came out to his mother doesn't mean those issues still don't play a big part in his life."

Ball, who is gay, agreed, noting that he based much of David Fisher's struggles in coming out last season on his own experiences.

"For me, being a gay man, your biggest enemy is yourself," said the producer. "It's not the religious right, it's not the Republicans. Yes, they present you with challenges, but your biggest enemy is your own internal self-hatred."

Diaz, right, sits with David Fisher (Michael C. Hall), Nate’s brother. Hall left Cabaret on Broadway to join the show, in which he plays a gay man who struggles with his sexuality.
Such realism and honesty are also what excite Rodriguez, who met Ball while working on the producer's failed ABC sitcom Oh Grow Up. Ball wrote the Diaz character especially for Rodriguez, who said he has tried hard to avoid stereotypical Latino roles throughout his career.

"It's kind of a Catch-22. . . . A lot of Latinos see (Hispanic) actors on TV playing the drug dealers or gang bangers, (in heavy accent) talkin' like dis, and say you're playing a stereotype," said the actor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico. "But when you play a role that's not like that, they'll say you're selling out."

For Rodriguez, Six Feet Under has also liberated funeral directors, who at long last have a series focused on their profession.

"The few (funeral directors) I have met . . . you can see this light in their face, like they can't believe there's a show about them," added Rodriguez. "It's almost like the Hunchback of Notre Dame who has been put away in this tower for years and finally gets brought out to the public. It's great."

Still, in one of the show's biggest ironies, Ball has already made plans to be cremated when he dies.

That's right: The guy who has made a mint exploring the drama of modern-day funerals doesn't want one himself.

"I've been to my share of funerals, and I hate them and I don't want to put my friends through them," added Ball, who said he often taps the feelings of frustration and despair that followed his sister's sudden death in a car accident when he was 13.

"Besides, anybody who knows a lot about what undertakers actually do to bodies will want to be cremated," he said, laughing. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . . let's just speed up the process."

At a glance

Six Feet Under begins its second season at 9 tonight on HBO. Grade: A-. Rating: TV-MA (mature audiences).

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