Back Stage: Where did the idea to do a comedy about cancer come from?
Darlene Hunt: My agents thought [producer] Vivian Cannon might be somebody that I clicked with. I sat down with her with no expectations, and really, when she said "cancer comedy," I just perked up. The funny thing is that it really wasn't something that we just jumped on right away. She kept sending me emails for a while, trying to lure me into doing this and about people who were dealing with their cancer in a humorous way. But it took me a while to figure out whether I wanted to or thought I could do this subject matter.
Back Stage: What was your trepidation?
Hunt: I tend to write autobiographically. I think one of my greatest strengths as a writer is that I know what I can and can't write. I kept thinking, "There's a version of this show that I cannot write." It's the version of somebody attacking their cancer with a sense of humor. My version would need to be not so on the nose with the cancer, because I didn't know a ton about it. I wasn't a cancer survivor myself. I needed to broaden the subject matter so that I could talk about it my own way. The way I found to do that was to make it about a woman who is confronted with her mortality—as I was after I had my baby—then make it about someone who questions the way she's been living her life and wanting to do it differently.
Back Stage: How did the show land Laura Linney?
Hunt: After the pilot was written and it was in Showtime's hands, Bob Greenblatt—who was president of Showtime at the time—took it upon himself to find an actress. He knew that she'd wanted to do TV and he felt that she might respond to the material, and he was right. I think it hit home with some things that she was dealing with, having lost some important people in her life, and she was moved by the material.
Back Stage: What about the supporting cast? John Benjamin Hickey and Phyllis Somerville are priceless as Sean and Marlene. Where do their storylines come from?
Hunt: With Marlene, I have a passion for old people; that's a little bit of a soapbox of mine. The other inspiration for this show is that I'm terrified of dying and I'm terrified of growing old. I watched my grandma grow old and get really bored. I liked the idea that in Cathy's march to death she could help somebody start living again. That was my inspiration for Marlene. With Sean, I have a friend who used to tell me stories about her brother, who was homeless by choice, and I was always fascinated. There's also a lot of wish fulfillment in his story for me, because I always wish I was doing more good. For me, Sean is a little bit the recycler I wish I could be.
Back Stage: The show is great in depicting Cathy's life unraveling, and she hasn't even dealt with the cancer.
Hunt: Part of that is based on what I wanted to say in terms of her story, and part of it is in the research that I did. I found that a lot of people, when they get diagnosed, have a hard time telling people, and some do keep it a secret from at least some people in their life, or a lot of people. A cancer survivor I sat down with said, when he was diagnosed, he was really uncomfortable telling people because he was overcome by a sense of shame and embarrassment. I thought that was really interesting. I wanted to explore that for a couple of months of Cathy's life. Like what if she really tried to hold on to it and keep it her own? I think her goal is she just wants to enjoy life without life becoming about the cancer. But of course you know what she's discovering is that things are starting to fall apart and it's not as easy or as fun as she may have hoped.
Back Stage: Will Cathy ever tell Sean and her husband?
Hunt: Yes. That is definitely pending. She will find the time to do that—one sooner than later and one later. (Laughs.) We are also attacking the seasons like the stages of grief. The first TV season, which is only taking place over the summer of Cathy's life, is about denial. She's in a bit of denial about the cancer. Then in Season 2, we plan to attack it a little more head-on and deal with the cancer aspect more.
Back Stage: What type of feedback have you gotten to the show from cancer patients and survivors?
Hunt: I've gotten a lot of thank-yous for bringing this disease front and center to a TV show. In general, people like to have a character that's like them in some way. So many people have dealt with cancer, so to have a lead character who deals with it, that alone is pretty special. I'm a quirky character actress, and I always feel a little left out when every show on TV is about a woman who is strikingly beautiful and could get a modeling job at any turn. I can't relate to that; that's not who I am. It's nice to have characters on TV who represent us a little bit.
Back Stage: What's been the toughest moment?
Hunt: Trying to stay focused in telling these stories but also feeling an obligation to please an audience. I'm an actress as well, so that's always something you have to separate from. Your intention can't be wholly to please your audience. You have to focus on the work and hope for the best.
Back Stage: Any chance we'll see you on the show?
Hunt: Potentially. There's so much to do when writing a show that, honestly, I haven't felt the pull to write myself in yet. But maybe I will, and hopefully I'll have six seasons to consider doing it, so I don't have to worry about it right now.
Back Stage: What's in store for Season 2?
Hunt: We're hoping to get Cynthia Nixon back for Season 2 and really explore her relationship with Laura. If you're dealing with a disease or deciding on treatment, you need a good friend around, so we'll see their relationship explored and exposed more.
"The Big C" airs Mondays on Showtime.