In the Culture Gabfest’s Wednesday Slate Plus bonus segment, Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, Seth Stevenson, and Julia Turner talked to Chris Eigeman, the actor who played Jason “Digger” Stiles in Gilmore Girls. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion about the series and the Netflix reunion.
Julia Turner: For all of pop culture history, basically, if a beloved thing went away, it didn’t come back. You could go back and watch the VHS of it. Maybe they did a remake and butchered it.
But this notion of My cult show died and then I revived it via Kickstarter, or through the economics of peak TV and Netflix needing to make things that are going to make people keep paying $8 a month or whatever, that’s new. And so Gilmore Girls takes on new life.
What that’s like for you? What was it like to hear rumors of this project, to get the call that you were in it for a bit?
Chris Eigeman: The fact that that show has such currency is spectacular, that it could actually come back.
I’m still in touch and friends with Lauren Graham, and Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Dan Palladino, so I heard this was happening. I think it was incredibly difficult, just structurally, to get all those cast members together. Also you had the passing of Ed Herrmann, which obviously influenced the structure of how it was going to work.
So it seemed Herculean to me, and fantastic.
Now my experience as Digger. You know, Digger had his champions, but Digger was much reviled in a good spirited way, because Digger was in the way of Luke. So I had many 16 year old girls just scowl at me as I went through the airport, or whatever, or asked how many episodes my contract was for.
To be sort of disliked by that demographic. And of course they grow up and continue to scowl at you long after the show. So part of me thought, “Oh, I guess this will be an opportunity to be scowled at some more.” [laughs]
Turner: Although you behaved yourself quite well in the finale.
Eigeman: I thought so, too. I dressed down.
Turner: When you heard that it was a go, were you certain you would be in it?
Eigeman: Oh I said, “I’ll be there if you want.” The scowling 16-year-olds notwithstanding, I loved doing that show. I thought it was an incredibly fun year.
So I was glad and thrilled to see all those people again. Also, it was amazing—all the sets had been destroyed. They weren’t in storage anymore, so they rebuilt them. But the scale was just slightly off. The only set I really saw that was lit was the house where the funeral, or where the reception was, and it looked right but it didn’t look right. Everything felt weirdly off. Everything felt three inches too big in some places. The scale was straining. It was interesting and disorienting.
Stephen Metcalf: That’s eerie. This is a great pleasure especially for me since we’re friends. It’s just awesome to have you on the show.
Here’s a question I’m dying to ask, because watching Gilmore Girls for the first time, the thing that it reminded me of the most was watching the show Cheers, in that it’s a snow globe world that you desperately want to enter into.
What’s the relationship between a TV show that creates a super-idealized world both in look and in the relationships of the people who live there, and the actors who populate it? You’re trying to make that emotionally true by interacting with human beings who are also professional actors. What kind of connection is there between this kind of truth you’re trying to get at as an actor with these people, and this kind of keening nostalgic feeling on the part of the viewer wanting to enter into that world?
Eigeman: Well, you know, let’s start with the notion of the actor straining for the truth that they’re aiming for.
Metcalf: Straining is your word.
Eigeman: It is my word, actually. You know, look. For me walking into Gilmore Girls was a very easy fit. Those rhythms come pretty easily to me, and the jokes, the humor, I sincerely enjoy.
I remember the first episode I was on was about something to do with Lorelai and how I had known her at camp. At camp she was saddled with a horrible nickname, because I had flipped the canoe that she was in and she was wearing a T-shirt, and her nickname from then on was Umlauts. I just thought that, as a joke, was pretty solid. So I just loved walking around in that world.
The snow globe nostalgia thing for the audience—you know, there’s no way I can address it one way or another. That’s sort of received wisdom rather than anything I’m doing.
Metcalf: Right. I guess my question is have you ever worked on something where the feeling of the world to the audience was just completely discrepant with the feeling of making it? Or do those things tend to align?
Eigeman: I have never been involved with a television show that has this devoted, sincere, un-ironic love for it.
And I do think that the show affords a real bonding experience for viewers. Particularly for parents watching it with their kids. That is rare. I think that is why it has such currency. I think that moves it further out in terms of not only who’s watching it, but how they’re watching it, and emotionally what it means for them to watch it.
Metcalf: I totally agree.
Dana Stevens: I have a question about the rehearsal process. TV shows in general have to be made so quickly, but specifically for this kind of very fast, screwball dialogue, can you over-rehearse? Or is it the case that you start out speaking the dialogue at a normal pace, and as you rehearse you speed up?
Eigeman: You go faster, and faster, and faster? [laughs]
Stevens: Yeah, do you just get plunged into that?
Eigeman: That’s a great idea, like “OK, now let’s do that double time,” like a little metronome.
Turner: Like language acquisition.
Eigeman: No. One thing I found very unique about Amy and Dan’s process, is we would have a table read for every episode, but frequently a lot of us who weren’t in every show wouldn’t be in town.
I’d be in New York. Kelly Bishop was in New York or Jersey, I think. So we would do the table read with a speaker phone with the other actors. You’re on the phone acting, which is kind of rare and strange. But it did really help me figure out what that episode was, what the story was, how the rhythms went, so that when you were on set, we would do maybe one or two rehearsals, and they would sort of be for camera anyway— and then we’d just go.
Turner: Was that a different table read process than for most shows?
Eigeman: I think so. A 60-minute show is often referred to as a war without end, because you’re always late getting out of the one before, so you’re already behind at the beginning of the next episode. One of the first things to get kicked to the curb is the table read. They just don’t have time for it.
But Amy and Dan were really, really devoted to that table read.
Turner: Did they adjust dialogue a lot off of table reads? Or was it just about getting the thing that was written, getting the delivery of that down?
Eigeman: In my experience those scripts showed up pretty much 95 percent, 99 percent complete. There wasn’t a lot to change. Sometimes if a joke didn’t work, that would get tweaked. But by and large, no, they showed up whole cloth.
Seth Stevenson: You’ve worked with a lot of writer-creators who are hyper-literate, who write very talky dialogue. I’m thinking of people like Noah Baumbach, or Whit Stillman. Is there something about your performance style that you think really suits you to that stuff?
By being able to do it as my first thing, it kind of set up the road that I walked down.
For me personally, a lot of it is like a long setup to a joke. I like that. If you give me a joke that’s just one line, I’m dead in the water. I can’t do it. Even if it’s not a joke. If everybody’s talking and I just have a line, it’s not so great. But give me a long run and try to nail it—that I can do, and I like doing that stuff.
Turner: One thing that drew me to the Gilmore Girls is that the talking felt like life. The relationships between people get worked out sideways, and back and forth, and aren’t always delivered with just the meat.
Eigeman: Yeah, I think that’s 100 percent true. I also think it’s actually one step deeper than that.
It’s not only what they’re saying. There is context in how they’re saying it. Even if they’re just talking about a chicken sandwich, the way that they’re talking about it tells you that, actually, what they’re talking about is Emily is driving them crazy. The rhythm is its own vocabulary, in a weird way I think.
Turner: Yeah, the emotion is not conveyed always through the direct meaning of the words they’re saying.
Turner: Well, speaking of the language of the show, one of the key excitements around this revival is the notion that because the final seventh season of the original TV series was not made with Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, but with a different creator, she did not get to use the four words that she had planned as the final four words of the show.
But they are the final four words of this revival, so we can now assess what those words are, what they meant, whether it was a satisfying ending, whether it would have been a satisfying-er ending earlier, and the rest. We’re going to stipulate here: We’re about to divulge the final four words, so if you have not heard them, go watch it and come back.
But before we do, I’m curious. Did you learn the final four words when you got the script for the revival? Or have all of you known the final four words for 10 years?
Eigeman: No, no, no. I found out about it only when I got to set.
Turner: OK. So the final four words are not actually said by one person—
Stevens: —Wait, let’s act them out.
Stevenson: —I was going to say! You should perform them.
Turner: Well, Chris is a performer. Do you want to be Rory or Lorelai? [laughs]
Eigeman: No, no, no. [laughs] I don’t want to Lewis and Clark on this one.
Turner: All right. Do you want to be Rory or Lorelai, Seth?
Stevenson: I’ll be Lorelai, fewer lines that way.
Turner: Oh shit, how did I cast myself in this role? This sucks. OK, we will re-enact the final scenes. I am Rory.
Turner: “I’m pregnant.”
Stevens: Fade to black.
Eigeman: Beautifully done.
Stevens: Fade in Carole King.
Turner: I’m sure Chris is going to whisk me to Hollywood now that I’ve shown my acting chops. Chris, you first, when you learned this was the conclusion, how did it strike you?
Eigeman: I think Amy’s right. I think those are the four perfect words to end this with. They feel large enough to encompass the seven years that came before it.
Turner: It is crazy to have a setup like that. Is there any piece of dialogue that people have been anticipating for a decade? It’s a tough thing to land, and it certainly felt surprising, momentous.
It does the great ending thing of having a reveal where you’re kind of like, oh shit, what’s—
Stevenson: —And spins it forward.
Turner: Yeah, you start thinking, what are their lives going to be like? What’s going to happen for Rory?
The revival does this nice thing of hinting at potential evolutions and conclusions without tying everything up exactly in a bow. You get a sense of where Lorelai’s business is going, a loose premonition of where Rory’s romantic life might go. The forwardness of it, and the echo back to the obvious origin story of Lorelai and Rory, was kind of great.
Stevenson: The big argument I’ve seen on Twitter was, “Oh, originally the four words were going to be for the end of the show when Rory was 23 years old. And her getting pregnant then, having just graduated from college, would be a very different thing than getting pregnant at 32, even though her romantic life is not settled.
I actually think it’s still really interesting for her to get pregnant at 32, because we don’t know exactly who she got pregnant by. We presume it’s either the man in a Wookie costume who she had a one night stand with, or Logan Huntzberger, her long time off and on, very rich, somewhat distant, somewhat untrustworthy paramour.
Stevens: Or could it be Paul, the forgettable Paul boyfriend?
Stevenson: It’s not clear to me that they ever slept together, Dana.
Stevens: If so she forgot about it.
Turner: Wasn’t the Wookie from the spring episode? If she had been made pregnant by the Wookie, wouldn’t she be like six-months pregnant in the finale?
Stevenson: I’m not going to get into the weeds with you here, Julia. We’re not sure who the father is exactly.
But I think it’s fair as the equivalent of Lorelai getting pregnant at 16, as the daughter of this fancy rich family, and leaving because it’s such a disgrace to the family. I feel like Rory, though she’s 32, not 16, is still so immature, and has been so sheltered, and her love life is not settled, that it still is a big deal. Maybe not quite as big a deal as if she was 23.
Turner: Right, it’s not like she got knocked up by her steady boyfriend before they decided to get engaged. I certainly interpreted it as she would have the kid, and make a foundational relationship with the kid and just like, “Screw all these men mooning about.”
Stevenson: This is the question. Earlier in the final episode, before she announces she’s pregnant, she goes to her dad, who is not really a presence in her life. She says, “Did you feel bad about that? Why weren’t you a presence in my life? How did you feel about that?”
We don’t know why she’s doing that at the time, but then what we figure out that she’s wondering if the father of this baby going to be a presence in her life, and what’s that going to mean, and does she want to raise a kid alone the way her mother raised her alone? I found it a very rich text and I enjoyed it.
Turner: Yeah, I thought it was good. I thought it was worth waiting for.