May 28, 2024

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for “The Stanford Student,” the sixth episode of “The Morning Show” Season 3.

Oh, Alex.

After being embroiled in constant scandal throughout the first two seasons, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) has spent Season 3 of “The Morning Show” on a moral high ground, from blowing off a glitzy broadcast from outer space in order to report on abortion rights in Texas to helping Chris (Nicole Beharie) stand up to the racism of network board president Cybil (Holland Taylor). But then Paul Marks happens.

Episode 6, “The Stanford Student,” sees Alex interview Paul (Jon Hamm), the tech billionaire attempting to buy the network, on her show in an attempt to unearth his past and investigate whether she and her colleagues will be able to maintain their journalistic independence under his ownership. Alex confronts Paul on air about a piece of intel she’s received: An anonymous previous mentee of his — it’s current UBA news president Stella Bak (Greta Lee) — feels she was taken advantage of, having sold him a billion-dollar idea for $50,000 when she was too naive to know better. On top of that, Paul took code that Stella developed to aid grassroots activists and used it for predictive policing technology. All things considered, the unnamed “Stanford student” fell into a depression and attempted suicide.

Despite his surprise, Paul delivers a surprisingly elegant almost-apology. He says that his obsession with his work and disregard for other people around that time ruined his marriage, that he’s since reevaluated his company’s culture and policies, and that he owes the Stanford student a conversation. It’s all Alex needs to hear to bury her suspicions about him, and the sexual tension that’s been building all season finally erupts. After shooting the interview at Paul’s house, the two make out, leading to a long-lasting and artfully shot sex scene. By the morning, Alex and Paul are in a committed romantic relationship.

And of course, in true “Morning Show” fashion, things are simultaneously hitting the fan for every other character. Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) gets a visit from her brother, Hal (Joe Tippett), and learns that Hal wants to turn himself into the FBI despite everything Bradley and Cory (Billy Crudup) did to cover up his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Laura (Julianna Margulies) confronts Hal about needing his support to get back together with Bradley. Chip (Mark Duplass) proposes to Isabella (Hannah Leder), and it goes badly. Stella prepares to leave UBA after Alex and Paul’s interview, but Paul surprises her by offering her Cory’s job.

“The Morning Show” director and executive producer Mimi Leder spoke to Variety about the value of the truth. And the Jon Hamm of it all.

Bradley was always the most morally righteous of the major players at UBA — until Jan. 6, 2021. She seems more angry at Hal than at herself in this episode. Can you walk me through her emotions here?

She has a great moral ambiguity here. As a young child, she was in the car when her father killed a kid with his car because he was drunk. She turned him in — she did the right thing — and it ruined her family’s life, and set up her life as this truth-teller. When she’s faced with a very similar situation in terms of her brother being part of the insurrection, why doesn’t she tell the truth? It’s because of her past, and the repercussions of telling the truth. Charlotte Stoudt, our showrunner, saw this article in the paper about a young man who saw his father at the insurrection and turned him in to the FBI, and the cost of that. One of our main themes this season is, what is the cost of the truth?

She’s compartmentalizing and making it Hal’s crime and not her own, for sure. But Hal is recently sober, and he’s got a baby. Is she gonna ruin his family the way she ruined her family? It’s a huge dilemma whether she’s going to do the right thing or live in this lie.

Unlike Bradley, Cory seems more unabashed about covering up Hal and Bradley’s crimes for selfish reasons. Do you think he has any moral qualms? Or is he just comfortable lying for Bradley’s protection?

I think Cory protects Cory. But he has a deep, deep affection for Bradley. I don’t think he likes that he’s lying for her, but I think he will do anything for her, because he loves her. There is something down there in the deep recesses of Cory’s brain where he wants to do the right thing, but oftentimes he does not. But I do not think Cory regrets the cover up. Cory will protect her to the bitter end.

He also outed her in Season 2, you know. He’s very — is he the devil? Or is he an angel? A combination of both? He’s a real combo. He wants to save UBA, and he’ll do anything to do it, which means bringing in Paul Marks. But I do feel that Cory, deep, deep, deep, deep down has this moral center. It’s very questionable, though.

Apple TV+

Season 3 gives us the gift of Paul Marks, who runs his business with Elon Musk-like absurdity. How did you approach directing Jon Hamm in this role? Were you worried at all about making sure he remained compelling, especially as a business mogul and love interest for Alex, when there’s so much discussion about whether or not he’s evil?

We talked about, “Who do we cast as this billionaire? Who can play this debonair, rich, handsome billionaire who walks in, who is an accelerant and pushes everyone toward their truth? Who is this guy?” And Jon Hamm was the answer. He was the only guy that we wanted. Jon Hamm is a brilliant, smart, kind, clever actor. He’s very prepared. He really understood this character. So was I afraid? Nah. Jon Hamm has so many layers of abilities. He’s so easy, humorous. He’s a very powerful actor. He has a lot of different faces. 

At what point do you think Alex actually realizes she’s attracted to him? 

From the first moment she sees him in Episode 1, when she says, “He’s tall.” There’s this inner attraction that she just buries because she’s focused on her work, and it gets sidelined by the deal. And in Episode 4, in wrangling him back to UBA, I think there’s some seeds there that lay some pipe for the attraction.

It’s basically a date. This is the second time Alex has been intimate with someone publicly thought of as dangerous — first Mitch, now Paul. What’s happening there?

Alex doesn’t do easy. Nothing she does is easy. She’s a very powerful woman, and that attracts very powerful men. She needs her equal, and she finds it in Paul Marks the way she found it in Mitch Kessler.

I was shocked that they got together so quickly after the interview. 

When he comes clean in the interview, I think what happens is she sees this different side of Paul Marks. She sees the truth-teller in him. She sees that this is a man who’s willing to admit his mistakes. And it’s very interesting that you can be this person who can say “I’m sorry,” and then continue to manipulate and control the situation. And it’s all real. It’s all real. Paul Marks doesn’t think he’s the villain. And there’s this physical attraction that takes over. That’s what love does. It makes you crazy.

So you feel that Paul feels genuine affection for Alex, too? Because there’s an obvious benefit to sleeping with your biggest critic, so I wasn’t sure. But their connection becomes romantic so quickly, when it seemed like it might just be sexual.

This is a mutual, genuine affection. And that’s why we chose not to do the rip-your-clothes-off sex scene. It was looking into each other’s eyes, finding the tender center of the scene. That first, deep emotional connection. Two people caught up in just caught up in each other, taken away by the moment.

Tell me more about the sex scene. It’s the first time we’ve seen anything like it on “The Morning Show” — or in Jennifer Aniston’s career.

It was a closed set, and two very grown-up actors who really understood the nature of the storytelling and were very much a part of it. We wanted it to be sensitive. We wanted it to be sexy. We wanted it to be adult. We wanted it to be emotional. They really let go. They’re great actors. And there you have it.

You liked it?

I did. 

I’m so glad. It’s a really interesting episode: It’s sort of a rom-com episode, but it’s also a very important, political episode and a turning point in the series.

I love that you said this episode feels like a rom-com, because there is some devastating drama is this show, but there’s comedy too. That’s part of the appeal of the show — reviews of Season 2 praised the campy feel of Mitch driving off a cliff, Alex being sick with COVID and ranting at his funeral — and there’s more of that this season, beginning with a rocket to outer space in Episode 1. How do you feel about that idea? Do you embrace it?

I approach the show in a very real way, and a very grounded way, because it is so big. We take big swings. People have big emotions. I never look at it as camp, as people — some people — do. But I do look at it in a way like feelings are big; the repercussions are huge.

And so I embrace it. I embrace it all.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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