In the new Netflix series Sweet Magnolias, based on the literary series by Sherryl Woods, Chris Klein plays Bill Townsend, a family doctor at Serenity Family Physicians who has gotten himself into a major predicament. Bill is freshly divorced and also has a mistress who he’s gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Klein has achieved quite a career, one that has spanned over 20 years. Most notably known for his roles in American Pie, Election, and most recently, The Flash, Klein is now settling in to the sweet town of Serenity.
Note: This interview has been edited for length.
Nerds and Beyond: Tell us a little bit about your character, Bill Townsend.
Chris Klein: The cliff notes on Bill are still, it’s still a pretty long book. I’d say it feels challenging in the new Netflix series Sweet Magnolias. He’s quite a guy, he’s one of the original characters in Sherryl Woods’ novels, which is what our show is based on. He’s the ex-husband of Maddie Townsend [JoAnna Garcia Swisher] who is one of the main characters in our story. He’s left Maddie and his three children for his mistress and nurse who works in his pediatric practice. He has gotten his nurse, Noreen Fitzgibbons [Jamie Lynn Spears], pregnant. You see Bill living in a couple of different worlds. You see Bill existing in Maddie Townsend’s new reality, where she is a newly divorced mother of three children, trying to raise two teenage boys and a young little girl, and then you see him in Noreen Fitzgibbons’ world.
Nerds and Beyond: What drew you most to playing Bill?
Chris Klein: He’s definitely different than some characters that the majority of my audience would recognize me from. That was what was exciting and really what drew me to this character was the fact that it’s just that he’s dealing with, you know, in my life, I’m a 41-year-old man. I’m married, I have two healthy children; I’m at that stage in my life where playing characters, playing men that are going through this particular stage, it’s where I am in my life. So that was really something that spoke to me. What I’ve always loved about being in film and television is that the audience gets to be the judge, jury, and executioner. It’s my job as an actor to put it out there. Here’s the character, here’s what he’s going through, here’s how he feels about it. Good or bad, that’s all in the eyes of the beholder. All of these characters in our story, they’re at a time in their life where they’re finding themselves at a crossroads. These crossroads are great stories. This is when the human condition gets tested and we get to really see what people are made out of.
Nerds and Beyond: How was it working with your fellow female co-stars?
Chris Klein: Boy, these women, how about these women! Sheryl J. Anderson, our showrunner and boss of the series, it starts with her. It starts with Dan Paulson, Paulson Productions, Sheryl and Norman Buckley. Then, you know, I can’t say enough good things about Brooke Elliot [Dana Sue Sullivan], Heather Headley [Helen Decatur], JoAnna Garcia Swisher, and Jamie Lynn Spears. The four of these women I just think that they hit home runs in developing the characters and the performances that they give. All of my work is with JoAnna and with Jamie. JoAnna and I were part of a short-lived comedy series called Welcome to the Captain on CBS. I was always a big fan of her as a human being and as a performer. The scenes with Bill and Maddie, all of them are so tense. So in those scenes in order to really find that balance, you need a scene partner that you trust and somebody that’s going to be game and that knows who they are and who their character is. JoAnna, she just blew me away with her performance and her reactions every time we stepped on the stage together. The same for Jamie, I didn’t know her at all. Everyone was really excited about her signing on and the minute I met her, I knew exactly why. She just embodied this wonderful character.
Nerds and Beyond: By episode 5 we see Bill really trying to mend his relationships with his children. How was it playing the father role, especially to teenagers?
Chris Klein: I gotta tell ya, it was a joy. The teenagers they have on our show, it’s hard to define. My boys Logan [Allen] and Carson [Rowland] are fantastic professionals and Bianca [Tarantino] just lights up every scene that she’s in. I came up a little bit different 20 years ago that had a lot of success in high school movies so I was certainly gobsmacked watching these kids come through. I was really thrilled to see all that they gave to their performances. Sheryl J. Anderson brought the right combination of people together that immediately started pulling the line and believed in the show. That doesn’t happen often, it doesn’t guarantee that you are going to have a good show; it just tells you you’re going to have a shot at a good show.
Nerds and Beyond: When we last see Bill, the divorce between Maddie and Bill is finalized, a pregnant Noreen has left him; If there is a season two ordered at Netflix, will a redemption arc or storyline be explored?
Chris Klein: You know what? That’s an awesome question, and I do not have an answer. We kind of leave Bill hanging out there. He put his heart right there on the island in the kitchen in the Townsend house in front of Maddie. Maddie’s upset with coach Cal [Justin Bruening], for stepping out of bounds. Bill really proves himself there at the end when they’re looking for their son. It takes bits and pieces from the first three books, so there’s a lot more story to tell there. Noreen left and he’s still the father of that child, how does that play out? He’s got a lot of baggage and a lot of cleaning up to do. We’ll have to see. I really hope that we get the chance. I hope we get the chance to tell that story.
Nerds and Beyond: What was running through your head when you found out Sweet Magnolias was not only trending in the Top 10 on Netflix but also holding the number one spot?
Chris Klein: It was very exciting. It’s my first time participating in a straight to streaming series. With Netflix, you have an idea of the number of subscribers, but their top 10 is really difficult to put into context. Top 10 in anything is pretty good and number one is as good as you can get. So knowing that Netflix is the powerhouse streamer, and we held that number one spot for a number of days was very exciting and very gratifying. I was just really excited for Dan Paulson, Sheryl J. Anderson, and Norman Buckley that are our producers and our showrunner and director, respectively. They’re just fantastic people, they’ve been doing this for a really long time. They earned this, they all really put in their time on this thing. I’m just really stoked to ride their coattails.
Nerds and Beyond: The Netflix series is based on the literary series by Sherryl Woods. When preparing for your role as Bill, did you read the books beforehand?
Chris Klein: I read the book. I was not familiar with the series until the pilot came to me. I read episode one that was written by Sheryl J. Anderson, and it was the most well-rounded episode one script of a show that I’ve read in a very long time. I found Bill very dynamic and I was really interested and excited by the opportunity to talk to them about the character. It was after that that I dug into the books with the knowledge that the series was going to be noticeably different than the books. In Bill’s case, Sherryl [Woods] made a conscious decision to end the series to spend a little bit more time developing Bill as a character. In the books, starting out, Bill is the bad guy and Sheryl really wanted to build Bill for the television show. So we see him struggling with this decision and that brings the human condition and the flaws into play.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you think the trauma between Maddie and Bill will bring them closer together? Not necessarily romantically, but for the sake of their kids?
Chris Klein: I don’t know. It’s been interesting. I’ve gotten a couple of comments from the audience, I think the best comment that I received was from people that have been through this scenario that Bill and Maddie are going through. A couple of them said that we nailed the tug of war that goes on in people when this happens. So for people that have actually gone through that say that we’re telling the truth of the experience is awesome. I’m so relieved that we’re telling the truth, or at least someone’s truth. So will it bring them closer together? That’s a good question. I think that if anything this car accident at the end, it’s certainly gonna wake them up.
Nerds and Beyond: The season ends on a huge cliffhanger. What was your reaction when you read that final scene?
Chris Klein: It was crazy. We had the exact same reaction that the audience had because all of us went, “Well it can’t end that way! There’s no satisfaction, no finality. How do we know? Don’t do us like that.” We’ve all been having that same reaction of like, don’t blame us, we’re just the characters! We weren’t in the writers’ room and we feel the same pain. The audience’s reaction means that they are invested in the story and it takes two, right? It takes me to be invested in the story that I’m telling and it takes the viewer to be invested in the story I’m telling. Without that relationship between the audience and the performer, we don’t have a show that cooks. It’s just so exciting to be a part of that when it happens because that’s what we all work for as performers, to connect with the audience and tell a story that resonates with them.
You can stream the entirety of season one of Sweet Magnolias on NetfliX.