Jeanne Tripplehorn and the Joys of Polygamy

The "Big Love" star says she’s got the best job in town

By Margy Rochlin
Dress: Oscar de la Renta; earrings: Bochic
Photograph: Photo by: Andrew Macpherson

Once Tom Cruise’s plucky onscreen spouse (and Michael Douglas’s sexy shrink), Jeanne Tripplehorn now says she’s got the best job in town: learning all about sharing on HBO’s hit series Big Love.
For the third time in the past hour, Jeanne Tripplehorn opens the oven door in the white-tiled kitchen of her Hollywood Hills home and squints at a tray of browning oats, slivered almonds and sunflower seeds. She’s trying to re-create the taste of the homemade granola that her Earth Shoe–wearing hippie mom, Suzanne, prepared and shipped in vast care-package quantities to Tripplehorn during her four years in the drama division of the Juilliard School. “She used to send me bags, and I just lived on it,” says Tripplehorn, adding that her most recent attempt at making the high-energy cereal culminated in a memorable lesson in the chemistry of sun-dried fruit. “I put in the raisins with everything else at the beginning, and they blew up. They looked like ticks,” she says. Then they exploded and collapsed into shriveled, flattened bits. “Today, I will remember to put them in close to the last.”

Dressed in blue jeans and a striped button-down shirt, her hair pulled back in a hasty ponytail, Tripplehorn, 45, looks a lot like Barb Henrickson, the character she plays on HBO’s acclaimed series Big Love, now in its third season. Except for one thing: She’s alone. Her son, six-year-old August, and her husband of eight years, actor Leland Orser, are out of the house. On Big Love, which offers a glimpse into the hectic days and logistically complicated nights of a family of modern polygamists in Utah, a mealtime scene typically positions Barb at the center of a small crowd, barking out orders as she supervises the feeding of her extended clan: husband Bill (Bill Paxton), her three biological kids, her husband’s younger wives (Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin) and their ever-growing broods.

For all the comic opportunities afforded by her role as a bossy first spouse, however, Tripplehorn gets the most praise from critics for the subtle gestures, expressions and vocal inflections with which she conveys that this team marriage is not a life Barb ever imagined for herself.

“You can see her brain working things out; you see how conflicted she is in this extraordinary situation,” says TV critic Gillian Flynn, who has written about Big Love for Entertainment Weekly. “For me, the show would not work without her in that role, because she’s the person you need to empathize with. She’s extremely genuine, and she makes it all entirely grounded and believable.”
A Big Problem With Big Love
Having agreed to play Barb, Tripplehorn considered opting out just before production on the pilot began in May 2004 because she didn’t understand why a woman would share her cherished husband with two “sister-wives.” “I mean, honestly! Who does that?” she sputters. “I got cold feet.” She called an orange alert meeting with Big Love’s creators, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, announcing to them with rising panic: “I hate Barb.”

“We had to talk her off the ledge,” recalls Scheffer, adding that eventually Tripplehorn came to see the character as they did: a sort of have-it-all protofeminist whose sister-wives double as live-in help in raising her family, which allows her enough independence to return to her job as a teacher. After that, Barb came alive.

“I looked at Barb as the greatest control freak,” Tripplehorn says, “and I think one of the lessons she is learning over the series is to let go and focus on herself.” The character’s backstory, she notes, is that “Barb thought she was going to die, so she was handpicking her husband’s next wives. Then she lived. From there, it had to be about the love of family.” (This season a similar dynamic played out, as Barb feared her cancer had returned.)

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