Ron Livingston on ‘Tully’ and the Problem With Modern Parenting

The 'Office Space' actor spoke with 'Fatherly' about his newest movie and the unique challenges modern parents face.

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Ron Livingston has made a career playing characters who don’t give much of a shit. Since his breakout role in Office Space, Livingston has made boredom and apathy into cinematic events, likably dissembling his way through dozens of films and TV shows, including Band of Brothers, Adaptation, The Cooler, and Boardwalk Empire. Given all that, it makes sense that he wandered onto the set of Tully, a deeply jaded movie about deeply jaded parents. It also makes sense that he’s terrific as a dad who isn’t quite pulling his weight.

In Tully, Livingston weaponizes his unique ability to portray indifference onscreen, further isolating his already isolated wife, played by Charlize Theron, and becoming a sort of villain without purpose. The emotional carelessness of his character is depicted as the passive cruelty that it is. Drew might want to be good, but he can’t be bothered — even though he knows his wife is drowning. Livingston imbues the character with humanity, but doesn’t wink at hidden depths. Drew doesn’t ultimately deserve that kindness.

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Livingston, a father, knows this and is remarkably articulate about the dynamics of family life. Talking to him about home is like getting a masterclass in small-scale performance. He knows how to show up. Fatherly spoke with the leading man about his performance in Tully, his thoughts on modern parenting, and why he’s not interested in having audiences root for his characters

Your character, Drew, is far from a perfect dad but he’s also not explicitly written as a villain. There’s more nuance to him than either of those labels would allow. How did you try to capture that in your performance?

I think Drew’s intentions are pure, but he’s saddled with his own baggage and decided early on that he’s not very good at this whole parenting thing. He thinks he doesn’t know what he’s doing and Marlo does, so he lets her take the lead and he assumes she’ll tell him when she needs help. She doesn’t.

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That’s a big part of what drew me to the character. With so many people in our lives, we see them do something good or bad and we put them in whatever box we feel is appropriate. And I love that Diablo Cody didn’t do that with Drew. She didn’t make the easy choice with this character. She made Drew more complicated than simply making him a jerk. I tried to reflect that.

Do you think Drew is a likable character?

I think there’s this overemphasis on characters being likable versus unlikable. I don’t see why we’re so scared of flawed people. We’re all flawed people. Someone can be unlikable and you can still sympathize with them as a human being. I don’t think Drew is likable, but I understand where he’s coming from. He’s not a hero, but he’s also not a villain. He’s a person.

The movie does a really nice job showing the isolation that comes with parenting. Why do you think that’s such a common struggle moms and dads are now having?

I think the isolation is a recent development. If you go back to the old days, everybody had help raising their kids. You had family members, like grandparents or siblings, to help and you didn’t typically move. You lived close to all of them and so there were always hands around to help. It takes more than one or two people to raise a kid.

Now, people are expected to move away and one or both of the parents are off at work most of the time. Suddenly, this very, very difficult job of raising a kid is often left to one person, usually the mom. And I feel like this has been happening for the last few decades and we’re just now pulling away from this trend and realizing we need all hands on deck.

It feels like the movie understands that a lot of this isolation comes from an inability to communicate. Did that feel like a central part of the film’s message?

That’s really the essence of the movie. Diablo looks at this communication breakdown through the lens of parenthood but, ultimately, Tully is about the fundamental human need to be seen — to have a partner and not feel alone. And in this movie, you have Marlo, who just isn’t being seen.

On a deeper level, this movie is about going from a place where you feel all alone and think nobody sees you to feeling seen and no longer being ashamed. It’s a powerful thing to see someone realize they don’t need to hold themselves to these insane standards modern parents are expected to meet. You don’t have to toast your own almonds or whatever the newest trend is. It’s so much more important for you to do your best to keep your kids as happy and healthy as possible. Just show up every day and keep them alive.

The movie makes it clear that Drew and Marlo love each other but they are no longer connecting like they used to. What do you think caused them to reach this point in their marriage?

There’s always a challenge in any marriage or relationship where you have to constantly find each other and really see each other. And it’s not something that happens once, you have to find each other every day. It’s a challenging thing to do without kids but once kids get involved, a lot of couples divide and conquer.

It’s a smart strategy for survival but the problem is people forget to check in on each other. They quit finding each other. They forget to let the other person know what they’re going through and that’s such an essential part of any partnership, so naturally drifting happens. And when you first meet Marlo and Drew, it’s clear they have drifted quite a bit.

There is a particularly striking scene near the end of the movie where Tully tells Marlo that she should be proud of herself for becoming “boring” because that’s a necessary part of being a parent. What do you think that means? Do people need to become boring to be better parents?

It’s really taking the concept of ‘boring’ and turning it on its head. There’s nothing about parenting that’s boring. It can be tedious and challenging but you don’t have the luxury of being bored. What it really comes down to is realizing that the experience is unlike anything you thought it would be like before you became a parent.

Before you have kids, it’s all about ‘Who am I? What legacy am I going to leave in the world?’ And once you have kids, it’s not like those questions go away, you realize nobody gives a shit and none of that matters. You see that raising this kid is more important than any of that.

What is the core message Tully is sending to parents?

Tully lets parents know that it’s okay to mess up. Parenting perfectly is not possible. You’re gonna mess up. You’re gonna lose your cool. Just try your best to get better every day. Human beings are resilient. Kids aren’t fragile little eggshells. They bounce back a lot more than we give them credit for.

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