This Life’s Rick Roberts on Matthew’s marriage mess

When CBC’s This Life premiered last year, conservative, reliable Matthew Lawson appeared to have the perfect life with his loving wife Nicole (Marianne Farley) and their daughter, Abby. A season and a half later, his marriage is on the rocks after Nicole discovered he had an affair—and a son—with another woman.

Last week, Matthew made a last-ditch effort to win Nicole back by introducing her to his secret family. The move was jaw-dropping, but actor Rick Roberts sees a certain steadiness in his character’s approach to cleaning up his mess.

“What I admire about Matthew is it seems like he continues to make terrible decisions, but he doesn’t leap into those decisions,” Roberts says.

The Hamilton, Ontario, native also appreciates the way the show’s writers have handled the meltdown of Matthew and Nicole’s marriage.

“They still manage to keep upping the stakes on the complications and being very, very truthful, not tipping over into melodrama, and not just dropping the ball and resolving everything and moving on to something else,” he says. “They really investigate the drama.”

Joining us by phone from Toronto, TV and stage veteran Roberts tells us what to expect from Matthew in the second half of Season 2.

Matthew’s life has changed a lot since the first season, when he was seen as the most stable and responsible Lawson sibling. Did you know he was going to get such a meaty storyline when you started the series?
Rick Roberts: I didn’t know. When I read the conundrum that he had put himself in, it’s one of those secrets that cannot be kept. It was somebody struggling against the inevitable, so that gave me a sense. Certainly, I recognize that people, when you put yourself in a situation—in that case, having a secret child, wanting to be in that child’s life, and wanting to keep it from his wife and not ruin his marriage—it’s one of those things that will never work, and he was kind of in denial right off the top of the show. So I didn’t specifically know where it was going to go, but I knew it had to go somewhere. It had to complicate itself.

Last week, Matthew made a desperate move to save his marriage by taking Nicole to meet Beatrice and Julian. Why did he think that was his best last-ditch plan?
I think, on the one hand, he correctly knows that in order for this to have any possibility of working, they would have know each other, and it would have to all be mutually agreed upon. Having said that, how he did it was not the way to do it. I think the reason he did it then is because Nicole kept saying, ‘We’re done, we’re done,’ and I think he saw it as his only option. Like it was to try, ‘If you saw the family, if you see these people and then you will see that it’s the right thing to do, and then we’ll move forward.’ And the horrible thing that happened was that she did see that he did have to commit to the other family and also that she was not going to be able to go down that road with him, which was the unforeseen thing for him.

The scene where Matthew is sitting between Beatrice and Nicole was so uncomfortable. Is filming something like that the most difficult day of the week or the highlight?
It’s a combination of the two because you emotionally put yourself in that situation, but it’s the best day of the week, too, because having scenes with those kind of stakes and that kind of drama and awkwardness are very, very fun to play. I also think it’s a sign of great writing when you can get those kind of stakes that feel like life or death stakes—very domestic, to do with people’s identity and their hearts and their sense of who they are—without pointing a gun at somebody. Marianne, I thought, just played that beautifully in that scene, just kind of watching things shatter around her psychologically.

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And Matthew saying, ‘Tell her I don’t love you!’ was cringeworthy but riveting.
I know! I would love to be in the writers’ room, because he also withheld information from Nicole that sabotaged the whole thing. And this is a fun thing to think about as an actor, and I do believe this about people, that you subconsciously make things happen that you consciously say you don’t want to happen. I think bringing things to a crisis and bringing things to an impossible situation is not the healthiest way of saying, ‘We need to move on,’ but I also think it’s going to be their greatest opportunity, and it’s also kind of a gift to your partner in the sense that you do something irrevocable that makes everyone go, ‘OK, now we have to move into something else.’ But I think there are probably healthier ways to do it.

What I also love about Matthew is I go, ‘Oh, man, I wouldn’t do that,’ but then you take a few seconds and go, ‘Oh, OK, I could do something like that,’ or, ‘I’ve made decisions equally as bad.’ People are really like that when they are with themselves, they go, ‘Oh, fair enough, I’ve botched my life in equally bad ways when I really think about it.’

Now that Nicole has told Matthew she can’t go forward with him, what can you preview about Episode 205, “Scanxiety”?
I think for Matthew and Nicole, the first four episodes of Season 2 really bring to a conclusion the story of their marriage as it was, and the next things are really genuine steps out into a new world for both of them that involves how to relate to each other, how to parent, how you make the next move for yourself. I think it’s harder for Matthew. I know he really longs for the family to be back together, but I think he understands that all the old ways of doing that are not going to work.

And the great thing over the course of the season, but it begins in earnest in Episode 5, is I think that I want them to get back together, but I don’t want to feel cheated. When I was reading the scripts, I’m going, ‘Oh, I want this,’ but you want it to be satisfying, so you don’t want some little thing to happen that they get back together, or that they just give up completely. So it’s really just riding that line of two people that really still love each other and find themselves in an impossible situation.

You repeatedly have emotionally fraught scenes with Marianne Farley. You must have a tremendous amount of trust in each other as acting partners.
Marianne and I hit it off from Day 1. I feel completely at ease with her, and we completely trust each other. We also have a great rapport off camera, and we try to make that the bass note of love between us that really has to be there for all the other stuff to work, which is often quite antagonistic and lots of pain and anger around that. But Marianne is a great actor, and part of that is a real generosity. So we’re always checking in with each other to make sure the other person is OK, because sometimes you just kind of feel lonely if someone’s yelling at you. [Laughs.]

Matthew’s marriage problems could throw a kink in Natalie’s custody plans. Is he still capable of looking after Emma and Romy?
I do think Matthew would do anything to make that happen, but what are his actual capabilities? I’m curious to see where all that goes because now we have all the desires of the kids, and David, and Natalie, and it’s kind of shifting now . . . I think the short answer is I know he would definitely do whatever it takes to reassure Natalie that he is there for her.

What can viewers look forward to with Matthew in the second half of Season 2?
There’s some really beautiful writing around self discovery, solitude, what it means to love somebody, parenting, and I’m really in awe of the writers in terms of how they find drama in the minutiae of people’s behavior. And sometimes it comes down to the tiniest exchange of dialogue. So, to me, what was really interesting was the evolution of Matthew and Nicole’s relationship and how they come together, even though what does coming together look like? And if it works out. What I love about the writing is that they do stay very generous with each other and some big things happen in the season that are very, very, very difficult. It gets pretty dark towards the end, and how people show up for each other and two people who love each other navigate all of that. I think it’s really beautifully observed by the writers, particularly between Matthew and Nicole.

In addition to your extensive television career, you do a lot of theatre work. Do those two creative outlets nourish each other?
That’s a great way of putting it. They do really nourish each other, and I can’t imagine doing one without the other. I do love in theatre that immediate reaction that you get from an audience. But having said that, doing This Life, the reaction on the street is quite rewarding . . . The audience response on the street isn’t just, ‘I saw you on Suits!’ or ‘I saw you play the criminal on this.’ People come and talk about their lives or the difficulty in a certain episode or ‘Is he coming back?’ because they’re really hooked into the lives of the characters. It’s the next best thing to that live theatre reaction.

This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.