Saffron’s Symphony



Sometime towards the end of the summer, Amazon Prime Instant Video ascended to the golden circle of HBO, Showtime, and Netflix. It happened immediately, with little forewarning, upon the release of the first full season of its original show Transparent. In December, the newly legitimized studio offered up another hit: Mozart in the Jungle, which was officially renewed for a second season yesterday morning.   

Helmed by Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Alex Timbers, the half-hour series follows a young oboist named Hailey (Lola Kirke) struggling to join the New York Symphony. It’s an ensemble piece with plenty of familiar, welcome faces—Gael Garcia Bernal as the Symphony’s new, unconventional young conductor, Malcolm McDowell as his curmudgeonly predecessor, Bernadette Peters as the Symphony’s director, and Debra Monk as the first oboist. Even Schwartzman makes an appearance as an overenthusiastic classical music journalist.

Saffron Burrows, that bohemian British beauty, plays Cynthia, the most level-headed of the orchestra members…most of the time. Although she currently resides in L.A. with her wife Alison Balian and their young son, Burrows is a London woman through-and-through. She was raised in Hackney and Islington long before they were hipster-cool, and spent plenty of time on the stage in the West End. When she calls her old friend, former co-star, and one-time fiancé Alan Cumming on the phone, she has just returned from two months visiting family in London.

SAFFRON BURROWS: How are you darling?

ALAN CUMMING: I’m good. I just made some soup and threw in some bananas. You know, how you do.

BURROWS: Oh, how lovely! I do that all the time for [Saffron’s son] Dash. Are you having lunch right now?

CUMMING: Yeah, I just made a shake. Listen to me, I sound like Martha Stewart. I just made a protein shake for the boys. I’m actually just doing a gazillion things, but the most important thing is talking to you! How was London?

BURROWS: [laughs] Well, I got back yesterday evening and it was a bit bizarre. It was so lovely.

CUMMING: You were there a long time.

BURROWS: Yeah, we went there in early December. I went straight from New York. We were there for two months. You know how London can be—just really fantastic culturally, community wise, and friends and family. I spent a large part of the last day at my Grandmother’s who is now 93, Elsie.

CUMMING: Elsie! I didn’t know she was still kicking. How is Dash taking to all this trouble?

BURROWS: He’s doing really well! He woke up at two this morning to start his day.

CUMMING: [laughs]

BURROWS: We’ve been out of our L.A. home for six months, so he just walked around the house basically reacquainting himself with everything.

CUMMING: Before you were in London, you were shooting Mozart in the Jungle?

BURROWS: Yeah, so we left in early August to prep for Mozart and start cello lessons and rehearsals and stuff. It’s been six months. He just rediscovered your bear Anthony that you gave him. [laughs]

CUMMING: Oh, he did? A fabulous success.

BURROWS: It’s still almost as big as him. He’s just going through every fantastic thing in the house that he hasn’t seen for six months. But you’ve turned 50, darling?

CUMMING: How dare you.

BURROWS: [laughs] I called you on your birthday and sang songs and things.

CUMMING: I know. That was so cute. I turned 50 and it was such a hoot. I had a disco dancing party. 

BURROWS: Did you descend from a ball?

CUMMING: [laughs] No, I didn’t. You were at my 30th. Were you at my 40th?

BURROWS: I think so, one of the 40s. When was that, Jesus, 1995?

CUMMING: No, 2005!  

BURROWS: Oh my god. [laughs] I have been up since two…2005, where was I? Oh, you know what, I was doing a play [Some Girls] in the West End, in London, with Neil LaBute and David Schwimmer.

CUMMING: I’ve watched some of your show. I really like it. I really liked the tone; I love your low voice.

BURROWS: [laughs] Is it low?

CUMMING: Oh my god, yes. Sexy little voice.

BURROWS: You know that might just be because we were doing 18-hour days. That might just be my mistake.

CUMMING: No, I think you were going for a sexy, low lady.

BURROWS: Kind of like a husky voice of someone who doesn’t sleep much.

CUMMING: You’re not husky. You’re kind of, “Hello, I’m in control. I don’t need to raise my voice to be like a woman, I am a woman.” I was thinking, this is the first thing you did in a while after having Dash, isn’t it?

BURROWS: Yeah, I did a film in San Francisco and I did a bit of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, the Marvel thing.

CUMMING: You’re a big super hero?

BURROWS: I’m potentially villainous, but yeah, a superhero. She’s in all the of comic mythology, Victoria Hand. So I played her for a bit, and I did a film in San Francisco when Dash was five months old. It’s actually coming to South by Southwest. It’s called Quitters. It’s a directorial debut for this lovely guy Noah Pritzker and it’s a coming of age story. Did you ever see Igby Goes Down?

CUMMING: Yes, I love that film.

BURROWS: It reminds me of that. I love that film. That feeling—a boy becoming a man. I play this bohemian woman who lives with my new partner who’s got this whole history of protesting in Latin America and lying down in front of tanks in demonstrations and things. I’ve got a daughter who is 16 or 17, and so the protagonist is in love with my daughter and then he moves into our house and falls in love with me. But it’s a sweet story of this boy; it’s all seen through his eyes. 

CUMMING: Did you make a conscious decision when you were going back to work after having a baby about the type of woman you wanted to play?

BURROWS: I didn’t, but I think I found some things naturally repellent—like extreme macabre horror. I suppose my distaste for certain things probably became more concentrated. I did play a lot of rather serious people in the past, and some very droopy drawers. I did a character on the stage at the Almeida—it was the play about William Morris called The Earthly Paradise by Peter Whelan. I remember it really vividly because it was a brilliant role, but it was very much a grief-stricken character. It was only an eight-week run, but I didn’t realize at the time how much it affects you. Sometimes you’re in an unhappy spot in your life and that mirrors what you’re playing and sometimes it doesn’t.

CUMMING: Was that the case?

BURROWS: I think it was. I love being in the cast of Mozart [in the Jungle] where the youngest person is probably 22 and the oldest is 85. It’s really unusual, that whole ensemble thing.

CUMMING: Your character is kind of a ball buster but then she has this tragic side too.

BURROWS: She hits a wall.

CUMMING: Those big scenes when you’re playing in the orchestra, is that actually the New York Philharmonic?

BURROWS: No, that is an amalgam of a couple of New York orchestras—a Chelsea orchestra and one or two others. They try to get exactly the same players on every occasion. They can’t always do that, but the main people are from local Manhattan symphonies. But not the New York Philharmonic, because they wouldn’t be able to be at Lincoln Center and perform and be in our show. Those big orchestra scenes, each one probably took three days filming—long, long days. When I talked to the players at the New York Philharmonic, their schedule is pretty rigorous. I would have thought once they reach a certain level, they can kind of relax, maybe do a couple of gigs a week. But they rehearse really intensely, and obviously they’ll often play classical pieces, but they’ll also play new music that they don’t know. I got invited by the New York Philharmonic to go and watch any performance and visit any rehearsal space and practice with Carter Brey, who is the principal cellist there.

CUMMING: I didn’t realize that it was so precise and anal about the number of instruments a piece has. They never sway from that. They’re always so exact about the number of instruments it was written for.

BURROWS: I wonder if a more modern, experimental orchestra would sway from that, the way that someone would cut The Scottish Play down by an hour or something. I’m wondering how rigorous people are. But I think the very orthodox symphonies around the world, the big respected ones, I get the impression they don’t sway from that.

CUMMING: Gael’s character, I would imagine that would be the kind of thing he would do.

BURROWS: That’s true. He’ll choose a piece because of the fifth chair oboe to help out the young oboist, Lola’s character.

CUMMING: Do you like playing the cello?

BURROWS: I love it, yeah. Do you play cello?

CUMMING: I used to play cello when I was a little boy. Then I did that crazy film [Suffering Man’s Charity, 2007] where I was a cello teacher and tried to kill David Boreanaz.

BURROWS: Oh my god, yeah! That film was crazy. That film was kind of scary.

CUMMING: Oh, it was terrifying.

BURROWS: It was very riveting.

CUMMING: On many levels, some of which were not meant to be scary.

BURROWS: [laughs] I love it. You know, I’ve played a cellist in two or three films already before this.

CUMMING: Oh, was that the one with [director] Mike [Figgis] when you’re the twin?

BURROWS: Actually, no. I did a day on one of Mike’s films called One Night Stand (1997) with Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski. I just turned up as a cellist in that for literally a days work 20 years ago. Then I did a film called Dangerous Parking (2007) directed by Peter Howitt—you’ll remember him from Sliding Doors—and that was a beautiful story, a memoir of a man who was dying and he wrote it on his deathbed really about his life and his relationship with his wife who was a professional cellist, so I play her.

CUMMING: I’d never thought you’d do a sitcom.

BURROWS: I know, that’s why I like Mozart [in the Jungle] so much, because it’s definitely the lightest thing I’ve done. I like the stuff with Debra Monk. It’s fun on television. You don’t know where you’re going to go with it.

CUMMING: But didn’t you know because of the book?

BURROWS: No. It’s very different from the book. The book follows one woman—it’s a memoir—so it follows her life very closely. I loved it. It’s full of detail about that world that you would never know and about New York at a certain time. It also talks a lot about what happened at music school then, I guess 20 years ago, the sort of abuse and corruption within those musical establishments. There’s all these kids who have been playing since they were tiny. But ours is much more about this ensemble. I think they took the book as a jumping off point, and then they were also obviously inspired by Gustavo Dudamel—he’s such a passionate conductor—for the Gael character. Gael’s character isn’t really in the book, there are many conductors. It talks about everyone from Leonard Bernstein to André Previn, but there’s no Gael. 

CUMMING: I see. It’s this weird thing on Amazon where everyone votes on the pilot. What’s that like? Remember that time, years and years and years ago, where we were in L.A. and you were doing a pilot about germs and I was doing a pilot about playing a detective. And you were desperately hoping it wasn’t going to get picked up and I was desperately hoping mine would be.

BURROWS: [laughs] Did your detective keep morphing into different people? Did you have camouflage?  

CUMMING: Yes. I thought it would be fun because I’d be three different people every episode; of course it would be a nightmare. I would just be exhausted. It would be like being Julianna [Marguiles] in The Good Wife, but playing three versions of her.

BURROWS: And there was one day where we both having our supper break in trailer parks on the same bit of Sunset Boulevard.

CUMMING: Oh, that’s right!

BURROWS: We had supper together.

CUMMING: And Eddie came remember? He drove my car. My assistant had lost my car. He wasn’t my assistant for many more days, I’ can tell you.

BURROWS: Mine was originally set amongst emergency doctors in Boston in a sort of traveling medical unit, and I thought, “Oh, it sounds very ER and interesting. Kind of gritty,” and then they moved it to Malibu and rollerbladers with STDs. [laughs] I was like, “How has this happened? From Boston to Malibu?”

CUMMING: That’s hilarious.

BURROWS: And all the actors had sort of an emergency meeting where we all looked at each other and said, “What are we going to do?” Because we had the table read, and it was so radically different from the thing we’d all got involved with and signed up for. [laughs]

CUMMING: I remember with mine I asked, “Oh, what’s happening now?” and they said to me, “The head of General Electric is watching the pilot this weekend and then we’ll know.” And I was like, “Haha” and they were like, “No, really.” At least with your pilot, real people in the world could watch it and vote.

BURROWS: And it’s not down to one personality. People are rather disparaging about that. The critics of that system, they feel it’s a fake system. Amazon also says that they will receive scripts from anyone from anywhere in the world who wants to send them one and they’ll read it and then decide whether to put it on or not. They’ve made a really good pilot this year [Salem Rogers] with Leslie Bibb as a supermodel who went into rehab and came out 10 years later—it’s a comedy—and wonders why the world isn’t treating her as they once did, 10 years earlier. And that was written by a woman who is not in the business at all, who was a model living not in New York or L.A., but somewhere else in America, and just submitted it out of the blue.

CUMMING: Oh, wow!

BURROWS: So they have that system, which is really unusual, and I don’t think it’s done anywhere else. For our show people voted for it, which is lovely. Now people are rather snobby about that.


BURROWS: Critics will say, “Normal people in the public can vote for you show” like that was a bad thing. I thought that was a lovely thing.

CUMMING: I think that’s a great thing. It’s democracy at work! That reminds of years and years and years ago at Cannes, when Jennifer [Jason Leigh] and I were showing The Anniversary Party (2001) there and it was the first sort of digital film that a studio had made.

BURROWS: I loved it! Was it the first?

CUMMING: Thanks. It was the first one that a studio had made. There had been a couple before that, independent films, but this was the first one. It was that weird sort of thing, changing, where people were thinking, “Oh, you can make a film for so much cheaper, that’s so much more acceptable, and you can work in a completely different way.” There was this panel, and a lady stood up and said, “But don’t you think it’s terrible now that really anyone can make a film? Anyone can just pick up a camera and make a film?” And I was like, “I think that’s a great thing, isn’t it? Isn’t that what you would hope? That anyone could express themselves and we’ll have more access to more things and more ideas from different people around the world rather than just be given what these studio people want us to buy.”

BURROWS: Right. 

CUMMING: She just kept going on, “I just feel like anyone could make a film!” And I just thought it was awful. I don’t like snobs.

BURROWS: Who is meant to have the camera then?

CUMMING: Auteurs from Beverly Hills.

BURROWS: Or children of filmmakers.

CUMMING: Yeah, I know.

BURROWS: But it’s an unusual system.

CUMMING: This voting thing?

BURROWS: Yeah, the voting thing, and then also they don’t disclose numbers, which I also really like because it’s actually much more like Britain. All the stuff we loved watching when we were growing up wouldn’t have survived numbers. They say Seinfeld wouldn’t have either.

CUMMING: Oh, really?

BURROWS: Yeah. Maybe we had great numbers, I have no idea, but apparently their policy is not to release them, which I think is really good because people aren’t then obsessed. What they do is much more like independent filmmaking. I don’t know if you saw Transparent but I was smitten with that.

CUMMING: I loved that.

BURROWS: So [Amazon] will say, here’s a filmmaker we respect and want to give access to and want to work with, and then they allow that filmmaker or group of writers—or both, a kind of creative collective as ours is where there are maybe four of five EPs who went to Amazon with this idea—and then they say, “Okay we trust you now to cast it, choose your costume designer, choose your people, and make it a vision.” Clearly they spearhead it, as all companies do, but it felt very free, which was really interesting. It felt more like we were doing a play or an independent film. They’ve got Woody Allen now to make one and Whit Stillman did one for them about Paris. I saw the pilot. It’s interesting.

CUMMING: I did one.

BURROWS: Did you do one for Amazon?

CUMMING: Yeah, I did a little. The New Yorker made a little short film.

BURROWS: The Alex Gibney thing?

CUMMING: Alex Gibney, yeah. I did the little short film where I played God in the pilot.

BURROWS: It’s The New Yorker Presents, right?


BURROWS: Oh, I have to watch it. Did you direct it and be in it?

CUMMING: No, I just played God.

BURROWS: [laughs] And how does God sound?

CUMMING: Like me. Quite like me.

BURROWS: Does he. What’s his hair like?

CUMMING: His hair is kind of like mine too, actually. And he has specs. The way they do the cartoons is really clever. They show you how the cartoon is done and then it comes to life. I really like it. I hope it gets picked up.

BURROWS: How brilliant. I have to see it. You mean if yours prevailed, you’d be playing God?

CUMMING: No, no. I would never be that again. I’d do something else. It’s like a magazine format. I am doing this other thing tomorrow, I’ve got this web series called Remember That Time. I get people and I say—I had Lucy Liu on—”Remember that time that Lucy Liu kissed Calista Flockhart on Ally McBeal and caused a sensation? Well, here she is to tell us about it.” It’s just a couple of minutes, and Lucy talks about doing it. You know what she said that was really funny? All she remembers is that Calista Flockhart tasted like milk.

BURROWS: [laughs]

CUMMING: And then it has Josh Charles talking about when he was killed off in The Good Wife.

BURROWS: What did say about that?

CUMMING: Just how intense it was, the reaction to it, how overwhelming. It’s just looking at a thing that everyone knows and hearing about it from the person that was involved it. So I’m doing Emma, Rosie Perez, and Luke Wilson tomorrow night.

BURROWS: How brilliant! Do you just put them online when they’re done or are you collecting them together?

CUMMING: I think we’re going to wait until we can do 10. CBS has commissioned them. I guess it will be like your thing; it all comes out at once. Do you like that? On The Good Wife, when a big thing is about to happen I really like the fact that people are talking and I know that next week their heads are going to be blown off by some story plot. But with your show, everyone could watch it in a day. That’s really weird.

BURROWS: Actually, ours, they could watch in five hours. Cause it’s a half hour. Part of me misses the days when we have four channels in England and we were all talking about everything all the time.

CUMMING: I remember when Channel 4 started. 

BURROWS: It was such a big deal with Channel 4 started. Massive. Part of me misses that thing where the whole nation is talking about the same thing collectively, but that doesn’t really exist anymore, with the exception of The Good Wife. I do love anticipating as an audience member. But it feels like more and more people now want to watch it that way. I get on Twitter: “I’ve just binged watched your show, I love it.” I will do that with House of Cards. I’ll watch five in a weekend. I’m quite obsessed.

CUMMING: Me too. We did that with that thing Maggie Gyllenhaal is in, where she’s a Jewess in the Middle East. An Honourable Woman.


CUMMING: That’s insane. It’s really good. I would watch it late at night when you’ve had a drink, because it’s kind of complicated. We’d watch it late at night and go to bed and then dream about it.

BURROWS: If you look at anything online before bed, that’s it. That’s what you dream about.

CUMMING: I dreamt about Lena Dunham last night.

BURROWS: Did you? She’s all over London, which is nice—cover of Time Out, cover of everything.

CUMMING: She’s such a nice girl. I really like her.

BURROWS: I’ve heard she’s just lovely. We spent time with Jemima Kirke, who is Lola’s sister, in Brooklyn. It was really sweet with her family.

CUMMING: She’s a nice girl. We were in the Jay Z video together.

BURROWS: Were you?

CUMMING: Ah yes, I keep up with the kids, yes, yes. When we were watching your show, [Alan’s husband] Grant [Shaffer] said, “Gosh, [Lola] looks like the English girl from Girls,” and I said, “Yeah, that’s her sister.”

BURROWS: Lola’s the only one with an American accent. She was born in London as well as her siblings, but they all left…

CUMMING: When she was younger?

BURROWS: Yeah. So she got the accent and they kept theirs. She’s really talented, isn’t she? Do you love watching her?

CUMMING: Everyone’s great in your show. Especially Malcolm McDowell.

BURROWS: And isn’t he hilarious?

CUMMING:I wanted to ask you something about having a baby and getting married and all these things. Big changes in your life. How has that felt? What’s that experience been like for you?

BURROWS: The whole experience.

CUMMING: The new Saffron!

BURROWS: It does feel that way. It feels really good. I realize one can do things in a very personal way and it comes to a moment where you might have to talk to the outside world because you want to encourage someone to look at something you’ve worked on, or you’ve got to enter the world again once you’ve been in the world of having a new baby. It’s very internal really, the whole thing. In a really good way. But then you want to go out into the world again and work again and talk about your work and be proud of it. More importantly, you feel you have this child now and you need to be very clear what you’re showing them and what pride you’re displaying so that they get very clearly that this is what your family unit is and how proud you are. It felt really good.

CUMMING: I could tell. Well on that note, Saffron Burrows, I think it’s time to quit this popsicle stand.

BURROWS: Alright my love.

CUMMING: Goodbye former fiancé.