“These are people desperate to preserve their way of life,” argues Bob Balaban about the characters on Netflix’s “The Chair.” The comedy about an English department at a prestigious university. The series has earned Best Comedy Actress nominations at both the SAG and Critics Choice Awards for Sandra Oh, who stars as the department’s new chairperson. Balaban plays Elliot Rentz, a senior professor whose job is threatened by dwindling enrollment and who must supervise a young professor who is seeking tenure, but whose more progressive teaching methods Elliot finds distasteful. Check out our exclusive video interview with Balaban above.
The actor argues that one of the show’s appeals is that all of the characters are appealing. “There are no villains here,” he argues. “That’s one of the reasons why I think people reacted well to it — people under great stress with very high stakes.” Though the series is a comedy, Balaban argues that those stakes are what makes the show relatable. “Everybody has a beating heart, has a problem at home,” he says. “They’re not just teachers — they are people, which is easy to forget sometimes.”
The character of Elliot is facing the potential end of his career, a problem complicated by the presence of the tenure-seeking Professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), an idealistic professor whose more popular classes become merged with Elliot’s. The tension between the two characters is played for true comedy, and Balaban found a great deal of joy working with Mensah in those moments. “We both really enjoyed each other,” he says. “There was a moment to actually enjoy my nemesis, and once you started enjoying your nemesis it gets complicated.”
Balaban earned an Oscar nomination for 2001’s Best Picture nominee “Gosford Park” and received Emmy nominations for acting (2006’s “Recount”) and directing (2006’s “Bernard and Doris” and 2009’s “Georgia O’Keeffe”). He also won a SAG Award as part of the ensemble of “Gosford Park.” Balaban attributes his success to participating in projects that pique his excitement. “I need to be interesting in something to be doing it,” he says. “There are no topics that I’m not interested in because we all know that some of the most boring things — like the history of the telephone book — if it was written properly, it could probably be a terrific TV series.”
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