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Interview: ‘Love & Death’ Actor Tom Pelphrey Talks Representing the Essence of Don Crowder

One of the most prominent figures in the story of Candy Montgomery as featured in the true crime series Love & Death now streaming on Max is none other than her eccentric and dedicated attorney Don Crowder who takes center stage in the second half of the mini-series. Played by Tom Pelphrey, Tom speaks to the depth and layers of the real Don Crowder and how the process of learning about the football player turned lawyer made him fall in love with capturing his essence and bringing it to the screen. 

Tom also details his approach to playing a real-life figure and the camaraderie and collaboration on set that made it easy for him to step into the role of defending Candy Montgomery. Much of Don’s background helped inform the motivation behind his actions, leading the way for bringing his character fully into this project.

Read my full conversation with Tom Pelphrey below. 

Hello, this is Danny Jarabek here with Awards Radar and I’m very excited to be talking with Tom Pelphrey who plays attorney Don Crowder on the HBO series Love & Death. Tom, how are you today?

Pelphrey: I’m doing well Danny, how are you doing?

Wonderful, wonderful, super excited to be talking about this series, and especially this character that you play. But before we get into that, I’d love to hear from you just a little bit of your interest in this series, your interest in this character, and how this vision started to come to be in the early stages.

Pelphrey: Yeah, well, I was filming Outer Range and they sent the first four episodes. I planned to read one a night, I sat down, and I binged all four in a row, I was so taken by the story, I kind of couldn’t believe what I was reading. I thought it was very funny. I couldn’t put it down. But at the time, especially back then Don was barely even a character. So, I didn’t understand what they wanted me to do. I was like, “What?” Literally back then he was barely written into the scripts at all, and I had a meeting with David [E. Kelley] and he said the trial starts in Episode Five. Then we will really get to meet Don. But what he said that really sold me on it was, “The more I’ve learned about Don, the more I love him, and I think you will too.” And he was right, the more I learned about Tom, the more I loved him.

What was that learning process like for you going into this story playing a real-life figure in history? Was there a research process for you? How did you start to build out this character?

Pelphrey: Yeah, 100%. The research was largely done by reading the book that was our source material that the screenplay is based on which had a wealth of information about Don that there just isn’t time or place to put into the show. He’s had such an interesting life. He’s such an interesting character. He was a really undersized football player. He weighs not even 150 pounds. He’s like five foot nine. It’s like Rudy, but he plays, goes to college, and is a running back for SMU. Then he gets an ocular fracture, which basically means he gets hit so hard his eyeball comes out of his head, gets it put back in, they fix him up, and he gets an invitation to a walk-on tryout for the Washington Redskins, who are now the Washington Commanders. The team doctors say there’s no way I’m letting you on that field. He’s like, “Why? This guy had the same injury and you let him play.” The doctor says, “Yeah, that guy’s 300 pounds. You’re 190 pounds.” By the way, he bulked up about 40 pounds to be able to play football. So, you just get the sense of this real scrapper, this underdog scrapper. When he realized that the door was shut on his dreams of playing football in the NFL, even at 190 pounds, which God bless him for that, he starts in law. He starts getting interested in law and pursuing law. That was just one of the fascinating things. Also, he and his wife Carol in their house in Texas basically had an open-door policy. It was like a foster home. They were constantly taking in children who either lost their parents or maybe had a single parent or maybe a kid was struggling, and Carol would tutor them up and help them with their homework. Don would coach them in sports and get them to exercise. He was a really incredible, incredible guy. Obviously, we don’t get to see all of that in the show. But what I hope is that my love for who the man was, gets to come through on some level.

Don, who starts out as a friend of Candy Montgomery’s, becomes her attorney at the midway point, of course, what was it like for you? What was the thought process of being the character that stood by Candy Montgomery?

Pelphrey: I guess the right way to say part of what made Don so much fun is that I don’t think that there was a ton of complexity in the window of time in which we get to see him. I’m not saying that Don Crowder himself wasn’t a complex man, I’m sure he was, but I believe that Don was the kind of guy that when he agreed to do something, he was going to do it, he was going to do it all the way through and he was playing to win. So, the second he agreed to defend Candy, his job and goal and objective were, “I’m going to defend Candy to the best of my ability, all the way to the end without any internal tension.” I think at the beginning, he was afraid they would lose. I think when he agreed to defend her, he didn’t even know that she had done it. He thought it was ridiculous. But then even learning that she did, I think he thought, “Okay, we’re okay, we’ll figure this out.” Then they really started getting their butts kicked, but it was the trip to the hypnotherapy room that truly awoke something in Don and left him thinking, “I just saw something that shocked me and moved me and upset me. Now I really need to go all hands on deck to defend this person.”

With playing a real-life figure who weighed on this moment in history in an important way with this case, how do you want to portray a real-life figure? Is it something that you’re trying to imitate who this person was? Is it a reimagination? Are you recreating Don Crowder or are you taking some level of creative liberty?

Pelphrey: Yeah, that’s, that’s a really good question. I think it really depends on the actual person that you’re playing. If you’re going to play Martin Luther King, Jr., we all know exactly what he looks like and we’ve all heard his speeches and heard his voice and the cadence and the timbre and tone of his voice, it’s so ingrained in us. If you’re going to play Johnny Cash, those figures, I believe, you need to be more literal, because, at a certain point, if they’re not close enough to what we know, I think the illusion is dispelled. But with somebody like Don, I think we want to mine the literal for the essence, to take the facts, and everything we can learn that’s true and tease out of it the essence of who this man was because I can see him speak in front of a camera for a few seconds and see some photos of him on a certain day. But I don’t think that’s enough to build an entire character without inference. It’s taking the things we know for sure, taking the facts, as much of them as we can find, and then finding the essence of who that person was and plugging that into the script. That being said, with Don in particular, I really fell in love with the man. So as much as possible I wanted the facts that I was finding out about him. There was so much of that wasn’t a 1-1 on the screen. We never got to see how important it was for Don to help children, which was a huge part of his life. We never get to see Don playing football, but those are the qualities that would make him the person that would want him to do those things and those qualities can show up in other ways. I might be able to show a little bit of that because it’s my responsibility to bring him fully into the project. I don’t know if we succeeded or not, but it was fun as hell to try.

Well, I can promise you it was also just as fun to watch. I enjoyed seeing that all unfold. But with Don, he is this big character he’s got a very big personality, very big expressionism to him. How did that work in collaborating with your fellow cast members, especially in the way that you have a very close working relationship with Elizabeth Olsen? How did that play out behind the scenes in building out the character of this attorney who’s going to be defending our protagonist on trial?

Pelphrey: In many ways, it was really an ideal situation. The cast we had is obviously a spectacular cast and aside from being real professionals and very talented at what they do, it was just a very friendly, warm cast, we all got along very well. We all spend time together away from work and it’s such a blessing when you have that, you don’t always have it for one reason or another. But it’s such a blessing when you do because I believe, to my core that what we do is a team sport, and not only is it a team sport in all the obvious ways that is kind of hard to argue against. But, the more I believe that there’s a feeling of being on the same team and the more that there’s a feeling of a generosity of spirit and of sharing and supporting and encouraging everyone towards the same goal—it makes everything better. When I felt with certain jobs that there’s a conflict, or a lack of people buying in, or people being pulled in opposite directions, sometimes I think maybe that can be special in its own way if you really catch lightning in a bottle and that’s the purpose of what you’re doing like if you’re telling the story with a lot of fractious, horrible relationships, but our story was so much about this little community, this small town, and these people were very much a part of each other’s lives and this unspeakable thing happens, and what does it do to them. The fact that we could have such a special bond with the cast, it did so much work for us that we weren’t always even aware of. It was so easy to slide in as Don with Candy because it was so easy for Tom to slide in next to Lizzie [Olsen] and be her friend and talk to her.

I love hearing that. That’s really special. You’re right in that it is a component of the show how it’s a very small community that couldn’t believe that anything like this could happen. One last thing I want to ask you about is I recently spoke with the production designer Suzuki Ingerslev for this series and one of the things we talked about was Don Crowder’s office. It’s certainly quite a space and it’s decorated in that bold Don Crowder expression so can you speak a little bit about his office and how that was a reflection of who this character was?

Pelphrey: [laughs] I could not believe it when I first saw his office. That desk is hilarious. I need to go on my phone and see if we can find if I took actual pictures of the desk and post them online. Obviously, if the rule is you have to be careful when you act with puppies and children, the new rule is to be careful with Don Crowder’s desk. Against Crowder’s desk, you’re not going to win. It’s just way more interesting. All that can happen is it could go wrong. It’s hilarious the amount of dead animals in that man’s office. Ask Suzuki, I don’t know if that’s based on his actual house or if that was a choice she made but either way, I tried to pitch that when we play that scene to have Lizzie and I sit on the floor with our backs to the desk and talk with that in the background, but for obvious reasons I was told no.

Suzuki said ‘We were in Texas and they had to go full Texas somewhere.’ This was the opportunity.

Pelphrey: It was really memorable. You’re not the first person to talk about the desk.

Alright well, thank you so much, Tom. I really appreciate it getting to hear a little bit about your role and your character in the show and so congratulations on it. Thank you so much again. 

Pelphrey: Thanks so much, Danny. Have a good day.


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Written by Danny Jarabek

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