Jason Bateman’s Tired Defense of Jeffrey Tambor

In excusing his Arrested Development castmate’s verbal abuse of Jessica Walter, the actor showed how Hollywood has justified bad behavior for generations.


“What we do for a living is not normal,” Jason Bateman said in Wednesday’s New York Times interview with the cast of Arrested Development, in an effort to address his co-star Jeffrey Tambor’s admitted verbal abuse of Jessica Walter. “Therefore the process is not normal sometimes, and to expect it to be normal is to not understand what happens on set. Again, not to excuse it.” As Hollywood continues to grapple with widespread revelations of hostile work environments, institutional sexism, and sexual misconduct on and off set, Bateman insisted that he wasn’t trying to explain away an actor’s bad behavior—while displaying, over and over, exactly how his industry does it.

Bateman’s glaring mistake in the interview—for which he has already apologized—is how he rushed to defend Tambor from Walter’s account of Tambor screaming at her on the set of Arrested Development years ago. In doing so, Bateman defaulted to every entrenched cultural script of minimizing fault, downplaying misbehavior, and largely attributing Tambor’s verbal harassment to the unique, circumstantial pressures of acting—a process, he suggested, most onlookers could not hope to understand.

“It’s a very amorphous process … It’s a weird thing, and it is a breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes,” Bateman, who has worked in Hollywood since he was a child, said. He continually compared the Arrested Development cast to a family, as if Tambor—who was fired from his other show, Transparent, over claims of abusive conduct and sexual harassment—is a curmudgeonly grandpa who’s occasionally guilty of losing his temper. It’d be a strained rationalization under any circumstance, but it felt particularly patronizing because Walter, who has been in the industry far longer than Bateman, was in the room, trying to explain how she had to find it within herself to forgive Tambor’s behavior.

“I have to let go of being angry at him. He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go,” Walter said, through tears. “Jason says this happens all the time. In like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set. And it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now.”

Walter’s own feelings about the situation are clearly complicated. She wasn’t rushing to condemn her co-star; she was more intent on talking through the way she’s processed the experience. But over and over again, other male cast members (including Bateman, David Cross, and Tambor himself) jumped in to offer their perspectives on the particular pressures of acting. Bateman says some variation of I didn’t mean to speak for you or Not to excuse what happened six separate times. Only Alia Shawkat, the lone other woman being interviewed, offered a contrary perspective: “That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. And the point is that things are changing, and people need to respect each other differently.”

The process of acting—especially on a film or television set where precise actions and reactions have to be captured amid the surreal chaos of a scene populated with crew members—is certainly unusual and emotionally demanding. Stories of actors with preening egos, bad tempers, or eccentric performance tics are part of many a Hollywood legend. None of that, as Shawkat pointed out, is an excuse for the kind of behavior Walter described, and that Tambor admitted to. Yet that is the excuse that Bateman and his fellow cast members leaned back on—that outsiders couldn’t possibly understand how difficult it is, shooting a TV show.

This kind of vague reasoning gets deployed constantly—lines can get blurred while acting; sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between performance and reality in the workplace. That was in part Dustin Hoffman’s explanation for groping a co-star during a screen test for The Graduate (saying it was “to help loosen us up”). A loose on-set atmosphere played into the multiple allegations of harassment against James Franco (who was accused of pressuring actresses into simulating sex with him as part of the filming process). And it came up with Tambor on the set of Transparent, where he allegedly made unsolicited advances and rubbed himself against an actress. “It’s a really loose set … Everybody behaves in a sensual manner because it’s a show about sex,” an anonymous source said to The Hollywood Reporter about the allegations.

The Arrested Development situation doesn’t involve sexual misconduct, as Walter makes clear, but instead verbal abuse. But the ease with which her obvious, lingering pain over Tambor’s behavior is glibly dismissed by other cast members is shockingly callous. “Not to say that you know, you [Walter] had it coming,” Bateman said. “But this is not in a vacuum—families come together and certain dynamics collide and clash every once in a while. And there’s all kinds of things that go into the stew.”

Tambor, for his part, said he has “reckoned” with his past conduct and has apologized to Walter; in the Hollywood Reporter piece on Transparent, he was similarly contrite about his tempestuous moods (while flatly denying every accusation of sexual misconduct). “I had a temper and I yelled at people and I hurt people’s feelings,” he said in the Times. “And that’s unconscionable, and I’m working on it and I’m going to put that behind me, and I love acting.” But this ongoing moment in Hollywood is not about people reckoning with their love of acting—it’s about the realization that nightmarish behavior on set can no longer be written off as the inevitable consequence of someone exercising their craft.

In his apology, Bateman said he was grappling with that fact. “I’m horrified that I wasn’t more aware of how this incident affected [Walter],” he said in a series of tweets. “I was so eager to let [Tambor] know that he was supported in his attempt to learn, grow, and apologize that I completely underestimated the feelings of the victim … I shouldn’t have tried so hard to mansplain, or fix a fight, or make everything okay.” It’s a lesson many others in his field need to learn—that when confronted with on-set abuse, or an accusation of misbehavior, trying to “make everything okay” serves to benefit the abuser—and silence their victims.