Alan Ball has experienced that familiar moment when you glance at a digital clock and note the eerily symmetrical time — 11:11. While most of us find it curious, then shrug, moment over, for Ball — creator of TV’s popular “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” — it’s just the beginning.
A similar 11:11 moment sets off a series of unpredictable events for a multiracial family in “Here and Now,” Ball’s newest drama for HBO, which airs Sundays. It stars Tim Robbins (as a philosophy professor mired in a midlife crisis) and Holly Hunter (his super-controlling wife), both well-meaning lefties in Portland, Oregon, raising three adopted kids of wide-ranging origins (Vietnam, Liberia, Colombia) and one biological daughter. Like all of Ball characters, each nurses flaws and struggles to make sense of life, especially Colombian son, Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), who begins having what seem to be strange hallucinations. Or are they?
A native of Marietta, Georgia, Ball, 60, wrote the screenplay for the film “American Beauty” (winning an Oscar). He spoke recently with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio by phone from Los Angeles.
QUESTION: Let’s start with the location — Portland. Why there? Do you have a connection to that city?
ANSWER: Portland has such a reputation as a bastion of progressivism. And that’s true. But it’s not a particularly diverse city. And it has a pretty sketchy history in terms of race. African Americans were not allowed to live there until 1920-something. I don’t know … it’s something like that. You’ll have to check.
Q: So that intrigued you.
A: And then there’s all that Pacific Northwest splendor and beauty. The air is so different. The light is so different. It just felt like the right place.
Q: Strange things happen to characters in your shows. Have you experienced things you can’t explain?
A: I haven’t had visions per se. But I did have a moment like Ramon, where I felt as if an involuntary force pushed me to look at a clock on the wall, and it was 11:11. Something made me think, “Huh — this is weird.” So I went home and looked it up. It’s a huge phenomenon. A lot of people think it’s a sign. There are lots of interpretations. It just, I don’t know, fell into the caldron that is my brain and when I sat down to write the pilot it just sort of came up.
Q: None of your characters seem stereotypical. Ramon is gay, but that’s not the point. He’s not “the gay brother.” He’s just a guy who happens to be gay. Later we meet his therapist, who happens to be Muslim, but he’s not particularly devout.
A: Yeah, it’s not, “Hey, here’s the Muslim family” or “the gay character.” At this point in my life, I look at guys in their 20s who are gay, and I feel pretty jealous.
Q: Because of the ease with which they seem able to express themselves?
A: Yes. There doesn’t seem to be quite such the struggle to come to terms with that, because society has come to terms with that. Not entirely, of course but … I always wanted Ramon and Henry just to be characters. It wasn’t about them being gay.
Q: Your own partner, Peter Macdissi, is an executive producer on the series, and plays Ramon’s therapist. Working with your partner — all that time spent together. What does it take to make that work?
A: It comes with its challenges, but it’s pretty navigable. I like working with him. And he had a lot to do with the inclusion of the Muslim family — he helped shape the show in a lot of ways.
Q: There’s a line of dialogue about fear that struck me. It comes up twice. Ramon worries his hallucinations mean he’s going crazy.
A: And Henry says, “Don’t come at this from fear ’cause it’ll destroy you.” Ramon repeats it to his mother.
Q: Is that a lesson you’ve learned, or one you’re still grappling with?
A: I’ve learned it intellectually … but emotionally? It’s not as easy. Like many people, I wake up with anxiety these days because I don’t know what’s going to happen — the America I grew up in is completely different now. Gone. But again, it’s a daily choice to not come at things from fear.
Q: So how do you do that?
A: I try to meditate daily, to try to disengage from fearful thoughts.
Q: Mmm … I can’t seem to motivate myself to meditate.
A: It’s easier once you get used to it. When I do it regularly, I find it makes a big difference in my life.