Tom Pelphrey Talks Love & Death and Life With Kaley Cuoco

The Ozark actor who plays the real-life lawyer of Candy Montgomery in the HBO Max true-crime series just might have a future in law.

Interview by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Quil Lemons
Styled by Rebecca Ramsey
Originally Published: 

Pelphrey wears an Alexander McQueen coat, shirt, trousers, and tie; Church's shoes.
Pelphrey wears an Alexander McQueen coat, shirt, trousers, and tie; Church's shoes.

When Tom Pelphrey first read David E. Kelley’s script for the true-crime drama Love & Death, he assumed the famed television writer had embellished the story of axe-wielding murderous housewife Candy Montgomery. “I thought, He must be taking liberties. This must be a bit hyperbolic,” Pelphrey recalls. “But not so. Everything he wrote was true.” In the HBO Max show, Pelphrey portrays Don Crowder, the pompous, inexperienced lawyer who defended Montgomery (played by Elizabeth Olsen) in her 1980 trial. For the New Jersey native, who got his start in soap operas (he has two daytime Emmys for his work in Guiding Light) and whose recent credits include Ozark and the Oscar-winning film Mank, playing a litigator was a nice change of pace. “Usually, I’m the one getting arrested,” Pelphrey says with a laugh. Off-screen, he and his partner Kaley Cuoco lead a rather laid-back life at home with their 4-month-old daughter, Matilda, and their growing pack of rescue dogs.

This interview was conducted prior to the start of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Are you a true-crime fan in general?

I'm somewhat of a true-crime fan. My partner loves Dateline, so sometimes I'm absorbing it just by proximity. The Candy Montgomery story is pretty fascinating because it's one of those stories where truth is stranger than fiction.

How did you prepare for the role?

I didn't get to meet Don Crowder, unfortunately. Don took his own life in the ’90s. I learned a lot about him, though, and I got to talk with one of his friends who was also his law partner, Robert Udashen. He was on set when we were filming the courtroom scenes, and he actually said he thought I defended Elizabeth better than Don defended Candy.

Pelphrey as Don Crowder with Elizabeth Olsen as Candy Montgomery in Love & Death

Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

Were you interested in acting from an early age?

I don't know that I always wanted to be an actor, but when I was 14 years old, I had a high school acting teacher, Steve Kazakoff, who changed my life. From the moment I met him, I wanted to be an actor. I went to a public high school in New Jersey, and it just so happened that the school had a magnet performing-arts program. I auditioned for the school musical my freshman year on a whim, even though I couldn't sing or dance. And I still can't.

Did you have crushes on any actors during that time?

I definitely had a crush on Winona Ryder from Beetlejuice, from Heathers, from The Crucible, with Daniel Day-Lewis. I just thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen when I was a kid. But now I have a crush on Kaley Cuoco—a deep and abiding crush, a love crush on Kaley.

Did you ever watch The Big Bang Theory?

Never. Matter of fact, when I first brought Kaley to New Jersey to meet my family and friends, my mom's partner—who apparently was a Big Bang Theory fan—was there, and he kept calling her Penny. I had no clue what was going on. So I pulled Kaley aside, like, "I'm sorry, I don't understand what's happening. Why does he keep calling you Penny?" She's like, "That's my character in The Big Bang Theory." I was completely unaware. I've watched a few episodes with her since, and, obviously, she's fantastic.

So you hadn't seen her in anything?

I hadn't seen Kaley in anything. Look, I live in a cave. Before I met Kaley, I was living in upstate New York, on a dirt road, in the middle of the woods, without much Wi-Fi. She's brought me into modern times.

Well, you still kind of live a wild life, since you have so many animals? How many now?

We're up to six dogs, all rescues. And now we have a beautiful little girl. A human to add to the mix.

Do the dogs accept the human?

The dogs all accept the human. Five of the dogs are over 10 years old. And then, about four weeks before Matilda was going to be born, Kaley said, "I saw another dog that needs to be rescued. Is it crazy to rescue another dog right now?" I said, "It's absolutely crazy, but let's do it."

The Row men’s shirt and trousers; Rebecca Turbow belt; Church’s shoes.

What is your zodiac sign?

My birthday is July 28. I'm a Leo. I am a Libra rising and a Scorpio moon. My daughter shares two of my three signs. She's not a Leo. She's an Aries sun, but she is Leo moon and Libra rising, just like me.

Do you see yourself in her?

I see myself a little bit in her. She's got one dimple on her left cheek, like I do. Other than that, though, I see Kaley. Kaley says she sees me, but when Matilda's kind of confused or frustrated about something, she makes these faces and I'm like, "Oh my god, there's your mom."

When you were growing up, did you have any posters in your room?

I had a poster of Jack Nicholson coming through the bathroom door in The Shining, when he sticks his face in and says, "Here's Johnny!" and his eyes are kind of crazy. I had that on my wall, which was an interesting choice. And then I had a framed poem—I'm just remembering this—from Shel Silverstein, which my grandfather made for me.

Do you remember what it said?

It read: "Listen to the mustn'ts, Tom. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never-haves, then listen close to me. Anything can happen, Tom. Anything can be."

Hair by Edward Lampley at CLM for Mr. Smith; skin by Susie Sobol at PM Artists for Sobol Inc; manicure by Honey at Exposure NY for NAVYA Nail Lacquer; Set Design by Spencer Vrooman.

Produced by AP Studio, Inc.; Executive Producer: Alexis Piqueras; Producer: Anneliese Kristedja; Production Managers: Anna Blundell, David Duque-Estrada; Production Coordinator: Ellen Kozarits; Photo Assistants: Matt Yoscary, Josua Jimenez; Retouching: Matty So; Fashion Assistants: Tori López, Tyler VanVranken, India Reed, Tori Leung; Production Assistants: Linette Estrella, Ariana Kristedja, Alan Bell, Nico Marti, Ryan Qiu; Hair Assistants: Marvin Tarver, Anna Soares; Makeup Assistants: Tanya Marques, Riccardo Delgado; Tailor: Lindsay Wright; Set Design Assistants: Will Cragoe, Christina O'Neil, Joseph Ahern.

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