'One Tree Hill's' Austin Nichols draws on real frustration for a heartbreaking performance

one-tree-hill-austin-soph-karens.jpgIf Austin Nichols' work as Julian Baker in the last two "One Tree Hill" episodes didn't make you cry, you're either made of stone or your tear ducts are broken. In an absent-minded moment, the ever-reliable Julian did the unthinkable and left his son, Davis, in the car on a hot day. While the baby survived a situation that easily could've turned fatal, Julian and Brooke ( Sophia Bush) were beyond rattled by the incident.

Nichols hasn't yet watched the scenes that blew so many of us out of the water (and put Twitter into a tailspin). "I haven't seen it yet!" he tells Zap2it. "I'm unemployed and looking for work, so I've been reading so many scripts. I've just been fully immersed in that. I'll look at the scenes someday."

It's hard to imagine that Nichols wouldn't be clamoring to watch the scenes, which are undoubtedly his best work on "One Tree Hill," if not in the entire span of his career. Perhaps he's avoiding watching the most recent episode because he struggled considerably while shooting it. Nichols tells us that the heartwrenching scene in which Julian tries to recreate the scenario alone in his car was one of the most difficult he's ever done, and he wasn't satisfied with it when the episode wrapped.

"When I left the set that night, I left really frustrated," he confesses. "I thought that I didn't really get the scene right. Since the episode aired I've gotten so many messages from fans saying that it ripped them up, and I'm just so thrilled that it worked, because I was terrified that I didn't nail it."

What helped him pull off Julian's devastation was some very real exasperation on Nichols' part. "It was a hot night, and I really did turn the heater all the way up in the car, but I couldn't get the car very hot.  I couldn't get it as hot as I wanted because we shot at night, so I was frustrated about that, and I didn't want to put Sophia through doing hours and hours of shooting in a ninety-degree car. I was really, genuinely pissed off, with the heat, and with feeling like a bad actor, and so tapping into those things helped a lot."

In the end, though, Nichols pulled it off by thinking about some very important people who  helped him relate to Julian's experience as a new dad throughout the final season. "One thing that's been very useful to me is that while I don't have kids of my own, my sister has three kids, and they've changed my life tremendously," he tells us. "Being an uncle has been incredibly eye-opening. They're very, very special to me, and I think about them a lot."

austin-vertical-solo-oth.jpgThe baby-in-the-car story was a key factor in Nichols' and Bush's decisions to renew their "One Tree Hill" contracts for a final season. Executive producer Mark Schwahn pitched them the story before they signed on and they were both excited to explore such a powerful, real situation for characters who tend to exist in a heightened reality. "Julian's always been a rock for Brooke, and that's wonderful, but selfishly, I wanted to explore what's wrong with Julian," Nichols says. "Everyone's got imperfections. I wanted to get into his problems as opposed to just his ability to be a support system."

There was also a degree of responsibility to the story, given that it's a tragedy that many parents face year after year, particularly since laws have been instated requiring children's car seats to be in the back seat as opposed to the rear-facing front-seat carriers that were common for previous generations.

"Every summer you read in the paper or see on TV that it's happened. It happens fairly often, sadly," says Nichols. "I read a few articles before we shot, about cases where this has happened. We all felt really strongly about getting it on the show and talking about it, the idea being that it's not because you're a bad parent or because you don't care about your kid, which is what we tried to show with Julian. That's so far from the truth. It can be as small as 'Well, I got thrown off of my normal routine and my schedule, I got thrown six curveballs, and I'm like 'Okay, okay, no problem, I can do it.'' With Julian, he went to the ATM, he went to the liquor store to get someone a gift, and then he walked out and just went, 'Oh, my God.' It doesn't take very long for you to make a mistake like that. On a hot day, five minutes is a really, really long time."

Julian and Haley ( Bethany Joy Galeotti) haven't had many scenes together over the years Nichols has been on the show, but this incident gave the characters a rare opportunity to bond over a shared experience. The scene in which Haley shared her own dark moments as a parent resonated with many fans (yes, we saw your tweets).

"Julian and Haley have never really had too much cause to spend a lot of time together," Nichols says. "It was nice to work with Joy, she's great, and she cares so much about her performance."

Fans may be interested to know that Galeotti, a new parent herself, actually went off-script in the scene in an effort to make the moment feel more genuine. "We did it a whole bunch of times the way it was written," Nichols says. "Then on one take, she kind of just riffed her own story. She went off-script and said, 'I'm just going to speak from my heart. I've been playing this character for nine years, so I'm going to tell this story as I remember it,' and that's ultimately the take that they chose to use."

Of course, Brooke did have some brief doubts about Julian's parenting ability, but once she moved past the initial shock, she's on his side once again. That doesn't mean, though, that Julian is able to move on himself. "This is the kind of thing that never truly leaves you. It's one of those things that sticks, as a parent; you watch yourself so much more closely. He'll continue to beat himself up a bit, though time does heal wounds, and Brooke is incredibly supportive. She struggled with it for a short period, but she definitely doesn't keep it hanging over his head for very long. She understands why it happened and she realizes that she could just as easily make the same mistake. It's a horrible thing to say, but it could happen to anybody."

Don't assume that Brooke and Julian are out of the weeds yet, though. As we saw in the first two minutes of the season premiere, they've got even more dark times ahead, beginning with the potential release of Brooke's assailant from Season 6, Xavier Daniels ( Devin McGee). In addition to traumatizing Brooke with a brutal beating, Xavier is also responsible for the death of Tree Hill basketball star Quentin Fields. His release from prison feels incredibly premature -- but then again, Dan got out four years after shooting his brother, so we shouldn't be too surprised.

Nichols says that when he read that Xavier was set for release, he had a strong reaction -- so we can expect Julian to be pretty upset about the whole thing. "It's so funny, the way things blend in real life and on the show," he laughs. "I remember reading that he was coming back, and I was like 'What? God damn it! What the f***?' You get kind of lost in it. 'Why is this guy coming back? Who let him out of jail? He's here to f*** with us again?!'"

After the devastating blow dealt to them with the car situation, Brooke and Julian are already on unstable ground, mentally (though they're doing just fine as a couple). "It's like adding insult to injury. We just had this really intense thing happen to us with our child, and now we get hit right afterward with this ex-con that's going to possibly get out. Sometimes I call the writers and I'm like 'What are you guys doing to us!?' There's always a psycho in town. Tree Hill's always interesting. We can depend on that."

Tune in to "One Tree Hill's" final season Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. EST on The CW, and keep an eye on Zap2it for more from Nichols leading up to Episode 7, which he directed.

Photo/Video credit: The CW