Six funny stars — also including Anthony Anderson, Ted Danson, Brian Tyree Henry and William H. Macy — dish about knowing when (and why) to turn down a big paycheck, the benefits of being left in the dark creatively and what it's like to get dissed by Zeffirelli: "Franco didn't like your nose."
Ask a table full of comedy actors to reveal the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to them on the job, and you’ll see grown men devolve into a gaggle of schoolboys. At least that’s what went down at THR’s roundtable on April 30: Three of the stars gathered on a Hollywood soundstage — William H. Macy, 67; Kevin Bacon, 58; and Anthony Anderson, 46 — told tales of passing gas midperformance; another, Ted Danson, 69, recalled an ill-timed belch; and Atlanta breakout Brian Tyree Henry, 35, dished on something called “ball smoke,” which required an explanation that left at least one man present horrified. With these stories out of their systems, however, the five, plus Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani, 39, got refreshingly candid about learning when (and why) to turn down a big paycheck, the benefits of being left in the dark creatively and, in Bacon’s case, what it’s like to be told you aren’t “f—able.”
Brian's rise to fame is significantly more recent than the rest of yours. What advice do you have for him about navigating success?
ANTHONY ANDERSON (BLACK-ISH, ABC) Don't give your family money. Tell them no.
WILLIAM H. MACY (SHAMELESS, SHOWTIME) You can give my family money. (Laughs.) I've always said, "Do the good stuff, but don't do the bad stuff." That's my advice.
BRIAN TYREE HENRY (ATLANTA, FX) But what if the bad stuff is, like, lots of money?
MACY It's never enough money. The few times I've done something for money, halfway through I thought, "This isn't anywhere near the amount of money I'd need to get."
KUMAIL NANJIANI (SILICON VALLEY, HBO) But sometimes you read something, and you think it's going to be great and then it doesn't turn out good at all.
TED DANSON (THE GOOD PLACE, NBC) My experience is when I do stuff I probably shouldn't have, there was a moment when I read the script and went, "Boy, I don't know. This part here doesn't work." And then they say, "God, we'd love you for this part, Ted, and here's X money," and then you go, "It'll work. They'll fix it." And then they don't. Your instincts are usually right.
Does it get easier to say no?
KEVIN BACON (I LOVE DICK, AMAZON) For me, it's gotten easier to say no, but I always have this feeling that if somebody wants me, then I should probably do it — just because I still think about being out of work. You still think about being a waiter and trying to get two nickels to rub together.
NANJIANI Still? Really?
BACON Oh, absolutely. I have cash in my pocket all the time. It's like, I'm always thinking, if there's a gig, I probably should take it because they want me. But it has gotten a little easier to say no. You start to have other priorities. You want to spend time doing other things than working all the time.
MACY When I started my career, I used to ask myself, "What does this script have to do with the human condition?" And then about halfway through my career I started to ask, "How much will I get paid?" And now I ask, "Do I have to get wet?"
BACON You know, I hope that things are always on an upward trajectory and completely stellar, but if you stick around for long enough, there are going to be dips. So, you look back and you go, "Shit, I wish I had really embraced that time when I was hitting." Because you don't always hit.
DANSON One of my prayers used to be, "Oh, please Lord, do not let my fame exceed my ability to get work." There would be nothing worse than to be out of work and going, "Hey, Cheers!"
BACON Well, you're lucky you never had a game [Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon] named after you.
How has the game impacted you? Does it hurt?
BACON Nah, it doesn't hurt.
HENRY When I woke up this morning, I was like, "I'm f—ing one degree." (Laughter.) Do you know the origin of Six Degrees?
BACON Yeah. It was these three college guys in Pennsylvania. A movie of mine was playing, and they just started talking about it and they started playing it. I think I first heard Howard Stern talking about it, and then eventually Jon Stewart had a show and asked me to come and be on it with the guys [who started the game], and I said, "I'm not f—ing going to that." I hated it because I was trying so hard to be a serious actor, and all of a sudden I was like a parlor game.
MACY It's harsh.
BACON I thought it was really a joke at my expense, you know? I don't really feel that way anymore.
Hollywood loves to lock people into lanes. What are the roles that you find yourself getting tired of being approached for?
HENRY A thug. I am not a goddamn thug. (Laughs.) Especially now, they want to lock me into the drug dealer. I can be a lawyer!
DANSON But I think that's the part that's in your control, and you will have to say no.
HENRY It's a lot of no's. (Laughs.)
Do people often confuse you with your character, Paper Boi?
HENRY Oh yeah, it's intense. I like when they don't know the name though. I'll get Paper Bag. I get Paper Man. It's like when I did Book of Mormon, my character's name was General Butt-F—ing Naked, right? There was this one dude who was not from America, and he saw me on the street and he was like, "Butt F—er. Butt F—er." And you just gotta go, "Yeah, that's me." (Laughs.)
ANDERSON There's power in saying no. Early in my career, I worked with some of the comedic greats: Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Jim Carrey, the Farrelly brothers. I felt that eventually I would be typecast as the fat, funny guy, and I didn't want that because I knew there was much more to me as an actor than just what they had seen up to that point. And so I made a conscious decision to say no. I had just created my first television show, All About the Andersons, and I was like, "You know what, this is the last comedic thing that I'm going to do for now." And we — me and my team — got together and we made a plan. We targeted shows like Law & Order and movies like The Departed and Hustle & Flow and things of that nature, and those things started to fall into place. But I was willing and ready to just take a step back and maybe not work for a while.
Kumail, your movie The Big Sick, which you wrote and star in, is getting a tremendous amount of acclaim. What doors have opened as a result, and how do you make decisions with these new doors opened?
NANJIANI Well, it’s tough. I was not working not that long ago, so I remember when somebody asked you to do something, it was like, "Oh my God, me? Thank you so much. I’ll do whatever." So to hear that you guys still have that is very interesting. I also feel bad judging other people’s work. I’ll read a script and I’m like, "I don’t like it but someone really put a lot of time into it. Who am I to say no to this?" (Laughs.)
MACY Especially after you’ve directed a film, you have a lot of sympathy.
NANJIANI So, I don’t know how to judge what to do. And it’s also tough because that movie was our story. My wife and I wrote it and it’s so personal to us, so it’s hard to go from that to somebody else’s story. I want to do more action stuff and then I’ll read an action thing and be like, "Well, this isn’t fun." And I want to do more comedy stuff and so I’ll read a comedy and I’ll be like, "I’ve done this kind of thing before."
DANSON Are you tempted to write and direct your own stuff again?
NANJIANI I would love to.
DANSON Well, then do that, right?
NANJIANI Do you have any ideas? I’ve used my whole life for the first one.
DANSON I’ll write something for you to write and direct.
NANJIANI Yeah, give me a treatment and I’ll flesh it out. Story by Ted Danson, screenplay by Kumail.
Kevin, I've read that you had a prosthetic disguise made so that you could go unrecognized. What was the takeaway from that experiment?
BACON Yeah, having lived as a person for so long that the second I go outside, wherever I am, pretty much [people recognize me]. And it's amazing. It's 99.9 percent good. It's free shit. It's tables at restaurants. People coming up to you and saying, "I love you." Like, in the course of your day, to have people just say "I love you" all the time is an amazing thing. You can't go, "I don't want that." And the other thing is that I have no one to blame but myself for this life. However, I just wanted to see what it was like to not …
DANSON Because your peripheral vision goes when people look at you all the time.
BACON So I had a disguise made by special effects makeup artists. It was very simple: It was a bit of a nose and some teeth.
NANJIANI So you wore around a bit of a nose and some teeth?
BACON And I went to The Grove [an outdoor mall in L.A.].
MACY And no one recognized you?
BACON No one recognized me.
NANJIANI And how did that feel?
BACON It sucked! (Laughter.)
Did that surprise you?
MACY He had to wait in line.
NANJIANI You took it off and you were like, "I'm Kevin Bacon!"
HENRY Everyone, everyone, it's me!
NANJIANI Six Degrees!
BACON It was f—ing weird, I'm telling you. I'm just not used to this (mimes elbowing his way through a crowd).
ANDERSON Was that the first and the last time you wore the disguise?
BACON First and last. (Laughter.)
DANSON A group of us, all family, went down the Amazon for eight days, [and it was all people] who hadn't seen anybody. And Mary [Steenburgen, Danson's wife] pointed out to me that each day, I'd get a little crankier and a little pissier. And she figured it out. No one was saying, "Hey, I love your work," "Hey, I love you."
When was the last time you were mistaken for another actor?
NANJIANI Oh my God. There was one week where I got mistaken for Hasan Minhaj, who is on The Daily Show; Kunal Nayyar, who's on Big Bang Theory; and Karan Soni of Ghostbusters. This was one week. And this was, like, a month ago.
ANDERSON I get — which is crazy because it comes from my own community — Tyler Perry, Ice Cube and Ruben Studdard, which made me lose the f—ing weight.
Anthony, your character spent much of Black-ish's postelection episode sitting back as everyone debated the horrors of this new presidency and then, when asked why you weren't mad, you said: "I am. I'm just used to things not going my way." What were you hoping that episode would prompt?
ANDERSON That line was something that [showrunner Kenya Barris] said to the writers because they were like, "Yo, you seem like you're not upset about this." He was like, "What the f— do you mean not upset?" We come from a culture where we're not used to shit going our way. I grew up in the projects and we — my family, my friends, my community — this was nothing new to us. This is the shit that we've lived with for the majority of our lives, so that's why that line was so poignant. And what did we want to get from that? Just discussion. Debate. I think we covered every perspective — good, bad and indifferent — from the election. A lot of people thought it was an anti-Trump show. It wasn't.
For the rest of you, what's a scene or moment that stands out?
MACY We did this thing where I was dying of liver failure for the whole season. I went on a diet. I lost a trillion pounds. And I spent a lot of the season on a gurney listening to people talk. I kept saying, "I want to go to the bar." And they said, "You can't go to the bar, Frank." So they brought the bar to the house. And oh, it just killed me. It was so weird to see all these guys who I only saw on that bar set for the first time in the house set. I just started weeping like a baby. Mark Mylod was directing, and he ran the camera forever until I was just empty. Then I saw the f—ing thing and it's two seconds of a wide shot.
NANJIANI Brian, one of my favorite moments in Atlanta, because it was so pointed and so funny, was when there's a shooting — a cop shoots a black person — and everybody is going about their day like it's completely normal, which is such a strong statement without really saying it directly.
HENRY That day was really funny. I went to college in Atlanta, so I know that city. And I remember saying to [the people at our production office] when we first started, "So, who's got me when I get pulled over? Because I'm going to get profiled." That very day we were [shooting that] episode, I'm driving through Bankhead — it's a little sketchy area of Atlanta, sure, but it's 8 in the morning — and I'm lost. I'm not driving anything flashy, man. I'm driving a Hyundai Sonata. I remember calling the [assistant director] and I was like, "Hey, I actually don't know where I'm going. The GPS is completely screwed up." And then, "Hold up, the cops are behind me. Just stay on the phone with me." For 10 minutes, this car followed me. For 10 minutes. When I finally got pulled over, the music I'm listening to is Meghan Trainor or something, and he's like, "Hands on the wheel."
NANJIANI Oh geez.
HENRY And he was like, "Where are you going?" I was like, "Oh my God, thank you. I'm so lost, man. I'm doing this show right now. I need to find base camp." And he was like, "OK, do you have any weapons in the car?" And I was like, "At 8 in the morning? No, I do not have any weapons." He gave me my license back, he didn't want anything. And at the end, I was like, "But sir, can you please help me?" He never gave me any help. So then I get to set, and I'm in hair and makeup, and I ask, "What are we filming today?" And then I look at the call sheet and I was like, "Perfect, let's f—ing go."
Do you like knowing where your character is going?
BACON I like to know, but it doesn't always happen. On I Love Dick, I had the pilot, and he was a certain kind of guy. He's a little bit misogynistic and he's dismissive of this woman, and she looks at him as an icon and as an object. He's very objectified. I told Jill Soloway, who along with Sarah Gubbins created it, "You know, I really, really love this pilot. The character's great. He's hilarious. But I hope that we can see a real man eventually." And I didn't have anything other than trust that they were going to get it there.
MACY That's TV, man.
BACON And I was so happy because in [episodes] six, seven and eight, you do start to see something about this guy, the layers. And I was like, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
DANSON I sometimes find it comforting to not necessarily know.
DANSON I did Damages, where I'm a sociopath, and they were so scrambling with the writing that you never got the entire script in time. You'd play a scene where you were being really sweet to this little boy and then you'd shoot a scene a week later where right before that, you actually have killed his mother. So you're the perfect sociopath, but not because I acted it — because I had no idea.
MACY [On Shameless,] you could go get the basic idea of the season if you asked. You'd go out to lunch with [producer] John Wells, and he'd tell you where it was going to go. But the past two seasons, I haven't asked. I like not knowing where it's going because of that very thing: You play it for what it is. The arc of the piece, I don't know if that's an actor's job. It's more a director's job.
I want to flip the script on a question we typically ask women: What's the most sexist thing that's happened to you in Hollywood?
BACON I've got one. I think this qualifies as sexist. I'll let women decide that because I think that's something that women understand a lot better than men do, let's face it. I was up for a little film called Footloose. The head of the studio was a woman. And the director and the producer wanted me for the part and she said, "I don't want him. He's not f—able."
NANJIANI First of all, so wrong. (Laughter.) Who has ever been more f—able than Kevin Bacon?
BACON What can I tell you? I wasn't her taste.
ANDERSON Hey, were you f—able after the movie?
BACON As it turned out … (Anderson fist-bumps Bacon.)
DANSON I don't know if this is sexism or ageism, but around the set, we all make jokes. If it's a good set and it's friends, men and women are just raunchy. It's not the sexism thing where you're offending people, they're doing it back and all that. I've noticed that what I used to be able to say and everybody would go, "Oh Ted," is now, "Eww." Age. All of a sudden, those jokes are no longer appropriate.
HENRY You became that guy, just like that.
DANSON It's like, ew, dirty old man.
BACON Do either of these qualify as sexist? I don't know.
DANSON The fact that we're having a hard time thinking of a sexist moment, that is the whole conversation. That is sexism right there.
What was the most amusing or simply horrifying feedback you've received when going up for a part?
BACON I was up for a movie with Franco Zeffirelli directing. My agent called me, "You didn't get it." "Really?" "Yeah, you got really, really close." "OK. Oh well, shit." Hung up. Then I call him back. "Can you tell me why? I really felt good about the audition." "Franco didn't like your nose."
HENRY Get the prosthetic out.
NANJIANI I heard, "They decided to go in a more all-American direction."
NANJIANI And then they cast an Australian guy.
ANDERSON I was actually told I wasn't funny enough for something. And they went and gave it to literally a motherf—er who wasn't funny at all. I can't even remember what it was, but I remember watching the flick.
NANJIANI Oh, do you watch stuff you don't get?
Do you, Kumail?
NANJIANI I usually don't, and I've had good luck in that a lot of the things I really wanted that I didn't get turned out to be really bad.
HENRY Don't you love that shit?
NANJIANI Oh, I root against them. "I hope this sucks." (Laughs.)
MACY If I didn't watch the stuff I don't get, I couldn't watch anything.
This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.