Drama Actor Roundtable
Onstage bathroom accidents. A prom date revealed. Ditch-digging before fame. This year's top Emmy contenders tell all (with a little sprinkling of TMI).
An actor's worst nightmare, it turns out, is not acting. So say the six leading men THR gathered to chat about the state of their craft. In a colorful conversation, these Emmy contenders -- Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), 56; Kelsey Grammer (Boss), 57; Jon Hamm (Mad Men), 41; Peter Krause (Parenthood), 46; Damian Lewis (Homeland), 41; and Kiefer Sutherland (Touch), 45 -- reveal their most mortifying moments, the stress of rewrites, odd jobs they wish they could forget and "the luxury" of going to work as an actor every day.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What's been your worst moment ever as an actor?
Jon Hamm: Mine would be living in L.A. for 10 years and not working, having no money and no prospects. The days were kind of great; it was the long nights staring at the ceiling waiting for the phone to ring. The uncertainty is always the difficult part, at least it has been for me.
Kiefer Sutherland: I was doing The Glass Menagerie. It was the top of the second act and I had forgotten a vital prop. My dressing room was on the fourth floor. I had to go from underneath the stage where I would come up, all the way to the fourth floor, grab my prop, run all the way back. I had this huge monologue. By the time the curtain came up, I had lost all wind trying to get my composure back. I almost got to the moment where I actually said, "Sorry." I was just right there. Then I caught my breath and went on, but it was the idea of actually having to look at 2,000 people and say, "Sorry. Can we start again?" I get it if you're 80 and you've done this forever and the memory starts to go, but not at 30.
Kelsey Grammer: Your memory goes anytime. I did something in New York a while ago. I took a week off and the first night back I forgot everything. (Laughter.) Just a blank. I actually apologized to the audience. "I'm going to need a minute," and I walked offstage.
Bryan Cranston: That kind of experience, Kelsey, would be enough to drive me out of the business. I love to act. But if it ever got to the point where you couldn't really fulfill your job, I think that's when I would hang it up.
Grammer: Then it's time for a different job. (Laughter.) Like, living.
Damian Lewis: Ralph Fiennes played a well-regarded Hamlet on Broadway, and I was Laertes. We had this incredible sword fight, and it got quicker and quicker every night as we got more and more hungover. We partied pretty hard on that job. One day it was going quicker and quicker, and I got hit by the pommel of his sword and blood started pouring out of my eye. Ralph hadn't turned around until he'd seen me lying on the floor with blood covering half my face. He came up to me and carried on doing his dialogue. Ralph has these crazy eyes anyway, and he got closer and closer. "Are you OK?" I said, "I don't know, you tell me. Is my eye still in?" I couldn't feel it. We got to the end of the show, and I went off to the hospital. I had six stitches straight across the top of my eye. You could hear everyone in the audience, "Oh my God, this is amazing."
Peter Krause: I was doing summer stock in Woodstock, New York, and unbeknownst to me, we shouldn't have been drinking the well water. It's in a barn, I'm wearing a tuxedo and in incredible gastronomic pain. Things progress, I'm in a panic, and I soil myself. All I could think was, how far is it to the lodge where I can get to the bathroom? It was the most terrifying experience I've ever had as an actor.
Sutherland: So you shit yourself.
Grammer: I farted once. It was the fart heard around the world. (Laughter.)
THR: Did the audience respond?
Grammer: Oh completely.
Lewis: By farting back?
Hamm: Classic call and response.
Grammer: I was playing Florizel, and they staged this rustic dance/wedding ceremony. The virgin Indian girl is lying on the floor downstage. There's a circle of people around, and there's chanting and drums. There's a great silence as I, the young prince, go to lift up my bride-to-be. I bent down and slid my hands underneath and (makes flatulence noise).
Sutherland: I'd have called out her name.
Cranston: "Damn it, Cindy!"
THR: Who are your acting heroes?
Cranston: Kelsey Grammer, actually …
Grammer: Oh, lord. Gregory Peck was one guy I really loved. John Wayne.
Cranston: Spencer Tracy.
Grammer: Gregory Peck. To Kill a Mockingbird really got to me.
THR: Did you see yourself becoming a film actor?
Grammer: I saw myself becoming a waiter. (Laughter.) I loved Shakespeare as a boy, so I hoped that I'd have a career in theater. Then television came along, and that was helpful.
Krause: For me, it was Paul Newman and Larry Hagman. Newman made it look cool, but then I saw Hagman on I Dream of Jeannie. I was a kid and quite focused on Jeannie, but Hagman's physical comedy was just great.
Lewis: I really responded to Jack Lemmon and a British actor working at the moment called Mark Rylance. He was a generation ahead of me, and I used to see him as a student at school and was just cowed by his brilliance. Like Kelsey, I had theater training, classical training. I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Those were my sort of touchstones. TV and film I've become a student of subsequently, and happily.
Grammer: Are we better than the drama actresses yet? [In THR's June 8 issue.]
Hamm: None of the girls shit their pants. (Laughter.) We win.
THR: When you're putting in long hours on your shows, what is the biggest challenge you have with your showrunner?
Sutherland: Scripts. It's always about telling the story. It's an unbelievable task. You're asking one writer to be in charge of a group of writers to write an unbelievably prolific amount of material and trying to get the 15th episode to be as intentful as the first one. But it's not a fight. You understand the burden placed on those people. You're doing everything you can to help it along, but at some point, there is a deadline. You have to shoot something. You start making unbelievable compromises to try to get something accomplished. But that's also the most exciting aspect of it.
THR: Looking back at 24, can you say, "I fought for that and I'm proud I fought for that?"
Sutherland: A few times. I probably think more of the things I let go that I shouldn't have let go. (Laughter.)
Krause: It is interesting what you choose to fight for. I've fought for things that don't end up edited into the show. Over time you learn, "Well, this isn't really worth it." Other times you say, "Why did I let that one go?" Every show is different. On Parenthood, Jason Katims allows us to bend the dialogue a little bit, but he takes it all back in the end and edits the way he wants. There have been times when he's taken scenes from one episode and it appears in another if the timeline works out right. So he's quite open and free with his own writing in terms of the end product. I've had other experiences, on Dirty Sexy Money, where the battle was with the network. We were making one show and they wanted a different one.
Grammer: That battle you never win.
Krause: You never do. They have the final edit. They get in there and monkey around with it, too. Anybody working on ABC right now? I call it getting put through the ABC grinder. It happened to us on Sports Night, too, a little bit less so because Tommy Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin fought really hard on that show.
Cranston: Is there a pattern there? Is it because it's broadcast? Kiefer and you had those experiences as we've had on network but now on cable …
Sutherland: Fox never edited anything.
Cranston: "Put it all in!"
Sutherland: Except their news. (Laughter.)
Cranston: Perhaps it's a quantity issue. I'm doing 13 episodes now, and it's so much more manageable. Gives the showrunner and their staff some room. They're not so caved in on episode 20 and pulling their hair out.
Lewis: I remember something that you [to Sutherland] said once, which I thought was really pertinent. As the bottom fell out of the independent film market, all those people were gravitating toward cable TV.
Sutherland: When I started working, films like Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment were being made. The $8 million movie, the $20 million movie was getting made. You had five studios making 50 films a year. Now you have General Electric and Coca-Cola that have these subdivisions called Warner Bros., Columbia … and Sony has its own. So, you have three studios making 15 films a year. The film market went away. You can either do something where you're telling a story, or you can go do a big-budget movie with a toy -- that's basically what the options are. Cable took off after that. All of a sudden people were able to do the work they wanted to do. Television was the better forum.
THR: You had a lot of choices after 24, yet you went back to broadcast on Touch.
Sutherland: I didn't actually. I was quite surprised by that.
THR: But you went back to broadcast. Is that because that was the best thing there?
Sutherland: 24 was an amazing experience. I did not run into what you described with the networks. They did not recut our stuff. I think the secret was we shot so far out in Simi Valley that no one wanted to drive out there. (Laughter.) I hadn't planned on doing another show as quickly as I did. 24 was the first time I had a real job. It was the first time in my life where every three months I wasn't panicked to death about how I was going to feed my kids.
THR: Jon, Peter mentioned that he does a lot of improv on Parenthood. On Mad Men, is what Matt Weiner writes gospel?
Hamm: Yeah. He writes it, and we say it. I have a special relationship with Matt. I can ask questions, but I made a decision early on in the run of the show to trust that he's going to tell the story. My method is not to get in there and monkey around needlessly just to prove that I can. If something doesn't make sense, the explanation is, "It'll make sense in three episodes, trust me." The network thing that Peter's talking about, when you have people who aren't as invested in it coming in and saying, "What if that was blue?" -- they're making suggestions to prove their job needs to exist.
Grammer: They speak up to keep their job, but not too much to lose it.
Lewis: It's worth pointing out that our workloads as actors are phenomenal. You've got to focus on what you've got to do.
Hamm: I'm glad I don't have to write the show. I'm glad that's not my job.
Lewis: I was on a show once where I said, "Can I get a network draft or a production draft? I'd just like to have a look at it and make some notes." Within four episodes I thought, "What am I doing?" I don't have time to read, get the notes back, focus on performing it and not let them down.
Grammer: My experience with comedy was, you rehearsed it every day.
Sutherland: Yeah. That went well for you. (Laughter.)
Grammer: But they would rewrite. I remember the second episode of Frasier, I looked at the writers -- I was in the middle of doing a scene -- and said, "I feel like I'm floating around here, guys … it needs better writing." And the next day, it was better writing. That characterized the relationship. The drama episodic vibe is a little more out there. You have to kind of take a position of defending your character. "That's bullshit. I won't say it. I will not say this." Then they explain to you why you should say it, and you say, "I will not say it." They try to find some way to make you say it without you realizing that you're saying it. (Laughter.)
Hamm: "Just do it once. We won't use it."
Sutherland: "You do one your way and one our way and see what happens."
Grammer: On Boss, I had the luxury of cracking the first season with the guy who wrote it. We spent six months before he started writing figuring out what we thought the story was. I stand as never before, in a position of authority in a weird way to say, "Let's try to do this a little bit differently," and people seem to respond pretty well.
Hamm: I have that meeting with Matt every year before we start shooting. Before he even opens the writers room, we sit, we have a 2½-hour lunch and talk about what possibilities are for the next 13 episodes. It's not specifics at all. It's shades and tones and themes. It's incredibly helpful.
Sutherland: I've heard this myth about the cable world that all the episodes are written before you start. Is that true? (Laughter.)
Cranston: Oh, they are.
Sutherland: I have cable fantasies as I'm going to sleep. They're written before we start shooting and brought in by beautiful nymphs.
Lewis: I'm working with guys that Kiefer spent a long time working with on 24. They're phenomenally talented and collaborative, as long as they know what the story is going to do. Often they don't. But there was one incident toward the end of the first season, they didn't happen on it. I think genuinely they didn't happen on it in the writers room until about episode five or six, and then they came to me and said, "We think this happens." I was like, "What? What do you mean that happens? I'm that guy? I'm not that guy?" Then you realize you're a guy that's being written. So you roll with it.
Sutherland: Having done eight years with those guys, they get a charge out of writing it that morning. That was their juice. Leaving it up to the end and then just in this unbelievable panic of this deadline coming at you like a freight train and then furiously writing. I remember on 24, the poor girl playing Nina Myers, my partner for five episodes, somewhere in the sixth episode, they decided, "Why don't we make her bad?"
Hamm: That was my prom date, by the way.
Sutherland: Really? Sarah [Clarke] was?
Hamm: Yeah. Sarah was my prom date.
Sutherland: That's hysterical. I'm just trying to picture you dancing because she's quite a short girl.
Hamm: Worked out fine. (Laughter.)
Sutherland: I remember we had shot her in a ditch, and we thought she was dead and then all of a sudden in the next episode they had managed to go back and shoot something else where they had put a vest under this very dainty blouse and she lived. (Laughter.)
Cranston: The best writers write themselves into what seems to be an inextricable place. Then they go, "Now, how do we get out of this?" In my situation, I don't ask any questions. I don't even know what's happening in the next episode because my character is going through such twists and turns I didn't find it helpful. There were no anchor points for this character. He was flying by the seat of his shatted pants. (Laughter.) I think we hook our wagons to good writers, they drag us and we hold on.
Krause: I don't know that either is better, getting them in advance or getting it at the last minute. I've gotten scripts from Sorkin literally right before we filmed something and there's a rush to that experience, and then I've gotten things from Alan Ball on Six Feet Under like 10 or 14 days in advance. They both work.
Hamm: Working on big features, though, where you shoot a page and a half a day, it's a 12-hour day. It's like, "Oh, we didn't get it? Don't worry about it. We'll do it tomorrow. We'll do it next week" -- that doesn't happen [on TV].
Sutherland: Have you found it odd going back to movies? I've become narcoleptic going back to feature films. I'm so bored. "Someone shoot me!"
Hamm: "What are we doing? Let's go. Why am I here?"
Sutherland: Then you become unbelievably negative. "This isn't going to look any better." Four more hours and all of a sudden you become a genius. (Laughter.)
Krause: My first gig was a sketch comedy series with Carol Burnett. That was a wakeup call when you're talking about changing the writing every day. Coming out of grad school for acting and Shakespeare, I thought, "Ugh, TV, whatever." But the first night I got new pages, I was like, "What?"
Grammer: "I have my performance memorized. And it's quite good!"
Lewis: Kelsey, when you were doing Cheers and Frasier, did you do Monday to Thursday rehearsing and then shoot on a Friday?
Grammer: Cheers was a Friday night shoot, Frasier was a Tuesday night shoot, so you'd get a longer weekend. If the script was in trouble, the writers would have to work over the weekend. Frasier got to where we rehearsed about 10 hours a week, and then we'd shoot and that was about an eight-hour day.
Sutherland: Cheers or Frasier -- I can't imagine there ever was a bad script.
Grammer: Well, there really weren't. Just some niggling points that you had to say, "We can't get to where you want us to get sometimes." They were quite aggressive about rewriting, which was great. They'd do page ones all the time.
Cranston: You get that on a Monday and shoot it on a Tuesday?
Grammer: You go in the next day, and you'd have a whole new script. It was kind of exciting. I remember Mercedes Ruehl was doing a show with us. We're rehearsing, it was the day before we're shooting the show, and I suddenly went, "This doesn't work." She was ready to kill me because she had memorized her performance. (Laughter.)
THR: One thing that is interesting, Kelsey, is that those shows, Cheers and Frasier, were both huge broadcast hits …
Grammer: I'm responsible for the success of both of those shows. (Laughter.)
THR: You're doing great work on a new show, but audience expectations are much lower. Is that a relief or is that a disappointment?
Grammer: Well, if it was HBO it wouldn't be a relief; it would be, "You're on the chopping block." But because it's Starz, you have an opportunity to kind of brand the network. I think there is a more generous, open expectation about it. When you get some good response, you get some critical acclaim; they believe the numbers will follow. That's where we're at right now. We'll see how it goes. (Laughter.)
Hamm: There's no metric established at this point. There is no way to measure how people consume television anymore, whether they're downloading to their phone or they're DVR-ing it to watch a week later or they're buying a season of it on iTunes or they're waiting for the DVD, whatever.
Lewis: There's no correlation between numbers and reputation and recognition.
Sutherland: The ambiguity is fantastic. When I call home I can tell my mom, "It's much bigger than you think it is and much better than you think. Huge DVR numbers."
Lewis: You guys are on shows that have been talked about by everybody everywhere. You get the sense that 250 million people are watching it for the amount of people that talk about it.
THR: The head of AMC, Charlie Collier, calls Mad Men a lifestyle brand. What do you think when you hear something like that?
Grammer: I think, "You're fired." How do you come up with such an odd little phrase?
Hamm: I see what he's saying. In a sense there is a deeper impact of the show.
Cranston: My show is definitely a lifestyle brand. A lifestyle no one wants!
Sutherland: [To Cranston] I remember watching your show and wondering how long would it really take to learn how to make crystal really well? I wondered how many chemistry teachers thought, "That's a great idea."
Cranston: There have been some copycat situations around the country. We do montage scenes like that and we purposefully put the order out of place so we don't make a "how to" video. (Laughter.)
THR: What is the best or worst career advice you got when you were starting out?
Hamm: My favorite thing I was told was after testing for my seventh network in a pilot season: I was told by the head of the network that I would never be a television star.
Grammer: Probably because you didn't put out.
Cranston: Or because he did. (Laughter.) As he's buckling his pants, "You are never going to be a TV star, not with that kind of performance."
Krause: Robert Guillaume on Sports Night had a great aside. He saw that I was getting uptight -- the director was really hounding me about something -- and said, "Just nod your head, say OK and do what the f-- you want."
Grammer: I like to pretend that I'm too stupid to understand. (Laughter.) "This is all I got!"
Lewis: Good advice for me was, "Don't do a press junket instead of a job." A lot of pressure was put on me by a studio to do one of these global press junkets, go to Paris for the weekend. I turned down a great theater job I really wanted to do because of the pressure brought to bear of doing this junket. Never, never, never do press instead of doing something creative.
Sutherland: I love the press!
Grammer: There was an old actor named G. Wood I shared a dressing room with, and he said to me,"You know, Kelsey, eventually all your competition dies." Bob Hope's was, "Never go onstage without your money." And I think the best piece of advice was Jack Benny on Johnny Carson: "I always play up to my audience." I've hung on to that one throughout my career. They are smarter than we think they are, and they always will be.
Krause: You do right by them by choosing good material and showing up in between action and cut. It's an honor to show up.
Sutherland: The worst advice I ever took was back in the '80s. An agent was trying to tell me "less is more," and the perfect career would be to do one film every three to five years. (Laughter.) I took the advice, for once, and it took me another two years to remind anybody who I was. "I like Montana, but what am I doing here?" It took me a decade to recover from that one.
Cranston: Did Rob Lowe give you that advice? (Laughter.) I didn't go to college. I didn't train in theater. I was on the streets of Hollywood doing one workshop and class after another. I would go into an audition thinking, "I want to get this job. I want this job." And every time you don't get the job, it was a little chink out of you. Finally I had this cognition that, "Oh my God, what am I doing? I'm not trying to just get a job." And everything changed. When I realized my job was to kind of create an interesting character from the text, present it and walk away, that was my golden moment.
THR: What other role on TV would each of you like to play?
Lewis: Don Draper. I'm in love with this guy [to Hamm].
Cranston: But he's never going to work in TV. (Laughter.)
Krause: I've always wanted to do something like 24. It's nice to be the hero and not the antihero or the conflicted guy.
Sutherland: It was.
Cranston: I have an offer to do the British Prime Minister in a play.
Hamm: Margaret Thatcher? Really? I think you got it. (Laughter.)
Cranston: I like the idea of going to comedy and doing drama and changing it up. Kelsey had that. The ability to go back and forth is very lucky.
THR: What would you tell your 20-year-old self about getting into show business?
Krause: Get in sooner. I was almost 25 when I got my first gig out here in 1990. I think the opportunities for actors are greater now. When I look at what we're all doing right now, it didn't exist back then.
Lewis: I sat down with a film exec the other day, and he said, "Are you interested in doing films?" That question would never have happened 10 years ago. We are starting to make our films seasonally now, in hiatuses in order to get talent that we want back out of TV and into film.
Cranston: There used to be such a separation …
Sutherland: They haven't called me.
Grammer: I haven't had that conversation.
Sutherland: No one is working around my hiatus.
Krause: That's a great thing about TV if you're an actor who loves acting. You have a place to do your thing.
Hamm: Which is so rare. You said your first gig was at 25, mine was probably 27 or 28. After being out here for three or four years, it was such a luxury to have. I'm sure you [to Sutherland] had days where you look at the week and say, "I have to run around and do all this crazy shit," but you get to do what you set out to do. There are so many people who don't have that, still grinding away, haven't had a break. So it's a luxury. I love going to work.
Cranston: I don't think any of us have been without this experience where you start to feel, "Ugh, it's the 14th hour." Then you see someone actually digging a ditch. You realize how lucky we are.
Grammer: We work hard. I do think we work hard.
Cranston: But at something we love. That makes a huge difference.
Grammer: We don't work more than 10 hours in a day on Boss.
Cranston: Really? Is that contractual? I've got to do that. (Laughter.)
Krause: But you've pulled an 18- or 20-hour day at some point?
Grammer: Yeah, but they're counterproductive. You don't achieve anything.
THR: What is the strangest or worst job you had while you were trying to be an actor?
Grammer: I was once a security guard for a convention of high-tech stereo equipment at The Roosevelt Hotel. That was pretty awful. I was also a ditch digger. This guy would stand there and look at us and say, "All I want to see is asses and elbows."
Cranston: It's the same motto in show business.
Grammer: It's a really good way to look at it. I just want to see you working. Work hard. Get in the ditch and dig a f--ing hole.
Hamm: I briefly worked as a set dresser. We would shoot a 90-minute cable feature in seven days. It was basically soft-core porn, and strangely enough, the guy would say, "All I want to see is asses and elbows." It was depressing. A week into it, I was like, "This is the most depressing thing I've ever done. I've got to get out of this." I did, then did the play that turned into Kissing Jessica Stein. I met my girlfriend, and the rest is history.
Cranston: I was an interviewer at a dating service. They needed someone for the weekends, which was perfect for an actor. So, I worked Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday. I would sit people down and have a little secret button. They're going through all their bullshit, "Well, I'm really a romantic and I love …" I would push the button when they were really, truly honest and interesting. They found love. It was fun.
Sutherland: I knew we'd met before. (Laughter.)
Cranston: Met before? We dated! (Laughter.)
Lewis: I had a job selling car alarms in South London gangland. It was a terrible three months.
Grammer: I was a Fuller Brush salesman when I had long hair. I was 16 years old. I bought a short wig, and I put my hair up in it.
Cranston: Wait. You wore a wig to high school because you had long hair?
Grammer: By 10th grade we'd managed to remove the hair code. It was one of our big achievements. Student council said, "Screw it. We're going to grow our hair." We did, and then the principal said, "No. The hair code is back." "OK, fine, we will wear wigs." Throw it in the back of the car when I got out of school and dig around for it in the morning.
Sutherland: You won that one, Kelsey.
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