Drama Actor Roundtable: Jon Hamm, Josh Charles, Mark Ruffalo on Character Deaths, Twitter's Merits and Typecasting Fears
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The arrival of Josh Charles at Mack Sennett Studio in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood on the morning of March 30 was like seeing a ghost. Only seven days earlier, the Good Wife star (and long-time pal of panelist Jon Hamm) was brutally killed off his hit CBS series, lending a palpable memorial vibe to the start of an otherwise buoyant gathering of six dramatic actors: The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels, 59; Ray Donovan's Liev Schreiber, 46; Masters of Sex's Michael Sheen, 45; The Normal Heart's Mark Ruffalo, 46; Mad Men’s Hamm, 43; and Charles, 42.
Join in as these veteran performers of film, theater and television debate the merits and failings of Twitter, why the talent agency system is failing up-and-comers and why a fear of typecasting — and never working again — often can be an actor’s most effective tool.
Josh, explain your decision to leave The Good Wife.
JOSH CHARLES I had a weird contract, and it was up at the end of the fourth season. When I was asked to renew, I thought hard about it. A broadcast network schedule is 22 episodes a year. That's a long time to be playing the same character. I was eager to move on. I wanted to leave the show in a good place, and I felt really proud of the work. It's hard to articulate exactly what …
JEFF DANIELS You were bored out of your mind. (Laughs.)
CHARLES I actually wasn't bored out of my mind! There were moments of feeling burned out.
JON HAMM Julianna [Margulies] had a similar thing on ER, right? She left when that thing was going crazy.
CHARLES Yeah, I think so. She was the first person who called me about it. We had a long heart-to-heart. She was really understanding and instrumental in getting me to stay longer than I planned. We gave the character a proper goodbye. I think we all feel like it's one of our best years. I'm happy because I got to be a part of that.
How much input did you have in your character's exit?
CHARLES Last year, [co-creator] Robert King -- he was directing the finale and this was soon after I'd made the decision -- told me, "I think it's going to be a very finite kind of ending." I said that sounds great. There were two options, you know? A lingering exit or pulling the cord. I trusted them implicitly as storytellers, and [killing my character] was dramatic and shocking, so that was it.
Click the photo for exclusive portraits of the actors.
How do the rest of you feel about the TV trend of killing off major characters?
HAMM It depends upon the execution, no pun intended. If you watch TV, you have these expectations of how things are going to go. One big expectation is that the main characters are going to be there as long as the show is. We had a similar thing on our show when Jared Harris' character [Lane Pryce] hung himself. It was surprising because it was final. It wasn't like, "Oh, it was a dream and he's going to come back!" Death is something that we all deal with in real life, so it can be effective when it's surprising.
Jon, there's a lot of speculation about the fate of your Mad Men character, Don Draper, when the show ends next year.
HAMM Well, I die. I think we can say that. (Laughter.) Matt [Weiner] will be cool with that. No, I trust Matt to tell the story, and to second-guess it at this point is a fool's errand. We've done 90 some-odd episodes, so it's on him to land the plane. I'm along for the ride.
Josh's exit from The Good Wife blew up on Twitter. With the exception of Jon, you're all active on social media. How has this impacted your work, for better or worse?
MARK RUFFALO It's made more and more jobs start pouring in. (Laughs.)
Studios love politically active actors, of which you are one, Mark.
RUFFALO Yeah, they really dig that. Controversy around actors is a good thing! No, I think I feel like I'm boring the hell out of my followers.
CHARLES Not at all. I like it!
RUFFALO It's a rare moment in human history. I think for a long time actors were afraid to be too political, but social media allows us to talk directly to mass groups of people. It takes the power out of the hands of, say, Fox News. It becomes more of a well-weighted game for all the individuals. I've found it to be incredibly liberating. (Laughs.) And the more I do it, the [more] activated I see people getting … or waiting to kill me for it.
DANIELS I don't engage with fans at all on Twitter. I don't look at comments. I see at it as a poor man's fan club. For me it's, "Here's a little information," and then I shut the door. I'll post stuff that I think might entertain people, but [they're] not going to get information about me.
HAMM I've been in Twitter feuds with people, and I'm like, "I don't have an account!"
MICHAEL SHEEN I got into it early on, and it brought out all of my worst traits. If someone said something that pissed me off, I'd go after them. Then you realize it's turning up in newspapers. (To Ruffalo) I have so much admiration for anyone who does what you're doing. I'm just not a strong or stable enough person.
CHARLES I remember talking to someone from Twitter when I first got involved and they presented it as "be a curator for your own life" -- and the occasional dick joke.
HAMM Occasional? (Laughs.)
Privacy is something you've all had to sacrifice for your work. What else?
LIEV SCHREIBER Time and daylight! The great thing about doing theater is that you have your days free. The thing about television is you have nothing free. That's a big sacrifice, especially when you have small children. But, yes, the privacy thing … that all went out the window when Naomi [Watts] and I got together. But I've adjusted. In the beginning I really hated it, then I stopped fighting and it got easier. It's nice to be appreciated, but I was worried I would be useless as an actor once I got too famous. That was my big anxiety, especially since I considered myself primarily a character actor. I cherished my anonymity because it allowed me range. But the really terrifying thing about doing television is that you become so associated with one character that it then becomes difficult for other people to believe you as anything else.
HAMM Liev hit the nail on the head. When you're in people's living rooms every week for however many years as one person, it's a worry that that's all they're ever going to see. That fear certainly informed all my decisions made outside of Mad Men. The first year of the show, every script I got was about a guy in a hat and coat, smoking a cigarette in the '60s. To be able to pivot off that and to host Saturday Night Live or do Bridesmaids was helpful. But very few of us are in the position of being able to look over the field of projects and go, "I want to do that and that and that." They're usually like, "Sorry, Tom Cruise is doing that, Brad Pitt's doing that and Bradley Cooper's doing that. How about these that no one wants to do?"
CHARLES Jon, knowing you as long as I have, you're so funny … seeing you [do comedy] has been great.
DANIELS People go, "Wait a minute, he's funny!"
HAMM Part of it is getting lucky, part of it is being in the right place at the right time. And part of it is making a conscious decision to, as Liev said, to do other stuff. It's why we got into this business. To do the same thing over and over isn't for anybody at this table.
Do you find resistance among your reps to keep you open for different types of opportunities?
HAMM Oh sure, they just want money. "Why would you turn down all this money? Work, work, work." And I'm like, "Well, I want to see my family. I want to not live in Nova Scotia for six months."
CHARLES Not that there's anything wrong with Nova Scotia.
HAMM Great, wonderful Nova Scotia. It's the best Scotia!
Mark, what scared you about doing The Normal Heart?
RUFFALO First of all, it was The Normal Heart. Anyone in my generation saw it done 100 times in scene study class. It's a really tough part. To make it into a film becomes a polemic. It's agitation propaganda theater; it has to be really political to drive it. When you try to take that to film, it can become grating. And then it's Larry Kramer, who's a larger-than-life, hallowed personality in gay culture. Also I said to [director] Ryan Murphy, "Hey, isn't it the time for a gay actor to be playing a gay character?" And he said, "The whole idea of this movie is getting past those kind of labels." There was a lot of responsibility that went along with accepting the role.
DANIELS Did you f-- it up? (Laughter.)
RUFFALO As best as I could! It was tough, man. There aren't a lot of people who wouldn't have f--ed it up.
DANIELS But that's the talent. You dive in thinking, "I might f-- this up. I might fail miserably here."
RUFFALO "But I'm going to go for it."
CHARLES Isn't that always the best experience? Being on the edge of "I don't know what the hell is happening"?
RUFFALO You have to put your fanny on the line.
DANIELS The amount and speed of the dialogue on Newsroom [scared me]. Making it sound like thoughts falling out of my head versus my just being able to memorize it. That's the big battle with Aaron [Sorkin]. You aren't walking around the corner [saying lines like] "Look out!"
CHARLES You don't have four weeks to learn it, either.
SCHREIBER My favorite thing is words. Give me a lot and I'm happy. And now I'm on a show where I have eight lines an episode. (Laughs.) Doing TV is about getting a lot of practice, but it's also unfortunately about caring less and less and less. Listen and get on with it!
SHEEN I'm like Liev. I'd always felt more confident with a lot of words, coming from theater. I'd always had a big confidence issue, too. The reason I took a character-actor route was partly I look like this, but also I took refuge in words. Now playing a character who does not say as much; being interesting without having much to do has been a challenge. But the biggest transition was, the canvas we're using is suddenly not two hours, but 12 hours. Our story is based on real events, so at least there is some sort of an arc -- but it's massive. It's a man's life. In season one, I knew I was going to hit a midway point of the season [crucial to the plot], and I based everything I did on that moment. But I ran the risk of people going: "I really don't like this guy. There's nothing charming about him." But by episode five, what happened had more power because of the cumulative power of the storytelling.
But if Josh's exit from The Good Wife is any indication, audiences are willing to invest years in characters' lives and are heartbroken when they leave.
SHEEN Yes. The shows we're all doing have a level of sophistication of writing that is so extraordinary. We can't rely on the same little tricks.
HAMM And people consume TV differently now. I didn't watch The Wire when it was on the air, but I watched five seasons while I was shooting a movie. I stayed up till three in the morning and [could] watch nine Wires and just be like, "I can't stop watching this show!"
DANIELS (To Hamm) Did you know upcoming arcs on Mad Men?
HAMM I never did.
DANIELS (To Charles) Did you?
CHARLES In a broad sense, but not the details.
DANIELS I don't know anything either on Newsroom. I've embraced it. Live it like a life.
HAMM We might get hit by a bus when we walk out of here!
RUFFALO Is doing a show more satisfying than film because you have time to dive into a character?
SHEEN It's one of the most exciting things. On the other hand, you only get about two takes.
SCHREIBER But you're also more familiar [on a TV show]. And familiarity means you don't just get one shot. You have another episode if you screw that one up!
What do you wish directors better understood about actors?
DANIELS I've had great people on Newsroom, but from day one, I said: "Five words or less. If you can't tell me what to do between takes or in front of a scene in five words or less, stay in the chair." And it worked. "Oh, don't f-- with Jeff!"
HAMM Part of it is getting them to believe and understand that actors are part of the creative process. "I want you to say the words this way," and I'm like, "Well, I can, but I can also do it the way that I've worked on for 90 some-odd episodes. I can bring something to this that maybe you haven't thought of."
SCHREIBER I'm going to say something relatively controversial. In the golden age of the writer, being a director in television is a really tough gig. They have to come onto a set that's already functioning without them and where everybody outranks them. Film was the last autonomy, and now you're taking these guys, who are real artists in cinema, and putting them in a situation where they're being asked to jam with some people for eight to 10 days and then walk away from their product. It's almost like a commercial.
Do showrunners have too much power in the scenario?
SCHREIBER We have a very talented showrunner [Ann Biderman] who's really good at everything. But with the quality of the writing and production, we need great directors, too, and to empower them to take risks.
CHARLES I love a director who creates a safe area where I feel like I can just take a risk. Take one may suck, but they're not going to micromanage.
What's the last piece of acting that made you jealous?
HAMM I just watched a show out of the U.K. called Black Mirror. Have you seen it?
SHEEN Anything that's about f--ing pigs on TV, I'm there. (Laughs.)
HAMM And I was real jealous of that pig! No, it's an anthology show, like The Twilight Zone. Each episode is stand-alone, so you can watch in any order. That was the last thing that turned my head, where I was like, "Whoa." Very smart and disturbing. And Michael mentioned the pig f--ing.
SCHREIBER I don't see much that isn't rated G these days. I have to commend [actor] Jemaine Clement's performance as the evil cockatoo in Rio 2. (Laughs.) There's a line my sons and I repeat now every day: "I am going to be pooping on your party promptly." Mr. Clement's delivery of that line is the Babe Ruth of acting for me right now.
RUFFALO Joaquin Phoenix in Her was envy-making for me.
DANIELS 12 Years a Slave made me proud to be an actor.
What credit would you delete from your IMDb page?
DANIELS [1999's] My Favorite Martian.
SCHREIBER Only one?
RUFFALO 1986 to 1995.
CHARLES There's a few.
SHEEN I would cut out Gladiator. It's on my IMDb page that I'm in it, and I'm not.
HAMM It's impossible to correct an IMDb page! You can write in and say, "I'm actually this person. This isn't true." They're like, "Sorry, someone said it was."
What frustrates you most about how the business has changed since you started acting?
RUFFALO The consolidation of [talent] agencies has been harmful. What is it, two agencies now? Three? When I was coming up, there were little agencies; you could find your way in. I love my agents now [at UTA], but sometimes I look at the agency and I'm like, "Who are they working [for]?" They're cozy with the studios! That isn't great for getting new talent. Thank God we have television for that. But when I talk to young actors, I tell them, "Get a camera and make your own stuff. That's the best thing that you can do."
HAMM I think we've all had a negotiation where you take a step back and you're like, "Wait a minute, who are you representing? You're playing both sides of the fence." They want the studio because they have 40 other clients in negotiations. I want you to fight for me. You're like, "There might not be a later for me." That's the fear.
You still have that fear, Jon, even after all the success?
HAMM All these guys were famous when they started their current projects. I was not. I was a fifth lead on a Lifetime show then thrust into this situation, which was terrifying. I had no leverage or guarantee that anything was going to work out; that anyone would even see Mad Men or we'd even shoot a second episode.
CHARLES I'm having all these memories of you telling me this after we played tennis once. "I think it could do pretty well. The buzz from AMC … I think they feel good about it." It was like, "That's awesome man, great!"
SHEEN I moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago and everyone said, "Don't do TV. If you do TV, you're not going to do films." But I was at the airport the other day and on the covers of most of the magazines were TV actors or actresses -- not movie stars. I thought, "Things have really changed."
SCHREIBER My biggest frustration is the culture of celebrity. It's bad for acting and storytelling when "actors" are bigger [personalities] than their characters.
CHARLES But, I follow Mark on Twitter, and I have no problem separating his tweets from watching him be a character. It doesn't bother me. Following him on Twitter doesn't make me feel like I know him so much more that I can't watch him lose himself in a character.
RUFFALO It depends on the way social media is used, too. "I took two craps today and am having a ham sandwich."
HAMM Two a day now? Good for you.
RUFFALO Oh man, it's like clockwork.
SCHREIBER But you're actually trying to use Twitter effectively. That's different from tweeting pictures of yourself at a shop with a pair of jeans. Then I can't help, when I watch you act, to think, "You know, he looks really good in those. For a guy, he has an amazing butt."
RUFFALO Was I good in those jeans?
SCHREIBER You did look good.
What's the funniest or strangest feedback you've gotten or read about yourself?
HAMM It's the weird passive-aggressive insults. I get this all the time: "I just love the way you do nothing [onscreen]." I'm like, "Well, I'm glad you like it but I'm not doing nothing. Thanks, Aunt Betty."
SCHREIBER I was excited to meet Ang Lee -- I'm a big fan -- and I'm in his office downtown in New York. We're having this long, existential conversation about art and such. At the end, he looks at me across the table and goes, "Wow, you have really nice legs." (Laughs.) I thought it would be different with Ang!
SHEEN Never read comments online, because the one time I did, someone said about me: "Well, he's certainly no Jon Hamm." (Laughter.)