Emmys 2012: Worst Jobs, Career Highs and (TMI!) On-Stage Accidents at the Drama Actors Roundtable
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.)