Emmys: 'Mad Men' Star Reveals Why Matthew Weiner Is Going to Be "Pissed Off at Me"
John Slattery and 15 other comedy, drama and miniseries acting contenders open up about the real-life pain, suffering and (sometimes) laughter that fed their favorite show moments and toughest scenes.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
THR asked: What is your favorite scene from this season or a moment that tested you as an actor in new ways?
"My co-star Tracee Ellis Ross pushes me in every scene we're in, especially those intimate moments when it's just me and her in the bedroom dealing with our life issues. The questions she asks, how she prepares, make me step up my game. For the most part, I learn my lines and just come ready to have fun, but Tracee makes me think, almost to the point where it's a game of chess. Every move I make has to be calculated to be complementary to what she does. It's a good volley between the two of us and I love it. There's a level of trust and respect, so any time we work together, we know neither one of us is going to let the other fall. And because of that, we're able to be fearless."
Jonathan Banks on Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul, AMC
"When my character, Mike, tells his daughter-in-law, Stacey, the truth about his son in episode six — talk about a gift! You hand an actor that monologue and [any actor would] be hard-pressed not to be pleased. I really wanted to do justice to the script and to Mike. I thought, 'Please, let me just take this and go.' Mike's responsible for the death of a child. But we've all done something that we're not proud of and that we'll never be able to forget or let go of. For those days preceding filming, that monologue became part of my life. You're trying to be absolutely as honest and true as you can possibly be. I was prepared, and as I recall, we didn't shoot it many times. The crew applauded us when we finished it. They were very generous to me."
"The very last scene we shot, I had to stare at my underwear and become emotional while sitting on the toilet. It's a fantasy sequence. Basically my character looks down at his underwear, sees an image, has an epiphany and starts to weep. It's tough to become emotional when you're just staring at your underpants — and when a camera is looking up at your face from between your legs. The director said, 'Can you take it seriously, like God has spoken to you?' You can't really ask for tips. You just have to make it real. I managed it, which I was really pleased with. And somehow when you treat it more seriously, it becomes funnier to watch. It's more disturbing, and therefore stays with you longer than just some cheap laugh."
The Newsroom, HBO
"There's a great scene where my character, Will, gets put into jail and has a cellmate whom Will imagines is his father — who's passed away — as a young man. So I'm talking to my father when he was young, but also simultaneously playing knowing he's not really there. There were a lot of trains running through the brain that day. I never studied Method, but I do personalize stuff. I lost my own dad three years ago, so it was an easy button to push. So I pushed it. I had to fictionalize this whole damaging relationship that Will had with his father, which I didn't have. That was actually the fun of it — using yourself, then riding some fictional wave. I left that day going, 'That's all I got. That was the best I could do.' "
Melanie Lynskey and Mark Duplass on Togetherness
"There's a scene with my character, Brett, and his wife, Michelle [Melanie Lynskey], in a hotel room, one we now call the 'marriage-sex scene.' We were all about showing a true version of how each party is trying to play excited when maybe they're not quite as into it as they could be, and the ensuing fight from that. I'd never done an intense lovemaking scene on camera. But beyond that, the big fight was stressful and difficult to get right. We felt like it should be both funny and painful to watch, too. We were trying to figure out how to encapsulate that feeling. We finally decided Brett's so frustrated and embarrassed by his inability to perform sexually that he cracks. That's where the funny would come from. My whole boner rant was improvised. I'd never sit in a room and think to write, 'I'm not a steel-rod boner man.' That stuff just comes up when you're really in the moment having a cool improvisational connection."
"During the embassy rescue scene in episode 10, I'm down in the boiler room, trying to take out these bad guys, getting shot at, and a bullet casing hit the side of my neck. It's made of brass and was flying at 60 miles per hour. It burned itself into my neck, then fell down my open shirt and burned its way all down my body before just kind of sitting on my navel, gently sizzling away. I had to do the rest of the scene with the smell of burning meat, which was actually me burning. I just tried to keep my focus because my character, Quinn, feels no pain. He has the skin of a blacksmith's apron. We got the scene, and I said, 'Let's do it again on the other side. I want symmetry in my burns.' "
John Benjamin Hickey
Manhattan, WGN America
"Every scene that involved physics was a challenge. But in the last episode, Frank basically throws himself under the bus; I'm lying to save this kid, Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), so I can save the Manhattan Project because I believe it will end the war. I really wanted to understand on a very emotional, not just intellectual, level why Frank would do that. I remembered this documentary, The Day After Trinity, that's part of the inspiration of this show. It's about the iconic figures involved in the Los Alamos project. These men and women led with their brains, but there was an element of real heartbreak in them as well. They'd worked through the most exciting time in their lives and look at what it wrought. You could see it all over them. I think what Frank's doing in that scene is, for the first time, choosing love. He knew if he compartmentalized his relationship anymore, it would drive his wife away. Doing that map of the human heart was one of the most challenging things I've ever had to do."
The Affair, Showtime
"By far the most difficult sequence was in the finale. My character, Cole, essentially conspires to make all the players get together and then takes it to a completely irrational, emotional place: He pulls a gun and threatens to kill an entire family. The challenges up to that point had been to make the smallness and intimacy of moments between the characters work. Suddenly, the stakes were so much higher, and we all struggled with it. The breakthrough for me was having a long sitdown with Ruth [Wilson] and our consultant, Esther Perel, who's a therapist. She deals with couples in dire straits, and to make that climactic scene make sense, we had to start laying the groundwork in the couple episodes before, as this couple was going through their breakup. Having Esther around was helpful. We filmed it over three days, maybe even four. I'm sure there's a bunch of takes that aren't very good, but I think what ended up onscreen serviced the story and still kept enough of the character in reserve that he could come back from it next year.
House of Cards, Netflix
"One of my hardest days was when my real children were on set and played my character's niece and nephew. There's an episode where the script says, [my character] 'Doug has got a picture of the kids on the fridge.' I said to Beau Willimon, the showrunner, 'Can I make it a picture of my kids to ground it for me?' He's like, 'Great idea.' Half an hour later, I got an email from Beau: 'I'm thinking maybe I want the kids to visit Doug. Are you cool with that?' I asked my wife, Karen, and she was like, 'They always say they want to go to work with you. I think it'd be fine.' Oh my God, it was one crazy day on set. I was so conflicted. You want to be the director and the dad making sure they're OK. You want to have control of a situation that you have absolutely zero control over. My son was 2, and he wanted nothing to do with it. He'd walk into the room and just scream. The one take he didn't scream, he was pointing at the booms, going, 'What's that?' That's why you only see him for, like, a half second in the show. Meanwhile, my daughter, who was 5, was like, 'Can we go over my lines again?' She loved it. Later, my daughter started saying to my wife, 'I think I like my TV mom better.' Karen's like, 'Really?' I'd be shocked if the kids came back next season."
Halt and Catch Fire, AMC
"There's a scene where I take a couple of flashlights and pretend to fight off a hurricane for Gordon [Scoot McNairy] and Donna's [Kerry Bishe] children. My character, Joe, is trying to make them not so afraid. It was a joyful moment for Joe, but I was so scared to do it. It felt like a really important moment. Joe's a dissatisfied man. There's a sadness to him. He's bisexual and living in this time of big money and very competitive corporate behavior, and in that scene, he's able to kind of shed the idea of who he was and start going down the path of real authenticity. That scene was such a release for the character — and me personally. I'd been thinking a lot — when I'd run, when I'd take a shower in the morning — about what Joe was embarking on in that moment. And when it was time to film it, I just jumped off the cliff and did it."
Randall Park on Fresh Off the Boat
Fresh Off the Boat, ABC
"A scene that tested me was a fantasy sequence where Eddie [Hudson Yang] imagines what it must have been like for his father to play semipro basketball in Taiwan. It basically becomes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I was excited: 'I'm going to look so cool flying through the air!' I didn't think about what it'd feel like to be in a harness that has to go underneath my clothes. It was basically two straps tucked into my crotch. I swear, after two minutes, it started to hurt. It started to chafe. To still be in character was extremely difficult. At the end of the day, it was ugly. I was in need of, like, a bucket of Neosporin. I couldn't walk for the next week. But I love that scene and the fact that I survived it. Oh my God, I can't watch it without getting flashbacks! My crotch starts hurting every time."
The Odd Couple, CBS
"The last episode of the season involved Lauren Graham, who plays my ex-wife on the show. We get audited, and we kind of hate each other, but we end up getting along better through the episode, and then in the final scene, we decide it's best that we're divorced. Lauren and I have great chemistry, and we've worked together a lot, so it came rather easily to us. The challenge was playing a different level for Oscar. He's generally just drinking, gambling and womanizing, but secretly he really longs for his ex-wife. When he talks about her, he becomes less laid-back and a little nervous. He's weaker, and you can see his heart on his sleeve. I got to show a lot of heart in that episode. I feel like that's probably my best episode and the best one we've done so far overall."
The Slap, NBC
"There was a scene I had where my character, Harry, goes to see the parents of the child he slapped and tries to apologize. The mother, Rosie [Melissa George], is not having any of it and keeps needling him. Harry's trying to keep it together but his temper finally gets the best of him. That was really challenging and rewarding in that my character was really contained in the beginning, then becomes unhinged and ends up exploding in a fit of rage. I've played the antagonist or villain before, but I liked that Harry was really human. When I hit the table, it actually broke. The bottom snapped off. I guess I was a little angrier than I thought!"
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell on The Americans
The Americans, FX
"When we tell our daughter Paige [Holly Taylor] that we're deep-cover KGB spies, it was basically the culmination of three seasons. All of a sudden, you have this pressure. You want to pitch it just right. You think, 'Oh, this is a momentous occasion. Therefore, I have to match that.' You have these wild thoughts of breaking down, being hysterical and crying. It's sort of ego versus writing. I think it's a testament to our show that trusting the writing will eventually lead you to the right place. A parent that's withheld something like that from a child can't play up sympathy. It has to be about the child. Ultimately, I had to react to what Holly was doing, which was breathtaking. They very wisely gave us a long time not only to shoot, but to rehearse that. At the end of the day, I thought, 'I think we have it.' It's rare that I ever say that."
Mad Men, AMC
"It may be impolitic to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway. There was a scene where Sterling Cooper's being absorbed into McCann, and Don [Jon Hamm] and my character tell the entire office. I make a speech to the assembled group, who start rebelling because their jobs are on the line. Roger goes on to say, 'I don't know what to tell you. This has been the best job of my whole life.' He gets very emotional and kind of falls apart. The show was coming to the end, and not only was it a culmination of the character's sentiment, but my own. I was saying to everybody — the crew, the other actors — that this has been the best job I've ever had. Unfortunately, it got cut. Apparently, the show was too long. Matt [Weiner] is going to be pissed off at me when he reads this because it's his choice. But I was sad to not see that in the show. You shoot scenes that don't make it into the final cut all the time, and I'm used to it. It's just that it's rare that those moments of actor and character come together. That was a moment of purity for me, a culmination emotionally of the whole thing. The doing of it, whether or not anyone saw it, was memorable. I hope it makes it into some DVD extra someday."
"There's a moment between my character, Daniel, and Trey [Sean Bridgers] where I had to go from being drunk, drugged and uncomfortable to almost piteous and then aggressive. That was one of the richer scenes to play. And right in the middle of it, I threw my back out. I'd had an injury just prior to starting season two, and as we were shooting, I threw Trey to the floor and suddenly it felt like a shotgun went off. I'd completely thrown my back out. I finished the shot, limped out the door and said, 'I'm going to a chiropractor.' They managed to shoot the next 40 minutes on another sequence, and then I rejoined the scene. We picked up pretty much in the same place, with me throwing Sean on the floor. I can't remember how I did it, to be honest. I had no choice really. We don't have the luxury of a long schedule or infinite budget, so we had to keep moving. That was a hell of a day."