Emmys: Patton Oswalt, 'Scandal's' Dan Bucatinsky Reveal the Secrets of Mastering Their Roles
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
This season's most popular guest stars revealed how they made lasting impressions, and what moment forced them to adjust to the specific challenges and needs of being in a guest role -- no matter how long or short the arc.
Orange Is the New Black (NETFLIX)
This show is my first TV experience. I'd been doing theater in New York City pretty much exclusively, so I was wondering: Will I have to play "down"? Be softer with my voice? Not use my body? But here's what I learned: Good stories are good stories. It doesn't matter what the medium is. My biggest concern was to answer as many questions as I could in the shortest time possible about my character, Crazy Eyes, because I was told I'd only be doing two episodes and possibly a third. Then it kept going and turned into 11. I was able to relax! There was one scene in an episode directed by Jodie Foster where I was reading a poem, and Jodie gave me a great note: "Sometimes, Uzo, you have to find the camera, and sometimes you have to let it find you." It was so simple, yet so profound.
I actually appeared in 27 episodes of Scandal. I guess that's what they call a "guest actor" these days! The toughest thing this season was saying goodbye to my character, James. We all cried at the table read. The episode had a number of flashbacks as well as a bunch of bloody scenes that show me dying in the street. On our final shooting day, it's raining. I'm lying in the street. Blood is coming out of my mouth and I'm completely white. I'm thinking, "This is what I'll look like when I'm really dead." Then I had to go into someone else's trailer to shower, clean all of the blood-stain makeup off my face, get into a new outfit and film a very romantic scene that took place four years before. It was all very difficult, very emotional -- and it reminded me that I still didn't have my own shower.
The day I filmed my first sex scene started off as a great day. I was really excited to have fake sex with a girl whom I could never have sex with in real life. At the same time, I was nervous because the sock I wore over my genitals didn't stay on very well in the pool. So I had to accept the likelihood that I might expose myself to the crew, 30 extras and the entire cast of season seven, including Heather Graham, who played my mom, pulling my schlubby naked ass out of the pool to scold me. Hours into shooting, Heather pulls me out, and sure enough I hear a splash as my water-soaked sock hits the ground. I feel the cool breeze blowing on my penis. I think, "Shit, I have to stay in the scene." But a little voice in my head is saying, "F--, did Heather Graham just see my penis?"
Sons of Anarchy (FX)
It's one thing to know you're guesting on the most masculine show on television as yourself. It's quite another to know you're playing a transgender escort named Venus Van Dam. From the moment I walked out of the trailer, I was Venus. Being an actor is all about stepping into this very vulnerable place and wanting to be accepted. That's how it is for Venus every day. Everyone on the Sons of Anarchy cast and crew treated me exactly like a lady they were not accustomed to being around. Was I worried? Beyond. I was wrought with anxiety about pulling this off without it seeming like I was mocking the LGBT community. Once I realized that my own fear paralleled that of those in the transgender world, I became much more confident, because it was no longer about being an oddity.
Marcia Gay Harden
The Newsroom (HBO)
About an hour after I accepted the offer to play First Amendment lawyer Rebecca Halliday, I got a call from [star] Jeff Daniels. We'd developed a shorthand working together on the play God of Carnage. Typical of Jeff, he cut to the chase. "You want to know the Aaron Sorkin secret? Do the grunt work at home, not in front of the crew. Come to the first read-through with your lines [memorized]." In the first read-through, I had a page-long monologue I'd memorized at home with my kids while loading the dishwasher, making beds and packing school lunches. At the end, Jeff looked up and smiled -- but his smile was nothing compared to Aaron Sorkin's! Sorkin and the show are all about language, words and foibles of humanity in a political world. I tried to just make the words make sense. The cast and crew are seamless. Jane Fonda further placed herself in hero-goddess status by blowing the roof off of a two-page monologue. Sam Waterston makes the language emotional. Emily Mortimer, too -- and they both always add humor. Jeff sets a high standard; he always makes "right" sound casual. He makes us all want to reach the same bar. The fact that Aaron let my character describe herself as "liquid sex" was a cherry atop an already well-iced cake!
I have a blast doing this show! And I guess they love me, thank God, since I got promoted to series regular for next season. But here's the thing: My character, Marjorie, is a cat lady. She has nine cats in her apartment. And they all have to kind of move on cue. There are all of these cat trainers/wranglers around. But they're still cats. We have to say our lines with great comic timing while considering what the cats are going to do. What people don't see is that the cats have a little buzzer on their collar that trains them to move because they know they're going to get a treat that's hidden in a chair -- like Pavlov's cats, right? Of course, if I know there's a hidden treat for me, I'm more likely to move, too, so the concept works with actresses nearly as well.
Portlandia is all about adjusting on the fly because it's improv comedy. For one show, our director, Jon Krisel, told me I'd be singing a "song about Portland" and gave me the music that morning. Throughout the day, I listened to it and expected Jon to give me the words as we got closer to filming. Finally, as we were about to film the scene, I learned I was going to have to make the words up myself. I panicked and my mind went blank. As he walked away, Jon turned back and said, "It's a love letter to Portland." I thought, "Now I have something to grab onto." All I risked was extreme embarrassment. (But I'd been in Showgirls, so no big deal.) For some reason, William Shatner crossed my mind, and I went with it and channeled my inner-him. If I couldn't think of words, I sang, "La-la-la." Thank God for Shatner.
Glee (FOX) and Downton Abbey (PBS)
I love doing these guest spots. I get to work with all of these wonderful people but don't need to commit to anything long-term. I got to sing and sort of move my legs on Glee. I wouldn't call it dancing. And yeah, a lot of people have told me they never expected me to be on a stage singing Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart." Trust me, neither did Janis. But I spoke with her the other night, and she's fine with it. Then I got to do a song from Pippin, too, which was great fun. The kids wanted to hear all of my stories. They speed-talk, so I had to tell 'em to slow down half the time. That experience couldn't be more different from Downton, where I'm doing this glorious period piece with all of that wardrobe, corsets, hair and history. Loved it!
Bates Motel (A&E)
As a guest star, you've got to figure out your environment very quickly. On Bates Motel, I had to adjust to playing with Vera Farmiga. She is so talented and alive that you can get suspended in just watching her. You kind of fall in love with her, which as a fellow actor is both mesmerizing and dangerous. For example, we did this one scene on a yacht where her character, Norma, reaches out and needs some help getting on. She's coming into my character Nick's world and doesn't realize she's making a pact with the devil. When Norma gets there, Nick finds himself flirting with her. In reality, I'm considerably her senior, so that added an interesting element. Instead of being a power figure, he acts almost boyish in her company. The irony is that Vera is so magnetic as a performer that what I experienced matched what Nick felt.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)
This was a pretty comfortable gig for me because I've known [star] Andy Samberg for years as well as a lot of the writers. This was also the first season, so it was all still jelling as a series. Plus, I was such a fan of Brooklyn Nine-Nine from the get-go. All of the performers sort of do things their own way and it all fits together well. Andy plays it one way, Melissa Fumero another way, Stephanie Beatriz still another. And then there's Andre Braugher, who gets more laughs doing nothing. He plays it so absolutely straight and hilariously. Then I come in and I get to play Fire Marshal Boone investigating a pizza parlor fire and have all of this tension with Andy's character. Any day that I get to play a fire chief is a great day. As adjustments go, this one was easy.
The Good Wife (CBS)
I did a scene that was shot smack in the middle of Times Square alongside an actor dressed as a costumed furry bear who was supposed to hurl anti-Semitic slurs my way. The temperature was below arctic. Of course the crew wasn't able to lock down Times Square, so tourists wanted to take photos with us actors while cameras were actually rolling. I could barely hear the bear's lines coming out of the capacious helmet he had to wear. All the while I'm thinking: "The writing in this scene is hilarious, but there's no way the network is going to allow a happy bear to say these offensive things on national television. The pressure's on me to make it funny or it's never going to make the cut." But luckily, it did.
I had the most wonderful time working with all of these great ladies. The biggest surprise for me was probably the improvisation. I guess they do it all the time, and it really opens you up to some things you hadn't thought of before. We'd do the scene scripted, then they'd open it up to improv. There I am, lying in a hospital bed playing Hannah's [Lena Dunham] grandmother. [Girls guest star] Amy Morton and I were having a great time, even though my character, her mother, is dying. Most of the episode was the two of us alone in there, two minds working well together and feeding off of each other.
In episode seven, I worked with Mandy Patinkin for the first time. My character, Javadi, meets his character, Saul, and they're seeing each other for the first time in 30 years. I was excited because I've loved Mandy's work. But his process was so different than what I expected. Every take was different. I had to forget any preconceived notions about how the scene would play out and react instead to what Mandy was throwing at me. [Showrunner] Alex Gansa told me, "Mandy has a process. Sometimes it takes him a while to get there. But he gets there." Luckily, my experience kicked in. I had to take a breath and after the second take just said to myself, "OK, go with it, be in the moment and embrace it."