Eric Stonestreet would be a prison warden if not for acting

(L-R) Lea Michele, Matthew Weiner, Rose Byrne, Eric Stonestreet, John Slattery, Mindy Kaling and Jeff Probst (Photos by Keith King)

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: 'Modern Family,' 'Mad Men' stars on career choices

When a car spun out of control, careening off Sunset Boulevard and narrowly missing several other vehicles, it almost crashed into Lea Michele -- just as the "Glee" star was on her way to the Chateau Marmont for a Hollywood Reporter roundtable this month. Luckily, it missed Michele and she made it to the event, though somewhat shaken up. She was joined by six fellow Emmy nominees -- Rose Byrne ("Damages"), Mindy Kaling ("The Office"), Jeff Probst ("Survivor"), Eric Stonestreet ("Modern Family"), John Slattery ("Mad Men") and Matthew Weiner ("Mad Men's" creator and executive producer). They spoke with THR's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway about work, fame and how to survive in a jungle that isn't called Hollywood.

The Hollywood Reporter: In Jeff's honor, if your TV characters were on "Survivor," who would win?
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John Slattery: I'd jump out of a plane. I'd last five minutes and have a heart attack.

Eric Stonestreet: Cameron would be nice to everybody and then stab them right in the back. That's what it takes, right?

Jeff Probst: I think that Rose would be off early.

Rose Byrne: No way! I would survive big time.

Probst: You're smart, but you're not sociable enough.

Byrne: But do you have to be sociable? Don't you just have to avoid bugs and traps and stuff?

Probst: No, it's a total social game. You (pointing to Lea Michele) would be there at the end.

Lea Michele: Thank you. I was going to say, I would totally win. (To Mindy Kaling:) We would claw each other's eyes out.

Matthew Weiner: Her character is so duplicitous!

Probst: You'd be at the end.

Weiner: Oh really?

Probst: Yeah. You wouldn't win. (To Slattery:) You'd be like, "This is bulls***. I'll kill myself." But my money is right here (Lea).

THR: How would the real-life Lea Michele do on "Survivor"?

Michele: Well, I used to have "Survivor" parties with tiki lamps, and I'd wear a bandana around my head and everything. So I know all there is to know about the show.

THR: Do you watch much reality television?

Weiner: I do. I love "Project Runway." I just love what it says about the creative experience. And I love "Survivor," obviously. I've started watching it with my kids, actually. We have DVDs and it has blown their minds to see adults behaving that way. And I love "Top Chef."

Probst: I've noticed lately, most of my favorite shows, drama-wise -- all the lead characters are bad. They're all completely, horribly flawed people. And endlessly fascinating. At the end of every season, you're going, "Where will they go next year?" I'm really curious on "The Office," with Steve Carell leaving, to see what happens. Now you have this brand new opportunity to create something new.

Mindy Kaling: The joke now is that we want to rename the show "Who's the Boss?" It's the only thing anyone ever asks us about. But I've always thought the show would be like "ER," where you could just have a revolving cast.

Weiner: Here's something true: We change the dynamics in our show. I don't know if anyone ever watches "Weeds," but Jenji (Kohan, the executive producer) has redone that show every year in an explosive way and there's something great about it. As the characters come closer together, you basically are resolving more and more conflicts, and at a certain point you have no conflict, you have no show. So it might be nice to have a new conflict in there.

THR: But how much do viewers want shows to change? "Survivor" has the same format.

Probst: On "Survivor," our goal is the same thing, only different. You know, on "The Sopranos," every week you turned in to see a new hit -- I don't want to see it on the same guy, but I want to see a hit. When I watch "Weeds," I'm not looking for the main character to be a completely different woman. But I want to see her get into trouble. I want to see her have sex. All those qualities.

THR: What's been your best and worst experience in TV?

Weiner: On "Sopranos," I was a writer and not in charge of the show. Late one night, shooting a scene under a bridge (a 77-year-old actor was) in the trunk of a car with a piece of plastic over his face, and they were going to shoot him in the face with squibs and then slam the trunk door down on him. That was the worst experience. It was his last scene on the show, and I'm sitting there thinking, "I wrote this in my living room and I really didn't think about that old man having to climb into the trunk of a car."

THR: John, what interests you about Matt as a producer?


Slattery: I've actually had the opportunity to watch Matt in casting a couple of times. Recently, someone came in and -- we all know a bad audition is really awful. You're sinking, and you got flop sweat and it's a horrible experience. This fellow came in and he was nervous and it wasn't going well. And then Matt said, "Here, try it again," and gave him some specific direction. And he got better and better, and able to show how good he was -- and he got the job. It was unbelievable to watch this guy pull it back from the nosedive he was in. He was drenched with sweat.

Probst:
(To Weiner:) Did you work with him out of just compassion or did you see something?

Weiner: I saw something. I fly by intuition. And honestly, I let everybody go twice. And I ask them where they're from and I try to calm them down, because they're scared.

Stonestreet: I auditioned for your show, the first year, for a little guest star part.

Weiner: Oh my God, right!

Stonestreet:
And you were really nice.

THR: How did the casting on "Modern Family" go?


Stonestreet: They wouldn't see me in the beginning. And finally they saw me, and they said, "Great job, we like you, but it's not going any further." And two weeks went by, and they called back and said, "Would you come in clean-shaven and more dressed the part?" I took that to mean lavender gingham, navy pants and a great cardigan. And I went back in -- and again they passed. And then they called three days later and said, "OK, we're going to test you for the studio and network." All I ever wanted was an opportunity. And by the time I got to my driveway, literally 15 minutes after I left ABC, I had the part. When we're given the opportunity to let loose and go, decisions can be made.

Weiner: But you're also revealing something about your positive attitude, because the fact is, there was a month of disappointment.



THR: Rose, is there a role you didn't get that you wish you had?

Byrne: Yes. All the time. I went for "Holy Smoke," that Jane Campion directed with Kate Winslet. That was something I would love to have done. She's an incredible director and the role was fantastic, in India, and it was all about ashrams. That was a big disappointment. (And) I went for Anne Hathaway's role in "Brokeback Mountain." That would have been really fun.

Lea Michele, left, and Rose Byrne
 

THR: Lea, how did "Glee" come about?

Michele: I was working on Broadway in New York and my co-star was working on a pilot with ("Glee" creator) Ryan Murphy up here in L.A. (During a Broadway strike), I went to visit him, since neither of us was working. And I met Ryan. And we were here at the Chateau, about 2007, and just had a great night talking about Barbra Streisand and our shared love for her. And I never saw him ever again (until) I auditioned for "Glee." I came out here with the hopes of just taking a break from New York and the stage; I was always told I was too ethnic or not pretty enough or too much this or not enough of that. And "Glee" was the first audition I went on, and Ryan was there. And I was like, "Do you remember me?" And he's like, "Of course!" After going through the studio and the network, he told me that he had written it with me in mind. And I had never gotten even a callback for a television show before.

Weiner: Now they're all looking for a Lea Michele type!

Probst: It is always (a surprise). "Survivor" got turned down by every network, twice.

Weiner: I wrote ("Mad Men") five years before we shot it. And I carried it around with me. And if I sat next to one of you on an airplane, I probably would have handed it to you. I got my job on "Sopranos" (out of it). I wrote it for free, while I had another job, because I was very frustrated and I wanted to write the greatest TV show ever, in my mind.

Probst: Did that same pilot script (get changed)?

Weiner: I changed four lines. Actually, I added a couple of things (like) Don looking at his Purple Heart.

THR: Mindy, you both write and act. Which one's easier?

Kaling: Writing, sometimes. I have a very specific thing that I can do. I mean, I'm here because I'm a writer. I think of myself as a writer who acts.

Weiner:
Like Woody Allen.

Kaling: The hardest is writing a joke. Because you think of something funny when you're in Target or taking a shower, and then when you're sent off in a room -- you know, (you have) half an hour to come up with the jokes. You can't just turn it on like that.

Stonestreet: Ideas are a dime a dozen. But to put that into a concise sentence, setup, punch line ... Is it hard to write for yourself?

Kaling: Oh no, it's wonderful. I love writing for myself.

THR: Your writing suggests you have a pretty vast knowledge of TV. What did you watch growing up?

Kaling: Well, I had the love of television of someone who was forbidden to watch it. And so I loved it. The worst, most pretentious thing someone can say to me is, "I don't have a television." And they say it so smugly!

Byrne: We had a lot of American television (growing up in Australia). I watched "Family Ties," those sort of sitcoms. (And) I loved "Neighbors," which is an Australian soap, which is very tragic to admit.

Stonestreet:
I loved "Diff'rent Strokes" (and) "The Brady Bunch." I loved "M*A*S*H," the series finale. I hadn't watched "M*A*S*H" as a series, but for whatever reason, I saw the series finale. And I came downstairs, bawling. Bawling. But I loved TV as a kid.

THR: What was the moment when you knew, "I have to act"?

Stonestreet: You know, it's interesting: (On) "Modern Family," there's an episode where I'm a clown, and that's taken from my real life. When I was a kid, I just wanted to be a clown. I was 5. (But) I didn't know I wanted to be an actor until I was in college and did a play ("Prelude to a Kiss") and people said I was good.

Slattery: I remember watching "Masterpiece Theatre" and Derek Jacobi ("I, Claudius"). Just to see the power of that made me think, that's what I want to do. And I just wanted to get the hell out of where I was, the suburbs of Boston. There was no outlet. There was no acting. I came from an Irish-Catholic, sports-minded scene. And I was obsessed with movies and I would stay up all night watching movies. But there was no outlet.

THR: Did any of you think of anything other than acting or writing?


Stonestreet: I grew up around prisons. My degree is in sociology, with an emphasis in criminal justice. I was going to school to be an administrator in a penitentiary. My career path was that I wanted to be a warden at a level-five penitentiary. There's a federal facility in Leavenworth (where Stonestreet grew up) that's literally called the Hot House, and that's a level-five penitentiary. And then there's the disciplinary barracks in Leavenworth, which is where you go if you commit a crime in the military. That was the tapestry of my upbringing.
Probst: For me it was "Twilight Zone" that really got me locked into storytelling. I would make little super-8mm (movies). I would basically rip off the episodes and try to re-create them. And when I got hired by Mark (Burnett), he said, "I want a storyteller."

Michele: I've never wanted to be anything other than an actor. I started performing on Broadway when I was 8 years old. My first night on stage, I told my mom, "This is what I want to do." It was "Les Mes." I mean, I was always a very out-there kid. I would watch "Saturday Night Live" and I would pretend (to be the characters). Then I would put on "West Side Story" and act out Maria's entire final scene at 7 years old. My mother would say, "I don't know who you are." But I was always very realistic: the sad thing about this business is it's so fleeting. If I couldn't do that, I was going to go to school and study law and become a lawyer. But I probably would have been miserable, or they would have had some very theatrical court sessions!



Byrne: I also started young in Australia. I was 8 when I started classes, and then 13 when I got my first job. I went to university, but I didn't finish my degree. My major was English literature. So I suppose I would have done something along those lines. But, I mean, I operate on the assumption that I will never work again.

Michele: Why?

Stonestreet: It's fuel. I'm sort of a masochist in that way, I guess. You know, playing sports, I was the guy that responded (by) getting angry with myself.

Slattery: I used to be more insecure about working, and I guess the older I get, the more rich my life becomes, I don't need to work as much as I used to. I mean, this is a hard town to be in when you have nothing else to do besides show business. It's brutal, especially as an actor, because you sit around with this low-grade fever of anxiety, waiting for the phone to ring. Or waiting for something.

Eric Stonestreet
 

Weiner: That's why I wrote my script. I was tired of waiting. I was like, "They will never let me fly the plane. I'm building an airport." I always think it's strange about creative people: Let's say your career goes from 1962-70 -- but you're the Beatles! I mean, that's plenty. We all want to keep working, but I don't think it's all about maintaining stardom.

Probst:
I was listening to Jewel being interviewed the other day, and she said, "When my first album sold 12 million copies, I sat down and I thought, 'All right, I can go two ways with this. This can become pressure that I will never live up to, or it can become this opportunity that I never have to have another hit.' " And she said, "I went that way and I've now written 500 songs that nobody's ever heard. I write every single night. And as an artist, I couldn't be mor
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