Gone are the days when being a leading man on television meant being the most likable guy onscreen. TV actors now get to show their skills with dark, complex characters — even on broadcast network shows. The Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Richmond and Matthew Belloni gathered six fine examples of TV’s new actor elite — Simon Baker (CBS’ “The Mentalist”), Bryan Cranston (AMC’s “Breaking Bad”), Laurence Fishburne (CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”), Michael C. Hall (Showtime’s “Dexter”), Denis Leary (FX’s “Rescue Me”) and Bill Paxton (HBO’s “Big Love”) — to discus the grind of series work and the good fun in playing bad guys.
The Hollywood Reporter: You are all the leads on hourlong shows. What is the toll on your lives?
Bill Paxton: I drive from my house to make the call on Monday morning and I’m lucky to see my house before 2 o’clock in the morning on Friday night. It’s a monastic kind of existence. I just stay in a hotel out there (in Santa Clarita, Calif.). I feel like a weird monk. The hardest thing is to go from such an intense work situation to just all of a sudden, that’s it.
Bryan Cranston: What you’ll find (on) all of these shows, we’re all working 12 to 13 to 14 hours a day. If you can do a 12-hour day, you can go home and be with your family.
Simon Baker: Twelve hours, you can have an existence.
Denis Leary: On “Rescue Me,” we do four-, six-, eight-, 10-hour days. When (showrunner) Peter (Tolan) is directing, we do six-hour days sometimes.
Laurence Fishburne: How is that possible?
Leary: Because these actors have been there from the beginning. They are all really good at their characters and they’re fantastic with each other.
Baker: You just did five (seasons). We’re a first-year show, so part of the struggle is constantly trying to find the tone within the writers’ room (and with directors). Director A may be a fantastic director but doesn’t necessarily get the tone. We like to try to do a little bit of mucking around.
THR: Do you guys have a lot of freedom to shape the dialogue of your characters?
Fishburne: We’ve got a collaborative thing going on at “CSI.” There is always a writer on set. You can always say, “I think we need to tweak this.”
Michael C. Hall: When new people come in, if they only know me from the show they’re like, “I’m afraid you might kill me.” So they are a lot more open to my suggestions. (Laughter) And I don’t sway them from thinking that. But I try to honor what the writers write. And my job, first and foremost, is to try to make work what I see there. With the voiceover element, I probably have more to say.
THR: Do you ever worry about the moral lessons your characters are teaching people?
Paxton: I don’t think you can play a character with judgment. I don’t think that’s our place. We’re not the writers. Plus, we’re dealing with a sensitive religion in our show.
THR: Is there an ongoing tension on that front?
Paxton: Not really. We had a little bit of an episode recently where there was a temple rite that was dramatized for the first time in film or television. This stuff is all over YouTube, if you care to look. But this thing started before anyone had seen the episode. Enough people were upset (by that) that the Mormon church had to make a statement and HBO had to counter with an apology — and that was the week I was going to do my victory lap on all the talk shows.
Fishburne: It’s kind of polarizing for people?
Paxton: People look at the show and go, “OK, what is this?” Women, when I first told them I was doing the show, would literally step back away from me because they just aren’t going there. They think, “Wait a minute, this guy’s got how many wives?”
THR: Denis, you are sort of a hero to the firefighter community, even though your character is an insane person. What’s that about?
Leary: There are plenty of firefighters who don’t like what we portray. My character is based on two guys — one of them is a technical adviser on the show — and the crew is based on a particular crew. They all know almost every single fire, event, is taken from stuff from those guys. We wanted to do a school bus fire and I called Terry Quinn, our technical adviser, and he said: “I’m at one now, I’ll call you back.” So that’s where we get the fires. Even this year, we have a thing where one of the younger firefighters opens a bar with another firefighter, which actually comes from this crew. Their goal was to meet chicks. (Laughing) So there are chiefs that wouldn’t want us to tell this stuff, but that’s where the best stuff is. And I agree with Bill: I like the flawed people. And even as an audience member, you can’t really judge them.
Baker: They’re a very different world (on cable). We’re a network program. But there’s no way in the world I was going to sign on to a deal where the character was just one-dimension. Doing five seasons in a row, you’ve got to play a character that’s got a wrongness about him. There has to be some sort of issue and struggle for the character.
THR: Do you think it’s possible to really go to those dark places and flesh things out in the network context?
Cranston: They have to. They have to do what they’re doing now, because cable — with HBO leading the way years ago — changed the whole frontier. Look at Thomas Magnum (of “Magnum, P.I.”). Always did the right thing, always got the girl — the nice guy, never drank too much. Higgins was the role! (Laughter)
THR: Do you get a lot of feedback from people who cook drugs, saying “No, no, you’re doing it wrong”?
Cranston: No. We get it saying, “You’re doing it right.”
THR: Michael, your character doesn’t have any flaws. That’s got to be a problem for you.
Hall: His capacity for stress management is the most remarkable thing. (Laughs)
Baker: The challenge I often find is, I’m on a procedural show, but how do you balance the notion of character? You guys live in the world of character; that’s it. And you’ve got license and room to go with your character and find certain depths. (Whereas), networks are running scared. We want to do that, but we don’t want to offend the Christian right; we don’t want to offend these people. The biggest struggle I find (is) my show is 22 (episodes) a year. It’s personal, physical, emotional torture. There’s a reason why it’s 22, because the body won’t take 23.
THR: Do you venture a lot into cyberspace to see what people are saying about you?
Leary: I have all their names and all their e-mail addresses! (Laughter) I’m working on their home addresses.
Paxton: For some reason, I just couldn’t click over to the digital world. I just didn’t want to. I don’t read reviews either, because if you read the good ones you’ve got to believe them and then you’ve got to believe the bad ones, too. And I had an experience a few years ago when I directed a film and was really proud of it and the reviews just peeled me. I did a Terry Gross interview a couple months ago (on NPR’s “Fresh Air”). I wanted to hear the interview and I had to go on the Internet to hear it, and all of a sudden there were all these responses, and the first one was that I was an apologist for the polygamist movement in this country and I was just taking a big paycheck. It really upset me. It’s hard to separate the message from the messenger. We’re the front line, we’re the face of the thing.
Fishburne: For a lot of people, we really have become these characters that we play and it’s very difficult for people to kind of separate that. That’s really quite wonderful but it’s kind of hard.
THR: We’re assuming none of you Twitter.
Baker: I don’t even know what Twitter is. And I hear it all the time.
Leary: I can’t get the Twitter thing. Do you really need to know what the fuck Ashton Kutcher is doing with Demi Moore? I don’t like Shaq (O’Neal). I don’t need to know whatever the fuck he’s playing. (Laughter)
Cranston: I don’t pay attention to it. I don’t even look at the ratings. Just focus on what you do and go home. I work in Albuquerque, N.M., so I fly home every weekend and just spend time with the family and fly back on Sunday nights.
THR: What’s the craziest thing you’ve read about yourselves?
Leary: I’ve got a million. I got accused of having an aging lesbian eye surgery. Aging lesbian eye surgery — what does that mean? Unbelievable. Needless to say, I’ve never had the surgery. But actually I will at some point, if it makes me look like an aging lesbian and I need that part. There’s no guarantee. Maybe I’ll play Ellen DeGeneres. (Laughter)
Cranston: I don’t read anything, I don’t go online. I don’t read tabloids. No one says anything about me. No one knows anything about me.
THR: How did you pull that off?
Cranston: Because it’s not why I love to act. So I got what I wanted. I’m able to be this other guy and look completely different and just be in the woodwork. And nobody follows me. I don’t have any paparazzi, there’s nothing like that.
Paxton: You need a drug habit.
Cranston: I’ve been married for 20 years.
Paxton: That’s the problem right there.
THR: What is the best thing about fame? Or the worst?
Fishburne: One of the best things is getting good tables at restaurants. And when people are really genuinely complimentary about your work.
THR: Instead of being mistaken for someone else?
Fishburne: Even when they mistake you for somebody else, it’s cool.
Paxton: Dude, you were awesome in “Pulp Fiction”!
Fishburne: We all have that guy.
Leary: My guy is Willem Dafoe. I get mistaken for Willem Dafoe all the time.
Hall: Matt Damon.
Cranston: I don’t get anybody. I don’t look like anybody.
Baker: Fame. It’s weird. I’ve been an actor for 16 years. You’re not qualified to do anything. I didn’t go to school, I sold time-shares, I’ve worked in pubs. But you know what? I can pay the bills. My stepfather was a butcher, my old man was a mechanic, my mom worked at Kmart. I probably earn in a week more than what my family has ever earned in a year.
THR: Does it worry you to see actors being replaced by reality shows and NBC destroying the 10 o’clock —
Fishburne: I’ve got to stop you. I’ve really got to stop you. I’ve been an actor for, damn, 40 years, and it’s really hard to hear you say that we’ve been replaced by a reality TV show. It’s really hard to hear you say that. So you might want to rephrase that for me, man, please.
Hall: There’s also a proliferation of shows and networks. As television goes, there’s a lot more than was there back before reality programs existed.
Leary: I have nothing against Jay Leno, but that’s five hours of shows. If Jay’s thing works, they’re all going to want to do it. It kind of makes you think, “Shit, man.”
Cranston: I was reading something the other day about the girl who does this thing called “The Hills,” which I’ve never seen. And she was like, “I don’t want to do it anymore. They’ve followed me around for the last five years.” That would be my personal hell.