Six stars at the top of their game — including Billy Bob Thornton, Sterling K. Brown, John Lithgow and Jeffrey Wright — open up about appreciating early struggles ("You forget what it feels like to dream"), the indignity of typecasting ("Terrorist No. 3 — I'd rather be broke") and the pros and cons of being one of only a few who know where your character is going.
Ewan McGregor has been a movie star for 20 years, but he's still petrified every time he takes on a new role. "My wife will tell you — there's a two-week period of, 'I'm not going to be able to do it,' " he says. Fifty-year veteran John Lithgow is in the same boat — just two days earlier, he admits, he suffered a bout of stage terror. The fear seems to resonate with the four other stars — Sterling K. Brown, 41; Riz Ahmed, 34; Jeffrey Wright, 51; and Billy Bob Thornton, 61 — who've gathered with Lithgow, 71, and McGregor, 46, on an April afternoon in Hollywood for an intense discussion of the choices they've made, the stereotypes they've avoided and the occupational hazard of uncertainty. Says McGregor, "We've been remembering lines for years, but the nerves, in my experience, get worse and worse."
What are the parts you get approached for that make you say, "Not this again"?
RIZ AHMED (The Night Of, HBO) When you first start seeing gay characters in mainstream cultures or black characters or Muslim characters, they can start off as the stereotypical portrayal — it's the cab driver, the shopkeeper, the drug dealer. And then sometimes, hopefully, you move beyond that, and it's still storylines that are tied to that character's ethnicity or their sexuality, but they're working against those stereotypes. I was lucky that I came into the game just when we were moving from that stage one caricature into stage two. So a lot of my early work deals with the issues around the war on terror or Islamophobia, but I'm proud to say it deals with and engages those issues in creative ways and I hope in ways that move us forward rather than doubling down on lazy stereotypes. But yeah, there was a lot of, like, Terrorist No. 3 stuff — I just made a decision I wasn't going to do it. I thought, "I'd rather be broke."
Sterling, an L.A. Times column recently praised This Is Us for showcasing a black actor portraying "the simmering rage of the successful black man in white America." What does that mean to you?
STERLING K. BROWN (This Is Us, NBC) What I love so much about the show and about the character of Randall is that he is black on purpose. So many times, for the sake of diversity on network TV, there's going to be a black guy or a Latino guy, et cetera, and they just happen to be that. But the fact that he is black and we actually use that to tell the story of a black man being raised by this white family and still has the experience of being black in America … The feedback I get from people is, "We don't get a chance to see this that often: a successful black man married with two children who is happy and succeeding but still has to deal with the fact that life is not the same, the paths that we walk are going to be different." A white woman who had adopted two black sons was asking me the other day, "What types of things do I need to tell my sons?" And I said, "Well, when you're horsing around and somebody gets singled out for being in trouble, when you're a little black boy, it's not just boys being boys, there's an added level of scrutiny."
JEFFREY WRIGHT (Westworld, HBO) And judgment.
John, you've won Emmys for being a serial killer in a drama and for being an alien dad on a sitcom. What offers do you hear the most?
JOHN LITHGOW (The Crown, Netflix) I was asked to do a role a few years ago in a lovely movie called Love Is Strange that Ira Sachs co-wrote and directed, and it was a role where I was asked to do no acting at all — just the most muted, inconspicuous role. It was the role I'd been waiting for for years. I guess because I have this rep as being a real actor-ish actor — not necessarily an actor's actor but an actor-ish actor. (Laughs.) It was wonderful. It was almost a relief. But I'm a character man, and I've done a lot of extremely excessive acting in my day, so usually when there's a total wack job, I'm right at the top of the list. And it's a very short list. But the profession surprises me all the time. Winston Churchill could not possibly have been a bigger surprise. I couldn't believe they were asking me to play the role.
BILLY BOB THORNTON (Goliath, Amazon) One of the problems I had early on was I would go up for parts of Southern guys because I was from the South and they always told me I wasn't Southern enough. Or I would go up for parts of bad guys and they told me I wasn't mean enough because I was never a good auditioner. If you were going in for a bad guy — and let's say it's a Southern or a Midwestern bad guy — if you didn't jump on the table and spit and scream, you didn't get the part. And if I didn't play a Southerner like this here (in cartoonish Southern accent), I didn't get the part. So, if I came in for the Southern bad guy and I said (quietly), "Listen, man, one more word outta you and I'll f—in' kill ya, do you understand me?" they're like, "Next!" (Laughter.)
Ewan, you play brothers on Fargo: One brother is a handsome, self-made mogul and the other is a balding, potbellied guy with a chip on his shoulder. Which one was more enjoyable to play?
EWAN MCGREGOR (Fargo, FX) The premise is that when they're teenagers, their father passes away. In his will, he leaves Emmet a red Corvette and Ray a stamp collection. What happens is Emmet persuades Ray to take the Corvette: Ray is probably a virgin, so Emmet says, "You'll get laid if you drive this car," and he takes the stamp collection, and he goes on to have an incredibly successful life as a businessman. He becomes the parking lot king of Minnesota. And his brother ends up living a shitty life and is a parole officer and has a red Corvette. But he has also just fallen in love with this incredible character, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is drop-dead gorgeous and so out of his league. And it's interesting to be doing this during the Trump era because Ray has become the embodiment of love. I'm playing this man who is so in love and he's got a soul and a heart; and Emmet is the businessman and he has a wife and a family, he's a faithful man, but everything is compartmentalized in a way that he's just sort of soulless. So, Ray is more fun to play because it's much more fun to be in love than it is to be someone like Trump. (Laughs.)
Jeffrey, there's a big reveal in Westworld where we find out your character, Bernard, is a robot. How much did you know?
WRIGHT I found out that morning. I showed up to shoot and …
ALL What? No, no! (Laughter.)
WRIGHT No. No. (Laughs.)
Some actors prefer that.
WRIGHT I don't think it would have been possible with this because … if you look back at the previous episodes, you'll see these bread crumbs. I didn't know when we shot the pilot. But when we came back, [showrunner] Lisa Joy pulled me aside and said, "Bernard's uh …" You know, an incredibly articulate woman who stumbled around for 20, 30 seconds. "Um, um, he's very complicated. How do I say this? How do I …?" And then she dropped it on me. And yeah, it was necessary because there are little flashes of forecasting that I would throw in.
Do the rest of you like knowing where your characters are headed?
LITHGOW I've been in two situations now where when I was offered a role — the first was Dexter and the second is [NBC's] Trial & Error — the writers told me the entire story but said I couldn't tell anyone, including the other actors. So I went through Dexter playing the Trinity Killer with all these secrets. They didn't intend to tell me everything, but when they pitched it to me, I kept saying, "No, but what about this? What about that?" So I knew the whole story and nobody else did, including the directors.
LITHGOW There was a moment where my character was sitting at a counter watching TV and a murder was being reported and it was clear to the audience that I had done the murder. In [truth], I had not. And the director, Keith Gordon, who's a really good director, said something to me that [revealed] that he didn't know himself. I had to take him aside and say, "You know what's going on, don't you?" And he didn't!
WRIGHT On Westworld, we all had our own secrets and there'd be a flurry of texts among the cast when individual secrets were revealed. We'd go, "What?!" I knew more than most because there were multiple layers to this thing. I was satisfied with my pile of knowledge, but there were betting lines being offered and odds being issued.
Riz, you did a phenomenal amount of research for your role. How did it inform your performance?
AHMED I went to the Rikers Island prison, which thankfully I hear they're closing because some of the stories that I heard there were wild. Forget turning up there as a new inmate; if you turn up there as a corrections officer, the inmates will test you. So, if you're a new guy, the inmates will start messing with you or just disobeying you or being verbally abusive, and you've got to prove yourself. And I said, "Well, what does that mean? Are you extra harsh in laying down the rules?" One guy goes, "No, you have to fight them." I was like, "How do you mean? Psychologically?" He's like, "No, you take them out in cuffs, you go out into the corridor, you make sure the cameras are shut off, and you uncuff them and go at it. That's how you win respect as a C.O." So there's a kind of crazy, gladiatorial, dog-eat-dog situation there. Interviewing people who have been through the prison system, those stories are all very flashy and they stick with you, but it was [also] the detail of things, like how people just let go of family because it's too painful after a while. I'd go nuts and record people for hours.
THORNTON I've shot in a lot of prisons, and that's an environment that can really put you in there. You get it right away and you start to see how people operate. We were shooting Monster's Ball in Angola Prison in Louisiana. They call it The Farm. And Sean Combs, who was in the movie, he wasn't an actor, but he was a huge, huge star.
BROWN Never heard of him. (Laughs.)
THORNTON I'll tell you all about hip-hop later.
BROWN School me, boss.
THORNTON There is a scene when he was going to the electric chair and we shot it on death row, and it was the electric chair they used. Well, Sean is in there before the scene, and they shaved his head and all this stuff, and he said to me, "Listen, I'm nervous as hell. Man, anything you can do to help me. You got anything for me?" And I said, "You're already there, dude." He says, "What do you mean?" And I said, "You're going to the electric chair, man." And he goes, "Oh, yeah." (Laughter.)
Does the current political climate change the types of projects you want to do or the types of roles you want to play?
WRIGHT I hope so. For everyone.
BROWN You hope to be able to give people a break from certain things, but hopefully you can also educate and edify people at the same time. With This Is Us, the biggest comment that I've gotten is that it brings people together in a very interesting way — it's a very family-oriented show, and it's about connection. We have gay folks and overweight people and black folks, and we're going out into communities that may not have an opportunity to see things that are quite as heterogeneous as the show is. So, the more homogenized places in the country and in the world, they're having an opportunity to meet people for the first time. Hopefully through meeting people, the next time they encounter them, they see them as people.
AHMED I do believe it's an artist's responsibility to engage with the times we're living in. But it's a weird thing. Certain stories or certain storytellers are encumbered with the responsibility of being seen as political whether they like it or not. Because sometimes it's the first story of that type — the trans actress in Orange Is the New Black, for example. The Khan family in The Night Of is a Muslim-American family, but that wasn't a political decision. That was just doubling down on affirming our common humanity, which is really a kind of baseline for all creativity. It's not a renegade move to do that. But then a couple of months after the show comes out, certain dominos fall and people start viewing it through a different lens.
LITHGOW That's our mission at the best of times, to show people how other people feel. It's so important right now because these are the un-empathetic times we're living in.
AHMED And it's kind of reinforcing a status quo by not commenting or challenging it. I've always found it weird that people would often say to me, "Why do you always do political work?" There are a certain subset of stories that are open to me to tell, and I'm glad to say that subset is kind of expanding. That is a kind of progress, whether it's political progress or social progress or cultural progress. But politics is just a point of view on the world — and every story has a point of view on the world. If it's a point of view that you're not used to hearing or seeing, it suddenly gets labeled as political and marginalized from the mainstream. [It's sent to] the back of the DVD store with the subtitled films. But actually, what we think of as mainstream stories or stories that aren't political are very political in their absence of interrogating the status quo.
WRIGHT So when Friends shows a New York absent people of color, there's politics in that. It leads to an understanding of, among those homogenous communities in this country, that …
BROWN That that's the way it is.
WRIGHT Exactly. It validates their own isolation and leads to a misunderstanding of the complexity of who we are.
What do you wish you knew early in your career about how to handle Hollywood success, and would you have done anything differently?
THORNTON Probably not. And it was not easy. I was destitute out here for years. I now look back on those days as probably my best times out here.
THORNTON Yeah, because everything I draw on comes from that. I loved it in the moment. After a while you forget what it feels like to dream, and I remember being so alive and so eager. When you have everything ahead of you and you're dreaming like that, it feels so great. And maybe at the time, you wish things were different or that you weren't starving to death or whatever it is, but when I look back on those days now, they were some of the best times of my life.
Ewan, anything you wish someone had whispered in your ear early on?
MCGREGOR No, because I wasn't really aiming anywhere. I was always arrogantly self-assured that it would be fine. People would worry for me, on my behalf, family or whatever. You know, "It's a difficult profession" and "You might not make it." I just thought, "No, I'll be fine." (Laughter.)
THORNTON You kinda always think, "Tomorrow's the day."
This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.