Emily Deschanel on Biggest 'Bones' Lessons, Working With David Boreanaz and Returning to TV

Emily Deschanel attends the 91st Annual Academy Awards - Getty-H 2019
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

When Emily Deschanel graduated from theater school, she planned to spend her career doing off-Broadway shows and the occasional indie film. The actress, who is best known for the 12 years she spent starring on Fox procedural Bones, chuckled on the phone while remembering those early career goals.

"I remember somebody laughing at me, like, 'OK, if you never want to make any money, then great,'" she told The Hollywood Reporter.

While her earliest credited parts include small roles in not-so-indie films including Cold Mountain, Glory Road and The Alamo, Deschanel's big break came after being cast in Stephen King's ABC miniseries Rose Red. A couple of pilot seasons later and she was the No. 2 on the call sheet for Bones, behind former Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel star David Boreanaz, where she'd spend the next decade-plus of her life. 

Two years after her Fox drama ended, Deschanel now finds herself headed back to television in a recurring role on TNT's crime family drama Animal Kingdom. While she spent 12 years playing forensic anthropologist and straight-laced FBI collaborator Temperance Brennan on Bones, she's on the other side of the law as recovering addict Angela on Animal Kingdom.

Deschanel spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her nearly two decades in Hollywood — including following in the footsteps of her younger sister, Zooey Deschanel (their parents are both in the industry; their father is the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and their mother is Twin Peaks actor Mary Jo Deschanel), working with occasionally difficult co-workers, the Bones lawsuit that has made her wary of signing contracts, and deciding to return to the small screen after a hiatus.

When did you start acting?

When I was growing up I always wanted to be an architect, for whatever reason. I guess it's the perfect blend of art and math and science, which, to me, was really appealing. But then I went to Crossroads for high school and I discovered theater and discovered acting, and I really loved doing it. I think I wouldn't have become an actor if I hadn't gone to the conservatory at Boston University for theater. You get to do four plays a year there, and I think I wouldn't have had the experience to give me the confidence to pursue being an actor after college if I hadn't done something like that. Of course, I look back and wish I'd gone to a liberal arts school and got a more well-rounded education, but there's always time to educate yourself, I guess. I think it was probably the right path for me because it gave me the experience, it gave me the confidence to try and pursue acting. My sister was already [acting]. She was always a natural performer, so she didn't need an external source to tell her she could pursue something.

I just loved theater, I loved to study, I loved Shakespeare. I'm the kid that went to Shakespeare camp three years in a row. Of course when I left school I was like, "I'm going to do off-Broadway theater only and maybe independent film. And that's all." I remember somebody laughing at me, like, "OK, if you never want to make any money, then great." It was such a specific thing. I can't say that I had a grand plan of what my career would be. Clearly I had one idea that changed completely, and I've done television for many years.

I moved back to L.A. after a period of time in New York and I finally got representation that sent me out. I had representation in New York but I think I got zero auditions for a whole year, so I was just working in a restaurant there, but it was still fun. A few months in, I think it was six months after moving back, I got this miniseries: Stephen King's Rose Red. Such a big job to get, where I was in Seattle for many months and it was so exciting to me. It was not a main character but it was a character that was in the show a lot. It was so much fun and I quickly loved being a complete sellout. [Laughs] I met one of my best friends, Melanie Lynskey, on that. We're still so close. I love the camaraderie with the actors — I love working on set and being on location too, you get to know people even more because you're kind of stuck in a place far away. I loved it.

Then I did a pilot after that and I did a Law & Order: SVU, so my first several jobs were all in television, and then I did some independent films and small parts in other films.

What was it like when Bones came along? It was probably exciting to book a pilot, but obviously at the time you have no idea that it's going to last more than a decade.

I had zero idea, and that was not my plan for things, either. I had done a couple pilots before and this was toward the end of the pilot season, or the end of their casting of the show, and I got a call to come in and audition for it. I met with Hart Hanson, who created the show; Barry Josephson, the producer; Greg Yaitanes, who was directing it. They laughed at my jokes, so I thought they were really nice people. Especially Hart Hanson loved my stupid jokes, so I'll always remember that.

I remember loving the dialogue between the two characters, really quick witty repartee, and I liked that relationship. I liked that it was a strong female character. When you sign on to do a TV show you have to think about the long term, especially in the beginning when you're doing the pilot, what kind of message you're putting out there for people. Of course this is like the opposite of now what I'm doing — Animal Kingdom is like the worst thing that could ever happen to a person for what you put out there. On Bones it was a different show. Younger people watched it, so you have to think about young girls watching the show and seeing female role models and scientists who are really smart and accomplished in their careers, and are successful.

I thought about all of that and I really responded to the script, and then I met David Boreanaz. He already had the part when I auditioned for it. I remember thinking, Oh, this could last us three years. That would be the longest I could ever in a million years imagine that it could ever last. And then it kept going and going and it was a lot of fun, with some great people. I look back with such fondness.

I [spoke with] a friend recently who was an actor on the show as well, and he was saying, "You seem so might lighter than when you were on the show!" And I'm looking back on it thinking I was so easy-breezy but apparently I was like "I will stress out about every single thing that I could possibly stress out about." It's a lot to be the lead of a television show. It's a lot of responsibility and it's an honor, but you do have to set a tone for a set, and there's pressure to keep the show going and be good. There's all kinds of things that I was probably holding on to that I wasn't realizing, and I look back just remembering all the fun times we had on set with the other actors — like the times in between when they say "cut" and before they say "action" — and of all the conversations we had. I look back thinking I was so easy-breezy but was usually very stressed about everything.

She's also a character who is not very emotional, so you probably also had to tamp down your own feelings more when you were playing her.

Yeah, that's true. I remember the first season doing takes where there was some things that were super upsetting. I remember there was an episode about a girl in foster care and my character was supposed to be in foster care and I was just bawling crying. We couldn't use any of it. I was so upset but my character was so cut off emotionally. I loved, like I was saying, that we had these strong female characters. Hart Hanson, who created it, was a feminist himself and we talked about how my character would never be saved by the male lead until I saved him first. We had things like that, and my favorite thing ever was when I met young girls who said they wanted to become scientists or they were in the process of studying science because of watching the show. That just makes me so happy that we had that kind of impact on people in such a positive way.

What was it like working with David Boreanaz, who had come off of a decade of successful shows with Buffy and Angel? What was it like for you as a relative newcomer to be paired up with someone who can be notoriously prickly sometimes?

No comment. [Laughs.] No, he was very respectful of me. He respected me from the very beginning, and I will always appreciate that. We had a great relationship. I had worked for several years but I'd never been a regular on a TV show before, so it was very new to me. He never tried to tell me what to do, never tried to school me in any way or make me feel like I didn't belong or like I was learning and new. We went to an acting coach, so we basically had therapy every week together, which is kind of hilarious, in certain ways, 'cause we would talk about our lives as well in the sessions.

We also had an agreement: We spent more time with each other than we did with our own spouses — with anybody else, really — and we fully acknowledged that we would drive each other crazy. We gave each other permission to walk away at different times, or just say "you're really bothering me right now," or "you're annoying me, I have to get away from you." And we rarely used that because we gave each other permission and we talked about it. It really helped us to get along better in that way, and he always respected me and I love that about him. We would laugh about a million things and he became like a brother and played jokes on me and stuff. For some reason it became a joke that if someone was acting badly, you give them a Diet Coke. I don't drink soda, so if somebody brought me a Diet Coke, I knew it was because he would tell a PA to bring me a Diet Coke as a joke. I didn't do that to him every often. He was more of the mischievous one of the two of us for sure, but we had a lot of good times together.

That sounds like a healthy way to approach that type of relationship.

People have work husbands and work wives at their jobs. I think that's not uncommon, but it takes it to another level playing opposite each other and being married to each other, for sure.

You and David still have a lawsuit pending against Fox for withholding profits from the show. Is there anything you can say about what you learned from that whole experience, and how it has impacted your deals going forward, or even advice to other actors dealing with that issue?

I can't really talk about it because it's still going on. It's not over. I would love to talk about it at some point, but I can't talk about it now. I can talk about it with my friends, but I can't talk to the [press] about it. We can talk in a couple of years. It makes me nervous to sign a contract.

What's your biggest takeaway from your experience on Bones?

Oh, there's so much. I loved playing that character for 12 years. I loved the people I worked with, not just the cast but the crew. I loved telling the stories. I loved all of it. For me, going forward, I just don't want to do the same thing twice. At this point, I have no interest in doing 22 episodes of a television show. I want to play different characters, I'm open to anything — I'm not going to say that I'm not doing television because I'm currently filming television, but I'm not a series regular. That was a plus to me going in. I have flexibility. When you're a guest-star you can come and go, and there's no contract, which is great going into my first job after doing Bones. And I don't want to take too much time away from my kids. So that's basically how I see things now, but I'm not anti-television by any means. It really is the golden age of television right now; there's so many amazing things going on, so many stories that are being told, and people doing it so well. I would never write off doing television.

You produced and directed on Bones, is that something you want to do more?

Yeah, all of it. I loved being a producer on Bones. It gives you a say in things, and I really appreciated that. Directing I really loved, and I'm very much interested in doing more of that in my life, but it takes up time. It depends on the time and finding the right project, because you don't want to spend all that time producing or directing something that isn't something you are completely passionate about. It's about finding the right project, and the right timing, with family and everything, I could do that again.

Your character on Animal Kingdom is very different than we've seen you play in the past.

I was really interested in having the conversation about addiction. The character is a recovering heroin addict, and this is a big issue in our country right now. This is a character you're seeing enter the show at rock bottom: She's just come out of prison, she's got nowhere to live, and she's trying to establish herself. This is a character who is sensitive to things, has seen everything in life, has done all kinds of things in her life, like a lot of people who have dealt with addiction have. This is a character who is a survivor. She's trying to find her way in the world and she's doing to do whatever it takes to establish herself to get what she needs, basically.

So she might come across as manipulative. She always has the reasons for doing what she does, but that's like all the characters on the show. They're like criminals, addicts, sociopaths, and she fits in with all that. My character is the best friend of Ellen Barkin's character's daughter so I've known the family for years and years and years, and I see it as an opportunity for myself to get in with the family and see what I can get out of it.

It sounds like there might be a throw-down between Angela and Smurf, Ellen Barkin's character.

Yeah, my character and her character did not like each other. I blame her for her daughter's death, and she blames me, essentially. There's no hiding how we feel about each other. It gets very intense between the two characters, for sure. I'm the woman coming in for her territory and I move in to her house. She is not happy about that. I can't say that there's a throw-down fight between us, but it gets intense. Which is always uncomfortable because I love Ellen Barkin so much as a person and as an actor, so I hate the fact that our characters don't get along. But at least we get along off camera!

Animal Kingdom airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on TNT.