“Don’t Let the Business Kill the Love”: The Drama Actor Roundtable
Jason Bateman, Darren Criss, Jeff Daniels, Michael B. Jordan, Matthew Rhys and J.K. Simmons sit for a candid conversation about terrible advice, lucky breaks, penis prosthetics, fear of musicals ("I didn't even dance at my own wedding"), the key to longevity and freedom in Hollywood, and all the times they heard, "This will be the end of your career."
There are few things that can make a sextet of generally loquacious actors freeze up faster than an open-ended question about gender pay parity. Unlike their female counterparts, many of whom have not only forced the dialogue but also demanded action via the Time’s Up movement, the men gathered for The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual television Drama Actor Roundtable find themselves looking awkwardly around the table, waiting to see who will bite.
On this afternoon in late April, it’s Ozark‘s Jason Bateman, 49, who jumps in first; but it doesn’t take long before The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, 43, interjects, diffusing any tension with a joke — which, to everyone’s delight, changes both the tenor and the direction of the discussion. Fortunately, the group — which also includes J.K. Simmons, 63 (Starz’s Counterpart); Jeff Daniels, 63 (Hulu’s The Looming Tower, Netflix’s Godless); Michael B. Jordan, 31 (HBO’s Fahrenheit 451); and Darren Criss, 31 (FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace) — is considerably better suited for an eclectic and often hilarious conversation about the easy yesses (and easier nos), the roles still on their bucket lists and, yes, the on-set politics of prosthetic penises.
What makes you uncomfortable as an actor? Any lines you won’t cross?
J.K. SIMMONS I was on Oz, so, clearly, I have no boundaries whatsoever. (Laughter.)
There was an abundance of nudity on that series. Did it make you uneasy?
SIMMONS Oh, of course. But God bless [our showrunner] Tom Fontana … (Looks up.) I don’t know why I’m looking up, he’s still here. He’s in New York, he’s doing great everybody. (Laughter.) The thing that he always bragged on about that show was that his actors were courageous. We were just a bunch of young dumbasses who signed up. I mean, I was one of the older guys. Most of us had a theater background and here we were on HBO, trying to pretend to be tough guys — everybody except Chuck Zito, who was the only actual tough guy. And we just went where Tom pointed us. There was one time in 56 episodes where he actually called me at home ahead of time to say, “I wanna write this and I wanna know if you’re OK with it.” And this is in season four and I’m like, “OK, well, you’ve had me rape men, you’ve had me murder men, you’ve had me tattoo men, you’ve had me crucify men, you’ve had somebody poop on my face …”
JASON BATEMAN Oh my God.
SIMMONS I said, “What the hell do you want me to do?” And he says, “I want to do a musical episode.”
MATTHEW RHYS No way. (Laughter.)
So, poop on someone’s face doesn’t get a phone call, but the musical episode does?
SIMMONS But “Will you sing?” does. I was like, “Yeah, that’ll be fine.”
Matthew, you had a very memorable guest appearance on Girls. Was that an easy yes, or did you have concerns?
RHYS For those who don’t know, I had to take my penis out and put it on Lena Dunham at the end of the episode. Well, not my penis, a prosthetic penis.
SIMMONS We used our own penises back in the day …
BATEMAN When you say “on her” …
RHYS Yeah, on her thigh, I just lay it on her thigh.
MICHAEL B. JORDAN Did you have a choice?
BATEMAN Because it would look bigger on an arm. (Laughter.)
RHYS The props guy just went, “Do you want to choose your penis?” And then you have that conversation [in your head] where you go, “If I choose a huge penis, you’ll go, ‘Oh, you fuckin’ asshole,'” so I was just like, “I’ll leave it in your capable hands.” (Laughter.) And he went somewhere in the middle. I was like (flashes a thumbs-up sign), “Bingo, thank you.” And that was it.
How about the rest of you?
DARREN CRISS In general, anytime somebody goes, “OK, I have something that might make you [uncomfortable],” I’m like, “Bring it.” Like, I’m interested in that. With a grain of salt, obviously.
RHYS There are two categories: There’s scary-scary and excited-scary. To me, dancing is scary-scary and playing other parts is exciting-scary.
BATEMAN I’m with you. I didn’t even dance at my own wedding.
JEFF DANIELS Refused to get up?
BATEMAN Oh, I was up. (Laughter.) Watching and enjoying.
What is the most amusing or frustrating feedback you’ve received in trying out for a part?
RHYS I went to a casting, and I hear the casting agent on the phone, and the assistant said, (whispering) “Ooh, she’s in the middle of a very important call, if you’d sit down and wait.” The call went on and on and on. I’m sitting there, the assistant kept apologizing. And then about 45 minutes later, the assistant goes, “Um, (whispering) can you come into the office?” I could hear she was in the middle of a heated conversation. I walk to the doorway, she’s going, “I know, I know!” Then she looks at me and … (nods head no). And the assistant just went (motioning Rhys out the door) and I went (whispering), “Thank you.” That was it.
RHYS And that’s when I knew I wanted to be an actor. (Laughter.)
CRISS The proverbial head shake where you go, “So, is there anything that I could’ve done?” And it’s just, “No, there’s nothing.”
SIMMONS Yeah, no, “We just don’t like you.”
BATEMAN It’s kinda great now with self-taping. An actor can audition on their own computer with their own webcam or their phone or whatever and then shoot it till they love it and then send that. You don’t have to go through all the nerves of the room.
SIMMONS And then you’re not ever actually rejected by another human being, face to face. You’re rejected by technology.
JORDAN Yeah, your agent relays a really nice message.
SIMMONS “Loved you, but …”
RHYS “… we’re going with a different look.”
Michael, you’ve said, “You’re defined by what you say no to.” What does that mean to you, and how have those decisions defined you in your career?
JORDAN How do I answer that without throwing projects out there?
JORDAN You can’t do everything. And obviously you have agents who have their own agenda, everybody’s trying to push you and navigate you toward saying or taking a job that you may not feel 100 percent comfortable with. Everything on paper may look good, but you have to go with your instincts. When I was younger, I started off still living at home and I didn’t have any real responsibilities, I didn’t have a mortgage to worry about or bills to pay, so you’re taking what’s in front of you. But once you get older and a little more successful, the choices you make really define the way the industry looks at you and how you move forward with your career. Those are the times that you’ve got to be a little bit more selective with the kind of projects that you do.
BATEMAN Oftentimes the choices, at least in my case, are pretty easy. I mean, one’s a clear “No way,” and the other one is, “Well, I think I can not embarrass myself with that or not be a pain in the ass on that set by trying to make it something that it clearly should be or wants to be.”
SIMMONS So, that’s where you set the bar?
BATEMAN Yeah. (Laughter.) I just don’t want to be a pain in the ass.
What are the obvious nos?
CRISS Come on now. (Laughter.)
BATEMAN Stuff that is the real low-hanging fruit that seems like a big payday or something that is clearly a sprinter project — they just want a big splash, a big opening, and they’re not too concerned about the merits of it. The things I’m drawn to say yes to are less about the role, even the script as a whole, than it is about the people who are doing it.
DANIELS That’s a big go-to now. “Who else is in it? Who you looking at? Oh, it’s him? It’s her? I’m in.”
BATEMAN Because you can read a script and there’s 60 different ways you can do that script, and who they’re going after says a lot about their creative intention.
SIMMONS See, I’m learning something here. I get married to the script a lot of the time.
Jeff, you made what seemed a risky choice early in your career, where you signed on to co-star in Dumb & Dumber. Did you recognize the risk at the time?
DANIELS Oh, God, yeah. There were three agents on the phone the night before I flew to do wardrobe for Dumb & Dumber. Three agents, one in New York, two in L.A. The two in L.A. were going, “We’re going to stop you, you’re not going to do this, you’re a serious actor, we’re trying to get you to the Oscars, this will be the end of your career. Frankly, Jim Carrey is a comedic genius and, with all due respect, he’s gonna wipe you off the screen. Say no and we’ll take care of it.” I said, “You know what? I’m bored with the career, I want to change it up. If this is a mistake, guys, it’s mine. I’m going.”
SIMMONS Are you still with those agents?
DANIELS One of them. (Laughs.) But you know, they had a good point. Because nobody knows. We thought 12-year-olds would go see it, but that was about it. And now you’ve got Tom Arnold’s career, all due respect to Tom.
CRISS It’s a gamble every time. There’s an alternate dimension where that didn’t go so well for Jeff.
DANIELS What keeps me in the business are the challenges of not repeating myself. We didn’t see you (turns to Simmons) do Whiplash, we hadn’t seen you do that. And all of a sudden, out of the blue, you kill in that, you just kill. But it easily could’ve been way over the top, oh turn the guy down, you know?
SIMMONS Well, [co-star] Miles Teller was saying that … (Laughter.)
CRISS But there’s a certain lack of imagination that happens sometimes where if the last thing you did was a bit of a success, they go, “OK, perfect, J.K., we got this new role for you, it’s this kind of manic, crazy, sort of authority type.” Right after Glee there were several teenage roles that were very similar to Glee — which, hey, on the one hand, you go “OK, I guess you believed it, great, I did my job.” And now, after Versace, it’s like, “Oh we’ve got this weird kind of creepy killer type.” I’m like, “Come on, guys, we’re actors.”
Michael, with Fahrenheit 451, you weren’t interested in the role initially. Why not, and what got you to yes?
JORDAN I wasn’t interested in playing an authoritative figure with what was going on in the world with police and in my community. And being a black man, I didn’t want to play somebody who was an oppressor. I just didn’t want that in my head. And the character just didn’t sit right because I played Oscar Grant [a police shooting victim in Fruitvale Station] and I was playing characters that meant so much to my community at that time. But sitting down with the director, Ramin [Bahrani], and knowing Michael Shannon was going to be a part of it, and understanding the vision and the themes and messages that he wanted to send through the movie [convinced me]. And at that time, I hadn’t read the book. I read it and then I talked to my agents, my mom, dad, friends, people who are around me and know me. That’s how I make decisions.
DANIELS There are far too many people around him. (Laughter.)
You’ve said your mom is particularly influential in these choices.
JORDAN Yeah, I didn’t want her and the audience to keep seeing me die in roles. (Laughter.) I wanted to survive and I wanted to act, so I couldn’t keep playing that role. And every time I watched my mom watch me die onscreen, it tore me up. She would just weep. I just wanted to play a role so she could see me win.
DANIELS I don’t care about any of that.
JORDAN No? Oh man, maybe I’m a softie.
DANIELS I want to fuck with them, I really do. And then you die! (Laughter.)
Darren, you signed on to play Andrew Cunanan, who is not only a real person but also a serial killer. What were your concerns going in?
CRISS I’ve been lucky, I kind of fell ass backwards into the Ryan Murphy camp, which has been the gift that keeps on giving. The only thing that gave me pause was playing a real person, and this particular person had very lasting effects on people who are still alive and the echoes of the tragedy and the destruction that he wrought. I couldn’t help but think about the sons and daughters and husbands and wives who were affected by this guy, and now they’re like, “Oh God, we have to revisit this and make it pop culture fodder.” That weighs on me.
JORDAN Did you ever think about reaching out to them at all?
CRISS I thought about it. Out of almost respect to them, I didn’t want to bug them about it. Again, this is a horrible thing to have to think about, so I let it go.
DANIELS Like Darren, I didn’t get the vibe that the family or extended family [of FBI agent John O’Neill, his character in The Looming Tower] was interested. So, out of respect, I didn’t go there. I went to the FBI partners, I went to [former FBI agent and Looming Tower producer] Ali Soufan, I went to 10 FBI guys sitting in a bar for three hours, just listening about John, the good and the bad, till I had enough to go, “That’s all I need, thanks.” And you can’t care about the family.
DANIELS No, it’s like critics. If they like it, great, if they don’t, they don’t.
I imagine it was a very different preparation process for Godless?
DANIELS Oh, yeah. If you guys haven’t done a Western, you should do one.
SIMMONS While you’re young. (Laughter.)
DANIELS And just one. You’re on a horse eight hours a day. I had to train for three months because I’d read the scripts and knew that I was galloping through rivers with one arm. And you’re going to fall off the horse eventually.
CRISS Literally and figuratively? Wow.
DANIELS And you do. At a gallop. It’s dangerous stuff. I’m glad I trained, I highly recommend it, don’t do the actor thing of, “Absolutely, I can ride” and then think you can learn in three days. We had one guy, first take, first day, first scene, first morning, flipped off the back. Bam. You can see the ambulance coming around from behind the cameras before they’ve said cut. And the second to last day of shooting, I fell off the horse, broke my wrist. We have one more day of shooting, so I’m on morphine …
RHYS That’s how I act.
DANIELS And the morphine wore off at 11 in the morning, 10-degree wind-chill in the middle of New Mexico, and I’m sitting there and my wrist feels like there’s a steak knife in it, and I also thought I tore my knee.
SIMMONS But you’re recommending riding?
CRISS You’re really selling me on this.
DANIELS Oh yeah, a Western is something to have done.
J.K., you’re playing two characters on Counterpart. Are you more comfortable in one versus the other, and did your preparation process change as a result?
SIMMONS As my agent has learned, I don’t want to know anything before I read the script. So, I didn’t realize that this was playing two guys. I read the first 20 pages and I’m falling in love with the way Justin [Marks] is telling the story of this sad sack lowly cog in this Fritz Lang awful dystopia. And then I get to page 20 and I went, “Bbwwwpp!” (Simmons’ head swivels back and forth.) I went back and immediately read the whole thing again. The truth is I would’ve signed up just to play that sad sack. (Laughter.)
Matthew, you obviously played many characters on The Americans. Did you get better at juggling them over the course of the six-season run?
RHYS It’s a strange [show] because it’s so heavily steeped in truth but it’s so fantastical, so the challenge was always where to land it tonally. Because you could read it as a farce, and go, “This is ridiculous.” What the KGB was doing in the U.S. in the early ’80s was farcical. So as much as I’d go to the writers and say, “This is ridiculous,” they’d go, “I know, but it happened.” So, you go, “What do I do then?” And they’re like, “Well, make it look real.”
What about for you, Jason? You’re wearing many hats — star, director, producer — on Ozark. How did that change your approach?
BATEMAN Well, knowing that I’m doing more than just the acting on it …
SIMMONS I’m sorry, did he say, “Just the acting”?
DANIELS Yeah, he did. He did say that.
RHYS (Makes a stabbing sound.)
BATEMAN We can roll that back, right? (Laughter.) By doing more than the acting in it, it allows me, I think — I hope — to hit this tonal target that I wanted to when I read the first two episodes, which were the only ones that were written when I said, “I’ll do it if they let me direct all the episodes.” I loved this world, and I wanted to be able to figure out what it looked and sounded like, and I knew that by having two hands on the wheel, one in front of the camera, one behind, it might increase my odds of hitting that little target.
RHYS Geppetto and Pinocchio. (Laughter.)
CRISS I’m doing this all wrong.
The world has changed in the past six months, whether you define it as the #MeToo era or the Time’s Up era. How have your perspective and your conversations changed in that time?
SIMMONS Hollywood is a self-obsessed place, but the perception of this as a Hollywood issue is the main thing that I take issue with. Obviously having a heightened awareness of this and people being discovered and called on the carpet and prosecuted, presumably, is good for everybody involved except for the culprits, who are deserving, but it’s way, way, way, way beyond Hollywood.
CRISS What’s interesting is we’re seeing this wonderful rise of female voices in film and TV, and that’s cool. It’s like a revolution, this kind of awakening and shift in the way we’re prioritizing our storytelling and who gets the loudspeaker. I think it’s going to the right people.
One of the things that came out of it is a discussion about gender pay parity. Is that a conversation you guys will start to have with your producers and your co-stars? Do you feel a responsibility to be having those conversations?
BATEMAN It’s odd that there wasn’t parity before. And now that the industry has become much more concept-driven, premise-driven, IP-driven as opposed to star-driven, it’s even more of a fertile ground for parity. If they were ever saying, “Well, you know, dudes bring in more audience than girls,” that’s crazy, always has been, and now those idiots have even less of a box to stand on.
Are these conversations you’re having?
SIMMONS In general, actors are discouraged by everybody from talking to other actors about money. Male, female, whatever.
BATEMAN Whatever the climate is, yeah.
SIMMONS And I do sometimes but I feel like I’m (looks over both shoulders).
RHYS I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this. (Laughter.)
BATEMAN Yeah, $17,000 for today was awesome.
JORDAN $17,000? They didn’t give you guys $50,000? Oh, that’s crazy.
SIMMONS I gotta go make a call. (Laughter.)
Complete this sentence. I wish Hollywood would cast me as …
CRISS Give me a sword and armor or put me in a hat. I don’t know, something genre-y and totally off what I just did.
BATEMAN I’m really enjoying being in this one specific lane, which is the audience’s proxy, like just a normal guy who gets to inhabit the center of the story and is your lens through which you are observing and experiencing this odd plot or group of people or scary guy or funny guy. I’m really enjoying that as opposed to playing a bunch of different characters. Having said that, I’d love to play a woman.
CRISS It’s fun.
BATEMAN But in a very real way. Like a Tootsie version of it would be pretty cool where there’s a wink to it but then also the plane lands every once in a while and there’s some real introspection there. Not to suggest that film needs to get redone, which it should never.
CRISS I have to mention this because just yesterday I was telling my friends what I was doing and my friend was like, “Oh, Jason Bateman, he …”
BATEMAN Should play a woman? (Laughter.)
CRISS No. I feel like every project is a constant negotiation between what people think you’re capable of and what you want them to know you’re capable of. It’s always this dance. It’s interesting that you are really aware of the way that you are perceived because my friend’s like, “Oh, Jason Bateman, he’s just the ultimate Jimmy Stewart straight man. He’s the 21st century straight man and he does it so well and with such variance but he’s always in that lane.” And I was thinking, like, “I don’t think he would appreciate it if that was said to him,” but the fact that you’re aware of that is very cool to me.
BATEMAN Oh yeah, I love it.
What about you, Matthew? You’ve wrapped The Americans …
RHYS I’m trying to get back onstage.
DANIELS Are you?
RHYS Very much so. And for a long time, I’ve been trying to get this project made about the guy who gave Griffith Park to …
BATEMAN To the Observatory, right?
RHYS Yeah, to L.A. He’s a Welsh guy called Griffith Jenkins Griffith, and his life reads like a script. Trying to get it made. So, Hollywood, I’d like to do that.
All right, final question: If you could go back and give advice to your younger self starting out in this industry, what would you say?
CRISS I don’t know, I feel like I’ve made all the right mistakes and all of it got me to this Roundtable with you guys.
SIMMONS And your younger self is 11. (Laughs.)
BATEMAN There are peaks and there are valleys, and how you enter into that valley dictates your ability to get out of it, in terms of confidence and self-esteem and identity. And if that is wrapped up into your ability to be employed, then things could be challenging because you can’t control that. Even if you’re really good at what you do, you can’t count on being hired, so whatever confidence you have should be substantiated by something above and beyond getting hired.
DANIELS I would tell [my younger self] not to let the business kill the love for why you got into it. I talk to college kids sometimes, and you can’t teach them about the rejection, you can’t prepare them for that, for the bitterness, the depression, all that stuff that comes because of the peaks and valleys of a career. But don’t let it kill the love for what comes between action and cut. Hang on to that because you’re gonna need that. That’s what I would tell him.
Michael, can you follow that?
JORDAN No, man, that’s deep. Hmm …
CRISS You haven’t screwed up hard enough yet, maybe that’s it. (Everyone nods.)
DANIELS And when you do fail, Michael, when you fail miserably … (Laughter.)
BATEMAN Let us know!
DANIELS … you’re still the good actor you were before that. Hang on to that.
JORDAN I appreciate that. And I will.
SIMMONS I’ll give credit to Mark Ruffalo, who said this, but, “I would look my young, aspiring actor in the eyes and say, ‘It’ll be OK.'” And whether that means you’re gonna have this fabulous career and become Mark Ruffalo or end up going a different direction …
CRISS You’re gonna be fine.
SIMMONS It’ll be OK.
This story first appeared in the May 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.