Emmy Watch: Guest Star

Small paychecks are rarely the draw for visiting actors

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It wasn't the lure of a big paycheck that seduced an Oscar-nominated actress like Amy Ryan, who this season took a guest-starring turn on NBC's "The Office."

Nor was it the money that drew Eric Stoltz, who played a shackled serial killer on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy." Or Meat Loaf, who took to his bed in agonizing death throes on Fox's "House."

With a standard guild rate of about $6,000 a part, along with the anxiety that comes from bonding with an already-established cast and the surety that there's no future to it, why would any well-known actor agree to be a guest star on a series?

"I spent a week rehearsing staged readings at a Jewish community center where the amount of pay is bupkis," says Ed Asner, who guest-starred on CBS' "CSI: NY." "If I'm willing to do that for a nice piece of writing, I'm certainly willing to do it for a TV script that knocks your socks off."

While one producer says Sigourney Weaver and Katie Holmes were paid as much as $75,000 for guest star turns on ABC's "Eli Stone," networks have slashed budgets and guest star salaries along with them.

"The money has been going down for a while, but they still have to fight for me," Asner says.

Along with a general tightening of Hollywood budgets, there's scant evidence that guest stars bump ratings as they once did, a factor in the lower pay the stars are earning.

"It's happened in the last year or so, when ratings are down anyway," says "Ugly Betty" (ABC) co-executive producer Tracy Poust, "but people don't seem to be watching TV the way they used to, when they'd see that Tom Hanks was going to be on 'Ugly Betty' and tune in for that reason."

Adds Vince Gilligan, creator of AMC's "Breaking Bad": "We haven't noticed a bump in the ratings, but that's just fine. We do the show for our enjoyment as much as anyone else's."

So without tons of money, guest stars are opting for material they love.

Like Asner, Ryan chose to appear on "The Office" after receiving an Oscar nomination for playing a struggling single mother in "Gone Baby Gone," just to expand her acting possibilities.

"A lot of the scripts I was getting were similar to the character I played in the movie," she remembers. "I said to my manager and agent, 'I have to put on a dress and comb my hair and laugh.' " That there was little risk involved made it all the more seductive, she says. "It's easy to join a party when it's already in full swing. With a feature, you can only hope it will be great."

Adds writer-director-actor Bob Odenkirk, who starred this season on "Breaking Bad," "Someone else is setting up the parameters of the game, and all you have to do is play as hard as you can. When you're writing and directing, there are more variables."

And with television, one known is the audience. "You can make a feature that makes millions but only so many people see it," says Elisha Cuthbert, an original star on Fox's "24" who left five years ago and returned as a guest star this season. "With a hit TV show, every week you'll have 16 million-20 million people watching you."

For Meat Loaf, who guest starred on USA Network's "Monk" as well as Fox's "House," his reward came in honing his acting chops -- and finding a pianist for his new album. "I had no idea how good a musician Hugh Laurie was, but I watched him play and said, 'I have to get him,' " Meat Loaf remembers, "so I handed him a demo and a note, nothing stalkery, and we've been e-mailing back and forth."

For Stoltz, it came down to chemistry. "It was like a wonderful blind date," he says of his appearance on "Grey's Anatomy," "where you spend the night, and then move in together, and then wonder how it all happened."

And that, producers say, is exactly how the experience should feel for all involved. "I came from 'Will & Grace,' and sometimes we used guest stars well and sometimes we made mistakes," Poust says. "In my experience, you always have better success if you come up with the part first and then cast it, rather than saying, 'So-and-so wants to do the show,' and then writing a part for them." She adds, "I mean, it's nice that you can totally see Will Ferrell in the part you're writing, but are you really going to get him?" Guests on "Betty" have ranged from Lindsay Lohan ("a difficult fit for us," Poust says) to Betty White ("a champ and a pleasure"), with Christine Baranski and Bernadette Peters appearing last season.

Shonda Rhimes, the creator of "Grey's," finds the best star-fits happen when the part is tailored to them. "Ninety% of the time we start with a name in our head, and we'll call that character by that person's name in the writer's room," Rhimes says. Of Stoltz's three-episode arc, she says, "from the beginning, we called the serial killer 'Eric Stoltz.' "

Then there are the producers' penchants when it comes to casting roles. "House," which has featured Meat Loaf, LL Cool J, Mos Def and Carl Reiner this season, has an affinity toward musicians thanks to executive producer Katie Jacobs. "I have a soft spot for them, because there's something they seem to bring to the parts where they are open and unprotected," she says. "They don't have any qualms about giving you their soul." "Monk" attracts actors' actors like Daniel Stern, Steve Zahn and Stanley Tucci and John Turturro, who won Emmys for their efforts. "We have to make up for it in our budget, but I'd always rather have the perfect actor against Tony (Shalhoub)," says "Monk" executive producer Randy Zisk. "I'll take away from equipment and location if I have to."

Still other producers prefer to fly under the radar. While "The Office" has boasted appearances from Amy Adams and Ryan, executive producer Paul Lieberstein (who also plays Toby) is quick to point out that when the stars were cast, they weren't as well known as they are now. "It's tempting when actors call up and say they're big fans, but so far we haven't broken down and hired someone really famous," he says. "When you bring someone like that on, it can be very jarring for the audience."

And if that means Ryan can't become a regular on a show, she echoes many of her colleagues when she says that's just fine with her. After all, half the fun is knowing when to leave the party. "As long as I can keep jumping from here to there I'm happy," Ryan says. "But is the dream to star in a sitcom? Not at this point. But never say never," she adds. "Next year ... watch for it!"