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I distinctly remember the first time I saw Noah Emmerich in person, even though I didn’t know, at the time, that he was Noah Emmerich. It was at a party in New York following the premiere of the movie Milk (2008), and he was standing in a circle of well-known actors, chatting away. I stared at him for a long time because I recognized his face but couldn’t for the life of me remember his name or credits, and it drove me crazy.
That’s probably not an uncommon experience for people who have crossed paths with Emmerich — at least until recently. After all, the 48-year-old character actor has worked in the shadow of bigger stars for the past 25 years, and even if his peers know who he is and greatly respect and admire his work, the public has taken a little longer to catch up.
These days, though, things are clearly changing.
Emmerich was one of the stars of a movie that premiered last month in Cannes, Guillaume Canet‘s Blood Ties; he will appear opposite Oscar winner Natalie Portman in a highly anticipated upcoming film, Jane Got a Gun; and he is the main antagonist — with a special “and” credit — on one of the most critically acclaimed new TV dramas of 2013, FX’s The Americans, which premiered in January, and for which he was recently nominated for the best supporting actor (drama) Critics’ Choice TV Award. (He is now widely tipped to score his first Emmy nomination when the TV Academy announces its picks on July 18.)
“I’ve never had this much going on at the same time,” the tall, imposingly built thesp said when we connected for a long walk-and-talk along the Croisette in Cannes a few weeks ago. “It feels great. It’s a little disorienting with all the travel and the time zones, but it’s really fantastic.”
If Emmerich is a late-blooming star, it is, perhaps, because he was also a late-blooming actor. The New York City native graduated from Yale University in 1987, and then headed off to law school, aspiring to become a constitutional lawyer. “That was what I always thought I wanted to be,” he recalls. Not long after classes began, though, he had a change of heart. “I was taking some classes at law school, and I looked around the room that I was in with my colleagues, and I thought, ‘Actually, these are not the people I want to spend the rest of my life with.'”
That acting emerged as his alternative was, he says, “completely out of left field.” While at Yale, he had been a member of Yale’s a cappella singing group “The Spizziwinks,” and a friend who was directing a campus production of the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes was in need of a bass singer, and asked Emmerich to take on the part. Emmerich’s reaction? “I told him, ‘You’re crazy man. I mean, I can sing, but I can’t act!'” He says now, “I was right at the time — I really couldn’t act, in fact. We had three performances, and in two of the three performances I forgot some of my lines. I had terrible stage fright — really terrible.” But he was intrigued by the acting process, and, when law school failed to sit well with him, he decided, “I’m gonna take a couple of years, and sort of explore this.” (He says that, like many an aspiring actor, “My friends and family thought I was maybe losing my mind.”)
For the next few years, Emmerich committed himself to the study of the craft. He emphasizes, “I didn’t audition. I didn’t try to be a professional actor. I interned at a theater company. I read plays. And I went to the theater.” He studied the Meisner technique with a teacher from the Neighborhood Playhouse, Ron Stetson — not at the famed institution, though. “I couldn’t manage going to drama school because I was newly on my own, and self-supporting, and it was very difficult,” he recalls.
Eventually, he began auditioning. He didn’t have an agent and “was going to open calls at Equity at five in the morning and standing in line,” facing rejection more often than not, like most actors. Then he caught a lucky break: “My friend Josh Malina, who was my college roommate, got me an audition for the tour of A Few Good Men,” Aaron Sorkin‘s first play, “and I got that job, and we came to L.A., and all of a sudden there were opportunities.”
Prior to going west, movies had never been in Emmerich’s sights. “I was so anti-film,” he chuckles, remembering his dismissive sense, at the time, that “Hollywood is fake and movies are fake,” and that all of it was vastly inferior to the theater. But, being in no rush to return to the soul-sucking early-morning casting calls, and with an agent in Los Angeles interested in representing him, he decided that he was willing to set aside his pretensions and give the newer medium a chance.
He quickly landed his first big-screen part in Ted Demme‘s film Beautiful Girls (1996). Then a producer of that film showed it to Sylvester Stallone, who handpicked Emmerich to play his deputy in James Mangold‘s Cop Land (1997). (“I used to go watch Robert De Niro shoot his scenes just to watch, you know?”) Then he landed a part that he had been chasing for some time, with which he would come to be more closely associated than any other, at least until his breakout in 2013: Marlon, the best friend of the duped title protagonist (Jim Carrey, who would become a close pal in real life) in Peter Weir‘s The Truman Show (1998).
Around that time Demme connected Emmerich with the young writer-director Gavin O’Connor, who cast the actor in his feature directorial debut, Tumbleweeds (1999), for which Janet McTeer would win a Golden Globe and be nominated for an Oscar. Emmerich and O’Connor hit it off right away, and O’Connor has cast him in all three features he’s made since — Miracle (2004), Pride and Glory (2008) and Warrior (2011) — which, along with Todd Field‘s Little Children (2006), feature some of his best film work of the past decade. “I owe Gavin my first-born,” Emmerich laughs.
That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it is not hyperbolic to suggest that Emmerich owes his best role yet — FBI agent Stan Beeman on The Americans — as much to O’Connor as to FX, for it was O’Connor who convinced Emmerich not to turn down the pilot outright.
Emmerich had been angling to do a TV series for some time, having enjoyed his experience as a guest actor on shows ranging from NYPD Blue, in its first season, to The Walking Dead, back in 2010. But he had one major requirement: “One of the things I promised myself was that if I did do a series, which could potentially go for a number of years, I wasn’t going to carry a badge or a gun,” referring to casting directors’ propensity to cast him as law-and-order characters. “I’ve done a lot of cops and FBI guys,” he says.
“Then,” he continues, “I got the script for The Americans, and the first thing I saw was ‘Stan Beeman, FBI agent.’ I was like, ‘No,’ and I put it down. Really.” He had mentally put The Americans in the past when, two weeks later, he got a call from Gavin O’Connor. “Gavin called me and said, ‘You know, I’m doing this pilot.’ I said, ‘Oh, which one?'” O’Connor identified The Americans. Emmerich explained why he had passed on it, and O’Connor chastised him. “He said, ‘You should give it a look. It’s not about guns and badges.’ I said, ‘Oh, really?'” And if Gavin was directing it that means I missed something because he’s got great taste. So I read it again and I thought, ‘Well, this really is actually interesting. This really is not about guns at all. It’s about character.'”
In fact, The Americans is about Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a young married couple with two kids in Reagan-era America who appear to be the living embodiment of the American dream — except, it turns out, they are actually Soviet spies seeking to serve the Motherland by undermining the U.S. from within. Beeman, meanwhile, is their seemingly straitlaced neighbor who just happens to be employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and who earns his wife’s ire and his son’s apathy by focusing on nothing but his work, which is largely devoted to rooting out any possible Soviet infiltration of America.
After reconsidering and carefully reviewing the pilot script, Emmerich contacted the team behind the show to say that he was now interested in working with them, as they had been in working with him — only now, they notified him that he would need to come in for a taped audition in front of a team of executives who would make the final call about whether or not to cast him. Swallowing his pride, he showed up and had a fun — if intense — experience reading opposite Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who had already been cast as the Jenningses.
The experience was dampened by a call he got the next day — “They said, ‘We’re quite embarrassed — I don’t know how to tell you this — but the sound didn’t work on your audition. We have no sound. Can you come back and do it again?’ That was a first for me” — but he ended up getting the part and all was forgiven and forgotten, particularly as it became clear that Stan was an even more “dynamic, and complex, and sort of hard to figure out” character than the pilot script had indicated.
It takes a few episodes before we learn the lengths to which Beeman’s patriotism, loyalty to his colleagues and need for a connection of the sort that he can no longer find at home will take him, and Emmerich’s performance correspondingly becomes more impressive as the season progresses.
The remarkable thing about The Americans is “it sort of blows up the archetypes,” as Emmerich puts it. Many American TV viewers catch themselves rooting for Russell and Rhys’ characters, even though the mission of those characters is to harm America. This is partly because TV viewers are generally predisposed to root for the main character(s) of a show, but it may also be because viewers of The Americans don’t quite know what to make of Beeman, either. He may be a loyal American, but he does some reprehensible things in the name of serving his country.
For Emmerich, the whole experience of acting for television, as opposed to the theater or movies, and specifically of playing one constantly evolving character over a long period of time, has been a new and eye-opening one. TV, he indicates, flexes different acting muscles than theater or film; with the latter media, a single script enables an actor to know from the very start exactly where his character is going to end up, and to shade his performance accordingly, but the former offers no such luxury, and demands greater creative flexibility. “It’s a tough navigation,” he says. “At first I found it sort of nerve-wracking; now I find it sort of liberating, in a way.”
The interaction with audiences and the impact of their sentiments is also very different depending on the medium, he says. When making a film an actor is “in a bubble” out of the view of the public, and therefore only hears feedback after his work is done; when shooting a multi-season television series, though, an actor can be exposed to the opinions of viewers and critics while the performance is still being calibrated and captured, which can have a jarring effect on an actor. Emmerich says that he couldn’t help but take it personally when some viewers expressed — in person, in print and online — negative views of Stan. He says this is probably because he’s just “a crazy actor,” but confesses that he finds it “hard not to conflate yourself with [a] role” when you’re embodying it over an extended period of time.
That’s a problem that Emmerich will have to get used to, since The Americans was picked up by FX for a second season back in February and will presumably resume production later this year. In the meantime, he is working as hard as ever. The day after season one wrapped — and a day after he asked co-star Russell how she possibly had the energy to go off and shoot the next Planet of the Apes film right after months of production — he got another call from his old pal O’Connor, who asked him to come to Santa Fe to shoot another feature, the aforementioned Jane Got a Gun, with Portman. The actor was reluctant, feeling drained after his first full season as a TV regular. But he couldn’t say no to his friend and, he says now, “strapping on some six-shooters and learning how to ride a horse and changing centuries — it was actually energizing.”
“Strike while the iron’s hot,” they say. For this actor, at long last, it’s sizzling.
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