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This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The gathering of six actors on an early April afternoon in Hollywood felt less like professional duty and more like group therapy.
The performers — Kevin Bacon, 54 (Fox’s The Following); Jeff Daniels, 58 (HBO’s The Newsroom); Mandy Patinkin, 60 (Showtime’s Homeland); Dennis Quaid, 59 (CBS’ Vegas); John Slattery, 50 (AMC’s Mad Men); and Corey Stoll, 37 (Netflix’s House of Cards) — shared and commiserated like old friends (and with equal parts happiness and horror) as they dissected the terrible auditions, egotistical outbursts, bizarre fan interactions and ongoing fire in their bellies for the craft that’s landed them in the Emmy race.
The Hollywood Reporter: Looking back on your career, what was your most difficult period?
Jeff Daniels: Not working. Then working and not getting paid, yeah. Pick any indie! Those times when you know you’re good, you’ve worked with really good people and then you can’t get arrested.
Dennis Quaid: Actor jail, they call that.
Kevin Bacon: I was once in a tailspin I’ll never forget. I was standing on 87th and Broadway in New York with my wife [Kyra Sedgwick], and we were talking about my career. I was running out of money, had a baby on the way, and I had a total anxiety attack. And I told her, “I can’t believe I’m doing a f–ing movie about underground worms [1990’s Tremors]!” (Laughter.) I think that was probably a low point.
Mandy Patinkin: I love that film!
Quaid: I think we’ve all had that insecurity of, “Will I ever work again?” For me, it was during the ’90s, when I made the transition from being in my 30s and then moving on to other roles. In a long career, you have to remake yourself, and that was a really rough transition for me.
John Slattery: The beginning of my career was difficult. I would take jobs because they were there, and there was a period in which I had done several jobs I probably shouldn’t have done because they were offered to me before I realized, “Wait a minute, I don’t have to do this.” I wasn’t getting very good advice — I had to realize it the hard way. I hit a wall and thought, “I got to step back here and make better choices.”
Patinkin: I certainly made some choices along the way that were not what I believed in but also defined my life after the fact. I remember, after I’d just done Evita [on Broadway] in the late ’70s, they flew me out to Zoetrope to meet Gene Kelly, who was going to do That’s Entertainment II or something. I walked into the studio to meet Kelly, and there’s this sort of chubby, bald guy sitting behind this massive desk, but I couldn’t see Kelly. Then I realized that I was looking at Gene Kelly. And he said: “Let me tell you something, kid. Our successes never teach us anything. They pat you on the back and send you on your way. But our failures we turn upside down and inside out and give us everything we ever had.” So as anxiety-ridden as I was from some of my negative choices — or choices that I didn’t believe in — I don’t know who I would have been without them.
THR: What lessons did you learn from the low points?
Bacon: Don’t leave your wallet in the dressing room!
Corey Stoll: Without getting into any names, it’s good in general to not assume other people’s craziness. We all have our own craziness, and we have to maintain that. I have a constant need whenever I’m in a cast to be friends with everybody, be a family, and I think I’ve gotten in trouble sort of trying to, you know, let’s be honest, everybody be honest. And sometimes …
Daniels: It doesn’t work.
Stoll: Or sometimes it works too well! But in terms of choices, I’m at that place in my career where it’s really the first time I have choices. And it’s really interesting because I feel I actually have something to lose — that every success I’ve had has surprised people. They’ve always been like, “Who is that guy?” I’m at a new place now, and it’s scary. Obviously, I’m not going to complain about it. It’s the easiest problem in the world.
THR: Corey, after such a breakout role in House of Cards, how are you deciding what to do next?
Stoll: Just trying to follow my bliss, do what I want to do, play the scenes I want to play and work with those people I want to work with. Try not to be too strategic. It’s hard because you have a million people around you telling you to be strategic. “This job will lead to that.” But I think there’s a danger that you can spend your entire career being strategic and just, you know, trying to get the job that will get you the next job and sort of miss the job you’re in. Am I right? I don’t know. I just started this!
Quaid: Yeah, I envy you.
Daniels: Whatever is in your heart. I mean, I look around the room, and there’s a reason why we’re all still f–ing here, you know? We have enough talent to kind of beat the system. It can’t kill us, we’re like cockroaches. And this is a business that doesn’t care whether any of us are here on Tuesday. There’s nobility in longevity. You look at Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Peter Sellers — they lasted decades, and I think that’s a goal. And what gets us there is that we’re all good at what we do. Talent wins out. We may not be good every time, but that’s the ride.
Quaid: When you start out, you’re doing it for free, basically, in acting class because you want to be an actor. You really want to find out what it is to be into character and that human condition. I’m not even talking about the job part, I’m just talking about being an actor and having a fire in your belly for it. Then, if you’re lucky enough to have the success happen, all these other things come into play: having money, raising a family and these career choices like you were talking about that are coming at you from all different kinds of places. It’s tough to keep that original fire. We rekindle every once in a while, and I’m not sure how it happens, but I feel fortunate that it’s still there.
Daniels: I think it’s all about risk, whether it’s a little indie, or a TV series, or a play, music. The idea that you might fail gets you clicked in again.
Quaid: Fear is a great motivator.
THR: What were your biggest challenges transitioning from film to TV?
Bacon: I think for me, part of it was switching directors. I had a great experience watching Kyra on The Closer and then directing The Closer. I saw that sometimes she would get a little bit shaken by the idea of somebody new directing. I didn’t realize that would affect me in the way that it did, especially since I had directed television.
Patinkin: I was very defensive in the beginning of my TV career because I didn’t let myself trust the directors. I felt they’re just coming in as guests — not part of the process from the beginning. I was arrogant, distrustful and pretty f–ing insecure. When I was doing Chicago Hope, I literally said, “Tell these people not to talk to me.” And I really can’t get over that I had the nerve to do that. And it’s a blessing to survive, being 60 years old now, and getting some wisdom from guys like you. I’ve learned I didn’t have to be perfect. Stop trying to be Superman, you know? And it takes the shit off my shoulders that I lived long enough to not be such a jerk.
Slattery: I’ve been directing my show for the last couple years, and there’s a burden that you feel, not to be Superman but, “I don’t want to screw this up.” You put pressure on yourself. But it’s so disseminated through the ranks. The DP, designers, all the other actors. … It really took that burden away.
Patinkin: I’ve seen [co-star] Claire Danes work with such a freedom, it’s encouraged me to take more chances. It’s funny, somebody sent me the first episode of Newsroom where you [to Daniels] made that long speech about the country. I brought it to my wife, I sent it to my sons. I thought it was one of the singularly finest pieces of television on every single level I’ve seen. The writing, the way you delivered it, the way it was shot, the way it was directed, the other actors, what the editors did.
Daniels: The editing on our show is amazing.
Patinkin: It’s extraordinary. And I just thought, “God, I’m working at a time when this kind of stuff is being done.” It’s pretty humbling, you know? And it wasn’t just you. It was the time that that editor chose to let you sit there and stew. And it also said to me “It’s not all on my shoulders” when I do a scene like that.
Daniels: Yes. But I don’t watch the dailies, I don’t go to video village. I wait six months and see how they assemble this, and that’s when I learned that it’s OK not to do the perfect take because they’re going to use this and that and that, and they’re going to be over here, they’re going to go way behind the 500 people in the auditorium where you thought you had that brilliant moment, and … you just give it to them. The thing about the series thing is there’s no time, there’s no rehearsal, none of that.
Patinkin: That’s our job, to give them as many choices …
Bacon: Yeah, it’s so instant, you know?
Daniels: Do you find with TV that you forget what the last episode was?
Quaid: I forget what the last day was. I can’t tell you what we shot yesterday, and I don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow. All I know is what we’re doing today.
Daniels: It’s scary.
Quaid: I kind of like the present. It’s not good to have too much on my mind.
Patinkin: I also tell the writers, “I don’t want to know.” I ask them not to tell me what’s happening or what they have in mind. I mean, I have to know seven to 10 days in advance because it takes me forever to learn the words. But I really don’t want to know, and that keeps me on edge. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next five seconds of my life, why should this guy Saul know?
Daniels: I embrace that.
Patinkin: I’m having fun, and I never used to be that way.
Quaid: And everybody is there to help you. That’s one of the good things about doing a series; it really basically is a family.
THR: Corey, House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon has said the character who was supposed to run for governor wasn’t yours, but they liked you as Peter Russo so much, they said, “Let’s have this guy do it.” At what point did they communicate this change to you?
Stoll: I don’t want to be all spoiler-y! But it was still the same basic arc. It was just fuller. My character was still supposed to have this incredible sort of journey, but they just gave me more to lose as I went along; made my peak higher on my way down. In my experience, House of Cards was closer to theater than film because I had six-and-a-half months to marinate in this character. I knew my scene partners, and that was an incredible opportunity. They had all 13 episodes pretty much written before we started, but I felt more capable during this than I ever had on a film set.
THR: Are the rest of you good at predicting the reaction to your work?
Daniels: I don’t really care. I don’t! I think we all walk away from the set knowing that what we did was good. I don’t need anyone to tell me whether it’s good or not. I already know. Some are going to hate it, whether it’s political — like Aaron Sorkin’s show — or not. I invest no effort into it emotionally at all.
Slattery: I feel the same way. That there are people that would go, “Oh, this is going to … make a big splash,” and it doesn’t matter, and it never really is, no one ever gets it really right.
THR: John, did you have any idea Mad Men would be so successful?
Slattery: We shot a pilot, then we waited a year-and-a-half. It was on a network [AMC] that had never made anything. We knew the material was good but sort of figured nobody would ever see it, so I didn’t have that much invested in it. And the show came at a time with DVRs [and on-demand], so people could start watching when they wanted to. Whereas before, you’d tune in during the middle of the season, and you’d go, “You know, the hell with it. I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t care.” So that kind of happened at the same time, and it was what we wanted. I mean, you want to be involved in something that people want to watch, so it was a positive experience.
Daniels: Completely out of your control, though.
Slattery: It rarely happens where you read something that you like and that you know is good material.
Quaid: And then you have no control over it! Your movie is coming out, and the stock market crashes the day before, or there’s a hurricane, or it’s a success for reasons you never thought of.
Daniels: Between action and cut …
Quaid: That’s the only thing you have control of.
Bacon: One of the things about television that’s so amazing is that you get a chance to just act and act and act and act. You do a movie. You spend eight months, and the amount of time you’re acting is like an infinitesimal part of your life. And I think we all really like to act.
Patinkin: You do not get bored.
Bacon: In TV it’s, “I’ve been here 16 hours, we’ve done 10 pages,” and you go, “Ahhhh, it’s exhilarating.”
THR: What are you most critical of when you watch yourself perform?
Bacon: Bad habits. Like, “I’ve done that thing before” or “I went to like a go-to kind of thing.”
Patinkin: Mine is doing too much. I always do too much. I’m over-the-top, I’m like the president of the club.
THR: But on Homeland, you’re generally very restrained.
Patinkin: You don’t know what they cut out. I owe those editors, I’m not kidding.
Bacon: That’s the great thing about your character, Saul. He’s just so … small.
Patinkin: I don’t know how it gets like that.
Slattery: Do you always do a small take?
Patinkin: Yes. I said to [Homeland showrunners] Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, “I promise you, before I leave today, I’ll take the size down so it’s not a Mandy take.” Sometimes I’ll look at some dailies, and when I think I hit it, I didn’t. And what I thought was horrible and would beg you to reshoot it or beg for the time to redo it — it worked.
Quaid: That’s why I appreciate strong directors who have a definite point of view and can rein me in. “OK, I’m going to do this now, so please hold me back!”
Stoll: When I watch myself, I try to pay attention to how I’m making transition from one action to another, to the audience thinking, “OK, I can see this actor is making a choice now.” Whenever you can see somebody acting, it’s a horrible thing to watch.
THR: What were some of your worst or craziest audition experiences?
Daniels: Got a few of them!
Bacon: I got a really bad one. Studio 54 was just about to close. I used to go to 54 in the ’70s, but I wasn’t famous.
Patinkin: How did you get in?
Bacon: You had to have the right shoes. [Studio 54 founder] Steve Rubell would come over and see what kind of shoes you had on. And I used to go by myself, and my agent called and said: “I know you don’t go in for musicals, but there is one called Got to Go Disco. And it’s based on Studio 54.” In fact, there was this guy at the club who would let you in named Mark, and when people would arrive at 54, they’d go, “Mark, Mark, Mark!,” and he would let people in or not. He was a very, very scary dude. So Mark was one of the producers of this musical, and my agent said, “All you have to do is sing a disco song.” So I got Alicia Bridges‘ “I Love the Nightlife” — I was probably about 18 — and started working on this song just from the record. I never got the sheet music, I didn’t realize you had to have sheet music. So I went to Colony Records on 50th and Broadway, got the sheet music, went into the audition, and it was in a key not even close because I’m singing an octave up from Alicia Bridges. And the sheet music was like in the completely different key, the guy started playing, and I was way, way, way out of my range.
Quaid: It sounded pretty good, actually!
Bacon: Sitting there was Mark, and I just stopped the audition. I went down on my knees, and I said: “This is terrible. I never should have been here, I’m so sorry to waste your time,” and I walked out.
THR: Did he ever let you in to Studio 54 again?
Bacon: 54 had just closed, but probably he wouldn’t have let me in!
Patinkin: I got that part! (Laughter.)
Slattery: I once got a call to play Sylvester Stallone‘s brother in a movie. The audition was in an hour, but they wanted me to dye my hair black. I was at my sister’s house — I didn’t have an apartment or any money — and I went into her drawer, got the laundry quarters and went to the drugstore to buy some hair dye. I remember, as I was leaving the house, there were some guys digging a trench in the street. And I got this black Clairol hair dye and went back, put it in my hair, and it was like tar. And I go to turn the water on, and it goes, “Gug-gug-gug-gug-gug-gug-gug-gug,” and I realize that the guys digging the trench had shut the water off to the building! And I was like, “Holy shit.” I could stick my head in the toilet, but I wasn’t that desperate. So I went into the fridge and got a couple of bottles of water, took off all my clothes and poured it all over me. It’s also about 111 degrees in Manhattan, and I have this shit dripping down my face. I look like an anemic vampire. So I go to read for the coke-addled brother of Stallone. And I had to get on my knees, and I’m wiping the hair dye off my face. I saw myself on my knees, wiping my hair dye off my face with this casting director yelling at me, and I had a complete out-of-body experience. “What the f— are you doing?” I was probably the reason the movie never got made.
Stoll: I was going to my first audition in L.A. for an episode of CSI. I was so excited to play this clerk in a porn store, and so I went to Rough Trade on Sunset in Silver Lake, a leather clothing store, and explained to the clerk, “I’m auditioning for this thing.” And he thought that I was just too embarrassed to say that I was a leather daddy. I had also just been playing this orthodox Jewish man but just shaved my long beard into a handlebar mustache to prepare for this audition. And the guy was really excited, got me all dressed up, and I wound up wearing a tight little sparkly crop top. And I got the role!
Patinkin: You can get a lot of that stuff cheaper on eBay.
Daniels: My worst moment was with Juliet Taylor, one of the great casting directors in New York. It was my second year in New York, and my agent got me in to meet her. He said, “You don’t have a lot of training, so just lie and put Sandy Meisner on your résumé.” So Juliet is looking through the résumé, and says, “I see you studied with Sandy Meisner.” I said, “Yeah, she was great.” And Juliet looked at me and then just kept right on going. I later told my agent, “Yeah, it was good, she asked me about Sandy Meisner, how great she was.” He goes, “Sandy is a man.” F—.
THR: Did she ever cast you in anything after that?
Daniels: She did. She forgave me. I haven’t forgiven myself!
THR: What single role or project most changed you as an actor?
Quaid: For me, it was doing [the 1979 film] Breaking Away. I’d been going from job to job to job, just for credits, and along came the audition. I went in to read for director Peter Yates. I don’t think I would have the career if it wasn’t for him. He just offered me the role when it first came in. And that didn’t ever happen to me before, and I said, “I’d like to, I’d love to, but I already have this job,” and he actually got in the doorway and blocked my way and said, “Listen, young man, you have to do this.” I’d come from university theater, and he was a great mentor. Peter Yates. Thank God for him!
Patinkin: For me, it was [the 1984 Broadway show] Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine‘s musical. I had just won a Tony Award for Evita, and then Lapine comes over to my house and says, “You have to audition for Sondheim.” Whoa, why do I have to audition? Don’t you get anything for winning one of these awards? I’m not a good auditioner. It’s going to be a disaster. And Steve calls me and said, “Everybody auditions for me except Angela Lansbury.” So I’m a nervous wreck, and I end up getting it! But they didn’t have the part of the artist written. James said, “We want to create a work of art based on a work of art.” So they chose the Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and he wrote all the characters in the painting first, and then they realized there was a character missing — the artist. So they wrote the artist last, so I would go through six weeks of rehearsal just drawing and doing nothing while everyone else did their thing. But within that piece were the repetitive words, “Connect, George, connect.” And those became what I want on my tombstone. That is what I live my life to try to do.
Bacon: I’ll tell you what was pivotal for me was actually a decision that Jeff made …
Daniels: I wondered if you were going to bring this up.
Bacon: Jeff was doing a play called Lemon Sky off-Broadway with Cynthia Nixon, and they wanted to shoot it for PBS’ American Playhouse. And they offered both of them the parts, and they turned them both down. And my wife took Cynthia’s part, and I took Jeff’s part, so I really have him to thank for my marriage. It wasn’t really a career decision of mine — it was more a career decision of his that was pivotal for me.
Daniels: Was I invited to the wedding?
THR: What has been your oddest or most interesting fan interaction? Kevin, you just smiled.
Bacon: Well, it was actually a thing with our band. There was a woman who was a big fan and who had, unfortunately, one of her legs amputated. She was coming to a show and wanted us to autograph her prosthesis.
THR: You must also get people talking about the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” thing nonstop.
Bacon: Yeah, people on the subway will go, “Hey, one degree!” I’ve lost track of how you actually play that game.
Quaid: In New York, especially in the 1990s, people would come up and say, “Kevin Bacon, how are you?” And they actually meant Kevin Costner.
Daniels: I had a kid in my own town walk up and say, “Excuse me, Mr. Bridges?”
THR: Do people associate you with one specific role more than another?
Daniels: I find that once you’ve sat on the toilet in front of millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of people … [1994’s Dumb & Dumber]
Patinkin: It changed the way I go to the bathroom. (Laughter.)
Daniels: Thank you!
THR: Mandy, despite Homeland‘s success, you must still get a lot of Princess Bride recognition.
Patinkin: At least two to three times a day, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I pinch myself! I get my biggest kick when little kids come up, and I don’t think I look like that guy [his character, Inigo Montoya] anymore, and their parents are going, this is so-and-so, and so I always go up to the little kid, and I whisper that famous line in his ear [“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”] I was 34 when I made that movie. And a few years ago, I was in Philadelphia, and I went up to my hotel room to have my dinner, and my wife was watching the end of the film where Inigo was in the window, and Buttercup [Robin Wright] had just jumped out into Andre the Giant‘s arms. And Inigo says, “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.” And that’s the line that’s most mattered to me.
Bacon: One fan thing I just thought of was someone said to me recently, “How do they make you look so bad on your show?” And I said, “I got news for you, honey, they’re trying their best to make me look good.”
Daniels: I’ve gotten, “In [1983’s] Terms of Endearment, you were younger.” Well, yes, so were you!
THR: Lastly, if you could run a television network for a day, what’s the first thing you would change?
Stoll: I would let the show creators make more [business] decisions. This was my experience with Netflix — they were really hands-off. And I think when you’re in the trenches, when you’re the people who have the biggest [creative] stake in the show, you have more than just a fractional understanding, and you’re going to do a better job [as a leader] than somebody who’s only thinking about advertising. Get good material, get great people and then let them do their thing.
Patinkin: I would like to see the cable networks find a way to get their extraordinary products out to people who cannot afford premium TV. We who are doing it are absolutely taking a pay cut, and we’re still getting paid more than we deserve, in my opinion. I want the poorest people in this country to have the finest that we can possibly create, and that’s not how it’s set up at the moment. I think that’s a problem. Everything doesn’t have to be about that bottom-line dollar figure. I wish that this extraordinary stuff that’s being made by television today is available to everyone. We’re proud of what we’re doing on Homeland, and there are some people — who are my friends — who can’t afford $12, $14 or $15 a month. So we’re bootlegging them copies of screeners because we’re friends, you know? I don’t have the solution, but I would like it found.
Quaid: I wouldn’t know the first thing about running a network. I think [CBS Corp. president and CEO] Les Moonves is really good at it, but that’s a different world and mind-set because it is tied to advertising. Sometimes it does really great, and sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s just a big-boy game.
Patinkin: I’m grateful for things like reality TV because those shows can foot the bill for these other things. But I think there are other ways to skin the cat so that everybody can afford everything.
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