For an hour in early May, six enormously talented men convened on Zoom to swap stories and praise. Mr. Mayor’s Ted Danson, something of a legend in sitcom-land, had watched The Office for the first time during the pandemic and was all too eager to tell Ed Helms, now the co-creator and star of Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, how fabulous he had been. Helms, ever the mensch, repaid the compliment by telling the entire virtual table that Danson has always been an inspiration to him. Later in the same wide-ranging conversation, part of The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Emmy Roundtable series, Woke’s Lamorne Morris described the talent toolbox of Ben Platt, the Tony winner who stars on Netflix’s The Politician, as genuinely “mind-blowing” and then tried to convince Danson to guest star on Woke’s second season. “And when you’re done there, come on down and host Saturday Night Live,” SNL and Kenan star Chris Redd piped in, to which Danson replied, referring to his January 1989 hosting gig, “Scariest thing on the planet, I’d never do it again.” Then Danson, being Danson, used the opportunity to laud the particular skill and stamina of Redd and his SNL co-star Pete Davidson: “You guys are comedy commandos,” he said, “and you have a crapload of youth and adrenaline.”
Let’s start with an icebreaker: If a fan is coming at you, what is he or she most likely to say or do?
LAMORNE MORRIS They tryin’ to fuck. … No, I’m joking. (Laughter.)
ED HELMS That’s an icebreaker.
MORRIS No, I was on a show called New Girl, and people come up and ask me constantly about my cat on the show. So it’s, “How’s Furguson?” And he’s dead. But I’m fine!
CHRIS REDD A large number of people come up to me and ask me to tell Pete Davidson something. Like, love letters, but through me.
Pete, would he deliver them?
PETE DAVIDSON Of course not.
REDD I delivered one or two our first year working together, and then I realized just how many it was. (Laughter.)
DAVIDSON And I usually just run away because I’m terrified of life and people.
HELMS People just scream “Nard Dog” [a reference to his character from The Office] at me from very far away. Like, all the way across airport terminals …
What do you do?
HELMS Oftentimes I’ll just do that awkward thing where I pretend like I didn’t hear it but then, like, 30 people suddenly look at you and then they start shouting “Nard Dog” and … yeah, it’s just awkward. (Laughs.)
TED DANSON I get a lot of people coming up and saying, “My grandmother loved watching you on Cheers.” And I’ll say, “Hold on, let me turn on my hearing aids. OK, say again?”
BEN PLATT For the record, I also watched you on Cheers. (Laughs.) For me, it’s usually one of two things, it’s either somebody asking me to do a magic trick, something having to do with Pitch Perfect or it’s somebody who had a very cathartic Evan Hansen-related experience who immediately starts to cry and ask me about mental health and things I have no real answers for.
How do you respond to both camps?
PLATT To Pitch Perfect, I have one little sleight of hand thing that I can do, but only if I have this one scarf thing with me. And to Dear Evan Hansen, I just try to be a good listener. I feel like I weirdly became a mental health expert in theory because of that show and, obviously, I’m still figuring out my own shit.
HELMS Have you tried doing the sleight of hand for those people?
PLATT I will now. (Laughs.)
Ted, you’ve played a lot of different characters in your career. You’ve played meathead, evil, rich, smart, you’ve even played Ted Danson. Where are you happiest or most at ease as an actor?
DANSON The best joke is the slow, dumb joke. And the older I get, the further away I seem to be. I worked for Mike Schur [on The Good Place], and it was like paragraphs of the most heightened Shakespearean language, and it drove me nuts because I had to work so hard for it. But I like doing drama that’s funny — and I like funny that has a source of either pain or sadness that’s genuine at the core of it. Perhaps, next time out, I’ll pick something that’s more Fargo-esque than Cheers, but the opportunity to work with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock [on Mr. Mayor] came along and it was a no-brainer because it was this different strain of comedy that I hadn’t experienced.
How about the rest of you? We had Hugh Grant on a Roundtable a few years ago and he said no one wants to be the good guy, it’s harder and arguably less fun. Do you agree?
DAVIDSON That Hugh Grant is full of shit! No, I don’t know …
REDD I like crazy characters, they’re more interesting. I grew up around a lot of crazy people. I have a huge family, like more than 200 people, and we’ve got everything from normal schoolgoers to crackheads. It’s just fun to find different ways to play crazy. Confident and dumb is where I love to live.
MORRIS I love playing someone who is not supposed to be high-status — a low-status person who’s trying to up that status for himself. That’s the most fun.
Ben, you went from doing Evan Hansen every night to doing The Politician. These are obviously very different characters. Do you find yourself more at ease in one versus the other?
PLATT Yeah, where I feel most naturally is the more wallflower, anxious, self-deprecating kind of a guy. Because I did spend so long doing that show — and doing Pitch Perfect before that and Book of Mormon before that, all of which are iterations of that same guy — I’ve found I really enjoy playing people with a bit more aggression and hubris, like Payton on The Politician, just to get to do something that I don’t do in my life. The nerdier guys are much closer to who I actually am.
Ed, there are traces of characters you’ve played before in your Rutherford Falls character, which you’ve described as “the earnest, well-intentioned guy who has some serious blind spots.” What’s the draw for you?
HELMS So much of what I loved about playing Andy Bernard [on The Office] is that he just wanted so badly to do the right thing and be the best version of himself, but he had so many hurdles and just got in his own way all the time. And in a way, he is the very heightened expression of how I feel a lot. In other words, I feel similar to Andy Bernard but just with better editing and coping skills. (Laughs.) And I think Nathan Rutherford is a slightly more advanced, nuanced version of him who’s a little bit more complex just because it’s a more complex story. It’s definitely in my comfort zone to play those kinds of characters, but I also have an inner Don Knotts that is always trying to get out and always ruining takes. Directors are always like, “OK, uh, let’s pull it back.” But I love being a really aggressively wrong character with some physical wackiness.
Pete, what are the things that writers on SNL come to you with where you say, “Eh, I don’t think so”? And what are the ones that excite you?
DAVIDSON Well, so few come my way that I have to do them all. The thing about SNL is you really don’t have much of a say. It’s just, “Hey, this is what you’re going to do this week,” and you’re like, “Oh, cool.” I do like the randomness of it and I usually play very dumb characters. So, it’s very easy for me. (Laughs.) I have one character that I’ve done in my seven years on the show, which shows how fuckin’ great I am. His name is Chad and he’s very dumb and every response is just, “OK.” And I see a lot of myself in Chad.
HELMS I love Chad because he’s so game for anything. I think he’s aspirational.
DAVIDSON He’s a good guy, he means well. (Laughter.)
DANSON Pete, I just have to say I love funny, which you are, but you’ve got an edge of danger in you that I find fantastic to watch, to know that I’m going to laugh but also be a little nervous … I wish I had that. I’m your run-of-the-mill nice actor. You’re dangerous and I love that. I love watching you.
DAVIDSON Oh, thank you so much. They don’t pay the dangerous. (Laughter.)
Pete, I’ve heard you say that this past season of SNL has been your favorite season, which is vastly different from how you’d been describing your SNL experience a year or two ago. What changed for you?
DAVIDSON I was at a really different place a year or two ago. I’m not exactly proud of how I handled or was handling things a few years ago. Looking back on it, you’re like, “Ahh, come on, dude.” Luckily a pandemic happened and I got kicked in the balls and had to sit with all of my immature irrational decisions. I was so happy when they said that SNL was going to come back because I was literally sitting with my own thoughts and I was feeling really bad. I was really excited just to work and see people and I had a different outlook for this season and moving forward. I think I’ve been able to have a lot of fun and I just really appreciate it — not working at all really sucks.
Ed, I’ve heard you say how much you wished, post The Hangover, that you could have been a part of a movie-star mentorship program. You described a setup where you could do brunch with established stars, maybe once a month, where you’d ask questions about how to navigate your career and fame. First, do I have the concept right?
HELMS More or less …
Great. So, what do you wish you knew and how would it have changed your journey?
HELMS I had this gradual build of fame or celebrity, if you will, until The Hangover, and then it just became this astronomical thing that was so unfamiliar and, in many ways, scary. So, I’ve often reflected on how I wish there was a mentorship program for celebrities or some way to just help younger actors navigate some of these circumstances. There’s just so much unexpected, and the industry is set up in a way that’s sort of sink or swim. Like, you either know how to do it or you don’t. And the thing I wish I had understood more early on is [that I should] just relax and enjoy some of it and not panic so much. I think when you have a big step-up in opportunity, there’s a fear that comes with it in terms of making the right choices, and I got a little overwhelmed by that for a period and it’s not worth it.
What does it look like from the inside?
MORRIS Money, money, money …
Right. I’m seeing a lot of money signs from the group here …
MORRIS You bought the Ferraris, come on, Ed. (Laughs.)
HELMS Some people are really equipped to just slide right into that really easily, and for some reason, I just grappled with a lot of anxiety moving into that.
What were you worrying about exactly?
HELMS Well, it’s a lot of the social stuff. Suddenly you’re invited to things that are overwhelming. People don’t realize celebrities also get starstruck and feel awkward at times. I certainly still do sometimes. And then your agents are suddenly coming at you with things that are exciting but maybe there are competing things or it’s like, “Oh, if you do this, you can’t do that.” And you’re like, “But I’m friends with that person and I think they’re brilliant, I want to work with that person.” “Well, you can’t … I mean, sure, you can do it, but you’re going to blow this.” And it’s just like, “Aaah!” And I have much better tools now and maybe I’m just more chill as a person, but there was definitely a period there where I was like, “I want a mentor.”
MORRIS But even if you had a mentor, they can only tell you so much. They could show you some of the pitfalls, but you’re going to walk through them anyway. And that’s the best possible way to learn. I’ve made a million mistakes, but I’m also one of those people who’s extremely cautious. This isn’t the trajectory that I thought about when I was a kid who wanted to act. I’d see Eddie Murphy on TV, and I just wanted to be Eddie Murphy. And I’m happy with my career — I wouldn’t trade it for anything — but it’s slow. It’s a gradual build because I’m tiptoeing.
REDD Just to piggyback on the gradualness — of going from no one knowing you to some people recognizing you is so different than what you think it is outside of this. I remember the first time that people started recognizing me a bit, I thought they wanted to fight. They’re saying shit and I was like, “What? What you want?” I almost beat up a fan, it was crazy. (Laughter.) So, a little mentorship would be nice, but it is a lot of learning yourself and your triggers and what’s right for you. I had a ton of anxiety going to the Emmys or to these big events that I had never even thought about going to before getting into this, but no one could really prepare you for that, either.
Ben and Pete, you’re both at places in your careers where there are a lot of opportunities coming your way. What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
PLATT I started working in musical theater when I was 9, so my whole life was pointed toward the experience that I ended up having at 23, which was doing Dear Evan Hansen — getting to originate a role and a Tony award and all that stuff. And there was a real scariness in reaching that so quickly because I felt like, “Well, now is everybody done with me? Is that all I have to offer?” It’s something you think you’ll continue to work toward, and obviously I feel incredibly fortunate that it happened in such a fantastic way, but I had to embrace the freedom of the opposite of what Ed was saying, which is the limitlessness of, “Now what do I really want to do?” and, “How can I continue to challenge myself when the hardest pinnacle of what I could have imagined has already been checked off?”
So, what do you strive for now?
PLATT I’ve tried to allow my guide to be what are the things that make me excited and allow me to work with people I want to be around. And I think there is a real desire, especially when something is going very well or when you’re trying to “strike when the iron is hot,” to continue to wedge yourself into these particular bubbles or spaces or boxes that we’re all supposed to be heading toward — to want to be a Marvel superhero or to want a big, dramatic Oscar film — these things that still exist and that maybe I have a bit more of a foot in the door to audition for and get in for because of where I have been. But I don’t think that necessarily means that those are the things I really want to strive for just because I’m supposed to want to strive for those things. So, it’s been riding that line of not being an idiot and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, but also allowing myself to really make art that I’m excited about, particularly where I am playing queer characters.
You just threw out a handful of things that you’re supposed to want: the Marvel superhero, the dramatic Oscar role. What are the things that you all actually covet?
HELMS I think Oscar-winning, dramatic Marvel superhero. I feel like that’s out there. And I’m right for that. (Laughter.)
DANSON To go back, being a celebrity is kind of like being a 5-year-old in a room with all the adults staring at you — and with all the energy coming that kid’s way, you spin out. It’s too hard to handle all that energy. I was very lucky early on, halfway through Cheers, that I started doing ocean advocacy and I started an organization. I realized that if you take that energy coming your way and you deflect it into something you care about, then you become OK with all of it. So, “Thank you for watching Cheers, I want you to come into the tent here and meet this marine biologist” became a use of my celebrity, and that served me well over the years. And as far as bucket lists or anything, can I just please stay erect? Can I hit my marks and remember my words?
REDD I heard “please stay erect,” and I’m like, go ahead, brother. (Laughter.)
Lamorne, you spent seven years on New Girl. When it ended, you said you wanted to be part of something “that meant something.” What did that mean to you?
MORRIS Well, New Girl was just silly, that’s what it was. I mean, it was cool and fun and there are subject matters that we’d touch on, but there’s only so much you can do in a 22-minute show. I had a cat on the show named Furguson and I’m a Black dude who plays a police officer and, when the incident in Ferguson happened, I was getting all these tweets, like, “Yo, how does it feel to play a Black cop with a cat named Furguson?” And I’d be like, “That’s clever as shit, but stop asking me that.” I did want to address it though, so I wrote an episode about it — and then I wanted to get more mileage out of that, but you can’t really do that on such a happy, happy show. So, when I was done, I wanted to do something that felt more authentic to some of the things that I had been through and friends of mine had been through, and then Woke came along. It’s about a nerdy Black dude who doesn’t think racism is an issue. He doesn’t see it, he just wants to draw cartoons and become successful and keep his head down, and then the police rough him up a bit, he has a bit of PTSD and he starts seeing things [inanimate objects that come to life]. I wanted to be a part of something with more stakes, more weight to it, but also can poke fun at it. I mean, I have a racist marker that’s played by J.B. Smoove. How fuckin’ ridiculous can you get?
At one point, your character laments, “Why is it that us people of color are always having to stand for something or say something in our work?” Have you felt that same pressure with your art?
MORRIS Yeah. I sometimes feel like we’ve all got to jump on the thing, but you don’t have to say anything if that’s not who you are. Personally, I wasn’t that guy at all. I didn’t know enough, didn’t read enough, I just wanted to book a job and be taken seriously as an actor. And then you start to see people listen to you and your neighbor is going through something and if you have a platform and feel moved to say something about it, obviously with some intelligence behind it, I think you should.
Do the rest of you feel pressure to use your platforms to speak up?
REDD Just being Black in America on TV forces you to relate to that. I have always stood up and protested injustices. And in my work, especially my stand-up, I like to speak to some of that. But I also feel like part of our freedom is to be able to just create without having to represent something every single time you do it. So, it’s walking that line of representing your people and speaking to the culture but also having the freedom to just create without being bound to an injustice every time. Because sometimes I just got a dick joke. (Laughter.)
DANSON And I play a billionaire politician [on Mr. Mayor] who is about as white as you can get and as old as you can get, so I guess I’m doing my part by pointing out how wrong that is. (Laughter.)
It seems like the SNL culture has changed. You’re now able to take time off to do these other projects and still be part of the show …
REDD I think it’s very true. I came in with a couple jobs already, so that was one of my things. I was like, “Yo, I gotta be able to do stand-up and I gotta be able to do a couple things here and there in the summer at least.” And it’s been nice. I mean, I don’t sleep. I haven’t slept since last year, but I was broke till I was 30, so I don’t need to sleep.
MORRIS That’s unhealthy, brother. Take a nap.
REDD For Kenan, we were flying on Friday nights to get [to New York] Saturday morning and then we’d sleep and come into the studio and rehearse a couple times and then do the show [SNL] and then fly out [to L.A.] Sunday at 8 a.m. to shoot Kenan the whole week. We’re hoping to not have to do that again, but it was very dope to be working with your friends.
Kenan Thompson’s been on SNL for 18 seasons. What’s your reaction to the prospect of doing that kind of run?
REDD I would never do 18 seasons. (Laughs.)
DAVIDSON Yeah, I’m good. I’m surprised I made it to seven. I’m readyto hang up the jersey. Kenan’s likefuckin’ Karl Malone out there.
REDD He’s a legend for it and I think he can have that marker. (Laughs.) Like, I’m definitely having a good time, it’s better than the first few years. I mean, I had a good first year and then with my second year it was kind of wild. But I don’t know how anybody does 18 years. It’s boot camp.
Fair enough. For all of you, which are the careers that you look at and say, “Oh, yeah, I’d love that”?
MORRIS I mean, Eddie Murphy’s. Coming from the South Side of Chicago, you’d see the hood all-stars, the drug dealers and the ballplayers, but I grew up in the church, so you wanted to have a real job. You’d see Eddie Murphy, and he felt like one of those dudes who lived in your neighborhood. He wore leather pants, he had his shirt open, and he was talking shit, and that was really the first time I thought, “Man, that’s like a rock star, but that’s a rock star I could potentially be like one day.” But then he took some time off, and the more I’m in this business, there are times where I want to take a lot of time off and still be able to come back at any point. And then Jamie Foxx, who’s one of those people where you see him hosting a TV show, you see him winning an Oscar, you see him singing and playing the piano, and I wish I could do those things.
REDD I’d say Eddie mixed with [Dave] Chappelle. I like how Chappelle never really stopped stand-up. I wish Eddie had just kept doing it.
DAVIDSON You get to see a lot of people at SNL, and there’s this aura around Eddie Murphy where you’re just like, “Holy shit, that’s Eddie Murphy.” [Adam] Sandler is like that, too, you just can’t believe you’re seeing him in person. I’d like the Eddie Murphy, Sandler career. I like what Sandler did where he’s like, “These are my eight friends, we’re going to do this formula for the next 30 to 50 years.” He built this entire universe for himself, and he’s in his own lane. That’s the model. Also, the way he carries himself I try to follow. He’s so kind to everyone, and you never hear of a Sandler issue — there’s never like a Sandler-gate. Any time you see that guy’s face, it’s associated with smiles and good vibes. That’s the thing I’m trying to follow.
DANSON I got the opportunity to get to know Gregory Peck and Sidney Poitier a bit, and to me those are such elegant gentlemen in this business and were actor-activists, and that combination really appeals to me. And Jane Fonda is one of my heroes. At 83, she has her foot on the gas pedal and is going a million miles an hour. But if I had to pick someone I wanted to emulate, it’d be Dick Van Dyke.
How about you, Ed?
HELMS Are we allowed to pick somebody here? Because Ted Danson has always been an inspiration for me.
DAVIDSON Yeah, Ted, I hope I look like how you look like when I’m 40. (Laughter.)
HELMS Your career has been such an inspiration for me. When I was a kid watching Cheers, it was that energy that I wanted to follow. So, thank you for paving that road.
DANSON Man. Thank you. I’m so touched that you said that. I know I should be blowing that off but I’m taking it in, really … I’ll dine off that.
Hollywood is a place that likes to keep people locked in lanes. What roles come your way and you think, “No, not this again”?
PLATT Tech nerd, computer nerd, guy at the IT company, gay friend, nerdy gay friend …
DAVIDSON Pothead, drug addict, crackhead …
REDD Rappers, up-and-coming rappers …
MORRIS I get nerdy all the time, and I’ve always wanted to be in a superhero movie and I finally get the call about auditioning for …
DAVIDSON Blood Shot! You were great in that.
MORRIS Thanks, man. I was like, “This is my opportunity!” Then I read the script and it’s a fucking nerd — a nerd in a superhero movie. But then the pandemic started and no one saw it.
DAVIDSON I saw it the day it came out, it was great.
HELMS I get a lot of offers to be douchey guys who mean well, which I guess is what Andy Bernard was. And I love Andy Bernard, I loved playing that part so much, but I’ve started looking for different lanes at this point.
How about you, Ted?
DANSON Alpha males scare the crap out of me, so anything where I’m supposed to be alpha or manly or masculine, either I’m really bad at it, which is true, or it really bores the crap out of me, which is also true.
And finally, complete this sentence: I wish Hollywood would cast me as …
DAVIDSON I just want to be the fifth or sixth guy in like a lot of movies. (Laughter.) You know what I mean? I just want to be that guy. I want to like, Buscemi my career real hard.
REDD I really want to be a Black John Wick. Same hair, just Black.
DAVIDSON I also want to be a Black John Wick.
DANSON I want to be cast in something with my wife, Mary [Steenburgen], and shoot it next door. It’s all about location now.
HELMS You will have a pitch on your desk tomorrow morning. (Laughter.) I don’t know how realistic this is, but I’ve always wanted to be a martini-drinking, debonair supervillain and/or hero. Like a James Bond. Come on, Hollywood, how is this not James Bond? (Laughter.)
DANSON I think we should make a movie called The Roundtable and it’s just us. We’re the cast.
MORRIS Absolutely, I’m down.
REDD I’m down.
DAVIDSON I don’t want anything to do with it. (Laughter.)
DANSON Perfect, that’ll be the first line.
Conversation edited for length and clarity.
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This story first appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.