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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
What was your most difficult scene in your Emmy-contending series this year?
The Following (Fox)
Mine played out over two episodes and involved the return of my character’s wife, Claire (Natalie Zea). She was the love of my life, and I knew for certain that she was dead. I had spent the last year or so grieving and was slowly starting to climb out of my despair. Then suddenly, here she is standing in front of me, living and breathing. The most challenging part was to fly between such conflicting emotions in two very short scenes. My character experienced shock, joy, disbelief, betrayal, hurt and the overwhelming feeling that it might be a nightmare.
My toughest moment was in episode nine, when [my character, American Revolutionary spy] Abraham Woodhull, is [pretending to] prosecute a gang of Rebel/Patriot sympathizers. His intention was to discredit the case against them and get their hanging sentences revoked. As Abraham is himself a true patriot at heart, he now has to play this fine game of subterfuge. He must make the Redcoat officers who have his home occupied, along with the gathered Loyalist congregation, believe that he’s doing justice to the British crown while still making sure the oppressed men get away clean. So much of the show requires Abraham to hide his truths. He’s a great liar, but this scene required him to give a real performance whilst skirting those fine lines of loyalty and betrayal. To give nothing away during that moment proved particularly challenging for me.
The Bridge (FX)
It’s always challenging when you begin a new project — to find your character and get everything to where it needs to be. But the challenge hit a new level in our first season, when my character’s son Gus is tortured and dies over the course of four episodes. It was an awful lot of mourning for me to have to do, particularly since my character, Marco, can’t find any closure. The son is kidnapped, and Marco doesn’t know where he is. He’s still hoping for him to be alive, then he finds out he’s gone. It was two weeks of pain and suffering in real time. Though it wasn’t real, it still left me an emotionally drained wreck. Some storylines are tougher to disconnect from. This was one. I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis! It’s harder for me.
It’s always hard to end a season. It’s even harder when you know it’s going to end the series. I would catch myself thinking, “This is the last scene I’m going to do with [actor Evan Handler], aka The Runkles. This is the last god-awful herbal cigarette. This is the last time I try to convince the very English co-star Natascha McElhone to pronounce something incorrectly by lying to her (‘I swear that’s how we say schedule — just like you, shedule!’).” It was very nostalgic, like being at a three-month wake, but the happy kind, with singing and dancing. On the last day of work, I was in the Porsche, parked overlooking the ocean. In the scene, I’m leaving the car behind, which was like leaving a person behind, and it wasn’t even a talking car! After a few takes, my friend and the director, Adam Bernstein, asked me if I could think of any reason to go again. I wracked my brain — nope. So we wrapped me for the day, for the season, for the show. Tom Kapinos, the show’s creator and driving force, came up to me, and we took a little walk away from the car, with the Pacific in the background, the sun setting. He cried on that walk. Maybe we both did? A minute of mourning, and then I’m back in my own car driving home thinking, “What the hell am I going to do next?”
The Americans (FX)
Season two was hugely challenging because my co-star and onscreen wife, Susan Misner, [and I] were — through our characters Stan and Sandra — undergoing such a strained period in their marriage. They were so estranged and distant from one another. In one scene, Sandra has just come back from having a weekend affair with a man, while Stan is deeply involved in his own affair. I love working with Susan. But this scene was just so emotionally devastating and difficult. Simply trying to experience the pain of that dynamic is really, really tough. I imagine it was just as difficult for her to have this feel so internally real. The two of them aren’t fighting anymore; rather living in the acceptance of their marriage’s disintegration. There is nowhere to hide in the scene. It’s the saddest of all places to be.
We were shooting a scene in the season-two premiere that shows the aftermath of a threesome with my wife and ex-wife. I thought that as a man and as a Viking, this would indicate the stuff that real men are made of. But from the expression on the ladies’ faces, I’d clearly come up short. Apparently, in their eyes, I didn’t make the cut. It’s a good thing that the Vikings are long dead, as they would have taken away my kingship and banished me from Valhalla! On the other hand, in one of the first scenes we shot for the second season, I had to say goodbye to my daughter, who had died. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than a child dying and how unfair the world is to let that happen to such an innocent. [Creator] Michael Hirst wrote such touching words that, though monologue is not my forte, I hadn’t much choice but to do it.
My most difficult scene is when my character, Cyrus, finds out that his husband, James (Dan Bucatinsky), had been killed, purportedly in a carjacking. The toughest part came toward the end of the episode, when Cyrus had taken over the [White House] podium and found that his husband’s replacement press secretary was ill-prepared to deal with the media. Cyrus announces the details of the death to the White House press corps and is blindsided by the emotion that wells up inside him and makes him break down. Doing that on cue can put my actor heart into a weird combo platter of excitement, hope and deep dread. The dread came from the fact that one of the hardest moments as a performer is trying to control your emotional nervous system and make it bark on cue. It took four takes. I’m relieved that it got close to what [creator] Shonda Rhimes intended and I intended.
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
This episode was directed by my co-star Nick Offerman. My character, Ben, has an arc that takes me from being very sober to being a little drunk to being very drunk, then pretty drunk, then just a little drunk, then stone sober again. Ron (Offerman) helps Ben come to this clarity that he wants a child and wants one immediately. Then he goes home, and Leslie (Amy Poehler) tells him she’s pregnant. So it all turns out to be wonderful. What was most challenging was the fact that I go through a lot of the episode playing really hammered. I don’t need to tell you how easy it is to play drunk really badly and embarrassingly. It’s so simple to make it seem really fake and stupid. But I trusted Nick, as my friend and my director, to tell me if I was god-awful foolish. He wouldn’t lie. Fortunately, it turned out OK.
Ray Donovan (Showtime)
Discovering the character of Mickey Donovan has been a great journey. The essence of the drama of the piece is really all in the relationship of Ray (Liev Schreiber) and his dad, played by me. It’s always exciting to go to the points of the story where Ray and Mickey confront each other and face the really big stuff. And nowhere was that more true than in the episode where Ray confronts Mickey about the Catholic priest who abused him and his brothers. There is so much underneath that Liev and I bring to that table, and it produces a real high. It was exciting to come to the set and know that Liev and I would be throwing everything we have at each other.
About a Boy (NBC)
I remember being at the table read for the season-one finale — I barely got through the lines in one particular scene where my character, Will, apologizes to Marcus (Benjamin Stockham) for leaving him [to live with his girlfriend in New York City]. I remember being very excited to shoot it: The writing was so good, it would be easy to play despite it being so emotional, right? Then we finally shot it, and it was terrible. I mean like 1980s-afterschool-special bad. Also, we were outside; there were helicopters flying overhead. The crew was being boisterous, which usually makes our scenes better, but in this case was keeping us from playing it truthfully. In the end, [co-star] Minnie Driver and I spoke to the first assistant director and explained our difficulties, and the energy on the set instantly changed. The helicopter must have sensed it, too, and buzzed off!
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
There is a scene from our 10th episode [of season four] that was pivotal to my character, Narcisse, establishing his power and position within the realm of Atlantic City. It takes place in the Onyx Club. He is a special, surprise guest and [business] partner of Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), one of the biggest [heroin] heavies in the states. I emerge at the table with Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) for this kind of summit meeting. The scene’s key elements were handshakes and everyone taking off their hats. A henchman grabs a chair for me, and I sit down, but I wonder: “What do I do with my hat?” There’s a table in front of me already filled with hats. So I put mine at an adjacent table. It felt all wrong somehow, but by this point, I was committed. It was only that night in the shower that what I should do with the hat finally came to me. I should have handed it to the henchman who grabbed my seat for me! It would have better showed everyone their position relative to me. But it was too late. And that still annoys me.
Falling Skies (TNT)
The circumstances under which we shoot the show make for a consistent test of my acting. We film in the middle of winter, in Canada, in the snow and rain, mostly at night. It leaves me looking back and thinking about that cozy courtroom drama that I passed on. Then there is our storyline. Most of the population has been killed, and I’ve been elected rebel leader by a band of survivors even though I’m only a lowly history professor. And for our upcoming fourth season, it was decided that we should literally leave the Earth. So I will be commandeering a spaceship and flying to the dark side of the moon to blow up a power grid being constructed by our alien enemies in order to save mankind, and my character needs to sell this as a really good idea. Trust me when I say I have to be pitch-perfect for this not to elicit huge guffaws from the audience.
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