This story first appeared in a stand-alone special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Hollywood Reporter: You were one of the year’s most ubiquitous guest stars: Justified, Mike & Molly, House of Cards and Southland. After more than four decades of acting, why was this year so busy for you?
Gerald McRaney: Yes, I’ve been working my tail off lately! It’s been fun, I’ve been lucky to be on some really good shows, which really makes all the difference because financially it’s all the same. For the Southland job, I’d met [producer-director] Chris Chulack on another occasion, but really it was because of a lot of lobbying by my manager, Geoffrey Brandt. He also helped me work with [executive producer] Graham Yost on Justified. [Star] Tim Olyphant was just the coolest guy. And it was a blast to work with my friend [actor] Jim Beaver again. We had a great little fraternity on Deadwood. It’s funny … I started acting in a rep company years ago. I hadn’t done it for a long time until [playwright] Horton Foote asked me to do a play of his — Dividing the Estate — off Broadway, then on Broadway in 2007. It was thrilling to get back to those roots and stretch those muscles.
THR: Southland was canceled in May after five seasons, so we’ll never know the fate of your retired, depressed and boozy Detective Hicks. How did you tap so convincingly into his angst?
McRaney: I’m sad about the show not coming back. I wish I had a good explanation about why it isn’t! That character grew out of talking to real cops. I am technically still a reservist deputy in Louisiana, so I’ve gotten to know more cops than the average actor. I’ve known many people who didn’t deal with their problems the same way. It’s very tough to retire from a job like that. You’ve been dedicating and risking your life for something for 30 years, it’s very hard to step away from that. The job costs people marriages and relationships with kids and can be quite disabling. So to switch that off — to cut off the adrenaline rush, which many are addicted to — is very difficult.
THR: What sticks out as most memorable about your five-episode Southland arc?
McRaney: One of the terrific things about that show as opposed to other TV is the pacing. Most shows confuse “pacing” and “speed.” They want to do everything quickly, so when you’ve done decent work, you look at it on the air and they’ve taken all the transitions out to fit all the words. [Director J. Michael] Muro allowed me space and time to really dig deep and keep in those moments. Chulack also had the good taste to leave it alone.
THR: The show had a gritty verite feel that made it seem almost like a documentary. What was your preparation like?
McRaney: The scripts were pretty much always intact when I got them, which was about 10 days beforehand. There were some minor alterations on set, but not much. Actors like to take a lot of credit! But that old theater saying — “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage” — always wins. All I had to do was learn the words! Actors can screw up good writing, or make bad writing mediocre, but you cannot make bad writing excellent.
THR: How did your three-episode stint on Netflix’s House of Cards as billionaire tycoon Raymond Tusk come about?
McRaney: It was another my manager lobbied hard and heavy for, and I guess they’d had me in mind, too. I found out 10 days before filming, but it felt fairly natural getting to Baltimore and working with Kevin Spacey. What an actor! I’d never met the man before, and to step into a show with a guy like that and feel like we’d been working together all season. … He’s so giving, he just wants the scene to be good. He’s one of these actors, if you’re good, that makes him look better.
THR: How difficult has it been for you to move on from your iconic 1980s TV roles on Simon & Simon and Major Dad?
McRaney: (Laughs.) Major Dad … I can’t let it go! There was actually a lot of criticism when I was on Deadwood, like “Why did they hire Major Dad for this part?” No, it was a great show and experience. Funny enough, Simon & Simon went off the air in 1989 and Major Dad went on the same year. I had a whole three months off. I was also an EP on Dad, and I remember getting script pages sent to me on my honeymoon in Europe. It was a phenomenal period in my life, but I decided early on — as did my agent — that during my hiatuses, if I got offered roles, they had to be 180 degrees away from those characters. I worked very hard not to get typecast! I guess it’s paid off.