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Interview

He's No Hack

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Andre Braugher cuts an intimidating figure, as anyone who has seen his work will attest to. During his six years on the NBC drama Homicide, his Detective Frank Pembleton was the most intense and powerful persona on network TV, though many people may have not been aware of it. While the show was always a critical favorite and raves were regularly doled out to Braugher (who won an Emmy for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Drama Series in 1998), it was relegated to poor time slots and mediocre ratings. The actor left the show in 1998 before its final year, but he returned to television again in another acclaimed but little-seen series, Gideon's Crossing, which garnered him another Emmy nomination. More recently he co-starred along with David Morse in the short-lived series Hack.

Audiences who may have missed him on the small screen were able to see Braugher in a wide range of big-screen performances, starting with his movie debut as the thoughtful soldier in the Civil War epic Glory. He was frequently cast as the understanding friend, such as Nicolas Cage's fellow seraph in City of Angels or Paul Giamatti's pal in Duets, or as a man on the right side of the law, such as his attorney-in-training in Primal Fear and an understanding cop in Frequency. Every performance, no matter how different, featured what soon became a Braugher trademark: a whip-smart intelligence combined with a confident dignity.

Those qualities also describe his latest role, as a vampire hunter in TNT's adaptation of Salem's Lot, the Stephen King novel that was previously brought to the small screen in 1979. The two-part miniseries, premiering June 20, stars Rob Lowe as a journalist who returns to his small town and begins to uncover its deadly secrets. Braugher plays Matt Burke, a former teacher of Lowe's character who joins forces to rid the town of evil. The horror genre is a bit of a departure for Braugher, who hadn't seen the previous TV incarnation but was a fan of the book and the screenplay adaptation. "Just the thought of being able to be a part of this well-written script based upon an excellent novel drew me to the project," he says. "It's a wonderful horror thriller, I'm happy to be associated with it. And you know, it's not terribly gory. It's frightening, and this is a testament to Stephen King's work."

In general, Braugher is drawn to roles with strong scripts and characters who are far more human than usually portrayed on-screen. "I have to say it's really the storytelling and the quality of the interactions between the people and the ability to imagine a very human character," he notes about choosing his parts. "Oftentimes I enjoy playing men with flaws, because those are the kind of men I know. Television heroes tend to be so self-actualized and wise and brave and cheerful and clean. And that's a bore to me. So I like men who are maybe thrifty and clean but really corrupt, or intensely arrogant yet very loving. The length of these flaws and merits, that is most attractive to me."

Braugher has lightened up on-screen from time to time; his performance in Duets was largely comedic, and even some of his serious characters generally have a sense of humor. But the actor approaches all his roles in the same way. "Comedy is deadly serious," he observes. "Everything is, in its own way, serious. Because we take our needs seriously—our needs of self-preservation and life and love and joy. You've never seen someone scrap more desperately for love than anything else. The foibles that we experience are comic in their own way. It's the old formula: Someone slips on the banana peel. When they get up, it's a comedy. When they lay there, it's a tragedy. The same elements are in play in comedy, tragedy, and horror."

For someone who understands his craft as well as Braugher does, it's hard to believe he first stumbled into acting on, in his own words, "a lark." As an engineering student at Stanford University, he was in his sophomore year when a friend dragged him into playing Claudius in an adaptation of Hamlet. "My goodness, they couldn't even call it Hamlet, it was so shredded," says Braugher with a laugh. "It was a graduate-student directing project from a first-year student and, well, it was horrible. But it was really the catalyst for me being involved in theatre. I couldn't ever imagine that it was good acting, but I have to tell you it was a lot of fun. Because when you go to the library and you finish your equation, no one applauds, you know? Also, the theatre is full of lovely, vivacious young women, and the library is not," he admits. "So I stuck with the theatre."

While he had been bitten by the acting bug, he also had the foresight to know he required training. He recalls, "I knew I wasn't trained well enough to be successful, so I went east to the Juilliard School for four years, and when I came out I was well-trained enough to pursue my craft."

While there, he learned he had better take his craft seriously. "When you get into Juilliard, you realize how little you know," he shares. "I've got a lot of natural enthusiasm for acting, and people have told me that I have a presence, which is nothing that you can actually bank on, because the craft just demands a tremendous amount of skill and devotion. And I didn't have that. So I knew I needed that training, and there it was, true to my fondest wishes. I actually learned to act at the Juilliard School. And it was very hard." While Braugher is proud of Juilliard's reputation for transforming people into accomplished actors, he doesn't look down on those not formally trained. "Acting is acting, whether you have the training or not," he points out. "It doesn't matter where you get it, as long as you get it. And good acting is not the exclusive province of training schools. There are excellent, well-trained actors who can't act their way out of a paper bag, so it's no guarantee going to a conservatory."

After graduating from Juilliard in 1988, Braugher almost immediately landed a role in the Oscar-winning Glory, alongside heavy-hitters Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. It was on the set that Braugher felt he learned to act for the camera for the first time. "Acting is acting everywhere, but there's a certain art to acting on the camera," he notes. "It turned out to be one fine film, and the people I met there taught me a lot." A regular role as Detective Winston Blake in a series of Kojak movies followed, as did his performance as ballplayer Jackie Robinson in the 1990 TV movie The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson. But it wasn't until 1993 that Braugher fully broke out with his indelible work on Homicide. Executive-produced by film director Barry Levinson, the gritty glimpse into life in a Baltimore police unit was as highly regarded for its unusual camerawork and jump-cut editing as for the incredible ensemble cast. Braugher starred alongside Melissa Leo, who recently won raves for her work in 21 Grams, and Clark Johnson, who went on to direct another group of cops in the feature film S.W.A.T. At the head of the cast was Braugher's Pembleton, a man unlike any other in series drama at the time—prideful, often arrogant, yet a brilliant detective and loving family man. "We knew we were doing something special," Braugher recalls fondly of his years on the drama. "The critical acclaim is one thing, but you can look at the scripts in comparison to all the other scripts you've received and just say, 'This is special.' I was grateful to have that kind of material, at any time in my career, and I continue to hunt for material as good."

To his fellow actors, Braugher parts with the following advice: "Never stop training. Quite often people feel as though they've 'arrived' and 'I'm here and I'm done.' Continually reading, continually volunteering for projects—even the ones that don't have money connected with them—what they do is keep you in the artistic flow, because we all need inspiration. And sometimes we have to hunt it out, it doesn't hunt us down. And take care of yourself. Like the violinist takes care of the violin, we have to take care of our instrument. And that means plenty of rest, proper nutrition, plenty of sleep. Because this is the only thing we've got, this is our instrument." BSW

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