But anyone now watching knows that some of the best acting and storytelling is found on the small screen. And if an actor is fortunate enough to land a quality show that also finds an audience, he or she can spend years developing and exploring a character.
Back Stage recently sat down with four actors who have carved indelible characters on television: some over the course of several seasons, some in just a handful of episodes. Although their shows may differ from one another, all deliver standout performances in stellar ensemble casts. They also help put to rest any idea that television is a dying medium.
On Showtime's "Dexter," Julie Benz is navigating new territory as Rita, the loving spouse to Michael C. Hall's serial killer. Coming from an abusive marriage, Rita sees Dexter as her salvation, and their relationship is unlike anything ever seen on TV.
Over on CBS, Jim Parsons is winning raves as the fussy, brilliant Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D., on the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." Now in its third season, the show has found a strong following and recently earned Parsons his first Emmy nomination.
As clueless father Phil on ABC's hit comedy "Modern Family," Ty Burrell brings new dimensions to the typical dad role, whether dancing to "High School Musical," being hit by a car, or proudly displaying his knowledge of texting lingo ("WTF—why the face?"). The third time has proven to be the charm, as Burrell previously starred in "Out of Practice" and "Back to You," two well-received comedies from "Modern Family" creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan that never made it past a first season.
And perhaps the fall's biggest success story is Fox's "Glee," the musical comedy from "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy about a high school glee club. As the talented and driven Rachel Berry, Broadway vet Lea Michele ("Spring Awakening," "Les Misérables") is the breakout star of the season, belting tunes and charming audiences with her portrayal of the Type-A student.
With the SAG Awards—the one awards program that honors TV ensembles in addition to individual achievements—around the corner, it seemed the perfect time to talk to the quartet of performers from the best shows on television.
Back Stage: How did each of you land your roles?
Lea Michele: I'd met Ryan Murphy in passing and heard rumors he was writing this show with me in mind. I never thought it would really happen. I thought he'd hire iCarly or something. But I ended up auditioning and getting it, thank God.
Julie Benz: I was sent the script and had to pre-read. I was coming off of "Angel," and I think most actors probably wouldn't pre-read, but when I read the script I said, "This is the most amazing pilot I've ever read, so I don't care who I have to read for." I was given the choice between [Dexter's sister] Debra and Rita and asked to read for both because they didn't know what direction they were going in. And I remember thinking that I was just going to go for Debra. Because I wanted to swear—I wanted to be on TV and say nasty words. And I worked so hard on trying to play Debra and actually didn't work that hard on Rita. So I went in and was reading for both roles, and when I finally went to producers, they took one look at me and went, "You're our Rita." It's funny, I didn't have to do anything to play Rita; it was just me. I did have to test twice for it because they thought I looked too glamorous.
Ty Burrell: I get that a lot, too.
Benz: I had to come in with no makeup on and in sweats. And then I took it a step further because they wanted me to look really downtrodden, so I actually drank wine so I was hung over and I put mascara in my hair to give myself really bad roots.
Jim Parsons: Is that what we call Method?
Benz: It's called "I want the job." I signed in and sat down, and they came out and were looking around, and I heard them saying, "Well, she signed in, but where is she?" I finally said, "I'm right here." And they said, "Are you wearing prosthetic makeup?"
Parsons: Wow, you had the best compliment and the worst insult in 24 hours!
Back Stage: Ty, you had worked with the "Modern Family" creators before. Wasn't the part written for you?
Burrell: I think the part was written with me in mind, but I think that's, in some ways, almost an indicator that you're going to really have to jump through hoops. I thought, "Oh, great, it's mine!" And then I think I tested, like, three times. So you should never believe a part is just yours wholesale.
Back Stage: Is it a compliment to be told, "We've written this really dorky guy with you in mind?"
Burrell: No, it's certainly not flattering. But the thing is, the part isn't a stretch for me at all. So I just had to come to terms with the fact that this is who I am. It's a weekly autobiography.
Back Stage: Jim, how did you end up as Sheldon?
Parsons: I felt like my process was very by-the-books. And I still do, especially hearing some of these stories. I didn't know anybody associated with it. It was towards the end of a normal slog of a pilot season, and I just got the sides, and more than I enjoyed the story or the relationships or anything, I just really loved the way that character talked. My biggest thing for that audition, oddly, was getting the words in me and memorizing as much as I could. Because there was no way to do what you do—act—unless you knew these words, because there was nothing natural about it. I went in and read and then a studio test and a network test. That was it.
Burrell: How sweet was it to get that job at the end of a pilot season?
Parsons: Very! And it was doubly sweet because we did the pilot, which we were paid for, and then they didn't pick it up. They put it on hold and said, "We're going to reshoot it." I then spent the next six, seven, eight months waiting to redo this pilot. And it was the weirdest, most depressing time I'd spent in New York, just waiting. Then shooting it again was a joy.
Michele: I've never been through a TV process before. I've been on auditions, but I've been working in musical theater in New York since I was 8 years old. I came out to L.A. after my most recent Broadway show, and I just wanted to be on "Grey's Anatomy." I wanted to be a bloody victim of some kind of car crash, and I end up going out for "Glee." I had to sing two musical theater songs and a pop song, plus read 800 sides. That whole part was comfortable for me; it was normal. But the whole "You're going to go to the studio, then you're going to go to the network"—I had no idea what any of that meant. And maybe that was good, because I didn't understand it and just thought of it as a callback. For my last callback, I got into this terrible car accident pulling into the Fox lot, left my smoking car on Pico Boulevard, and ran into the audition with glass in my hair. They were saying, "We heard Lea Michele just got into a car crash!" I was like, "No, I'm here, I'm totally fine." It was such a Rachel Berry thing to do: literally leave the smoking car on Pico and run to the audition. But I auditioned, and they told me in the room that I got it.
Burrell: There's something to be said for heavy body trauma. I actually got into the most bizarre accident ever, where I was throwing out a sled to jump on it, and I had a collision with a dog that thought I was playing fetch. And we hit heads, and I got a concussion and went to an audition the next day and gave the best audition of my life.
Parsons: Did you get the part?
Burrell: I did. It was actually a grad school audition, but I got in. So I got the part of MFA candidate.
Back Stage: How do you feel about auditions in general?
Michele: I hate auditioning.
Parsons: I love auditioning.
Benz: Me, too. It's a competitive sport to me.
Parsons: Me, too. Go, fight, win! First of all, I enjoy working on anything.
Benz: I look at it as, it's literally your time to be an actor that day. And it's a performance; that's all it is. I don't look at it as a job; it's my time to play the part how I want to play it. And I throw my material away when I leave. You learn to love it.
Michele: I want that to be my mantra. I get really, really nervous. I come from the world of singing at auditions, which is a whole added stress.
Benz: I was an ice skater growing up, and there's nothing scarier than going out and competing in figure skating. I feel like you can actually fake an audition; if you're having a bad day, nobody knows. But if you fall on the ice in front of thousands of people, they know.
Back Stage: Do you remember your worst audition?
Burrell: I've had so many, and I wish somebody would keep a website. They're my favorite actor bonding moments. My worst, I think, was when I prepared a British accent for an Alan Ayckbourn play. As the casting director sat me in the chair in front of the phalanx of people behind the table, he whispered in my ear, "We're not using an accent." I think he had really messed up and forgotten to tell me. So I gave an audition that sounded like a stroke victim. The most bizarre sounds were coming out of my mouth. They were just slack-jawed.
Parsons: Mine was also a dialect issue. Well, there were many problems; the accent was only one. It was that Martin McDonagh play where there's a cat, it dies—
Back Stage: "Lieutenant of Inishmore?"
Parsons: That's it. And I really loved it.
Michele: I saw that; I loved that play.
Parsons: Well, I wasn't in it, so thank you. So I really worked hard on my Irish brogue, but when I went in, the dialect was not going well. But I was so committed to doing it. It was a wild, flailing audition that at one point I hit a wall with my arm and accidentally turned off all the lights in the room. Everyone just gasped, and I had to turn them back on. I was an absolutely hurricane. It was horrible.
Benz: I have a tendency to just say what I'm thinking. I walked into this room, and it was a big movie, and the director looked at me and goes, "You remind me of my ex-girlfriend," and went on and on about how horrible his ex-girlfriend was. He hated her so much and said I was the spitting image of her. I finally looked at him and said, "I should just leave. I don't even think I should audition." And I left.
Michele: My problem is, going on auditions, I was brought up so when you get in that room, you do whatever you can to get the job. So whatever they ask me, I say, "Yes, I can do it!" I went in for a gymnastics movie, and they had a form you had to fill out, asking things like, "Can you do back flips?" I filled out the whole thing, completely lying about everything I could do. And I got in the room, and they said, "It says here you're working on the beam." I said, "Yep, working on the beam, hope to get to the vault soon!" I completely lied. And when I got a callback, I realized I couldn't go in. I couldn't do anything I'd said I could do.
Back Stage: You're all on shows that have a strong following. But some of you have done other shows that didn't do well in the ratings. Is there any way of knowing when you go into a project if it can find an audience?
Benz: I think every show I do is going to be huge. I buy into it. If you want me for the role, it's going to be huge!
Burrell: I have no idea. I think I kind of wander the earth in a clueless manner, but all three of the shows I've been on I thought were really well-written, and I was so happy to be on them. I couldn't tell you why this one is doing so well and the others didn't.
Back Stage: Jim, your show was actually given time to find its audience; it wasn't a hit right out of the gate. Were you confident it would do well in time?
Parsons: No, I had no idea. It's very heartening to see how they let it build. In this day and age, it seems we expect things to either succeed or fail within the first few weeks of their premiere. But I liked it. I feel sort of in between what the two of you just said: I enjoy whatever I'm doing for the most part, but the game of trying to predict what other people are going to enjoy watching is just impossible. Ty has been on some really good stuff that didn't stay on the air. And why? I have no idea. I wanted to be on "Out of Practice." I tested for that show and I loved it. Why is it gone? I don't know.
Benz: There was a pilot ["Dear Diary"] that didn't get picked up but went on to win an Oscar for best short film. So you can't predict. You have to give that up and, when you're in pilot season, try to focus on something that fits right for you and not second-guess if it's going to be a hit or not.
Back Stage: All of your shows happen to feature great ensembles. Was that chemistry instant, or did you work on it over time?
Burrell: I don't know if any of you will agree, but I really feel it's the luck of the draw. I just feel so fortunate it worked out that way. I'd never met [onscreen wife Julie Bowen] before. That's one of those things that's just a complete stroke of luck. She's so game for anything and so supportive. Which makes me want to be there for her, obviously. When you have a teammate who's so willing to go wherever, you better keep up.
Michele: With "Glee" it would be extremely unfortunate if we didn't get along. But we do, and we're each other's support system on and off screen. I think you can see that; it transcends the television, the bond that we have. Ryan did a lot in casting the show to find the right energy.
Benz: Most of my scenes are with Michael, which is not a bad thing. But we are all extremely close in the cast. We shot our pilot on location in Miami, when the hurricanes were going through. And for some reason, spending those three weeks together really made us close. I usually say it's the kiss of death when you all get along because I've been on numerous shows where we got along and we were canceled. When work is too much fun to go to, it doesn't last. But this one has lasted.
Michele: We did a Salt-N-Pepa number for the second show, where we were literally grinding on top of each other. After that, there was no turning back. We were best friends.
Parsons: We've never done any grinding. But for Johnny [Galecki] and I, sitting through the wait between Pilot No. 1 and Pilot No. 2 certainly gave us some sort of bond. I don't know why we all got along. It's important to get along off stage so you can leave the drama for the stage, so to speak, so you aren't distracted or feel uncomfortable. It was important we speak a similar language and work together.
Back Stage: Do you share any traits with your character or have any input into their stories?
Burrell: I've had a fundamental input into the character because, as discussed, the character was written with me in mind. Which is so telling about how uncool I am off screen. As far as story lines, I don't think anything has been taken from my life. But as far as being a well-intended creator of chaos, a huge amount is taken from my personal life. Also, I don't have any kids, so I bring no experience as a parent to the show. I just bring my experience as a dullard.
Benz: We have amazing writers, and sometimes there's a synergy that happens between actors, character, and writers, and they start picking up on rhythms and the way you talk. It starts to meld the two. What I can relate to in Rita, and I don't have her tragic background, but what we do share is our vulnerabilities are very much the same. I probably have a stronger veneer than she does, but when you take away the mask and I'm at my most vulnerable, that's Rita. I remember having a fight with my boyfriend and actually using a line from the show. You start bleeding into each other's lives. You start having your character's memories, too. It's a weird melding that goes on. I'm not a mother, I don't have children, I've never had a child, I've never been abused. But for some reason, I know how to play it. It exists in me.
Parsons: It's funny you mentioned figure skating, because I've thought of them throughout my process. I really enjoy that thing of having to get so many particulars down that you don't have to think about it at all when it's go time. Figure skaters have that. And I think you hit it on the head as far as writers picking up on rhythms and stuff. I think that's why sometimes you find yourself talking as your character.
Benz: When I play Rita, I'm much more vulnerable in my real life than when I'm not playing her. I cry over everything. She's a very emotional person, so for those four and a half months that we're filming, I'm a crybaby.
Michele: Rachel requires a lot of energy. So when I'm not on set, I'm just trying to rebuild the energy. I was never like anybody in my high school; I didn't care about the things they cared about. I basically knew who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, since I was a kid. In that way, I really relate to my character. If you ask my cast, they'll say I'm very much like Rachel. And I respect her so much: her confidence, who she is, and, I know it sounds cheesy, but I think she's such an incredible role model for young girls. She doesn't let what people think is cool get in the way of being who she is. But it does take a lot of Red Bull to get through the day.