Though Emmy nominations won't be announced until July 6, Back Stage was more than happy to jump the gun and sit down with four actors who undoubtedly deserve recognition for their superior work this season.
In the comedy arena, no one has perfected lovable denseness more than Ethan Suplee of freshman NBC series My Name Is Earl. Suplee's film credits include standout roles in Cold Mountain and American History X, but the actor has found the right fit playing Randy, the brother and sweet counterpart to Jason Lee's mischievous Earl.
Another NBC comedy, The Office, features a flawless ensemble cast headed by Steve Carell. But no story line on the show has been a hotter water-cooler topic than the sweet love story developing between office mates Jim and Pam, played by John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer. As the conflicted receptionist, Fischer transcends the stereotypical "girl" role with her highly tuned comic timing as well as boldly dramatic moments rarely seen on a television comedy.
Jennifer Morrison, in a primarily male ensemble, has enjoyed a spectacular second season as Dr. Allison Cameron on the hit Fox medical drama House. The compassionate—some would say naive—Cameron is often the voice of humanity among the posturing physicians, but Morrison never plays her as preachy or dull. This season has been a rough one for the young doctor, who has been faced with an AIDS scare, a colleague who plagiarized her work, and, of course, going head to head with the infuriating Dr. House (played by Hugh Laurie).
Another actor whose weekly confrontations have made for compulsive viewing is acclaimed actor-director Forest Whitaker, in what is his first series regular role, on the FX drama The Shield. Whitaker's Lt. Jon Kavanaugh was brought on this year to bring down corrupt cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his team, but as the season progressed, viewers watched as Kavanaugh began to turn into the very thing he hated. Whitaker was nothing short of spectacular in a series of powerful episodes that revitalized the program.
None of these actors has been previously nominated for an Emmy for acting—Whitaker received an award in 2002 for co-producing the TV movie Door to Door—but all are likely candidates for 2006. Back Stage sat down with the busy actors—Whitaker is currently shooting the film adaptation of the beloved children's book Where the Wild Things Are while the other three were about to depart for the television upfronts in New York—to talk about their great seasons, being an ensemble player, and the agony of auditions.
Back Stage: How did each of you land your role on the show?
Jennifer Morrison: I went in and met with [executive producer and pilot director] Bryan Singer for a normal audition. I didn't realize until I was in the car, on my way, that Bryan Singer was directing. And I don't think I've ever told anybody this, but I hadn't read the script. I had other test offers already and was so deep into pilot season and there was so much material. I knew it was supposed to be a good script and I had seen my scenes and they were so good on their own, I didn't think I needed to read the script to be able to hit them. On the way over when I found out about Bryan, I freaked out and realized I wasn't prepared. In addition, it had been raining for 14 days and I was totally drenched. The plan was to get there, clean myself up in the bathroom, and pull it together. I walked in, and Bryan was sitting right there in the lobby. It was tragedy. He said, "Come on in. You're the first one." Then he said, "I don't give people direction in auditions, so just go for it." So I said, "Can you direct me before we start so I know what you want?" I kind of just did it and sort of felt horrible about it. I loved Bryan and the producers and the casting people, but I didn't feel like I had really given my best.
So I went home, depressed, thinking I was stupid. No one told me that he had called immediately and said, "I love her—she's Cameron." I had no idea. The next morning, my phone started ringing off the hook because he had asked for footage on me. The producers had told him he needed to take more than one girl to network, so he went and looked at a bunch of tapes and came back and said, "Okay, here's a tape of the girl I saw yesterday who I really like, and here's a tape of another girl who's good. I'm fine with either one of these two girls." What he didn't realize was the other tape was me, blond.
So I went to network, right in front of the Fox executives, and it was the most unusual thing because normally it's a hellish process and this was so pleasant. Everyone was so lovely, and I read for them and they were like, "Welcome to Fox."
Ethan Suplee: Did he really not know it was you on both tapes?
Morrison: He had no idea. We joked that I should go in and audition twice, once in a blond wig. But it's interesting to me how it proves how clear his vision is. He saw a certain sensibility to this character that he couldn't picture any other way. And luckily I was the person who encompassed that in that moment that he responded to.
Suplee: My wife was pregnant with our third kid, and I called my agents and said, "I have to do a TV show because I can't be going out of town like this." I wanted to be in Los Angeles for a couple of years. They said, "Okay, you have to go on this test." I said okay, and I read this script; it sucked, but I went because I wanted to be in L.A. So I went to the audition and was sitting there, and my agents called and said, "You know this shoots in Vancouver, right?" I was like, "You're kidding." And I just left, which pissed a bunch of people off. But the whole point was I wanted to be in Los Angeles.
So I said, "I don't care what it is, just send me television scripts. And I don't care if I'm right for it or not." In movies, I had been used to going straight to the director and working with them and talking about the script and ultimately getting the part or not. For some reason, I went in on a bunch of these TV shows to audition, and it was literally just, "Thanks." And I would walk out wondering what I was doing wrong. It was one disaster after another. I thought I had to go back to acting class.
So I refused to audition for anything else. I figured I had a good résumé, a good reel, and they could see them and hire me or not. I did agree to one read for a show, and when I got there, they mentioned the show shot in San Diego, and I was like, "You guys are fucking with me! What is this?" I could not have been any clearer about Los Angeles.
Then I read the script for My Name Is Earl, which was the best comedy script I had seen yet. And I thought, "This is a dream. But they'll never let me do it, because nobody on TV likes me, apparently." I went and met with [the producers], and they wanted me to test for the studio, and I wouldn't do it. I said, "I will read one time, and I will only read for you guys." They taped it and my tape went around to the right people, and it was terrific. It was weird: I had failed so much trying to get a job in TV and put my foot down and got the best job out there.
Jenna Fischer: I just auditioned the old-fashioned way. I was a huge fan of the British version of The Office, and they called and asked me to audition. I went in, and it was a long four-month process. They auditioned people in several different cities. I read for the casting director, and then I read for the producers. Then I read for more producers and more studio people. Then we had what they called a final test where we did screen tests for the show. Since we have to interact with the camera so much, they felt a traditional screen test where you do the role in a conference room wasn't going to show who could interact with the camera. We went in and they mixed and matched us with four people who were finalists for each role. Over two days we mixed and matched.
I had to sit in a room with three other Pams all day, and they would call one of us away at a time. Every time I got matched up with John Krasinski, I thought I had the role because I was sure they were going to pick him to be Jim. But I was also sure Rainn Wilson [who plays Dwight] would get the role, and they only matched me up with him once. I just didn't know what to expect; I was reading so much into all the matches.
Suplee: That's really intense.
Fischer: It was funny because there was this one girl there who was sort of the upscale, elegant version of my character. She would be Pam if the show took place in New York. I remember walking into the holding area and looking at her shoes and thinking, "Those are totally wrong for Pam; she would never own a pair of shoes like that." I very much had my idea of Pam in mind.
Forest Whitaker: I wasn't necessarily looking to do television, but I'm a fan of Deadwood and had had a conversation with the creator, David Milch, about it. It didn't work out with my schedule, but because I started talking about it, that door was open. Then this role on The Shield came up, and they asked if I would talk to them about it. I liked the show a lot, and I went and sat with Shawn Ryan, the producer [and creator]. We talked about how the character would be the biggest threat that ever came to Mackey's team, then he would slowly start to degrade his integrity as he became more obsessed. I was intrigued.
Back Stage: You all play ostensibly "good" characters; even Kavanaugh, who engages in bad behavior, has the ultimate goal of bringing down a dirty cop. Is it a challenge to play the good guy when conflict generally comes from villains or morally ambiguous characters?
Suplee: I like it. I have kids, and I've found that most of the movies I've done, they can't watch—not only because I'm a dirtbag but because of the subject matter of the movie. Now with playing Randy, they can watch and get a kick out of him. So it's not hard in that sense at all. And it's not hard for me to play, because I'm really such an angel. It's good to play a good guy.
Morrison: I definitely like it, as well, especially on a show where everyone else is so confrontational. It leaves me in a very vulnerable position, so as an actor it's kind of fun. There's a lot of times where you'll see something come out of Cameron that you don't expect, because she's been pushed so far and she just snaps. She has certain things that she stands on, certain morals, that make her that person you're describing—the good one—but she's also very human. And that's really fun for me because I never know from episode to episode what's going to be pulled out of her.
Whitaker: I never really worried about how my character would be perceived. In fact, I think the character is darker than I know, because I haven't seen all the shows. I didn't want to see what I was doing and let it get in my way. And I would get feedback on the character from other people about how dark he was.
Fischer: You know, it's funny: Whenever Pam does something sort of unlikeable, I get excited. I want her to be human. I find there's more of a pressure in real life, because it's really easy to be likeable and wonderful when a room of 12 very smart writers create you. It is then very hard to go out into the real world and live up to that expectation of being as approachable and likeable and funny as your weekly alter ego is, because I don't have a staff of people writing dialogue for me.
Back Stage: You all are in ensemble shows, yet you manage to stand out among very talented actors. Is there a secret to that?
Suplee: I don't really know what the secret is. I don't think you can worry about standing out, necessarily. Obviously you do the best job you can without doing something that isn't right for the character. I've never read something and thought, "I'm going to really stand out in this." You just want to be a part of something good, and you want everybody to be doing their best. Ultimately the job is to get the whole product to stand out.
Morrison: It's usually about being as real as possible. I would never look at a script and think about it in terms of only my character. On House I feel so lucky just to work with that cast every day. There's such a shorthand with each other and the ability to trust that those moments will come alive. It's never every man for himself; it's every man for each other.
Fischer: I love being on an ensemble. I do not want the responsibility of carrying a show. I feel, especially as a woman, that I am so lucky to get to play a part on a television show where what I look like is not the most important part of my character. In fact, they really downplay how she looks—she has her frizzy hair and bulky sweaters—and yet she's the girl on the show. I went on so many auditions where they would say, "You know, she's great, she's just not quite pretty enough." They're thinking billboards, and I'm thinking character. I can't imagine being able to land in a better situation. Ensemble comedy is the best.
Back Stage: Have you been surprised at how positively people have reacted to your characters?
Suplee: No, because I'm a lovable guy.
Whitaker: That was a new thing for me, the passion that people have for the show. I really hadn't experienced people coming up to me and talking about it so intensely. And people love this character, even though he's so dark. It was interesting that I was sort of perceived as a villain, in a way, because I'm trying to destroy a character who is bad but is beloved.
Fischer: I think John and I knew going into the show that Pam and Jim were going to be the heart of the show in the middle of this wacky comedy. The hope was that fans would embrace our story—we would be failing at our jobs if people weren't. So I'm glad that they are. And I am just as in love with Pam and Jim as the fans are. One of the great things about my job is that I know what's going to be happening before anybody else.
Suplee: So tell us everything that happens.
Fischer: Well, now I don't know. But for two months I held onto the biggest secret of my life, which was that Pam and Jim were going to kiss in the season finale. I didn't tell a soul, not even my parents. But now I'm like everybody else: I have no idea what's next. Only the writers know, and they just went back to work three days ago, and I don't even know if they know.
Back Stage: You're all also fortunate enough to be on shows that do well critically and commercially.
Morrison: [to Ethan] We used to compete against each other; we used to be on the same night. I'm glad you guys moved so I can watch and enjoy the show.
Suplee: We're down a little bit on our numbers, actually. Whatever that means. I don't know what any of it means, the numbers or anything. All I know is American Idol gets 30 million viewers and we get, like, 10 [million]. Which I guess is still good.
Back Stage: Do you pay attention to the ratings and figures?
Morrison: Not really. Only enough to know that I can still pay the bills. I don't really understand how all of it works. I know that when we do well, a lot of people call.
Suplee: I get those calls, too. "You had a great night. You got a this share and a that demo," and I'm like, "What the fuck does that even mean?" "The good news is, women between 25 and 54 are watching." It's always about the numbers. But my mom leaves me a message every Thursday night at 9:30, saying, "You were wonderful, the episode was wonderful!" She could give a fuck what the numbers are.
Morrison: My mom liked every single one until I did crystal meth and had sex.
Back Stage: Do you have any input into your characters?
Morrison: Not really. Somebody stood up at a panel recently and asked, "Jennifer, can you talk about your decision to do drugs and sleep with Dr. Chase? And don't do that again!" I had to explain it wasn't my decision.
Suplee: I have a little bit. I probably think I have more input than I actually have, but I like to go into the writer's room and talk to them. I'm not a writer, but I will sit down and talk with them about ideas. The character I play has become more and more of an innocent, and I'm trying to show that he follows a similar arc as Earl becomes a better person and makes his life more and more right, simply because I follow him in life.
Whitaker: I talked to them mostly in the beginning about the arc of the character. I wanted to know more clearly when certain things would go wrong for the character because he would be going through such a physical and emotional transformation throughout the show. But the purpose for me was to be spontaneous and trust my instincts, so I didn't want to know too much.
Fischer: The writers are very open to talking to us. Angela Kinsey, who plays Angela on the show, she and I wanted to highlight the women of the workplace, and we pitched an idea that Jan from corporate would come into the office and have a seminar with the women. That was all our idea was—we didn't have any jokes or a plot—but they took that and they made an episode around it. Also within that episode, the writer, B.J. Novak, asked me if I had ever dreamed about having anything. I told him a story about how when I was 12 I read a Choose Your Own Adventure book about a girl who had a house with a third-story tower and I always dreamed of having a tower from that moment on. He put a spin on it, and I gave a speech in the episode about reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book and wanting a terrace and a garden. Sometimes they'll ask us questions and get us talking, or during the interview segments they'll interview us in character and get us to improvise and lead us into the scripted material and go back and use the improvisation.
Whitaker: Our writers produce our show, so you really get to know them. It's a great staff. There were a couple times I got scripts and was like, "Wow." I was reading a script where they killed off a main character, and I had to sit down, I was so thrown off.
Back Stage: Ethan and Forest, you had thriving film careers before your shows. Was it jarring to step into television?
Suplee: Not really, because the first job I ever had was on a TV show when I was 13 years old called Boy Meets World. That was much easier than what I'm doing now. It was four cameras, and you'd rehearse for four days and shoot for one. The rehearsal days were a couple hours of work, and it was super easy. When I was going to do this, I had this idea of my life on a TV show being so easy and having so much time off. But it shoots like an independent film, where we work 13 hours every day and are almost always going even later. You start your day on Monday at 5 a.m., and on Fridays you're coming in at 1 p.m. and not getting out until Saturday. So while I get to go home and see my kids and give them a kiss in their bed, it's very much a hard job. But that's good. I always felt a little bit guilty after a 20-hour workweek accepting that money. I mean, I cashed the checks, but it was in the back of my mind that this wasn't really work.
Whitaker: The show is really good with me. I did two movies while I was working on the show. I was flying back and forth to Mexico City to work on a film for most of the season, and during the two episodes of the next season, I was also working on Where the Wild Things Are.
Back Stage: Was it hard to go from playing Kavanaugh to doing a kids' film?
Whitaker: What's great about it is that they are so extremely different. The character on The Shield is so intense and driven, where Where the Wild Things Are is just like kids playing. We joke around and have bread fights.
Back Stage: Doing a weekly show, do you worry about keeping the character fresh?
Suplee: I don't like the hiatus; it kills me. It's good to have time off, but then you've got to get back into the character. I'll probably rewatch the pilot to make sure I'm not doing something totally different. I'd rather work year-round. Who needs this much time off? Downtime is bad for me; I get in trouble.
Whitaker: It was new every week for me, because the character was constantly changing. It never really felt stagnant. I think by the time we finished, it was time for me to stop, but up until then each week was new.
Fischer: Not on my show, because I feel like they're always upping the stakes, and there's so much room for my character to grow. In some ways it gets easier, because I get to know her more intimately week after week, and I learn more about her and her background.
I also don't like the hiatus, because I miss my cast. We're very close. I just saw everybody last night for the screening of the season finale, and I didn't want to leave. We get to hang out at upfronts next week, which is great. In fact, I hear Ethan and I are doing a skit together.
Suplee: I've heard that, too.
Fischer: I haven't heard what it is.
Suplee: They faxed me what I'm supposed to say, but only my lines. At one point they asked me what tricks I could do because they wanted someone to come out and juggle.
Fischer: I told them I could breathe fire; maybe they'll use that.