Back Stage: Tell us how you broke into the business.
Tricia Helfer: I didn't grow up wanting to be an actor. I thought you had to be kind of wild and crazy to do that and didn't realize there was a whole other side to it. I started modeling. I was discovered, as they say. And toward the end of my modeling career, I was thinking, "Okay, this isn't really doing it for me anymore." I got into acting classes strictly to help with commercial auditions. And I fell in love with it from the first class. It terrified me, and I found it a huge challenge. I was living in New York City at the time. I started studying at Penny Templeton Studio and doing night classes while I was still working. About a year and a half later, I quit modeling and moved out to L.A. That was January 2002. I came out with representation. I was with a commercial agency in New York, Innovative Artists. I had my commercial agent come to one of the showcases my class did. They took me on theatrically from that. I got "CSI" that year, just a guest role, [through] auditioning.
Back Stage: And then you auditioned for "Battlestar Galactica?"
Helfer: Yes, in January of '03. It was the same casting directors that had done "CSI." So they took me straight to producers. Being brand-new and green, I didn't really know anything. But I auditioned for it, and I thought it went pretty well. But I didn't hear anything for about two months. And then I got called back to test for it. And we had a work session. I had to ask what a "work session" was. It went extremely well, with the director Michael Rymer. And then tested the next morning. It was just a terrifying experience. It's five hours long. No food. You don't eat before you go in, because you're nervous. They went through all the girls, and then all the guys, and then started pairing everybody up. I was the last group, and I ended up with James Callis, who played Baltar on "Battlestar." And I'm about 5 inches taller than him. By this time I was exhausted, as he was. We heard it was the sexy role, so the other girls are all in cute little outfits with high heels, and I'm in flats and trying to be short. I just went, "Well, I'm not getting that role." But James heard somebody say, when we were in the room, "That's it." That was the next five years of my life.
Back Stage: Dylan, how did you get started?
Dylan McDermott: I had the good fortune of having Eve Ensler, who wrote "The Vagina Monologues," be my stepmother when I was very young. When I was 15 years old, she walked me over to HB Studios in New York to become an actor. It wasn't something that I really was even thinking about back then. She saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. I'm eternally grateful to her, and she continues to be my mentor. It was really serendipity that she believed in me. So I started studying at a very young age. I think I needed a lot of studying. I went to HB Studios. I went to Fordham University and started taking acting classes there. And then I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse and studied with Sanford Meisner.
Back Stage: "With."
McDermott: Yes, which was pretty scary. He was one of the last master teachers who was alive [at the time]. It was an incredible experience to be in front of him, 'cause nothing could be as scary as acting in front of Sanford Meisner. I think they asked an actor one time would they rather go to Vietnam or put a scene in front of Sandy, and they said go to Vietnam. Then I went to the Actors Studio after the Neighborhood Playhouse and became a member and studied for about a year there. And then I felt like I was ready to work. I needed all that time of studying and finding myself before I really wanted to take a job, to tell you the truth. And then I felt like I was ready, and I recommend that more than anything else: being absolutely ready, so when you do get your shot, you can stay there.
Back Stage: How did each of you turn your training into your first screen role?
Helfer: Exactly what Dylan said about being ready. When I started, in one way I was going up against girls that have been acting a lot longer than me, and their résumés are a lot longer. But I wouldn't have been ready earlier. I was very shy. The modeling business is hard enough as it is, mentally. But acting is worse than that. You can really get torn down and really pumped up, and you have to be in a stable-enough place within yourself to know that this is what you want to do. I probably would have been a psychologist; that's what I was aiming for in school, until I got sidelined. But that's what I find fascinating about acting, is getting into the character. My first role in L.A. was on "CSI," playing a model. I had no lines. The model had body dysmorphic disorder. I auditioned for the schizophrenic sister. The director said, "There were only two of you who came in here, and you look more like a model than she does. Will you take the role?" I found that a challenge for the first job: no lines but a deeply troubled
McDermott: My first role was in "Hamburger Hill." It was an open call. I had enormous freedom, because I never thought I would get the role. They kept calling me back. I took it seriously. It was an open call, so everybody was in fatigues. I wore jeans because I knew, you ask actors to come in for a role and they always put on the costume, right? And they kept calling me back, seven times. They kept calling me back for bigger and bigger roles. I got the telephone call, and I think it's still one of the happiest days of my life. And they told me I got the role and that I was going to be a lead in a movie, which was astounding to me. I was doing a play on Broadway at the time, and I was committed to a life of being on the stage. So I thought movies were out of my scope. I did so much research on that movie. I must have read 25 books and interviewed I don't know how many vets. I stayed in character the entire movie. I loved it. I didn't understand film acting, but it was one of the best roles I've ever done. It was three or four months in the Philippines. I lost 25 pounds. Two people died during the movie. It was a brutal, brutal experience. We had no trailers. We would be all muddy, and they used to hose us down. We had no idea. We were like, "This is making movies?" And then my next movie after that was "Steel Magnolias." So it was, like, the exact opposite. The craft service in that movie was like a feast.
Back Stage: You mentioned staying in character. Do either of you do that these days, or does it depend on the role?
McDermott: You know, on a series like "Dark Blue" where you're working four months, you're more the character than you are yourself, because you're working so many hours. You're working 16, 18 hours a day. You have no choice but to be the character. I try to stay as much as I can nowadays. This is a grueling schedule, when you're doing 10 episodes in four months, trying to squeeze an episode in seven days, of really difficult work.
Helfer: I think it depends on what you're doing. If you're doing more of a lighthearted scene, like Dylan said, when you're doing a character for a long stretch of time or for a series that goes five, six, seven years, you kind of can snap into that character so quickly after a while. There was a scene in "Battlestar" that was a drastic change from the kind of more glamorous character that I usually play. I was supposed to have been gang-raped and tortured, and I wanted to stay in character for that scene. So that day I didn't want to be taken out of the chains between setups; I wanted to be on the floor. I wanted to be uncomfortable. Everybody keeps coming up to you, "Can I get you this, can I get you that?" "No, I just want to be here. I want to feel uncomfortable." That brought out something that wouldn't have happened if I was getting up and joking around in between scenes. But if it's more of a lighthearted scene, then you may take more liberties and go off into your trailer and be your own self.
Back Stage: How did you get your roles on "Dark Blue"?
McDermott: It came from [series executive producer] Jerry Bruckheimer. I had known him over the years, and he requested that I come in for a meeting for this show. So I just sat down with him and [series writer-director] Danny Cannon, and we just talked about the show and what it would be like. They were making a gritty cop drama for TNT. That was music to my ears because the game has changed so much for actors since I first started out. I think now cable is really the place to be—for many, many actors—because network television is in flux, trying to discover what it is. Cable has really taken over television, and movies are cartoons and sequels and comic books. And independent movies are coming back, but since the financial crash, they went away. So now it's about where you're going to find your voice and your avenue.
Helfer: I auditioned. I didn't have a script to go on. There were four pages that they had written just for the audition. I had about a week or two to prepare. While they were working on contracts and everything, I immediately went out and got books on the FBI. I watched the series, all 10 episodes practically in a row. I thought it was a different take, and I liked the character pieces the actors got to work with. But I didn't know what my character was going to be. I had a call with Danny and a couple of the writers, and they told me what they were thinking of the character. It's great to sign on because you want a job, but in the other way you're thinking of the next five or six years of your life, and you don't know what the character is. But they told me about their idea of the character, and I liked what they had to say. So I took them for their word, and they held up their end of the bargain.
Back Stage: Did you ever have day jobs?
McDermott: I was working in the restaurant business when I was 22. I used to wait on John Belushi and William Hurt and Ray Sharkey—all people I ended up working with years later—and I said, "That's it, I'm going to be an actor." And I had no idea how I was going to make my money. And I walked away. Put the apron down, and boom. And you know what? I got a little play with Joanne Woodward, and I had no lines in it, in upstate New York somewhere, and I never stopped from that point on. If I had said, "I better have a backup just in case it doesn't work out," guess what? I'd still be busing tables. Never have a backup. It's a very dangerous thing.
Helfer: I did that as well. Slightly different. I wasn't busing tables. I was 28, and I had a modeling career behind me. But the same kind of emotion behind it is when I was moving out to L.A., I said I'm giving up modeling, cutting the ties. I sold my apartment in New York and moved out to L.A. I didn't know a soul. I felt like it was going to be too easy to run back home to New York whenever things got a little tough. I knew I had to immerse myself. I also had to get rid of that stigma of model-turned-actor, so I had to shut off the modeling—so much so that a few casting directors were like, "Did you model?" "Yeah, years ago." It's really not a bad thing, but I was so against that sort of stigma. I knew I had to cut ties to devote myself and feel I didn't have a safety net.
McDermott: We're reaching for something I'm not even sure exists. We're sold this thing of "when I make it." But there is no "there" there. The "there" is here. The "there" is the love of this, of working. There is no "there" of "When I make it, I'm going to be happy." 'Cause it ain't there. I don't get happy so much from watching things that I'm in. I get happy when I'm doing them. That's what Sanford Meisner taught me. Art is in the doing.
Back Stage: Do you have advice for actors who want guest or co-starring roles on the show?
McDermott: I would say the casting director is your ally. That's how I broke in in New York. Initially, I knew a casting director named Meg Simon, who cast "Biloxi Blues" on Broadway. And it was the only connection I had. I made sure I got to know her, and she brought me in for "Biloxi Blues." She brought me in, like, eight times. And I finally got the role. The casting director is your biggest ally when you have no agent, you have no manager. If you can get into that door, that's huge, because those are the people that whisper in the director's ear. And I say this very seriously: Nobody is ever going to be knocking on your door and saying, "Come with me. We want to pay you millions of dollars. Be on TV." It's up to you to do that, to hustle that and have the need. It's that need to act that’s going to separate you from everybody else.
Thanks to the SAG Foundation for coordinating and hosting this interview.
-Went on ride-alongs to research his "Dark Blue" character: "The trouble is, I went out undercover, or so I thought. I went into the hood, and people were like, 'Hey, will you represent me?' My cover was blown."
-On rehearsing before shooting: "I've worked on one film, with Jodie Foster, who rehearsed, and it was the best experience because we had rehearsal. By the time we got to the set, everyone didn’t even know a camera was there. Unfortunately, a lot of people get the idea that spontaneity is the most important thing in film. But it's really not true."
-Says she is a "terrible auditioner": "As [director] Michael Rymer from ‘Battlestar’ told me a year after I got the role, ‘You know, you don’t audition very well.' It wasn’t too long after that I actually started to have panic attacks going in."
-Upon joining the long-established "Dark Blue" cast, took co-star Omari Hardwick on a motorbike ride and "got him on my side. Once I got in with one of them, then the others kind of followed suit."