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A Life More Ordinary

A Life More Ordinary
Don't ask Laurence Fishburne why working on a TV series is different than working on a feature film.

"It makes me crazy that people have decided that somehow, because you're working in a television series, either it's harder
or it's more difficult or for some reason it's not as good—or it doesn't make as much sense or something," he says.  

One might be forgiven for inquiring. After four decades in show business, Fishburne is one of Hollywood's most venerable film actors, but aside from a stint on Pee-wee's Playhouse in the '80s, he has mostly stayed out of the world of TV series—until now. Since October, he has been the lead on CBS's long-lived, much-loved, hourlong procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

So what does he really think about features versus series?

"It's not different. It's not," he says. "I'm an actor. I've got a job. I've got a character to play. I've got great writing. I've got a great crew. I've got a wonderful ensemble of actors that I'm working with. That's really quite a blessing. And on top of that, the major, major gift is, I'm playing to an audience that is loyal, that is interested, that has seemed to embrace me in spite of the fact that I've replaced the guy [William Petersen] who's been in their lives for almost 10 years."

Of course, every series is different. And for feature actors, the pace and hours of series work can take some getting used to. But working on a series does offer something that's hard to come by in show business: routine.

Tim Roth recently wrapped the debut season of Fox's Lie to Me, which he took on in part, he says, because he wanted to stay put for a while and spend more time with his family. Roth has a long roster of features to his credit, from Pulp Fiction to last year's The Incredible Hulk, but aside from a handful of guest spots over the years, he had never done a series.

"A lot [about doing a series] surprised me. The page count surprised me, the amount of pages you do—but that aspect of it I do like. You start your day running, and you end it that way," says the actor, who is married and has three children ages 12, 13, and 24. "It's a lot more work, a TV show. It's long hours, and your day is very, very full. Quite often, you're first in, last out."

Still, he says, "I do get to go home. Sometimes it's 2 or 3 in the morning, but at least you get to go home. I have a break, and I just dropped off one of my boys this morning to go on a camping trip, so you get to do things like that. If I'm in Romania [where Roth shot 2007's Youth Without Youth] or wherever making a film, I don't get to do any of that stuff. It took a while for my family to get used to—[they're] still getting used to it with the strange hours that I'm keeping with this thing. But I am there."

"The exhaustion," he says, is what has taken the most getting used to. "We've only done what they call a half-season, really—13 episodes. But as soon as you get to the last one, your body just clicks, and you're coming to the end. And that's a serious battle you have to fight, where you're trying to stop yourself gradually switching off. You have to stay alert right until the end."

He is quick to add, however, that "it's a very luxurious position to be in."

Jay Mohr is definitely reveling in the luxury of series work. Mohr has also appeared in a host of features over his career, but he currently plays Gary Brooks, a newly divorced painting contractor juggling custody of two kids, an overbearing ex-wife and a sexy new girlfriend, on CBS's sitcom Gary Unmarried.

"On a personal level, it allows actors—who are like circus performers or itinerant preachers—a semblance of normal life," Mohr says.

When the opportunity arises to do a series, he explains, "The first thing I think about is I get to go home every day. Every day I'll see my son and my wife. Every single day I'll wake up, and I'll drive my son to school. I'll work for a work day, and then I'll come home, and I'll pick my son up from school, then I'll have dinner with my son and my wife, and then I'll tuck everybody in and do it again. That's really all I think.

"And," he adds, "I can make my actual movie quote in a week."

Nice work if you can get it.

These days, the competition for plum TV roles is fierce. With the quality of TV series improving, film financing becoming increasingly difficult to procure, and such marquee names as Glenn Close (FX's Damages) and Alec Baldwin (NBC's 30 Rock) making happy homes on the small screen, the stigma that once existed for film actors making the transition to series has evaporated.

"We're migratory animals," says Bill Paxton, who plays polygamist patriarch Bill Henrickson on HBO's Big Love. "We go where the grazing's the best, and right now the grazing for a lot of serious actors has been in cable."

Like Roth, Paxton sees the main difference as one of simple endurance. "It just seems like [a series] takes even more stamina," Paxton says. "You're shooting every day. You're really doing five, six, seven pages a day as the lead actor. I almost live like a monk when I'm shooting the series because I usually just stay at a hotel out near the studio [in Santa Clarita, Calif., where Big Love does most of its shooting], and I just finish a very long shooting day, and I go back, shower, have some dinner, and then I'm back hitting the books again."

Paxton has a family as well; he's married with a teenage son and an 11-year-old daughter. Since he's been working on Big Love, when he is home, "I'm around almost too much," he says with a laugh. "And when I'm working, I'm not really around that much. But my kids kind of know the drill. They've grown up in this world in terms of, 'Yeah, daddy's really working,' or, 'Daddy's a bum.' "

For Denis Leary, starring in FX's firefighter drama Rescue Me has meant working with his two children, 17 and 19, during the summer, when they pitch in on the show.

"They've gained some full knowledge of how boring and tedious show business can be because they've worked on the crew, so that's actually kind of nice because I get to be at work with them. And also, underneath it all there's that secret evil-dad side, where you realize they're wondering how show business really works," Leary says, laughing, "which is, yeah, a couple of times a year there's a big award show. The rest of the time you get up at 4 in the morning and you're working till 9 o'clock at night, and the food sucks! How about that?"

As not only the lead but a writer, executive producer, and co-creator of Rescue Me, Leary's work day is longer than most. "We never write more than two episodes in advance, and we only have three writers: myself, Peter [Tolan], and Evan Reilly," he explains. "We may only shoot a 10-hour day on the set, but that means Peter and Evan and I go home and write for five hours."

At the end of the day, whether the job is a series or a feature is, in many ways, immaterial. Satisfying work is satisfying work.

"I've always taken a childlike approach that I read in [David Mamet's True and False]," says Mohr, "and that is that it's make-believe. So regardless if you're shooting Dog Day Afternoon or Gary Unmarried, when they say 'action,' you have to walk in and play make-believe. That doesn't really change."   

Shannon L. Bowen writes for The Hollywood Reporter. 

For more news from The Hollywood Reporter, click here.

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