Playing some of drama's most enthralling — at times, frustrating — characters on television, these six actors help make TV look good.
For the Emmy Round Table on drama, The Envelope gathered Julianna Margulies, who plays dedicated lawyer and recently grief-stricken Alicia Florrick on CBS’ “The Good Wife”; Jon Hamm, who plays smooth yet tortured ad man Don Draper on AMC’s “Mad Men”; Liev Schreiber, who plays the gruff Hollywood fixer and tormented family man as the titular character on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”; Vera Farmiga, who plays emotionally complex, dedicated mother Norma Bates on A&E’s “Bates Motel”; Lizzy Caplan, who plays the very un-prudish human sexuality pioneer Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”; and Norman Reedus, the heart-of-gold, bow-slinging zombie apocalypse survivor Daryl Dixon on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” for a wide-ranging discussion about their most difficult scenes, how their characters frustrate them and how they would define television today.
Below is the transcript of that April 29 conversation edited for length, with the full panel viewable on the video above.
With all the changes going on in television, in one word, how would you describe TV today, and if you want to elaborate on that word.
Liev Schreiber: Is "avant-garde" two words?
Lizzy Caplan: That's two words.
Jon Hamm: Hyphenated.
Schreiber: It seems like right now that all the progressive stuff is happening on television.
Vera Farmiga: More than one word, buddy.
Schreiber: I picked my word and then I'm elaborating.
Farmiga: We have to elaborate?
Hamm: Sounds like someone's got her word.
Schreiber: Well not “avant-garde,” it’s not the right word, but right now it seems like a lot of what’s happening in television is really progressive, and I look at the movies and I look at some of these television shows, and a lot of these television shows I’d rather watch.... So it’s not avant-garde, but something progressive. Progressive! How about “progressive”?
Julianna Margulies: I think it's the golden age of television. It's a time when—Graydon Carter wrote it somewhere, where he said when he was a kid, movies were for adults and TV was for children. And now it feels like TV seems to be for adults and the movies are all the sequels and prequels, and god knows what, for children. And so it feels like we've matured in the television world to a higher standard.
Farmiga: I’ve got a few words, but “evolved,” I guess. Just the evolution of technology and it’s changed the way we receive stories. I think film used to be holier just in the construct of it, you are looking up at a screen, it’s dark, there’s a mysticism there, it’s meant to be seen within a congregation of an audience. Hopefully if the story is good you’ll walk away enlightened and transcendent. But I think with the hustle and bustle of life, I don't remember the last time I went and paid for a ticket. And yet, we’re craving that connection. I think television, episodics in particular, have become more important and vital, and we’re yearning to make these connections with these characters. And so television has just become more important and independent. What was my word?
Norman Reedus: "Evolved," that was a good one.
Caplan: That was a solid word.
Reedus: Wow, to follow that, wow. “Daring” or “brave,” both those words. I mean I grew up watching like “Happy Days” and stuff, and nobody ever said, “Did you see what happened last night on ‘Happy Days’?” And I love “Happy Days,” but, you know, people sit around water coolers now and they're like, “Don't tell me what happened!” I remember when I first started acting, somebody would say, “Oh, I got this TV show,” and you go, “Oh, that’s cool, just keep trying, it’ll get better.” And now TV is where it’s at, I mean television is so good now, I watch everything, and I never used to do that.
Caplan: I'm going to go with “multi-layered.” We get to tell these stories over such a long stretch of time that we get to tell them really, really well, and with so much detail and so much nuance.
Hamm: I'm going to piggyback on what Lizzy said and to a certain point what Vera said as well and just say “creative.” It’s given these storytellers so many more opportunities to tell their stories in a creative way, they're not beholden to a procedural element where they have to wrap it up in 48 minutes or however long. And there’s also so much more leeway and opportunity in how you distribute your content, whether it’s over Xbox or AOL or Netflix, or fill in the blank. I've watched the first season of “Damages” on my phone, I mean and that was years ago, and now it’s even easier to do that kind of thing. The creativity in distributing content, as well as the creativity of the content have both kind of ramped up significantly from the days when we were all kids watching TV.
Is there something about your character that frustrates you or a moment that has frustrated you about your character?
Hamm: Mostly every single moment of my character is frustrating because it's just a continual series of making poor decisions but that can be interesting as well. If you were just telling stories about people that made great decisions all the time, everyone would be Superman and it would be a perfect world. I think we find that a storytelling arc is more interesting when you go left when you should have gone right. And then you set up, you know, trying to get back to right.
Reedus: They had my character — in one of the earlier scripts — he takes his brother’s drugs and he’s said a bunch of racist stuff. I worked with them and said I’d rather he be an Al-Anon member than an Alcoholics Anonymous member, I’d rather [have him] grow up in that world and hate it. So they allowed me to change a lot of things, where I found it more interesting. With television you get this opportunity to sort of drop these little seeds behind you as you do other things, and sometimes those seeds turn into trees and storylines and all these other things, but you kind of indirectly get to mold where you’re headed.
Caplan: Yeah, I don't think it's really our job to judge what our characters do, or see it as right or wrong, or compare it to how we as people in real life would behave. It's more how can we justify these things that they do, how do we make these the right decisions for the characters in real time?
Farmiga: I'm with Jon, I disagree with everything that Norma Bates does, her choices, but her whole life is a construct of lies, you know, she's built brick by brick. But I love defending that.
My biggest concern for Ray was I was worried that he's never laughed before, and then finally we see, I think the first time he laughed was when remembering his sister.
Schreiber: Yeah, in the beginning, you don't get directed as much as you do in the theater, in television, because these directors come in and they're sort of behind the relationships that everyone else has been there and they don't know you as well, and so they sort of defer to you a lot, which I wasn't really accustomed to; I'm accustomed to being directed. And so I'm talking to David Nevins, who is the head of Showtime, and I remember after the third episode, and I guess he’d seen some rough cuts, he simply said to me, “Liev, it might be good to find a couple places to smile.”
Schreiber: I said, "OK, I'll try."
What has been your most challenging scene?
Hamm: Well, a recent episode of “Mad Men” was Don basically coming back to the office, after having been fired at the end of Season 6, or put on leave at the end, and the way it was handled was that he comes back but no one knows he’s coming back. And so he has that incredibly awkward sort of first-day-of-school moment where everyone is staring at him and he doesn't really know anybody. There have been personnel changes, and people are in different offices, and it’s tremendously awkward. And shooting it was tremendously awkward because it had represented itself as a place that my character had not only founded, created, but was very comfortable in. And now it had been completely turned around and he was completely uncomfortable. And it was physically very uncomfortable to be that person that no one’s really paying attention to, and everyone is sort of whispering about, and side eyeing.
Joan too, I was like, "Joan, be nicer to Don."
Hamm: Listen, he's not anybody's favorite person at this point. But it was real, I mean it very much felt like what it was, which was this awkward, out of place thing, and it was represented in the way he was treated by Stan and Peggy, and Joan, and Cutler, and Lou, and everyone else, it felt very real.
Did they all give you hugs after?
Hamm: No. It’s not a huggy set.
Lizzy? I mean I can imagine, or is it not?
Caplan: It's not. Rarely are sex and nudity scenes the most difficult — because I'm very drunk during those scenes.
Caplan: Probably the most difficult scene for Virginia was when Masters offers to pay her for her participation in the study, which equates to calling her a prostitute, and sort of stripping away everything that they've built up together, this partnership. And it is a strange thing, like he had other secretaries, and then Caitlin Fitzgerald, who plays his wife comes in and she’s his secretary, and they're doing the presentation together, and it’s a weird thing how, like, I was jealous, I was like doing all this other stuff, and you know I love all the other storylines that I do, but when I'm not just front and center in Masters’ life, I kind of get a little itchy.
Reedus: The dynamic with Daryl and his brother, every time that would happen because [Daryl's] always tough but when he sees his big brother, he sort of goes back down to little brother. So last season, the stabbing [of his brother Merle], was hard, and plus because you say goodbye to someone that you work with and who was your friend, there's that.
Farmiga: You know, Norma is… The character has got Tolstoy’s ego and Dostoyevsky’s torment, and so it requires a lot of emotional endurance. There’s a scene coming up with Norman in the finale that required a lot of tenacity and endurance, and what’s challenging for me, they always shoot them around lunch, and so I hate going to lunch. By that time you've already expended your energy, so you just go for the comfort food, and I load up on mac and cheese, and I come back, and it’s just not working anymore, but now it’s my close up.
Schreiber: That is so brutally honest.
Schreiber: We shot something today with Ray’s daughter, played by Kerris Dorsey, she kind of rebels against Ray and says something really nasty to him and I found myself just like devastated that she said this. And it wasn't my coverage, unfortunately, it was her coverage, she said the thing, and I was like, “Oh, ... “ And then I realized the camera’s not on me.
Do you save it when it's not on you? Do you try not to react the way you would?
Schreiber: The problem with that is that for me, once I've experienced something I've kind of wrecked it for myself as an actor, because then I'm trying to recreate it. Whenever I'm trying to recreate it, it's not good, because you want to have a thing happen in the moment, and it's usually reactive, it's often not when you say your line, it's when you're listening to the other person say their line that the thing happens. It's a problem when the thing happens at the wrong time, and you go, "Ooh, that's good, I've got to remember that," because then you're in the scene remembering instead of listening.
Do you have a favorite character that your character interacts with?
Margulies: I love the way Alicia reacts with Eli Gold, because Alan Cumming is a dear friend of mine anyway, and it's so rare that we get scenes together. She's constantly shocking him in ways that make her laugh, because to her it's so not a shock, but he's so earnest and stern, and yet he's completely lost when it comes to Alicia, and I think she likes playing him. We just have a really great time together on the set. It used to be Josh Charles, but he's no longer with "The Good Wife." That was a special relationship; I loved how Alicia and he danced together, and around each other. But Alan definitely is one of those people.
Farmiga: I cherish the relationship with Norman, I mean the story focuses on mother and son, and Freddie [Highmore] is outstanding. But I look forward to all the scenes with Nestor Carbonell, who plays Romero. [To Schreiber] And I think this is what I respond to your character so much, when you were talking about the fact that he doesn't talk much, what’s so beautiful is that there’s so much that’s unspoken. And so texturally your character is so rich, and with Romero it’s that similar relation, there’s so much that’s unspoken, and there’s so much subtext, it’s just drenched with subtext, and there’s this magnetism, and yet they're opposites. So I think that one, Romero.
Hamm: I could answer in a couple different ways, but I think the one that's probably loaded with the most sort of uncertainty and history and layers is the relationship between Don and Peggy. It's come so far from the beginning of the show to where it is now, and yet it still can surprise you with its anger and meanness, its tenderness and its vulnerability. And Elisabeth is an incredibly talented actress as well, so it's always fun to be in scenes, because you just immediately trust that you're in good hands on the other side of the conversation.
Caplan: Beyond that relationship [with Michael Sheen], I really like working with Julianne Nicholson, who plays DePaul, she’s ridiculously talented, and just a wonderful girl, but on top of that her character has cancer, and we go much deeper into that in the second season, and she’s one of those actresses that the lines are so blurred between what’s real and what’s not that now when I see her it’s just kind of difficult not to cry …
Norman, I feel like if you don't say Carol people will stone you.
Reedus: I was going to say Carol, be cool, be cool. My character changed a lot when they put us together. And it's because of her, she's such a good actress, and she gets me, you know, I feel free to be vulnerable in front of her because she gets me, like she's my buddy, and you can read everything on her face, she's just a window.
Schreiber: While there are great fireworks with Jon [Voight], and with Mick and Ray’s relationship, I like Ray when he’s with, and I enjoy acting with, the young woman who plays my daughter, Kerris Dorsey, who I think is just an amazing actress. And when you're doing this kind of minimalistic riff on masculinity, to see this person with his daughter is really fun, it’s just exciting. And I think also being the father of two small children, there’s this thing in me all the time, it’s very easy and pleasurable to access and gives me lots of energy, which is tenderness, and the tenderness that occurs between the two of them as characters is something that I really love about the show, particularly in how it juxtaposes the other stuff in the show.
With your first acting credit, do you remember something that stuck with you that has stayed with you since then? You were like a bartender right, in a Zorro costume?
Hamm: Yes I was, thank you for remembering. An episode of a television show called “Providence,” starring one Melina Kanakaredes, Mike Farrell and Paula Cale. I was brought in as a guest star who was a bartender, and there was a costume party, it was around Halloween, and I dressed as Zorro somehow. It was the first thing I had ever done, and so I was completely wide-eyed, and really had no idea what I was doing, vis-a-vis marks, vis a vis lights, vis-a-vis finding the lens. And it was terrifying, and I think the sort of learning experience was don't be afraid to ask people if you don't understand something. Don't be afraid to ask a question, if you sit there and you just clam up and you think, oh god, I'm ruining this, or I'm doing it wrong, you're not going to learn. Ask.
Caplan: My first job was the pilot of "Freaks and Geeks" and I had one line, and I think I said it like 2,000 times in my trailer, like putting the inflection on different syllables of my like four-word line. And I did exactly what you said, I clammed up, and I was super intimidated, and I had never been on a set, and all these kids were clearly best friends, and nobody wanted to hang out with me because I was the weird shy girl in the corner who was whispering this one line to myself.
Hamm: Your mantra.
Caplan: Probably for the first five years of my career, most of what I learned was just observing the leads of the movie or the show that I was doing, and I learned a lot about, unfortunately, how not to be. I started when I was like 15, and actors and actresses around that age are really something, and there's a lot of ego that comes with trying to figure out who you are in the world, and also being given a lot of power on a set. And I saw a lot of really bad behavior, and it really informed what kind of actress that I hope that I became, which is being very, you know, as open and conversational with as many people as I possibly can, because it really does make a difference.
Farmiga: My first gig was as a day player doing skits on the Conan O’Brien show, and I think the first skit was playing Conan’s pregnant, lactating, scorned girlfriend, and basically squirting breast milk in his face, and having this whole jimmy rig, and I'm not sure…
Hamm: I auditioned for that.
Farmiga: And I'm not sure what I learned from that.
Schreiber: My first gig was a Nora Ephron movie called “Mixed Nuts” and I played a suicidal transvestite, and I think the first—
Hamm: Before it was cool, Jared Leto.
Schreiber: Yeah, actually I made a number of mistakes in that role, but I think the biggest one was the choice to wax instead of shave. I'm a pretty hirsute person, and it's fairly curly hair, so when you rip it out at the root, not only is it extremely painful but it grows back curly and you have this phenomenon called razor bumps.
Margulies: Yes, all we women… should I play my violin for you?
Schreiber: Imagine that stuff all over your entire body, your entire body is one gigantic bee sting. Well I never did it again, so I learned my lesson.