Very James Woods

Times Staff Writer

JAMES WOODS is the first to admit that his first full-time TV job isn’t much of a stretch. On CBS’ new show “Shark,” he plays the loud and egotistical Sebastian Stark, an ostentatious Los Angeles defense lawyer who switches sides and joins the district attorney’s office.

Woods, after all, has spent much of his on-screen career playing versions of himself, even spoofing that persona on HBO’s “Entourage” last season, when he guest-starred opposite his real-life 20-year-old girlfriend, Ashley Madison. Instead, Woods said, the bigger challenge presented by the current role is that Stark has just assumed primary custody of his 16-year-old daughter, Julie, played by Danielle Panabaker. (Woods, 59, does not have any children.)

On the day the show premiered, Woods reflected on why “Shark” is his most enjoyable work to date -- “I actually, gleefully would do it for free” -- even though it comes at “the worst time of my life”: Woods’ younger brother, Michael J. Woods, 49, died of a heart attack on July 26, just days after the pair had completed a cross-country trip together.


Some highlights from a day spent on the Fox lot where the show is shot:

In his trailer

Since arriving on the lot early in the morning, Woods muttered repeatedly that he needed to learn his lines for an upcoming courtroom scene but seemingly never stopped long enough to do so. Yet, when the camera rolled, his words matched the script verbatim. In between scenes, he cooed to and played with Angel, his tiny black terrier who sports a collar with daisies on it, and talked about his “photographic memory.”

This dog is a person. I love her! She’s so cute since she was a little tiny baby. She could stand in my hand. I learned [my lines] when we were talking and walking over. A lot of people like to learn the lines ahead of time because it’s not so easy to memorize. I could look at a page and memorize it. This stuff is a little harder because it’s exposition, and when you’re giving exposition, people don’t talk like that. I find that just kind of rehearsing it....all of a sudden it makes sense. Now, for some reason, it’s almost like I’m an idiot savant. I just look and the lines come. I don’t know why.

His cellphone rings, and he asks his publicist to answer it in case it’s his 80-year-old mother in Rhode Island.

I had a 184 IQ. I used to be smart before I was an actor.

The funny thing is I did take an IQ test online and I got a 170-plus like three or four months ago. They say your IQ doesn’t change. I can’t remember names anymore or if I got a lot on my mind, I’ll forget who I played golf with yesterday. For some reason, I’ve kept my capacity to reason, my conceptual ability and sophisticated logic.

I had the highest test scores in my school system, and so when my brother went through school 10 years later, he had the highest test scores. My brother was the single most erudite person in the world. Not a single thing you could ever mention about history that my brother wouldn’t go on for 20 minutes about. When we drove cross-country, no matter what we talked about, we’d be in the Missouri Breaks and he’d go, “Oh yeah, Lewis and Clark when they were here ...” and he’d go on and on. I’d go, “God, how do you know this stuff?”

Woods’ publicist mentions that former Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark will be interviewing him today for a segment on “Entertainment Tonight.”

I met her at the O.J. trial. It’s a very funny story, actually. I had family coming out visiting, and my aunt wanted an O.J. T-shirt or something. My mom said, “They’re from around the country, to them it would be a big thing.” So we go downtown to the courthouse and one of the sheriffs saw me and said, “Oh, Mr. Woods, are you going to the trial?” And I was with my mom, my aunt -- like four of us. So I said, “Yeah.” I get in and the first thing I do, O.J. turns around and steps up and goes to shake my hand. Now the one thing I don’t want is the world to see O.J. Simpson shaking my hand. OK? Clearly. And I’m standing there thinking -- what am I going to do? And one of the lawyers puts his hand down, “You can’t interact with people.” Thank God .... But that was such a seminal event. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to take this part, because I watched how polarizing all of these trials have been.

After offering Angel a treat, he continued.

It was a very pragmatic choice to do this [role].... I read it and I thought, “Wow, when am I going to get a great part like this in any medium again for a long time?” Well, people say you haven’t done movies lately. I go, “Well, tell me a part I should have done.” I watch “Spider-Man,” for example, and I see a great actor like Willem Dafoe, and he’s hopping around wearing a goblin mask -- I’m not putting him down.... This is one of the few parts that a middle-aged heterosexual white guy is consigned to in feature films this day.

On Stage 8

A scene is being shot in which a witness is being cross-examined by defense attorney Ted Jeffries (Paul Schulze). Stark is sitting at the prosecution table with his assistant. Jeffries elicits crucial information that the prosecutors were unaware of. The scene should end with Jeffries having the last word. But Woods has other things in mind. Take after take, he cracks up the cast and crew:


Jeffries: “Well, that changes everything.”

Stark: “I object on the basis of nutrition.”


Jeffries: “Well, that changes everything.”

Stark: “Your honor, may I take my toe to your recess?”


Jeffries: “Well, that changes everything.”

Stark: “Yes, it does, you smug .... “

The scene is complete, and now Woods must head to his TV interview with Clark. Woods decides to commandeer the golf cart his staff was using to drive him around the lot. On the way, he sees a blond woman, a script in her hands. He brakes and asks her what part she’s reading for. The young woman yells, “I just sold a single-camera comedy!”

Woods congratulates her.

As he drives off, he says, “She was a hottie. She looked like an actress. Good for her.”

Stage 16

During a 45-minute interview with Clark, the former prosecutor asks how he is doing in the aftermath of his brother’s sudden death.

I never was a believer of this before, but here’s something I will tell you for sure: If you ever know someone who experiences an important loss in their lives involving a loved one of any kind, send flowers, send cards, send food.... Just the fact that people are thinking of you or thinking of your loved one, it’s just remarkably important and touching. I heard from so many people. Bob De Niro sent my mother flowers -- my mother, not me. That was so smart.... At a time when you’re free-falling off a cliff, the slightest gesture means so much.

After the interview, he gets back in the golf cart. As he drives by the set of “House,” he spontaneously decides to stop. He pulls into a spot that says “Parking for Hugh Laurie Only.” Woods was told earlier that “House” sent over a good-luck cake. When he walks onto the set, the stand-ins who are rehearsing flip for the star.

I just want to thank everybody for the cake you sent us today.

Everyone stares at him blankly.

OK, it turns out you didn’t know about it. But I want to thank you for sending the cake you didn’t know about. We’re going to take it as a sign of good luck. And we’ll return the favor by sending you back a spinach souffle. Just kidding. Keep up the good work. See you all later.

Outside, Woods says he wants to go to the “House” production office to thank them. His girlfriend, Ashley, who kept him in the tabloids all summer and has now joined him, says she wants to go home and re-curl her hair and change clothes for the evening’s premiere party. She wins.

Back outside his trailer

Woods tells the show’s crew about his visit to the “House” set. An assistant looks panicked. Woods is informed the cake actually came from the set of “Bones.”

The actor laughs and laughs before he asks: Does anybody know where “Bones” is?

Later that night, at the offices of Paradigm talent agency in Beverly Hills

Woods is sitting on one side of a couch in the front room with Ashley. Someone mentions “Entourage,” and Woods reminds everyone that Ashley played his girlfriend.

She was the one that was fixing her [breasts], remember? That was her. She was [complaining] and she said, “My ... shoes hurt.” She improvised all of that. They wanted us to come back, and I said, “I can’t come back and keep playing myself for scale.” Double scale! I actually have another job, a day job. This one.

Ashley: “Your day job was poker at that time.”

Woods joins the shows creator, Ian Biederman, in the screening room to watch the show’s premiere on Sept. 21. I have the almost unimaginably enviable job.... I have never in my life enjoyed an endeavor as much as I enjoy doing this show.

Via telephone, last Friday

The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Woods had been working on the second episode of “Shark” when he learned his brother had died, and production shut down for nearly three weeks. That episode ultimately aired last Thursday, and Biederman added an “In Loving Memory of Michael J. Woods” card at the end. The show’s audience, nearly 15 million viewers, had grown in its second week, giving it an impressive win over NBC’s “ER” in total viewers. A subdued and introspective Woods reflected on these bittersweet times.

It seems like it was a hundred years ago. It was the third day of that episode that I lost my brother, God rest his soul.

[The dedication] was lovely. That was their idea. When they first showed it to me, I really was very shocked and just so moved by it. It broke my heart. I never thought I’d think of him in terms of “loving memory” -- that’s for sure. But it was very thoughtful.

I very much accept the fact that this took a big piece of my life. I don’t know if I necessarily want to feel better, to be honest with you. You know, I’m not afraid of deep sadness. Some people are very threatened by it. Everybody tries to be happy. I don’t think being happy is necessarily the most important thing on Earth. I think sometimes it’s important to be sad. Right now, I’m sad and that’s OK. I’ll handle it, even if it’s forever.