For actor Andrew Howard, cooking in his Hancock Park kitchen isn’t just a hobby he’s mastered; it’s also the gateway through which he transforms into his characters.
For all his roles — including Red Scare in HBO’s “Watchmen,” and his work in that network’s upcoming “Perry Mason” reboot — Howard uses food as a sense-memory trigger, an actor’s trick for awakening emotions with indelible smells, tastes, sounds, sights and textures. Infused with nostalgia, they authentically ignite an emotional response. In his case, they also build character.
“Every role I play, the first thing I do is think about what they’d eat. Alec Guinness always started with the shoes and worked his way up. I always start with the food, which I think is a good, earthy, grounded basis to begin the character. Everybody needs to eat,” said Howard, 50.
While creating the role of Red Scare, an Eastern Bloc communist working as a police officer in Tulsa, Okla., Howard played “intense Russian music” and “just kept thinking red; that’s why I cooked this Sunday gravy,” he said, stirring a homey ragout with massive meatballs and thick pieces of bones oozing marrow, slow-cooked overnight in a cast-iron skillet.
Preparing for his role in “Perry Mason,” set in Depression-era L.A. and premiering June 21, he decided the detective was an Irish American immigrant, and so made corned beef and cabbage while listening to music from 1929.
“What better thing to do than cook and create?” Howard said. “It’s like therapy.”
Why is your kitchen your favorite room?
This kitchen has been good to me, and I like it. It’s a small house, but I love the fact that it was built in the ’20s and is an old-school Los Angeles Spanish Colonial. This house was built around the kitchen — it’s a smart use of space.
What’s your go-to place to shop for food?
Around the corner, on Melrose, there’s an incredible, beautiful butchery called Standing’s, and I get all my meat there. You know the chicken’s name before you put it in the pot. Everything is local and free-range and organic.
What first got you into cooking?
I learned to cook as a student in drama school. An Italian friend was instrumental in my love of food because his mother was a quintessential old-school Italian mama. He used to take me back to his family’s house every weekend, and we’d make a Sunday gravy and she used to give me pointers. She’d say, “Eh, come here, taste this.” I was like, “Yeah, tastes like tomatoes.” And then she put in salt and said, “Now you taste.” It was like magic; it’s alchemy.
Any other tricks for cooking authentic Italian spaghetti like you made today?
The most important thing is — and this is where people go wrong — never buy American Parmesan. And people don’t know how to finish cooking their food. The last few seconds of cooking a meal are the most important — when you season it, you squeeze the lemon on it and put some cheese on it. That’s what makes it.
What’s your go-to kitchenware?
Le Creuset and cast-iron skillets. I just got this big one and that will be passed down to my kid’s kids and their kids. My daughter Frankie loves to cook with me. She’s like me, she’s instinctive. She knows how to make a mean tomato sauce, she’s got good knife skills — she’s 10.
[This interview was in January, before social distancing. I followed up with Howard via email to see how he was doing during the pandemic.]
I’ve been cooking and cleaning and drinking and pretending to learn new skills like us all. Two weeks ago I had to take a 90-minute bus ride from East L.A. back to my neck of the woods. All of us on the bus were wearing masks, and one of the themes in “Watchmen” is “what’s behind the mask?” What I saw on that bus were superheroes — folks in scrubs heading home after a long day on the front lines. Angelenos making the best of a rough, tough new world, and everyone who stepped off the bus made a point of thanking the driver. Kind, tired eyes behind the mask. I’m a proud Angeleno.