For these five dramatic actors, the depth of storytelling on TV stuns
Times writer Mary McNamara talks with actors Tom Hiddleston (“The Night Manager”), Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”), Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”), Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) and Jean Smart (“Fargo”) about their craft and TV shows.
“These are our novels,” says “Ray Donovan” star Liev Schreiber of the quality of current television programming. And who can argue? With the depth and complexity of characters being written today, it’s storytelling at its finest – so let’s all gather around the new Tolstoy, shall we? Schreiber wasn’t alone in marveling at the intricacies of modern plotting. He was joined in a conversation with The Envelope by fellow actors Tom Hiddleston (“The Night Manager”), Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”), Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Jean Smart (“Fargo”) to talk about character development, changing roles for women, and remembering what it is your character doesn’t know. Here’s what they had to say in that late April chat.
We have represented here mini-series, we have anthology series, dramas. But one thing that unites you guys is that the characters are very complicated. Even when they are bad guys, they have some sort of essential humanity. Or even when they are heroes, they have things that they’re dealing with. How do you balance those often contradictory characteristics?
Bob Odenkirk: Well, I just call the writers and say, “Stop adding sides to my character.”
Odenkirk: Because Saul Goodman in “Breaking Bad” was such a one-dimensional—sort of intentionally—guy. He was a facade of that he was presenting. So I didn’t feel like it was a lot of work to get these new sides to the character when he was Jimmy McGill, to try to marry those two up. And I just love all the interesting versions of the guy that there are, just like real people. I mean, you’re one way at work, and you’re a different way with your family, and on your own, you’re a kind of a different person. And it all made sense to me right away. It wasn’t hard.
So you approached them like two different characters, not like “I have to get to here”?
Odenkirk: No, I didn’t think about that at all. Because we all knew right away, [co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould] and I, who really wants to watch Saul Goodman for any length of time? The actual Saul Goodman as presented in “Breaking Bad” was just a selfish, self-interested—he was fun to watch in short increments, but you wouldn’t really want to build a show around him. So they just sort of threw that away and built somebody from the ground up.
What about you, Jean? You played the crime matriarch, sort of accidentally, because her husband has been felled by a stroke and she’s having to take over. How was that?
Jean Smart: Well, first of all, I loved the fact that her name was Floyd and I never asked [“Fargo” creator] Noah Hawley why he named her Floyd until we were done. I came up with my own notions of why he called her Floyd. But the thing I loved about her was that she was just a very practical person. You just do what needs to be done, no matter what. And Noah had laid the character out so well that I had a great backstory for her almost right away. But, like, in the second episode, there’s a scene where she’s in the kitchen basting a turkey or something, and her son is out in the barn doing, shall we say, “enhanced interrogation” on a poor fellow. And I’m sure she knows what’s going on, but but then he comes in the kitchen later and makes a dirty joke, and she bites his head off for using crude language.
Did you know what her fate would be when you started?
Smart: No. I just hoped she’d last as long as possible. I was hoping that I would take a lot of people with me at the end. I really wanted to go out in a blaze of glory and take a lot of people with me, particularly Kirsten Dunst, but I didn’t get to do that. [chuckles]
What about Ray?
Liev Schreiber: You talked about a renaissance in television and it kind of feels to me like a lot of these cable shows are catching up with classical drama. The root of great dramatic writing is conflict and duality. That’s the sort of defining brilliance of Shakespeare, is that, to write a play like “The Merchant of Venice” in an essentially very anti-Semitic period of England’s history, and to not be able to resist writing, “Hath not a Jew eyes… senses, affections, emotions?” And I think that the anti-hero, certainly for the past five or so years in television, has been making great strides. For actors, it’s really interesting to be able to play duality. For so much of my career, I played typically bad guy characters, and part of my thinking behind it was, well, he’s not such a bad guy. He’s sort of a normal person with a mother and father, who has hopes and dreams and aspirations that somewhere along the line went wrong by society’s standards. To me, that’s the best writing, because it digs into that conflict that we all feel as people going through our lives, that things don’t always go the way you want them to, and you don’t always behave the way you know you should.
[The best writing] digs into that conflict that we all feel as people going through our lives.
— Liev Schreiber
Tom, your character is more of a classic hero, but he’s a very reluctant one. When you meet him, he has removed himself from that world.
Tom Hiddleston: I think that’s the way Jonathan Pine is so true to the spirit of John le Carré, which is that all of his heroes are damaged. They are kind of—they’re never straight-laced. They’re always haunted by a kind of fragility or a moral ambivalence, a sense of the hypocrisy of having to do bad things for the greater good. And I love that, actually. I love that Pine is a former British soldier who’s seen so many terrible things in the Army, in the second Iraq War of 2003. And that somewhere inside, he’s on fire, but he’s so ashamed and he feels so guilty that he’s hidden himself in a different kind of service, hiding behind the anonymity of [a hotel manager’s] uniform. He does something I don’t think I could do, which is surrender his identity and become a spy, to live without the privilege of intimate relationships, to be invisible and anonymous, and if something happens, he’s a dead man.
It must have been fun, though, with Hugh Laurie. The best scenes are when the two of you are dancing around each other.
Hiddleston: Yeah, he wrote the best villain for Hugh, which is there’s this incredibly cynical, very dark character who is—well, the devil plays the best tunes, I suppose. He’s so charismatic and so charming, and he invites Pine and the audience in. And Hugh is able to pull out all the stops, in a way. He loves this book too. He’s loved it for 25 years, and he wanted to get it made. Back in the day, he wanted to play my part.
The devil plays the best tunes, I suppose.
— Tom Hiddleston
Alicia obviously did not go through quite the shadiness that some of the other characters have, but she certainly has grown.
Margulies: It was more fun to play her later, only because she just didn’t care anymore. When she was the good wife, she cared what everyone thought. And then when all of that happened—she said a beautiful speech in the pilot episode when she’s defending this young girl, and she says, “Don’t turn on the television and don’t read the papers. You need to be a Teflon pan. Let it all roll off of you. Nothing anyone thinks of you or says about you matters. All that matters is you know the truth.” And there was something about that that was sort of a spring board for her to jump into her own life, and say, “This is who I am.” So I never felt like I was playing the same character. I always felt like I was growing and moving with her.
Schreiber: It really is a great time to be acting in television because you see the notion of what you’re allowed to do and what is permissible on a serial character growing. And a lot of these writers are doing really pioneering work on what you can do and what you can say, and the level of duality and the level of conflict and the humanism that’s in so many of the characters.
Margulies: And the luxury of television is that you get to play it out for a long time, unlike a movie where there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Smart: Even doing a play where you literally are doing the same lines every performance, as it goes on, you find all these new things in the character. You think, “oh, I wish I could go back to opening night now because I’ve thought of all this wonderful stuff.” The only scary thing I find about a series is that as an actor, you want to be as specific about your character as possible, but, at the same time, you think, well, if I kind of do this, there’s no going back. If I set this up as a precedent about the character, I can’t just suddenly say, “Oh, that didn’t work. I don’t want that to be part of her character.”
Actors Jean Smart (“Fargo”) and Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) talk about whether the number of episodes on a TV show affect character choices.
Odenkirk: The length they’re able to go with these shows now, and the depth of getting into the character and going down the rabbit hole, is crazy. And we talk about it as actors and how wonderful it is, but how about that there’s an audience of people—how is it that these people are so willing to spend so much time with these characters? It’s really amazing. I guess people used to read novels, and this is where that’s all gone.
Schreiber: It’s slightly terrifying, but true — these are novelistic shows. These are our novels. This is, you know—perhaps at the turn of the last century, you would all gather around the latest Tolstoy or something like that.
Odenkirk: You try to think about what are these stories like? And it’s very hard to go back 15 years and find anything that even is like them. People often reference movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s, but those were still movies. These shows are more incremental, and offer you an opportunity for more depth, and a more sensitive reading of the person and of their journey.
Hiddleston: It’s something to do with running time, isn’t it? The length of the time you can spend with these characters and the depth of the writing means that characters can change their minds and change direction. And that’s what happens in life, people are constantly inconstant, and that sort of keeps it fresh – well, I’ve only done six episodes so I don’t think I can speak to that.
When we were talking about the anti-hero, I was thinking about how that has been a very male character. Do women characters still have to be likeable at a level that male characters do not?
Smart: Definitely there are better roles for women. I think we’ve lost a lot of the double standards and just how it is we view men and women, whether that is our instinct or whether we’ve been programmed that way – like comedians. Why is it we accept certain things from male comedians, that if a female comedian says or does, you kind of wince sometimes? But it’s definitely better.
Why is it we accept certain things from male comedians, that if a female comedian says or does, you kind of wince sometimes?
— Jean Smart
Actors Jean Smart (“Fargo”) and Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”) talk about how women characters are less likable now on TV.
Margulies: Michael J. Fox and I were shooting a scene in the beginning of Season 7 where he bumped into me. I was at a bar and he bumped into me, and I said, “Oh—” my character turned around and said, “Oh, sorry.” And he said, “Why do you say sorry? I bumped into you. I should be saying sorry to you. Why do women always apologize? Is it because you’re taking up space on this Earth?” And she realizes he’s right. And I kept thinking about that scene, and I thought, “Do I do that? I think I do.” Just by being a woman, there’s something about how we are.
Schreiber: I feel compelled to add that Ray is completely Ann Biderman’s creation. It’s funny that it’s become this notion of uber-masculinity, but it’s completely a female creation.
Smart: That’s good to hear.
Also, you’re seeing now more female criminals. That sounds terrible, but that is still the template for great drama. And women had a hard time with that because they were always the victims.
Odenkirk: I think that this year on “Better Call Saul,” Rhea Seehorn, it was kind of her season, her character, Kim. And when she made some choices that made her join the dark side, or show a dark side, women loved that, loved it. So it’s like the feeling is that’s what’s been missing for women in roles, is that ability to play a character or to see a character that has an anti-hero side to them.
And that was what’s great about “The Night Manager’s” Olivia Colman. She was not the anti, she was the real hero.
Hiddleston: She’s the heart of the story. It’s amazing, because in the novel, that character is a man.
Hiddleston: And it was [director] Susanne Bier’s suggestion and [executive producer] Stephen Garrett’s suggestion to change the character to a woman, to just reflect the reality of the Secret Service now, which is there are a lot more women in higher positions. And Susanne said she had a very short list of one, which was Olivia Colman. It’s interesting also, John le Carré writes about this very male world of these backstairs conversations that happen in the Secret Service, and it was directed by a woman with a woman at the heart of the story. And le Carré now wishes he could go back and rewrite the novel with her as a woman.
With “The Night Manager,” you said you shot it like a film, so were you able to watch episodes, or did you just wait till it was all done?
Hiddleston: Yeah, it was scheduled like a feature, so we didn’t just complete Episode 1 and then move on to Episode 2. On a Monday morning, we might be starting with a scene from Episode 5 and—
Margulies: Oh, so you cross-boarded.
Smart: Because of locations and everything.
Margulies: So what’s nice about that is then you have the whole character.
Hiddleston: I had the trajectory, yeah. But it’s a spy thriller in which I am called by four different names, so I take on four passports and four identities and I tried so specifically to—
Odenkirk: Before you say your line, you check your passport.
Smart: If it’s Tuesday, I must be…
Hiddleston: But yeah, just slight changes in costume and bearing. But it was quite thrilling to map it out, even though Susanne and I —our heads would explode on Sunday mornings, because we’d call each other at 8:00 o’clock going, “So tomorrow, we’re on—we’re—this has just happened and that’s happened. Remember, we haven’t shot that yet, but this might happen when you shoot that, so remember this for next time.”
Smart: You have to remember what your character doesn’t know yet.
Margulies: That’s when you need a really good script supervisor.
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