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Envelope Emmy Round Table: TV drama actors

They are on five of the most critically acclaimed dramas on television, playing five of the most riveting characters ever written for the small screen. And they are the primary culprits behind the nation’s DVR overload on Sunday nights.

The Envelope gathered Claire Danes, who plays bipolar CIA operative Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s “Homeland”; Michael C. Hall, the titular serial killer/forensics expert on Showtime’s “Dexter”; Jon Hamm, smooth ad man Don Draper on AMC’s “Mad Men”; Julianna Margulies, who plays lawyer and betrayed wife Alicia Florrick on CBS’ “The Good Wife”; and Aaron Paul, the meth-making Jesse Pinkman on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” — all previous Emmy nominees or winners — for a free-ranging discussion with The Times’ deputy television editor Joy Press about sex on TV, their most difficult shoots, how helpful “comedy camp” would be and how research for the role of a serial killer can take you only so far.

Below are edited excerpts from the conversation. Or, if you prefer, watch the video here.

Joy Press: What’s the hardest scene you’ve ever done? Do you ever look at scripts and just go, I can’t do this?

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Michael C. Hall: Sometimes I’ll maybe take issue with how something’s happening, but as far as what happens, it always is justifiable. When we started out, it was kind of like walking a tightrope, you know, there’s a serial killer, he says he’s not human, we’re meant to be maybe suspicious about that, and at this point it feels like [walking] a piece of dental floss or something as opposed to a tightrope.

VIDEO: Actors talk drama

Julianna Margulies: I did “Sopranos” for six episodes, and there was a scene — I’ve never done a lot of naked things, I’ve always tried to keep my clothes on, and there was a scene where I was shooting up heroin with Michael Imperioli and it was written that I throw up, crawl on my hands and knees and throw up into a garbage can.

Jon Hamm: I’m pretty sure that scene was written by Matt Weiner, by the way.

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JM: And it was. It was.

JH: Why am I not surprised?

JM: And I remember getting the pages for it — because you never got a full script — and I was like, “No, wait, wait, wait a minute, this is such gratuitous, this is, you know, I can’t, I’m going to crawl in a bra and panties” — and it was a mental block for me. I couldn’t get past what it seemed to represent to them as opposed to what I was doing with the character. And then I called my buddy, Griffin Dunne, and was like, “I don’t even know what to do with this, I can’t,” and he goes, “Just shut up and do it.” And it was such great advice because I was building up a whole story; whether it was true or not, it didn’t matter. The truth is it was a great challenge because I was completely petrified, but it was such a great set and such wonderful people, and the writing did lead up to that point and it did make total sense.

JP: So when you watched it, it felt good?

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JM: Yeah. I mean, the vodka beforehand helped, but it was fine. I was really glad that I had done it, and it felt like it was absolutely right for the character.

VIDEO: Actors talk comedy

JP: Aaron, I assume you have encountered some extreme things in your scripts?

Aaron Paul: My character Jesse, he’s such an emotional wreck at times, you know? He’s just struggling to kind of find his way. I think the scene where he wakes up and he finds his girlfriend lying next to him dead and it was like truly the first love of his life. That was a really rough scene for me to do because how I kind of tackle scenes, I try and just feel like I’m truly living it — and I think all of us do, really — and that was really rough.

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Claire Danes: There is a scene in that weekend episode [in which suspected terrorist Sgt. Nick Brody and Carrie drive out to a secluded cabin] where it was really challenging. It’s kind of this romantic weekend that turns into an interrogation, and it’s really elaborate and layered and way too much was going on, and ultimately, Brody [played by Damian Lewis] puts a gun to Carrie’s head. And when that happened my adrenaline just spiked and actually my heart was — I couldn’t breathe. And it was good for that take and good for that moment, but then my body took over and then the opposite occurred — everything dropped and all of my senses were totally dulled. And I had the whole other half of the day to do the rest of the scene where I was supposed to still be at that pitch and that adrenalized but my body wasn’t allowing me to go there. I think my imagination just got really tripped up, when a gun went to my head I stopped being able to differentiate pretend from reality, so that was weird.

JH: I think that’s the biggest thing. None of us are miners or anything like that; it’s not the world’s hardest job, but it does have certain physical demands and a lot of mental demands as well with focus, and especially if you’re the lead in one of these shows, you have a lot to do. Especially for Julianna on a network show over a much longer period of time than we have to worry about. So you do find yourself really trying to kind of bide your time and garner your forces, whether it’s for a big fight scene or some kind of crazy emotional scene or something, you have to remember to leave something in the tank.

VIDEO: Emmys round table

JP: Just going back to Julianna, you sort of said you always shied away from exposing yourself too much, but there’s been a lot of comment about just how sexy “The Good Wife” is for network TV. How much have you encouraged them to push that further?

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JM: It’s limited on network, but CBS is amazing with our show. It’s sort of their little darling, and they don’t really get in the way at all of anything. Especially, when it used to be on Tuesdays at 10, there was a lot less — 9 o’clock is a very different time on network than 10 o’clock. So, I think you’re referring to last season’s opener where, how do I say it politely, oral sex was performed on me by my ex-husband?

MCH: Very polite.

JM: Was that polite?

AP: Yeah, that was good.

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JH: If you would’ve said thank you, it would’ve been just as polite.

JM: It’s not that I do or don’t encourage it, honestly. [Series creators] Michelle and Robert King, you meet them and they’re these tiny little sweet people, and she’s just a dirty little girl, and I love it. I think it’s great for network television, and the show is meant for adults, you know?

JP: Well, I think the idea of the adult show is sort of important. It seems like a lot of these shows use sex in really interesting ways, like Claire’s character. I mean, you talked about that scene, Carrie kind of uses her sexuality, as does Don, I suppose. Do you feel like that’s a really important element for your show?

JH: I think both Jesse and my show could probably be on a network. We don’t, I think, show …

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AP: See how he just called me Jesse there? You guys just notice that? That happens all the time.

JH: [Laughs] We aren’t allowed to show anything really that you can’t show on network, everything’s suggested. I think with the exception of like two or three words a week we could probably be put on a network uncut. The Showtime crowd maybe not so much.

JP: Although, Sally did get an eyeful —

JH: But there was no, you know …

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JP: It was implied, yes.

JM: No, don’t! It’s on my TiVo. Don’t tell me.

JH: It’s literally things that you probably would’ve seen on “NYPD Blue” 10 years ago.

JP: So you guys all star in dramas, and very, very serious dramas, but, I mean, John, you’ve been doing quite a bit of comedy, including the recent blackface live appearance on"30 Rock.”

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JH: It wasn’t blackface, to make it very clear. It was just some dirt. It wasn’t — it was very different than blackface, but I’ll let it slide.

JP: You just rubbed yourself in some ashes.

JH: Of course, absolutely. I was working in a dusty field.

JP: I’m just curious. Why are you sort of drawn to comedy? Is it a way to kind of pull yourself away a little bit from Don Draper, or is it just fun?

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JH: There’s no grand plan in my world. It’s just opportunities that come my way, and it happens to be a lot of people that I’ve known for various stretches of time and, you know, I think if Tina Fey called anybody on this panel and said, “Hey, do you want to be on the show?” they’d probably all say yes. Same thing with Lorne Michaels. So I was just fortunate enough to be asked, really, and it’s fun. It’s fun to do that kind of goofy stuff, and it is a different thing. It’s definitely something you think about when you’re doing one thing for nine months out of the year, or five months, in my case, that you’re like, maybe I don’t want to do that for another five months, let’s do something different. And that’s the fun part of being an actor, is you get to do different things, you’re not just pigeonholed into one thing for the rest of your life.

AP: I wish I could do comedy, but I’m just not funny, you know?

JM: That was funny.

MCH: That was pretty funny.

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AP: Well, I’m trying.

JM: You could go to comedy camp.

JH: Stand next to funny people, that’s what I do.

JM:Michael J. Fox was doing an episode with me, and we were like on hour 14, and he saw me, like my head was just drooping in court, and he looked at me and he goes, “You’ve got it all wrong. You got to do half-hour, man. You don’t work this hard. You maybe work two or three days a week, and you make a lot more money.”

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JP: The fact is, though, that there is black comedy on all of your shows.

JM: I think if there was no humor in my character, then no one would want to watch her. I mean, otherwise, where are you going to go? It’s just going to be so depressing.

CD: Right. They’re not utterly divorced. I think it’s true for comedy too. If there isn’t some pathos there, then it doesn’t register as amusing, you know? Yeah, I would love to do more comedy.

JP: Did you guys do research on your characters? I mean, you’ve got, you know, a meth dealer, a lawyer, a killer, a CIA …

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CD: A slut.

JP: I wasn’t going to say that. I wasn’t going to go there. And an ad man, so not exactly Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

CD: Yeah. I did quite a bit, quite a lot. I knew very little about the CIA. I knew not nearly enough about the bipolar condition. So, yeah, I had to — that was fun. I enjoyed that process because they’re both fascinating subjects. But, yeah, it took a little while to get familiar with them.

JP: I assume, Michael, that you did not …

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MCH: I mean, yeah, it requires an imagination, ultimately. Unless you’re willing to kill people, but still I’m not compelled to kill people, you know? So even if I were to kill people, I wouldn’t really know what it feels like to him, so I’ve got to think about what I’m compelled to do and use that. So research, yeah, I did some. But I think, ultimately, the more research that I did into the serial killer, I realized that Dexter is maybe a unique creation. You can’t really attribute how he goes about doing what he does to any [real] killer.

JP: You have to limit how much the research helps.

CD: Yeah, exactly.

JP: Your husband’s actually a lawyer, right?

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JM: Yes, he is. And he got me into some federal courts that he clerked for judges down in New York when he was right out of law school. So I actually for a few weeks went and sort of trailed around. And then really I just watched every political wife who was standing behind her man at a press conference announcing that he was either gay or had slept with hookers, and it was wild to see how many of them there were.

JH: Our show takes place in a very specific place and time that people actually lived in that I didn’t, nor did most of the people who work on our show.... So for me it was a tremendous amount of trust in the people that are putting the show together. It’s not my job to write it. It’s my job to make it sound like I’m legitimately saying it and feeling it and doing it. And so there’s a tremendous amount of trust that these people are putting you in situations that are legitimate, and I think in my case, very well-founded.

But we’ve had guys, these people that are sort of these legendary titans of the advertising world in New York — there are two very different camps. Some say [the show is] exactly how it was, and some say that’s not how it was at all, that’s how some people did it. And, you know, that’s good enough for us, the fact that some people did it and we’re like, all right, we’re telling their story and we’re not telling your story, nerd, move on. And, you know, hopefully we’re telling a good story.

JP: There’s a whole world of blogs and, you know, show recappers — people are actually fact-checking things in fictional TV shows, often affectionately. I mean, they’re really obsessed, and I think it’s an extension of their enjoyment, but how do you guys feel about that? Do you sort of ignore it? Does it add anything to it for you guys?

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AP: I think it’s great that people are so excited about it.

JH: Yeah, if anybody’s that detail-oriented, that means that they’re spending time with it. That’s great.

JM: The only thing that worries me about this access to everyone’s voice and what they think about the shows is that I fear that the creative people listen to it. I don’t — I always say to my writers, no one knew what we were doing when we shot the pilot, no one had access to say what they liked and what they didn’t like, and you wrote an amazing show. Don’t let them influence what you’re going to keep writing. Because as much as I really appreciate everyone being interested, it’s too many voices.

JH: I think most show runners have big enough egos that they’re not going to be swayed by commenter turk69@aol.com on the Television Without Pity message board. I think it’s nice for fans to kind of talk, break it down and talk among themselves, but I can’t imagine being a show runner and (A) having enough time to read all that stuff and (B) giving a ....

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JM: But they do. I mean, I had an example of it this year that was very conflicting for all of us because all the fans would write in because they loved Kalinda [played by Archie Panjabi] and Alicia [in scenes] together. But Alicia found out after two years of her being my only friend that she had slept with my husband. And so, I spent the season bearing it and grinning but not being her friend anymore. But the comments back, as I’d read scripts [and would see] that we were, you know, at a bar together, the comments back were, “The fans want you back together. You guys were the relationship on the show,” and I said, “But you wrote a very different scenario, and I have to be truthful to that.” You find me one woman, forget America, but in the world who would then be a friend again and go out drinking with the woman who’d slept with her husband. I don’t know that person.

And that came from a huge group of people complaining because they loved our characters together. And I think that’s tricky because they wrote something very purely and then realized maybe we did make a mistake. So then does that not exist, what we just played for a year? And I think it’s a slippery slope. You have to be careful, you know, that’s all.

MCH: In creating a sense of longing in an audience for something that doesn’t necessarily make sense isn’t — it’s not something you have to honor directly; you don’t have to give it to them. I mean, the fact that they have a sense of longing means that they have a sense of investment in the world …

CD: It sounds like they’re grieving for something that they just have to sit with and go through and be uncomfortable with and, you know, get to the other side of. But if you answer their immediate knee-jerk, no, then you’re dishonoring the show.

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