For some actors, winning an Emmy seems to be simple. For Ted Danson, it took eight seasons to win one for “Cheers.”
With the nominations for this year’s awards set to be announced on July 17, eight actors — all with major primetime TV series roles — gathered for a provocative discussion of the Emmys and their careers.
The lineup: Danson (FX’s “Damages”), Alec Baldwin (NBC’s “30 Rock”), David Duchovny (Showtime’s “Californication”), Mark Harmon (CBS’ “NCIS”), David Spade (CBS’ “Rules of Engagement”), Neil Patrick Harris (CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother”), Bryan Cranston (AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) and Rainn Wilson (NBC’s “The Office”).
The Hollywood Reporter: Only Ted has tasted Emmy victory. What was that like?
Ted Danson: The first time I won (in 1990), they had a cartoon present me the award. It was one of the Simpsons. And that was after I’d lost eight straight times. You change suits. You care. You don’t care. You write a speech. You don’t write a speech. Then there’s the phone call back home to the kids: “No, I didn’t win. But it’s OK, really. I had a great evening.”
THR: David, did you have a great evening when you were nominated for “Just Shoot Me” in 1999?
David Spade: I actually remember my Golden Globe loss that year more than my Emmy loss. I got beat by Gregory Peck. That prick! And he came out of nowhere!
David Duchovny: And as I recall, wasn’t he already dead at the time?
Spade: He died on the way to the podium. He said, like, “I can’t believe I won this award for my 90-second cameo.” And I’m like, “Me, too!”
THR: Actually, Ellen Burstyn was nominated two years ago for an 11-second cameo in the HBO movie “Mrs. Harris.”
Rainn Wilson: Yes, but she was great. Ten of those seconds were pure magic.
THR: Bryan and Ted, you both made major inroads with audiences in comedic roles, but now you’re thriving in drama series on cable. Was it a tough sell for you to make those changes?
Bryan Cranston: Not in my case. I mean, actors just love to act. The only thing I think we really concern ourselves with is not being pigeonholed in any one thing. We look for the well-rounded opportunity, and “Breaking Bad” was surely that. I’d once guested on David’s show “The X-Files” 10 years ago, when Vince Gilligan was a producer over there. Fortunately, he remembered me when he was putting together his new show. He was my champion to get this role from the beginning.
Danson: I’m sure my agent and my manager pursued it for me. But when you see writing like this show has, and a star like Glenn Close, and a network that takes chances like FX, I felt lucky landing the part. You always go for the good writing.
THR: David, you’re also on cable — do you feel a greater sense of creative freedom as actors working on cable shows?
Duchovny: Having the full flower of the English language tends to be good for comedy. It’s a treat as an actor to be able to actually speak in a role the way one speaks in life.
Cranston: It’s different for David because he’s on the premium channel. On AMC, they actually give us a limit of how many “s---s” or “f---s” we can use each week. You negotiate it. If we say “s--t” once in an hour, we might get two “f---s.”
Duchovny: At Showtime with “Californication,” we actually have more freedom than they do in a movie. You get an R rating with two “f---s.”
Danson: The language thing is really kind of the tip of the iceberg. On cable, you get to explore things without having to worry about a common denominator. There’s no worry about advertisers objecting, or turning off a segment of your audience by the subject matter or point of view, or having to be concerned that your hero isn’t always being heroic. Bad people can do good things. Good people can do bad things. You get to show the shades of gray.
THR: Showtime’s motto is “No Limits,” right?
Duchovny: Yes, but we found the limit last year on our show when we were going to do an episode about a woman who ejaculates fiercely on four people. We actually shot it. But Showtime nixed it.
THR: Alec, do you feel somehow unfulfilled because you can’t swear on “30 Rock”?
Alec Baldwin: You know, I said a lifetime’s worth prior to doing this show, so I have to say no. There is something challenging about doing a show clean, but Tina (Fey) and everyone who writes it knows how to get right up to that line without crossing it. But as I’m getting older, I find that I don’t really like curse words.
Danson: If a show is good, it really doesn’t matter what the characters can say, what they can’t say or whether people are watching it on cable or broadcast.
THR: But the fact that there is an FX, an AMC, a Showtime, an HBO for shows that don’t fit into the restrictive broadcast parameters has to be good in terms of inspiring greater quality and variety than TV ever has before offered, no?
Cranston: No question. It’s been overused that we’re in another Golden Age, but I think we are. The bar has been set really high. I don’t think a show whose lead character is cooking crystal meth in the heartland could ever be considered for a broadcast network. So cable is opening up a lot of avenues for story lines that have long been closed.
Baldwin: I once pitched a show to (Fox president of entertainment) Kevin Reilly. I told him I wanted to bring back space travel on TV, like “Star Trek,” but that I wanted to have sex in the space capsule and get really adult. In the show, the space capsule will have left Earth, and because of global warming, the Earth is dying. I’m the commander of this ship and I say, “We can never go back!” So Reilly is sitting there listening very patiently and finally says, “Well, we’re never going to do that.”
THR: Do you think the reason they rejected “Sex Trek” is because it’s way less expensive to book another reality show?
Neil Patrick Harris: Actually, I wonder if the explosion of original cable shows came as a direct result of reality programs taking up so many of the networks’ slots — or if it’s just a matter of technology allowing digital cable to program stuff on Channel 164.
THR: MARK, do you ever feel shackled by the creative limitations of working in broadcast as far as situations and language and all of that?
Mark Harmon: I think you just have to be fine with wherever and whatever you are. I’m on a successful series. What matters, what’s nice and gratifying, is that people are watching us. It’s funny, I was once on a show where if you changed one word the writers would come after you and tell you they could find any actor to say those same words. And this was a show heralded as really good television. Eventually, we’ll probably be doing sex in outer space.
Wilson: I would love to have sex in outer space.
Duchovny: You know, the first time I saw the Fox show “Cops,” I thought, “F---, that’s how a drunk person really acts.” And as an actor watching these reality shows, even though they’ve become less real as time has gone on and more edited and pushed, it still lights a fire under you because you see that there’s a palpable realism to it.
Harris: It’s been honed so much now that I sense there’s a reality style of acting.
Baldwin: Reality shows work because of the changing arc of the relationship between actors and their audience. Long ago, people wanted actors who were everything they were not: gracious, beautiful, elegant, sophisticated — people they could look up to. In the 1960s and ’70s, that evolved into the audience wanting actors to be more like them. Now we’ve reached the point of “No, no, no, we don’t want to see actors on TV. We want it to be us on TV. We’ll be the stars.”
Spade: Whenever I turn one of these shows on, I get pulled in for far longer than I think I will.
Duchovny: No, David, that’s your security gate camera you’ve been watching.
Spade: Really? You know, as entertainment, it’s not bad.
THR: When it comes to twisting reality, though, TV has nothing on you guys. And the tabloids and blogs are getting progressively nastier.
Harris: It isn’t like they’re even necessarily looking for scandalous information anymore. They seize on menial things and blow them up, and the explosion of blogs has helped fuel that mentality and made it even messier. The silver lining is that the elevator moves so fast now that within two days it’s all gone and forgotten.
Baldwin: What they do is take you on your worst day and represent that it’s who you are. If I have four bad days in four years, all four of them are on TV. Your worst behavior winds up becoming what defines your public image, which really isn’t fair.
Danson: Then there are guys like me who are so boring that we try to remind people of any bad moments we’ve had just to get back out there.
THR: But is that the worst part of fame?
Danson: The worst part is the sense of entitlement that creeps up on you. You find yourself flying economy class, and it’s only then that it occurs to you how spoiled you are.
Duchovny: I hate to bring it back to an artistic level, but, you know, as an actor your job is to observe and interpret. And once you are the observed, your job of observing becomes very difficult because people change their s--t around you. Fame hinders your ability to go out and look at the way people walk and talk.
THR: You guys all have done movies as well as TV. Do you think the stigma of being perceived as TV actors has disappeared entirely?
Spade: I have to think that’s true. If the good script is in TV, that’s what you should do. Just because it’s a (theatrical) movie doesn’t mean it’s better at all.
Danson: Alec is amazing for the way he’s crossed from film into a sitcom and nailed it perfectly. He’s an example of the way to do it.
Baldwin: Thanks. You know, I love being on “30 Rock” because it keeps you moving constantly. We do six and a half pages a day. And I mean, it’s a cliche, but a movie really is about sitting around. In TV, it speeds by.
Wilson: Also in film, you’re sculpting a story that an audience is going to invest 90 minutes or two hours in. It’s different in TV, where you don’t pay nearly as much attention to where the character is starting and ending up. I love watching Russell Crowe, but I’d never want him on a TV show in my living room on a weekly basis. It would just be too much to take.
Duchovny: Ultimately, I think film becomes an editor’s medium. You give them 15 takes and then release control over it. On TV, the actor really has more control over the whole process.