The Envelope recently gathered the actors who have brought some of your favorite TV dramas to life — Jason Bateman (Netflix’s “Ozark”), Patricia Clarkson (HBO’s “Sharp Objects”), Jodie Comer (BBC America’s “Killing Eve”), Bob Odenkirk (AMC’s “Better Call Saul”), Billy Porter (FX’s “Pose”) and Lorraine Toussaint (NBC’s “The Village”) — to talk about the pros and cons of Peak TV, the roles that push beyond the comfort zone, fan overreactions and nervous breakdowns.
Here is an excerpt from their conversation edited for length and clarity. The full interview will air on Spectrum News 1, starting June 7 at 9 p.m.
So, what are the benefits and the drawbacks of there being so much content out there right now?
Billy Porter: To me, somebody who grew up in the ’70s and Norman Lear was really important to our culture, I learned a lot from interacting with TV in that way. And I feel like there’s a lot of those kinds of shows and that kind of programming again. We get to be artists who have the capacity to change hearts and minds, which is — I don’t know, that’s why I do it. It seems lofty, but that’s why I do it, so it’s great.
Lorraine Toussaint: The downside is it’s kind of the Wild, Wild West now. For journeyman actors, there are no rules in terms of the way in which we are compensated. Oftentimes, you are navigating work where the attraction is for celebrity, as opposed to craftsmen …
Bob Odenkirk: It’s a little rude to talk about Jason’s pursuit of celebrity right in front of him …
Jason Bateman: I’m working pretty hard at it …
Toussaint: He’s gotten so good at it.
Bateman: I’m one sex tape away …
Billy, how do you think it would be if you were trying to break out now?
Porter: I know how it would be because I’m watching it. I’m seeing the people who are like me walk through the doors that I kicked down. I feel blessed enough also to be able to walk through the doors that my generation kicked down. As a black, out, gay actor there wasn’t anything to do. The first thing they say in acting school is you have to be authentic. That’s how you be a good actor. Then they turn to the gay boys or the gay people and say, “Except y’all. You’ve gotta fix yourself.” So 20 years of my career I’m like, “Um…”
Patricia Clarkson: But you were unbelievable in “Kinky Boots.” It’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.
Porter: It was the 25 years before that. But you know, you stay in it, you work, and you exist inside of your authenticity, even when nobody cares and nobody’s listening. Because ultimately, it can turn around. It has turned around and it’s such a great time. I’m so glad I lived long enough to be here to do it.
Clarkson: That’s what I think is important, is that the underserved really keep rising.
What scared you about the roles that you guys are currently in? Like Jodie, playing this character of Villanelle, who’s just ruthless, but she’s got such a wit about her.
Jodie Comer: I think what scared me the most was the tone of the show. There was this constant humor undercutting the dark moments, and [creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Harry Bradbeer] and the directors, they always encourage me to take risks and really kind of push moments, which sometimes felt unnatural or maybe a little bit more than what I would usually do. And I remember before it came out and I thought, “Oh God, she could be a complete caricature and I could have totally overplayed this.” So the most important part for me was getting that tone right and making sure that the audience could still find truth in her. And have it be authentic and believable, but also kind of outrageous and bold…
I mean, because straight out of the gate, with that scene in the ice cream parlor or the diner. She just knocks over that kid.
Comer: But that’s what I loved about her, because I was like, I’ve thought about doing that before. I haven’t done it, because you know, that’s a bad thing to do, but she’s kind of fearless and she doesn’t apologize for it. I think that’s what people have enjoyed living through her.
Jason, what scared you about “Ozark”?
Bateman: The character itself is someone who I’m comfortable playing and that I like to play, characters that are close to the audience, that is sort of “us.” So that I can help shape a kind of vicarious experience for the audience.
He’s a financial advisor …
Bateman: Yeah, a 40-year-old guy and he’s got a wife and two kids and sort of a middle-class kind of thing, the commonplace, populous kind of person. So that was good for me. This was more of a challenge for me as a director and as a producer, to oversee something. And I knew that I’d be really making myself nervous with that, because it kind of had this moody sense about it and this dread kind of thing that I was trying to build. And so I thought, “Well, if I can have a hand on the steering wheel in front of the camera and one in the back, I might be able to hit a tone more accurately than if I have to try to figure out what to say to [another] actor.
Patricia, your character in “Sharp Objects,” she’s a mother who’s inflicting trauma on her daughters and someone who clearly has suffered some trauma herself. Does that seep into your own life? How do you detach yourself?
Clarkson: It is sadly a case of cyclical, generational abuse and violence, and it was a tough beginning. But I had to approach her without any judgment and oddly with — as corny as this sounds — love and no fear. A woman who feels she is the best mother in the world. So I had to remain high, in order to go so low and sink into this abhorrent behavior. But I didn’t take it home. And thank God my dog was there.
What was the response you got from that character?
Clarkson: Well, actors, you know, were extraordinary to me about it, a beautiful thing. And then people on the street would yell, “You know, I’m gonna cross over to the other side!” And in restaurants, people would always have to pass judgment on [the character] Adora to me: “My God! What were you thinking? What were you doing?” And I’m like, “Look, lady, I just wanna have my Chardonnay, OK?”
Toussaint: What people don’t know about us is that we don’t act, right? There’s no such thing as acting because the brain, the psyche doesn’t know the difference between real and pretend. So we are committing to move our bodies and our minds and our spirits and our psyches through what most of the world goes through their entire life avoiding. We dive into the deep end of it, fully with our bodies. I know for the character I’m playing now, Patricia, she’s emotionally in the center of my wheelhouse, but she’s got cancer. And I knew that every day I would be giving my body directives of an illness. I’m giving it the symptoms. I’m telling my body that it’s OK to take this on. And I can’t tell my body it’s pretending. It doesn’t have that language. I would have to also give it directives to move it out.
Comer: That was beautiful.
Billy, your character was created for you in “Pose,” right?
Porter: Yes. I got the call for “Pose” right after having a nervous breakdown the day before. Literally, having a showbiz nervous breakdown the day before [mimics crying]: “I can’t do it anymore!” Literally pulling the car over like, “I’m done! I hate these people!”
Porter: And the call came the next day. I’m a true believer in speaking into existence what you want. And you know, I wasn’t having a whole lot of luck crossing over from theater into film and TV. Lots of dismissal, dismissive energy surrounding what I do, what I bring, whatever. But a few years prior, I started looking at the landscape and going, “Well, who would get me? Who’s in the showrunning position that could get me?” And Ryan Murphy came up and I just went — Ryan Murphy, and started typing him in my journal, started saying him in my prayers — so when the phone rang, and they said, Ryan Murphy, “Pose,” and it’s set in the LGBTQ ballroom culture, I just started laughing.
With TV, you’re playing a character often for a long stretch of time — does it get stale? Bob, you’ve been playing Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill for almost 10 years now.
Odenkirk: Well, there’s a lot of variety within that character. It’s a rich role with many sides to it. He can be a very earnest character, and the depths of his soul can be revealed and shown in scenes, and he can be very honest. And then, of course, he can be this con man who’s fun to play, a kind of comic.
Clarkson: I have so many friends who are so in love with you. I mean, they worship you in this part.
Odenkirk: It is beyond anything I ever earned or deserved. He’s an awful guy and he’s a user and a con man and selfish and … and then they really went all in on making him incredibly likable and down-to-earth and needy and kind of fractured and delicate almost inside. And you feel bad for this guy. I mean, they did a wonderful job. That[s all the writing.
Bateman: Well, it’s also such a compliment to you, because there’s a one-dimensional version of that character.
Odenkirk: When I read these scripts I thought, “Well, there’s only one way to do this. I can’t maintain some kind of comic, ironic distance that I’ve done my whole life.” You know, in comedy, you can play a scene — depending on how broad it is, you can almost laugh, the actor will laugh at what they’re doing, and the audience doesn’t care. But the only way to do this guy was completely give up yourself and kind of surrender to the moment and all the feelings that were written on the page and sacrifice your own sense of the moment.
What’s the weirdest or strangest note you’ve gotten about your performance, either from a director, a fan, a peer?
Bateman: Well, the weirdest, most humbling note I got was when I was, I don’t know, 20 or something like that, I got to work with Katharine Hepburn in like a movie of the week. And I was playing her driver. And this one scene I had to break down and cry in front of her, and we did like two or three takes, and I’m working real hard, really trying to squeeze them out, and she said in the middle of the take, she stopped, and she said, “Stop acting.” And I said, “Like…quit?” She said, “No, no, no, no, no, just in the scene. Just say it, just say the lines.”
Comer: I feel like good direction can change everything. For me, that’s the most enjoyable part of being on a set is that communication and that playfulness. And when you get a clear note, I feel like it can just change the whole direction of the scene.
Clarkson: With Jean-Marc Vallée on this very dark and tortured script, he kept it free and loose and it was not a set piece, in any way. And we didn’t rehearse often. He would just come in and kind of set the scene in a way — there was such a freedom and a relaxation. We could just kind of fall into the scene, in a way that allowed it to, I think, really exist at its best.
Porter: I was doing a Broadway show recently — I’m an R&B singer, I’m a soul singer, I’m a gospel singer. I don’t always sing the same thing twice. I was singing a blues number in this particular piece and the director said to me, “Sometimes I think that your musicality and your muscularity can obscure the emotional moment.” And I try again. Because I know that there’s a good note in there, but it doesn’t have to come with an attack on exactly what you hired me for. You hired me to stop this show and now you’re mad because I’m doing that? There’s a really good note in there and I want to hear what it is. Please stop attacking me, though.
Not to do a full left turn here, but Jodie, Villanelle does something that’s often taboo in TV, which is killing a child. Was that a hard scene for you?
Comer: When I first read the script I was like, “Oh. Is this too much?” I was trying to wrap my head around why it felt gratuitous, I couldn’t quite grasp it. And then, I had a really in-depth conversation with Emerald Fennell, who wrote the episode. What I actually find fascinating about this scene, as we try to unravel this woman is — not that we should always understand why she does what she does — but I think she sees that moment as being merciful. There’s a moment right before it where [the boy] says, “If you were in my situation, would you want to live like this?” And she’s very matter-of-fact. When you ask her a question, you’re going to get an answer. And she’s like, “No, I wouldn’t.” And in that moment, it’s a decision of mercy.
Are there things that you won’t do? Is there a line that you draw?
Odenkirk: Watch YouTube, I’ve done everything.
Bateman: It’s an interesting challenge as an actor, to look at something on the script that is something you can never imagine doing or you can’t imagine an audience having any sort of empathy or sympathy or understanding or relatability to, like killing a kid or something. But if a writer has either a strategy with the writing, to find that bridge to what’s the human part of this person where they felt justified doing it? Or if they’re open to letting you as an actor show that crack of doubt or, you know, the character is somewhat guilty or contrite about doing it like —
Odenkirk: But you also have to be a little careful about being too defensive about your part, right?
Comer: It’s finding the balance between knowing when it actually isn’t right and when you’re trying to maybe shy away from something.
Clarkson: Or you’re taking something on because you genuinely think the writing is not right for the moment. That’s what you don’t want to do. But I don’t know that there’s anything I wouldn’t do, if it’s in the character.
Toussaint: You have to be brave. There are things that I do now as an actor that I never thought I would do.
You had your first nude scene, right? For “Orange Is the New Black”?
Toussaint: I did. Over 50! But you kind of set the parameters. I found myself trying to get out of it, as if we don’t need it. And is there a way to do this dressed, in some way? She could be in lingerie …
Clarkson: I’ve done more nudity older than I ever did. I’m like, “Where the hell were you 20 years ago?”
Porter: You know, I had a romantic kissing scene in the last episode of “Pose.” And it wasn’t until the day before that I realized I’ve never kissed anybody romantically in anything ever in my career, at all. I was literally shaking. And this boy was cute! I’m like, Mama’s going to see this, the neighborhood is going to see — you know. Like I was gay before, but now I’m —
Toussaint: Now you’re gay gay.
Porter: I’ve been able to sort of circumvent all of that, being in the theater, because [my family doesn’t] go to the theater. But now it’s like, “Billy’s on television and he’s kissing boys!”
Do you have a story of your — if not the worst, your weirdest audition?
Toussaint: I went in for a role where I went in to play a Caribbean character and I’m from the Caribbean. I was born there. And I was in my 20s and she was kind of a fast girl, you know, skirt was up to here, down to here and all that. And the star-producer person said, “Well, I just can’t tell what kind of body you have under there.” And then he proceeded to say, “And you know, your Caribbean dialect is not accurate. Let me show you — let me demonstrate what it’s supposed to sound like.” And he went into his version of Jamaican. He wanted me to do it again. I said, “No, I won’t.” And I walked out, and back then you had pay phones. So I went to the pay phone and called my agent and said, “I didn’t get that one.”