When Bryan Cranston, 54, was accepting the first of two Emmys he’s won for Breaking Bad, the crowning achievement of a storied career, Chris Colfer (Glee) was an 18-year-old unknown. Yet here they are, laughing it up like old pals. If politics makes for strange bedfellows, Emmys make for strange tablemates. Especially when the nominations are as dynamic as this year’s, which recognized fresh-faced newbies like Colfer, midcareer breakouts like Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), as well as first-time-nominated acting vets like Matthew Fox (Lost) and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights). They spent a recent Saturday chatting with NEWSWEEK’s television critic, Joshua Alston, and culture editor, Marc Peyser. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Eric, what was your first paying acting job?
Stonestreet: I was painted purple for Northwestern University in Chicago.
Britton: Was that hot?
Stonestreet: Which hot? I want to be clear, Connie, what it is you’re asking.
Cranston: She loves purple men!
Stonestreet: I had just graduated from college and moved to Chicago to sort of see if I could be an actor, ’cause I had done a couple plays but hadn’t really auditioned or gone to acting school or anything. I got an audition to play this crazy sports fan for Northwestern University. They had lost to Michigan in the Rose Bowl the year before, so they were pumping some money into the sports-marketing campaign. They came up with this concept of the purple man. My first audition literally was, “All right, Eric, mind popping off your shirt there?” I was like, “Really? The casting couch is real?”
Cranston: They painted your whole body, right?
Stonestreet: They painted my whole body purple, yeah. Well, in shorts.
Matthew, you did a zit commercial for your first job?
Fox: Yeah, but I wasn’t the guy that got the zit. I was the bully friend that made fun of the guy with the zit.
Britton: It’s important to make that clear.
Fox: Yes, I always make that distinction.
Hendricks: I was in one of those, too. I was in one of those things where you take the oil off your face. And I was with the girl in the photo booth and we go, “Eww, gross!”
Colfer: I think I remember that one!
Cranston: I was a skunk in a soap commercial. I get on a bus in New York, and I’m in full skunk, with the tail and the briefcase. And everybody’s going, “Oooh, maaaaan, whaaat?”
Britton: Were you in a big furry outfit?
Cranston: I was in a big furry suit.
Britton: Was it hot?
Cranston: Oh, yeah.
Stonestreet: See, I got it that time.
When you got these early jobs did you think, “This is fantastic!” or “Oh, my God, I’m never going to get past being skunk guy”?
Britton: I was always thrilled. Every single thing.
Stonestreet: I couldn’t believe somebody was going to get me Advil because I had a headache. I said, “I have a headache,” and then somebody darted off to get me Advil. I remember telling my parents that.
Britton: I used to teach aerobics, like that’s kind of what I did when I was pounding the pavement to make money. It was when they were first starting those ESPN on-the-beach aerobic TV things, and I thought it was my big break. And I put together an audition tape complete with my bandanna and my leg warmers. And they said, “We want you to do it!” And then I got a stress fracture, and I thought my career was over.
Christina, do people think you’re just an overnight success?
Hendricks: Yes. I mean, people are like, “This must be crazy for you!” It is really crazy for me, but I’ve been plugging along, I’ve been working, and, as we were all saying before, it was always fun. You know, my dad would always go, “You’re almost there!” and I’d go, “Almost where? I’m on a network television show! This is all I could ever ask for!”
Does your dad think you’re there yet?
Hendricks: I spoke to him the other day, and first he said no, but then he corrected himself and said, “Well, I don’t know, maybe you are.”
Cranston: That’s a very common thing that you hear from the civilian population. They think that there’s an actual destination, that every actor going into this business wants and needs to be a star. For me, that was never the case. All I cared about was to be a working actor.
Britton: And even the differentiation between film and television. That was always a thing, and still to some degree is. You know, “Oh, well, you know, it’s really about film,” or whatever. But for me it’s really about doing something that I’m just having the best time doing.
Hendricks: It’s funny, the assumption that’s like, “You’ve reached this amount of success with your television career, so naturally now you want to do movies.”
Fox: I think there’s so much better stuff going on in television than there is in film. They’re taking a lot more chances in television. They don’t have to put so many fannies in the seats, so there are more brave things happening on television, more interesting and new ideas.
Britton: Particularly for women.
Christina, do people think you are your character when they see you in real life?
Hendricks: I think there’s a little bit of people wanting all of us on Mad Men to behave as we do on the show. There’s a sort of fantasy because of the style of everything, and especially because we’re a period show, it takes you out of present reality a little bit. So I do get a lot of comments like, “Well, you’re not mean at all!” And I say, “Thank you!” If you’re doing your job, you want to convince people that’s who you are for the day. So I guess it’s a compliment.
Cranston: And people are comforted if they know that the character they’re watching is someone close to them.
Stonestreet: People don’t like that I’m not much like Cameron.
Colfer: Total disappointment, right?
Stonestreet: I don’t know. I think Bryan’s probably right in that there is comfort in that. It’s funny—somebody wrote that they had to stop following me on Twitter because I wasn’t like my character. It was ruining the show for them. It’s hilarious.
Hendricks: Before Twitter and Facebook and all these things, there used to be a little bit of mystery. You were someone on TV, and then you went and you had your life, and you could sort of dictate and manage how you were out in public. And now it’s just like everything’s out there.
Well, Chris, how is that for you? Because so much of your character comes from who you are. They wrote the part for you.
Colfer: That makes it even harder to convince people that you’re not the character. What’s even harder nowadays with the technology is that they have Twitter accounts for our characters, and then we have our accounts as people. So people would come up to you and say, “Your tweet was so funny about Marc Jacobs!” And you say, “Oh, that wasn’t me, that was Kurt Hummel.” It’s especially hard with teens, because that’s our audience, and they always try to find any way possible to relate to you, and they try to make the character real through you.
Britton: People get really upset when they realize that Kyle Chandler and I aren’t really married in real life. Or more specifically, they get really mad at my boyfriend.
Christina got to play the accordion on one of the episodes because she knew how to play the accordion. How often do real things about yourselves come into the shows? Is that fun, or does it feel intrusive?
Britton: I think it’s fun to bring whatever you can into it. You’re always bringing in something that you know, or of your experience. So I love it.
Stonestreet: Matthew, did you have major firearm experience before Lost?
Fox: Actually, I grew up in Wyoming in a house that was…yeah, I used weapons a lot growing up.
Cranston: I have a thriving crystal-meth business. I just brought it in. It’s amazing how it dovetailed with the story.
Christina, [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner is really concerned about keeping plots secret. Does it make things hard for you as an actor when you’re getting pages really late, or not getting the whole script?
Hendricks: We’re very lucky. We get our script three or four days before we start, and it really doesn’t change very much. I hear stories about people being on shows and pages coming in and whole monologues written for them an hour before they go on. I’m like, how do you work like that? I have not had that experience.
Even with Glee, people are dying to know who the guest star’s going to be, what song it’s going to be. What kind of stuff do you field from people out in the world trying to get answers?
Colfer: They never tell us anything until the script comes out. If there’s something important for our character that’s coming up, [Glee creator] Ryan Murphy will take us aside and be like, OK, this is what’s going to happen, just so you know, giving you dirt to get excited about it. But we never know what’s going on. I think the closest thing we’ve encountered where it’s like new material suddenly is if sometimes the music rights fall through, and an entire song you’ve been working on is changed to another song.
Someone would dare withhold their rights from their song being on Glee?
Colfer: Not anymore.
Hendricks: I find it fun to keep the secret, too. I love that people want to know, and I love that I get to be like, “Just watch! You’re going to love it!”
Are you allowed to tell no one?
Hendricks: No one. I tell my best friend and my husband, and that’s it.
OK, but tell us this much: do you have a favorite Mad Men outfit?
Hendricks: There’s a certain dress that I like—a purple dress with a little sash. I wore it in a scene with John Slattery in a hotel room, and I’m getting dressed and doing up this thing. I really liked that scene, so it stood out to me. And we got Mad Men Barbies, which is the craziest thing, and my Barbie is wearing my favorite outfit.
Did you get to vote for the outfit?
Hendricks: I kind of put in my two cents, and they said, “Good idea!”
Britton: You have a Barbie, so your dad must really think that you’ve made it.
Colfer: Yeah, right, seriously? Come on!
Matt, you have an action figure, too, do you not?
Fox: Couple of ’em. I have a Racer X one—that’s my favorite. I love the Racer X stuff. And there’s the Jack Shephard stuff, too.
There were Lost action figures? Really?
Fox: Oh, yeah.
Cranston: It’s great to be on shows that people really want to know about. When they don’t ask you for spoilers about your show, it’s like, ugh.
But there does seem to be a sense that spoilers are more a part of the DNA of TV now than they used to be.
Cranston: It’s also easier to disseminate the information, so you have to keep it closer to the vest so that it doesn’t easily get out and just really kill it. So, I mean, there’s a contractual understanding that we have, but also, who would want to damage their show by revealing something?
Hendricks: I’ve become so paranoid because Matt Weiner gives this speech once a week before we do a table read: Anyone in this room, you are part of this family now. Do not tell your agents. Do not tell your managers. Don’t leave your script somewhere. I misplaced my script somewhere the other day—first time in four seasons. Panic. I’m like, “It must have been the cleaning lady! She took it!”
Cranston: And they watermark it, too. They watermark the scripts.
Hendricks: Yeah, so if it gets out it’s because I did it. It’s OK, I found it.
Britton: I was on 24 very briefly. That’s a show where their motto is literally, the less you know the better. They don’t want you to know that much about your character, what’s going to happen or what’s happened in the past. That’s an interesting way to work.
Stonestreet: I have a really cool story about Bryan with regards to that. I was on Malcolm in the Middle, like the third episode that they shot, as an exterminator. And Bryan and Jane [Kaczmarek] were nice enough to take me to the commissary to have lunch with them. And I remember I said, “So what are your characters?” And you said, “I don’t know my last name, I don’t know what I do for a living.” And I was so intrigued by that as an actor, just learning and listening to you guys talk. It’s so cool. And [to Fox] you don’t know this, but I was the mover on the final episode of Party of Five.
Fox: I can’t even believe that.
Stonestreet: You don’t remember me?
Fox: You were in the finale of Party of Five? That’s terrible.
Stonestreet: Yeah, the last two episodes. It’s hilarious. And now I get to sit at a cool table with these people.
Hendricks: That’s awesome.
Stonestreet: You guys were so nice to me that day, though.
Cranston: I must have been drunk.
Stonestreet: You were!
How did you guys choose what episodes you submitted for Emmy consideration, and what goes into that decision?
Fox: I had somebody else do it. I can’t be very...I don’t really ever watch myself, so—
You’ve never watched Lost?
Fox: I’ve never watched an episode of Lost.
Cranston: It’s a good show, you should see it sometime.
Fox: I loved the story. I got it all from the script.
Cranston: Is it because you had the experience, and that’s enough, or are you too critical when you watch?
Fox: I just really am not comfortable watching myself.
Cranston: It’s not uncommon.
Stonestreet: I just picked “Fizbo,” because that’s what everybody really responded to, and that’s a very special episode to me personally because that was my clown’s name when I was a kid. Fizbo the Clown was what my dad named me when I was 9 years old. So that was a dream come true for me.
Cranston: I think you have to assume that nobody who’s voting knows the show. It might be a dynamic episode, but if the character doesn’t emotionally change, they don’t think it’s as good, you know? It’s interesting, because you see some of the submitted tapes, and I look and I go, I think that’s the wrong one to submit, because it could be good, but it’s kind of one-note. I like to see modulation in something and actually see a character change, and assume that nobody else knows the show, so you kind of give them an introduction to it.
Hendricks: It’s also very hard, too, because when you do a series, your story happens over this long time, so to choose one episode that you think represents your work for the year is—
Cranston: Yeah, it’s difficult.
Hendricks: And to have, as you said, all that arc in one episode…it’s hard to find one where there’s that much. Because especially on a show like Mad Men, it’s very sort of slow-paced, and these things slowly reveal themselves, and it’s hard to go through there and be like, did I do that much in one episode?
And you had less screen time as compared with season one or two in season three.
Hendricks: Yeah, so I really went on the recommendation of Matt Weiner. He said, “You can do whatever you want, but if I was you—”
Which one did you ultimately pick?
Hendricks: I don’t know what it’s actually called, but we just always call it the lawn-mower episode.
How about you, Connie?
Britton: Yeah, it was difficult, for that very reason. And particularly, actually, this season, oddly, I felt it was much more difficult for me to find an episode—because I agree with you, to find an episode where there is a real arc…because it was much more spread out. So I got a lot of people’s opinions and then ultimately was just like, “Ah, I’m doing that one, forget it anyway, who cares, I’ll just worry about my dress.”
What episode did you pick?
Britton: I think it was the second episode of the season, where I ultimately confront the good-ol’-boy boosters.
Colfer: It was really easy for me, because there are so many different characters on the show that there’s only a handful of episodes that I’m in heavily. I really took it from the response that we got from the fans. I had more response from the episode where I sing the song “Rose’s Turn” than any other episode before. It was actually a trending topic on Twitter—I was very excited about that. But it really was probably the most emotional moment for my character, and it probably was one of the greatest moments for me as a performer, that song in particular, because it was me on an empty stage, there was no one else in the building, and it was almost magical for me. So that was an easy pick.
What if you had to relinquish your own nomination and you could bestow it upon one of your castmates who was not nominated? Who would you choose?
Hendricks: Well, we’re lucky enough that a lot of ours were, but someone I think has been overlooked is Vincent Kartheiser, who I think is an extraordinary actor.
Stonestreet: Obviously I’d go for Ed O’Neill. Ed O’Neill is a standup dude, and the studio and his representation wanted him to submit for leading actor in a comedy series, not necessarily because of his role on Modern Family but because he’s a bona fide television icon, you know, that’s how people think of him. And he said, “Supporting or nothing for me. This is an ensemble show, and I’m part of the ensemble, so that’s how it’s going to go.” So Ed’s an awesome guy. I would gladly…I have more years I can work to get a nomination for something, but I wish he would have gotten nominated.
How about you, Matthew?
Fox: Jorge Garcia. I just love him. I think he’s really unique, and he works really hard at it. I just adore him.
Britton: Can I give the nomination to our show?
You can. It’s interesting in your case, because people so wanted Zach Gilford to be nominated.
Britton: And he did…that was such an amazing episode, and he’s great. And truly, every actor on our show is amazing. I just…our show, it’s so…just give it to the show, you know?
Colfer: I would love for just the Glee Club to be nominated. But I’m going to say: I have two. But they’re not in the show, they’re behind the scenes. Zach Woodlee, our choreographer, wasn’t nominated.
Is there a category for choreography?
Colfer: There is, yeah. And we were all kind of surprised because his work is just so phenomenal, getting us to do so many different things with so many different numbers. So I would either give it to him, or we have a production assistant named Telly Kousakis, who really is just the heart of our show and just makes everyone in such a good mood. He’s so important to the show, so I’d give it to him.
Cranston: Me? I’m not giving up my nomination to anyone. To hell with them. You know, I’d love to see everybody nominated. In fact, I have two wins, and I am grateful and overjoyed by that. If I never win another Emmy, OK. I want to spread it out. I’d love to see all of our cast members get nominated.
That’s funny, because I imagine you with this three-tiered candelabra in your house with this one empty space that you’re just waiting to fill.
Cranston: Ok, I’ll cop to that. I designed it.
Stonestreet: I wondered where the three-tiered candelabra would come into this conversation.