Roundtable: A Talk with Emmy Contenders

When we made the guest list for this year's Emmy roundtable, we knew it wouldn't be too hard to break the ice. Three of our nominees, Rachel Griffiths ("Brothers and Sisters"), Michael C. Hall ("Dexter") and Rainn Wilson ("The Office"), starred together on "Six Feet Under." Mary-Louise Parker ("Weeds") and John Slattery ("Mad Men") have been watching each other for years on Broadway. Besides being nominees, our quintet shares a fondness for morally ambiguous characters. Among our motley crew: a serial killer, a debauched executive and a drug baroness. Still, they were all charming and candid, even when the talk turned to drinking, drugs and nudity—and the shiny awards they could win later this month for pretending to do all those things. (Article continued below...)

NEWSWEEK: John, you are the only one who hasn't been nominated for an Emmy before. Are you nervous?
JOHN SLATTERY: I was nervous at the prospect of getting up and having to say anything in front of a group of people. Not really nervous, though. It's a pleasant surprise.
RACHEL GRIFFITHS: You have to bring your own money to get your own drink—you know that, right?
SLATTERY: No open bar?
MARY-LOUISE PARKER: I've never even tried to get a drink at the bar.
GRIFFITHS: Did I just give myself away?
PARKER: I'm always too nervous to get out of my seat.
GRIFFITHS: Last year I was trying to borrow $5 from a man I've never met. I promised I'd send it back to him, and it took so long to get the money to get the beer to calm the nerves. I look up and Sally Field's on the television and I'm, like, "F–––!" I go running and bang on the door, like, "You have to let me back in. That's my mother up there!" They said, "I'm sorry, Ma'am, we're in lockout."
SLATTERY: Lockout?

So you had to watch it on a television monitor?
GRIFFITHS: I did, and I had to live with the shame.

Did any of you actually memorize what you might say if you won?
GRIFFITHS: I've never had the vibe that I was going to win, so I've never prepared for my four nominations.

If you had a vibe, would you prepare?
GRIFFITHS: Yeah.

Maybe it works the other way—if you prepared, then you'd win.
RAINN WILSON: I'm going to prepare a speech.

For Rachel?
WILSON: Yes, for Rachel. I'm going to have it written down. And if you win, I'm going to hand it to you and you're going to say, "I'd like to thank my wife, Holly." [Laughter]

Does the anticipation get easier if you've been nominated before?
PARKER: I think it does, a little bit.
WILSON: Last year was my first year, and I was really nervous. I didn't think I was going to be, and then I got in the seats, and then when the announcer is, like, "Up next, after this commercial, the best-supporting-actor comedy award!" Then all of a sudden my heart was just pounding—I really thought my heart was going to explode and I was going to vomit blood. And then they read Jeremy Piven's name and I was, like, Whew.
GRIFFITHS: I was not remotely nervous, but that's because I did not have the vibe.
PARKER: I was not nervous either.
GRIFFITHS: Did you win?
PARKER: No, and I was double-nominated, and I didn't prepare a speech for either because I knew I was going to lose twice.
WILSON: Man, that must have sucked.
GRIFFITHS: "Two-time loser Mary-Louise Parker, up next after the break!"
PARKER: It was actually kind of funny. Briefly.

Did you have the vibe the year you won for "Angels in America"?
PARKER: I did.
GRIFFITHS: I did, too.
SLATTERY: And did you prepare a speech that year?
PARKER: I think I did. It was a few years back and I was breast-feeding a lot, so one doesn't remember.
GRIFFITHS: Didn't you also have the world's most incredible dress and you had never looked as hot?

Do you dress differently if you think you're going to win?
GRIFFITHS: No, I just don't think you put up with an extremely uncomfortable dress if you think you're going to lose. It's like, "If I'm going to lose, make it something comfortable."

John, "Mad Men" has become a major show in its first year. How has it been to watch it become a phenomenon?
SLATTERY: It's nice to start something from the beginning, and kind of around the fifth week or so, think, "This is really good." The fact that it's actually been embraced is really gratifying.

Do people on the street confuse any of you with your characters?
SLATTERY: No.
WILSON: There are legions of teenage boys for who Dwight is their god, so they see me and I'm Dwight. There's really no awareness that there's a guy that plays him.

Mary-Louise, do people try to buy pot from you?
PARKER: A couple of times, yeah. And a steward on the airplane, which I thought was a little nerve-racking, actually.
WILSON: Michael, do people ever give you a dead body to dispose of?
MICHAEL C. HALL: No, but they might give me a tip of someone who I could kill.
GRIFFITHS: Has anyone ever told you that they've killed somebody?
HALL: No, that would be … that would be …
WILSON: Well, I'm going to do it right here and now. I killed my math teacher in high school. There, I've said it.
HALL: I'm sure he deserved it.
WILSON: He did. He gave me a B.

Michael, during "Six Feet Under," a lot of people thought you were gay in real life, didn't they?
HALL: I think maybe more people assumed that I was gay than assume I'm a serial killer.
GRIFFITHS: Most people I talked to were more disappointed to know that you weren't gay.
HALL: Well, that's always nice to hear.
GRIFFITHS: Yeah, it was, like, "Darn, he's so cute."

Rachel, compared to everyone else here, your character is pretty normal. Is it harder to make normal interesting?
GRIFFITHS: I think you can't make it interesting to everybody, for sure. But I just kind of make it human, and if you connect with that, you do, and if you don't, you watch another show that maybe is more interesting, that has more extreme characterizations.

Most people don't know that you get nomi-nated based on a single episode. Is it a coincidence that almost all of you submitted an episode in which your character cried?
HALL: Dexter doesn't cry.

You came very close.
GRIFFITHS: Your left eye was half weeping, Michael.
HALL: They may have been watering.
GRIFFITHS: I think the truth is, we're all probably nominated for our body of work. I don't know if you can do a s––t job for 21 episodes and then do one award-winning episode. I think it's sustaining a character and running the marathon of the character, which every actor at this table is trying to do every season. That's what the Emmys are acknowledging: how you keep the character moving over three, four or five seasons. That's the Olympic feat. I think our focus is more on that than, you know, "This is my Emmy episode."

Do you watch yourselves on your shows?
PARKER: I watch my show. I feel a sense of responsibility towards it. I took it on to be the lead of it; I want it to be as good as it can be. I don't watch movies that I'm in, because I feel like once they're done, they're out there and I don't really care. But this has a true line. It has punctuation. It's a sentence. It's 13 episodes, and you want to know where it's going and you want to be able to follow it.

Michael, you once said that when you watched yourself on "Six Feet Under" you thought you looked like an alien.
HALL: That was when I saw the pilot. It was the first time that I had really seen myself in anything. And I felt like it was a show populated by real, living, breathing humans, and there was this alien in the middle of that world. But I've gotten better at being relatively objective after watching myself, maybe watching "Six Feet Under" over the years.

Do you ever feel like you look like an alien anymore?
HALL: Every now and then, I'll have an "I look like an alien" flare-up. But they're less severe, and the flare-ups don't last as long.
PARKER: Have you ever done a scene and watched it and thought, "God, I'm so much better than I thought I was!" I don't think that's ever happened to me.
SLATTERY: Sometimes I'm relieved. I thought I f–––ed something up, and go home, and you feel like s––t. I'm in the shower thinking, "I should've done this. Why did I do that?" And then you watch it and you go, "You know, it's really not that bad."
PARKER: When I did that, I came home and asked to shoot it again. Twice.

What do you mean?
PARKER: I was home and I was in the shower. No, I was not in the shower, I don't know where I was, but I just knew. You know when you get home and go, "Now I get it." And I went the next day and I said, "I understand it now." And God bless them, they let me shoot it again.
GRIFFITHS: Don't you think with theater you can have a better sensitivity and really know if something is working? In theater I've never felt, That was crap.
SLATTERY: In theater there's no disputing there's the silence in that room or the tension or whatever it is when that moment works. And you don't get that when a camera is involved. It's more of a feel or guess or whatever. The feeling that you've done right, and that goes for the 500,000 people sitting there and there isn't a doubt in the room.

Speaking of intimacy, John, didn't you get your first big break in a play where you had to do a nude scene? Terrence McNally's "Lisbon Traviata."
PARKER: Was that you?
SLATTERY: That would be me. It was the first job I've ever gotten in New York, with Nathan Lane. You know, it was a big deal. I remember being on a pay phone standing on Eighth Avenue, being told that I got the job and hanging up and saying, "Holy s––t, I have to take my clothes off." It was embarrassing. My father came to see it, and he was sitting in the front row and you could hear him clearing his throat, slinking down in his chair.
WILSON: I've been naked. Just for a couple of nights as the understudy in the national tour of "Six Degrees of Separation." I played the gay hustler.

Really?
WILSON: Yeah, and I was terrified that I was going to get a boner. Can you say boner in NEWSWEEK?

We are about to find out.
WILSON: But in fact, quite the opposite happened. [Laughter] It was very cold in the theater and I was very nervous.

Michael, how do you prepare to play a character who's so extreme?
HALL: As an actor we're dedicated to simulating behavior, and I guess Dexter has dedicated a lot of his energy to simulating what appears to the world he's in to be authentic human behavior.
WILSON: It's like an actor playing an actor.
HALL: Without the tools that most actors enjoy, having like authentic human emotion. There's research you can do, but there has to be an imaginative leap with any character and certainly with this one, unless you're willing to go out and commit felonies.

Do you feel like you have an obligation to make an unlikable character someone relatable?
HALL: I think the character is very likable, and that's why people like the show. And I think that he's sympathetic because he doesn't quite understand what separates him from the rest of the world, and those are the very things that make him relatable. We all carry secrets—maybe not as formidable as his. But as far as empathizing with characters, I think that's a part of our job, not to judge whoever we're playing.
GRIFFITHS: I think the whole idea of a likable or unlikable character is kind of moot in this television period. They need to be fascinating and interesting and specific and human, even if that's in a way that we haven't seen before. And they're allowed to be flawed, be deserters or be serial killers or pot dealers and nerds, and we just don't use that old-fashioned framework of what a character has to be, and thank God.

Some of your shows took radical new directions this season. John, what did you think about "Mad Men" skipping ahead a year and a half between season one and season two?
SLATTERY: I got to survive; I thought that was good. I had two heart attacks at the end of the last season and I thought, "Oh, maybe they're going to kill me."

Mary-Louise, your character burned down her entire hometown. Was that exciting, or do you think, "My character wouldn't do this"?
PARKER: I really like it when the writers go to extremes. I never really saw a show completely chuck its premise like that before. We're not in the suburbs, because she burnt down the suburbs, and I love that. The more extreme the better. I want to burn down the f–––ing house. Like, that's so who my character is. I try to take the leap as much as I can. And try to save when I have a comment or a request for something bigger. But I loved that; I thought that was awesome. I would have been happy if we had moved to, you know, Queens or something. I would have been a little bit happier than San Diego, but they usually surprise me with things that are pretty bold. And I love those kind of surprises when I open my script—it gives me a little thrill.

But it seems like you have issues with Nancy as a character.
PARKER: It's not so much about liking. I don't sit there and think, "Do I like this person or do I not like that person?" I don't really take the time to analyze it like that. I'm much more concerned with the minutiae of it and my relationship to her. It's like a member of your family—you don't stand back and go, "Do I like you or not?" It's just a part of me, and it doesn't matter to me if I like her or not. I mean, would I hang out with her? Probably not. Do I relate to her choices? No. Am I like her? I don't think so. It's not important to me to feel as though I would like this person.
WILSON: That's the old way of television. Gotta make them likable! You see the casting people say, "He's not likable, she's gotta be sexy and likable and he's gotta be lovable!" And we think about lovable people being broadcast into our living rooms each week, "I love Ted Danson! And I want to give him a hug behind the bar."

Michael, is it true that you tried to get a feel for Dexter by stalking people around New York?
HALL: Oh, yes. I was in New York before we shot the pilot and I went out a couple of nights, went to a public place and endowed someone with really reprehensible characteristics and followed them around. [Laughter]

Rainn, your preparation for Dwight even involved the haircut.
WILSON: Yeah, I basically stole it straight from the English version. I read that Mackenzie Crook, who played Gareth in the original, went to a really bad barber in Slough, where the show was set, and got a really terrible haircut, and I definitely thought, "Well, that's an awesome idea." So I just stole it straight from him, kind of designed the worst, least flattering haircut for myself possible.
GRIFFITHS: Did you go to a barber?
WILSON: I didn't, but I spent a lot of time in the mirror with a lot of Dippity-do, kind of playing with it, and I kind of invented the flip-curl thing. My forehead is the size of, like, a cantaloupe, so I frame it with a little pear. It's really preposterous. But it helped my character a lot.

John, "Mad Men" takes place in a very different time. Did you have to start to drink or smoke more?
SLATTERY: NO, I mean, no. The smoking and drinking and the clothes—people ask that a lot. I think the moment-to-moment stuff is the same. The way I approach it is figuring out where you're going, what you want. And yeah, that stuff informs you: the suits and ties and cigarettes and drinks—it kind of takes on a life of its own after a while.
GRIFFITHS: Did you have to watch '60s movies to work on doing the hat?
SLATTERY: At the beginning of the second year, I was, like, "How the hell do they make a drink while smoking?"

Are the cigarettes real?
SLATTERY: No, they're herbal.
GRIFFITHS: Ecstasy.
SLATTERY: Herbal cigarettes. They leave this yellow film all over everything. They can't be too good for you.

Mary-Louise, do you want to talk about how you prepared to play Nancy?
PARKER: No. It's so boring and tedious to talk about, and I always feel really goofy and self-conscious talking about preparation. It feels pretentious, and also it's something that you want to protect. It's just hard to explain—I feel silly talking about it.
GRIFFITHS: I love hearing about people's process.
PARKER: I like hearing about people's process.
HALL: Just not talking about your own. [Laughter]
PARKER: I mean, I do generally try to shut everything and everyone out.

Rachel, is it true that you turned down your first TV job?
GRIFFITHS: I did, to stay with the Woolly Jumpers theater-for-schools company. I was with a troupe funded by the [Australian] government that performed regionally in the countryside, and we'd spent six months putting on shows, and we packed our van and toured. And at the end of my first year I got offered to be the new doctor on "The Flying Doctors," which is kind of a hip, glamorous Australian show.

WILSON: Is that like "The Flying Nun"? Doctors in a plane?
GRIFFITHS: Yeah, they arrive for farmers who've hurt themselves, or got stuck under the tractor. I didn't go to theater school. I went to a very second-rate college that no one ever got kicked out of, and I just didn't feel ready. I felt like if I did another year I would be a really good actor, and if I went into "The Flying Doctors" I would be out of my element and scared and feel like I didn't know what I was doing.

People must have thought you were insane.
GRIFFITHS: A lot of people said that, but when I came out, there had been all this buzz because I turned it down and I was this crazy girl that was going with this theater troupe in the countryside who didn't do the show. So when I finished that, all the casting agents threw me a lot of things, and I went for "Muriel's Wedding" and I got it.

So it wasn't that you didn't want to do TV?
GRIFFITHS: I've never been snobbish about a medium, and I've always said, you know, I'll do theater for f–––ing schools, I'll do Braille library books, I'll do radio. Whatever's the best script on my table that has my name on it, I'll do it. When I first did "Six Feet Under," everyone was really surprised that I was doing television, and I was, like, "It's the best thing I have ever been offered. Why wouldn't I?"

No one turns down TV now.
GRIFFITHS: No, they don't. Everyone is, like, "Wow, you're really smart to do TV. You got in early."

John, have you turned down roles?
SLATTERY: Yeah, for all kinds of reasons—because I didn't have a connection to it, I couldn't shoot out of town or it didn't pay enough money. But most of the time, I agree with Rachel, if it's good enough and if it's something you read and you go, "I have to do this," you figure out how to do it.

What about taking a role no one else thought you should?
SLATTERY: I don't think my agent wanted me to do this show, because she thought it was AMC, and they had never done a television show, and it doesn't pay any money and it isn't the lead, but I thought, "I don't care."
GRIFFITHS: Why did you do it?
SLATTERY: Well, initially I thought it was the lead. [Laughter] And then they informed me that they had that guy. I just knew the writing was so good. I thought, "If it doesn't go, if it doesn't turn out the way they said it would, then you can always just find your way out of it." And it turned out to be just as good of a part as he said it would be.

Did your agent say anything about that afterward?
SLATTERY: Now she says it was a good idea.
GRIFFITHS: Does she give you back the 10 percent? [Laughter]
SLATTERY: She was just being protective and just doing her job.

Rainn, you had a very bohemian kind of childhood. Are all actors kids who were once outsiders?
WILSON: I fit right in as a child. I was a very popular young boy, well loved— nay, beloved. [Laughter] Not all artists, but I think for most artists, their work comes from being an outsider in some way, shape or form.
GRIFFITHS: But there's insiders and outsiders in the human race and as actors. I'm sure that Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney were not unpopular in high school. They play people who can walk into a room and have 100 percent confidence. People who play outsiders understand them and are more likely to come from that knowledge. The acting world needs to represent the general population.
WILSON: But I always feel great compassion for characters that are outsiders and a fascination with them, but I was also a real goof-off when I was a kid. I just loved making people laugh and getting attention. And girls would like me if I made them laugh; that was the only way that was going to happen. So there were a lot of things that drove me to be an actor.
GRIFFITHS: When did you realize you were funny?
WILSON: I think it was late high school. I mean, I always knew I was a little funny, but that's when I realized, in my first acting class my junior year of high school, that I could do silly things onstage and people would laugh, and then all of a sudden girls would say, "Hey, you're really funny, do you want to sit at my lunch table?" or whatever was the equivalent, and I was, like, "Wow, this is a great way to make a living."