Washington's Hollywood Moment

James Carville has gone Hollywood. Oh, wait, that's right, James Carville already went Hollywood. Sorry. It's hard to remember a time when the former Clinton aide and Democratic political guru's life wasn't filled with Tinseltown touches.

He and his wife, GOP insider Mary Matalin, have been doing their unoriginal odd couple routine on our TV sets for more than a decade. He's appeared in everything from "Mad About You" to "Old School," sometimes playing himself, sometimes playing ... himself. In the "People vs. Larry Flint" he was a strange Southerner, and in "Primary Colors" a strange Southerner was him. (That's right--there's someone weirder than Angelina Jolie in Billy Bob Thornton's past). George Stephanopoulos may have his sexy Sunday show, but James Carville has always been the Clinton crowd's Hollywood star.

So it's about time Carville made an honest woman out of the celebrity culture he's been making love to all these years. And with "K Street", the new HBO series, he may have found his chance. The "Ragin' Cajun" has got a standing gig dramatizing Washington for TV. OK, fine, PR whizzes, "it's not TV, it's HBO." And it's not Washington, it's the Carville and Matalin show. And maybe that's why Carville--who still probably knows more about 17th and Pennsylvania than he does about Hollywood and Vine--says "K Street" is no big deal. In a recent interview, he told NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Darman that a life filled with director comments, shooting schedules and on-location scenes feels like old hat. The show may be fiction, but all director Steven Soderbergh wants is for his star to be James Carville for the cameras. And hey, Carville's been doing that for years.

NEWSWEEK: What's the hardest thing about being on the show?

James Carville: Nothing.

There's nothing hard about acting on a television show?

No. See? It's great work if you get it.

But haven't you had to prepare, learn how to act, that sort of thing?

No. [Soderbergh] doesn't want it. No lines, no memory, no nothing. No makeup, no lighting. It's completely different than anything that's ever been done before. We don't reshoot anything. It's different, I mean everybody's nice, at least that I know of, you know, no backbiting or anything like that, everyone's nice. People have to work hard. We don't ever know what we're going to do until Tuesday for a Sunday show.

When you found out that you were going to be doing this--a fictional show--did you ever think, "can I do this?"

I didn't. I've done, you know, some kind of cameos and done movies and TV and that kind of stuff. And I'm really not acting, I'm playing myself, if I had to play myself I'd probably, could do it for very--I mean, to play somebody else is hard. That takes a lot of skill. That's a real craft, if you will. To play yourself isn't--and I'm kind of a ham to start with.

No, you?

You know? Somebody asked me, you know, I forgot, but so-and-so said, it was, "James Carville doesn't have anything better to do with his life at 58?" and I don't. To be part of something that is entirely different than has ever been done before on TV? To be on HBO? To be working with people like Stephen Soderbergh and working with my wife? I just honestly, I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing.

Well that raises the inevitable question: you've worked for a president, you've run national campaigns, you're on this TV show, what are you supposed to do after this?

I don't know. I'm doing a remake of "All the Kings Men" so I gotta get my head into that as soon as--we're really getting cracking on that, it's gonna be a huge project.

What's it going to be like?

Well, I just got the screenplay. What's really hard work is--for somebody like me who has a real kind of dyslexia attention problem--is to read the screenplay. I just can't. And it's not an easy topic to start with. And Steve Zaillian, the guy who wrote "Schindler's List," he's really top hand out there, he's written the screenplay and we're, uh, I gotta call him tomorrow, and we're going to start--we've got to get a director and get this whole project moving so I'll be really involved in that at the beginning of next year.

How do your political clients feel about your interest in the screen?

I only have one client, that's some people in Venezuela I work for.

But don't you worry that people will get confused and think you're actually representing all the people you represent on the show?

What's funny is, it's like, my sister called and said, "Why is James mixed up with those damn Saudis?" I'm kind of like those soap opera stars that get slapped in the supermarket. But when you do a show and it's this kind of different blend of fact and fiction, you kind of ask for that kind of stuff a little bit.

Are there differences between James Carville the character on the show and James Carville the real-life guy?

Well, I've never lobbied anybody for anything. But it's, you know, it's a way to tell a story. It's not that I think lobbyists are bad people or earn a bad living, it's just that I don't think I'd be particularly good at it. You know? People's reaction when they heard about it was, "No one can know--you can't show how to lobby." I mean, as if we're gonna go like, "How a bill becomes a law." But the other thing about this TV series is, it is to a TV series what an anchovy is to food. You either like it or you don't.

Isn't a pretty small number of people, though, who do like this sort of thing? Who care about the intricacies of the political process?

I don't think that the show really ... We had one on the kind of [Howard] Dean thing, which is interesting. We had one on the recording industry ... what their problems--is the copyright. It hardly was the intricacies of it, it was that these kids--what everybody knew--was stealing these things, and we said, you know? And the third one was the Saudis, and that's something that people know about. It's really not about the intricacies of lobbying. It takes an issue and draws the line between entertainment and reality. I think that to like this show you would have to have some interest in public policy. And it's a kind of--for lack of a better word--for television, it's kind of artsy, it's kind of a subtle form. You know, it's not a sitcom or something. They don't try to hit you over the head with something.

And what about it working the other way. You've got real political figures appearing on your fictional show. Do you worry that this Hollywood influence could have a negative effect on the political process?

No, I mean, look here I am, I'm doing this show and playing kind of a semilobbyist or whatever on TV. And Joe Allbaugh, Bush's campaign manager, opening up a firm in Iraq to make money off of government contracts. Yeah, it could, you know, but, s--t, people go on "Oprah," and they do this and they do that. I like what I do, I think Washington is an interesting place and people will find something in it.

You guys are working pretty hard on this show. Are you worried you'll get tired of it?

It's 10 weeks. I think that if I had to do the thing for 40 weeks or something like that, I'd get pretty tired of it. I don't like regular gainful employment. I'm what Corporate America loves, I'm a great temp.

You should put that on business cards.

My business card describes me as a pamphleteer and raconteur.

Has President Clinton seen the show?

You know he called me about it, I talked to him about it before it came on, but I gotta call and see if he has. But people are kind of seeing it cuz it's on like six times a week or something.

What kind of advice did he give you when he found out you were doing this show?

He just thought it was funny, he was laughing about it. I should see if I can get him to do a cameo or something.

You think he'd be willing to do that?

Maybe so, maybe so.

Who do you think goes in bigger for the whole movie-star thing? You or him?

I don't know. I'm not going to get into that....

OK, fine. So is it now safe to say that you're the most famous American political consultant ever?

I don't know. [Laughter] Maybe Karl Rove is, now. I know one thing, I've had a better time, I've had more fun than I think any other political consultant has had. I've enjoyed myself, and, s--t, you know, I've had a lotta yucks and a lotta bucks and I'm grateful for both.