Ming-Na Wen

Photo by Gage Skidmore

What a character! When an actress hears those words, they usually refer to the person she’s playing…or the actress herself. For Ming-Na Wen, one needs to be a bit more specific. She slips in and out of her roles with the ease one would expect from a veteran stage and screen performer. Yet, as EDGE writer Gerry Strauss discovered, the perspective, humor and irony she brings to those parts comes from her very core. From her breakthrough performance in The Joy Luck Club to her starring role on ER to breathing life into the voice of Mulan, Ming-Na has consistently surprised audiences with the depth and subtlety of her work. On the hit ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., she has won over fans of the Marvel universe by playing Agent Melinda May brooding, stoic and scary. In other words, totally against character.     

Buena Vista Pictures

EDGE: What qualities did you try to bring to your breakthrough role in The Joy Luck Club?  

MNW: I brought my whole Asian-American experience to the role of June Woo. One of the reasons why I think I was cast for that part was because there’s something inherently difficult about being Asian in America. You tend to feel like people treat you sort of as a foreigner even though you’re American. For me, I had that kind of mixture—having come from China, from Hong Kong, and having had to learn English in America and assimilate—but then, at the same time, having these immigrant parents who really didn’t assimilate as much and sort of staying in their own culture. So that was all about June, feeling like she didn’t quite fit in and having a cultural gap, as well as the age gap with her parents, and feeling inadequate in certain ways. She dealt with it in a more shy way and in a more enclosed way. I, of course, became an actor. That’s the only difference between me and June.

Warner Bros. Television

EDGE: How about your work on ER? 

MNW: Oh, yeah. Well, I brought my “vast” knowledge of medical experience [laughs]. As an Asian, we had to be doctors or lawyers, so I’d already “been” to Harvard, Yale, John Hopkins….in fact, that’s one of the jokes that I would say to my parents: “Hey. You wanted me to be a doctor, so I was a doctor for five years!” [laughs] I think the thing that I brought to Dr. Chen was the fact that she gets a little snarky. She always wanted to prove that she was the best at her job. She was very different from who I was. I’m not snarky, but I’m definitely sarcastic, as you can probably tell.

EDGE: And funny.

MNW: Okay! [laughs]. But for me, her character was definitely someone that I had to create more based on who I thought she was. It came from observations of some of the people that I grew up with, who just feel like they are always having to compete and always having to prove themselves. The really interesting thing about her character, who became pregnant on the show, was that I did become pregnant for real. I guess that’s really kind of a strong connection. The writers and the producers were like, “Oh. I think you just slept your way into a really good storyline.” 

It was really funny because they wanted her screaming and doing all this stuff and I was, like, into holistic birthing and all-natural kind of stuff. So, we shot the scene before I actually gave birth and I thought it was way too overdramatic. After I actually did have my kid—and realized how painful of an experience it really was—I called my director back and I said, “We need to re-shoot all of those scenes. I wasn’t dramatic enough.” That holistic stuff didn’t really work for me.

EDGE: Your first TV series actually was The Single Guy in the late 90s, a sitcom. What was special about playing Trudy in that series for you?

ABC/Kurt Iswarienkio

MNW: Getting that pilot—and the mere fact that I was working with a legend like Ernest Borgnine—that blew me away. It was so fortuitous because I came from theater and, with sitcom, it is theater. It was like putting on a show, a play, every week, which we did in front of a live audience. Trudy was just this great character who was not shy about her opinion and had a lot of attitude—but also a lot of love for her friends and for her husband. So, yeah, she was really fun to play. It was just my cup of tea. I hope to retire with a sitcom.

EDGE: You’ve been a part of so many strong ensemble casts. Is that the environment that you enjoy the most, being a member of a group of talented people who are on equal footing?

MNW: I thrive in that environment. I think any show requires that, unless you’re doing a one-woman show. It appeals to me because of my theater background. The whole idea of being with a group and sharing an experience together in creating something, it’s just so satisfying and so much fun. I guess my karmic energy, or whatever it is, it keeps leading me to that…and I certainly have no desire to do a one-woman show.

EDGE: Let’s talk about Mulan. In hindsight, that iconic role broke a lot of barriers and inspired and empowered girls. Was that a focus for you in providing the voice for that character?

MNW: I knew about the story because she’s a legendary character in China and for me it was about bringing her heart and soul. Mulan came early in my career and I was just so enamored with Disney and the writers and the producers, who put so much research and time in creating her. My stepfather was twenty years older than my mother at the time, so his health was not at its best. All of the stuff that Mulan did for her father and for her family—it just was so true to what I was going through. So for me, I was focused on bringing her heart and her desire to kind of figure out her self-worth.

EDGE: Making sure that it wasn’t just a cartoon character. 

MNW: Right. She was a real young woman trying to figure things out, even though she was rebellious and she was reprimanded for it all the time. Something about her is very, very different than all the other princess stories because she really wasn’t a princess. She kind of became, like, an honorary princess. The emperor kind of endowed her with his blessing. Ultimately, she was just a regular girl trying to live in a society that either accepted her or didn’t accept her, believed in her or didn’t believe in her, and she had to figure it all out. I think that’s why it resonates with so many people. Ultimately, Mulan just followed her heart, which is the beam of the movie. And everything turned out right in the end. That’s kind of my philosophy in life. I’ve always wanted to be an actress. My mother certainly did everything in her power to dissuade me from doing it, but ultimately, I just followed my heart and followed who I was and that’s a great, great inspiring motto for any little boy or girl.

EDGE: Your family owned a restaurant in Pittsburgh. Were you involved from a young age?

MNW: Yeah, very involved. It’s always interesting when you grow up in an environment where you’re basically immersed in your parents’ work. That’s what I did. I would do my homework. I would socialize with the waiters and the cooks and then, as I had free time, my mother taught me about how to be at the cash register, doing take-outs and, then when I was strong enough, how to do waitressing. I did it all. It taught me a lot about business and it taught me a lot about communicating with people—and taking their money.[laughs] No, I’m just kidding.

EDGE: Interacting with such a variety of people every day must have provided you with a lot of character studies for later in life.

MNW: Absolutely. That’s a very good question because on any given day we would have our regular customers come through, as well as some colorful characters. Every day I was bombarded with people! Our cooks, as well as our waiters, all had very distinct, wonderful personalities and I was definitely immersed in an environment where I wasn’t just isolated in a house. Yeah, I definitely think that helped me to always be observing and watching people. And I still love doing that to this day. Living in New York, sometimes I would just grab a cup of coffee and a doughnut—when I used to eat doughnuts—and I would just sit down and watch people walking. You would be amazed at the variety of walks that people have. It was always fun.

ABC/Florian Schneider

EDGE: What do you like about playing Agent May, your character on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

MNW: Whatever transpires, Agent May is very buttoned-down and maintains this incredible wall, hiding behind her mask, so to speak. She’s one of those interesting characters who, with every moment that she’s had, kind of goes back to square one in some way, where she just feels safest by not dealing with emotions. She is able to function in life by just compartmentalizing.  

EDGE: What happens when she tries to open up?

MNW: It never works out. It makes me laugh because the writers know how much I want her to emote more. That’s just the actor in me, how much I want her to be able to share and open up. And they’re just, “Nope. Nope. Less Ming. More May. That’s how we like her.” I think Agent May will still stay very much the “bad-ass” that she is and I think the audience really loves that in her. [laughs] Which is so masochistic. Our fans know it’s all in there, because I do. I feel it all…but then I have to flatten it all up. She is absolutely, out of all the characters I’ve ever done in my life, the absolute opposite of who I am. Completely. You would never see Agent May laughing at a potty joke, for sure.

EDGE: Agent May is a character in the Lego Marvel Super Heroes video game that was released earlier this year. You’ve actually lent your voice to a number of video games. How does that process differ from acting onscreen, or voicing an animated character like Mulan?

MNW: It is the most bizarre session you can ever imagine. I really wish I had video tapes of those sessions, working voices in games. Basically, you don’t know which version they are going to pick. It depends on how the player is playing the game. You basically say “Hi” five different or ten different ways and I’m like, “Hi! Hello. Hey. What’s up?” Also, a lot of it is very, very dramatic. You do weird noises like, “Oh! You’re falling down a cliff!” It’s ultimately very, very bizarre. You do this stuff and after three hours, four hours of it, it’s exhausting and feels silly.You’re feeling kind of stupid about it, but then when you see the game and how it’s put together, you realize that all that variety does help in different situations. 

 

MNW: I grew up going to the arcade every day after school with my boyfriend and spent a lot of quarters so I just think it’s the coolest thing that I’m in games. It’s so crazy. You’re this little Lego character. It’s amazing. For a geek girl like me, it doesn’t get any better. 

 

Mike Recine

Photo by Mindy Tucker

There’s something inherently funny about New Jersey. If you live here, you know what comic Mike Recine is talking about. Not the tired, old “Jersey jokes” other comics like to tell. It’s more of an inside-out point of view—a winking, hardscrabble ethos that blends sly finesse with all the subtlety of a punch in the forehead. Recine, born and bred in Hamilton, is a leading light in the next generation of Jersey stand-ups. With a pair of recent Conan appearances under his belt and his own Comedy Central special this past fall, he is poised to write a new chapter in the story of New Jersey comedy. But then, writing has always come easily to Mike. As he told EDGE editor Mark Stewart, it’s performing where he’s had to pay his dues.      

EDGE: What is something about being a successful comedian that audiences might not fully appreciate? 

MR: That there are two parts to being a stand-up: writing and performing. You can write great jokes but if you don’t sell them—if you’re not confident and have a funny presence—people won’t want to listen to you and there will always be something missing. Writing jokes has always come easily to me. Performing is something that took a lot of work. You need to develop confidence, stage presence and timing. 

EDGE: How does that evolve?

MR: There is definitely a specific rhythm you have to learn to do stand-up. You develop that by watching some of the great comics—people like Seinfeld or Louie C.K. or Woody Allen, the great joke-writers. And you watch shows like The Simpsons. The writing on The Simpsons has some of the best comedic timing. In the end, you try to be honest but you also want to make sure that your delivery is interesting and people actually want to listen to your stories. The most important thing is to meet your own standards, to write something you think is funny, jokes you care about. You want to stay relevant and have an idea of what’s going on in popular culture. A big part of being a comic is absorbing the world around you and figuring out your take on it.

EDGE: Are there times when you write something you believe has great potential, but you just can’t quite get it right?

MR: Yes. For some reason it doesn’t work on stage, so I have to just let it go.

EDGE: When was your first time doing comedy in front of an audience? 

MR: I was 15 at a Panera Bread “Open Mike” night. I went with a friend from high school. I was supposed to do five minutes. I think I did about three minutes. I was nervous but it was fun. I continued doing stand-up in high school and then, as a freshman at Montclair State, I made my first appearance at Rascals in Montclair on a New Talent night, where if you bring in a certain amount of people they’ll let you perform. No one is good at comedy at that point, but if you bring enough friends they’ll give you stage time. Then, after a couple of months, your friends get sick of you…and the two-drink minimums.

EDGE: You were in the Theater program at Montclair State.

MR: For two years. Then I decided it was time to go to the city and begin my stand-up career. My first job was as a doorman at Carolines. I did that for three months. I was 20 and got to know a lot of comics as they went in and out—a lot of comedians who were farther along in their careers than I was. Julian McCullough—another Jersey guy who lives in LA right now—and Mike Vecchione were some of the guys who were generous with advice. The experience at Carolines helped me understand the business and get a sense of the career path of a stand-up comic. But obviously I was working the door at night. I realized that if I was going to be serious about this I had to get a day job

Conaco LLC

so I could be free to perform. 

EDGE: What kind of work did you do?

MR: I did everything. I wore a sandwich board in Times Square. I was a mover. I worked for 1-800-GOT-JUNK. I had restaurant jobs. And I was doing some freelance writing. All those jobs, though, helped me shape my perspective and figure out what I wanted to say. A lot of times, with younger stand-ups, they try to be comics before they learn how to be people. That was me. I started in comedy before I knew who I was as a person. When anyone asks my advice I tell them “Don’t be in a rush.” Every day you learn something new about human nature.

EDGE: What, for you, was a big breakthrough moment? When did you cross a threshold in this business?

MR: The first time I did Conan, in 2014. That was pretty cool. Every young comic is always trying to get on television. That first time on Conan was a big deal. That was the late-night show I’d always wanted to do, the show I’d watched growing up. It elevated me to that next level. That type of appearance legitimizes you and you feel like Okay I did this…there’s evidence I was here, even if it’s the only thing I ever do. I did another appearance on Conan in 2016.

EDGE: And the next level from there?

MR: The half-hour Comedy Central special last October 7th. Once you’ve done that, it’s easier to headline on the road. 

EDGE: How does having your own comedy special change things?

MR: It’s funny. From a career perspective, the more you accomplish, the more you’re chasing the next thing, whatever that is. You do have that high for a couple of days. After the first Conan, I thought the set went really well. It was exciting going to the studio and preparing…it was a big deal. The second time you’re on TV it feels more like business as usual. 

EDGE: You grew up in Hamilton. What was it about the Recine family culture that produced a comic?

MR: Both my grandfathers were very funny, but I was a quiet, introspective kid. My family members were very honest with one another, never afraid to say what they were thinking. 

EDGE: Who made you smile growing up?

MR: Mel Brooks. As a kid I watched History of the World Part I and Blazing Saddles, and that was what made me think I really wanted to do comedy. I wanted to write it. I wanted to produce it. I wanted to get really good at it. I wanted to make people laugh. 

EDGE: So why standup?

MR: I feel like it was because it is something you do alone. You don’t have to depend on other people. I guess that fit my personality. 

Jon Asher

EDGE: Which stand-ups did you admire? 

MR: I watched a lot of Comedy Central specials and listened to a lot of albums. Rodney Dangerfield, Mitch Hedberg, Dave Attell, Greg Giraldo. I watched Colin Quinn’s show, Tough Crowd. Every stand-up will tell you that was such a great setting and such a great way to present comics being naturally funny, off-the-cuff.  Now you can see all the episodes on YouTube. 

EDGE: Growing up in Jersey and now having lived in Brooklyn for a number of years, has that helped to define your style?

MR: Yeah. I’ve always been kind of an East Coast guy. I’ve always been drawn to blue-collar people and the way they are funny. There’s something about Jersey’s angry, working-class culture where they can be mean to each other but in a humorous way. It’s weird, though—I’ll be working in Manhattan or Brooklyn, where the room is full of “transplants” who’ve seen a couple of episodes of Girls and feel they know what it is to live in New York, but I can tell they lack that working-class sensibility. 

EDGE: How does your act play on the road?

MR: Audiences are different wherever you go. A comic should be able to do well in every room. I’ve had good shows in Boston and Philadelphia, but also in Florida and Portland, Oregon. I did a few dive-y bar shows in Portland last year and those went really well. There’s always a way to connect with people. 

EDGE: Great comics talk about what they know…and invariably they bring some aspect of their family into their act. In your case, one of your brothers is autistic. 

MR: Yes.

EDGE: You tell some very funny stories that involve him in your act. Is that fair territory?

MR: I think it is. There are a lot of people who have special-needs people in their families. It’s actually fun to do that material and to connect with those people on that level. But you’re right, it’s not something you see a lot of comics talking about. It just happens to be very real to me. I think about it. I explore it. I examine it. Like my autistic brother does Special Olympics every year, and one year he got disqualified from a race. That’s a thing they do to Special Olympic athletes. Someone had to blow a whistle in his face and be like, Get out of here—you’re done! The reason he got disqualified is that he was in a walking race…and he ran. He was reprimanded for that. Does that make any sense? He didn’t ruin Christmas. Or squeeze a puppy too hard. He figured out how to win a race. With his mind. 

EDGE: And the rest of your family’s fair game…

MR: Yeah, so I have another brother who’s not autistic and a friend of mine met that brother recently. He knew I had an autistic brother and he said to me, “Mike, I just met your brother and he’s barely autistic.” I think that’s a funny thing to learn about yourself: You’re not autistic but people think you are. You need to stop blinking so much…and stop wearing that propeller hat everywhere!  

 

Editor’s Note: Mike Recine will be appearing at Catch a Rising Star in Princeton on March 31st and April 1st. He performs in New York City almost every night. You can find his schedule at mikerecine.com. 

 

Mayim Bialik

Photo by James Banasiak for EDGE Magazine

One of the joys of acting is the chance to create a truly indelible character. Realistically speaking, few performers are afforded this opportunity during their careers; even fewer are able to actually pull it off. Mayim Bialik is two-for-two. As a teenager in the early 1990s, she played the title role on the hit NBC series Blossom. In the ensuing decade-and-a-half, she focused on her education (she has a PhD in Neuroscience from UCLA) and started a family—but kept her hand in the acting game. In 2010, Mayim played an unnamed character in the final episode of Season 3 of The Big Bang Theory. During hiatus, the show’s producers realized they had stumbled upon a “love interest” for quirky theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. In Season 4, Mayim’s character got a name (Amy Farrah Fowler) and a job (neuroscientist!), and brought new depth and dimension to an already sparkling ensemble cast. Gerry Strauss caught up with her over the summer as she wrapped up Season 9 of the series.

EDGE: Unlike many child actors, you had a relatively normal childhood.

MB: Yes, I had a normal elementary school kind of life. I was active in school plays. I felt comfortable in drama class when we had to do plays and stuff, but I was not a hammy kid. I wasn’t an exceptionally outgoing or theatrical kid. When I would meet other child actors they were very theatrical and always kind of “on.” That wasn’t me at all. Actually, I’m considered a late bloomer for a child actor because I started acting when I was almost in junior high school.  Even though I was in Beaches when I was 12—and that came out when I was 13—I had just started acting about a year before that. Most child actors have been acting since they were toddlers. That’s a very different kind of personality. It’s a different kind of structure, as far as how you’re raised and the expectations of you.

EDGE: Did that help you avoid some of the pitfalls other young actors often experience?

MB: I do think part of it is that I wasn’t in the industry for my formative years. I had a different kind of perspective on it. As I said, when people start acting and they’re always given expectations and given positive reinforcement for being good—and negative reinforcement for not obeying direction—I think that sets up a complicated system. For me, my parents are first-generation American, so I come from a pretty strict immigrant mentality. My parents tried to still have me do chores and homework and all the things that kids do. I wasn’t emancipated—a lot of teenagers at 15 get to be considered legal adults if they’re in the acting world—my parents didn’t do that. Also, I wasn’t really a party person, so I wasn’t around drugs and alcohol. I think I was also really lucky that on the Blossom set I was 14 to 19 years old, and I never saw anyone drinking or doing drugs. They had a very clean set, and I think that’s really important.

EDGE: At what point did you start thinking about acting as a career path?

CBS/Warner Bros. Television

MB: I didn’t think of having a career. I knew that I liked acting in school plays, and I thought, “Oh, I should be an actress—kids do commercials and stuff like that.”  I had no idea that I would have my own television show by the time I was 14. None of that was part of any grand plan at all. There are so many talented people in this industry, the chances of succeeding are so rare. I didn’t see any of that. It really just happened very quickly. Once I got Beaches, I felt like everything kind of free-fell, and all of a sudden I went from just being this kid who liked acting to a person with her own TV show.

EDGE: In that year before Beaches, you made your screen debut in the horror movie Pumpkinhead.

MB: Yeah, I had five lines. When you start acting, you try out for any audition. It was a very small part, because you don’t get big parts when you first start. I didn’t have the typical path to success that most child actors do in commercials and things because, in 1986, when I started, there was a notion that people on television needed to look what they called “All-American.” I didn’t look All-American. I’ve always had prominent features and I’ve always looked ethnic, so I ended up doing a lot of character roles on shows like Webster and Facts of Life. That’s why there are things like Pumpkinhead on my résumé, because as a young character actress you do quirky things instead of generic commercials.

EDGE: In Beaches you played Bette Midler as a girl. Did you realize what a big deal that was?

MB: Not really. My parents had always said I look like Bette Midler and Barbara Streisand, so I knew who Bette was. I didn’t really think I looked like her. I thought I looked like myself with a red wig (laughs). I had seen some of her movies, but I didn’t really grasp the full notion that I’d be on a big screen, or that people would be considering the film for awards and things like that. I think I’ve only maybe seen it all the way through once, at the premiere (laughs). It’s just not my kind of movie.

EDGE: Did you have to deal with the celebrity crush young TV stars do today?

MB: It felt very intense because I was a teenager and those are the hardest years of your life—so to live them publicly is very hard. But no, it wasn’t fame like people think of fame now. Our show was not a Top 10 show. Our show was not even a Top 20 show. We didn’t get that much attention, not like people do now. We also did that show at a time when there was no Internet, so the notion of celebrity as something fascinating, that just literally didn’t exist. Of course, we got recognized everywhere we went. If you go places where young people are, they’re going to recognize you. But no, it wasn’t the same as being on The Big Bang Theory. There was no notion of anyone caring what our personal lives were like. It just wasn’t like that then.

EDGE: After the series, you moved on—to school, to marriage, to motherhood and other endeavors away from the limelight. Did you lose your passion for acting?

MB: I made a conscious decision to leave acting because I wanted to pursue a degree in neuroscience. I had other interests, as everyone tends to, and I think women in particular should be encouraged to try lots of different things—especially with the under-representation of women in science. It just felt like an amazing opportunity. I took 12 years off, and I also had two children, so that became my main job in life. I’m very happy to return to acting and to be acting again, but my heart is still as a mom. That’s how I think of myself primarily, as a mom with two kids. They’re now seven and nine and a half, and I still do a lot of work in advocacy for STEM [Science Technology Engineering & Math] and things like that. I wasn’t planning on being a regular on a TV show again. But I’m very grateful that I’m employed now as an actor.

EDGE: The character that brought you back in the public eye was Amy Farrah Fowler, who would become a very unique counterpart to Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. How did you get that role?

MB: I was called to audition for this part along with hundreds of other actresses in Hollywood who were trying to get work. I didn’t get any special offers. I went and auditioned with a bunch of other women. The initial part was in the finale of Season 3 and it was maybe six lines. The character didn’t have a name, she didn’t have a career or a job—we didn’t really know anything about her—so I was just brought on to do these few lines. They didn’t even know if this character would continue.

EDGE: In Season 4, Amy starts as a female version of Sheldon. Over time, we’ve learned that she has a very emotional, even somewhat bawdy side to her. Have you had any reservations about some of the outrageous things that have come out of Amy’s mouth?

MB: Not really. As an actor, you have to sort of do whatever’s on the page. There are things I’m not great at as an actor, and those are things that our director, Mark Cendrowski, gets to work out with us. Acting drunk was not easy for me, but we made it through that. A lot of the things that Jim [Parsons] and I have where Amy and Sheldon are more intimate, I don’t want to say that those are difficult or out of my comfort zone, but those are new things for us as actors together. There are always new things to learn, and I guess that’s the fun thing about having a great job like this one. Our writers are constantly challenging us, and I’m fortunate to be working with amazing actors who are ready to take on that challenge.

EDGE: Do you have any input in the fleshing-out of the Amy–Sheldon relationship?

Photo by James Banasiak for EDGE Magazine

MB: None. As actors, our job is to take a script and make it right, make it funny in how it performs. Every single thing that you see that you love is an expression of our writers. There’s a little bit of all of our characters in each of our writers, and that’s what you’re seeing. They’re really, really talented people, and they seem to me a lot more like a group of intellectuals or academics rather than a group of comedy writers. They’re just a really smart, interesting group of people and they’ve produced all of these characters.

EDGE: Big Bang has impacted popular culture in some interesting ways. It has shown science and scientists in a very positive and relatable light. It has also validated “nerd culture” for lack of a better term. What else do you feel the show has accomplished?

MB: Well, I think our show demonstrates that there’s someone for everyone. We have these characters who—a lot of people would acknowledge—are the kind of people that get teased and left out of things. We are showing a group of characters that all have jobs and they have romantic relationships and they have social lives, and no one’s trying to medicate them or change them. Of course, they’re not always happy with the way the others act, but it’s not a show about changing people who are different. It’s about living with people who are different. And I think that’s really special. I also think the Amy and Sheldon relationship might be the longest running non-sexual intimate relationship we’ve seen on television. I think that’s really sweet. It shows a lot of patience and it shows a lot of love. Obviously, last season’s finale shows that Amy’s a little bit fed up and needing to take some time to think. But for the most part, it’s a very interesting relationship we’ve shown.

EDGE: Your audience knows you so well from sitcoms, which makes me wonder: Do you think of yourself as a comedic performer who acts, or as an actor who happens to do comedy?

MB: Gosh, that’s a hard question. I guess I would prefer the more general term “actor.” But obviously, I’m known for being a comedian. But when I think of “comedian,” I think of people like [Big Bang co-star] Melissa Rauch, who’s an amazing comedian. She’s a stand-up, and when she goes on a talk show she can tell stories and anecdotes and things like that. I don’t think of myself as a comedian like that, but I guess I’m an actor known for comedy. How’s that?

EDGE: A lot of doors are open to you now. What type of work would you like to do going forward?

MB: There are a lot of things I haven’t done. I haven’t really done movies as an adult. I haven’t really done drama as an adult. As I said, I also do a lot of advocacy for science and women in science, so that’s something I might explore. So yeah, there’s a lot left to do.

Editor’s Note: Gerry Strauss has interviewed a number of television stars for EDGE in the past two years, including Lisa Kudrow and New Jerseyans Wendy Williams, Laura Prepon and Jason Biggs.

Louis Gossett Jr.

Photo by David Walden

Lou Gossett may not be executing roundhouse kicks anymore, but his power within the motion picture industry has hardly diminished. During the most recent Academy Awards, the camera found him again and again. Gossett, you may recall, was the first African American actor to take home a Best Supporting Oscar (for An Officer and a Gentleman). He also happens to be an influential member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as a hallowed figure in the greater Hollywood community, which recently endured some high-profile criticism for its lack of diversity. As Editor at Large Tracey Smith discovered, Louis Gossett, Jr. is all about diversity. In fact, it has a lot to do with his unique ability to portray forceful, independent characters who command a story or a scene…and then slowly, grudgingly reveal their vulnerabilities.    

EDGE: Are you drawn to forceful roles because they are written this way, or is it a dimension you like to bring to your characters?

LG: I’m not sure. Some of them now are, of course, designed that way for me. I could always play a variety of strong characters. I’d shave my head and play anything I wanted! But I also played Anwar Sadat, which was astounding, and I did Enemy Mine, which was a cult film. So the choices of parts were actually quite diverse.   

Photo by David Walden

EDGE: Where do you think that comes from? 

LG: It came out of Coney Island—it came out of my childhood [laughs]. I was taught as a child how to live successfully with others, especially those that differ. 

EDGE: What was your Brooklyn neighborhood like? 

LG: It was a diverse camaraderie coming out of the mud of the Great Depression. I was not born in a “black” neighborhood. I was born into a “society” that was happening after the resurrection of mankind following the Depression. There was a lot of stuff occurring, including a fear that the Communists were taking over—which they were not. But as a result, the intellectual cream of the crop was being run out of higher education. Dr. William Jansen, the New York City Schools Chancellor, moved them all out to the “boondocks” of Brooklyn, where they started an incredible renaissance of learning and art. I had the benefit of a Latin teacher in third grade! My classmates were the children of doctors, dentists, lawyers and schoolteachers. I had my heroes: I saw Jackie Robinson become a Dodger, Ralph Bunche at the United Nations, Walter White and the NAACP. Other kids had theirs—Superman, Hopalong Cassidy. But during my childhood we had no thought of separation because of race. If I didn’t eat dinner at home, I might go to my next-door neighbor’s, where gefilte fish was on the table. Or down the block for corned beef and cabbage. And long before there were cell phones, there were old ladies in the windows making sure the neighborhood was straight.

EDGE: So that experience prepared you to become an actor, to slip inside a character? Is that how you won your first role, in Take a Giant Step?

LG: Yes. I was 17 and had never seen a Broadway play. One day, my English teacher, who read the trades, said, “Hey, Louie. I know you’ve never acted before, but I like the way you read the stuff in class. They’re looking for a kid about your age to play a lead in a Broadway show. Tell your mother to bring you down.”

EDGE: You were very active on the stage during the 1950s and 1960s. But movie and television roles must have been harder to come by. What were some of the challenges you faced in Hollywood and, also, how did you involve yourself in the civil rights effort as you became more well known?

LG: There was something wrong to me about marching for peace, so I did it by personal example—through the roles that I chose, and triumphs in the theater and movies. I hoped it would impress upon people that there was no such thing as “impossible” for the young. In terms of challenges, yes I was challenged a great deal. I was told by the casting people—either verbally or subtly—“I don’t care how many awards you win, you’re still black, you still have to prove yourself.” The limitations I came up against forced me to be as good as I could possibly be.

EDGE: What was your professional life like at that time?

LG: I got a guitar and played folk music for a while in between jobs, and I survived through television. Television was very good to me. I lived well in Malibu, down the street from Michael Landon. Sometimes a guest role was a one- and-done because of the difficulty due to discrimination. But I was able to make some alliances. My first TV movie was Companions in Nightmare, in 1968. Melvyn Douglas played a psychiatrist with a murderer in his group therapy. The cast included Gig Young, who won the Emmy, Ann Baxter, William Redfield, Leslie Nielsen, Patrick O’Neil, and me. These were great actors who came from New York, from Broadway. And they were wonderful to me. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for them. 

ABC Television

EDGE: In 1977, you won an Emmy for your role in Roots. What happened to your professional life after that?

LG: It exploded! I didn’t know that everybody would stop what they were doing to watch the series. That was a pleasant surprise. I was working a great deal already, though. Around that time, I did an episode of Little House on the Prairie, I did The Rockford Files with Jimmy Garner, and an ABC Movie of the Week. And a wonderful renaissance was happening in television in the 1970s with all that came out of Norman Lear’s consciousness, like All In the Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, as well as later shows, like Benson. 

EDGE: How did you prepare for an intense, emotional role like Fiddler in Roots?

LG: I did very little preparation.

EDGE: Why?

LG: Because it was in my roots. Fiddler was like my grandparents. Roots was actually very emotional on all of our parts. My best friend at the time was Vic Morrow, who played the guy in charge of the slaves. There was a scene where he ordered a beating to make LeVar Burton’s character say that his name isn’t Kunta Kinte anymore, its Toby.  Vic came up to me in advance and apologized. “Lou, I have to do this scene fully.” He did it so fully that I was transformed into saying, “Kunta Kinte—that’s what your name is. That’s what you’ll always be. There’s going to be another day, you hear me?” And we are in another day. Alex Haley told that story quite frequently.

EDGE: You’re perhaps best known for your Oscar-winning role in An Officer and a Gentleman. What are the “hard-to-find” Lou Gossett performances that are not as well known?

LG: A number of television movies. There’s Goodbye Miss Fourth of July, Lawman without a Gun, Carolina Skeletons, and two pilots that I did, To Dance with Olivia, and The Color of Love: Jacey’s Story.

EDGE: You mentioned Enemy Mine earlier, in which you played an alien. That was an interesting choice for a number of reasons. Did the fact you would be physically unrecognizable make the role more appealing or less appealing?  

Kings Road Entertainment/SLM Production Group

LG: Everybody turned that role down! You couldn’t see the actor’s face or the eyes. It was a challenge, an artistic challenge, to be able to make a performance credible without the natural use of your eyes, face or body—on top of the five or six hours of make-up. Plus, we had to create a species from scratch, with a philosophy and a language that doesn’t exist, and then get into the hearts and minds of an audience. It was a tough artistic stretch, but a great, great story.

EDGE: Have you always enjoyed testing yourself?

LG: Oh yeah! You’ve got to raise the artistic bar! 

EDGE: What do you like about it?

LG: That you never lose your concentration. That’s what’s incredible—you’ve got to keep on trying, you’ve got to dig it out, and deal with all the stuff that gets in your way. The instrument for the actor is himself, his body, his thinking, his emotions, his physical stuff, spiritual stuff. He’s got to be prepared to develop any character without any personal crutches.

EDGE: Our readers were big Boardwalk Empire fans. You had a memorable part in Season 4 as Oscar Boneau, a mentor, if you will, to Michael K. Williams’s character, Chalky White. 

LG: It was a great opportunity to play that character because Oscar was Grandpa. A grandfather is in a position of mentorship, what I call selfless service. All the sun comes out when you do that, regardless of whatever you’ve gone through in your life. After that episode aired, people came out of the woodwork, especially young actors. They liked it a lot. It was never nominated or anything like that. But I don’t go for the nominations. I go for what gets the message across.

EDGE: Speaking of nominations and awards, did you get a lot of questions about the Academy Awards this year?

LG: Yeah. But let’s back it up against the bigger picture. Once you’re in the Academy you’re not a black person in the Academy. You’re a member. Black movies, Jewish movies, gay movies, white movies, it does not matter; we are one bunch of people there. The best thing about our organization is that, when they know they’ve made a mistake, they overcompensate and never make it again. 

EDGE: In the midst of the current discussion, does your golden statue mean more to you, less to you…?

LG: It’s a reminder—a reminder that you can go as far as you can imagine yourself going, if you prepare yourself properly. For kids, that message is simple: If you shoot for a ten and you get a five, you have five more than you started out with.

EDGE: What else have you learned on this remarkable journey?  

LG: Longevity has been a good teacher. I believe that if there is fear, there is no faith, especially when times are hard. I wrote a short poem on this subject:

Things will happen as they will. 

The world will never be stronger than faith

Although some of our wildest doubt may sometimes bother our dreams.

Love when it comes, it never comes too late.

I want to be a humble, teachable, moldable part of society and to get myself in a receptive position—spiritually, emotionally, physically—because God wants me to know myself and to conduct myself accordingly, one day at a time. To young people, I say be responsible for yourself and then you will become ambassadors of peace, and miracles can happen.

EDGE: Paul Robeson once said, “As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.” What do those words mean to you? 

LG: Back in the old days, if you had been a minority and said this, you would’ve been branded a rebe

l. Today, you’re a responsible citizen. The sooner we get to that one people, one nation, one world, one consciousness, the better we’re going to be. We’re not there yet…but thank God we’re going in the right direction. 

A Raisin In the Sun/Belasco Theatre

THE GOSSETT FILE

Louis Cameron Gossett, Jr.

Born: May 27, 1936 (Brooklyn, NY)

First Broadway Play: Take a Giant Step (1953)

First TV Appearance: The Big Story (1958)

First Hollywood Film: A Raisin In the Sun (1961) Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy: Roots (1977)

Best Supporting Oscar: An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Best Supporting Golden Globe: An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Best Supporting Golden Globe: The Josephine Baker Story (1991)

Primetime Emmy Nominations: 7

David Walden

Can You Hum a Few Bars?

During the 1960s, Lou co-wrote the popular war protest song “Handsome Johnny” with Richie Havens.

Did You Know?

Lou’s nephew, Robert Gossett, co-stars with Kyra Sedgwick and J.K. Simmons on the TNT series The Closer.

Eracism

Gossett is the founder, president and chairman of the Eracism Foundation. Its mission is to contribute to the creation of a society where racism does not exist. He defines Eracism as the removal from existence of the belief that one race, one culture, one people is superior to another. For more information or to get involved, log onto eracismfoundation.org.

Lisa Kudrow

Photo by John Johnson/HBO

There are certain roles that even the most accomplished actresses won’t touch. Making an infuriating, exasperating character believable—and, more importantly, likeable—is right at the top of that list. It is the definition of working without a net. For Lisa Kudrow, portraying these women has become almost second nature. From her brilliant run as loopy Phoebe on Friends to her quasi-authority figures in the cable series Web Therapy and The Comeback, she has elevated the portrayal of the terminally clueless to an art form. As EDGE’s Gerry Strauss discovered, comedy for Lisa is serious business…but also fun and games.

EDGE: Do you recall what first inspired you to go into show business?

LK: I liked performing, even in nursery school. I liked coming home and doing the entire album of Alice in Wonderland that they played for us during that time—standing on the fireplace, just reciting the entire thing. How anyone sat through it is beyond me. I am the third child, by many years, and the kind of child that wanted attention. Positive attention. Maybe that’s why.

NBC/Warner Bros. Television

EDGE: How did your parents pass along the work ethic you’re known for?

LK: My father always said, “I don’t care what any of you do as long as you do the best you can at it. If you’re a garbage collector, I’d expect you to be the best garbage collector.” I applied that to schoolwork and tried to do the best that I could, and I always tried to just work as hard as I could.

EDGE: Were you a competitive kid?

LK: Yes. I had a certain level of competitiveness. I wanted to score better than other people.

EDGE: There was a long period where you didn’t perform.

LK: I put it away for high school and college. I put it in a drawer and locked it. But that love of performing was always in there.

EDGE: When you got back into acting there were some near misses and rejections—Saturday Night Live, Frasier. Did you set a deadline for yourself in terms of getting out?

LK: I don’t remember a deadline, but do I remember when the initial blows happened having a very brief consideration that maybe this isn’t meant to be. But I just couldn’t allow that to happen. That meant I had to figure out how to keep going. I would just replay every recording I had in my head of someone saying No, I think you’re really good, so that I could just be full of that. It’s like taking vitamins. I had to supplement with the encouraging things people I trusted were saying.

EDGE: You turned a minor character in Mad About You—Ursula the waitress— into a keeper. Was that the career plan?

LK: I don’t think I was that clever. In fact, the way that role came about was a last-minute call in the morning. “Can you go to Mad about You? They’re offering you this role. The character doesn’t even have a name. It’s called ‘waitress’… and you have to be there in an hour.” I didn’t even know what the lines were. It was two lines. These were agents saying, “I think you should pass.” I thought, I can’t pass. I need to work. That’s the best show on TV and you don’t say no. I got in my car and I drove down there. I remember I was a little nervous because I had no idea what I’d be doing and I just thought, No matter what, just listen and respond, and be funny. When I saw the lines, I just thought, No problem. She’s an idiot. Okay. She’s an idiot…got it.

EDGE: How did Ursula become a regular character?

LK: At the end of the week, Danny Jacobson pulled me over and said, “I think you’re funny, and I would like to write this character more, and have her in this show more, if that is okay with you. Just five more episodes.” I was about to start figuring out what kind of day job I would have. Because of Ursula, I didn’t have to look for work.

EDGE: How did you develop the character of Phoebe in Friends?

LK: The great thing I remember about Phoebe was that the audition piece was this monologue in the pilot that gives her whole back-story. My take on that really was to give a lot of definition to this person, that she’s cheerful about—or just refusing to see—the horrible, traumatic things that happened in her life. Her mom killed herself and then her stepfather went to jail, and she lived in a car, and she thought that was okay. That’s who she was going to be. Just this person who didn’t acknowledge reality the same way everybody else did.

EDGE: Was there any aspect of just playing Phoebe for all those years that frustrated or bored you?

LK: No, I was not bored, and I didn’t feel like, Oh my God, I’ve got to do something else and I’ve got to get out of here. Just period, I did not. I loved going there every day. I loved laughing hysterically with these five other people that cracked me up every day. And I mean it. It’s true. There were some seasons we’d come back and I’d think, I don’t know what I am doing. LeBlanc one time took me aside, so smartly, and said, “Look, there’s no more work to do because you know who this person is. You keep trying to do work, and there’s no work to do. You’ve got it down. Just relax.” He was right. I was that good student thinking, I put this much work into my homework before so I need to do the same now. This was the cushiest job, with family. We’d been through fires, the six of us together.

EDGE: You also were free to do films in between seasons.

LK: That was the other fantastic thing about Marta, David, and Kevin. They allowed the schedules to work so that we could do a film even when we were doing the show.

EDGE: In The Comeback, the Valerie Cherish character is a former sitcom star using a reality show to launch herself back into the spotlight—a story about a woman who allowed a sense of paranoia and fear about her career define who she was. Did you experience anything like that after Friends?

LK: Maybe there’s something wrong with me but I was not worried or nervous about what was coming next. I’d shot an independent film when we were done with Friends and I thought, I’d be thrilled to just do those forever because I don’t need money now, thanks to Friends. I can do whatever I want. But then this great idea happened for The Comeback, and it was sort of, Well, we’ve got to do it now. We went into HBO to tell them what the idea was and they said, “Yes, so just do it. Write a script.” We wrote a script fast, in three weeks or something. Crazy. Then, we shot the pilot and they said, “Let’s do 12 or 13 of these.” But I completely agree with what you were saying—everyone has some of those fears and insecurities in them. The thing with Valerie was that she was desperately trying to look like she was holding it all together and in control of it all, that her hands were firmly on the reins of her own career. And they weren’t.

EDGE: Now as the series reboots, it’s nine years later—

LK: And she’s a little more desperate and has a little less pride. But the DNA is still the same. Valerie is doing a pilot presentation with some USC film students for Andy Cohen, and she’s looking over clips of what she’s been up to since The Comeback got cancelled. She believes that she was a pioneer of reality television. She’s still acting as if she’s the instructor for the audience, teaching everyone about the life of an actor and what the entertainment business is like.

EDGE: How do you, as real-life role as a mom and wife, view the invasion of privacy that Valerie and her family deal with on a reality show like The Comeback?

LK: I have respect for the privacy of my family. If I speak about them, I have their consent. Valerie is so desperate for the spotlight, she always compromises the privacy of her loved ones. To her, that spotlight is synonymous with “the greater good.”

EDGE: You tend to portray some distinctly flawed characters. Is that more fun than playing someone who is normal?

LK: Yes, much more fun. To me, that’s what funny—people who have no idea how they’re coming off. Valerie thinks she’s pulling it off with her composure, her dignity, her phony-baloney way of talking, and she thinks people are eating it up as if it’s 1978. That cracks me up.

EDGE: The same could be said for Web Therapy’s Fiona Wallice.

LK: She’s so insensitive…but really, she’s not even aware that what she’s saying would be disturbing to anybody. That kind of insensitivity makes me laugh. Those things…I just love it when people have no idea how they come off. There’s just a disconnect.

EDGE: What are the biggest sources of pride in your career?

LK: Okay. I’d say The Comeback, only because I got to actually create that one and write it and produce it, as well as be in it. I am proud of that. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before, and I think it was good work. I am proud of Web Therapy because, again, it’s like nothing that anyone had ever seen before, and we weren’t sure if just two people talking and improvising would sustain anything—and whether the people we have doing it would be willing to sit and improvise. Who Do You Think You Are?—even though I didn’t create it—that’s the kind of thing that wasn’t really on American television. I am glad we talked NBC into doing it. Then, there has to be Friends. I have to say Friends.

EDGE: Contractually?

LK: (laughs) That’s so funny! No. No. I am proud of Friends because that was the first time that characters on a show were all young adults, and I remember the network was really nervous at the time. They’re like, “Who’s the grown-up? There is no grown-up in this show. You guys have got to put a grown-up in there.” Now, looking back, that’s really funny. Because, after Friends, everything changed.

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

In 2010, executive producer Lisa Kudrow brought the British genealogy documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? to American television. The program, which paired celebrities with genealogists to uncover stories from their family history, ran for three seasons on NBC and now airs on TLC. Kudrow herself starred in one episode, traveling to Belarus and Poland. Others who appeared include Spike Lee, Gwyneth Paltrow, Martin Sheen, Edie Falco, Zooey Deschanel and Jim Parsons.

I saw the show in the UK when I was there in 2007, and thought it was the best show I’d ever seen. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t on in the U.S. There are these fantastic details from history that have a personal effect on families and alter the line of a family, so it’s very emotional. I thought everything about it was fascinating, and it was so well done.

When I got back here, I found out that Alex Graham created the show and then it turned out he did some of my favorite PBS programs, including Manor House and Colonial House. They were so well done. I thought this was not a fluke—he knows what he’s doing. We called him up to see if he wanted to do it here and he said Yes.

At first I wasn’t even considering participating. My father had done a lot of research and made a huge family tree. I wasn’t thinking we would have a story, coming from an Eastern European Jewish background. I was more interested in other people and their stories. But Alex said, “You should do it.” I realized that, of course, I should do it because I am asking other people to do it. I need to know what I am

Lisa Edelstein

Television is in the midst of a Golden Era. By most accounts, there are more challenging, intelligent and interesting roles for women than ever before. Which makes finding exactly the right actress to fill these roles more important than ever before. Producers would probably sleep a little easier if they could just print up a few dozen copies of Lisa Edelstein. During a career that stretches back more than two decades, she has distinguished herself as one of the most challenging, intelligent and interesting performers on American television. Lisa grew up in Wayne, the daughter of a pediatrician and a social worker. Her passion for performing took her to NYU and then MTV, and eventually to a series of recurring roles on series such as Seinfeld, Ally McBeal, Felicity, Leap of Faith and The West Wing. After 150-plus episodes as one of the stars of House, Lisa was picked to star in Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce—a series developed by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men) and inspired by the best-selling line of Girlfriends’ Guide books by Vicki Iovine. The series is unique in many respects, most notably as the first scripted series developed by the Bravo network. As EDGE Editor-at-Large Tracey Smith discovered, this is hardly what makes Lisa unique…and far from her first pioneering role.

EDGE: When did you first feel comfortable stepping out on stage?

LE: When I was born. (laughs) I never wanted to do anything else.  I just loved performing. I did a lot of dance recitals and a lot of school plays. If you asked me to carry a sign across the stage, I’d be thrilled. I told my parents when I was four years old that this was what I was going to do for a living. As soon as I was old enough, I began investigating how to do it as a grown-up, so starting at a young age I would go into New York to see where the agencies were and to get pictures made, just trying to figure out how things worked.

EDGE: Where were you in the process by the time you had enrolled at NYU?

Photo by Nadine Raphael • Dress: ALLSAINTS, Bloomingdales, Short Hills

LE: I had learned enough on my own that I had actually become a bit cynical in class. I felt that they weren’t actually talking about how to be an actor, they were just doing an acting class. I wanted to know how to be an actor. I was still figuring it out, just stumbling my way through. I was really involved with the club scene in New York at the time and I got a lot of attention for that. I sort of used that attention to produce a musical that I wrote about the AIDS crisis. It enabled me to be seen as a professional, but also it was so horrendous what was happening, it was really important that we found a way to talk about it.

EDGE: You also had a stint on MTV.

LE: Yes, for about seven months. I called it “4 Hours a Day 5 days a Week of National Humiliation” (laughs), It was really awful, but I learned a lot.

EDGE: What were some of your other early experiences in television?

LE: One of my first jobs in Los Angeles was L.A. Law. That was very exciting. Then I did a series that no one ever saw because in the middle of the fourth episode, the Executive Producer insulted the head of the studio during a script review and the whole show was canceled on my way to work. (laughs) No more job! There are a lot of things that happen along the way, a lot of “almost-jobs” that might have changed my life, but didn’t. But also a lot of little jobs that did change my life. You just keep going forward.

EDGE: What separates those who make it from those who don’t?

LE: I think one of the first things that weeds people out of this business is a lack of fortitude, not a lack of talent. This is a very, very challenging business emotionally. You need persistence and stubbornness, you have to really love the job. Not everybody is so fortunate to love what they’re doing, so in a way you’re cursed by wanting to be an artist (laughs). What a difficult and challenging career path this is. Yet at the same time, you’re blessed with knowing that there’s something out there that you love you to do. It is a real gift if what you’re doing also feeds you. I’ve always been very grateful for that, even at the bleakest moments. You know, the funny thing about being an actor—unlike most jobs—is that when you say, “I’m an actor,” you have to prove it. People want to know where you’ve done it, and then they want to decide whether or not they’ve seen it, or if they liked it. (laughs) You’re sort of judged, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Sometimes they just feel sorry for you. I think that’s true for any career in the arts, but particularly acting.

EDGE: You are now the star of Bravo’s first scripted series. That’s a big culture change for a network. Were you involved in that transition?

LE: No, no. It was already happening when I got there. This was not the first pilot they made—I think it was the second. They’d been reading scripts and playing with this idea for years. I read that first script and I loved it, but Bravo didn’t feel it was the right brand for the network. However, I already could tell by reading it that they were on the right track. They were picking smart projects that were dark and funny and interesting. After us, they are doing another show called Odd Mom Out. It’s a half-hour comedy and it’s really funny and really dark and I really like it. Bravo’s a great network. They really have thrown everything at us in the most wonderful way. They have been incredible promoters and really behind the show creatively. They are genuinely excited about the decisions they made and going for it—there’s no wishy-washiness. They take a really long time to make a decision, so when they make a decision they are not kidding. It’s been a real pleasure.

EDGE: What type of feedback are you hearing about your character, Abby?

LE: It is so exciting. It’s really exciting. When I did House, people would come over and talk about the show and how much they loved it, or ask things about Hugh Laurie’s character like, “doesn’t it drive you crazy he’s so mean to you?” But on this show, when people recognize me, they want to talk about their lives, they want to tell me why they relate to the show, and who it reminds them of and when my character did such and such. It’s very personal. It’s a great feeling because I really love this project and I really want to do more of it. I love the writing, I love the people I’m working with. The experience has been extraordinary. I’ve been working for a long time, so having an experience like this that tops everything else—it’s been a dream come true.

EDGE: You’ve worked with some seriously funny co-stars, including Hugh on House and, now, Janeane Garofalo on Girlfriends’ Guide. Does she bring a lot of silly to the set?

LE: Janeane is hilarious, but she’s not a very silly person. She is very serious, with a very sharp wit, but she’s not a clown. It is very important to Janeane that she can inhabit what her character is doing and saying, so she works in a very specific way and it was really a lot of fun to volley with her in that way. She’s great, she’s smart, and she’s a very interesting woman.

EDGE: The two of you grew up less than an hour apart, in Wayne and Newton. Did you already know each other?

LE: We did. We actually met many years ago, in 1990. She worked at MTV around the same time I did, and we have a lot of mutual friends.

Photo by Nadine Raphael
Vest: NICK+ZOE, Lord and Taylor, Westfield; Shoes: POUR LA VICTOIRE, Sole Shoes, Westfield

EDGE: Do you and Janeane bring some Jersey Girl toughness to your characters?

LE: Janeane’s character is tough, but I don’t know if Abby is tough. She certainly bounces back, but I don’t know if tough is a word I would use with Abby.

EDGE: Each of your episodes is themed around a “Rule”…do you have your own set of “Lisa Rules” that have allowed you to be successful?

LE: Yeah, I guess I do. I do have some rules. Never say yes to a job you don’t want. Never go out with a man who can’t ask you out on a specific date. He’s too wishy-washy. No one can eat meat in my house. Those are my rules, for me. I wouldn’t say they apply to everybody.

EDGE: You once said in an interview that you don’t care if you’re the star, that you really like to be part of an ensemble…and that you want to “use my brain as much as I possibly can.”

LE: Is that an old quote? That’s amazing in a huge way because now I get to sort of experience all of that. What’s so exciting about the Bravo series is how deeply involved and relied upon I am. All parts of me are used, and I love that. I am working 16 hours a day when we’re shooting almost every day. My attitude and dedication to the project has a big effect on the set. It’s important to me that the place I work is the place I’ve always wanted to work and having the opportunity to create that type of environment is a real blessing. I hope I’m doing a good job. Marti Noxon really trusts me. When a scene is being constructed, she often listens to my ideas and I feel like a real participant in the creative process. My opinion matters to Robert Duncan McNeill, our Producing Director, who has a lot of input in how we’re telling the overall arching story, and that feels good. I feel like I’m in a leadership position. After working for 25 years or so that feels great, it’s exciting. I take it seriously and I’m doing my absolute best.

EDGE: Since EDGE is supported by a medical center, of course we have to ask a couple of House questions. How did you land the role of Lisa Cuddy, the hospital administrator?

LE: I just auditioned for it. Brian Singer, who was directing the pilot had been a huge fan of The West Wing and, I didn’t know this at the time, he loved my character Brittany on the show. So when I came in to read, he was already on the Lisa Edelstein team. Cuddy started off sort of slowly, the character didn’t have a lot to do in the first season because there so was much to be done in developing the structure of the show itself. But little by little, they started to infuse Cuddy with more character, the relationship got more complicated, things were revealed and it got more fun.

EDGE: How does one prepare for the role of a hospital administrator?

LE: I think you just go in knowing she is a medical professional, she’s a professional woman, she’s really well-educated, she’s got a lot on her plate. I certainly didn’t study endocrinology or anything, which was her specialty. I think it’s more about understanding what it means to be highly successful in your field. She would have been one of very few women who were running hospitals at the time if she existed in the real world. And she would have been very, very, young.

EDGE: Having worked in a fictional hospital, are you more confident or less confident when you have to go to a real hospital?

LE: Oh, I grew up around hospitals because my dad is a doctor. I’ve always felt confident in hospitals and I really love medicine, so I know how to hear it, how to listen and what questions to ask.  I’m an advocate for a friend of mine who is going through some terrible stuff, so I’m good at that. EDGE

Editor’s Note: From the small world department…it turns out that Lisa’s father, Dr. Alvin Edelstein, was known to the EDGE staff long before Lisa became the family’s star. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Edelstein treated the children of one of the magazine’s editors!

Katrina Law

Photo by Evan Duning Photography

New Jersey entertainers are known for their talent and for their toughness. That being said, Katrina Law takes tough and talented to a whole new level. She excels in action roles and heats up the screen with her sultry looks, but can also pull off the girl-next-door role. A standout student-athlete in her hometown of Deptford—and a graduate of Stockton University—she is a member of the National Honors Society and also a former Miss New Jersey Teen USA. If you want to meet Katrina at Comic-Con, plan to stand on line a while. She currently plays Nyssa al Ghul on the CW series Arrow (based on DC Comics’ Green Arrow) and portrayed the rebel leader Mira on the Starz series Spartacus. Both roles involved expertise in archery—a skill Katrina picked up with her usual aplomb. As Robert Piper discovered, it’s yet another case of Katrina hitting the bullseye.    

EDGE: You have had recurring television roles as a terrorist [Resistance] a counterterrorist [The Rookie], a conspiratorial slave girl [Spartacus], and an anti-hero assassin [Arrow]. Your auditions must be fascinating.  

KL: A lot of those roles really require a physicality, like the fight choreography, being able to handle yourself with weapons. I’m naturally aggressive in real life, which gives me advantages in this category of acting. 

DeKnight Prod./Starz Originals

EDGE: What is it that draws you to these roles? Do they reflect some aspect of your personality?

KL: [Laughs] When I get really aggravated with somebody, I feel like some of my fantasy characters do. But other than that, I’m pretty easygoing and happy most of the time!

EDGE: What sports did you play in high school?

KL: I ran track and played soccer. I also was a cheerleader, a dancer and I weight-lifted.

EDGE: Was there one activity that stands out as having prepared you particularly well for your career?

KL: Yes, dancing, because it’s about learning choreography and maintaining it. I did everything—ballet, tap, jazz, modern, mirror ball, flamenco, ballroom dancing. So when it comes to fight choreography, for me it’s a more aggressive form of dancing. Knowing that my body can pick up the movements and retain them is the biggest aspect.

Bonanza Prod./Berlanti Prod./DC Entertainment

EDGE: You had a part in the 2000 film Lucky Numbers as a teenager. How did that happen?

KL: Lucky Numbers…I can’t even remember what year that was. They needed extras in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and I remember just being so excited. It was November and they wanted one of the extras to jump in the river, pretending it was summer. And I was like, Oh, I’ll totally do it. I was completely frozen afterwards, but then I realized that I really did enjoy doing it. I was thinking about making a career in acting anyway, so I asked the production assistant, like, how do I get a job on this? Or how do I volunteer to be a PA on this film? Thankfully, Nora Ephron was very kind to me. She allowed me to be on-set the entire month they were in Harrisburg. Then, eventually, there was a part where she needed four teenagers screaming out of a car at John Travolta. And she asked if I wanted to be a screaming teenager? I said, Yes. And that’s how I got my S.A.G. card.

EDGE: Who made the greatest impression on you during Lucky Numbers?

KL: Oh, well, John Travolta was so charming and so lovely and beautiful. He smiled at everyone. He was so kind when he entered the room—with his fellow actors and to me. He’s just very charming and lovely. I think I was a little star-struck by him.

Bonanza Prod./Berlanti Prod./DC Entertainment

EDGE: You could have gone to any college you wanted, including Rowan, in your hometown. What appealed to you about Stockton University? 

KL: I was undecided about a career. I originally thought I was going to school as a dancer, but my high-school guidance counselor convinced me to go for physical therapy. However, in the back of my head, I knew I wasn’t going to be a physical therapist. Meanwhile, I’d always had my fingers dabble a little bit in Marine Biology. So in Stockton I essentially picked the school that offered all three.  

EDGE: At what point did acting become a focus in your life? 

KL: It was after I had gotten into Stockton. I decided to try doing summer stock and I ended up booking the role of Cassie in A Chorus Line. It was the first time that I sang, acted, and danced on stage. It was so fulfilling and one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done in my entire life. I went back to school and immediately changed my major from marine biology to theater. That’s kind of when it just took off. 

EDGE: The Starz series Spartacus was one of your first major roles. How excited were you to get that part?

KL: I cried when I booked it. I just broke down and started sobbing hysterically in terrible joy tears, if that makes sense. I was so excited. I’d auditioned for it on a Monday, booked it on a Wednesday, and that same Wednesday they basically told me I needed to leave for New Zealand for the next three months that Friday. So I get on the plane and it was my first time ever flying in first class—I was so excited about the service and the amenities, and I watched four movies on the way over there. As soon as I got to the set, they threw me into hair and makeup and then into cast. By the end of the night I was delirious. It was a lesson learned to always sleep on the plane. 

EDGE: How did you get on with your co-star Lucy Lawless?  

KL: She was very kind. She introduced me to everybody—by the end of the day I think I had learned over 200 names. Just watching her act is a lesson in and of itself. Every now and then you think about somebody and why they have “star power,” or what it is about them that makes them succeed beyond others. Well, when you look into Lucy’s eyes for the first time they are so pure and focused that it just makes you understand why she got to where she is.

EDGE: How did the role in Arrow come about?   

KL: I originally auditioned for a role on The Tomorrow People. It’s cast by David Rapaport, who also casts Arrow. I was completely wrong for the part—it was a British girl—but he said, “I want you to come back for this other role on Arrow tomorrow—and bring the accent.” I was like. Alright. So I auditioned and I ended up getting a call-back for it. This time they wanted me to do a chemistry read. My sides were originally with Stephen Amell, but they had me do them with Caity Lotz. I said, “These sides are very flirty and very much about our relationship. Is she my sister? Is she my friend? Am I a lesbian?” They said, “We can’t tell you.” So I basically walk into the audition for the chemistry read and there’s Caity Lotz. Apparently, we had chemistry, and that’s how I got my part. 

EDGE: Were you into comics as a kid? 

KL: I wasn’t into comics per se, but I was a fan of DC and Marvel as much as anyone else. 

EDGE: What do you think of the whole Comic-Con culture now that you’re a part of it?

KL: I love it! I absolutely adore that being a nerd is now cool! They can finally come out in the open and be proud, and they have a place to celebrate what they love and the characters they develop. It’s just a beautiful place.

EDGE: What’s on the horizon for you project-wise? 

KL: When I started off, I never thought that I’d land roles like I have on Spartacus and Arrow. I couldn’t have asked for better roles—it was so much fun, and both shows were international hits. So I hope that I continue to be surprised by really great projects. Upcoming I have Darkness Rising coming out and I have an episode of Uncle Buck, which is a sitcom for ABC, coming out. 

EDGE: It seems like the theme of your life is “Set a goal, make it happen.” Do you ever think about getting involved behind the cameras? 

KL: Yes and no. I feel like I’m a little disorganized. I have a very artistic mind and it’s very scattered. I don’t think I can focus enough to be able to direct. But who knows? Maybe. We shall see. 

EDGE: Okay, a couple of final Jersey questions. You’ve been to a lot of beaches since you left New Jersey. Where do Ocean City and the other Jersey Shore beaches you know rank in the world of beaches?

KL: You know what? The Jersey Shore beaches are always going to be my number-one. This is where I grew up, it’s my heart. I know what the air smells like. I know what the ocean sounds like. I know what the water feels like. It’s home. 

EDGE: Finally, if I ask someone from your hometown what’s the difference between a South Jersey Girl and a North Jersey Girl, what answer will I get?

KL: South Jersey girls are cooler! [Laughs] Oh, my god…I’m gonna get in so much trouble for that one. 

Editor’s Note: Robert Piper is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. He covers entertainment, pop culture, and health & wellness. Robert’s writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, Live Happy, and Origin Magazine

 

Joe Morton

Photo by Bobby Quillard

You will never see Joe Morton on one of those online lists of 10 Director’s Nightmares. He has the unique ability to blend seamlessly into an ensemble cast while simultaneously making every part his own. He commands attention and respect without chewing the scenery. He conveys nuanced emotion without uttering a word, yet when he speaks he can dramatically alter the pace and direction of a scene. Morton portrays good guys, bad guys, scientists and aliens with equal aplomb, which makes him one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors. As CIA black ops boss Rowan Pope on ABC’s hit series Scandal, he gets to play one of the tastiest characters of his career. Robert Piper caught up with Morton in Los Angeles, three time zones away from his New Jersey home.

EDGE: Your character Rowan Pope on Scandal is the quintessential nightmare dad. You’ve played so many good guys over the years, is it kind of fun playing a bad guy?

JM: Absolutely! When I came out to LA, I was actually looking for a really smart bad guy and this guy literally fell into my lap. So, it was perfect timing on everybody’s part.

Sony Broadway

EDGE: You’ve actually played a number of complex dads over the years. What kind of dad did you grow up with?

JM: My father was an Army captain and his job was to integrate the armed forces overseas. That meant that he and his family sort of showed up at whatever army post he was sent to, racially unannounced. When we arrived, all [hell] sort of would break loose. It was rough wherever we were. So that was my model. That kind of discipline, that kind of strength, that kind of courage in a certain way. It’s kind of what Rowan Pope is endowed with.

EDGE: Did we see any of Joe Sr. in Lone Star?

JM: Oh, absolutely! My father died when I was 10, so I think that a lot of who I am as an adult is some sort of—“reflection” is not exactly the right word—but an “investigation” of who my father was.

Cinecom Pictures

EDGE: Lone Star was your third movie with John Sayles. Was there a New Jersey connection at that point?

JM: I moved to Jersey after The Brother from Another Planet. It was somewhere in the middle of all of that. But it wasn’t so much the Jersey connection. When we did The Brother, we sort of enjoyed working together. He’s very loyal to the actors that work with him. So he would invite many of us back.

EDGE: What do you feel distinguishes Sayles as a film maker?

JM: Well he’s a social “commentarian,” isn’t he? His movies aren’t simply about good guys and bad guys. They’re usually about workers in management, people sort of in their lives, having to work and deal with authority figures. So I think a lot of what his work is about is the common man dealing with the powers that be.

EDGE: What were the challenges working out your character, who was a mute alien, in The Brother from Another Planet?

JM: It was a lot of fun. Because he couldn’t speak, that sort of allowed me to use my whole body to express whatever it is that needed to be expressed, and just gave another dimension to the joy of that character in a way that I hadn’t found in other characters. Also, the idea of a black man who has tons of talents but no place to channel them at all because of his social and economical situation, who couldn’t move forward, is what I really loved about the script and about the character. I loved what John and I created in that movie.

EDGE: Earlier in your career, you had interesting roles in a sitcom, soap operas and on the stage. Who were the people who influenced your approach to acting during those times?

JM: Probably my teachers. I had some wonderful teachers at Hofstra University, including Carol Sica and Miriam Tulin. I probably didn’t start thinking about acting until I got to college. A lot of what they taught me—how to approach a character, what my investment in the story was, what I wanted essentially—was what I was using at that period of my life. And still today.

EDGE: What do you consider your first really good performance?

TriStar Pictures

JM: [Laughs] My first really good performance. Hmm. Well, it depends. On a professional level? The Brother from Another Planet is still my favorite film. I played Colin Powell on stage in Stuff Happens, which was an amazing experience.

EDGE: You’ve served as a narrator on a number of historical projects.  Are you a fan of history?

JM: I am, yes.

EDGE: You’ve also worked on dozens of TV series. Is there a moment that stands out as being particularly memorable?

JM: I did a series years ago called Equal Justice. Vanessa Bell Calloway played my wife or played my girlfriend in the series and she got killed. I’m a lawyer, the head prosecutor. I don’t necessarily try that case, but I find out later that the guy gets off, he gets away with it. There was a moment between Cotter Smith and me in an empty courtroom were he tells me what happened, and I sort of respond to it. That’s one of those moments where you’ve hit it and you know you’ve hit it. It felt really good.

EDGE: Is directing something you’d like to do more of?

JM: I would. I was hoping that Proof was going to carry on a bit longer. I was hoping to direct an episode or two of that. So yes, I would like to do more directing. I really enjoy it.

EDGE: Where do you go for “local flavor” when you’re home?

JM: I enjoy cooking, so I don’t go out to restaurants often. But when I don’t feel like cooking—or have just returned from traveling and just want to go out quickly to get something to eat—I tend to go to the Court Jester in Matawan. It’s near where I’m staying. It’s a cozy sports bar. I like the easy vibe of it.

EDGE: What is it that drew you to New Jersey?

Photo by Bobby Quillard

JM: Well, I was married and I had kids, young children at the time. Montclair, if it has an industry, it’s education—it has great public schools. So we found this house on a cul-de-sac, next to a park, with a red-leaf oak in front of the house. And that’s what drew us to New Jersey. It was a place that we could afford and it had great schools. It was this beautiful sort of diverse neighborhood, that had a park at the end of it, and that’s what got us there.

EDGE: What have you come to appreciate most about the Garden State?

JM: I think the thing that comes to mind always is that most people outside of New Jersey only think of what they see when they exit either tunnel on their way out of the city. What’s great about the Garden State is just that—that it is a garden state. It’s actually a beautiful state. There are areas of New Jersey that are just wonderfully attractive and beautiful, especially in the fall. It’s not the oil refineries or whatever is outside of the tunnels. People need to spend more time looking at the landscapes of New Jersey.

Editor’s Note: Robert Piper is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He has written extensively on the subject of meditation and has taught physicians, psychologists, physical therapists, athletes, and business professionals. Robert spent nine and half years studying with a Taoist monk until he received the title of Master. He is the author of the popular book Meditation Muscle.

Jerry Lewis

More than one historian has observed that New Jersey has a legitimate claim to being the golden cradle of American popular culture. A decade before the first cameras rolled in Hollywood, Fort Lee was the birthplace of the motion picture industry. A half-century before Las Vegas, Atlantic City was America’s first playground. Red Bank produced Count Basie, Hoboken Frank Sinatra. In 1926, the Patron Saint of Comedy, Jerry Lewis, entered the world in Newark and later announced his arrival with the immortal words Hey Laaaaady! This fall, the 90-year-old Lewis starred in the title role of Max Rose, portraying an octogenarian pianist dealing with the loss of his beloved wife. Filmmakers Luke Sacher and Carole Langer have known Lewis and his family for decades. They asked him to peel back the veneer on his 70-plus years in show business and talk about the Jerry that his fans rarely get to see.    

 

Soapbox Productions

EDGE: When you and Dean Martin began working together at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, were you looking for a partner? 

 

JL: No, it was an accident. I wasn’t looking for anything. The singer got laryngitis, and [club owner] Skinny D’Amato said to me, “Do you know anybody?” After the first night he was on the stage with me, I knew we had lightning in a bottle. He was just hoping to get through the two weeks so he could pay a car payment. When I took Dean for a tux after two weeks, he said, “What the hell do we need tuxes for?” I said, “Because, before the end of a year, we’re going to be making around five thousand bucks a week.” He said, “You’re crazy! You’re nuts. We’re going to go and spend three hundred a piece for tuxedos?” I said, “Trust me. Let’s just do it. We’re going to have to look like what they’re spending.” And in less than six months, we were getting five thousand a week.

Soapbox Productions

I was writing immediately, the minute I got him in Atlantic City. But listen…he was a klutz. Dean moved on the stage like he had three pounds of [poop] in his pants! He was the klutz of the world! After we were together a couple of years, he started to take on a little bit of ambiance, and movement and grace, because we were learning, and we were honing our profession, our craft.

If he didn’t have to put his mind to work, he didn’t. Yep. He could take a nap fifteen minutes before opening night at the London Palladium with Her Majesty the Queen in the audience. We always knew that, the way we had it—I handled the business, I did the editing, I did the writing—it worked.

He played golf. But, it’s very important to say for Dean that when he came from the golf course, and I finished writing the material, and we would put it on its feet, he knew it in five minutes. And [his timing] was impeccable. It could be on take one, he had it so well. What [people] didn’t understand was that they couldn’t have seen me if he wasn’t there. He was the spine of the whole act. I did tell him the following: “You can’t take a pratfall in a grey suit. It doesn’t work.” He said, “Why?” I said, “’Cause you can go down to the Bowery and see fifty, sixty grey suits laying in the gutter. But when you take a fall on a dusty floor, wearing a three thousand dollar tux. That’s funny.”

Dean was my hero, my big brother. My confidant.  And one thing I knew best about him was that he hated pathos. Because it would dig in and find something that he was working so hard and so desperately to keep behind the facade. Let me tell you how he was brought up. He was brought up by an old Italian family, who gave him a couple of prerequisites: 1) grown men don’t cry and 2) you never take money out of your pocket, you just put it in. You share with no one. And 3) there is no one on earth that cares about you. You, therefore, have no reason to care about anyone else. That was his training. And they did a good job. The only man that ever got through to Dean was me, because of my passion, because of how much I loved him.

EDGE: Besides raising money for causes like muscular dystrophy, you have used your stature in the business time and again to stand up for friends and co-workers. 

JL: I’ve never used fame or power for myself. With the exception of underdogs, of course, or people that are maligned or demeaned and have no recourse. I love to get on my white charger…I had it as a kid, in grammar school. If I saw somebody that was being unjustifiably treated, I had to do something about it. I didn’t see anyone else doing anything about it, I always had to. I had a Holden Caulfield kind of a gut that drove me to do the things that I did. And I find that in my older years, as I look back, I feel tremendous self-esteem for what I did. Talking about them sometimes diminishes them; I’m not often comfortable talking about the nice things that you do. I’m not sure if it’s a selfless act—I have a feeling it’s a selfish one. Because I get so much pleasure out of seeing that they’re not demeaned anymore.

I’ve always had a fair doctrine that runs through my blood. If I see a producer bump into my camera operator, or my sound man, or my grips or my electricians—and doesn’t even know their names—I’m going to teach him a lesson in manners. I’m very protective of the people I work with. Because I know that they are the unsung heroes of everything I’ve done. 

I remember a time, in the early 1960s, Paramount brought an efficiency expert out to Los Angeles. He thought it would be a good idea to get rid of the watchman on the West Gate at Paramount Studios. Now, I grew up with this watchman. From the time I came to that studio, Jess was my friend. They dismissed him, after 42 years. It was a bean pusher who picked the name out of a hat, and that was that. So I called Joe Stabile [my executive producer]. I said, “Get a Mayflower moving van and have it parked outside my office. We’re out of here!” The Mayflower van got there, and it was a humongous 18-wheeler. Y. Frank Freeman, the Chairman of the Board of Paramount West Coast, could see it from his office. I went into Y. Frank Freeman’s office, and said, “You see that truck, Frank? That’s going to have all of my office and all of my staff. We’re going to load it in, and drive off this lot, if Jess doesn’t get his job back.”

He looked at me and he said, “Well, I don’t really understand. You bring this company 800 million dollars in film rentals. Isn’t that a larger issue than one man?” 

I said, “You’re not listening to me. If you can’t put the price on one man’s life, 800 million doesn’t mean a thing. And you didn’t know it was happening, Frank. An ‘efficiency expert’ has done this, and I’m expecting you to fix it so that I can pay this guy that drove this Mayflower truck—pay him a nice little gratuity—and have the truck depart from the studio.”

EDGE: You also stood up for Sammy Davis Jr. in Las Vegas when he was performing with the Step Brothers.

JL: Absolutely. Vegas in the ’50s was still pretty much like the Deep South. One night after a performance, I saw Sammy in the dressing room—having dinner! And in the next dressing room were the Step Brothers having dinner. I said, “What the hell is going on here?” He said, “We’re not allowed in the Garden Room.” 

So I went to a couple of my friends who ran the hotel and I said, “I don’t think you’ve got a show at midnight—and it’s a Saturday—unless you start adjusting some of your rules. The Step Brothers will eat in the Garden Room, and go anywhere they want in the hotel. Or I’ll do one of two things: not appear, and/or have a press conference. And let the rest of the world know that you’re building this empire on the kind of stuff that we’re trying to get out of this country. It was fixed.

Soapbox Productions

Sammy and I were friends for 45 years. We had a Damon and Pythias friendship, closer than any man and wife, closer than any two friends could ever be. The reason we were that way was because we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. We made jokes about the stupidity of ignorance, and the stupidity of racism. We had the best time laughing at all of that crap! I said to him, when he converted to Judaism, “You didn’t have enough trouble being black?Jesus Christ, I mean, you got a death wish? You’re black and you want to be a Jew also?” I said, “All we have to do is have a car accident, and you’d lose one eye!” And sure enough…

I was there the night of the accident. It was a very straightforward accident. He was driving straight, and a car hit him head-on. No reason, no nothing. He was on his way to Los Angeles, felt like driving, to relax, and he was hit by an oncoming car. He was lucky to be alive, but he lost his eye. I sent him watermelon and Kentucky Fried Chicken in the hospital, so he’d be comfortable. And Matzo!

EDGE: When did you first meet Sammy?

JL: Let me see, the year had to be 1950, Ciro’s Night Club, Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles. I went to see [him with] the Will Mastin Trio, and I knew I was experiencing lightning in a bottle. His presence on the stage felt like there were fans that were pushing you into the back of your seat. I hadn’t had a feeling like that since I saw Jolson when I was five years old. At the end of the show, I went backstage to see him. He was young, it was the first big shot for them, and I had some notes for him. And I’ll never forget his first remark. He said, “We haven’t met yet and you’re monitoring me?”

I said, “You’re doing some things on that stage that border on genius, and then you turn around, and you do some things on that stage that border on amateur. So I thought I would mention it to you. ’Cause you don’t need the latter.” One of the notes that I gave him that first night was you can’t walk out looking like a bookie at a racetrack. Which is what he looked like. I also gave him a couple of ideas about transposing material. He did some wonderfully strong things too early, and couldn’t rise above them—though he stopped the show cold. It was an incredible performance.

EDGE: Who did you learn the most from during your career?

JL: My father. My father taught me everything…I’m just still trying to get it right. He was the most brilliant performer that ever lived. He did the mime better than I did, he conducted better than I did, he was funnier than I ever was, he sang better than I ever sang, he danced better, he had an Astaire kind of quality. The women absolutely went nuts when he would sing a love song, and in a heartbeat he’d have his stupid hat on, doing crazy walks that I learned from him. I learned everything from my dad.

He was right about a lot of things. He was right about, when you walk out on the stage, and that lady paid $70 to see you, you have only one responsibility, and that’s to work your [rear end] off. And if you’re going to be a consummate professional, he said, sweat. “I’ll be embarrassed and offended if you ever walk off that stage dry. That means you dogged it, you didn’t give 100 percent, and you’re getting careless.” He got me to where I am. Let’s put it this way. I once told somebody, most men in this world don’t mind being one of the two hundred drummers in the parade. I do mind. I had to carry the baton. You want the baton? It carries a lot of responsibility.

So it was my dad’s birthday, and I called General Motors.

Soapbox Productions

A.L. Roach was Chairman of the Board of General Motors, and I said, “My dad’s never driven a car in his life, and he’s going to be 50 years old. I want to get him a Patton Tank, so that if he gets into an accident, at least he’s surrounded by better than what they’re making today.” And I paid$100,000 to have that four-door sedan made. And in 1957 or ’58, that was a lot of money. They built it for me, F.O.B. Detroit, delivered to me in Los Angeles. I put red ribbons around it, I drove it to his house. I went up to the door, rang the bell. I said, “Happy Birthday, Dad, look!” and he said… “It’s not a convertible.”

So I was shattered for a moment or two. Then I went on to explain the reason that it’s a four-door sedan is that you’ve got much more protection. “It was built to protect you and mom.” But I never forgot he said that. He just wasn’t thinking, that’s all. He didn’t mean to hurt me. I was so full of myself then, driving so hard to reach those galaxies I dreamed about. I was very vulnerable.

The love, when it’s right, that the father has for the child—only God can explain to us the dimension of that love. And I knew that I had that from him. And I also knew that he had it for me. But when I was quitting school, he was very clear: “If you’re not going to complete your high school education and not be able to go on to college, there’s a Band-Aid that can be put on this decision you’re making. And that Band-Aid is, go out in the world, and ask everybody anything you want to know. You’ll become articulate, in some cases prolific. You’ll be bright. You’ll get an education better than anything they’d ever give you at Dartmouth—if you’ll do that. I need you to attempt that, because without a formal education, you will get shot down at some time, and not be able to recover.”  

Hopper Stone/Falco Ink

JERRY ON THE MAKING OF MAX ROSE…

The last time I read a script I thought would make a wonderful movie was The Nutty Professor. I haven’t had the experience of film making for 20 years, but you don’t forget it, you remember every frame. I fell in love with this script on the first read, which is incredibly different than normal. I’ve read scripts 15 times and couldn’t get them to work. 

What attracted me to [Max Rose] was how love can really generate a difference in the personality of a human being. I fell in love with the thought that anyone can fall in love, and that everyone will fall in love. And the beauty of love, as far as I’m concerned, is that it makes you better—it makes you stronger, it gives you direction and gives you an understanding of what life is and what we’ve been given.  

We had fun but we had to concentrate. It’s the only film I’ve ever made that kept me absolutely dedicated—without any adjustments or additions. Just do the script—the script is honest, it was written well. There was nothing I could do, other than spoil it, other than to do the scripted material. 

AT THE COPA, COPA CABANA… 

In April 1948, Dean and Jerry were booked into New York City’s Copacabana—arguably the most prestigious nightclub in America—as the supporting act for movie star and songstress Vivian Blaine. Blaine would be cast as Adelaide in the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls two years later. The Copa was owned and managed by Jules Podell, whose connections to the mob were common knowledge. 

Sonny King, one of the great lounge singers of that era, once explained to me: “Look, they owned all the clubs and showrooms all over the country, right? New York, Philly, Atlantic City, Chicago, Hollywood, Vegas. So who are you gonna work for? The guy who owns the delicatessen?”

Anyway, on opening night, the crowd went wild for Dean and Jerry, and simply wouldn’t let them off the stage. Vivian Blaine was forced to come on late and shorten her act. At the end of the show, Podell told Blaine that she would now be opening for Martin and Lewis—not only the following night, but for the rest of her booking. She quit.

One night later that week, between the early and late shows, Dean was chatting with maître d’, Joe Lopez, while Jerry was working the bar with his “whacko” routine. Suddenly, a very well-dressed older man with a serious face shouted at Lewis Why don’t you knock it off and shut up!

Jerry stayed in character, pointed at the man, and retorted just as loudly, “See, folks? That’s what happens when cousins get married.”

The man rose from his chair, approached Lewis, and informed him that if he opened his mouth one more time, he would be collecting his own teeth from the floor. Jerry took just long enough to respond for Dean to rush over and apologize for his younger partner’s rudeness. Sensing he had crossed a line, Jerry apologized, too.

Keep your partner away from me, the man warned Dean, as he escorted Jerry away. 

“You tell him he’s lucky I got a sense of humor!”

Dean informed Jerry moments later that they had just apologized to Albert Anastasia (right), known less for his sense of humor than for his status as lord high executioner of Murder Incorporated. 

Editor’s Note: The stories in this feature were recounted by Jerry to Carole Langer during the making of an A&E documentary. His thoughts on Max Rose followed a later screening of the film in Las Vegas. Carole was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for her Biography episode on Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and received the DuPont Silver Baton for “Who Killed Adam Mann?” on PBS Frontline. Luke Sacher—an Emmy-nominated videographer, writer and editor who shot and edited both programs—has been a friend to (and fan of) some of the true legends of the entertainment world. Janet Leigh was like an aunt to him, he recalls. “She was one of the best women that ever lived. My grandfather, actor/director Abner Biberman, was Tony Curtis’s first drama coach. Both Tony and Janet were best friends with Jerry Lewis. Tony once told me that Frank Sinatra was ‘the teacher of all of us.’ But I’ve always felt, personally, that Jerry was my most important teacher as a child. His movies were more than just silly fun to me…they were moral lessons that helped mold my sense of right and wrong, and championed the power of love and kindness and empathy to make life worth living. No fooling.”

 

Jax

Fox Broadcasting Network

Idol worship has come to New Jersey in the form of Jackie Cole, a spunky blond teenage chanteuse known to millions of music fans by her three-letter nickname, Jax. A native of East Brunswick, Jax powered her way to the finals of American Idol (Season 14) this spring, making it farther than any New Jersey singer in the show’s history. She is an original in every sense of the word—her look, her attitude and her voice—right down to the (non-permanent) trademark X on her left cheek. Tracey Smith caught Jax heading into the Final 3.

Somehow, she fell one round short of victory…but we suspect we’ll be hearing from her long after the two finalists have faded from memory.

EDGE: What kind of advice do American Idol contestants get from the judges?

JC: All three of the judges commented that I am an artistic person and to stay artistic and focus on being creative. The most inspiring advice was to stay in the moment, stay present, because you can lose yourself in a lot of other moments, instead of the one you’re actually in. In the performance, it’s important to stay in the moment.

EDGE: What goes through your head when you perform in front of millions of television viewers?

JC: It depends on the song. I often think of my parents and family members—because they’re sitting right in front of me!They are getting to watch the most incredible experience of my lifetime. Sometimes I’ll think about a guy, again, depending on the lyrics. A lot of times I’ll just think about myself.

EDGE: How far back can you trace your singing career?

JC: I have been singing since I was able to talk. And I was fortunate enough to have known my calling as an entertainer for a very long time—since I was the age of three. I’ve always wanted to sing. As far back as I can remember.

EDGE: What have your musical influences been?

Fox Broadcasting Network

JC: I love all kinds of music. When I say that, I really mean it. I love music from the 40’s and on! I think my number-one inspiration was probably Janis Joplin. It’s pretty cool to perform her songs.  I’m influenced by all women of power, like Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks, who I actually just saw live with Fleetwood Mac, which was insane. I like Gwen Stefani and No Doubt. I like Haley Williams a lot. And Lady Gaga. But I also like Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel. And whatever is new on pop radio. In terms of mentors, I have my vocal coach. He’s incredible. I go to vocal lessons once a week in the city. With the amount of singing I do, there is no choice but to keep going and improving.c

Fox Broadcasting Network

EDGE: Of the people the contestants worked with on the show, who were the most memorable?

JC: We learned something different from every one of them. I think that maybe the most enjoyment I got out of mentorship was with Kelly Clarkson, because she was a former contestant. There’s nobody who could relate to us any more than she could, in that sense. But yeah, everybody brought something different to the table. I loved Boy George, Florida Georgia Line, Nile Rodgers, everyone was really great. But Kelly Clarkson was truly the most relatable.

Fox Broadcasting Network

EDGE: As you move forward in the American Idol competition, how do you deal with the inevitable highs and lows?

JC: It’s not easy. It’s really important to find a balance between those things, because if you don’t, then you can wind up in either of those two dangerous extremes. For example, I try to stay away from comments in blogs for the most part, because if they’re really great or really awful, either way they are likely to affect my mindset.  It’s like when a football team thinks way ahead in the season and ruins the actual next game they have to play. That’s what I meant before about just having to stay in each moment.

EDGE: You know, there was a famous football coach named Bear Bryant who used to tell his players, “Show class, have pride, and display character—if you do, winning takes care of itself.”

JC: It’s true. You should be your own worst critic, you should compete with yourself and learn from your mistakes. It’s important to give off that kind of class. And I think it’s important to inspire people, to show the world that this is a beautiful thing, a beautiful process, and that however American Idol ends, we’re all just trying to leave our mark on this planet. Presenting yourself in that kind of way really shows the honesty of the process.

EDGE: And if you do win?

JC: The first thing I’m going to do is celebrate with my family and [laughs] go get some Taco Bell!

EDGE: You came into this competition as a Jersey Girl. Are you ready to spread your wings a little more?

JC: I love my hometown and New York and everything, but I want to travel. Part of my job and purpose is to touch people in as many places as I can. I am really ready to branch off.

EDGE: So have you named your first CD yet?

JC: The Undefined Variable with an X [laughs]. No, it would definitely be a pop record, but with more of a rock edge…something a little darker than your usual pop record. I want to make an honest pop record.

EDGE: What was it like to hear yourself on iTunes for the first time?

JC: It was surreal. It’s, like, people can actually pay for my recordings. I don’t even know how to feel about it. I actually bought my own recording on iTunes [laughs] and felt guilty about it. Then again, it’s really great to hear what we worked on in the studio.

 

Jason Biggs

What is it about northern New Jersey that produces so much show business talent? Is it a numbers game, as some claim, a result of so many people per square mile? Is it the restlessness engendered by urban sprawl, the need to move up and move out? Is it the nighttime skyline of New York City, twinkling in the distance, coaxing our hidden gems across the river? EDGE’s Gerry Strauss sat down with actor Jason Biggs to explore these questions, and to chart his course from child actor to movie franchise star to his most recent turn as a member of the spectacular ensemble cast of the Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black. What’s on the horizon for Biggs? Spoiler alert: It won’t be Guys and Dolls.

EDGE: From a career perspective, was there a benefit to growing up in Hasbrouck Heights, in terms of the proximity to New York? 

Photo by Linda Kallerus for Netflix.

JB: Without a doubt. In fact, if I had not grown up where I did, it stands to reason that I might never have gotten into show business at all. As it was, it was just eight miles between my house and Times Square. Our patience was tested plenty, fighting the rush hour traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel when I had an after-school audition. But had I lived any further away, I can’t imagine that working and auditioning in the city would have been plausible.

EDGE: Aside from the acting, was your childhood fairly typical?

JB: I played Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, and wrestled with the town recreational team. I rode my bike everywhere, swam in our pool during the humid summers, and shoveled snow for neighbors in the winter. We lived right under the flight paths for both Teterboro and Newark airports, and I would spend countless hours sitting outside, watching and identifying the planes overhead. In fact, I remain obsessed with aviation as an adult.

EDGE: How did acting find its way into the mix?

JB: My older sister, who is six years my senior, was in a dance group as a kid. Some of the other girls in the group started going into the city to try to get agents and attempt acting. My sister wanted to do the same. Our parents, thinking it could be both a fun hobby and a good way to save money for college, supported it and made it happen. When I was five, my sister’s then-manager called my mom and asked if I would want to audition for something. I did, and haven’t stopped since.

Photo by Ali Goldstein for Netflix.

EDGE: What role did your parents play in your evolution as an actor?

JB: My parents were instrumental in making it possible for me to act as a child. Logistically speaking, there was no way I could have done it without their services as chauffeurs and chaperones. But they never forced it on me—it was always my choice. They were very proud of my accomplishments as a kid, just as they are now.

EDGE: At 14, you were on Broadway with Judd Hirsch and Tony Shaloub in Conversations with My Father, and at 16 you were on As the World Turns. What did you carry forward from those early experiences as an actor?

JB: I like to think that every job I have helps prepare me for the next one. But daytime television certainly had its challenges and gave me important lessons to take into future jobs. For example, the filming schedule in daytime moves at a breakneck speed. As such, you need to be very capable when it comes to quickly and efficiently memorizing all of your lines. You don’t have much time for rehearsal. You really learn to focus and think quickly.

EDGE: You are so well known for the R-rated coming-of-age American Pie films, which continue to have an incredible following. What do you think the movie’s ultimate legacy will be?

JB: Well, it’s obviously somewhat difficult to be objective about something that I am so close to, and that is such an integral part of my life. But based on people’s reactions—and to the constantly changing demographic of the movie’s fans—I believe it will have great staying power. I look forward to helping many future generations of adolescents learn about the birds and the bees!

EDGE: On the flip side, playing the same character in a hit movie with three hit sequels is a risky proposition for anyone who thrives on playing diverse characters.  How important was it for you to pursue roles where people could see you differently than they knew you from American Pie?

JB: I’m always trying to change people’s perception of me, especially since that perception is pretty firmly attached to one role in particular. I know that I am a more complicated and multi-faceted person than I’ve been able to show in my roles, so of course I’m eager to share that. But really, the bigger point in trying to branch out is to keep things exciting for me and to continue to challenge myself by working outside my comfort zone. Ultimately, I’m grateful for any opportunity to work. This is a very fickle industry—one in which it is tough to find success, let alone maintain it.

EDGE: Was it tough to know that the world was basically watching you grow up?

JB: Truthfully, it wasn’t something I was aware of while it was happening. I’m more aware of it now though. Looking back at the footage, I can’t help but be struck by how young I look. It’s been over 15 years since the first American Pie. Of course, I thought I was such an adult then, but I obviously had so much still to learn.

Photo by K.C. Bailey for Netflix.

EDGE: Your body of work is eclectic, to say the least. From drama to comedy to voiceovers to small films. What do you look for in a role?

JB: I look for an opportunity to have fun, to challenge myself, and to work with great people. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have been able to move across different genres and different mediums, and work with people who I can learn a lot from. Ideally, every job will feel like it’s an organic next step in my career, one that will hopefully continue into the future.

EDGE: Your current show, Orange Is The New Black, is unique not just in terms of story and tone, but in the fact that it’s part of the Netflix library of original programming—with no actual presence on traditional broadcast or cable television. It sounds as if that uncharted aspect of the project might have been appealing.

JB: There is no question that a huge part of the appeal of the project was the fact that it would be streaming on Netflix. The entire television landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years. The way people consume their shows and movies is different. And Netflix is at the forefront of the movement to cater to these new demands. I feel like I’m part of something groundbreaking, something cutting-edge. It’s very cool.

EDGE: What’s different about shooting a series that’s released all at once, where people can binge watch or watch on their own schedule?

JB: What makes this model most unique—both because we shoot the whole season in its entirety and it is released in its entirety—is that it makes it more akin to a 13-hour movie, as opposed to a television show. This affects the actors on set and, as you point out, also the audience at home.

EDGE: Your character on the series, Larry Bloom, exists in real life. For you, is it more important to be accurate or entertaining?

JB: The show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, was clear from the beginning that we would be making our own show, one that could stand apart from the book and therefore from the real lives of the characters in it. It’s a necessity, really, since we are making a longer-form version of the original story—and therefore need to expand upon the original, both in storylines and ideas. So there was no real pressure on me to portray Larry in any other way than that which was dictated by the scripts. I never needed to do an “impression,” so to speak.

EDGE: Orange Is The New Black has such a talented ensemble, headed by Taylor Schilling (above left). Is there a hidden gem in the cast, one actor or performance that has really taken you by surprise?

JB: Well, it’s hard to single out one performance. This entire cast is pretty special. But the character of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett has always been a favorite of mine. Taryn Manning’s portrayal is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

EDGE: What is your own hidden gem? If you could point EDGE readers to one performance you’re particularly proud of, which would it be?

MRB Productions/Votiv Films

JB: Grassroots is a film and performance I am particularly proud of. Not unlike Orange, it required a more subtle, grounded, and emotionally true performance. It’s a cool little film that represents for me a turn toward choosing more challenging and adult roles.

EDGE: Do you still maintain any connection to your old stomping grounds in Jersey?

JB: Very much so. My parents live in the same house I grew up in. My sister lives in Bogota. I’ve remained friends with a lot of my buddies from high school, some of whom still live in North Jersey as well. I try to get back a couple times a year, and I always make it to at least one Giants game each season. They’ll always be my team, no matter where I might live.

EDGE: What aspect of Jersey life have you clung to?

JB: Well, my dietary habits remain firmly tied to my Italian-American-North-Jersey upbringing. I love cooking pasta for early Sunday dinners, for example. And my accent is likely to make the occasional appearance, especially when I’m having a conversation with one of my family members or friends from home. My wife always points it out when that happens. Fortunately for me, she thinks it’s cute.

EDGE: You’ve done so many things already in your career, but what would you like to do that you’ve never done before?

JB: Tough question. It sounds trite, but I really want to try it all—except for the things I absolutely know for certain I will never be able to do. Like singing. So don’t expect to see me in Guys and Dolls anytime soon. And if you hear that I’m in a production of it, definitely don’t go see it. It will be a waste of your money. It’s good to know your limitations, I suppose.

Harry Connick Jr.

Photo by NBCUniversal/Heidi Gutman

The entertainment industry is full of people who play Mr. Nice Guy. The list of stars who actually are nice is considerably shorter. If Harry Connick, Jr. wanted to be a jerk, he could probably pull it off. He has the money, talent, work ethic and show biz instincts to live by his own set of rules and torture the folks around him—and still make his fans believe he’s their pal. That Connick is, by all accounts, one of the true sweethearts in the business makes his sustained stardom all the more remarkable. Since his breakthrough as a virtuoso musician and Sinatra-caliber crooner in the 1980s, he has conquered film and television as both a dramatic and comic actor, connected with Reality TV audiences as himself on American Idol, and used his fame to make a difference in the actual reality of his beloved New Orleans. Now Connick is leaving his imprint on the daytime talk space—to rave reviews—with Harry, and also revisiting his iconic role in NBC’s reboot of Will & Grace. As Gerry Strauss discovered, when Connick decides to tackle a new project, there is little doubt about the outcome. The NFL Saints will be looking for a new quarterback one of these days. Do you think…nah.   

Enigma Productions/Warner Bros.

EDGE: What aspects of stardom are most rewarding for you?Creative freedom? Being able to make a difference in other people’s lives? Doing right by your family?  

HC: I’d say the first two things are probably a tie. I mean, creative freedom is way up there, only because all I really want to do is try to function artistically on as high a level as I can. Success gives you the ability to do that. I get to work with great musicians, and I have the facilities that I need to improve. It’s like a chemist. If he’s successful, he gets to have a great lab to work in and that expedites the creative process, so that helps immensely. The ability to be heard is important, too, especially in times when your voice can make a difference. I think back to times when, had I not had a public platform upon which to stand, I would not have been able to do things like start the Crew of Orpheus, which was the first multi-racial, multi-gender major Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. Or start the Musician’s Village, which is an incredible project that Branford Marsalis and I started. Or be of some help during Hurricane Katrina. Those are all things that I was able to do as a result of being in the public eye, so I think it’s a tie between that and creative freedom.  

EDGE: From whom did you learn the most during your music career? 

HC: Probably Ellis Marsalis. He was my teacher back in high school. I probably spent the most hours with him, if you were to count up all the hours I’ve ever spent with everybody, because I was with him every day for four years. Ellis taught me things that I still use to this day, and if anyone were to be credited for having the biggest influence on my playing, it would be Ellis.

EDGE: Given the state of Jazz in the 80’s, how secure were you in the belief that you’d have a real shot at carving out a lucrative career for yourself? 

HC: Well, it’s like when you’re a kid and you look at yourself in the mirror, and you look at your family. If you’re around people that kind of eat the same food, and talk like you, and look like you…that’s your norm. Jazz music was my norm. It’s who I was. I never thought about it as being a risk. It’s just who I was. So when I moved to New York, I didn’t even think about playing any other kind of music, because that’s the music that I knew. When you believe in yourself—and you have a little bit of confidence and a drive to be known in this industry—the last thing you’re thinking about is Oh my gosh, I hope I’m making the right decision. All I wanted to do was play music, and at that time all I was doing was playing piano and singing, and I was playing jazz music, and I loved it. It was just something that I had to do. I felt compelled to do it because I loved it so much. 

EDGE: At 25 years old, you released one of the most enduring holiday albums ever, When My Heart Finds Christmas. Did you have any idea that this album would stand the test of time and become an all-time classic?

HC: It’s just such a humbling feeling to know that that record has been a part of so many people’s lives around the holidays. I never really think about whether things are going to endure or not. All I can do is try to make the best record, or best TV show that I can. You never know how people are going to respond to it, and the fact that it’s stuck around for so long is just a thrill. I worked just as hard on that album as I did on all of them. I’m thankful I did it, and I always enjoy playing those songs around Christmas time. 

EDGE: You seem equally comfortable on stage or in the studio. Do you consider yourself more of a recording artist who plays live shows, or a live performer who occasionally records? 

HC: I think it’s too hard to define. I mean, I’m a live performer for sure. But I also relish the time I have in the studio. It’s really hard to pull those two things apart. I’m probably equal parts live performer, and equal parts recording artist.

EDGE: You’re obviously comfortable in front of the camera. Has that always been the case?

HC: I’ve always loved being in front of the camera. I started doing public appearances at a really young age—probably six or seven years old—and started making records at nine years old, and being on TV and stuff since I was a kid. So the idea of that was always really familiar to me. I’m not a snow skier. I’ve gone a dozen times or so, but I’m terrible, and when I get off the lift I’m always nervous, because I don’t have the skillset to guarantee myself that I’m gonna be able to make it down safely. And you see these little kids out there doing it with no problem. It’s the same kind of thing. Some people say, “Well, how do you go up in front of all those people and perform on Broadway?” It’s just what I do. I’ve done it for so long. I just feel very comfortable being on stage and in front of the camera.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite genre in terms of acting? 

HC: I like whatever I’m doing at the time. When I’m doing Broadway, I love that because I’m very, very focused. When I’m doing Will & Grace or another sitcom, it’s the same type of thing. All I think about is the moment. The fun thing about doing Harry is that, although I get to do different things under the same roof, it’s still its own skillset—hosting a daily syndicated television show—so I’m focused on that, and all of the things that I have to do to try to make that show as good as I can. Like, right now I’m in “TV Show” mode, and I’m just loving every second of it. Whatever I’m doing at the time, I think, is what I enjoy the most. 

EDGE: To what do you attribute your success beyond your music career?

HC: I think it starts with believing in yourself, and believing that what you have to offer is something that other people might like. And working really, really hard at it. I have a work ethic second to none, and you can say what you want about my talent or lack thereof, but you’re not gonna find many people who work harder than I do. 

EDGE: Why is that?

HC: I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to do it. One of the things I get asked a lot is, “How are you doing with the grind of daytime?” I can’t get over that. It’s not a grind to me! Every day I wake up, and I’m thankful to be there. Do I have days where I’m tired or sick? Of course. But I’m fortunate to be here, and I’m going to give these people one hundred percent of myself every single time. I think those things probably have something to do with the success I’ve been able to achieve. 

HC Productions/NBC Universal Television

EDGE: What intrigued you about having your own talk show?

HC: Well, I love to perform and I love to be with people. I’ve been inspired by amazing women my entire life, I continue to be, and I wanted to do a show that I thought might have its own lane—a daytime show with music that celebrated everyday people and wasn’t about gossip or politics. It was about acknowledging incredible people for what they’ve done, having the occasional celebrity come on and share their story, and just doing a show that made people feel good. You never know if the thing’s gonna work…or if anybody’ll even buy it. But they bought it, and we were lucky enough to get five Emmy nominations the first season out. These shows rarely get picked up, and the fact that we got picked up for Season Two with a continually growing audience sends a very clear message to me that maybe our hunch was right. Maybe people want to watch a show that is wholesome, that you can watch with your whole family, but which is trying to be a show on a high artistic level, too. Those are all the reasons that made me want to do it. 

EDGE: What went into shaping the vibe and format? 

HC: Well, the last thing I wanted to do is plug myself into an existing formula. You see a lot of the same type of daytime shows on TV. Some of them are great. The host comes out, there’s a monologue, there’s a celebrity guest, there’s another celebrity guest, there’s another celebrity guest, and people do that really well. I didn’t want to do that because I’m not a “talk show host.” I wanted to do more of an experience that everybody kind of celebrates together. So I built everything based on my skillset, which is music, entertainment, and things I love to do.  

EDGE: For example? 

HC: I like to go in my audience all the time..we play live music on daytime television—we’re the only people who do that. I’m the only host that writes the music for the band. I did things that I knew how to do and, again, you never know if it’s gonna work. But I think people know that I’m sincere. Regardless of your feelings toward me, or what I have to offer, I think one thing that’s undeniable is that I absolutely love doing it, and I’m honored to do it, and every day when people come in I just feel blessed to be able to perform for them. Hopefully those things come across, and show people that they have a choice when they watch daytime. 

EDGE: What’s been your favorite part of doing Harry? 

HC: Meeting the women I call “Leading Ladies.” That was the first idea I had for the show. Fine, amazing women that I can talk to and that can inspire other people. Just yesterday, we filmed the captain of the ferry in New York that was one of the first responders when Miracle on the Hudson took place. I think she’s the only female ferry captain. Certainly she was the first one, and she just went into autodrive and saved dozens of people. This woman is amazing, and I said, “What do you have to tell young women out there?” She says, “Believe in yourself.” These are messages that we can’t hear enough—especially young women who I think struggle with self-esteem. Young boys do, too. But it’s tough out there for young girls. I have three daughters, and I’m aware of that, so I love having strong women. That’s my favorite part of the show. 

 

Hank Azaria

You’ve seen Hank Azaria’s face a hundred times and heard his voice a thousand more. Or maybe ten thousand more. Fans of The Simpsons know him as the man behind the voices of ill-tempered bartender Moe Syzslak, gluttonous police chief Chauncey Wiggum, sad-sack Comic Book Guy, hillbilly Cletus Spuckler and America’s favorite convenience store clerk, Apu (“Thank you come again”) Nahasapeemapetilon. Azaria’s over-the-top film roles include fork-flinging superhero The Blue Raja (Mystery Men), 1950s sports legend Patches O’Houlihan (Dodge Ball), megalo-maniacal pharaoh Kahmunrah (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) and inept houseboy Agador Spartacus (The Birdcage). To this long list of indelible characters add Jim Brockmire, the title character in IFC’s Brockmire, a new comedy co-starring Amanda Peet. The show follows the travails of a legendary announcer banished to the bush leagues after a profanity-filled on-air meltdown. Gerry Strauss talked to Azaria about what it takes to slip into the shoes of one unique character after another…and what makes his newest role the culmination of a long, personal journey.      

 

Courtesy of IFC

EDGE: You have a particular talent for creating scene-stealing characters. How does that differ from being an actor who inhabits a character for months or years? 

 

HA: It’s fun. It’s not boring. You do get to switch things up. Even if it’s as simple as going back and forth from comedy to drama and, let alone going from a guy who’s kind of unhinged, to somebody who’s rather sweet, then to somebody with a Latin accent, then to a guy in law enforcement. Whatever it is, it’s fun.  

 

EDGE: Is it a way to learn about the world?

 

HA: It is. As I take on a different role, I tend to learn about what that person would really be like. It’s a great way to discover how different people live and think. That’s the easy part for me. I became an actor because as a teenager, I was very insecure and did not want to be myself. I wanted to be anybody but myself. I discovered that, in order to do the craft of acting well, you have to reveal yourself to an extent. Still, I like that chameleon aspect of what I do. Vocally, that’s easy for me. A lot of times, I feel like if I find the way a character sounds, I also instinctively know how he thinks and feels. I don’t know why that is. 

 

EDGE: Jim Brockmire is an old-school, throwback sports announcer. Do you tend to gravitate towards characters that harken back to the past?

 

HA: Oh, for sure. That’s like a major theme of Brockmire. Old-school dude in a modern world. I grew up watching and listening to a lot of those voices. I’m 52, so my memories go back to about 1969, 1970, and to an extent those guys were still around. A lot of them had very distinct voices. Any distinct voice, any vocal anything, really made a huge impression on me. And still does. I always was asking myself, “Why are they talking like that?” I was always noticing the way folks sounded, and asking why they sound like that. Those baseball announcers especially. I’d wonder, Why is this the voice that delivers sports and commentary and information? Then I started wondering if these guys were like this in their private lives, if they still sound like this when they’re having sex, when they’re eating dinner, when they’re wasted. That was the comic premise of Brockmire that we started with—as well as the fact that these guys can basically say whatever they want on the air, as long as they get the count right. Then it kind of grew into what you just said, which is how does an old-school guy handle the modern world? That became an even more important aspect of the show. 

 

EDGE: When did you begin working on the Jim Brockmire character?

 

HA: Like I said, it was a voice I was particularly obsessed with as a teenager. By the time I was in my 20s and working professionally as an actor, it was at least in the back of my mind, like This voice belongs somewhere comedically—it should be something. It was a character I did for my friends at poker night all through my life, just announcing whatever was going on in some kind of foolish way. About 20 years ago, in my early 30s, there was a movie script I was working on that never got off the ground. Not about a baseball announcer, but I think it was about a telemarketer who talked with this kind of announcer voice. Then I did it as a Funny or Die short about eight years ago, with the idea that, maybe if people liked it, we could develop it into a TV show or movie. That’s always the plan, and it never happens. But it actually did with this one. 

 

EDGE: I suspect that people might be surprised to discover that Brockmire is a lot more than a comedy about a guy with a hilarious way of speaking. It’s a show with tons of heart, as well as a dark undertone. How do you strike that kind of balance?

 

HA: It’s a few things. And thank you for saying that. I agree. First, I have to acknowledge Joel Church-Cooper, who is our show runner and wrote most of the episodes himself. Joel’s got the ability to not only understand a guy like Jim Brockmire on the surface, but also to commit to this fish out-of-water, old-school alcoholic has-been in a modern world. He really grasps those things and writes them really funny and really poignantly. That’s what I think you’re responding to: He’s a real guy. It’s kind of my shtick. I like to find strange, vocal personages that just sound funny to me—and the game I like to play is Now let’s fill that person in and make him real.

 

EDGE: How do the characters you play on The Simpsons come to life?  How does the collaboration between voice actors and animators play out?

 

HA: In animation, the voices are recorded first—whether it’s The Simpsons or whatever last Pixar thing that you saw—you record it like a radio play. They edit together a soundtrack that they think works, and then they do an animatic, which is a pretty cool black-and-white sketchy version of the show or the movie. That gives them a feel for how it’s playing. What we usually do next is write based on that animatic, then do some re-recording based on that animatic, and finally send it off and start the actual process of animating. Once that color animation comes back, you get another round of re-writes as the thing starts really coming together. 

 

EDGE: Is it difficult to re-write animated characters?

 

HA: It’s pretty easy because you don’t need to go and shoot again in locations, you just need to change lip flaps of characters mouths moving, or add a scene, or whatever it is. During the first 10 or 15 years of The Simpsons, the voice cast was always all together recording. We got to know each other intimately, each other’s timing and whatever. The last bunch of years have changed. I live in New York now, so I usually record on my own. I feel like I work better recording on my own because they’re only focused on me while I’m recording. I can give a lot more choices. And having spent 15 years learning everyone’s timing, we all knew what the other one is going to do before they do it. 

 

EDGE: I know you’ve said that most of your voices and characters are derived from actual people. What’s it like when you run into those people after the fact?

 

HA: There have been times when I’ve worked with somebody who I did an impression of, and they sort of get wind that you do an impression of them, and they say, “Let’s see it! Let’s hear it.” That’s a highly embarrassing, awkward moment in your life. But no one’s ever come to me like, “Hey, you’re doing my voice there, aren’t you?” I once did a character voice that was based on a guy I grew up with, very distinctly. He came up to me and mentioned that he liked the character, but didn’t realize that it was based on him. That made me laugh. There’s another character, Snake, on The Simpsons that’s based on a guy I went to college with. I said that publicly, and he got a big kick out of that fact. I spoke to that guy recently, and he sounds nothing like how I remembered him! I think it was really only when he was wasted that he sounded like Snake. 

 

Courtesy of IFC

EDGE: Both of your parents were interested in the entertainment industry. Did growing up in that environment set the stage for your own interest in becoming an entertainer?

 

HA: Yeah, it definitely made an impression on me. The culture of the house was to see what’s going on in TV, music, film, and stage. [My parents] were major enthusiasts of everything, from whatever sitcom was popular to the opera. They really were genuinely all over it. When you’re a kid, you just think that’s what everybody does, but my parents were extreme in their appreciation of entertainment. But back then, kids were pretty much left alone. It’s not like today. You pursued what interested you, and I was majorly interested in entertainment and sports. My parents weren’t all that sports-oriented, but I was very into that. New York’s a great sports town, it’s got everything. I grew up in Queens back when the Jets and the Mets played at Shea Stadium. We lived very close to Shea, so it was like we had a couple of our own teams, not to mention the Knicks. I don’t know if it was particularly a New York thing. Actually, the truth is that it was a TV thing. I was mostly raised by a television set. I watched whatever was on it, whether it was The Brady Bunch, a Mets game—it almost didn’t make any difference to me. It was always going to be the television set.

EDGE: And you were a gifted mimic. 

 

HA: Yeah, big time. I am a mimic, quite literally a vocal mimic. That came too easily to me. What was difficult about acting was being yourself in front of people, revealing your honest emotions. I didn’t like that at all. I had to actually learn to do that. It didn’t come easily to me. I really needed to go to class for that. It was easier for me to learn improvisational comedy skills than it was to learn to be myself in a dramatic scene. But the better you are at that, the funnier you are, I think.

 

EDGE: You and Oliver Platt started an acting troupe after graduating from Tufts. Was live theater terrifying for you?

 

HA: The short answer is Yes. I was profoundly uncomfortable acting, really. When I look back, I’m kind of amazed I was so driven to do it and stayed with it. I loved it so much. I guess I saw that I was good at it on certain levels, so I felt compelled to keep doing it. But it took me a long time to relax. It’s amazing I did as well as I did, given how tight I was well into my 30s and 40s. I really feel like it’s only in the last five or 10 years that I’ve calmed down on camera and in front of people.

 

EDGE: Brockmire is launching on IFC at a time when the bar for quality television is higher than ever. What do you make of this industry?

 

HA: As a fan of television, which I am—and somebody who’s lucky enough to work in television—I’m so thrilled to see this second Golden Age of Television, this evolution into incredible creative freedom. Freedom of language. Freedom to curse a blue streak. Freedom to talk about whatever you like. Places like Amazon, Netflix, HBO, Showtime, or via cable, FX. IFC said, “Let’s get creative people in here and let them do what they want to do with the show. Let’s let them try what we think is a really good idea, with really smart, funny people doing it. Let’s leave them alone to do what they want to do.” It’s been thrilling. Especially thrilling for me, who is so frustrated whenever I’ve tried to bring things to network. It gets watered down. It gets compromised. I have incredible admiration for anybody who makes a quality network show, given the corporate and creative structure. 

 

EDGE: Is it a lot of pressure or a lot of fun having the freedom to do what you want to do?

 

HA: It’s so much fun. They’ll say, “You know what? These are our suggestions. Take what you like, leave the rest. If it makes sense to you, do it. It’s up to you.” It’s just a tremendously great thing. It’s why awesome television has been getting made throughout the last decade. 

 

Dennis Haysbert

Photo by David Walden

The word “magnetic” is thrown around a lot in show business with little regard for what it actually means. Of the many words that have been used to describe Dennis Haysbert, it is difficult to think of a better one. Indeed, most actors labor their entire lives to achieve what seems to come so naturally to him. Add great passion, talent and commitment—along with a refreshing dose of self-awareness—and the result is a performer who knows how to command both screen and stage. EDGE Editor-at-Large Tracey Smith hoped to discover what makes Haysbert tick, and perhaps got a bit more than she bargained for. However, as their conversation shows, she was in good hands from start to finish.      

EDGE: Let’s start by talking about your portrayal of authority figures. It takes more than a big body and big voice to carry it off. Who were the authority figures you modeled yourself after—who are you channeling as President of the United States in 24 or as the Allstate spokesman?  

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

DH: For 24, I channeled a number of presidents, and a number of individuals that were high in integrity. Some may be controversial, Tracey, but they were my choices and I still stick with them. Colin Powell was one of them; his character is beyond reproach as far as I’m concerned. I think he’s just an amazing man, who I think would’ve made an amazing president. Why didn’t that happen? I don’t know. I can speculate until the cows come home and never really find a real enough or true enough answer for that question. Jimmy Carter, another man of high integrity, was considered weak, but I fail to see what people thought was weak about him. I believe he was a gentle man. I think he was a very fair man. In the world of politics in which we live, it’s very difficult to be a really, really good man. The other is the one that they thought was the “original” first black president [laughs] and that is William Clinton. There is just something about him that is, like, “You know what? I don’t care what color you are or what gender you are, where you’ve traveled, if you are in this country, and if you are a citizen of this country or a citizen of this world—you’re going to be treated right.” That’s what I got from him. 

EDGE: And Allstate?

DH: I think I got that role because I was President David Palmer on 24 and people saw me as being very trustworthy. And that’s a good reason. Because I am. And I understand that the attorneys won’t allow me to say anything that they can’t back up, so I’m pretty secure about what I’m saying to the public.

EDGE: There is a serious nature to the sales pitch in those commercials.

DH: The foundation of the campaign was built on that. I don’t really consider myself a salesman. I consider myself an advocate. And I am presenting the country with choices. And you have your right to choose. You want to follow the Gecko? Or you want to follow Flo? Or you want to follow the professor? You want to follow the camel that’s asking you what day it is [laughs] but you really don’t know what it is he’s selling? Yes, you can be entertained and be entertained…but you can also be entertained and told the truth. And that’s what I, and the company, have chosen to do.  There is a reason why the other insurers are not doing what we do. It’s because we’re already doing it. So they have to find other ways.  

EDGE: Which entertainers were your influences as a young man? 

DH: I’ve been an athlete all of my life and I have some phenomenal athletes in my family; my brothers were incredible.  So I had a lot of athletes on my wall. But I also loved movies at a very young age, and there were a lot of artists and actors that I really enjoyed. There were three of them in particular that I actually had on my wall: Brando, Olivier and my mentor now, Sidney Poitier. There were a whole lot of actors that I liked, including Montgomery Clift, Roscoe Lee Brown, Ivan Dixon and James Earl Jones, but those first three stood out to me. There were women that I really enjoyed, too, like Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn. And Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll. These people were blazing trails, and were coming around at a time when things were seemingly opening up for black people and for people of color in general. When Bill Cosby did I Spy, I said “What?!I Spy? Really?!” When Sidney Poitier did Brother John, a little known movie that people seldom talked about, it blew my mind that they were making movies like this. I knew what was possible. When the role of Jonas Blane came up? Oh man, I was ready to step in! Oh yes…this is what I was built for.

EDGE: How did it feel when you began pursuing this passion?

DH: When I first started to act? Oh, it felt like coming in out of the cold and being wrapped in a heated blanket. It was immediately comfortable. I would get so deep into my characters I’d get stuck in them. I realized that I had to come off of that, I had to back up. One of my instructors told me, “When you’re on stage, you are that character. You are everything you want that character to be. But five feet after you come off that stage, you have to become Dennis again.” So there was a switch I had to develop, and I just had to turn it on and off, activate and deactivate.

EDGE: What are some of the other key moments in your development as an actor? 

DH: I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I wanted to be classically trained, I wanted people to take me seriously as an actor. So I guess that was one moment, attending the Academy. I guess the next moment was when I was working with John Lynne, who I thought was absolutely amazing. He is no longer with us, but his teaching is still with me…you’re making me go back to a time…it’s rather emotional for me…he was an amazing instructor and an incredibly good man.  

EDGE: You worked with Ed Asner on the show Lou Grant.

DH: Ed was the consummate professional. I worked early in my career with Tom Berenger. He was at the height of his career in Major League. Another good person was Gene Hackman. And Clint Eastwood, who is a very incredible source of performance energy for me.  

Photo courtesy of Upper Case Editorial

EDGE: Was there a “eureka moment” early on, when you thought Hey, I can do this?

DH: I guess when I got my first job, when I got hired for the first time. Coming from where I come from, I didn’t have any connections, I didn’t know anybody when I got into the business. I was very grateful. [laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and just said, “Man, Dennis you’re terrific.” I don’t think I have ever said that. As soon as you start thinking “you’re all that” I think you lose it. My M.O. is I perform roles the way the people actually define them in their life. When a doctor comes up to me and says, “You know what? That’s what we do,” that’s the best compliment I can get. There were some baseball players that came up to me and said, “Man! You played Cerrano like—oh, man—we love Cerrano!” If a baseball player tells me that then I must’ve done something right. When I have politicians or the President greet me and say, “I see we have the first black president here in the room,” I say, “Thank you.” When I have Ethel Kennedy tell me that I was partially responsible for Barack Obama becoming president, that humbles me, that kind of brings me to my knees a little bit. What? Really? When I play Command Sergeant Major Jonas Blane and then go to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit the troops, and they tell me, “This is the show we watch here”…I mean, you’re in a war zone and you’re doing a show about black ops and you have guys that perform those black ops say you’re doing it right— that’s a compliment for me! You’ve got to remain grounded, because what you’re doing is taking on personalities, you’re taking on characters, and you can’t have an ego about that. You can’t be outside your body looking back saying, “Boy, I didn’t do that right,” because then you’ll miss the next moment, and any actor will tell you that you have to be in the moment. 

Photo courtesy of Upper Case Editorial

EDGE: On 24, did they tell you the character arc would include being president?

DH: No. That may have been their plan but it’s not something that they had divulged to me. All I was at the time was Senator David Palmer running for president in the primary.    

EDGE: Did that role get you more interested or more involved in real-life politics?

DH: I aspired to…but then I got Allstate and I was working for a Fortune 500 company. I could no longer voice my opinion publicly about politics.  I could donate my money, go to functions, shake hands and things like that, but I really couldn’t talk about politics. So I don’t.

EDGE: Would you ever consider running for office? Clint Eastwood, Ronald Regan, Sonny Bono…Dennis Haysbert?  

DH: Maybe for a quick second. [laughs] I have a number of friends in politics in Sacramento who actually have said to me, “If you keep your nose clean, you portray a positive role—we could put you in the Senate” What? You could do what? Hmmm. I don’t think so!

EDGE: You’ve done one of the toughest things to do in film—convincingly portray a baseball player—in more than one movie. Can you handle a bat as well as it seems?

DH: Well, in all modesty, yes. All the home runs that I hit in the movie I actually hit out, but they just didn’t go as far as they shot them out. That is probably the most fun I’ve had on screen, playing baseball and getting paid for it.   

EDGE: Which sports did you play in high school?

DH: I played football and ran track. I also played a little bit of basketball, but that was during our theater season, so I didn’t play a lot and I was marginally good at that. But I always loved basketball, and I loved track, I loved football, and I loved to fence, especially stage fencing. 

EDGE: Your character in Far from Heaven was incredibly complex. Was that an easy role to play for you—did you have personal stuff to draw on—or did you have to dig as deep as it looked?

DH: I will say this: love is love and we really can’t choose who we love. We think we can, but you can’t pinpoint one person, and go out and say, “You know what, I’m going to love them and they’re going to love me back,” and go out and do that. I wish it were that simple. Sometimes your chemistry is such that you’re going to attract a certain person, and it has a lot to do with where you are energetically at the time, how clear you are, because sometimes you draw the wrong people towards you, and it’s incredibly hard to release them—even when you know they’re not good for you. Do you know what I mean?That’s something that hits everyone.  

EDGE: What kind of response did you get to that performance?

DH: I can’t tell you how many women in their sixties came up to me with tears in their eyes and whispered to me, “That was my life”…and how my jaw dropped to the floor.

EDGE: What will we be seeing you in during 2014?

DH: I have Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, in which I reprise the role of Manute, who was played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan. I have a couple of independents coming out—The Life of a King, which is a story about an ex-con who comes out of prison and teaches chess to inner city kids, and Welcome to the Jungle, which premiered at the 2013 Newport Beach Film Festival. Welcome to the Jungle is chock full of really brilliant comedians. It was one of the few times I felt out of place in a movie, because I wasn’t a comedian. But they gave me such funny lines to say. It is also the first comedic appearance by Jean Claude Van Damme, who is actually really funny. It was a fun movie to do. This March, I have a part in Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a DreamWorks Animation comedy, which is a spinoff off of Rocky and Bullwinkle. And Think Like a Man, Too, which came out at the end of 2013. 

Editor’s Note: Read more from the EDGE interview with Dennis Haysbert at edgemagonline.com!