Aisha Tyler

We all know someone who is good at everything they try. They instinctively find their groove, never seem to over-reach and succeed again and again where others fail. It makes you a little crazy, but how can you not love their talent and courage? Aisha Tyler has pulled off “good at everything” in the toughest of all spaces—the entertainment business. She has been brilliant as a standup comic, as an Emmy-winning host of The Talk and ringleader of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, as a star of the beloved animated series Archer, as an unforgettable character on Friends and as a director on the Walking Dead franchise. The next challenge? Her own Brooklyn-based cocktail brand. The challenge for Gerry Strauss was a bit more daunting: slowing Aisha down long enough to cover the vast and ever-expanding landscape of her remarkable career. Is it any surprise that these pages could not contain her?

EDGE: You’ve taken a lot of chances and explored several different directions in your career. This being our “Best Case Scenario” issue, I have to ask: Is there anything that you can think of that you were advised not to do, but did anyway?

AT: I don’t know that I was ever told not to do anything, but I did get a lot of discouraging feedback when I started doing stand-up. I got a lot of This is never going to work. You’re never going to make it anywhere. I’m a grownup and my comedy was always grownup comedy, so my show was always kind of edgy. I had this club owner tell me that I should stop cursing, that my material was too dirty. Then the next guy after me was talking about a little person in the most vulgar fashion and I remember telling this guy he’s a hypocrite. He said, “You’re just a little girl trying to run with the big boys and it’s not going to work.” Later I saw him and he came up to me and he was like, “I always knew you were going—” and I was like, “No, no, you didn’t. No. No, you don’t get to revise history now, buddy. You said I was going to fail.” I’m not a petty person and I don’t hold grudges, but every kid just thinks, Someday I’m going to show them! So I did really enjoy cutting him off.

EDGE: Was standup always a dream of yours?

AT: I wish it was that intentional. As a kid, watching Eddie Murphy’s Raw or Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip, I felt like those were magical people that had fallen out of the sky. There was no direct bright line between that and like, Oh, I could do that for a living. I had discovered standup in college but it wasn’t until I got out of school that I realized that comedy could be a vocation. My minor was Environmental Studies and I wanted to work in environmental policy, so I got a job at a conservation group called the Trust for Public Land. I was doing marketing and PR for them. I think the idea was just to take a year or two to work and then go to law school and become an environmental lawyer. In the interim, I realized that working in an office was just highly problematic for me. So I started doing standup, which was obviously the hardest of hard right turns. I was watching a lot of standup on TV and thinking there were some really mediocre comics out there…and I could be mediocre, too. So I tried it once to see if I liked it. I think any standup will tell you that that first set is typically pretty electrifying. Either you fall in love with it right away, or it’s not for you. But just doing it once—and doing it poorly, I might add—I was like, Oh…this is the gig for me!

EDGE: At that point, did success in comedy seem like it would be enough?

AT: Oh, yeah. And it’s not that I’m not an ambitious person. But I found out I could do standup and be able to pay my bills and I thought that might be enough. I was really just focused on trying to be the best standup comic I could be. It was a very mid-level “best-case scenario”—an eh-case scenario, I think [laughs]. It all turned out way better than I envisioned.

EDGE: As you branched out, did you prefer to play fictional characters or find projects, like hosting, where you could be you?

AT: Oh, that’s a good question. Being myself, that’s an easy job, right? For some people, hosting and doing standup live on stage is really discomforting, however I found hosting is a very easy thing for me to do and I quite enjoy it. But I probably preferred acting because I typically like to lean into the stuff that I find most challenging and most difficult. But the host stuff was cake, you know what I mean? Even when I kind of started doing comedy and then I started getting up into drama, I really gravitated towards doing drama. I wanted to do something where I knew I was going to have to stretch myself because I typically prefer the thing at which I’m least proficient.

EDGE: Is that true of directing? I’m thinking of your doing Fear the Walking Dead.

AT: I think so. I find directing to be the most challenging and, on some days, the most frightening—so definitely the most interesting. To go into a space where you’re good at what you do, but you know you have a lot to learn, you know you’re going to be growing and you’re going to constantly be expanding your skillset and your experiences long-term. So yes, it’s definitely true of directing.

EDGE: You won a Daytime Emmy during your time on CBS’s The Talk. What were the biggest challenges of occupying that chair every day?

AT: I don’t mean to be glib, but right from the beginning it was a very easy show to do. As a standup, I was accustomed to speaking contemporaneously and off-the-cuff and being myself. It was a network show and it was for daytime, so sometimes we had to be circumspective and kind of shave off the edges. But as the show became more popular, we were able to speak more freely. I think that’s why it did well when I was there. There was a nice frankness, a kind of emotional openness to the show. It was driven by personal experience rather than politics. I’m a pretty private person, so I did struggle to figure out what about my personal life I wanted to share and what I wanted to keep private. That was always a challenge—to want to be present and forthcoming, to be supportive of the other women, but also wanting to keep some of your life’s details to yourself. I think that’s a normal human inclination, that not everything has to be out there in the open.

EDGE: In regard to your acting résumé, I think your stint as Charlie, Ross Geller’s love interest, is something that will live forever as part of the Friends legacy. Were you nervous inserting yourself into the Ross-and-Rachel dynamic?

AT: No, and I’m sure it was because there was no social media then. I really just didn’t want to suck. I was just trying not to be bad at my job. I will say that there might’ve been a general backlash against anybody who came between Ross and Rachel, but I never had anything but positive feedback, to this day. Charlie Wheeler ended up being a fan favorite. I get 10-year-olds that watch the show now that love her. I think the way that her relationship with Joey and Ross was framed and how it happened, it was all very playful. So yeah, that paleontologist lady, people tended to like her quite a bit. But I was nervous for sure, because it was the best and most popular show on television at the time. It was the peak expression of that kind of comedy and, I think, has held up as a pillar of four-camera comedy.

EDGE: There’s a story out there that you got into acting because of Sam Rockwell—

AT: It is entirely true. We went to the same high school and I thought he was super cute. He went into an improv class and I followed him in there and stayed in there. I mean, not like a stalker [laughs]. I went and hung out with him in improv class and out of school. Luckily, we’re still very close friends to this day, so it all went well.

EDGE: So what’s something about Whose Line Is It Anyway? that most people wouldn’t know?

AT: I’ve said a million times that the guys absolutely don’t know what they’re going to be improvising about until I tell them. There are no cheat-sheets or advanced stuff. So what you wouldn’t know—unless you are in the studio for the taping—is that lots of things don’t go well. They flub a lot. They make mistakes. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not safe for television—a lot of cursing—but it’s always a really playful night. It’s all hilarious. Sometimes it’s perfect and sometimes it’s a mess. But they’re so good at what they do that the whole night is really joyful. Another thing people don’t know is that, in my first season on the show, the sound guy kept complaining because I was laughing too loud. He was like, “Aisha, you need to not enjoy this as much.” I was like, That’s an impossibility.

EDGE: Tell me something that you haven’t done but would like to try.

AT: Two years ago a friend of mine gave me a skydive as a Christmas present. They did that knowing that I was going to be really angry about it, because I do not want to jump out of a plane—but the fact that they challenged me to jump out of a plane means now, of course, I have to show them and jump out of a plane [laughs]. I’m terrified. I’m legitimately terrified to do it. So now there’s just this battle between my ego and my terrified inner child over whether I’m going to ever jump out of a plane. This person knows that I have a little bit of a soft spot and they can just goad me and shame me into doing it, because I won’t be like, You can’t tell me what I’m not going to do. So the skydive is looming on the horizon and giving me palpitations, but we’ll see.

EDGE: Don’t forget a GoPro camera. This can be your next film project.

AT: Or a diaper—I’m not worried about the camera—a large adult diaper. EDGE


The following is bonus web only content:

 

EDGE: One of your more recent projects is your line of ready-to-drink cocktails, Courage+Stone. Where did you come up with the idea to launch this brand?

AT: I’m a cocktail lover… that’s the easy answer. I would travel for work all the time and I’d go to these great bars—a lot of them in New York—and I would get home and want to have a great drink, but all I would have is light beer in my pantry. I started buying the stuff that you needed to make great cocktails. I quickly was like, This is a lot of work. [laughs] As the kids used to say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” So I started making them in batches and keeping them in my fridge so I could come home late on a weeknight when I was tired and just have one great drink without having to make any effort. Then I literally was like, Oh, it would be really great if you could buy these in a store—because most people would probably want the same thing.

EDGE: You began working on this in 2014. What needed to happen to make this brand what you wanted it to be?

AT: It starts with the quality of the base spirit. We really wanted to make sure that we had a real distillery partner so it wasn’t random whiskey in the cocktails or random gin in the cocktails. We looked really hard to find a great distillery partner, people who had great taste. We wanted to know who was touching our liquid and that there was a real team behind it. The whiskey base is three-year-old rye whiskey from a real distillery, made by hand, as are our cocktails. I have photos of me stirring the first batch with a paddle. It’s a real product. Then, everything else had to be premium quality, because I wanted to give people a bar-level experience at home—no corn syrup, no stabilizers, no artificial colors, no garbage of any kind of in these cocktails. From the very beginning, my touchstone was that it had to be a natural product. I was a real stickler for what went into the drink. I wanted it to be something that I would drink, something that my bartender friends would be happy to serve. So yeah, it was really an exact thing about what I wanted and making sure that it was something I was willing to put my name on.

EDGE: Why did you go to Brooklyn to create this product?

AT: There are just a lot of really great craft distilleries in Brooklyn. We took a lot of meetings in Brooklyn. It’s a place that has this kind of maker culture there, right? People are doing things in Brooklyn. It’s not a corporate-type place. You walk around, and there’s just all these great little businesses doing super-cool stuff. So when we were looking at small batch distillers there was a high concentration of people that were performing at a very high level in Brooklyn. It made sense for us as a brand. For me, I really want people to know that when we say handcrafted that’s a true story.

 

EDGE: I understand that meditation was a big part of your family’s life growing up. Is that a practice you continue?

AT:  I really wish that it was. Most people’s moms complain that they don’t call home enough or that they’re not eating well. My mother just complains that I don’t meditate, especially when work is kind of intense. I should meditate, but I don’t. I feel like I have no time to do anything, so sitting still for several moments and focusing on my breathing is way at the bottom of the list. But I should [laughs].

 

EDGE: Do you think that finding ways to bring your passions into your work has led to a unique brand of success for you?

AT: That’s a really good question and yes, I think so. There’s that greeting card adage about, “Do what you love and the rest will follow” or “Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Yes, I do think that passion for the things that I’m curious about has been what has driven me, pushed me forward and enabled me. Honestly, at times when things weren’t going the way that I would have hoped or envisioned, they were still the best-case scenario, because I was excited about what I was doing, especially as a filmmaker. The reason I’m a director is because I decided I wanted to direct—and I knew no one was going to give me a break out of the blue. I started making films on my own, making short films. I called all my friends who were in a band and offered to make them a free music video if they let me hang out with them for a few days. I just started doing that and I never felt like that was work. I felt like it was an investment in myself and in my creativity. I was building a body of work on my own without waiting for someone to give me permission. I didn’t hire a crew. I just went and rented a camera for a day and shot it myself, learned how to cut it myself, did everything myself. Then as a result, my understanding of filmmaking and the craft of filmmaking was deepened just by me kind of investing in my own growth. So yeah. I have other friends that want to break into certain areas and they’re like, “Well, I got to wait for someone to give me a job.” I’m like, You absolutely don’t! You can just get in there and do it yourself!

 

Elizabeth Perkins

The ability to light up a screen is not the exclusive province of A-List, big-box-office mega-stars. Some actors have learned to wield that quality with understated strength and subtlety—and parlayed that power into long, distinguished entertainment careers. If you’re wondering why Elizabeth Perkins is so relentlessly good in everything she does, you may have just answered your own question. For three-plus decades she has turned in luminous performances in heart-tugging dramas and smart comedies that include About Last Night, Big, Avalon, The Doctor, He Said She Said, The Ring Two, 28 Days and Must Love Dogs—as well as unforgettable TV series like Weeds, Sharp Objects, How to Live with Your Parents and Truth Be Told. She also played Nemo’s mom in Finding Nemo. Perkins has inhabited screen characters that run the gamut from dark to daring to devilishly funny. But as she tells Gerry Strauss, in her current FOX series, The Moodys, she is playing a version of someone fans have never seen before: herself.

EDGE: In the FOX series The Moodys, you play Ann Moody, an alcohol counselor. There’s a personal story behind that.

EP: I asked them to let my character go back to school and become a counselor because of what my mother had done. She was a pianist and then she became an alcohol rehabilitation counselor. She had played in a series of bars and was in that scene, became a full-blown alcoholic throughout most of my childhood, and then got sober when I was 18 or 19 years old. She completely turned her life around, went back to school, got her degree and became a counselor. Sobriety has been a big part of my life, and so is recognizing that and honoring that in people and in my family, and in myself. It was a real inspiration for my character on this show for that very reason.

EDGE: Your mom was an entertainer at heart. Did that influence you early on?

EP: Oh, 100 percent. My mother used to play the piano and I would stand next to her and sing. She always encouraged me to do the things that she couldn’t—or wouldn’t, or didn’t—and was really an impetus for me to get on stage. She introduced me to local theater in our small town in Massachusetts and was always my inspiration. She would say to me, “I wish that I had done that when I was your age.” Because she was a natural performer…and the funniest person I’ve ever known in my life. She was sarcastic and raucous and bawdy. She was just no-holds-barred, with a great deal of confidence. I think that my sense of humor comes directly from her mouth. For sure.

EDGE: You began your career as a stage actress, correct?

EP: Oh, absolutely. I went to drama school in Chicago at the Goodman School of Drama, which now has been incorporated into DePaul University. But when I went there, it was a conservatory, and I think we had a graduating class of 12 people. When you’re in that kind of training program, specifically back then, they weren’t training you for television and film. We didn’t have on-camera classes or how-to TV audition classes. It was primarily performing on the stage. I had really not thought about film and television. When you come from a conservatory mindset like that, it’s all about the theater. I was lucky enough—and I’ll use that word lucky, because luck does play a huge part in any actor’s life—to be seen. I went to New York solely to do theater and was cast on Broadway. That was 100 percent luck and being at the right place at the right time. I was proud of myself working on Broadway, being young in my twenties, in New York.

EDGE: Then came About Last Night (above), with Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Jim Belushi…

EP: Again, I just lucked into that first film audition, which I think it was 1985. It had never occurred to me to do film and television, and I was perfectly fine without it. I just fell into it. When I did About Last Night, I’d never been in front of a camera before. I’d never done a commercial or a day part. I’d never even done a student film before, so I sort of faked my way through it. I remember arriving on the set and they were using terms that I’d never heard: your mark, the POV, the cheap shot, over-the-shoulder. I just was like, “I’m going to just fake it till I make it.”

EDGE: And you did. You were listed as one of the “12 Most Promising New Actors of 1986” in Screen World, which was a huge deal back in the pre-Internet and pre-IMDB days. Did you feel some pressure at that point to keep the momentum going?

EP: I felt a little overwhelmed. The film got a lot of attention and the way I looked at it was like, “Well, that’s intense.” But it resulted in me getting more work. I had been living in New York in my twenties and everything was expensive, and I wasn’t making any money. It just translated into, “Oh, I can buy my mom a car!” That’s when I started buying my mom her cars, and I bought her a new car like every five years for the rest of my life, until she passed away a few years ago. Then I remember thinking, “I can buy my mom a house…I can do all these things. I can now help take care of my mom the way she always took care of me.” So it was a blessing. I was 26, but I think I had a pretty good head on my shoulders about it, and I knew these things come and go so quickly. It’s like that great line in Notting Hill: “Today’s newspapers are going to line tomorrow’s canary cage.”

EDGE: Not everyone in that situation would respond that way.

EP: If you’re in it for a certain amount of notoriety, yeah, that could sway how you respond to that attention. A lot of actors who think, Oh, I’m the hottest thing right now—and they actually think that’s going to last—just aren’t really living in reality. Hype is so fleeting, and all you can really do is focus on the work. I’m from a really small town in Western Massachusetts, so all of this was just great [laughs]. I’ll take whatever I can get! I remember when I was making The Flintstones with Rosie O’Donnell, she was hanging out with Madonna at the time and she said, “You could just be so much more famous than you are. You should come out with me and Madonna… you could be super famous. Your career could be so much better than it is right now.” And I remember thinking to myself, I like my career right now. [laughs] I work all the time, but I’m not one of those people who’s surrounded by paparazzi. I work with great people. I make good money. I’ve got four children. I support myself. I’ve supported my parents. Yeah, I guess you could be wanting to be in that level of superstardom…or you can just be really grateful for what’s in front of you. I think that’s sustained me. I’ve been doing this for over 35 years, and I’m good.

EDGE: One of your earliest film roles was opposite Tom Hanks in Big. In 1988, it was an innocent family-friendly fantasy film. Do you think the relationship between your adult character and Josh, who was still a 12-year-old boy, would be done the same way?

EP: Oh, I get questions about this all the time, because we have sex in the movie. He kisses me and touches my breasts, and it was a whole thing. Yeah…we wouldn’t shoot that movie like that today, 100 percent. I’m not sure I feel strange about it in hindsight. That scene was primarily to set up the joke of the next day at the office, when the elevator opens and he walks out like, Oh, I’m a completely changed human being. It in no way indicated any kind of untoward, Oh, she’s having sex with a minor. Based on how we have grown for the good as a society, that scene would probably not be acceptable, period, so I own that. And I’m sure Penny [Marshall, who directed the film], before she passed, would own that as well.

EDGE: Do you view the heightened sensitivity towards entertainment as being a change for the better?

EP: I think when change happens, societal change happens. It goes to the extremes in many different directions and then eventually it finds its home. The change that’s going on now is very necessary, but I do think we’re all still finding our footing there. In terms of certain norms that have gone on for decades, it’s a hard change for everyone, particularly people who’ve been writing or directing or creating for years. But it’s a necessary one. My daughter works in development at the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media and she’s my touchstone for all of it. I’m 60 years old. I’ve been doing this since I was in my early 20s. And every time I have a question, I call her and I say, “What do you think about this?” It’s all a big change for me, too. I really applaud my daughter, because she’s at the forefront of working for an institute that is dedicated to equality and inclusivity and diversity. And it’s really needed, and it’s overdue at this point.

EDGE: Is comedy something that you’ve always enjoyed digging into, or was it more of an acquired passion?

EP: Oh, I adore doing comedy. If I could do comedy all the time, I would really be in a sweet spot. Sometimes I feel like I’m always given the job I need at the moment I need it. Prior to doing The Moodys with Denis Leary, I had done all these really dark things. I did a show called Sharp Objects with Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson. That was so dark. Then I did a show with Aaron Paul and Octavia Spencer that was just Nazis and prison and racism. And then Trump was in office and the pandemic hit, and I’m doing comedy. If you just stay in these dark pieces, you bring it home with you. I do, anyway. So I just feel blessed that I’m making a comedy in the middle of all of this stuff. I’m like, “Okay, universe, you’re giving me exactly what I need.” [laughs]. It’s great to wake up in the morning and know that you’re going to go to work and laugh—I’m so blessed to be working with Denis and Jay Baruchel, who plays our oldest son. Jay is just wicked good. He’s incredible. We’re having such a good time that none of us wants to leave.

EDGE: What specifically hooked you into The Moodys?

EP: Denis Leary. Denis and I grew up about 30 miles away from each other. Chelsea Frei, who plays our daughter, grew up another 30 miles away, and Jay Baruchel is from Montreal, which is like four hours away. So all of us really have this same sort of—I’ll use the word “wicked” because that’s New England lingo— sense of humor, and we’re all from working-class families. So, when the creators sent it to me, they said, “There’s not a lot on the page right now, but we’d love you to do this.” And I said, “Well, can I make her like me?” And they were like, “Yeah.” So they were gracious enough to let me infuse my own life into it. I feel like this is the first time that I’ve created someone who’s really based on me, a woman with older children who are still in and around the house, who’s trying to reinvent herself all the time—which happens when you go from being a mother to being an empty nester. I was able to infuse parts of my mom into it, and so it was the first time I’ve been able to have open season on a character that the creators really allowed me to make my own. At my age, it was really a little gift for me. I took it and ran with it, and I’m having a ball.

EDGE: Would the prospect of creating your own character have frightened you earlier in your career?

EP: Oh, yeah. But everything is scarier when you’re younger.

EDGE: Why does it work so well now?

EP: When you get to be a certain age, you don’t care what people think anymore. You just don’t. You’ve been around for long enough to just say, “I am who I am, and I’m proud of who I am.” I love these parts of myself, and I want to share them because I think I’m really great. I do. I love my life. I love my husband. I love my kids. I just feel like I’ve been given so many gifts. And now I’m getting to play a really great part of myself. A lot of people don’t get an opportunity like that, so I adore my creators and Denis for bringing me along on this. They’re allowing me to be nutty and obsessive and fun—a woman who maybe has too many glasses of wine, or maybe overdecorates the house at Christmas, who might be a little bit cloying at times when it comes to her children. These are all real facets of me.

Retta

Good girls don’t trade a future in medicine for a career in comedy. If that’s not an old saying, maybe it should be. Or maybe not. Retta, who stars with Christina Hendricks and Mae Whitman in the NBC “dramedy” Good Girls, veered off the pre-med track at Duke to work as a stand-up—and then parlayed her success on the stage into an iconic role on Parks and Recreation. Though not exactly a prescription for Hollywood stardom, in Retta’s case, it produced a positive outcome, and the rest is history. The daughter of Liberian immigrants who settled in the Garden State, she brings a unique work ethic to the characters she plays and, as Gerry Strauss discovered, a healthy dose of Jersey swagger, too.

EDGE: How have you been keeping yourself safe and sane during the pandemic?

RETTA: I’m a big old scaredy-cat, so at the beginning of quarantine, every little thing I thought I had it. Sniffles? Oh, I got it. Cough? Oh, I got it. I got an ache? Oh, I got it. My eye’s twitching? [laughs] It’s COVID! So then I had a friend tell me to download the Calm app and meditate, so I did that for a while. What really helped me was just that I didn’t watch the news anymore. Honestly, that helped me a lot. But in late November, I had knee replacement surgery. So I went back into stress mode. It’s been a real ride!

EDGE: You’re dealing with things from a West Coast perspective now, but fans of yours know that you are originally a Jersey girl. Any thoughts on growing up in the Garden State?

RETTA: I think it was pretty typical in that you just tried to fit in, tried to get to the mall on the weekends where all the kids hung out. I have immigrant parents, so home was a little different than my friends.

EDGE: How so?

RETTA: Like with schoolwork. I remember friends getting cash for grades. You get $10 for an A, and $5 for a B, and a dollar for a C. [laughs] I was like, first of all, you get money for a C?

EDGE: Did you not enjoy yourself in school?

RETTA: I liked school, but it was very much centered around doing well so that you could go to college. So school was very important for me. I think it’s part of the immigrant life. Not that I didn’t socialize, because I was very active in school—I was on student council and the choir and a cheerleader. French club, math club. So I was busy, but I didn’t party or anything like that. So, in that regard, I didn’t really experience the high school partying life, but I was so busy with everything else I don’t know that I really even noticed it until I was older. I got the high off of the good grades.

EDGE: Success in science and in comedy both require a lot of hard work and patience. Do you think the work ethic you developed for one helped you in the other?

RETTA: It did in that I’m an empirical thinker. I’m that person: If you want to do something, what are the steps to do it? My goal was to have my own sitcom. So I watched a lot of sitcoms. I noticed that most of the leads in sitcoms used to be stand-up comedians, which is why I started stand-up. I was like, Oh, that’s the path that Roseanne, Tim Allen, all these people took. That must be the way to do it. So that’s why I started. Also, I’m a big fan of checking things off of a list. That’s something that has stayed with me since high school, where it’s like you have all these things to do, and if you don’t do them, you’re not going to get the grade. So that’s another thing that I still do. I love a list, and I love checking stuff off of a list. That kind of thing has stayed with me. I certainly feel like I work harder now, just because being a lead in a show requires more work. You have to spend more time learning lines. You spend more time on set, that kind of thing. But because I know this is what I really want to do, it’s not hard work to me. I get to go do the work I love as opposed to “needing” to study.

EDGE: It doesn’t sound like you had a mentor or a role model when you launched your entertainment career.

RETTA: I don’t know that I got any advice, really. I used to read Entertainment Weekly and People magazine cover-to-cover, and I would just hear different things. One thing I remember was that people would always say Sandra Bullock was really great with the crew. It made sense to just be a good person and be the kind of person people would want to be around. That was something that stuck with me—but it wasn’t necessarily an advice thing. I will say, while working with Amy Poehler [on Parks and Recreation], one of the things I realized that we had in common was that we always believed it would happen. There was never a doubt that I would get to where I wanted to go in this industry. For me, it was just an anxiousness as to when. How long was it going to take? I remember being in the hair and makeup trailer one day when we were at work, and Amy and I had a conversation about how we always just knew. I think it made it easier to deal with whatever struggles we had on our way up because, in the back of our minds, well, we knew it’s going to happen. I think that made being here and living in a studio apartment or sleeping on a friend’s floor fine, because it was just an interim part of what was to come.

EDGE: Speaking of Amy, how did you first get cast on Parks and Recreation?

RETTA: I got a message from my manager at the time that I had an audition for a new sitcom. It was going to be kind of like The Office in that it was a mockumentary, and one of the creators was the creator of The Office. I went in, I read for the room, which included Mike Schur and Greg Daniels and a couple other people and some casting folks. I was never a great auditioner. I hate auditions. I get sick to my stomach. But I’m good in a room just chatting. At the end of my audition, I had just gotten this watch and it was very blingy. It was one of those things—they call them toy watches—and they’re just super shiny, they’re ridiculous. I remember Mike Schur being like, “Hey, cool watch.” Oh my God, I gave him a good ten minutes on the watch: “You have to be invited to be a member. If you email me, I will submit you to be invited.” He was like, “I’m all good on the watch.” But I was chatty, and I think he thought it would be funny, like he could bring that into the character. Now, mind you, my character Donna did not turn out to be the chatty lady who was trying to sell you a watch, but I think it made me seem funny in the room outside of the read. So I credit my audition success to me being able to talk about this stupid watch for so long. [laughs]

EDGE: Donna grew into a primary character on the show. What did you admire about her?

RETTA: I love that she was very independent. She knew what she wanted and there was nothing that was going to change her mind. She wasn’t going to be persuaded out of something. I appreciated most of the characters in the show—how loyal they were to each other and how supportive they were. I loved that about the friendships in general on the show, and that Donna knew what she wanted and she was going to get it by crook or by hook.

EDGE: Fans of Parks and Rec—and of internet memes in general—are familiar with one of the show’s most famous catchphrases: TREAT YO’ SELF. Did you ever think that this made-up holiday would stand the test of time?

RETTA: Nope. Sure didn’t. I was not really good at reading. I just tried to make it real for me. I never could tell when something was going to be funny. I remember my friend, Brittany, was on set that day visiting me, and she was there for the talking heads with me and Aziz [Ansari]. She was like, “Ooh, that’s going to be really funny. That’s going to be huge.” I was like, Really? It’s just silly Tom and Donna stuff. And she’s like, “No, trust me, it’s going to be huge.” I was working this one night, and I just remember getting a lot of tags on Twitter. I was like, What is going on? because I didn’t really do Twitter that much, but I just remember getting blown up. When I got home, I saw that it was that episode. Then I looked on Twitter and I saw that everybody was tweeting TREAT YO’ SELF and tagging me. I was like, Whoa. Right!

EDGE: You do a ton of voice acting. What makes that type of work appealing to you?

RETTA: Well, the best thing about voiceover work is no hair and makeup. I don’t even have to leave the house now! But voiceover is something that I really wanted to do, particularly when I was doing stand-up, because when you first start out, you’re not making a whole lot of money. If you can get voiceover work, or commercials, you can kind of like float by while you’re still trying to make the stand-up work. So it’s something that I really wanted, but I didn’t really get a lot of opportunity. I didn’t have a voiceover agent. I didn’t really know exactly how to do it. Once you start getting viability from things like Parks and Rec, then stuff starts coming in, so I started getting more auditions. I think the first thing that I booked was a Nickelodeon thing, and I was so excited, but I had been auditioning forever. It finally clicked like five or six years ago. And even so, it wasn’t like I was getting a whole lot of regular gigs—I just got my first commercial voiceover during quarantine, and it was the most exciting thing ever, doing the Rocket Mortgage commercials. I’m like, Woo-hoo, that’s me! I literally pause it and watch it. I watched the commercials to hear my voice. It’s like, you’re on TV, you have a show that comes on weekly. But there’s something about the voiceover commercial that excites me.

EDGE: What do you enjoy about Good Girls and your role on the show?

RETTA: It was the first time I felt that I got to play a fully realized character. When I read it, I knew exactly who the character was based on in the pilot script. I literally cried reading what she was going through. It gives me so much joy and satisfaction to feel like I’m playing a person that lives in the world. I was all about comedy when I first came out to LA, so it wasn’t something that I really even thought that I would need. But I read this script and was like, God, I would love to play her. It just excited me that there was a chance that I would get to play this character that had her family, and loved her husband, and was going through trials and tribulations, but was still trying to be happy—and none of it was based on her weight or anything like that.

EDGE: Good Girls has built a following thanks to its drama and dark humor. With Season 4 here, for those who are late to the party, why should they binge the first three seasons to catch up?

RETTA: It’s got heists. There are cliffhangers. There’s comedy. And you’re right, it can get dark—particularly Season 3, where even we were freaked out when we were reading the scripts. I think it takes you on a ride that you don’t expect.

EDGE: A lot of parents of college-age and twenty-something kids read this magazine so I have to ask, how do you go from Duke pre-med to stand-up comedy?

RETTA: When I went to school for the first time, living out of my parents’ house, the first time making my own decisions—when to do laundry, when to go to bed, that kind of thing—I liked that. I got to kind of learn about myself and what made me happy. When I graduated from Duke, I still wanted to go into medicine, but I kind of wanted a break. I knew that [med school] was going to be intense, so I wanted a break before. I took the year off, but I was too afraid to leave science, so I stayed in North Carolina and did chemistry. I mean, some people would be like, really [laughs] that was your break? But that was the first time I lived alone and was left with my thoughts. Which is when I realized what I really wanted to do, which was to perform.

EDGE: Was that a difficult decision to explain to your family?

RETTA: Not so much. I mean, my parents, as immigrants, tend to be very like focused on education and going into the professional fields that are lucrative enough to support you—you know, doctors, lawyers, that kind of thing. But my they were still supportive. I remember calling them and saying, “I think I’m going to drive cross-country to LA.” I had already told them I had started stand-up. My mom said, “Don’t embarrass your father…you’re carrying around his last name.” Which is part of the reason why I dropped my last name. She also reminded me that I’d spent four years in college, so don’t waste it. “If you’re going to do it, do it,” she said. “Don’t half-ass it and just play around.” My father’s big thing was whatever you do, get health insurance…because we can’t afford to take care of you if something goes down.

EDGE: And what did he say?

RETTA: “Drive safe and don’t call us if you get into an accident.”

Editor’s Note: Retta, aka Marietta Sangai Sirleaf, was born in Newark and grew up in Middlesex and Monmouth Counties. She graduated from Duke in 1992 and launched her stand-up career in Raleigh, North Carolina. She made her TV debut on a 1997 episode of Moesha and her movie debut in the 2002 cult classic Slackers. In addition to Parks and Rec and Good Girls, Retta also had a recurring role on Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce with FOE (Friend of Edge) Lisa Edelstein.

Bruce Morrow

Photo by WABC Radio

In 1961, a twenty-something  DJ with a warm but booming voice hit the airwaves in New York for WABC and Rock & Roll was never quite the same again. Bruce Morrow, aka Cousin Brucie, played it all during his evening  show, which could be heard for hundreds of miles up and down  the East Coast. Like most radio jocks, Morrow looked for a side  gig to boost his popularity. He  began hosting weekend music shows across the river at Palisades Amusement Park and those raucous concerts drew teenagers from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut like moths to a flame. With a dozen or more acts sharing the stage, the Palisades Park shows soon became a high-powered launching pad for new records, in turn launching Morrow into the industry stratosphere. And there he remains. More than five decades later, thanks to the enduring quality of that era’s music and the loyalty and love of all those screaming baby boomers, he has returned to WABC to spin records on Saturday nights. 

EDGE editor Mark Stewart, whose parents refused  to take him to those legendary shows on the cliffs  of Fort Lee, finally got his chance to connect with  Cousin Brucie.           

WABC Radio

EDGE: Music fans around the country, myself included, know you from your radio career, from WABC to NBC to CBS to Sirius XM and now back to WABC. But a lot of people in New Jersey remember the decade or so you put on those epic weekend Cousin Brucie Rock & Roll shows in the music pavilion at Palisades Amusement Park. Where does that fit into the big picture? 

BM: If you asked me what the most important part of my life is, there are two things I would mention: Palisades Amusement Park and introducing the Beatles at Shea Stadium, as well as my involvement with them. But Palisades Park would be number one. There is a great line about that: Here is where we grew. Here is where we got older. Here is where we learned. It was the happiest time of my life, a time of physically being with my audience. For just about a decade, I hosted and produced the shows and had a wonderful time. It’s really where I discovered what I was going to do for the rest of my life on the air. It was those beautiful live contacts on those beautiful, sometimes rainy Saturdays where I developed Cousin Brucie.  

EDGE: You brought in some huge names there. What was your level of involvement behind the scenes? 

BM: I booked all the acts. I would make a call and, fortunately for me and for Palisades Park, the artists would perform gratis to promote their music. If you made an appearance at Palisades Park, you really were going to sell a lot of records. They knew darn well that, if they appeared with Cousin Brucie, we were going to have a good time, and a profitable time.  

EDGE: A lot of DJs in your era had side gigs to survive. This was something more, though. 

BM: Absolutely. The love of that audience sitting there in that wonderful outdoor “auditorium” was amazing, it was immense, because we were so close to each other—I was always in the audience. And it never ceased. Every week I would have 10, sometimes 15, acts on that stage, including some of the biggest acts in the country. And remember, they lip-synched the music. That was a very important part of the story. In the 1960s, that was okay. Irving Rosenthal, the owner, did not want to spend a lot of money, so we couldn’t afford bands.  

EDGE: And that came off without a hitch? 

Bruce Morrow

BM: The equipment was not the latest, shall we say. The turntable was in a very little booth and the stylus, well, you might as well have had a screwdriver on the record. So every once in a while, records would skip. In 1962, it happened to Tony Bennett and he got pretty upset. I don’t blame him. We broadcasted a lot of our shows live—thank god this wasn’t one of them. Columbia had just come out with his album I Left My Heart In San Francisco and they knew it would ensure quite a number of sales for Tony to perform at the park. So the record starts and he’s lip-synching: I left my heart…in…San Francisco-cisco-cisco-cisco-cisco-cisco-cisco. He was very upset. We finally got him back on and he finished the song and he left in a huff. To this day he has not forgiven me. Four or five years ago he was visiting Sirius XM where I had a show and he left me  a note: “Cousin Brucie, do me a favor and don’t play  my records anymore.” He was just teasing me, but  he never forgot. I never forgot, either. I was terribly embarrassed. It happened a few times, but not often. With most people, they would just go along with it until we fixed it. The audience would applaud and laugh. They knew we were lip-synching.  

EDGE: Were there little-known performers who blew you and the audience away when they appeared? 

Cousin Brucie Friendship Page

BM: Oh, there were so many. Every time a record came out that I liked, I would contact the record company and we’d put them on the stage. One I remember right off the bat was a fellow named Curtis Lee. Like so many performers, Curtis actually introduced his record “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” for the first time on the stage at Palisades Park. It was a good, rocking song. He was introduced by his mentor, Ray Peterson, who sang “Tell Laura I Love Her” and so many other great songs. Ray came out with me on the stage and introduced Curtis Lee as his “protégé” and he performed his song for the New Jersey, New York, Connecticut audience. And it did very well. The record did not skip that day—if it had skipped that would have been terrible because Curtis had no experience. He was scared stiff! 

EDGE: Does one moment stand out from your years at Palisades Amusement Park? 

BM: We had a young lady from Tenafly, about 15 years old named Lesley Gore. She became a very dear friend. We lost her a few years ago, way too young, but her music survives. Lesley came out on stage, she was so tiny and so nervous—this was one of her first times in front of a major audience. She was standing next to me—I was wearing my leopard-skin suit—and she looked up and I could see she was upset, in some kind of pain. That stage, which wasn’t exactly up to date, had some cracks in it. Poor Lesley had caught the heel of her right shoe in one of the cracks. She whispered to me, “Cousin, my shoe is stuck. I can’t move.” I kneeled down, put the microphone on the stage, slipped her foot out of the shoe and pried the heel out of the crack in the board—and put her shoe back on like a princess. Then she went out and did “It’s My Party” and was phenomenal. And she did cry…but because her shoe was stuck. 

EDGE: The return to WABC, which is now a talk station, with your Saturday Night Rock & Roll Party has created a huge amount of buzz. Were you expecting this “reconnection” to have this kind of effect? 

BM: I knew it would be pretty exciting but I had no idea it would be like this. 

EDGE: So I have to ask, when you see fans in their  60s or 70s, is that screaming teenager still in there somewhere? 

BM: Oh, they’re still in there. The emotion and excitement and affection is there no matter how old they are. They want a hug—which unfortunately we can’t do right now. I feel the love and the affinity and the connection. See, connection is a good word here.  I was, and am, a connection to a better time in life.  Oh, we had a lot of problems in those days, but I represent a bridge that is very important today, because everybody wants to go back a little bit, they want to escape this nightmare we’re going through, nightmares that we’ve been going through, for a couple of decades or so. So here is this guy who’s a connection to a good time through something called music. Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Well, that’s what I’ve been serving up: energy, spirit and mutual love and respect. I don’t care where you’re from, we have this one thing in common and  it’s music—the music of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It’s an amazing common bond.  

Editor’s Note: Cousin Brucie’s Saturday Night Rock & Roll Party began airing on WABC  in September from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. and can be heard at wabcradio.com and can be streamed on the WABC app. He looks forward to restarting his live oldies concerts at PNC Arts Center in Holmdel once public gatherings are safe for  his fans.  

 

Peter Fleming

Three-time U.S. Open doubles champion

Was there something extra-special about winning your own country’s championship?    

Yeah, of course—it felt great. Everybody knows the U.S. Open. You won the U.S. Open? Well, that’s pretty cool. There was a lot of pressure. It’s one of the two biggest tournaments of the year. In doubles, John [McEnroe] and I wanted to win. In singles, I don’t think it ever entered my mind that I had a chance to win, but I wanted to do well. It was a big two weeks.  

How did you get to know John and become his doubles partner? 

I met him when he was 12. We both were training at Port Washington. I’m four years older, so that’s a big age difference, but we were still quite good friends because he was definitely a precocious kid. He didn’t act like he was 12. The summer that he got to the Wimbledon semifinals, in 1977, we became really good friends and literally, we were hanging out every day. We both did well in doubles tournaments with other partners. It was kind of just an organic thing: Maybe we should try and play together. It seemed to be the most natural thing to be able to travel to the same tournaments and be in the same matches. We thought it would work out really well, which is what happened.  

When you were growing up in Chatham, it was the height of the tennis boom. What was the competition like at the junior level here in New Jersey? 

There weren’t a million future pros. The god of New Jersey tennis was Jeff Miller. Jeff grew up in Scotch Plains and he was beating the best players—the best men player—in the state at age 14. He was amazing. Jeff was two years older than me. I couldn’t have competed with him in a million years. I won the state tournament the year after he graduated, as a junior.  

When you joined the men’s tour after college, you were stepping on the court with players like Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase…how do you not feel intimidated? 

When I was in college I had the opportunity to play in tournaments with pros and I beat some top-ranked guys and lost close matches to other ones. Obviously you are nervous, but also excited to match skills with them. Then I became such good friends with John McEnroe and practiced with him every day for maybe two years. As he improved and suddenly became one of those icons, I would say C’mon, I’ve beaten this guy plenty of times. You know, so much of doing anything is about belief. Do you believe it can happen? Then it can. If you don’t believe it can happen, it’s not gonna. Plain and simple.  

Editor’s Note: Peter Fleming won 60 doubles titles during his career, including four Wimbledons and three U.S. Opens. He was the world’s #1-ranked doubles player in the mid-1980s and achieved a #8 world ranking in singles in 1980. Peter lives in England and works as a tennis commentator. He graduated from UCLA and is a member of the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame. 

 

Carol Blazejowski

In the lexicon of basketball, “B.C.” has its own particular meaning: Before Carol. That’s because, for women’s basketball fans, everything that happened prior to the moment that Carol Blazejowski made her debut for Montclair State is ancient history. She not only brought a complete game to the floor, she brought a completely different one—pouring in layups and jumpers, suffocating opponents on defense, and finding open space and teammates where none seemed to be. In elevating her team and her sport, Carol also brought basketball fans out of their seats. She set a Madison Square Garden record with a 52-point game in 1977 and finished with more than 3,000 points in four varsity seasons. Born in Elizabeth and raised in Cranford, she is a Jersey Gem who actually played for the Jersey Gems! Mark Stewart talked to “The Blaze” about the twists and turns of life in basketball, and the ways in which she has tirelessly pushed her sport toward bigger and better things.

Upper Case Editorial

EDGE: When you were setting records at Montclair State, you were playing a three-dimensional, vertical game when most players in women’s basketball were still in a two-dimensional, horizontal mindset. How did you develop that approach? 

CB:  From a physical standpoint, I was very athletic, so that came naturally. I honed my skills against guys. You had to be sharp, you had to think ahead, so that led to my mental approach. I couldn’t compare to their strength or agility or size, so I had to become more cerebral to gain an advantage.

EDGE: What made you choose Montclair State?

CB: I really didn’t have many choices. Title IX was a law but no one was in compliance with it, so there weren’t scholarships. We had limited resources, I was lower-middle-income, so it was really about economics and also proximity—my parents could come and watch me. Montclair State had a relatively good basketball team at the time. Also, I was going to be a Phys Ed teacher and it was a teacher’s school.

EDGE: The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and other media outlets really jumped on your story. How did that coverage change your life, and what did it do for women’s basketball?

CB: We were so good at Montclair State and the media really took notice. We were playing a national-level schedule and were part of the sports conversation in the metropolitan area. It certainly helped when we had that record-setting performance at Madison Square Garden, when all of the New York journalists were there. That really opened people’s eyes to, one, Wow women really can play and, two, people really wanted to watch women play—there were 12,000 people in the Garden that day. The writers took it and ran with it and I am very grateful for that. It was their voice that helped propel us and garner interest in the general public.

EDGE: Was there a lot of focus on the 1980 Olympics, for you and for the sport?

CB: Yes. I was the last player cut from the 1976 Olympic team, so that was fuel and motivation for me. It really inspired me during my last two years in college. Also, it was on the heels of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid and everybody was so excited about the U.S. team’s hockey championship. Also, the 1976 Olympic women’s team had won silver—Russia was the team to beat, so there was a lot of build-up.

EDGE: You were in a tricky position at that time because of the amateur rules, which forced you to choose between the Olympics and joining the women’s professional league. You would have been its marquee star—

CB: Oh, yeah. Listen, I lost a lot of money over the years because of this silly rule with the AAU and non-professional. However, I was laser-focused on my goal of making the 1980 Olympics. No amount of money or anything else was going to change that. I figured if we won the gold medal, subsequently there would be other opportunities to benefit from that, both financially and with a job.

Fleer Corp.

EDGE: Every athlete has a moment that makes them want to put their fist through a wall. Was that moment for you when President Carter announced the U.S. Olympic boycott?

CB: Yes. That was true for all of us, not just the women’s basketball team. We’d sacrificed a lot—not just in money but in time and effort and commitment. Some people actually left school to go and train. The Olympics isn’t supposed to be political, and clearly it was.

EDGE: What was the experience like playing for the New Jersey Gems? 

 

Upper Case Editorial

CB: The quality of the play was great. The game was very athletic. Our home court was the South Mountain Arena in West Orange. It was over ice and they never turned the heat on, so it was an interesting environment we played in. But, you know, these athletes—and I include myself—we would have played for nothing. It was professional ball, it was a chance to follow your passion, to mix your love with your work. I didn’t get paid the full amount of my three-year contract and of course, the league folded. But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.

EDGE: What did you do after that?

CB: I worked for Adidas. I really had two choices. I could go overseas and play, but at the time it wasn’t as lucrative as it is today. Or I could get a job. I had been affiliated with Adidas during my days at Montclair State and so there was an offer on the table to work in the promotional field. So that’s what I did for 10 years. I transitioned over to the NBA in the 1990s and did licensing, and then I worked with Val Ackerman to prepare the women’s team for the 1996 Olympics and, beyond that, for the WNBA.

EDGE: The 1996 Olympic team captured the public’s imagination. What was it about that team and the personalities of the players that made a pro league possible? 

CB: People were hearing more about women’s basketball from a media perspective and more fans were coming to games and seeing superstars like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Rebecca Lobo, who were really generating a lot of recognition. The Olympics were in Atlanta, in the United States—it was the perfect storm, the perfect launchpad, if we won the gold medal, to launch the WNBA. The plan went accordingly. It was special.

EDGE: You got involved with the WNBA New York Liberty right from the get-go—

CB: When New York announced that they would have a WNBA team, Ernie Grunfeld and Dave Checketts called and I became the GM.

EDGE: What was the most rewarding aspect of running that team? And fair warning, I’m going to ask you the other half of that question. 

CB: [laughs] I enjoyed the fact that women were getting a chance to play professional basketball.  The joy and commitment they had was special. I really enjoyed going to the arenas and seeing the fans come out welcoming and embracing the sport. And it wasn’t just female fans. It was men, it was dads, it was a whole cross-section of society. That, to me, was very rewarding. And, of course, winning. You can’t leave out winning! It was about having one of the premier franchises in the league and also being very successful.

EDGE: Back then I got to know Coquese Washington of the Liberty a little bit, who graduated from Notre Dame and was working on her law degree. I realized how smart and well-educated the players were. That’s not necessarily the first thing you think when you look at an NBA roster—Hey, I wonder if he was a chemistry major?. 

CB: Listen, I had every belief that the WNBA would be successful, but the reality was that there were a lot of doubters. These women knew they had to plan for the possibility that there might be no league. They had to get their degrees. And they did just that. They were wonderful human beings, wonderful players, very inspirational, great role models, very competent, and capable on and off the court.

EDGE: What were the challenges of running a professional sports franchise for 14 seasons? What kept you awake at night?

Courtesy of Carol Blazejowski

CB: There were two “boxes” that were always foremost in my head. There was the box office, which meant how much revenue came in. And there was the box score, which meant how many wins. There is constant pressure when you run a team but, playing in a famous arena, there is even more pressure to be successful.

EDGE: After the WNBA, you came back to Montclair State and also started work on the Blaze Hoop Crew.

CB: Yes, I returned to my alma mater and work there for almost nine years, not in the athletic department but on the business of the college—marketing, communications, events, community relations. I left back in December. I really felt a void of being in the gym, a void of being in sports, and a void of being with kids. And I love basketball. I formalized Blaze Hoop Crew about five years ago and now I do it on a full-time basis. We do basketball programming and instructional services. It’s not AAU, it’s not camps, it’s not leagues. I’ve been involved in clinics and camps my whole life, but this is more about fundamentals. We go from kindergarten all the way up through high school, but really our sweet spot is kindergarten through the grammar school age group. We work with girls and boys to give them an appreciation for the game.

EDGE: So where are we now in the evolution of women’s sports?

CB: We have closed the gap in terms of the equity between men’s and women’s basketball, and in life in general. I think we’re moving forward, but we need to understand that there is more to be done so we can really prosper. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and now it’s the new generation that has to take it to the next level. I’m happy to see the strides that we’ve taken. And believe me, in the 40 years since I graduated Montclair we’ve made a lot of strides. But we still have a long way to go. I’m a big supporter of all sports on the women’s side, not just basketball. It’s my responsibility and I’ll continue to do that.

EDGE: I have to ask…which players remind you of you?

CB: There are a lot of players in the WNBA right now that I really admire. If I had to pick two players, on the men’s side it was always Larry Bird. I loved watching him play. He was a fierce competitor who hated to lose. On the women’s side, I look at Diana Taurasi. A lot of people call her cocky but I call her confident. She can do it all on the floor, she’s cerebral, and she’s not afraid to put a team on her back and accept the pressure of getting it done.

Editor’s Note: For more information on the  Blaze Hoop Crew, visit blazehoopcrew.com or email info@blazehoopcrew.com.

Jason Alexander

At a time when everyone in New Jersey needs a good laugh, we couldn’t think of a better go-to guy than Jason Alexander. From his New Jersey roots to his magnificent run on Seinfeld, he embodies the kind of honesty, vulnerability and humor that are the foundation of great entertainment. Gerry Strauss asked Jason about the myriad stops on his show business journey, and where he hopes to go from here. We think his answers will make you smile.

EDGE: What do you think it was about growing up in New Jersey that helped set you up for success?

JA: There are probably two things  I could point to. One is sort of general and one is specific to where I grew up in Jersey. What I’ve found as I travel across the country and around the world is that places have a kind of a rhythm and a music to them. New York has an accent. New York has a rhythm. LA has an accent. LA has a rhythm. You can say the same about many places throughout the South or in New England. Jersey actually does have a kind of a distinct music to the accent, and a rhythm that you don’t really find other places. It’s not quite as pugnacious as New York. Not quite as tough. But there’s a certain kind of a bravura to Jersey.

Boboroshi – John Athayde

EDGE:  And a sense of humor…

JA: It’s self-deprecating, and we sort of taunt each other on what could be soft spots, but it’s all done with love and affection. Nothing really has a malicious intent. So there was this sense of humor and attitude about Jersey that I think I was steeped in growing up—and that in some ways informed a lot of some of the early characters that I was asked to do. It wasn’t honest, because if people really knew me, they knew that I was kind of a shy, intimidated kid, but I had a cover for it that had a kind of a Jersey swagger to it. And so people who didn’t know me well thought that I came off as not only rock-confident, but somehow cocky. I think initially that gave people a sense of confidence about hiring me that was totally disproportionate to my ability [laughs]. I think it was all just swag. So, I think that may have served me well.

EDGE:  Your move from Maplewood to Livingston was a game-changer, too.

JA: I was 12. In the initiation process of being a new kid in a new town, the first kids that picked me up were these theater kids, because Livingston had this really active financial and community support for the arts. There was an organization called the Livingston Teen Theater. It was not affiliated with any of the schools. And just like a sports team, it was financed by the community and it was given resources by the community, and that was my entree into the theater. Those kids, that organization—the first two or three shows I ever did in my life—was right there in Livingston, through the auspices of that teen theater. Those kids became my friends. They became my community. And with those kids, I began going to the theater in New York and seeing what the mecca of American theater could offer and getting inspired by that and eventually aspiring to that.

EDGE: Did you start with the distinct focus on making it as a stage actor?

JA:  When I was a kid standing in my living room holding the hairbrush and accepting it as the award, it was always the Tony award. It was not an Oscar or an Emmy. So, my focus was really on how great it would be to be able to have a career in the Broadway theater,  if that was possible for me. The truth is, my first professional jobs were in front of cameras. I got into my first acting union by doing a pilot for a children’s musical theater sort-of television show idea, and then my first professional jobs after that were television commercials. So I was professionally performing in front of cameras before I was professionally performing in front of audiences. But I was always into the theater, and then everything else that happened was a happy accident. I did think I was going to be more of a dramatic actor than a comedic actor. I don’t know why I thought that…I guess because I didn’t think of myself as particularly funny, and I was impressed with actors that seemed to have this great command and power on stage. I thought I could emulate that. Because I was delusional—I didn’t look in a lot of mirrors when I was a young man. I didn’t see that I was five-foot-five and 30 pounds overweight and already balding at the age of 18. So, it had to be pointed out to me later in college, and I started to understand perhaps comedy might have more opportunity for me.

EDGE: Who inspired you during those formative years?

JA: They were an odd group of actors. I became interested in acting at first by becoming a Star Trek fan and being completely smitten with Bill Shatner as Kirk. That over-the-top, large, hyper-masculine, hyper-theatrical approach was something that really appealed to me. I started going into New York to watch theater with these kids I was doing teen theater with. One of the earliest shows that we saw was a matinee of the original production of Pippin. Ben Vereen came on that stage and he was so charismatic and so mysterious and so powerful and magical that I thought, “Oh, wow. That’s the kind of musical work I’d like to be able to do.” I remember seeing James Earl Jones do King Lear in Central Park, and that was burned into my brain as one of the great performances. So, there were those kinds of actors that I  wanted to emulate and then aspire to.

EDGE: So with this intense focus on stage acting, what actually led you to television, and then landing on Seinfeld?

JA: Like most actors, you get led by the nose of opportunity. I never made any hard-and-fast rule about doing or not doing film or television—or anything else that came along. I was a young guy, a working actor, and just about any opportunity to make a living was okay by me. I was very fortunate in that a lot of the stuff that came my way, even if it wasn’t the most successful projects in the world, I got to work with extraordinary people. So, take my first Broadway role. Merrily We Roll Along was not a successful production, but it’s Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim and George Firth and Paul Gemignani and Ron Field—extraordinary, extraordinary people to be tutored by. I had the ability to learn from Neil Simon and from Jerome Robbins. So, that was just very fortunate. But that turn to television and film, to the extent that it happened, was never something I could plan. There’s a casting director in town, they saw you on stage, they think you might be viable. You go in, you meet a director or you put something down on tape and the dice roll. With Seinfeld, there was no magic formula. It wasn’t through connections that I’m aware of. It was literally that they had seen a ton of people in LA, they hadn’t found anyone that they quite clicked with, for whatever reason. They called a New York casting director who knew me and said, “This is the kind of guy we think we’re looking for. Put twenty actors on tape.” And I was one of the twenty guys. If she hadn’t thought of me, my guess is that I wouldn’t have been part of Seinfeld. So, it’s all just happy circumstance, until you start getting to a point where you can kind of guide or nurture your own choices.

Upper Case Editorial

EDGE: Not a lot of actors have that freedom.

JA: I think there’s only about forty of them in Hollywood who are picking and choosing what they’re going to do next—and then actually get it done. So, you’re a leaf in the wind and you’re constantly casting yourself out there and hoping somebody will pick you up, and whatever medium it’s in is fine. If it’s good people and a worthwhile project, you go forward and then you see how fortune treats it.

EDGE: Since Seinfeld was taped live in front of an audience, did you look at it as a form of theater?

JA: Very much. Yeah, absolutely. Multi-cam sitcom is closer to theater than it is to other kinds of television or film. In single-camera filmmaking, I’m always aware of the camera. In fact, I’m always probably a little too aware of the camera. Really fine film actors are able to just ignore the camera. They don’t see it. It’s not there for them. They’re neither compelled nor intimidated by it. I’m always a little aware of the camera. But in Seinfeld in particular, or multicam sitcoms in general, the cameras are a good distance back. There are three or four of them, and you’re not really playing for them; you’re not having to hit tape marks in quite the same way. You are really much freer to exist and play the scenes to that live audience. So, for me, it was always a more theatrical experience than a filmed experience.

EDGE: George was a “big” character, very theatrical.

JA: All those performances are quite large, which was great because I was always playing for the live audience—which was a hundred feet away. The cameras were only twelve feet away, so, initially I was concerned that my performance was just too big for a television screen. But the size of the Seinfeld show, the size of that comedy, was very friendly to someone who works as large as I do.

EDGE: Given that all of the cast members came from different backgrounds, was it difficult to establish that great chemistry?

JA: No, not really, although I totally appreciate what you’re saying about the different journeys that we all took before we got to that show. That’s certainly true. The only conversations I ever had with any of them about how do we do this was during the pilot, with Jerry. We were rehearsing a scene in the diner, and I remember Jerry saying, “Hey, when we were writing this, we kind of heard a different reading here and there. Would it be okay if I told you how we heard it?” And I said, “Absolutely, absolutely. Please tell me how you heard it. And if I understand it, if it makes sense to me, I’m happy to do it…If it doesn’t make sense to me, you may have to explain it to me, or we may have to talk about it. But, absolutely. I’m not an actor who is afraid to hear a line reading—if that’s the best way you can make me understand what your intention is.” Then I said, “Conversely, can I talk to you about what the hell you’re doing in this scene? Because you and I are having an argument but you’re not really fighting on your side. So, I’m punching into Jell-o. To make this really fly, you’ve got to kind of stand up to me a little bit more.” And so, in that moment, the quiet agreement that Jerry and I had was that he would help me be funnier and guide me towards the character of George that they had in their head…and I would be given an opening, considering Jerry was my boss, where I could say, “You need to try to get more out of this, or the scene isn’t going to work. There’s nothing I can do if you don’t do that thing fully.”

EDGE: That was the only time you had that conversation?

JA: That was the only time any of us actually talked about how would we work together. The rest of it really was the best arranged marriage I could ever point to. There is no reason—given how different we are as people and how different our journeys were to get there—why this ensemble of four would click the way it did. I can only tell you, from my memory and my vantage point, that I just enjoyed watching everybody work. I enjoyed being there so much. I enjoyed how wonderful they were at what they were doing. And you know it was true of Jerry, as well. Because you see him smiling through every episode in the early ones. I think it was the fact that we enjoyed watching each other that made us support each other’s moments. There was not a sense of, He’s got more lines than me or She’s got funnier stuff to do. It was all We’ve got great stuff to do and look how we get to pass this ball back and forth. This was unusual because the show was not a hit at first. So, generally, you would think everyone would be all hands for themselves, grab what you can get. This ship’s going to go down and I want to be the one holding the life preserver. But there was really more of a sense of No, we’re in this together and let’s have fun while we’re here. And so that sense of unity and that sense of ensemble and that sense of selflessness established itself very quickly and very organically, and we never lost it.

EDGE: Rehearsals must have been fun.

JA: We were always a group that enjoyed coming to work—we enjoyed rehearsing. We would rehearse, I think, more than a lot of successful shows did. We would spend an hour or two or three on a scene trying to see if there was anything else we could get out of it and do with it. Jerry himself has an amazing work ethic as a comedian, and we all kind of came to the process with a similar intensity and purpose and dedication, and it all just clicked that way.

EDGE: Everyone has their own favorite Seinfeld episode or moment.  Is there one that stands out to you in how it played to a live audience?

JA: Well, there is one that I’m sure we would all point to, because it was insane how well it worked. In the “Marine Biologist” episode,  Jerry had convinced an old girlfriend that I was trying to get reacquainted with that I’d become a marine biologist. So I was trying to live up to the lie that Jerry had established. The end of my storyline in that episode, as written, was that while walking on the beach with this girl, suddenly there is a beached whale and somebody yells out, “Is there a marine biologist? Is anybody here a marine biologist?” So I had to strip down and kind of walk into the ocean knowing I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do when I get there. And that was really the end of my story. Then, there was another storyline where Kramer is hitting golf balls into the ocean to practice his swing. I don’t remember what the original final scene of that episode was, but on tape night with the audience, we had filmed my scene at the ocean. They played it back so they could record the audience’s laughs in response to it, and then I was done. They sat down to do the final scene of the episode, and it was fine, but it wasn’t quite the boffo ending that Jerry and Larry [David] always wanted to get. They are diligent about getting the big laugh, and the scene they had written, as good as it was, wasn’t satisfying to them.

EDGE: How did they handle that?

JA:  Whenever that would happen, it would usually be about a line or a piece of business in the scene. It was never about a whole scene that I can remember. But in this case, they were rethinking the whole scene. Jerry and Larry and the writers kind of circled the wagons  and they pow-wowed, and a couple of minutes later, Larry came over to me and he said, “How quickly could you learn a monologue?” I said, “Well, how long is a monologue?” And he said, “A page, page and a half.”  I thought, “Oh, just a couple of minutes.” So, he wrote out on the back of a page of the script this monologue about how “the sea was angry that day, my friends,” which was basically what happened when George went out and saw the whale. Within that monologue, they came up with a way to match the ending of the Kramer storyline with the ending of the George storyline, which was that the whale was beached because it had gotten a golf ball in its blowhole and couldn’t breathe. So, they wrote the scene. We never rehearsed the scene. They literally wrote it in front of the audience. As we were reading it to each other, we went, Oh, this is really good. We all memorized our part. We sat down, we did one quick run-through of it with screens in front of us so that the audience couldn’t see anything we were prepping, and we only did that so that the cameras would know what shots they were supposed to get. And then they take the screens away and they go, Okay, we’re going to try a new scene—the first and only time we performed the scene that is now the one everybody sees when they watch that episode. We’d gotten to a place with our characters and our knowledge of the show, the style of the show, the comedy of the show, the understanding how we would each work as an ensemble, knowing how our cameras capture this, and we nailed that thing in one take: When I pulled the golf ball out of my pocket, Michael [Richards]’s reaction to the golf ball, Jerry’s reaction to the golf ball… I mean, everything was just absolutely magical, and that audience, the live audience laughed for, I kid you not, a solid minute, which is a huge laugh. I mean, you get a minute of laughter where you cannot go on. Then, Michael has that line as Kramer where he goes, “Is that a Titlist? Hole in one, I guess.” He couldn’t say that line for a minute after I pulled the golf ball out. That was the most extraordinary live studio audience experience, but it also really was a great marker for where we were as an ensemble, where we were in our command of how to do the show—that the writers could write to our characters in that split-second and, with virtually no rehearsal, we knew how to play that scene. That was something I will just never forget. It was an extraordinary moment.

EDGE: I am curious about the other end of the spectrum, when you are not working on camera, specifically with all of the voice acting you’ve done. Is that something you enjoy as much as your other roles?

JA: It certainly is fun. The stuff that I’ve been able to do for the most part is a joy. The bulk of my voiceover work with things like Duck Man… that was a really funny, interesting show—the polar opposite of the Seinfeld experience, in that all of us were recording in a vacuum. We had no idea what the other performers were doing until we saw the show. So, that was always a miracle that that ensemble worked so well. The Disney animation work that I’ve been able to do, it’s just always fun. It is very freeing. It is not hard work to do. It just requires imagination and some vocal ability, but it’s really fun. I’m doing one right now that seems to be a hit, and I assume we’re coming back. It’s a Warner Brothers series Harley Quinn, the Joker’s sidekick girlfriend. It is a very adult cartoon, and I have this recurring character of a wheelchair-bound, half-cyborg, half old Jewish man villain, Cyborgman. We’ve been having a great time doing that. So, they pop up all the time, and when they do, it’s always a pleasure.

EDGE: Is there anything you have not yet done in your career that you’d like to do? 

JA: Not necessarily within the entertainment industry. I’ve been disproportionately blessed here to be able to do everything—from being an actor, singer, producer, writer, director. I’d love to do a lot more of all of it, but nothing new and different. The one thing that I, in an abstract way—and I don’t know what it becomes in a more realistic way—is I’d love to start finding a way to actually be of service to people and particularly young people in a different way. I believe that, based on the amount of it that I’ve done, that I would love to be able to spend some time before I check out of this world where I put a lot more focus on becoming a teacher. I’ve been teaching actors and doing master classes and doing extended workshops for thirty years. The joy and the satisfaction that I get from those experiences is equal to, if not even greater than, what I get from doing a good performance or creating a good project. There’s something that is very gratifying to me about watching people find their way in something that is hard to teach, you know? You can teach math, you can teach science, you can teach language. And I’m not saying that those things are easy to teach, by any stretch of the imagination. But they’re not interpretive, necessarily. They’re factual and they have real standard tools that you can use to try and convey a technique to your students. But in the arts, it is much more instinctual. It’s much more how you relate to your student, what it is that you think is the thing they need most next. And there is something so satisfying and beautiful about having a successful connection that results in a student making a discovery they might not have made with anyone else. I think I’d like to be able to do more of that.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Joe Whelan, Syracuse Stage and Brenna Merritt.

 

Annie Wersching

Not all show business beauties are what they seem. Take Annie Wersching. For more than a decade, TV audiences have been drawn to her appealing, girl next- door good looks only to discover that the people she plays tend to have a mean streak that, well, you wouldn’t want living next door. That may also explain why Wersching a) is one of the most in demand actresses on television, and b) is having so much fun. As Renee Walker on 24, Emma Whitmore on Timeless and now Leslie Dean on Marvel’s Runaways, Wersching has demonstrated a particular talent for taking her characters to the next level in the most entertaining and unexpected ways. Mark Stewart talked to her about the finer points of being a Hollywood star and a Hollywood mom—yet another challenging role she can claim to have mastered.

EDGE: So, congratulations on becoming part of the Marvel Universe.

AW: It’s been crazy [laughs]. It’s not just how they deal with their shows and their actors—it’s certainly more secretive, and there are more rules—but it’s fun to see how they’ve taken the Runaways comic and changed it for television. And how they are pleasing the hardcore fans, yet keeping things unpredictable. I’ve never played someone like my character, Leslie Dean. She’s quite a trip.

EDGE: She seems a bit unhinged.

AW: Yes, but in a very put-together way. She’s the head of this big celebrity church in Los Angeles, and she harbors a lot of secrets. There’s a lot of crazy, cringe-worthy stuff she has to do. Stuff that, to look at her, you wouldn’t expect from the way she presents herself. It’s a big ensemble cast, so in some episodes I have a lot to do and in others not so much. There’s actually been a learning curve for me getting used to that.

EDGE: On your previous series, Timeless, you played a time-traveling assassin. That was a very complex character. A lot of fans were anxious for Timeless to be renewed for a third season because Emma was about to become the leader of Rittenhouse, the bad guys in the show. At least there is a wrap-up TV movie on the way.

AW: Emma was following what she believed the overall Rittenhouse plan was but, yes, she was going to run the show now. It would have been really fun, because she was a little “spontaneous” shall we say.

EDGE: I’ve always been curious about an aspect of movies and TV shows that deal with time travel. Since it doesn’t exist, that means the writers have to establish some basic do’s and don’ts and then weave them into the plots. You also tend to bump up against some logic issues. Was this a constant discussion on Timeless?

AW: Oh, my gosh. Yes. In terms of the science of time travel, there were rules on the show. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the writers’ room to see how in the world they figured out the exact rules we were going to follow.

EDGE: For your character in particular.

AW: Right. When we first find Emma, she has been spending ten or eleven years in the past. But in the present storyline, it’s only been about six months or something. So I would ask, Wait, how old am I? Am I aging? If I go back to the present-day storyline, would I look ten years older? There were so many things like that I’d ask questions about. I have no idea how they kept it all straight, but they had it down. No-no-no…this should be this, and that should be that, and you can’t go back to a time you’ve been in before…I was pretty good at science in school, but when it comes to the TV version of time-travel science, I was like, Yeah, somebody just tell me what makes sense.

NBC/MiddKid Productions

EDGE: Was Emma’s story arc laid out for you, or did it unfold script by script?

AW: It was one hundred percent script-by-script.

EDGE: So, as an actor, how do you dig in and understand her purpose and motivation?

AW: It was very tricky. Especially in her first episode. It wasn’t even revealed to me at that point that she was a mole or a bad guy or with Rittenhouse or any of that. Looking back, I think fans saw little smirks and things that they read into her, but at the time, I had no idea how the plot would twist at the end of the season. I knew there were secrets that she had, for sure, but I didn’t know exactly how big they were. A lot of actors write journals and go really in-depth into backstories so they can flesh out a character in their mind. But that’s hard for me in television, because if I make up this whole story and the script comes for the next episode and it contradicts what I made up in my head, that just complicates things for me. So unless I have a really big, serious question—something that doesn’t make sense to me in the episode—I tend to go with what I have on the page from the writers and try to give the characters some humanity and vulnerability and go from there.

Photo by Jonathan Weiner

EDGE: You had worked with Goran Visnjic before Timeless.

AW: Yes. He played Garcia Flynn in the series. We had done the Halle Berry series Extant together. Goran and I already had a nice rapport, which was good because Emma and Flynn had a fun little chemistry. I hadn’t worked with any of the other cast members, but I had seen Abby [Abigail Spencer] in Rectify. It was fascinating to watch her work. Everybody works differently. Some people have everything planned out when they come in. She would come in and have a lot of questions. But when they said Action, she was just so one hundred percent present and could tap into different emotions so amazingly. It was just so cool to watch her work. I would forget my lines just watching her in awe.

EDGE: On 24, you played Renee Walker, more of a good guy role, at least on the surface. Do you have more fun playing good guys or bad guys?

AW: I absolutely adored playing Renee. Any character that has a switch or change is fun to play. Renee was a good guy, essentially, and Emma was essentially a bad guy. But Renee started as a rules-follower then slowly but surely went over to the dark side after spending some time with Jack Bauer. Emma was very committed to the rules she was going to follow. She spent all those years back in the past to prove herself to Rittenhouse. So both were very committed.

EDGE: How much Annie Wersching was there in Renee Walker?

AW: There is a little bit of me in every character I play. As far as her being a bad-ass, I really enjoyed playing that portion of Renee. I also loved fleshing out her physical aspect. I was a dancer growing up.

EDGE: Did her use of torture bother you or make you squeamish?

AW: Oh, no. I was like, Yes! Not that I agree with torture, but I like anything that makes the audience go Holy crap! That’s always fun to play. And again, it was something that deviated from what she had always been like. It was super fun.

EDGE: Is it an advantage or a disadvantage of joining an established series like 24, which was already six seasons in?

AW: A bit of both. It’s nice to go into a show that’s already a well-oiled machine. I came on in Season Seven, and there had been some negative stuff said about Season Six, so there was a lot to prove. In terms of someone who had to go toe-to-toe with Jack, who had a lot of fans in the audience, that’s always a risky thing. But as soon as I saw how they were writing Renee and the fan response to her, I couldn’t have been more excited. Especially when she started to kind of become the female Jack Bauer. That was huge in terms of winning people over.

EDGE: Did they let you know from the start that you would become a love interest for Kiefer Sutherland’s character?

AW: I didn’t really know that. They wanted Renee and Jack to go toe-to-toe, professionally. Of course, they wanted there to be sparks. Actually, the second I learned about them finally getting together, my first thought was Oh. No. That’s the end of her.

EDGE: Any feelings about Russian meddling?

AW: Oh, I know! I spent all that time undercover with the Russians in that second season! When I’d see that stuff in the script, I’d say, No, that’s too much. This isn’t believable. No way. Let’s stick to real life. Cut to ten years later, and it’s…real life. Terrifying!

Amazon Video

EDGE: In the Amazon series Bosch, you played against Titus Welliver. His character, Harry, was also very dark— like Flynn and Bauer. Does that rub off on you after a while?

AW: Definitely. But in Bosch, my character was such a newbie, always messing up. The two of them together— the hardened professional veteran with this rookie—I thought it was a cool dichotomy. I love Titus. We got along fine. We had a really good time.

EDGE: Which male lead has brought out the best in you?

AW: I’ve been really lucky in that department. I played against Kiefer so long I learned a tremendous amount from him. Titus is definitely up there. And I really loved working with Goran in two different shows as two different sets of characters. I feel I’m good at observing and absorbing the good things from these dynamics. I’m a bit of a sponge.

EDGE: You mentioned dancing. Was that how you got your start as a performer?

AW: It was. In fourth grade, I started doing plays and musicals in school and continued into junior high school and high school and then into college. I don’t recall a moment where I thought, This is what I have to do! It was just kind of what I did. But yes, I started with dance. Tap, jazz, ballet, and Irish dancing—which I think was where I had my first experience in terms of stage presence. In the Irish dancing community at that time, everybody was very, very serious. No one ever smiled. It was very rigid. Nowadays, it’s happier, and there is more of an entertaining factor to it. But back then, I was literally known as “The girl that smiles.” If you go back and look at stories from my competitions, they would always mention that. From a competitive standpoint, I have a lot from that experience, in terms of finding a way to stand out. That really helped when I transitioned into plays and musicals.

EDGE: What were your plans after college?

AW: I was a musical theater major, and I’d always planned to go to New York. I went to Chicago briefly after school and ended up touring with a musical that closed in Los Angeles. So I thought, Let me check this L.A. thing out. One of the first things I witnessed was, as a member of a live audience, a taping of Stark Raving Mad, the sitcom with Neil Patrick Harris and Tony Shalhoub. I thought, This is the best of both worlds—they are performing like it’s theater with the audience interaction, but you are on TV—this is the dream. I never went to New York. I returned to Chicago, packed up my stuff, and moved to L.A.

EDGE: What were you doing to develop your skills in your 20s?

AW: Gosh, I was doing it all. Early on, I did a couple of musicals at the Pasadena Playhouse. I was doing commercials. I did extra work. I didn’t take many classes—probably because I didn’t have any money. I booked a pretty good guest star on Star Trek Enterprise. That was fascinating. I remember learning a lot from that group. Then I slowly started booking co-stars with a couple of lines, and then guest stars, then the “recurs”— it’s like this ladder you have to climb. Once I became more of a woman as opposed to a girl, I think it matched up more with how I carry myself, and also my voice. Things changed when I started auditioning for the woman in the show and not the chipper girl in the show. It meshed better with my personality…although I am pretty chipper.

EDGE: After all these years working in television, are you ever tempted to get back on the stage in a play or a musical?

AW: Oh, yeah! I’ve been thinking about it for years, but it’s hard to time it with the television world. It would have to be in the hiatus from whatever show I’m on. But I’d absolutely love that.

EDGE: Did you model yourself after a particular actress when you were younger?

AW: No, not really. Growing up, the posters on my wall were Marilyn Monroe and [laughs] Brad Pitt. Not that I wanted to be like Marilyn, but I was obsessed with her transformation from Norma Jean. Also, I always loved Michelle Pfeiffer and Julianne Moore and Diane Lane. Women who were women, who had a lot of gravitas in their roles.

EDGE: On your résumé is a stint on the daytime drama General Hospital. I am friendly with actors who tell wild stories about knocking those shows out day after day.

AW: I was on General Hospital for about five months, and it was totally insane. I had never done anything like it. It was incredibly exciting. Also, it was the first time my mom and the people back home could see me on TV every day of the week. It was definitely a big deal for me. I left t h e show for a couple of weeks to shoot the pilot for 24, which was my first big pilot booking. Darby Stanchfield played my role for those two weeks, and then I came back. At that point, they were interested in signing me to a four-year contract. I was wavering on whether or not to sign for a long time. It’s a commitment. I think we shot fifty pages a day. On 24 or Runaways or Timeless, we might shoot six to eight pages of dialogue a day. It was intense. I mean, unless you’re falling down bleeding, they’ re moving on—just get the words out and go to the next scene. It was great training, and it forces you to make a choice because you don’t have another take to try something different. You have to really know what your character wants s and what you want to accomplish in that scene. It helped me become more concise and also I learned pretty quickly that I was good at the memorization part of it. It was a lot of work…I don’t think the regulars who are on the show get anywhere near the credit they deserve.

EDGE: You are expecting your third child at the same time you are shooting Season Two of Runaways. Is this the first time you’ve been in this situation? Are you at the point where they need to start hiding you behind things?

AW: I think we’re just about to hit that part…and yes, it’s a first for me. I wouldn’t say that it’s been fun. At the very beginning, I was actually terrified to tell them—Oh, God I’m going to ruin the show, Leslie is going to be chubby this season—there are so many aspects of that, just from a vanity standpoint. There are so many things that go through your head. My character wears all white and, in the beginning, I was having morning sickness like crazy, so I was dealing with that. But it’s fine.

HULU/ABC Signature Studios

EDGE: You and your husband [actor Stephen Full] are raising a family while working full-time in the business. How do you pull that off?

AW: It’s not super easy, but it’s certainly nice that we both“ get it. ” We both understand what it’s like to be in the midst of a crazy shoot. We’ve been incredibly lucky that our careers have balanced each other in amazing ways. The couple of times we were both series regulars we didn’t have kids yet, so we were living the dream. Now, like, tomorrow, both of us are filming and for the life of me, I cannot find a babysitter. So I’m like, Okay I guess my son will just have to come to the trailer with me. I feel like we’re always scrambling to figure it out. But I think we’re doing a good job keeping things normal for them. We’re Both pretty grounded.

EDGE: What presents the biggest challenge?

AW: We’ve been lucky in not having to work out of town too long. That’s where it becomes really hard when you’re on location. The Vampire Diaries shot in Atlanta and I was gone quite a bit for that. I had the little one with me, but I missed my older boy’s first day of kindergarten. You know, stuff that’s never going to happen again. It’s inevitable that you’re going to miss some of those moments. That’s rough. Timeless shot in Vancouver, but at least that was in the same timezone as California, so you can talk to your kid before bedtime. Sometimes it’s these little things that make a big difference.

Editor’s Note: Annie Wershing’s third child was due as this issue went to press. Although NBC canceled Timeless after Season Two, the network shot a two-hour “wrap-up” TV movie, which it plans to air in December.

 

Meg Donnelly

In a few years, Meg Donnelly will look back on the early months of 2020 and wonder how she did it. Donnelly is currently filming Season 4 of the ABC sitcom American Housewife, opening Disney’s Zombies II on Valentine’s Day, and will be touring this March in support of Trust, the well-received album she dropped last December. It’s great to be 19, right? Donnelly got the musical comedy bug as a grade-schooler in New Jersey, and then fell in love with Broadway after her family moved to New York. She’s been singing, acting and dancing professionally since her ’tween years and at this point you’ve probably seen or heard her a hundred times without even knowing it. Start paying attention… Donnelly is not just a natural talent, she is a force of nature. EDGE editor Mark Stewart caught Donnelly before she revved up her day in L.A.

EDGE: At what point did your professional training begin?

ABC Studios

MD: I went to a school called Annie’s Playhouse in Far Hills starting when I was five or six. Originally I went there to do shows for fun, because I was bad at sports and had to find something to do after school. I would go there, like, every night and watch all the older kids in class. That’s where I fell in love with performing. I just couldn’t see myself doing anything else, musical theater is so big in the NewYork– New Jersey area, so it was really cool to get into that. I was born in New York City and then my family moved to New Jersey, then moved back to the city when I was growing up. But I spent a lot of time in Jersey all the time, because of so many family members living there—in Hunterdon County, Somerset County and Morris County—all over the place. It was fun to visit them and visit old friends, too. I love New Jersey. It’s the best.

EDGE: Did your parents take you to a lot of Broadway shows?

MD: I loved going to Broadway shows. In New York, I attended the Performing Children’s School. PCS was really fun. I was a huge theater kid. My favorite musical still is Rent. I saw it on Broadway the first time when I was five. I had no idea what was going on and I fell asleep at the end. Growing up, I would watch the movie every single day—long before I even grasped the concept of what it was about. I loved it.

EDGE: From what I’ve seen, you’d be very much in your element in a Broadway musical. I hope that’s on your radar.

MD: Oh, yeah. For sure. I would like to do theater. Acting is so amazing and singing is so amazing, so I’d love to combine all three.

EDGE: You started shooting the fourth season of American Housewife in January, playingTaylor Otto, the family’s teenage daughter. How has that role evolved?

MD: In the first season, Taylor was an athlete playing three sports. I love watching sports so much…I just cannot play them. It was a challenge and it was fun— no matter what Taylor is or does, I love playing her—but I am so thankful that the writers threw in that she broke her ankle and couldn’t play anymore. She had to find a new activity and turned to theater. That was really cool. [laughs] I think Taylor has become a very relatable character for teenage girls everywhere and to parents, as well. She is a combination of all the writers’ teenage daughters, if that makes sense, so there are many situations with her mom and the things she says where parents who watch American Housewife say, “Oh… Yup…”

ABC Studios

EDGE: How do your experiences as teenagers differ?

MD: Taylor navigates through life a little more than I do. She’s in high school and about to go to college. Me, I was 11 and out of school auditioning. I didn’t have a normal life. So it’s hard to relate. But as teenagers and daughters, we have a lot of similarities, too.

EDGE: There are a lot of funny people on your show. Who cracks you up the easiest?

MD: I honestly would say Daniel [DiMaggio] who plays my younger brother, Oliver. Diedrich [Bader] and Katy [Mixon] are constantly making jokes and they are so funny. Also, obviously Ali Wong. Her improvs are so funny. I don’t have that many scenes with her because she’s usually doing the “second breakfast” with Katy. I always talk with Ali outside of work. You know, it’s crazy how nice everybody is. You hear these horror stories in Hollywood and we’re, like, nothing of the sort. I pinch myself every day. And it’s not just the cast. The entire crew is like family. We know each other like the back of our hands because it’s been the same crew going on four years.

EDGE: There are never any guarantees that a network series will be picked up, of course. During your first season, did everyone feel like the show was going to make it?

MD: We did 13 episodes our first season and were hoping for more. I asked Diedrich, because he’s been around the block in this business and he’s like my second dad. He said, “There’s literally nothing you can do.You just have to wait it out.” Everyone was so happy when they announced we would get a full season. You pay attention to the ratings and all that, but in this day and age, you never know.

EDGE: In the Zombies films you’ve made for Disney, was that your first time playing the romantic lead?

Disney Canada

MD: In American Housewife, Taylor has boyfriends and stuff, but that’s not the equivalent. In Zombies that was the first time it was super-heavy romantic. It was so much fun, though, because Milo Manheim [who plays Zed, her zombie boyfriend] and I are, like, best friends. Especially doing the second movie, it’s so easy to go into a scene where we know exactly what we’re doing. The scenes are challenging, but the chemistry of romance is so natural now.

EDGE: Did you know Milo before Zombies?

MD: No. We met during the audition process. But we instantly trusted each other. It was the weirdest feeling. That’s why it ended up working out—we just had this connection, I don’t know how to describe it.

EDGE: How did the audition work?

MD: The process was interesting. First, you come in for the role. So there were three auditions of me going for [the lead role of] Addison. Then it was a chemistry read, where they’d pair you up with different guys. All the Zeds and Addisons would go in and they’d check the height and the look and see what was happening between the actors. Milo and I were paired up with different people at the beginning and it wasn’t until the end of the day that they put us together. When we were in the room, I don’t know what happened. Something clicked. Everyone kind of saw it and Milo and I saw it, too. We were just so comfortable and laughing at the same time. It was cool. So for the rest of the process they only paired us up, so we were a team. Once that happened, it was like, Which team will get it? It’s funny. In the final audition they asked if we could sing a duet. And I was like, ummmm… I started freaking out. But Milo being Milo, he said, “Give us two minutes.”

EDGE: And what happened? 

Disney Canada

MD: We went outside the room and I asked, “What is your idea?” He said, “I don’t have an idea! I just started saying stuff!” We quickly decided we’d sing “Love Is an Open Door” from Frozen and, in two minutes, we got the harmonies down and made up some choreography. We went back in shaking—we were so nervous—but we just went for it.

EDGE: Addison is a cheerleader in Zombies. You mentioned that sports isn’t really your thing. Did you have to go through a lot training to play a cheerleader convincingly?

MD: It was cool because when I was little I had taken gymnastics. It started to come back, especially the tumbling stuff. But, yeah, there were four weeks of rehearsal and then six to seven weeks of shooting. So during rehearsal we had intense cheer training. We filmed in Toronto, so all these cheer teams from Canada would come in and teach us how to keep your elbows together when you clap, the proper way to position your arms and legs, it was really intense. But so much fun.

EDGE: You began making a splash as a recording artist in 2018. Now you have the album Trust, which came out near the end of 2019. How did that part of your life evolve?

MD: My whole life I’ve been writing down song lyrics and have always had melodies in my head. I didn’t know how the whole recording and producing part of the business worked, but it was always something I’d wanted to do. On the first Zombies movie, Ali D Theodore, the producer of the song “BAMM”—we actually went to the same high school, PCS in New York—said, “I really want you to come by my studio if you’re home.” A year later I was in New York, dropped by the studio, and it just kind of clicked. I started making music and that was that. He helped me navigate through the music world and I couldn’t be more grateful. My life has changed a lot since then—music is very therapeutic for me and it has always been such a big part of my life. Now I finally get to do another thing that I love.

EDGE: Is there an entertainer you look at now and think, Yeah, she did it the right way—not an idol so much as an inspiration?

MD: I feel like Zendaya is such a good model. She gracefully and gradually went out of the Disney world and is doing stuff she loves. She’s on [the HBO series] Euphoria and she came out with music that’s really good. I feel like everything she does is poised and elegant, but you can tell she also has fun and is very authentic. She balances all of those qualities very well.

EDGE: At some point down the road, achieving that kind of balance might mean making decisions about pursuing dramatic roles or acting in comedies, or chasing a singing career. Are you thinking about those choices yet?

MD: Honestly, I’m down for anything. [laughs] I’m seeing where things take me, playing it by ear, staying ready for whatever comes my way. I do tend to overthink and plan out my whole schedule, but in this business you have no idea what’s going to happen. I could get a call tomorrow to be on a flight to Seattle and I’d be, Okay, great. Right now, I’m just grateful for every opportunity and excited for the future.

Loretta Swit

Honesty, strength, generosity, and humor are qualities we look for in the people we admire and trust. They also happen to be the attributes that define Loretta Swit. After honing her craft on the stage for more than a decade, she was discovered by West Coast television producers and landed the role of Major Margaret Houlihan on the hit series M*A*S*H*—for which she would win a pair of Emmys—and then fought to give her character purpose and depth far beyond anything the show’s creators had imagined. A gifted child performer, Swit followed her dream across the river to New York and then across the country to Hollywood. As Gerry Strauss discovered, Loretta’s success was no accident, and her vision extends far beyond her role as an entertainer.

EDGE: What do you view as the qualities that took you to Hollywood?

LS: I would put courage number one. And confidence in my ability—my lust, if you will—to perform. Also, I was surrounded by some really lovely, talented teachers, and people who guided me and gave me support that fueled that confidence. Nobody in my environment made it to Hollywood, period. To announce you’re going to go into the theater was, like, no way. I’ve said in other interviews that I had no choice, that it came from the heart. But I’ve also come around to accept what other people [have called courage]. I think that it’s okay to know how brave you are, or how strong you can be. I think that’s a positive thing to know about yourself.

EDGE: Would you follow the same path from New Jersey to New York to L.A. if you were starting today?

LS: No. I don’t think I would have gone to California. Susan Taylor, my adorable and fun friend once said. “Don’t ever go to Hollywood without a contract in your hand. It’s a tough town.” I think that’s good advice.

EDGE: But you did, didn’t you?

LS: I always thought my career was on the stage. I never thought of myself as a film actress. But yes, a friend of mine, with whom I had done a play and who lived in California said, “Why don’t you come here for a week or two…and just, you know, spent a few weeks here? You never know. You might meet somebody who’d see you and says, Hey. you’d be right for this part.“ So I wound up at the office of the casting director for all of CBS—a very important lady, Pam Polifroni—and she was looking through my book and she said, “I know you. I know your name.” I insisted that she didn’t know me—I was a nobody! “Wait a minute,” she said, “there was an agent in here raving about your work. He went on and on about how good you were, and it impressed me.” She said his name was Fred Amsel and he was very laid-back and not at all pushy, even for his clients—and that he was so excited about me, even though I wasn’t a client. She promised to keep me in mind if something came up. I said, “I don’t live here.” She said, “Well, you never know.”

CBS Productions

EDGE: Did you call the agent?

LS: I did. I called him and he was a real Damon Runyon character. I don’t think he ever called me anything but “Kid.” We had lunch, he told me that in his agency he covered CBS and Paramount and that he would be happy to represent me. “If you’re willing to take a chance, I will get out there and talk about you in the district that I represent.” And it so happened that a part came up on Gunsmoke (left), which was CBS, which of course Pam cast. And so Fred called her and he said, “How about if I put Loretta for this part?” She said, “I think she’ll be very good in it.” I had to [audition] with some other people but I got the role. Fred called and said, “We got lucky!” I said, “I know. It’s great. It’s wonderful.” And it was a wonderful role and just a fabulous time. And a great beginning, because in those days, you really needed to have film on yourself to show people.

EDGE: What did the road from Gunsmoke to M*A*S*H* look like?

CBS Productions

LS: I was still filming Gunsmoke when they sent me over to Paramount to read for Mannix, which turned into my second job on television. Fred said, “We got lucky, again!” At that point, the three other agents in his office said, “This is looking very good. Let’s sign her.” And so I went with that office. Anyway, I was in Hawaii doing Hawaii Five-0—it was a gorgeous job—and Fred called and asked if I had seen the movie M*A*S*H* and I hadn’t. “Oh,” he said, “well, okay, terrific, it doesn’t matter, nevermind. You have a meeting with Gene [Reynolds] and Larry [Gelbart]. It’s just on you. There’s no script to read. So just go in, they’re gonna look you over, see if you’re what they have in mind for the part.” So, needless to say, I had no nerves. I was going to meet these lovely people. I didn’t know what I was about to lose or gain. I met my girlfriend before I went to the meeting and we went shopping and had a lot of laughs. In the meantime, Fred had an offer for me for a movie with Olivia de Havilland, and I was in disbelief. “The only thing is the dates of the filming conflict with the pilot for M*A*S*H*,” he said. “You can’t do both. However, this is an offer.” He said he would call [Gene and Larry] and tell them politely that, if they had decided on me, they have to move now. Gene Reynolds took the call, and said, “Nope, don’t give her away. She’s ours. We’ve just decided to go with Loretta.”

EDGE: Margaret Houlihan was a very complex character for a comedy series. Did you have any idea of where you wanted her to go in those early episodes?

LS: I was not the happiest of campers the first two or three seasons. I felt they were writing Margaret right but at the same time, she was entangled in a relationship with Frank Burns that was just beneath her. My character worshiped doctors and they were writing Larry [Linville] like a joke. Of course, he was so brilliant and funny and wonderful in that role, they weren’t going to change that. It was a given to keep Larry on that train. Alan [Alda] said it best: “As a writer, when you get a wonderful gimmick that’s working, that’s giving you all you want, like Frank Burns and Houlihan—who were funny and ridiculous and marvelous—it’s difficult for the writer to let go.” We’ve got a winner here. Don’t tamper with it. If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. In the meantime, my character was being assassinated.

EDGE: How did you advocate for Margaret?

LS: In the beginning years, when I didn’t know we would go for 11 seasons, I would talk to Gene Reynolds and he would say, “It’s episodic, sweetheart.” I’d say, “Yeah, but I feel like I’m going back and forth. In one episode, I see what an idiot Frank is, and you helped me with a line. But in the next episode, it’s like nothing ever happened. I haven’t learned anything…my character is not allowed to continue to grow and it’s making me crazy.” Little by little, Gene and the writers tried to talk to me. The guys were writing for the guys at that point and the guys were writing for Margaret, too. Gelbart was very, very aware of what was lacking in the first season. He said, “Hang in with us, we’re working on where she’s going.” In year two, I think, they had the wonderful idea to hire two women to write a revealing episode for Margaret. But again, in the following episode—no, no, no!—it’s like it didn’t happen. I kept plaguing them for help. Finally, I was in New York doing a play on a hiatus and the boys got together and we had a conference call, during which we ripped everything apart. They asked, “What do you see? Where is she going? What do you see for the next season coming up?”

Photo courtesy of Loretta Swit

EDGE: What was your answer?

LS: She’s got to break up with Frank.

EDGE: Wow.

LS: “She’s got to leave him,” I said. “She’s got to go to Tokyo and meet somebody dashing and wonderful. I don’t care if he’s goofy and funny— because they have to be—but he doesn’t have to be a doctor. And he can outrank Frank, because that’s very important to Margaret.” They asked, then what? And Gene said, “Let’s get her engaged.” So we had this incredibly creative, wonderful, funny conversation where Margaret gets married and then finds he’s been disloyal and then gets divorced. There were a lot of good tracks to cover in those ideas, which we did. We really worked together like a well-oiled machine—everybody on this show worked together with the writers. Those Mondays were like fireworks. You had these creative people, throwing ideas back and forth in positive, wonderful, rich ways. It was a very exciting time to be around, to be an actor in that situation. You could not help but get better and grow and learn. It was just tremendous.

EDGE: Major Houlihan changed the way a lot of people looked at nursing during that era. Was that something you were aware of during the series?

LS: I don’t think so. It was only in retrospect that I see how strong the effect was. So many people have told me they became nurses because of me, because of Margaret. Television is so powerful. It can do so much good. It’s amazing. When we began, I said to Gene, “I want to play her like the best damn nurse in Korea. That’s what she wants to be and that’s what she is.” Again, you see how that played into my fight to get away from Frank Burns and the relationship, which in a way degraded her. He was an incompetent doctor, and so what was she doing there, when staying in that relationship any longer made it impossible for me to be the best damn nurse in Korea? I feel from that moment on, Margaret started to blossom and grow. She was flawed, like we are all flawed, but she’s a great example for nurses, for a head nurse and for the military.

EDGE: Obviously, M*A*S*H* also changed how doctors were portrayed.

LS: It did. You know, up until M*A*S*H* the doctors on television didn’t lose patients. They always pulled them through. That’s nice, but it’s not honest. We used to say that M*A*S*H* is not a John Wayne movie about war. In our series, people died, patients died, people got wounded and hurt. And we never stop talking about the ugliness of it. The humor came out of our own madness and craziness to have to be there to do that. The only way to survive was by being crazy and funny and drunk. I think M*A*S*H* took on cult status because we told everybody the truth.

 

Animal Alliance

www.istockphoto.com

Loretta Swit has leveraged her success and fame to the great benefit of myriad causes, from battling homelessness to advocating for emergency medicine to animal rights. She also devoted two months of her life to the recovery efforts after 9/11. Her charity, the SwitHeart Animal Alliance (switheart.org), promotes and cooperates with nonprofits dedicated to protecting, rescuing, training and caring for animals and preserving their habitats.

“The operative word is alliance,” she says. “There are a lot of wonderful people out there who are on the same page doing good. We’ve been very successful working together. For example, Mission Canine just brought back nine dogs from Kuwait with PTSD and we’ll be taking care of them at our camp in Houston. We’re also working with shelters to train service dogs, and search and rescue dogs, which can be deployed to disaster areas all over the world. We kind of cover every sphere—the aim is to get all of these people working together toward the same purpose and goals, to make some changes and to make a difference in a very positive way. They’re all incredible people.”

 

Norbert Leo Butz

Mark Stewart 

In the old days, they would have a “triple threat.” Indeed, the two- time Tony winner can sing, he can dance and he can act. But these are not the old days, and the bar is much higher than it used to be in the performing arts—as Butz would be the first to tell you. On the stage and screen, he is both a portrayer and creator of characters large and small, with a well-earned reputation for knocking it out of the park. Now the longtime Maplewood resident has hit his stride as a composer and performer, releasing The Long Haul, a collection of honest, earthy songs written at different stops on a journey that has taken him to the Broadway stage (Rent, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can, My Fair Lady) and earned him roles on a pair of groundbreaking TV series (Bloodline on Netflix and Mercy Street on PBS). EDGE editor Mark Stewart was curious how the words and lyrics of The Long Haul fit into the tapestry of Butz’s career as an artist and entertainer. It turns out that those threads run deeper than even his most ardent fans might imagine.

EDGE: The Long Haul is your fourth album, but also in some respects your “first.”

NB: Yeah, it’s the first time I’ve put something out that’s all my original songs. The title says it all…it’s a long, long labor of love. You know, I’ve always written in my downtime— between acting gigs or if I’m on a set and waiting a long time, or when I’m out of town in hotel rooms. It was recorded mostly during the time I was finishing up Bloodline in the Florida Keys. I had a bunch of tunes and I sent them to my friend, Jason Loughlin—a great guitar player, producer, arranger in Williamsburg, Brooklyn— and said, “Hey, man. I think I might have an album here.” He really responded to the songs so we hired a band and got some studio time. It was kind of stop-and-start. I’d get a couple of things recorded, but then a job would take me away and I’d shelve it for a while. This past year I was really busy with My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center. It took over a year-and-a-half to record.

EDGE: Are you one of those guys who can just sit down and bang out a song?

NB: No, I’m not. I must have a thousand ideas for songs on my phone. Going back to college, I‘ve always written songs for my own pleasure. So starting them is easy, but the hard work of actually finishing them is much more difficult. I have friends who are real songwriters. They show up every day and work four to six hours on their songs. I never had that discipline or that kind of time.

EDGE: So why now?

NB: Getting the songs out was about moving past some of the really difficult moments for me during my 40s. It was a tough decade. I lost several family members. It felt good to release it.

EDGE: When I listen to the album I hear more than a little Dr. John. Some Al Green. And some Springsteen.

NB: That’s cool. I’m flattered. I think those are apt comparisons. I really do love Soul music and Blues and Gospel music. I was raised on a lot of that in St. Louis. There is a really rich tradition of Blues in that part of the country. My parents were deeply religious—my father, in particular, listened to a lot of Gospel—and we were in church constantly. So those are the sounds I grew up with and I suppose they’ve always stuck with me. It’s funny you should say Springsteen because now I live in New Jersey and I definitely credit him as a huge influence on me, going back to when I was a kid.

EDGE: I have to ask a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels question…Steve Martin had to fill a screen when he played Ruprecht but you had to fill an entire stage—with John Lithgow a few feet away—how do you rise to that challenge?

NB: No one can really rise to the challenge of John Lithgow. He’s like 6’5” [laughs] so rising to that challenge is like spitting in the wind. You know, in a lot of ways John played the straight main in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He gave me permission to take as much stage as I wanted to. It was a blast. John is one of the most generous, loving, creative, supportive partners anyone could hope for.  You know, I was really intimidated at first to be working with him. I was a was this enormous international celebrity. We’ve remained really dear friends and he has been a touchstone for me.

EDGE: How so?

NB: I go to him so much, just in terms of teaching me how to lead a cast with real grace, how to be super generous. His basic goodness. His workmanlike attitude. How to behave in front of a company. How to do this business over the long haul. How to build a diverse, multimedia career that I didn’t even know I aspired to before I met him. Now I know how valuable that is. He’s just the best. Even putting out this record, in some ways, was inspired by him. This idea that you don’t have to be just a performer, that you can make your own work during the in-between time when you’re waiting for directors and producers to tell you you’ve booked a job.

EDGE: A few years later you were Carl Hanratty, who lives somewhere at the other end of the spectrum from Ruprecht. What did you enjoy about that character?

NB: That was a really incredible experience. And I have to be honest, one that I did not see coming. It fell into my lap. Jack O’Brien, who also directed me in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, sent me the script and said, “I think I’d like to see you do this. What do you think?” I had seen the Spielberg film in which Tom Hanks had played the role. I said, “I just don’t get it. I don’t get why you think of me for this part.”

EDGE: What made you see it his way?

NB: When I got the script I realized that Catch Me If You Can is really the story of a lost kid in search of a surrogate father, and this lonely, middle-aged gumshoe cop really looking for a surrogate son. My dad, who has since passed away, was really ill at the time. I was quite emotional thinking about him. I found the story really, really moving in a way that I didn’t expect to. It was very personal. Sometimes it’s not clear to audiences what draws an actor to something. For me, as an actor, that’s always the way in, the personal, emotional hook. It was a ball. It was a chance for me to do a real character part in a big Broadway musical.

EDGE: Hanratty was kind of a blank slate.

NB: He was. I got to really invent him. By the way, there was never a Carl Hanratty. He was based on several guys. They got the name from Tom Hanks.

EDGE: How did you hear this story?

NB: Tom sent me a note to the theater, typed on his famous vintage typewriter. It said Norbert, congratulations on Catch Me If You Can. He eventually came to see it and he said, “Let me tell you how the character came to be named Carl Hanratty.” He said on the first day of shooting they hadn’t named him because they couldn’t legally use the name of any of the FBI agents who were involved in the case. Spielberg turned to Tom and asked, “What are we going to name this guy?” Tom told me he named him Hanratty for a football player his dad loved at Notre Dame, and he named him Carl because it had the K sound in the name and that’s funny. And he’s right. Carl is a funny name.

EDGE: You’d mentioned My Fair Lady. You played Eliza’s father, Alfie Doolittle, a character that everyone has probably seen at least once or twice on some stage or in the movie. How do you bring something new to that role?

NB: No one believes me, but I was almost 50 years old when I got that part and I had never seen a production of My Fair Lady. And I never watched the film all the way through—only pieces of it when it came on cable late at night. I knew Pygmalion because I’d done a big course on George Bernard Shaw when I was in graduate school. Similarly to Catch Me If You Can, when the director asked me to do this part, I said, “What? I’m only 50. Why would I want to play this old drunken character?” But I went and read the script for really the first time as if it were a new piece, and thought This is a great part! Just that sardonic humor and the dichotomies within the character, and the great numbers. Also, it was truly a dream of mine to work on the big stage at Lincoln Center. When I came to New York the very first place I went as a young actor was to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the Vivian Beaumont, and I thought Man, to get on to that stage, you’ve really made it. I leaped at the opportunity and had the most wonderful time doing My Fair Lady.

Netflix

EDGE: Let’s switch to television for a moment. The characters you played on Bloodline and Mercy Street were absolutely spot-on. Everyone knows someone like Kevin Rayburn, who just can’t seem to get out of his own way, and you were beyond believable in that part. Did you base your portrayal on people you’ve come across in life?

NB: The show was about a family that literally is trying to keep its head above water, and as an actor sometimes that’s what it felt like. It was really potent when it worked. I would like to say that I based Kevin on someone—or even had time to prepare. But the fact is that in Bloodline—which was produced by a trio of writer/creators, Glenn and Todd Kessler and Dan Zellman, who also did Damages, starring Glen Close— they famously withheld information from the actors.

EDGE: So you’re not getting a script until a day or two before?

NB: Right, and often they shot alternative versions of scenes! They were largely putting the editing together while they’re making it. As an actor, it was a real lesson in not knowing what was coming next. Also, they would shoot scenes out of order and the show’s narrative kept going back and forth in time, so I couldn’t get a handle on, like, I know where this is going, so I could make choices. Each night we’d get scripts to shoot the next day and I’m like, I don’t know how I end up here. Yesterday, I was shooting this scene where Kevin seems like a pretty good guy and today I’m shooting a scene where I’m in my underwear doing cocaine with a gun in my hand [laughs]—and they don’t necessarily tell you how you got there. It was really challenging, but it became a fun experiment in letting go into what you don’t know and treating each scene like it’s own little mini-movie with its own beginning, middle, and end. So if it looked like Kevin didn’t know what he was doing, that’s me. It was not an easy shoot. The stakes were so high and the material was so dark. But I loved it. We were down in that incredible locale in the Keys and it infected everything we did. There was no make-up— that’s really real sweat, that’s really real sunburn, my hair was really bleached out and those are real mosquitoes eating us up in the shots. It was like nothing I’d ever done before.

EDGE: I have a similar question about the character you played on the PBS series Mercy Street, Dr. Hale. Everyone has bumped up against someone like that guy, who has reached the limit of his talents and is threatened by people with new skills and new ideas, and who kind of embraces bureaucracy in the face of change—

NB: Which made the part so much fun to play! Yeah, that guy did not know his head from his rear end.

EDGE: Who were you thinking about when you played him?

NB: He was so pompous, so full of himself and thin-skinned and easily threatened. He reminded me so much of Frank Burns on  M*A*S*H*. I loved that show and actually thought a lot about Frank. You’re right. He wants things to stay the same. He’s dying to be an administrator behind a desk. I thought what was interesting about the character was that here he is, in the middle of the Civil War, but still looking for creature comforts and vices— sex and booze—to help mitigate the reality of the war. That felt really human to me. Imagine the carnage during the Civil War, before morphine is being used regularly in surgeries—just the violence—it must have been so incredibly difficult to process. It doesn’t surprise me that these doctors tried to find pleasure wherever they could.

EDGE: You’ve lived in New Jersey going on 20 years. What drew you to the state initially and in what ways has it grown on you?

NB: I came kicking and screaming, I’ll be totally honest. My first two girls were born in Brooklyn and we really wanted to stay there. We lived in Park Slope. We needed more room and I thought I’d be able to find a brownstone somewhere, but this was right when the housing bubble was starting to get really whacky and I just couldn’t afford a bigger space. My wife and I had friends who’d moved to Millburn and we were out visiting them and we looked around there. We liked what we saw, the schools were good, it was doable. So we moved to Millburn. Still, I didn’t really want to come. I like Springsteen as much as the next guy…but it was Jersey, you know?

EDGE: I am a transplant, too. When I left New York City in the 80s my friends acted like I’d been shot out of a cannon.

NB: Yeah [laughs] when you leave New York your family stops talking to you. No one comes to visit. But then something really remarkable happened. It took me a few years, but I’m the biggest fan now of where I live. I’m such a huge Jersey fan.

EDGE: What I like about New Jersey is that there are 500-plus towns and each is completely self-contained, so even though everyone you know is from “here,” somehow almost everyone is also from “somewhere else.”

NB: I do, too, man. You’re so right about that. We lived in Millburn for a couple of years and moved to Maplewood after that. I can walk to Millburn from where I live. But the character between the two towns is wildly different. I just find that super-interesting. I love Maplewood, Millburn, South Orange—now my third daughter is going through the school district. I love it. It’s such a tight community. It’s progressive, inclusive, beautiful. And as a point of departure, it’s fantastic. It’s close to the city, I’m eight miles from Newark Airport, I can be in the Poconos in an hour, we can be on the beach, or points north in the Hudson Valley, in 45 minutes. It’s a gorgeous state, filled with tons of farms, great rivers, places to camp and hike. I’ve just fallen in love with it. 

 

Alexa Swinton

 

At only 10 years old, Alexa Swinton has become the talk of the 2019–20 TV season.  You’ve seen her in Showtime’s Billions and on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live, but she has earned her first starring role in the ABC sci-fi drama Emergence. Alexa more than holds her own with screen veterans Allison (Fargo) Tolman, Clarence (Shawshank Redemption) Brown and Donald (Scrubs) Faison. A longtime (relatively speaking) New Jersey resident, she shot the first season of Emergence right here in the Garden State. Veteran EDGE interviewer Gerry Strauss found her to be full of surprises.

Photographer: Emily Assiran • Hair & Make-up: Evy Drew • Stylist: Jenn Rosado

Photographer: Emily Assiran • Hair & Make-up: Evy Drew • Stylist: Jenn Rosado

 

EDGE: Is this the first you’ve heard of Edge Magazine?

AS: It’s really funny because I’m actually in love with this magazine. I’ve been going to this place called Karma Organics Spa in Ridgewood since I  can remember. They have Edge Magazine there, so that’s what I’ve grown up reading.

EDGE: When you first started preparing for your role in Emergence, how did they describe the character of Piper to you?

AS: Oh, wow. They described Piper as this mysterious girl who’s sweet and doesn’t remember anything about herself. I was very intrigued by just that.

EDGE: You handle this role impressively. Do you think you would have been comfortable working on a show this terrifying a year or two ago?

AS: I feel like I could’ve definitely handled it because I would’ve worked just as hard. It would’ve been a tiny bit harder for me, but obviously I would’ve still enjoyed it and still worked on it.

ABC Studios

ABC Studios; Swinton with co-star Allison Tomlin

EDGE: Before you started working on the show, did you know anything about co-star Allison Tolman?

AS: I’d heard of Good Girls actually, because my class watched it, and they were like, “Oh my God! Isn’t that the person who played that evil character on it?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” Then I realized that it was, and I was like “Oh God, you guys talk about her all the time.”

EDGE: Has she given you any advice, or helped you? Are you friendly behind the scenes?

AS: Yes,  it’s a close family, it’s a really great set family. I feel like we really lucked out, because some sets don’t love each other the way I feel like our relationship is. Allison always says be nice to the crew, because you are one of them and they are one of you. She’s just the best and nicest person you’ll ever meet.

EDGE: Who would you say is the funniest person that you have acted with so far?

AS: My mom! She’s an actress, writer and stand-up comedian and we are collaborating now on a film based on her immigration at age 9 from the Soviet Union to New Jersey in the 80’s. I play my mom. We are also working on a book series about a fourth-grader named Skylie—based on me and my siblings and friends—who lives in New Jersey. So all New Jersey-focused projects.

EDGE: What about on Emergence? In this family that you work with, who’s the comedian there?

AS: I think that they’re all really funny, I feel like role- wise though, I think that Clancy Brown takes it, only because his role has been the funniest. But I feel Donald Faison comes in second for Murray on Clueless, and Turk on Scrubs. And then, Allison comes third because I’ve not watched Downward Dog, the only comedy she’s done that I’ve heard of.

Photographer: Emily Assiran • Hair & Make-up: Evy Drew • Stylist: Jenn Rosado

Photographer: Emily Assiran • Hair & Make-up: Evy Drew • Stylist: Jenn Rosado

EDGE: If you could do a voice for a character on TV, which show would you like to be on?

AS: SpongeBob. If there’s ever a recreation of it, I’d definitely love to be a SpongeBob character. I feel like Sandy would definitely be number one on my list. I would also love to be in The Good Place. It’s the best show ever. It’s really funny, and I just think that I’d love to be on there.

EDGE: Do you have any actors who you hope you will get to meet and work with someday?

AS: I definitely really want to work with the whole cast of Friends. They’re really just amazing people, and I feel like they really have done so much work that I really feel is great. But I’d also love to work with Jerry Seinfeld. He’s really funny.

EDGE: What’s the best movie that you’ve seen in the last year or so?

AS: Ready Player One. It was the best movie ever I think because it really shows the way that the world could be, everyone addicted to this one thing.

EDGE: What are some of your favorite things to do when you aren’t working?

AS: I love the malls, especially Garden State Plaza, which is like a whole city. We love the movie theater and the shoes at Nordstrom during their sale. I also love bicycling in the bike path along Saddle River Park, from Paramus to Glen Rock to Ridgewood.

EDGE: Are you more of a New Yorker or a Jersey Girl?

AS: I was born in New York and do have a special love for it, as well. I mean I have been auditioning in the city since I was three, and I have many favorite places and neighborhoods there. But I am proudly a Jersey Girl! 

EDGE Editor’s Note: Emergence scored a 93 among TV critics on the Rotten Tomatoes web site, with reviewers noting parallels with Stranger Things and Lost, and Alexa’s performance in a difficult role drawing comparisons to Millie Bobby Brown.

Boris Kodjoe
Nicole Ari Parker & Boris Kodjoe

Hollywood defines the power couple in many different ways. Nicole Ari Parker and Boris Kodjoe are busy redefining it. Busy is the operative word here. Both are starring in network TV series—Boris on ABC’s Station 19 and Nicole on the FOX mega-hit Empire—and raising two young children, one of whom was born with spina bifida. Boris and Nicole met on the  Showtime series Soul Food and their partnership has blossomed along with their respective careers. As Gerry Strauss discovered, they have carried their rooted principles with them through marriage, parenthood and personal projects that are designed to spread love and awareness out into the world, including a family fitness app (see page 40) and the Full Circle Festival—an event hosted by Boris that honors and celebrates their ancestry, heritage, and generational legacy. Their family life is filled with ups, downs and the desire to find joy in all of it together.

 

EDGE: Boris, when you were a rising star in tennis at Virginia Commonwealth, were you already thinking about a career beyond the sport?

 

BK: No. While I was playing, I was completely committed to tennis, and that was my ambition, my dream, my purpose, everything. When that was cut short [due to injury], I came to the states to study and take my mind off of tennis for a little bit, and it progressed into getting my degree, and then moving to New York and being discovered for modeling. While I was modeling, I took acting classes to see if I could improve my English, because I had an accent. Throughout that process, being in acting class is when I fell in love with the craft.

 

EDGE: Nicole, when did you discover your passion for performing?

 

NP: I came at this fully open arms twirling, loving the theater, fully committed to being an actress from the very beginning. I graduated at 17 from a high school in Baltimore, and got into NYU early. Second semester, I switched over to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I was a Journalism and English major, and I called home, and I asked my dad if I could go to Tisch. NYU was really expensive, and he said, “You just have to promise me that when you get knocked down, you’ll get back up and I’ll support you. Don’t give up and I’ll support you, because it’s going to be a tough road.” I did it and I switched over to the full theater program, and stayed in New York for 13 years. I got my big TV break with Soul Food in 2000.

 

EDGE: You both had busy, thriving careers before getting married and starting your family. As your lives together have evolved, how has that changed the way you prioritize your career compared to other parts of your life?

 

BK: I think you just answered the question (laughs).

 

NP: Soul Food was my big break, and it was kind of his, as well. We’re in this wonderful new exciting moment in our careers coming at it from different places, and our friendship developed, and then our relationship developed, and then we got married and then we had kids. We progressed together. We actually do well working together—the beginning of our relationship was learning how to be together  14 hours a day. We really knew how to be around each other for long periods of time, and we had a nice rhythm in terms of managing our creative time, our personal time, our professional time.

 

EDGE: And kids…

 

NP: Kids change everything. For anybody. No matter what you’re doing, no matter what business you’re in, kids change everything. You have to come together and be on the same page about how you want to do this: Do you want them to be the priority? Do you want them to be part of our plan? We just agreed to make them the priority and everything wonderfully fell into place. We didn’t sleep the first year, like any parent, and we still worry like any parent. But we really work together. The one thing we agree on is how we want to raise the kids.

 

BK: We learned together how to make our children our priority, and that made everything else fall into place automatically.

 

EDGE: The theme of this issue is Teachable Moments. How tuned in are you to that aspect of parenting?

 

BK: I think there are teachable moments every single day. There’s teachable moments in terms of taking in your kids and balancing structure and trust. I think there’s teachable moments in our relationship, how we relate to each other, communicate, take each other in.

I’ve certainly learned a lot about my behavior and how it comes across because sometimes we think we’re communicating effectively, but your partner lets you know that it might not be as effective as you think. There’s learning each other’s dance steps, and it’s literally every single day that you learn something new and that you have a teachable moment. I think the key is to give each other the space and the freedom to learn, as well as to teach. A lot of people are shut off from learning new things or being open to receiving input, and I think as long as you’re open and willing to learn—to make mistakes and give each other that privilege, as well—it’s a good thing.

 

NP: There are opportunities every day, but there are a lot of things that are different about the way my kids are growing up than the way that I grew up. I am very conscious of some of the values that I want my kids to have, even with all of the access that they have, and the travel, and the exposure. We both are very conscious of them still having life skills. As Boris said, those present themselves all the time—like conflicts with people, taking care of your responsibilities, time management. Really, we don’t let that stuff fly because you can’t. Your kids are being saturated with so much stuff 24 hours a day that we really check-in and make sure they have, like, basic self-awareness, and know how to take care of themselves and how to take care of their responsibilities, things like making their beds and folding their clothes—Sophie even knows how to cook. I just think that there’s something wonderful inside of those things that every kid should have, just to survive and feel good about themselves when

they’re out in the world and not with you anymore. In terms of each other, it’s just hard traveling so much and working so much that we, again, both agree that we have to check-in and make sure we’re still having fun, and that we’re not just roommates and business partners.

 

BK: Part of teachable moments when you’re talking about our kids is exposing them to different cultures. With the Full Circle Festival, we have made it our goal to invite people to experience Ghana’s vibrant culture and connect with their ancestry because this happens to be the Year of Return 2019, which commemorates 400 years since the beginning of the slave trade. Taking our kids there along with other friends and family was a really important way for us to expose our children to history, to culture, to their ancestry, and doing it in a celebratory way.

 

EDGE: How do you explain your celebrity status to your kids?

 

NP: One time, I was doing a play in New York during the summer, and we put them in a camp. It was a camp at the Y, and as soon as we walked in, not even realizing we dropped them off, all the kids were like, “Oh, my God!” They knew Boris from the Resident Evil movies, and they were very excited. Our kids hadn’t really experienced that before. We were, like, “Uh-oh. Teachable moment. Too late!” [laughs]. Sophie and Nicolas were just frozen. We talked to the counselors and everybody calmed down and they had their day. I asked Sophie later, “How did it go at camp?” She said, “Well, I told them that my parents were just regular people like their parents and what they do is just a job, just their work.” She had this kind of understanding for herself that kept her calm, and so it just calmed everyone around her. She’s like, “It’s just the job they do. Just their job.” I felt like that was the age-appropriate understanding. Then, as they get older and become self-aware and they’re in the photographs now, we just make sure they’re okay. Just make sure that they’re not being overexposed and self-conscious. I think we’ve worked on that in a way that they know when they’ve had enough. They don’t need to be on the red carpet. They’ll go ahead of us. They’ll run and see their friends if they go to an event. They don’t need to be in it.

 

BK: When they were smaller, we were driving downtown and there was this huge, gigantic advertising for one of my shows, and Nicolas screamed and said, “Daddy, daddy, look. They got your picture. How did they get your picture?” Then, Sophie, who was at the time maybe four, leaned over to him and said, “You’re so silly, Nicolas. Mommy gave it to them!” It was all very, very innocent. They had no clue. Then, as time went on, they really were educated more from their friends, because we really kept them sheltered in our community in Manhattan Beach. It’s very family- oriented, very protected. After a while, they figured it out on their own by themselves.

 

EDGE: What advice would you guys give to parents who are at the onset of facing their own medical challenges with their kids?

BK: The first thing I would say is that you’re not alone. I think that’s the lifesaver. It was for us when we realized that there’s a whole world out there, there’s a whole community out there of parents who were dealing with similar things. That really encourages you to do your research, and to talk to as many people as you can, and to get input and advice. Then, I would encourage them to know that they are the parents of their child, so they know their child better than anybody else—get multiple opinions, always trust their parental instincts and their connection with the child that they have. Children will teach you what they need.

 

EDGE: Let’s talk about your professional lives a bit. Boris, Station 19 is following an impressive blueprint for success. It’s a spinoff of Grey’s Anatomy and is being produced by Shonda Rhimes.

 

BK: I’ve been a fan of Shonda Rhimes since the beginning. She’s a trailblazer who has changed the way we watch television. I’ve always wanted to be a part of “Shondaland.” Station 19 wasn’t established. They had just finished the first season, and I guess they were still looking for their place, for their rhythm. It was a good moment for me to join the cast and help them find their path, if you will. I’m excited about it because it’s a great show with a great cast, and I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface yet in terms of the stories that we want to tell. I’m always an advocate for going deeper, telling multi-dimensional stories and for heightening the stakes, and we have a great opportunity now in this third season to do that.

 

EDGE: Nicole, you’ve become a major player on Empire, a show that was already a ratings monster. How did you feel about jumping onboard that speeding train?

 

NP: It was a joy because I have known Terrence Howard for so long, and I was so excited to work with Taraji Henson and Gabby Sidibe and everyone. I just jumped in and I felt like a new girl the first season entering into a family, and then it just took off from there. They made me feel like I was part of the family and it was a really great feeling. It’s tough. It’s a one-hour show. It’s a drama, it’s fast-paced. It’s a big cast. It’s in a different city, but somehow it has this joyous ride, a crazy ride. It’s been good.

 

EDGE: With both of you starring in full-season network shows, have your respective shooting and media schedules created even more of a juggling act when balancing family life?

 

BK: I think it’s always a juggling act when you’re talking about being on two network shows, because of the time commitments it requires. Also, Empire films in Chicago, so that comes with its own challenges in terms of traveling back and forth. It’s certainly a blessing, but there’s always a trade-off. I wouldn’t call it a juggling act or balancing. It’s really setting your priorities and not only making sure that the kids don’t pay the price, but that we don’t—because we have to look at each other and say, “Look, we were here first. We have to make sure that we have everything we need from each other.” Which is very important. If that means that we meet in Mexico for two days or if that means that I’m flying to Chicago for a day or three days or whatever that means, we have to be honest and we have to be committed to that.

 

There’s an App for That

 

EDGE: Boris, your commitment to fitness has produced KoFit. How did this app concept evolve?

 

BK: Health and fitness has been a part of my life and my brother’s since we were kids. We’re both athletes. He played professional basketball. The fact is that we are regressing as a society in terms of our health, which is obviously public knowledge. I don’t have to bore you with the stats, but we found that a lot of people complained that the plethora of workouts, fitness advice and nutritional information that’s out there is just super-confusing. It ends up being clutter that’s intimidating for people. It renders them paralyzed. Patrick (right) and I wanted to simplify all things fitness and nutrition. He is a certified nutritionist. He’s a personal trainer and a life coach, and so we came up with the KoFit app as a way for people to start where they are at. They don’t need equipment, they don’t need a gym, they don’t need an advanced degree to understand nutrition. All they need is a space in their house and they can start with as little as five minutes. None of our workouts are longer than 20 minutes. My brother gives great simple tips on food. We run people through mindfulness exercises like meditations and yoga exercises. Patrick’s wife is a certified yoga teacher. We want the whole family involved—we’ve got our kids on the app to communicate the simplicity and how easy it is to introduce some positive habits into your life and make health and fitness part of your lifestyle.

 

EDGE: KoFit is offering 30-day memberships for free to anyone who signs up. Why was that important to you?

 

BK: This is building the community. KoFit is a family, and we want to invite families across the world to take part in this movement—to find a way to be healthier, happier and stronger. This is just part of us wanting to invite people to join the family.

 

The Boris File

 

Boris Frederic Cecil Tay-Natey Ofuatey-Kodjoe

Born: March 8, 1973 • Vienna, Austria

 

Boris is the son of a German psychologist and Ghanaian physician, who named him after Russian poet Boris Pasternak. He is fluent in three languages. Groomed to be a pro tennis player, Boris starred for the Virginia Commonwealth University tennis team; his brother Patrick played basketball for VCU. A back injury cut short his career, at which point he pivoted to modeling and acting. His film credits include roles in Love & Basketball, Madea’s Family Reunion, Surrogates, two installments of the Resident Evil franchise, Baggage Claim and the upcoming Nicole & O.J. (scheduled for release in 2020). In addition to Soul Food and Station 19, Boris has appeared in a number of television series, including Boston Public, Second Time Around, Undercovers, Real Husbands of Hollywood (with Nicole), The Last Man on Earth, House of Cards and Grey’s Anatomy.

 

The Nicole File

 

Nicole Ari Parker

Born: October 7, 1970 • Baltimore, Maryland

Nicole is the only child of a dentist and healthcare professional. While attending an all-girls prep school she was named Best Actress in a statewide theater competition and went on to join the Washington Ballet Company. She earned a degree in acting from NYU in 1993. In her 20s, Nicole made memorable appearances in a string of critically acclaimed independent films, including The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, 200 Cigarettes and Boogie Nights, which earned her a SAG Award nomination. Her breakthrough TV role came in 2000 on the Showtime series Soul Food. She also earned rave reviews in Remember the Titans and Brown Sugar.

Nicole’s other film credits include Imagine That with Eddie Murphy

and two Martin Lawrence comedies, Blue Streak and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins. Among her TV credits are CSI, All of Us, The Deep End, Revolution, Murder In the First, Time After Time, Rosewood and The Romanoffs. Earlier this year, Nicole squared off with Boris on an unforgettable episode of Lip Sync Battle.

Mariel Hemingway

Mariel Hemingway

Family is complicated. Mental illness within a family complicates matters exponentially. No one knows this better than actor-author- activist Mariel Hemingway. The granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and sister of Margaux Hemingway —both of whom took their own lives—she is intimately familiar with the dark places that few of us are willing to go. In Mariel’s search for answers and quest for balance, she has developed a unique point of view—which she shares through her books and speaking engagements. With the release of the documentary Running from Crazy, she told her family’s complex story of mental illness, substance abuse and suicide and became part of a long-overdue national conversation. On October 29, Mariel Hemingway will join Jack Ford on stage at the Park Savoy in Florham Park for Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide, presented by the Trinitas Health Foundation. Proceeds from the evening will benefit the Peace of Mind Campaign, a $4 million initiative to renovate the hospital’s Department of Behavioral Health and Psychiatry.

EDGE editor Mark Stewart intruded upon her summer sojourn in the mountains of Idaho to chat about her family, her passion and her career.

EDGE: I’m curious about the documentary Running from Crazy. It was extraordinary. How does something like that even get made?

MH: It started when one of my best friends, Lisa Erspamer, who worked with Oprah Winfrey at the time she was leaving her talk show and they were starting OWN. She said to me, “You’ve got to tell your story.” I asked her, “Ummm…why would I do that? My family’s crazy.” Lisa said, “That’s the point! That’s why you have to tell your story!” We started shooting it in 2011 and it was released in 2013, with a premiere at Sundance.

EDGE: Have appearances like the upcoming Trinitas event with Jack Ford become a significant part of your schedule?

MH: Yes, actually. I’ve been doing speaking engagements all over the country now, gosh, for about nine years. You know, I never thought that was going to be my thing, telling the story of my family and revealing the darkness that haunted my siblings and my grandfather, all the addiction in my family. But I realized after doing the movie and speaking a few times, how important it is for others to feel as though they can tell their stories. I really believe that telling your story is a step in recovery and healing. So it’s been really wonderful. I’ve written two books since then. One of about their lives. We all experience some form of mental instability at some point in our lives, whether or not we have mental illness or are dealing with some kind of a loss. Also, in this very highly technical age that we live in, we are all getting more and more disconnected from ourselves and other humans. It’s really important to share your story, to let people know we are all the same.

EDGE: What do you want to get across when you talk to people suffering with mental illness, or to people dealing with a loved one who is struggling with it?

MH: There are ways of making your quality of life—and that of the people around you—much better. One of the things I want to get out there is I want people to realize that everything they do in their lives matters, especially when you have a mental health issue. What are you eating? Are you drinking enough water? Are you consuming alcohol? Are you not sleeping enough? Are you exercising? I’m not a doctor, but all these different things affect the brain, especially if you have a sensitive brain. My feeling is let’s do as much as we can as individuals to make our lives better, and to make the lives of those suffering better. I know you know this because you’ve got someone in your family—it can be very difficult to get them to see it, to acknowledge it, to take responsibility for it…but it can be done.

EDGE: It’s hard work.

MH: It is. It is hard work. But you know what? In my opinion, life is hard work. However, the benefits of taking care of yourself so outweigh the negatives. Okay maybe you have to do a little bit more, but we all have to take care of ourselves better. There is so much we all have to do to take care of our brains.

EDGE: What has impressed you about the way people are approaching issues of mental health?

MH: The more I’m in the space, the more I see people doing extraordinary things. There is a doctor in Dade County, Florida who wants to turn the whole system around because he doesn’t see why people suffering from mental illness should be incarcerated. Mental illness is it own specific thing, yet it has numerous facets. Take addiction. Addiction is a huge problem in this country, whether it’s alcoholism or opiate addiction. We are inundated with so many mental health disorders that need to be addressed differently, but first we need to pay attention to them. We can make a difference the more we speak about it.

EDGE: Do you feel awareness of mental health issues has improved significantly in the past decade?

MH: It’s getting better. We’re not there yet. But when you see Lady Gaga and other celebrities talking about mental health—people with that kind of fan base and following— that makes a difference. Sadly, that’s what it takes. But it is a good thing if it makes people embrace it and say, “Hey, we’ve got to pay attention to this.”

EDGE: Let’s switch gears and talk about your career. Since you can now find everything ever made somewhere on the Internet, which of your films or TV shows should your fans go back and re-watch?
MH: The film and television I did…it’s interesting. It was always the right thing I needed in my life at that time, so it was the best thing I was doing. There was one film that was super-fun, an independent film called The Sex Monster. It had a terrible title—it sounded life soft-core porn [laughs] but it wasn’t. It was really funny. You know, I watched Personal Best this year for the first time since it came out in 1982. It holds up. It is such a good film, kind of ahead of its time. I don’t know. I think more about the people I worked with and how much I loved them. People like John Candy in Delirious or Peter O’Toole in Creator. These were movies that didn’t do that well, but they were so fun to make.

EDGE: I liked the Steven Bochco series in the early 90s, Civil Wars.

MH: I loved making that show! I was actually thinking that [laughs] but I thought maybe you didn’t know what it was!

EDGE: That was a good, tight show with an extraordinary cast.

MH: I know. Debi Mazar, Alan Rosenberg, Peter Onorati, David Marciano (above). They all went on to do lots of great stuff. Bochco was always interesting and [producer] Billy Finkelstein was a good guy, too. I learned so much about acting and discipline making that show.

EDGE: Who else made the light bulb go on for you? Who helped you take things to the next level?

MH: I learned a lot from working with Woody [Allen]. Not that he said a lot, but it was an interesting set to be on. I probably learned the most about digging deep into your soul for a performance from Bob Fosse (left). Star 80 was a difficult movie to make but he was an incredible director. Because he was from Broadway and was a choreographer, he had an interesting way of going about things. The way he rehearsed and rehearsed as though it was a play. You just don’t get that opportunity anymore.

EDGE: You’ve got a number of projects going on heading into 2020.

MH: I do. I’m producing [Ernest Hemingway’s] A Moveable Feast into a short- form series. I’m not going to be in it because I’m too old now [laughs] but I’m very excited to be creating my own stuff now, and that’s what I’m doing moving into the future.

EDGE: Is it stressful keeping so many balls in the air at once, or is that kind of your comfort zone?

MH: I guess I’m that person who, if you give me too much to do, I’ll get it done. And if you don’t give me enough I sit there wondering what to do. It’s not too much yet. I really enjoy it. I’m good about keeping a balance to my life. It’s taken me a lot of years to figure it out, but I think I’ve finally done it.

Ever Carradine

Mark Stewart

If you are someone who believes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, then Ever Carradine is your kind of actor. The third generation of accomplished performers in the Carradine line (you know her grandfather, John, her uncles Keith and David, and her father, Robert), Ever is the latest success story in the family business. She is currently a cast member in two hit series on HULU—Marvel’s Runaways and The Handmaid’s Tale—and has turned in memorable performances in numerous films and TV shows. Along the way, Ever has won critical acclaim, as well as the admiration of her peers for the authenticity and creativity she brings to her characters. She’s a true professional, in every sense of the word. Mark Stewart caught up with Ever prior to the Season Three premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale.

EDGE: The theme of this issue is “fish out of water.” It strikes me that, given your family’s history in the business, you might never have felt that way as an actor.

EC: I haven’t. Where I find myself most comfortable, having grown up on film sets, is being in that environment. The transition to making that place my working environment—and not just my family’s—was very easy. That’s kind of half the battle: showing up at the set knowing what everybody’s job is, understanding the workings of a crew…it’s very helpful in doing good work, because then you’re not distracted by trying to catch up with what the heck is going on [laughs]. As far as performing in front of an audience, I don’t know that any actor will ever tell you that they’re totally comfortable with that. I still struggle with public speaking, but I’m very comfortable on a film set. I love it so much. It’s one of my favorite places to be.

EDGE: Have you done much stage work?

EC: My last play was in college. I graduated and then hit the ground running in Los Angeles. I started working in film and television. There have been a couple of opportunities where I’d almost done a play, but the timing wasn’t right or I couldn’t move myself from Los Angeles to New York in a way that financially made sense for me. But it was in college I had a little bit of a lightbulb moment. I was doing a play and thought, “Hey, if I could do this and make a living at it, I would be one of those lucky people who loves going to work every day.”

EDGE: And are you?

EC: As far as kicking my feet up and thinking, “Wow, I really am successful and making a living at this”…I’m an actor, and actors are always concerned about what the next job is going to be, what’s going to happen when one thing ends and who will hire me…that never really goes away. The past couple of years, I find myself on two shows that not only do I love, but I’m proud of the work we’re doing and proud of the stories we’re telling. And they happen to be on opposite schedules, so I shoot Marvel’s Runaways (right) half the year and The Handmaid’s Tale the other half of the year. So I just feel gratitude and am pinching myself because I can’t believe I get to be on these two shows at the same time.

EDGE: I couldn’t help noticing that, in school, you majored in Anthropology. My daughter did, too, and found it to be very helpful in her professional life, which has absolutely nothing to do with anthropology.

EC: Initially, my major was Sociology/Anthropology. And, as your daughter knows, you’re digging deeper into other people’s culture. That is a great starting-off point for fleshing out any character as an actor, to take yourself out of your own shoes and delve into somebody’s else’s reality.

EDGE: Getting into the business with the Carradine family name, was it easier for you or did that set the bar higher?

EC: When I started my career I just wanted to work. I wanted my own experiences on film sets. Coming out of college we all take ourselves pretty seriously, so when I started I saw myself doing dramatic work. But right away I started booking comedies, and it was really confusing me. But I sort of just took the ride. I did a lot of comedies for a lot of years, and then I booked a big drama and that turned things back for me toward the dramatic. Now I feel very comfortable in both worlds.

EDGE: What advice did your family offer?

EC: The advice my family—and all of their friends—have always given me is Save your money. When I was young I was, like, Yeah, whatever. Then as I got older I realized that the reason you save your money is that, in leaner times, you are still able to be in control of your choices. You don’t have to take a job you don’t necessarily want because you need the paycheck. Everyone in my parents’ generation has told me that. Save your money. Save your money. Save your money. Also, my uncle, David Carradine, used to tell me that the only ones who didn’t make it were the ones who quit. So after some dark auditions, some sad auditions, I would always remind myself of that.

EDGE: How did you land the role of Naomi on The Handmaid’s Tale?

EC: I had done a pilot with Bruce Miller, the series creator, and Jenji Kohan and Gus Van Sant, in 2015. It was one of these special pilots that I was certain would be a go, and that we would be on the air forever and ever. And then the pilot didn’t get picked up. But I had an incredible working relationship with Bruce and his wife, Tracy. About a year later, I got the script for The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it and I was floored…and was desperate to be in it. Initially, I read for the role of Rita, the Martha to the Waterfords—and thought I did a great job. Then I didn’t get it. I was heartbroken. I sort of put it out of my head. Months later, I got a call: There’s another role in The Handmaid’s Tale and would I go in and read? It was Naomi. I went in and read. After a long wait—for actors, a long wait is more than ten days—I was told I got it and I was on a plane to Toronto the next day. One of the things I love about that show is that everyone reads for every role, the old-fashioned way. Generally, they don’t offer things—they like to hear the people and look at them say the lines.

EDGE: Is Naomi a bad person?

EC: I don’t think so. Something that is coming up for me more and more, in Season Two and definitely in Season Three, is that these people are all in a misery of their own making. Nobody is really happy in Gilead, but they all created this and now they’re stuck there and have to work with what they have. I am so desperate for the Naomi flashback episode, which sadly does not happen in Season Three but fingers-crossed will happen in Season Four. I would love to get a little glimpse of who she was, pre-Gilead. She is a bit of a busybody and has to get into everything. The core of Naomi is her bravado mixed with her raging insecurity. And rage.

EDGE: You’ve played a number of tricky characters over the years. I’m thinking of the one you played on Shameless over the course of four episodes or so. I thought you were really good in that.

EC: You know the pilot I had done with Jenji Kohan and Bruce Miller? I found out that it hadn’t been picked up right before the Shameless audition came up and, also, I had had a child four weeks earlier. I was such a fan of Shameless and the cast and the directors—and it shoots in Los Angeles, which when you have a newborn makes it all the more appealing—that I really wanted to go in and audition. Well, the character I read for was an overwhelmed, exhausted mother who didn’t feel well, which is sort of how I felt [laughs]. The whole thing was a blur, honesty. I was white-knuckling my way through it because I was exhausted and terrified. I think that translated on screen and made it all the more interesting. You just make sure you show up on set and know your lines backwards and forwards and just hang on, because they are all so good in that cast.

EDGE: The first time people saw you regularly was about 15 years ago on the FX series Lucky, which was nominated for an Emmy. I know the series only lasted a year, but that must have been a fun cast to work with.

EC: Oh, I loved that show. It was so fun to be the girl with all those guys. We had a really, really good time. I think you could tell. Craig Robinson and Billy Gardell together were genius. We would go to Vegas sometimes to shoot exteriors and I would just make sure I got to bed at a reasonable hour. The guys went out all night.

EDGE: After that you played the lead in the cult horror movie Dead & Breakfast. That looked like fun in a different way.

EC: The thing about Dead & Breakfast was that the writer and director, Matt Leutwyle—and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Erik Paladino and the rest of the cast—we were all on a softball team together. Matt was like, Do you guys want to make a horror movie? So he and Billy Burke wrote this hilarious script and we all went up to Livermore, California for three weeks. I think we shot the entire thing at night and it was just the best time.

EDGE: And you got to kill someone with a chainsaw…

EC: I did. I remember swinging the chainsaw around and thinking, I really hope I don’t decapitate the cameraman [laughs].

EDGE: What roles do you look back on as being among your best?

EC: I feel that way about Lucky, for sure. I really thought it would stay on longer, but it was a little ahead of its time, with the gambling/Vegas theme. I did the first season of Goliath with Billy Bob Thornton. That was a great job. I’d admired him for years so it was a real pinch-me moment to work beside him. They always say don’t meet your heroes, but I admire him now even more.

EDGE: On Marvel’s Runaways you play an evil parent. Explain that for the uninitiated.

EC: You know how they say that every teenager thinks their parents are evil? The premise of Runaways is: What if you found out they actually are? I just found that to be so smart and so fun.

EDGE: Have your children watched it? Your oldest in almost nine now.

EC: They don’t get to watch it. I don’t think I’ve done anything they can watch yet. It’s so sad [laughs]. When my daughter is 10 or 11 she can watch Runaways. She’s getting close.

EDGE: What do you like about Runaways?

EC: I love Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the show-runners. They are such wonderful leaders. And I love the cast. There are 16 series regulars on that show. Usually when you have that many people you get one or two bad apples. But I have to say, it’s a wonderful working relationship we all have, and we’ve formed friendships that are just getting deeper with every year. I think that translates on screen. You can see that.

EDGE: What’s different now that you’re part of the Marvel Universe?

EC: You know, I didn’t get it until I got the job. Then I was like, Oh my God…I’m in the Marvel Universe! You get a Marvel email! And the way they welcome you to it, it feels very big and exciting. I love it. I framed my pick-up letter on that show.

EDGE: Playing two different parts on two concurrent series, do you think of yourself as a character actor?

EC: I guess that I do. I remember when I was a kid my dad telling me that he was a character actor and I was like, “What’s that mean?” As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that character actors sometimes get the best scenes—the scenes you really remember when the whole thing’s over. It’s a gift and an art unto itself.

EDGE: When you think of your family, what are some of the favorite roles they have played?

EC: I remember as a kid, my dad making me sit down and watch Captains Courageous, and kicking and screaming because I didn’t want to. Twenty minutes in, I was completely riveted. I just loved Captains Courageous. And c’mon, Revenge of the Nerds, are you kidding? [laughs] And my uncle Keith, I was lucky to see him on Broadway as Will Rodgers. He’s good in everything, but he was just so good in that show.

EDGE: We have a Q&A with Timothy Olyphant in this issue. Your uncle co-starred with him as Wild Bill Cody on Deadwood.

EC: He did. And they killed him off almost right away. I think they had some regrets about that down the line.

EDGE: Your father was in a movie with John Wayne.

EC: He was. He was in a movie called The Cowboys. I feel my daughter is just about the right age to see that. She loves horses and I think she’d love it. That’s maybe on our movie-viewing list. I loved that movie as a kid, too.

EDGE: And was there anyone better than your grandfather, John Carradine, in The Grapes of Wrath?

EC: I know, right? I haven’t seen that in forever. We definitely need to up our Friday family movie night game!

Alison Sweeney

More than 25 years have passed since Alison Sweeney first turned heads as the delightfully outlandish and manipulative ingénue Samantha “Sami” Brady on Days of Our Lives. The girl you loved to hate built a devoted following over the years, which extended to her seven-season stint as host of The Biggest Loser and, now, to The Chronicle Mysteries, which began airing on the Hallmark Channel in February. Sweeney produces and stars in the heart-pounding true crime series, which was inspired by her addiction to podcasts. Throughout her career, she has maintained a deep and genuine connection with her fans, which she continues to spin into entertainment gold. Gerry Strauss sat down with Alison to talk about her new project and the nature of what it means to be a good guy, a bad guy and a hero.

EDGE: So you know that the theme of this issue is “unsung heroes.” Who comes to mind when you hear those words?

AS: It’s hard not to think of the incredibly brave, hard-working firefighters, police, and all the first responders who helped battle the major wildfires in California in 2018. There are so many heartwarming stories of heroism and courage that came from each department. I am so proud and grateful for the work my husband, who is a CHP officer, and his colleagues do, and their constant selflessness in protecting others, as well as their commitment to their jobs. They are all heroes to me.

EDGE: Did the experiences of the contestants on The Biggest Loser strike you as being heroic?

AS: It was so inspiring for me to get to know them, to hear their personal stories and to see their efforts to rise above whatever was standing in their way and to overcome obstacles as they made significant changes to their lives. It was something different for everyone, but to not give up and to keep fighting? That’s heroic. Also, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several different charitable organizations, including hosting the MDA telethon. It was a gift to meet so many incredibly brave young people battling Muscular Dystrophy. They’re not just heroes for continuing to fight and stay strong in the face of such an overwhelming disease. They’re heroic because every patient I met still had hope and love and generosity in their heart for others.

EDGE: On Days of Our Lives, you were a superb antihero.

AS: What a lovely compliment [laughs] thank you! I am eternally grateful for the role of Sami and her misadventures.

EDGE: How much fun is it to play bad guys?

AS: I loved all of Sami’s schemes and machinations. It was always so fun to play as an actress, especially when she got caught. Those were always the best scenes.

EDGE: Does it seem strange to you now to have grown up, both as a person and an actress, on a daytime drama?

AS: Since I started at such a young age, I didn’t know anything else. I grew up having a relatively normal childhood, but then I went to work and played Sami, whose life was far from normal. I never confused my real life story with Sami’s, but it does feel as though I lived through both. In a way, I’m lucky. Just think of all the outrageous personal mistakes I got to experience vicariously through Sami [laughs] rather than making them in my real life!

EDGE: Whom did you look up to in your early soap days?

AS: Certainly, I always looked up to Deidre Hall and Drake Hogestyn through the years at Days because I was lucky to work with them a lot when I first started. It was like going to Daytime Drama University because I learned the ropes from the best. In turn, I’ve taken the opportunity to share what I know with younger actors—when they are open to it. Frankly, that’s not as common a trait anymore.

EDGE: How has social media changed the soap opera world since you became a daytime star in the 1990s?

AS: I remember joining the “World Wide Web” when soap chat rooms were first becoming a thing. I quickly found myself hooked on the instant feedback from fans. Sami always took a lot of criticism [laughs], but when she finally found herself some legitimate romantic love interests—instead of stealing someone else’s—I found the “shippers” online to be incredibly helpful. The actors that I worked with and I, we loved interacting with the fans and reading their reactions to a specific scene or cute subtle moment on camera. The fans notice everything. They appreciate the details. And they don’t forget anything. Ever. [laughs] Those are huge lessons I take with me to work every day, in whatever it is I’m doing.

EDGE: At what point did you decide that you wanted to be more than strictly a performer?

AS: I think the “producer” in me has always been there, below the surface, screaming to get out. Most people who’ve known me were not surprised at all when I announced I was developing and producing my own projects for Hallmark.

EDGE: What aspect of overseeing a project appeals to you?

AS: It’s not that I am a control freak, but I like to be a part of all the details. I love every department that contributes to making the movie the best it can be. Mostly, I love being able to choose to work with people who love it as much as I do. That is truly a blessing.

EDGE: Where did the idea for The Chronicle Mysteries come from?

AS: I am obsessed with the true crime genre— podcasts in particular. Like most people, the first season of Serial by This American Life captured my interest and I haven’t considered climbing out of the rabbit hole. There was one podcast I was listening to where the female journalist was interviewing some dodgy suspects and I thought, She’s really out there in real life, in danger. In that moment, I realized this could be a great scripted mystery series. Podcasting is a great premise because the technology is so good these days that people can really relate to it, and it’s so open that my character, Alex, could really take the podcast into any story that interests her. I think there’s a lot of potential for this…no limits!

EDGE: Has producing the series been easier, harder or different than you imagined?

AS: This is the hardest, most comprehensive project I’ve been a part of. As I mentioned, I’m so appreciative of my colleagues who are as passionate about it as I am. It’s important to me to keep challenging myself with new goals. I consider myself a storyteller, and the feedback from the viewers on the stories is so valuable to me—it makes it all worthwhile. Melissa Salmons, whom I met while she was writing at Days, is a fantastic writer and, thankfully, I got her hooked on true crime, too. We spend endless hours coming up with ideas for the episodes, the crimes, the suspects—everything. Honestly, I hope the police never have cause to look at my search history [laughs]. But seriously, there is intensity to this concept that is bigger than anything else I’ve done. I’m lucky because a lot of it can be done after I drop my kids off at school, and before soccer practice is over.

EDGE: Since you brought it up, how does a project like this fit onto your plate?

AS: I hope I continue to have the opportunity to push myself creatively, while still being the best wife and mom I know how to be. Sometimes I forget that I left the stove on and burn dinner, but the kids get to see my husband and me supporting each other, every day, through it all. To me, that’s the best role modeling we can do.

Christie Brinkley

When Christie Brinkley first earned the title of “supermodel,” it seemed to encompass anything and everything a fashion icon could ever hope to be. Now it hardly does her justice. The face of CoverGirl for more than two decades, she has expanded her brand across every media platform while retaining her honest, down-to-earth appeal in both her personal and business life. Brinkley was discovered at 19 by a photographer in a post office and went on to appear on more than 500 magazine covers, including three straight Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. She was the girl in the Ferrari in National Lampoon’s Vacation, played Roxie Hart in the Broadway revival of Chicago, and has stolen the show in countless television appearances. Last November, Brinkley and her daughters, Sailor Moon Brinkley and Alexa Ray Joel, shared the 2018 Footwear News Style Influencer of the Year award—the first time the magazine crowned multigenerational winners. Gerry Strauss caught Christie during a recent photoshoot to talk about a life lived well…and very much in the public eye.

EDGE: Looking back, what do you think has enabled you to enjoy such a long and meaningful career?

CB: You know what? I was very, very lucky. It was just a timing thing. If it had been five years earlier or five years later, then that photographer that spotted me never would have paid attention to me. But it was a moment when things were starting to change and they were looking away from the very skinny, unapproachable hottie-model type and looking more for an athletic, sporty kind of healthy vibe. And I just happened to be a little bit rounder than some models were at that point. What I thought was my weakness actually ended up being my strength. I just lucked out.

EDGE: What’s the key to success in the business today?

CB: When I started out, they were looking for clothes hangers. Now they’re hiring people, personalities and looking for depth. It’s a beautiful trend that I hope is really a movement of inclusivity and recognizing someone for the person. Today, it’s about authenticity and individuality. We’re really embracing a much more expansive idea of what’s beautiful. Authenticity plays a part, and confidence plays a part, and the industry is really looking for people that represent these different areas. It really wants to make a statement of inclusivity and beauty in the individuality of each person. It’s the most beautiful trend that I have seen in my more than 40 years in this industry.

EDGE: How were you able to stand out in your first few years in the business?

CB: You know, I think what helped was the fact that I never really thought of myself as a model. I always considered it a job that I was doing on my way to doing “something else.” I thought of myself as an artist. I actually went to Paris to study art, and I loved drawing and painting and making things, being creative. Modeling was a way to pay my bills—and a great way to see the world. I’m naturally curious. I love trying things out, so I was going to try modeling out. I was making money and I was traveling, but I was always doing other things. I was just being me. But I think it was those others things kept people interested in me.

EDGE: For instance…

CB: Because I was rounder than most models at that moment, I was doing a lot of bathing suit shoots. I found myself on beautiful beaches all over the world. So I wrote a book about fitness and the beach. I also loved taking pictures. I ended up, inadvertently, working for Don King as a boxing photographer, which the media found interesting. And I was always interested in the environment. At one point when Bush and Cheney, two oilmen, were running for office, I decided that I’d like to go to work for Al Gore. I became a delegate from the First Congressional District of New York. I really got into trying to alert people about climate change. Along the way, I managed to make a couple movies and I starred as Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway. I think it’s that adventurous streak and that curiosity that that has helped elongate my career as a model.

EDGE: I think people find you relatable, too.

CB: Well, my private life has been not-so-private, and very tumultuous. I’ve been through some pretty low lows, but yes, women, can relate. About 10 years ago, I discovered the Internet and started talking to women about their problems. If a woman said to me, I’m trying to divorce a narcissist, too, I would respond, Here’s what I learned, and here’s how I can help you, and here’s organizations that can help you so you don’t feel like you’re going crazy and you don’t feel alone. Because dealing with a malignant narcissist is very, very difficult. Again, that’s another layer where I can connect with women. They’ll say to me, I feel like I know you, because I’ve been around a long time and they’ve been through things with me and I’ve been through things with them. Even before I got into the Internet, I would give interviews and the stuff that I talked about would be helpful in getting them through some of those tough times.

EDGE: Has your daughter, Sailor, inherited your appetite for variety?

CB: It’s so funny. We’re so alike in that she didn’t have this overwhelming desire to be a model. But she also has the same curiosity and modeling really is very much about, as I said, the individual and highlighting the individual’s authenticity. So you can do well if you know yourself well. Sailor is very in touch with herself. Right now, she’s very passionate about making short films, and she’s working as a photographer and a model. That’s what this industry will do for you now, because it is looking for multidimensional people. Modeling’s a great job because of that. It really is a door-opener. If you’re into coding, like Karlie Kloss, modeling has allowed her to reach out to thousands and thousands of young girls and change their lives by teaching them coding. If you’re into makeup, you can create a beauty company. It really is an extraordinary time of opportunity. I think it’s a great career.

EDGE: You still have to be able to “turn it on” during a photoshoot or runway show. What was your secret?

CB: I’m actually quite a hammy person in real life. As a kid, I subjected my parents to my “shows”—just about every morning, they were awakened with a new performance. I even had tap shoes. Imagine a kid growing up in the ’sixties with wall-to-wall carpeting and tap shoes [laughs], there was no place to tap in the ’sixties; It was really very shag-adelic. But I used to get up on the fireplace mantle and put on a show or pop into their bedroom in the morning and be like, Ta-da! Here comes the show, ladies and gentlemen! Back in the day, when photographers used film instead of this digital stuff, you used to get into a real rhythm with the photographer. It was a real thing. You’d be exchanging ideas and moving from being very sultry to looking like you’re the happiest person in the world—and conveying those moods in imagery. Some people say that’s why a lot of models don’t transition well into movies and TV. They’re too aware of the camera and too aware of playing to the camera, while in acting you have to be aware of it and know where it is—but be able to leave it alone and not relate to it. Also, as you begin to receive notoriety in the modeling world, you start to show up at events and often give a speech or whatever—you get used to speaking in front of audiences. I think that that helped me with doing Chicago because I could face a large audience.

EDGE: Given that you grew up on the West Coast, what’s kept you on the East Coast all these years?

CB: I’ve raised my kids here. It’s their home. Wherever you have your childhood I think is where you think of home. I always think of Malibu as my home because that’s where I made my forts, under those bushes and trees, and roamed in the hills. And you know everything about it. Whenever I go back to California, I love it.

EDGE: What do you love about living in the city?

CB: It’s so hard to put your finger on it. New York City is the most exciting city, and you just get a vibe being here that’s energizing. You never know who you’re going to meet or bump into. And just a two-hour drive away are some of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world. You really can get away from it all and feel like you can get to a beach where you’re the only person walking on it and find little pieces of driftwood and seashells. It’s so lovely, that combination. I just really like it here.

EDGE: Would you say that authenticity and enthusiasm are the keys to the success of the Christie Brinkley brand? It seems that the products you’ve put out into the world or supported have always been in line with your philosophy of good eating and good living.

CB: I think that’s the reason I’ve lasted. If I put my name on something, it’s because I truly believe in it and I truly think it’s going to improve your life. My makeup line and my skincare products are cruelty-free and distributed in environmentally sensitive packaging. I always try to follow through and give my products a heart and a conscience. That dedication and belief in my products, and what they’ll do for you, has been a key to the longevity I‘ve enjoyed. If you just endorse any old thing, people are not going to trust you. You have to be truthful and really love what you do and what you’re using—and know that it’s going to make somebody else’s life better. That’s the recipe for success.

EDGE: You’re a big proponent of organics.

CB: I am. I really believe in organics. It is so much better for our bodies and for the power to heal our planet. So my line of Bellissimo Prosecco is 100 percent organic—and also certified vegan.

EDGE: Vegan?

CB: I know. When I first got in the business, I was like, “Do you really need to certify it as vegan? Nobody puts meat in it.” It turns out that many sparkling wines are filtered through animal parts, from fish guts to cow intestines, and you will get traces of animal debris in your wine. I’ve always loved the bubbly, and I was asked if I wanted to participate in creating this company. They came and explained to me that they had found a vineyard in Treviso, Italy—where Prosecco comes from—that was 100 percent organic. So I was very interested. When they poured me a glass and I tasted it, I was like, “Oh my gosh, definitely. It’s amazing.” We’re the fastest-growing Prosecco in America and we’re heading for Asia, New Zealand, and Australia next. There are no additives and we have zero percent sugar, so you can have your Prosecco guilt-free. There is such an epidemic of people with diabetes and pre-diabetes—they should check with their doctor, of course, but I believe that we are a great option for them.

Dominic Chianese

Dominic Chianese has been at this a long, long time. Longer, in fact, than even his most ardent fans probably know. Between playing the pivotal character of Johnny Ola in the first two Godfather movies and his unforgettable performance as Uncle Junior in The Sopranos, Chianese inhabited indelible characters in landmark films such as Dog Day Afternoon, All the President’s Men, And Justice for All, Fort Apache the Bronx and Unfaithful. He has also guest-starred on multiple Law & Orders and landed recurring roles on acclaimed series Boardwalk Empire, Damages and The Good Wife. His Broadway credentials stretch across three decades and include Oliver!, Richard III, Requiem for a Heavyweight and The Rose Tattoo. It was as a stage performer, actually, that Chianese first earned his show business spurs. Mark Stewart talked to Dominic about the craft of acting and his many roles, including that of Enzo on the new NBC ensemble drama The Village, which debuted on NBC March 19.

EDGE: How is film and television acting different from stage acting?

DC: It’s a different method of performance. You don’t use the body. It’s mostly in the face. If it doesn’t come out in the voice and the eyes and the facial expression, you fail.

EDGE: Did your years in the theater help you develop a screen personality?

DC: Yes, but I had to go through The Godfather first, which was my first real movie. I owe a lot to Francis Ford Coppola. That was 1971. It’s important to understand that I’d spent 20 years in the theater before I played Johnny Ola (left). I could never have made him believable without all that time in the theater… and if Francis hadn’t manipulated me when I was talking to Michael Corleone.

EDGE: How so?

DC: I started to “act” in front of the camera and you’re not supposed to do that. You’re just supposed to be the person. There’s a big difference—a different in the voice and a difference in the audience, which is the camera.

The camera does not lie, because the face is going to show everything.

EDGE: There were some impressive actors in The Godfather cast, including Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Who else stands out among the people you’ve worked with?

DC: Oh, I’ve worked with some great actors. Al Pacino probably taught me the most. George C. Scott—who got me on East Side West/Side, my first TV show, in 1963—John Lithgow, Bobby Duvall, they all taught me something. They knew what the heck they were doing. I learned from a lot of great actors. And also my teachers: Phillip Burton and Wilson Mayer at Brooklyn College, and Walt Witcover, whose class I went to in 1962-63-64. He helped me understand what I was missing.

EDGE: How did you get into acting in the first place?

DC: My first inkling was when I was seven years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. But if you’re asking when I really put my mind to it, I was 20 years old. My voice—my love of music, of singing—is what got me into acting. I was in college, at Champlain College up in Plattsburg, New York. When I was 19, I was asked to join a group of a cappella male singers who were World War II veterans, older guys who were 26, 28, 30, on the GI Bill. They needed a bass so they gave me the job. We traveled to all the Ivy League schools. That is when I knew I was meant to do this. I knew I would definitely be performing the rest of my life. Less than a year later, the Korean conflict was starting and the college was closed down because the government needed a base. I returned to New York City. And as soon as I got off the bus, I went to the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on East 74th Street and auditioned for Gilbert and Sullivan. I managed to land a chorus job and we toured for one whole year around the country. I was paid $110 a week, which was a fortune back in the ’50s.

EDGE: Did you think you could make a living on the stage?

DC: I spent about 10 years flirting with the idea that maybe this was not for me. The pressure was on to get an education. I ended up in 1961 with a degree from Brooklyn College, but while I was there I had Burton and Mayer, two great teachers who were experienced in the business. They encouraged me to no end. I remember I was cast in Chekov’s Three Sisters and thought I was doing a great job until the last scene. Burton said, “I don’t believe you when you’re saying goodbye to Masha. Maybe you shouldn’t be an actor”—in front of all the other kids [laughs]. Remember, I was 33 years old and had a lot of experience at that time, but I’d been doing mostly comedies and musicals. I think Burton and Wilson were in cahoots. They knew that I had natural ability creating characters and they wanted to get me to really understand the art, the technique.

EDGE: By technique what do you mean?

DC: I read a lot of Stanislavski. He developed The Method [of Physical Action] back in the 1930s. He said you can’t fake emotion. That’s all the method really is. It’s not a miracle cure or a set formula. He said you have to find your own way, really get in touch with something, so that you’re not faking the emotion. The imagination comes out in the voice. Everybody has to struggle a little to find their own technique, their “m-o”—whatever you want to call it. Once you do, you can be a lead actor or a character actor; it makes everything better, including your singing and your comedy. The analogy would be if you’re learning the piano and sit facing the opposite wall with your back to the keyboard, it’s going to be very hard to develop a technique. You have to face the piano, you have to stand a certain way and place your fingers on the keys a certain way, and that makes it easier. Most important is that, whether you’re in theater or in film, whether you’re acting in New York or a small town in Illinois, you’ve got to act the truth. You’ve got to really believe in the character and give it all you’ve got—put your concentration into the character. And then practice, practice, practice.

EDGE: Junior Soprano seemed like a challenging role. He was part manipulative psychopath and part demented old man, and you never knew how much of each you were seeing when you tuned in. Where did you draw your inspiration for that character?

DC: Junior was basically a New York-New Jersey kind of guy, so I drew him from my real life experience. Not as Mafioso [laughs] of course. I’m talking about his way of speaking. Being around so many Italian-Americans my whole life, it was easy to incorporate that into the character. Subconsciously, it was probably my father, my uncle and all the guys around the neighborhood. It was different than playing a farmer from Ohio, if you know what I’m saying…it came naturally to me.

EDGE: Junior was definitely losing it by the end of the series. Was that difficult to play?

DC: I’ve spent a good 30 years going to nursing homes and performing for people, so some came from that experience. But, again, a lot of it came from technique. You know, in order to play drunk in the theater, you have to play sober. You’re trying not to show that you’re drunk. So to play a guy with Alzheimer’s, you have to concentrate on something else, so it looks like you don’t know what you’re doing. I knew that people with Alzheimer’s have a way of not looking you in the eye, and of asking questions and not expecting an answer right back. There’s something missing.

EDGE: Everyone here in New Jersey basically adopted you from that role.

DC: I know [laughs] I know. Especially the people from Belleville!

EDGE: Tell me about your connection to New Jersey beyond the character you played in The Sopranos.

DC: Jersey is where my father did his bricklaying work. We lived in the Bronx but I used to go to Jersey all the time throughout the 1950s. I was always going to Jersey on the bus to lay brick with my father. We’d go to Newark. We’d go to Short Hills. We’d go to Paterson. We’d go to Clifton, where [Sopranos creator] David Chase lived as a little boy. I actually worked on the apartment he lived in, in 1952.

EDGE: Having been part of some legendary ensemble casts. I’m curious. Does your new show, The Village, have a live-theater ensemble feel to it?

DC: I never thought of that but, yeah, that’s definitely true. There is a good, collaborative feeling. The connections are like live theater. The writers are wonderful on this show. I’m very optimistic about The Village. It’s a show about real people, it’s not concentrated on a particular character. I just love the cast and crew on this show, I really do.

EDGE: What do you think the viewers will find most appealing?

DC: I think the fact that the issues are real. There’s a pregnant teenager, a returning veteran, immigration themes, an old man from a nursing home. It’s been very well written and represented here. It’s a show everybody can connect with no matter where you live. It’s about a community, and that’s what I like very much. We’re all in one building in Brooklyn. I grew up that way in the Bronx. We knew everyone from the first floor to the fifth floor. So for me it’s very familiar.

EDGE: Do you see a younger version of yourself when you look around the set?

DC: God no! [laughs] I do see great young actors. It takes me back to when I did my first TV show.

EDGE: So how do you strike a balance between the film and theater technique in this case?

DC: Film is different, but the imagination you use is the same—whether you do theater or film. In this case, the actual performance has to be attuned to the camera as opposed to the live audience. I feel very relaxed with The Village. When you’re relaxed and you’re connecting with your fellow actors, you’re just having a good time.

Brad Garrett

Everybody loves Brad Garrett. Whether he’s playing a smart guy, a dumb guy, a nice guy or a not-so-nice guy, it’s difficult to root against him. Garrett is a towering talent (for the record he stands 6’ 8½”) with an unmistakable voice and the uncanny ability to inhabit characters of all shapes and sizes. A groundbreaking stand-up who earned his spurs touring with the Rat Pack, he rocketed to fame as Robert Barone, the overlooked and under-appreciated older sibling of Ray on Everybody Loves Raymond—a role for which he earned five Emmy nominations and won three Emmys as Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy. His skill as a mimic and impressionist has served him well as a go-to voiceover actor and earned him Emmy and SAGnominations for his portrayal of Jackie Gleason in the 2002 biopic Gleason. Needless to say, Garrett cannot resist a challenge. Gerry Strauss checked in with him prior to the premiere of ABC’s Single Parents in September, in which Garret tackles yet another original character: a wealthy widower raising twin daughters.

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EDGE: Fans first got to know you from your appearances on Star Search.

BG: Star Search was in ’83. I was young, 23 years old. You had a minute-and-a-half of stand-up to do. That was it. I was going against guys that were a lot more schooled in stand-up, that had been around a lot longer—and were probably better acts, to be honest. But one thing I did have was that my stuff was a lot of quick one-liners. I did some dead-on impressions back in those days, and when you had a minute-and-a-half, it hit quicker than a guy doing a gag about an airline or his parents or whatever, because 90 seconds is a ridiculous amount of time. I mean, you’re opening is almost your closing. After winning Star Search, I got booked on The Tonight Show—I’m sure because of the connection that Ed McMahon had.

EDGE: What kind of impact did the Carson spot have on your career?

BG: Back in those days, if you had a great set, like a Jerry Seinfeld or a Gary Shandling did, you’d have a development deal the next day. What it gave me was an incredible opportunity to do a stand-up tour opening for some major acts. By doing that, I really honed my craft because when you’re an opening act, no one wants to really see you. So you’re going out in front of thousands of people with nothing but the ability that you have, or do not have that night. By going on the road with these big names, it really was [comedy] school. I came back a different stand-up three years later.

EDGE: You opened for some iconic talent. Frank Sinatra, David Copperfield, Smokey Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr.—it goes on and on. Do you remember anyone giving you advice that helped you become a better all-around performer?

BG: Well, I think a lot of it was being able to sit in the wings and watch a Sammy Davis Jr., who is maybe the most talented person I have ever seen to this day. They used to call him “the triple threat” because he could do everything. He could sing, he could dance, he could act. Phantom of the Opera had just come out when I was opening for Sammy, and he did this scene from Phantom that was just chilling, unbelievable. He was actually supposed to play the Phantom in London before he got sick. And to sit there and watch Sinatra with a 22-piece orchestra…

EDGE: What was it like working with him in the latter stages of his career?

BG: He’d kind of go in and out. I would have to keep introducing myself every other time I would open for him. And he kept calling me Greg Barrett. I just rolled with it because I didn’t have the [courage] to correct him. You know, Frank Sinatra. You don’t want to correct him [laughs]. You end up in a box. My mom would go, “Why don’t you just sit them down and go, “Frank, I’m Brad.” And I’d go, “Yeah mom. I’m going to sit Frank down. I’m going to have a sit-down with Sinatra. That’s going to go over well with Jilly [Rizzo, Sinatra’s right-hand man].” I think that, in a small way, I was around this part of show business that just doesn’t exist anymore. And so, I hope we learned some showmanship while they were here because they were very welcoming into their world. Sammy was so incredibly gracious. When he played a hotel on the strip, he would invite everybody up and down the strip, whether you were a backup singer or a dancer or a headliner or an opening act. And he’d rent out the local theater in Vegas or Tahoe, and he’d invite everyone that was in the entertainment industry and throw a party. It was just so great to be around that because that era is gone, obviously.

EDGE: A lot of people are unaware that you started doing voiceover work around this period, in the early ’80s. How did you find your way into that line of work?

BG: I think a lot of that just came from the impressions I was doing in my stand-up on TV. The different voices, the different ranges. I’ve always had a voice that sounded like a guy talking in a tube. I’ve always kind of had this bottom to it. I started on Saturday morning cartoons, and I was either playing a thug or a burglar or whatever. And that kind of just led from one thing to another. I’m very grateful for what I’ve done because there’s really only a handful of brilliant people out there that can do a hundred voices and fifty sounds. I’m limited. But I got to work with some great voiceover guys, like Jim Cummings, who I just did Christopher Robin with. I am a huge fan of animation, and I think when you grow up a lonely kid you have a lot of imaginary friends…[laughs] as I still do.

EDGE: Where did you find inspiration for the Robert Barone character on Everybody Loves Raymond?

BG: You know what’s funny? I had to fight for that audition. They just didn’t see me doing it. Even Ray was like, “Nah, not the guy from Star Search”—which I understand, because no one wanted a giant. But the minute I read the script, I begged my managers at the time. I said, “I know this guy!” The minute I read it, I just had a very different way of playing it. They were reaching out to a couple of other actors and I begged to just go read for the creator, Phil Rosenthal. They wanted a Danny DeVito type, a little pit bull guy. The cop brother in real life was shorter than Ray and very jealous of Ray. That line Everybody Loves Raymond came from Ray’s actual life after he won an award for his stand-up. His brother saw the award he got and goes, “Well, that’s great. I just got shot at today, but I guess everybody loves Raymond.” So that’s how that ended up as a line in the pilot and the show’s title. I wanted to play Robert the opposite of my size. As an actor, I had this thing I used to use. I used to say that Ray’s an only child and they forgot to tell Robert. That was my little thing. But there’s a fine line of not playing anger, but playing frustration. So they kept Robert frustrated, and in a lot of ways, he had the upper hand in certain episodes over Raymond, but the family wouldn’t allow it. So, there were a lot of fun things to play. But I owe a lot to the writing. The writing was so good on that show. They knew how to write for this character so well.

EDGE: And what a cast.

BG: Of course. The cast had a chemistry—which is what’s exciting for me about the new show I’m doing, Single Parents. We just had this chemistry in the pilot that’s very rare. You can only fake it so much, but when you are able to tag onto another person’s timing or reaction, it’s pretty incredible.

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EDGE: Single Parents offers another unique role for you within an ensemble cast…yet at the same time, you’re still touring and doing one-man shows. At this stage of your career, do you crave that level of variety in your work?

BG: I get bored easily. I’m a little ADD…or a lot ADD. And I’m at that point in my life that I want to do what I love or I want to do something that I’m really attracted to. When I read the pilot for Single Parents, I was like, Boy, this Douglas guy. This is a very different character for me. This is something I haven’t played on TV. I was really intrigued. Then I found out that Taran Killam was part of it, and I was such a fan of his on SNL. Then I met the guy and he’s just one of the kindest humans. I was like, Well, this is a no-brainer. I hope we can make this happen. But I do like the different avenues. I just got done doing I’m Dying Up Here, which was a very dramatic role on the Showtime show that they wrote for me. And it was something that scared me at first. I was like, Man, this guy is super dark. I loved the role. I couldn’t wait to play him. I was very grateful that they would write something like that for me because that doesn’t come along for comedic people often. I’m kind of at the point in my life where it’s fun to do things I haven’t done yet.

EDGE: I have to ask. With so many classic TV shows making comebacks in the past few years, what do you think Robert Barone would be up to in 2018 if Everybody Loves Raymond returned to the airwaves?

BG: He’d probably be running from the law at this point [laughs]. I would say that Robert is probably divorced right now. And maybe living with Ray.