Megan Hilty, Pablo Schreiber, and More Broadway Actors Take to the Small Screen This Fall
Ashlie Atkinson, Uzo Aduba, and Patrick Heusinger also discuss their new television series, and how theater has influenced their careers in front of the camera.
You won't have to shell out a lot of dough to catch your favorite theater actors this fall, as many of them are headed straight for your living rooms. The onslaught of talent pervading prime time reads like a Broadway-musical program's Who's Who list. Whereas theater talent has frequently popped up in guest roles of prime-time series (check out any episode of The Good Wife and Law & Order: SVU), the new season brings many Broadway and off-Broadway actors to series-regular roles. Many of them spoke with TheaterMania about the transition, and how life on the small screen compares to breaking that eponymous fourth wall.
Heusinger has appeared as a guest on many shows, including Unforgettable, Necessary Roughness, and Royal Pains, and will also be popping up on Bones and Castle this season. Before being cast in Revolution, he had actually worked on an unnamed pilot rife with theater actors — a credential he felt was a real positive attribute to the casting. Unfortunately, the pilot was later lost in development. "It's interesting that the family that was created was all theater actors who were experienced and shared the same sort of ethic," he says of working with Anthony LaPaglia, Felicity Huffman, and Michael Stahl-David (the last of whom will be performing in MTC's The Commons of Pensacola in October). "Because they have a theatrical background, they aren't willing to compromise skillfully breaking down a scene over just being charming or having a lot of personality."
Megan Hilty (Wicked, 9 to 5) says that her current work on NBC's Sean Saves the World feels similar to working in theater because she is in front of a live studio audience. "It's a multi-cam sitcom, and it's a lot like doing live theater every week. There just happens to be cameras there," she says of the ambitious new comedy. "Because of the live studio audience we're finding out what's working. The great thing is that when things don't work, the writers are all there to change it! It's weird, though; when I did Smash, it was very strange not to perform for an audience, and I definitely missed it."
As quirky, bubbly Liz on Sean Saves the World, Hilty is working opposite theater vets Linda Lavin and Smash guest star Sean Hayes. In addition to their shared history with working on stage, Hilty says the cast members were able to bond over their love for musicals. "We found out at our first cast dinner that Thomas Lennon and I are both obsessed with Sweeney Todd," she says of another costar. "Maybe we could do that! I would like to do the highlights of Sweeney Todd with Tom and Linda as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, and me and Sean as the young lovers!"
Pablo Schreiber, who seems to have had one foot in the door in every television show (most notably in Weeds and The Wire), feels that his work in theatrical productions such as reasons to be pretty, Awake and Sing!, and Desire Under the Elms prepared him for his overall career. "My goal as an actor is to cover as broad a spectrum as I can to play characters [who] are as different from one another as possible, and theater is kind of a template that sets that for you," he says of his diverse roles, many of which will be on display this season when he stars in four projects. "When you start in theater in college, you play every character in every play, whether they're an old man or a young man, or short, tall, whatever, and you get to use your imagination and create a character from scratch. Later, you use those tools to access those places in yourself, and eventually use them to play a broad range of characters in television."
Schreiber's tools are first on display in NBC's Ironside, in which he plays Virgil Burke, a detective in a law-enforcement firm led by a man played by Blair Underwood. You'll then get to see him reprise his recurring role as psychopathic rapist William Lewis on Law & Order: SVU, in which he says he will be "torturing Mariska Hargitay mercilessly." Schreiber returns to playing the good guy again as a law clerk to Christopher Plummer's Supreme Court Justice in HBO's Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight. And for those of you who haven't checked out the most buzzed-about streaming show, Schreiber plays a sleazy yet intriguing corrections officer known as Pornstache (you can guess why) in the Netflix hit series Orange Is the New Black.
"I've always said that there's nothing harder or more rewarding than eight shows a week," Hilty agrees, saying that theater is the best preparation for being in front of the camera. "I think if you can do theater, your skin is tough enough where you can handle just about anything. For so long, people have said that theater people are too big for the camera…at least they told me that, saying that we're just too theatrical. I don't think that's the case. As actors we have two jobs: to tell a story, and to engage our audiences accordingly."
It's clear that the networks are on the same page. CBS has Hamish Linklater returning to the network (he previously starred in The New Adventures of Old Christine) with The Crazy Ones, after having racked up a bunch of credits in the New York theater community (The Comedy of Errors, Seminar, Twelfth Night). Memphis star Montego Glover has a recurring role opposite Dylan McDermott and Toni Collette on CBS' Hostages. How I Met Your Mother creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays actually cast Cristin Milioti in the coveted role of "The Mother" for the CBS hit's final season because of her Tony Award-nominated performance in Once. Also joining a successful show is Legally Blonde's Laura Bell Bundy, who will play Charlie Sheen's new sex-study research partner on FX's Anger Management. After the 2012 cancellation of I Hate My Teenage Daughter, two-time Tony Award winner Katie Finneran (Annie) will bounce back opposite a heavy hitter with the premiere of NBC's The Michael J. Fox Show.
Uzo Aduba (Godspell, Venice), who is on the cusp of stardom because of her breakout role as Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren in Orange Is the New Black, compares the small number of successful television shows to the precariousness of working with out-of-town theatrical productions. "With TV, it's kind of like that same sort of feeling when you're in an out-of-town trial," she says. "You don't know what it's going to be when it gets to New York. You believe in it, and you love the scripts and you love doing it and you think everybody you watch when you're not shooting is just so talented, but you just don't know until it makes it."
Aduba is reminded that Orange Is the New Black has made it when people quote lines from the show to her, such as "I threw my pie for you" and "Can I be your dandelion?" "There's nothing like it on television," she says. "It's a dramedy that toes both lines with excellence, and the writers are telling very human stories. It's incredible to be a part of something that has so many phenomenal, gifted women both in front of and behind the camera, and women of every shape, size, color, orientation, and gender."
Crazy Eyes will have some competition when it comes to strong female characters on television. Ashlie Atkinson, best known for her heart-wrenchingly genuine performance in MCC Theater's Fat Pig, will play Nessa, best friend to Alexis Bledel's Stacey, on FOX's Us & Them. "Nessa is the Fonz level of cool," says Atkinson. "She pathologically doesn't give a sh*t what people think about her. It's amazing. Her confidence is the number-one quality about her that I admire."
Much like Hilty's bonding with her costars over musical theater, Atkinson finds herself at home with television actors such as Bledel and Jason Ritter, who together with others on the series went to a tiny theater in Brooklyn to support Atkinson's boyfriend's band. "They embraced being here in New York, and being a part of this community," she says of the place where she made her Broadway debut in The Ritz opposite Rosie Perez. "I feel like I still identify as a theater actor. When I have to change clothes and there's a man in the room, I'm like 'Yeah, whatever, I'm in theater!' And then I rip my shirt off. There's just certain things that don't leave you. I'd rather have a pin jammed straight into my head to hold my hair on than to feel comfortable. I kind of want the hairpins to hurt a little, because then I know my hair's going to stay put. That's such a theater thing! If it doesn't stay put on TV, they just fix it." Atkinson gives credit to her experiences alongside theater actors for helping her prepare to play Nessa. Andrew McCarthy (Fat Pig), Debra Jo Rupp (The Butcher of Baraboo), and Brooks Ashmanskas (The Ritz) are only a few of those who she says have taught her how to crack a joke. "I've tried to learn as much as I can from watching those people."
Though Heusinger says he's on Revolution until they kill him off, he would love to come back to theater if the work affects people and can change an audience. "I love plays like Clybourne Park, August: Osage County, and Once," he says when debating what would get him back onstage. "I loved Next Fall because it's a play that can potentially help to change the social character of our culture. You really have to give yourself like a monk to the stage when you do it, so I want it to be something I'm excited about."
Next Fall was so influential that his performance and the material in it still affect Heusinger's career, three years after its closing. "A casting director I had never met shook my hand and said in front of people, 'Gotta tell you, Next Fall!' he said, referring to a recent audition in L.A. "And he just told me all his feelings on it. It was so sweet and so appreciative."
Though Schreiber is enjoying work on Ironside, a genre show that he feels is "much better than your average genre in that it's really stylish," he is also "dying" to return to theater when he finds the right time…and some meaty material.
Perhaps he'll take on Broadway in Pornstache: The Musical? "I love it! From your mouth to God's ears," he laughs. "My return to theater is coming, it's only a matter of time." For now, he'll continue to shoot Ironside while periodically returning to Orange Is the New Black. He says you won't see him as frequently on Orange, but he does offer one spoiler: "Pornstache will never appear without the pornstache. God willing. I'll do everything I can."
Hilty is enjoying her time in television at the moment, and hopes that she gets to show a funny side of her talent on Sean Saves the World. "I'm hoping they build Liz as this amazing karaoke singer [who] just thinks she's the greatest, and she ends up being just horrible," she laughs of playing against type. "Singing poorly is probably one of my favorite things to do. Me and Kat [McPhee of Smash] did it on set all the time. I'm surprised nobody got it on video!" If Sean Saves the World is as successful as Hayes' last sitcom, Hilty (who is a self-professed Will & Grace freak) may not have much time for theater.
Atkinson may find herself in the same boat as Hilty. Us & Them, which is based on the hit British series Gavin & Stacey, was one of the first series to get picked up for 13 episodes this season. "God, I really like working in TV, it's really fun," says Atkinson. "It's a completely different experience. I hope to spend my life going back and forth between TV and theater because there's a time for each for me. After six months of either one I go, 'Alright, I need a break from this.'" Aduba speaks of theater most passionately. Though she can't give any specifics yet, she says that performing on stage is "her everything," and that she is definitely eyeing some projects that are moving toward New York. "I wear the theater like a badge of honor. I couldn't be more proud to be a part of the community," she says of returning, even if her role as Crazy Eyes makes her a household name. "You can take the girl out of the theater, but you can't take the theater out of the girl!"