Critic's Notes/Fall 2013 SeasonDefying Expectations, TV Actors Try Different Roles
By Kathryn Shattuck, The New York Times
Sooner or later, everything old is new again, especially on television. In a season when the Hollywood gene pool teems with fresh specimens, some familiar faces are shaking things up, defying stereotypes — and showing those newbies how it’s done. Mid-glorious-career, four veteran actors are revealing different sides of themselves. Maybe we don’t know them as well as we thought we did.Margo Martindale ‘The Millers’
Last month, Margo Martindale and her husband, William Boals, drove from their home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, pulled into Los Angeles seven days later with their dog, looked at each other and almost started to cry.
“We sat in this beautiful yard with this beautiful pool and thought, ‘Now what?’ ” she recalled.
The couple had changed coasts after Ms. Martindale was cast on the CBS sitcom “The Millers,” starring Will Arnett as a roving television reporter whose divorce prompts his father (Beau Bridges) to leave his mother (Ms. Martindale). When Mom — who can’t understand why everyone isn’t as smitten with her as she is — suddenly moves in with Son, two’s most definitely a crowd.
With “The Millers” Ms. Martindale is satisfying her good-girl yearning after a spate of characters like Mags Bennett on “Justified.” Playing that “real smart, shrewd redneck killer,” in her words, earned her an Emmy. “It was,” said Ms. Martindale, “as if I’d stepped into something I had been meant to play most of my life.”
After originating the role of Truvy in the 1987 Off Broadway production of “Steel Magnolias,” Ms. Martindale, now 62, assumed she’d end up in sitcoms until fate — and a Manhattan Theater Club producer — sent her down a more dramatic road. She is up for an Emmy this year for her portrayal of a Soviet spymaster in “The Americans” on FX.
“It’s fun to come back to comedy,” she said. “It’s like stagecraft. You are playing to an audience.” And the other day, when she got a laugh where she didn’t expect it? “It was like, ‘Whoa, yeah!’ ”Blair Underwood ‘Ironside’
You won’t hear him screaming “Stella!” in his latest role, although he does yell — a lot. But Blair Underwood might never have portrayed Robert Ironside had Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, not seen his turn as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway last year.
The result was “Ironside,” a retooling of the 1967 Raymond Burr drama, this time starring Mr. Underwood as a New York City police detective paralyzed from the waist down after being shot. Flashbacks to an able-bodied Ironside unravel the mystery of what went wrong two years earlier, and why his former partner (Brent Sexton) still has nightmares.
Describing both Kowalski and Ironside as aggressive and animalistic, Mr. Underwood, 49, said each role “can be straightforward and mercurial and volcanic but also very vulnerable all at once.” He continued, “I’ve played that character in independent films and onstage, but I haven’t done him a lot in mainstream television,” where he’s still perhaps best remembered as the cocky charmer Jonathan Rollins on NBC’s “L.A. Law.”
Then there’s the challenge of learning to maneuver through life in a wheelchair, something he has watched his mother, who has multiple sclerosis, do for more than a decade. “It takes repetition and making yourself comfortable in that character as much as possible, and to that end it’s about being emotionally and psychologically connected to someone who deals with that every day,” said Mr. Underwood, who got help on that from his technical adviser, David Bryant, who has been paralyzed for more than 30 years. “Like his girlfriend said, ‘He wears his chair.’ ”Michael Ealy ‘Almost Human’
Oh, those eyes. It’s a rare fan who hasn’t dreamed of swimming in Michael Ealy’s limpid pools. As blue and warm as the Caribbean, that gaze seized hearts and corrupted wills in “Think Like a Man,” the film adapted from Steve Harvey’s relationship-advice book, with a sequel in the works, and Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell,” for which Mr. Ealy earned a Golden Globe nomination as an F.B.I. agent who infiltrates a group of Islamic terrorists.
So how did Mr. Sensitivity end up being cast as an android?
In Fox’s “Almost Human,” Mr. Ealy plays Dorian, the robot partner to a police officer (Karl Urban) 35 years in the future. Unlike the newer regulation model, or “synthetic,” which operates on mathematical algorithms, Dorian was designed with free will — and decommissioned after some all-too-human quirks.
J. H. Wyman, the show’s creator, “was very adamant in our first meeting about not making Dorian robotic,” said Mr. Ealy, 40. (J. J. Abrams, who collaborated with Mr. Wyman on “Fringe,” is an executive producer.) There would be no stiff limbs or rhythmic monotone, though Mr. Ealy said that as a black man, he drew on his experiences with discrimination when summoning Dorian’s own frustration at being marginalized.
After four years in shut-down mode, Dorian is loath to take his second chance at life for granted. “Everything he does is an example of living in the present, of finding the beauty in each moment,” Mr. Ealy said. “We view so much of our daily existence as a grind when in fact it is what is keeping us alive.”Michaela Watkins ‘Trophy Wife’
When Lorne Michaels decided not to renew Michaela Watkins’s “Saturday Night Live” contract in 2009, he softened the blow with some parting words: “He said he could see me in my own show,” Ms. Watkins recalled.
And while the new ABC sitcom “Trophy Wife” isn’t hers alone — Malin Akerman stars as the title party girl; Bradley Whitford is her older, twice-divorced husband; Marcia Gay Harden is ex-wife No. 1 — the new comedy offers Ms. Watkins enough screen time to make you think Mr. Michaels wasn’t just being nice.
As the New Age-y Jackie, ex-wife No. 2, Ms. Watkins gets to try on a character breezier than her brittle Arianna Huffington impersonation on “SNL,” her nasty office worker in HBO’s “Enlightened” or her margarita-guzzling desperate housewife in the Paul Rudd-Jennifer Aniston comedy “Wanderlust.”
“I’ve played some really high-strung, cantankerous and horribly pushy women,” said Ms. Watkins, a newlywed at 41, “but Jackie is wonderfully obtuse and eccentric and whimsical and flighty, and I never know what direction they’ll write her in.”
Ms. Watkins thrives on spontaneity: after moving in 2000 from Portland, Ore., to Los Angeles, she joined the Groundlings, the improv company with which she still performs.
Whatever surprises the show’s writers have in store for Jackie, “I’ll be happy to live in her skin as long as I can,” Ms. Watkins said. And in her wardrobe, even if, as she put it, it’s the flowy layers, beads and bangles that a “retired lady in Santa Fe who is talking to crystals every day might wear.”http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/arts/television/defying-expectations-tv-actors-try-different-roles.html?ref=television&_r=0