Feature Interviews - Actors
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Hail to the Chief
by Jay S. Jacobs
All rights reserved. Posted: May 14, 2003.
There are lots of ways
that people go about trying to get their first big break in acting. Some
people kill themselves working a minimum wage job while floating from
audition to audition. Some try other arts, like
music or modeling, as an entrance. Some people sit
on a stool in a Hollywood soda fountain and wait to get discovered. Some
eat something gross on national television.
Joshua Malina took a
simpler road, and he didn't even realize it at the time. He just listened to his mother.
When he graduated from
college, he was trying to break into theater. In
that way that Jewish mothers have, she said, you really ought to call Aaron
Sorkin. I understand hes writing, or he has something to do with
theater. Malina smiles, So, I followed my mothers advice and I called
him, and we became friends instantly over a poker table. We used to play at
his house once a week.
Malina and Sorkin
became close friends, discussing theater and acting and
what it would be like to eventually make
it. Sorkin finished work on a play called A Few Good Men, a drama
about a Marine who dies under mysterious circumstances on Guantanamo Bay.
Malina tried out for a part and became an understudy, eventually working
hard to become a standout cast member.
then, Malina has become
sort of a good luck charm for Sorkin, appearing in all three of his films
and both of his TV series. In the films, he played
mostly bit parts. In
the movie version of A Few Good Men, he played a Marine orderly. As he later
explained, he had five words of dialogue and three were sir and the other
two were yes. But his first film role was played against Jack Nicholson,
so that wasnt bad. Soon he appeared in other projects like Clint
Eastwoods In The Line of Fire, Sorkins Malice, the TV movie
Menendez: A Killing In Beverly Hills, doing a recurring role on Garry
Shandlings The Larry Sanders Show, the indie film Clockwatchers
(with Lisa Kudrow and Parker Posey) and Warren Beattys Bulworth.
Malina also received good notices for the supporting role of a lobbyist in Sorkins The American President.
It isn't just
friendship that keeps Sorkin coming back to Joshua Malina. Sorkin is not
the kind of writer that just any performer can pull off. His dialogue is quick and
intricate and overlapping and has a very precise beat. Much like the work
of David Mamet, it takes an actor who is clever and quick on his
feet. Sorkin keeps going back to Malina because he knows he is one of
who will not be flummoxed by the pace and the complexity of the wordplay.
Once he works with
somebody and likes them personally, and likes the way they work, he really
does tend to use them again, Malina explains. Theres sort of an informal
group of us that I think of as the Mighty Sorkin Players. I think what he
sees in us as a crew are actors that are able to speak his dialogue in a natural way, in the
rhythms that he hears in his head. Hell tell you he has a very musical
approach to writing. There are very specific cadences and rhythms. Some
people naturally get it, some dont. He likes to work with people, first of
all, that he gets along with
I think that reflects nicely on him. He likes
to be around his friends. He likes to employ them. And he likes to work
with actors who can sort of make the dialogue come alive, the way he
Malina had enjoyed the smaller roles in the films, he felt ready to play a
more substantial role. He saw his opportunity when Sorkin was hired to
create a TV series for ABC in 1998. Malina loved the scripts that Sorkin
had shown him about the relationship of workers on a cable sports news
show. He read several times for the role of Dan Rydell, the hotshot young
co-anchor of the series. Malina thought he had nailed the auditions, but
time passed and he didnt hear back from the network. Then he heard that
Josh Charles had been hired for the role. Malina figured that was the end
time passed and I was sort of licking my wounds, Malina recalls. I got a
call from Aaron at home. He said, Look, hear me out before you say no. As
if I ultimately would.
asked Malina if he remembered the character of Jeremy in the script. Jeremy was a young kid working as a production assistant. It never
would have occurred to me that I might play the role, Malina says. Sorkin suggested maybe he could make the character a little older 27 to
28. Sorkin could make him an Associate Producer instead of a PA.
interrupted him and said, Aaron, if youre asking me whether Im interested
in playing a different role in this pilot
Yes! I dont care what it is.
Thats certainly one of the endearing qualities of Aaron
that he would
think that he would have to sell me on the idea of a different role, Malina
laughs. He did tinker with the script a little bit. I had to go in one
more time, and read with Felicity Huffman and Sabrina Lloyd, who had been
cast already. They did this sort of great opening scene that Jeremy has in
the pilot. I walked out into the hallway. About 45 seconds later, Aaron
came tearing out of the room and literally picked me up. I said I hope this
means I got the job. So that was
debuted to overwhelming critical success in the fall of 1998. Sadly, the
ratings were not quite so good. Sports Night was scheduled against
NBCs Will & Grace, putting the only two critically acclaimed new
half-hour comedies in direct competition with each other.
However, with the
reasonable ratings and critical prestige that Sports Night brought
ABC, it was renewed at the end of the season.
same time, NBC went to Sorkin to create a new hour-long drama based around
the White House, to be called The West Wing.
The thing is, Aaron Sorkin is
not the type of writer who believes in delegating his vision. He had
written all of the scripts for Sports Night in the first season.
Even though it was a monumental task, he was determined to write every
episode of the second season, as well as the new series. Publicly, Sorkin
questioned his own sanity, wondering if hed ever have time for stuff like
sleeping and eating.
Nevertheless, Malina had faith in his friend.
always a mistake to underestimate Aaron. He is like a writing machine. I really dont remember being overly worried. My
feeling was Aaron has an innate ability to rise to a challenge. He
also has a way of just piling challenges on himself. It sort of seems to be
his preferred mode. Im the complete opposite. I hate being under
pressure. You know, I still have nightmares about having a paper due in
school. Aaron thrives under that pressure.
lot of discipline and a lot of caffeine, Sorkin was able to finish helming a
seasons worth of two series. The West Wing became a big hit right
out of the gate
political infighting and partisan battles in real life made
the White House of President Josiah Bartlet seem to be a wonderfully sane
place. While the characters in the White House staff of the show did have
to deal with many life or death problems, political battles, moral and
ethical dilemmas, as penned by Sorkin the public knew that these were smart,
dedicated and fair people deciding the countrys direction.
continued to be a cult hit, getting good -- but
ratings. ABC was torn about keeping the show, which was still a huge
critical favorite and thus a jewel in the crown of a network that didnt
have too much to be proud of at the time. However, this was the time when
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire became a cultural phenomenon. ABC was
desperate for the ratings and the
buzz that Millionaire was generating and
they decided to play the show several
nights a week. Sports Night was the last show set adrift
to make more room for Regis dominance of the webs schedule (and look how
well that worked out.) The
show still had
fans in the industry, and cable networks HBO and Showtime made overtures to
pick up the series. Sorkin thought long and hard about it.
In the end,
he decided it was just too much work to do both series.
So, as much as he
loved Sports Night, it was no more.
thing Sorkin worried most about was the cast and crew of the show, but
the cast has mostly ended up doing well on television. Peter Krause went on to star in the
critically acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. Felicity Huffman has
a recurring character on Frasier, as well as starring in the new
Showtime drama Out of Order. Sabrina Lloyd ended up on Ed.
Joshua Malina co-starred with Hank Azaria on his short-lived sitcom
Imagine That. He also acted in the Gwyneth Paltrow movie From the
Top, Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielbergs epic miniseries From Earth To
the Moon and a TV movie called How To Marry A
while, Malina was a big fan of The West Wing. Last year, when he heard
that Rob Lowe was thinking of leaving the show, Malina shot off an
exploratory e-mail to his old friend Sorkin. By strange coincidence, Sorkin
had just been speaking with series director Thomas Schlamme (who had also
helmed Sports Night) about the possibility of writing Joshua into the
show. Sorkin created the character of Will Bailey for Malina, a brilliant
political strategist who was running a California campaign that had no
chance of winning, as the candidate had died. Rob Lowes Sam Seaborn was
trying to rejuvenate the chances of winning and somehow ended up promising
the widow and the party that if the spot was won, he would fill in.
Bailey is a prototypical Sorkin character; intelligent
and hard working, with a
complete train wreck of a personal life. The only reason he doesnt work
himself to death on the campaign is that he is watched
over by his
sister. She is played by Danica McKellar, who is best known for playing Winnie
Cooper, the love of Kevin Arnolds life on the old series The Wonder
Years. Malina says that it felt natural working with McKellar from day
a doll, Malina says. I liked her immediately. It was a funny thing
nature of working on an Aaron show is that each week you may discover
something new about your character. It was only the second or third episode
when we got our scripts and realized we were related. We said to each
other, wow, Im glad we werent doing anything flirty for the first couple
of episodes. That could have been weird. It is interesting to work with
somebody who youve essentially watched grow up on TV. She has that weird
thing that I dont have. I was a child actor, but I was an amateur. Then,
to watch somebody whos so much younger than you are, and has been in the
business so much longer. She couldnt be nicer, or more professional.
Shes a terrific actress.
thing that came naturally to Malina was to step in as Lowe was leaving.
Some people would be afraid to replace such a popular character, but
it really never even occurred to Malina.
ask me that frequently, so I guess something about it must seem daunting,
Malina says. Maybe its a weird combination of confidence and
obliviousness. Literally, [there was] not a twinge of discomfort or
nervousness about it. It was such a great call to get. I was a big, big
fan of The West Wing as a viewer from the first season, when I was
still on Sports Night. Plus, it was a hit show. To be cast onto
what for my money was the best show on TV, and also a promise of work for a
few years. Which is a rarity in any actors career, certainly in mine. It
was just pure joy from the moment that Aaron sort of tossed it out there. I
never felt any pressure to be a replacement for Rob. Plus, I have very
thick skin. I knew there were going to be some people who would never
accept me, or these hardcore Rob Lowe fans or Sam Seaborn fans. Thats fine
with me. Im not worried about pleasing all the people all the time. The
whole thing has just been a delight for me, from the very beginning.
cast and crew worked hard to make it a smooth transition. Malina had a leg
up from the start because hed already worked with Sorkin and Schlamme.
the cast was warm and open to him immediately. He
knew he'd be okay on the day of Malina's first
table read, when it was still far from clear whether
or not he
would become a regular. John Spencer,
who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry, came up to introduce himself. He told
Malina hed been watching Sports Night in reruns on Comedy Central
and was a huge fan.
considers it a perk of the job that he is able to work with such a
strong theater-trained cast. He compares it to playing doubles in tennis,
when the other three players are much better than you. At first you get
your butt kicked for a while, but you play harder and better, to the point
where you do the best you possibly can. I sort of felt that way coming in
and doing scenes with Martin and Allison and John Spencer and everyone.
Theyve sort of raised my game.
is important, because the characters of The West Wing are some of the
most complex and interesting currently on television. It certainly is a
show that is very much about the workplace. It circles around people
doing real jobs
very important, vital and life altering work that affects
not just the country, but the
These people are brilliant professionally, yet for the most part they are
sort of flailing away at their personal relationships.
actually a very well articulated description of a Sorkin world, Malina
agrees. I think he is a real workaholic, who lives for his job. I dont
want to say to the exclusion of his personal life
, (he laughs) ...I cant
comment on that. But, I think his sense of obsessive dedication to his job
exists in almost all his characters. Its a lot of fun to play. The
people tend to be not only way committed to their jobs, but also incredibly
good at them. When you get to play an Aaron character, theres a good
chance youre going to be hyper-literate. Incredibly smart. Possibly about
arcane subjects. So, its a lot of fun to embody the type of character that
the simplest way to put the charm of The West Wing and Sorkins other
work is that his writing makes nerdiness sexy. I laughed when he started writing me
a romantic subplot with Sabrina Lloyd on Sports Night, Malina admits.
Only in a world created by my friend Aaron would I be getting romantic
subplots. In his world, if youre smart and funny, youre generally going
to get the girl. God bless him for that.
the critical acclaim for The West Wing has continued unabated, this season,
for the first time, the show had a slight problem in its Nielsen ratings.
Silly reality programming like The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire
eroded the shows dominance in its timeslot, and while the
finished with high ratings for the season, it was a bit of a letdown. All
of which makes one wonder, is there a place for intelligent fare on TV when
some programmers think all they need in a show are masked men and Monica
it is a very disturbing trend, Malina laughs. Although one, to be
perfectly honest, Id have to admit to be a part of. I do watch some of
those shows. Im not proud of it, but Im willing to admit it. I feel
there are two different kinds of TV. Theres turn your mind off and turn
your mind on. Theyre very different. Sometimes you get home and youre
tired and you want to watch someone else making an ass out of themselves.
Rather than a TV show where you suddenly have to rewind and say, wait a
minute, what are they discussing in the scene? That being said, it is
disturbing the extent to which they are taking over TV. First of all, just
as an actor
They dont use actors, so watching the job pool shrink the way
it has is very distressing. Also, I do think in the end, it certainly
doesnt have an ennobling effect on our culture to have so many of these
shows. I wont damn the whole genre, but theres such a lemming-like
quality. If anything works youre going to see another hundred of them. I
hope that the tide will ebb on these. It was sort of a relief that The
Real Cancun wasnt a big hit. Because, that was all you need
to take over movies, too. Next thing you know you have Reality Theater, and
theres going to be no outlet for actors. So, yeah it is disturbing, but at
the same time, a lot of people still watch The West Wing. You dont
feel like its going to go away. Its still got a battle to fight for a
potential problem for the ratings is the
current attitude of George W. Bushs
The show tends
to be rather open-minded and Sorkin and Martin Sheen have been vocal about
questioning the war in Iraq. While the
show has always had a liberal slant, it has continually been very good at
balancing the left and the right. Malina doesnt want to believe that
politics has been a substantial problem for the show.
hard for me to say. Ive certainly read enough speculation about that for
me to wonder. I dont ultimately think thats a big element in our ratings
decline. Ive just spoken to enough people who say that, well, I dont
like the ideas behind the show, but I love the show. I feel like the
writing is too good for it to be taken as a purely partisan show. There may
be some people who are never going to turn it on
But, I think, in the end,
any issue that Aaron had the characters discuss, always was an issue that
was provocative to him. In other words, he could see both sides of it. I
dont think he spends a lot of time writing about things that he saw in
black and white. So, yes, it is a Democratic administration. But,
the show is frequently unfairly painted as being this super liberal
little over a week before this interview took place, a bombshell was dropped
on The West Wing. Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, two of the
three men responsible for the look, and sound and style of the show,
decided to step down. John Wells, the third executive producer of the show,
who is also one of the creators and guiding forces of E.R. and
Third Watch, agreed to step in and take over.
This upheaval left the show
in the middle of a complex cliffhanger, both on the screen
and in real life. The
daughter had been kidnapped, the Vice
President had resigned due to a sex
scandal, and President Bartlet was giving over his power to his opposition, a
Republican senator played by John Goodman. How was the show going to
survive without the view of its creators? Sorkin was notoriously the type
of writer who flew by the seat of his pants, made up plot points in the heat
of writing and later spent time cleaning up the messes that his characters had
gotten themselves into. Famously, Sorkin gave President Bartlet multiple
sclerosis simply because he wanted to write a scene where Bartlet would be
able to watch daytime TV. Could other writers extricate the characters from
the myriad of sub-plots Sorkin had so deftly juggled, and could they make
the characters as unique and interesting?
was still taken aback by the news when I spoke with him. He allowed that
hed heard rumors there were some big changes coming up. He had somewhat
thought that Schlamme may be moving on.
As the season had gone
on, the veteran director
had been allowing others to take over the reigns. But, Sorkin leaving
came out of left field for me, Malina says. I think, the other people
like Brad [Whitfield], who have known him for a long time feel the same
way. We just said, Aaron will never not write The West Wing. I just
cant see him walking away. Hes so proprietary and so invested in his
characters and his situations. I cant see him handing it off. That being
said, I believe he must have very good reasons for deciding to do so.
Certainly, if its purely that hes ready to take a break, hes earned it.
Its almost like a singular achievement, to have written like ninety
episodes in four years. Its astonishing. Particularly given how good they
all are. So, I bear him no grudge, no resentment for whatever his
as the future of the show, my initial reaction was, creative devastation. I
cant believe it. I dont even have a full season under my belt, and hes
leaving. I still feel sort of heartbroken on that level. This friend of
mine for fifteen years, whos just a genius writer, created this character
for me and has been writing me great stuff every week. Thats not going to
be the case anymore. That is personally a huge loss. Ill also be disappointed
just not to be working with Aaron.
is taking some solace in the fact that Wells has stepped up to the plate for
the show. Its going to be under the supervision of John Wells,
who is no slouch. Im glad that in the giant vacuum left by Tommy and Aaron
there is a John Wells. Somebody in whom you can have great confidence,
somebody who has been very successful in the industry and has been involved
in the creation of really good shows. I read a quote somewhere where John
said that Aaron was irreplaceable, and that actually buoyed my spirits. I
thought, this is a good thing. Im glad to hear him say that. I think what
that means is that were going to go through some kind of transformation.
The show is going to become something in some way new, rather than John
trying find people who can sort of ape Aarons writing. I dont think there
is anyone [who can do that.] Youre better off, given a tough situation,
going back to the drawing board a little bit and think, okay, how do we make
this work without Aaron?
history and talent in front of and behind the cameras are any indication,
The West Wing should make it through the rough patch
and emerge all the
stronger on the other side. It wont always be pretty. It wont always be
easy. It wont always be right. However, it will be well thought out and
executed the in the best way possible by the smartest people available. And
theyll probably work too hard, eat on the run and let personal
relationships suffer to achieve their finest. Sounds like business as
usual at The West Wing.
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