Joshua Malina is most known for his roles in THE WEST WING and SPORTSNIGHT. If you've never seen those; you'll almost certainly know him from his extensive television work. If not, don't worry-- you're in for a treat. Joshua Malina is, without doubt, one of the most underrated actors in the industry today. And as Malina hopes himself, as we find out in this interview - I am sure that we are going to see a lot more of his genius as a comedic actor and a talented writer in the very near future. If you want to know what it was like when Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing, or you want to know what it's like being a regular on a TV show or even if you want to know what it's like having Clint Eastwood save your acting career -- then read on. Joshua gives us a fascinating and personal insight into the life of a working actor.
KID: Do you remember when you first wanted to be an actor?
JOSHUA MALINA: Very early on in life my greatest ambition was to be a rabbi and a Good Humor man, but after that brief phase it was always "actor" -- probably from the time I was 8 years old or so. As a kid I was really into theater. I grew up in the suburbs of New York. My Dad's best friend was a major Broadway producer, and my dad was involved in a few productions. My mom was a musical theatre star herself in college. So I was always around it. I saw lots of shows in NY. I did camp and school plays, community theater, after-school groups, all that. It was what I liked doing more than anything else. And I always felt like that's what I was -- an actor -- so deciding to pursue it as a career was not a tough decision for me. I was spared the angst that a lot of people experience when deciding to go for it. I had an innate confidence that one way or another, I'd make it as a professional actor.
You began on the stage -- did you always want to do screen work?
I definitely always thought about doing T.V. and movies. I grew up loving great comic film actors: Groucho Marx, Gene Wilder, Chaplin, Walter Matthau, Lucille Ball, Gleason, Art Carney, people like that. I always thought I'd eventually work in front of a camera too. Now I sometimes look at my career and wish I had done more on stage before I sort of became a "T.V. actor." After doing so much theater as an amateur, I really haven't done all that much as a professional. After graduating from college in 1988, I became close friends with Aaron Sorkin, and he cast me in A FEW GOOD MEN, which opened on Broadway in November of 1989. That was literally a dream come true for me. I had fantasized as a kid about being on Broadway, so AFGM was a quest fulfilled and a series of experiences that I'll always treasure. Between the NY production and the national tour, I believe I logged about 750 performances of the show, playing a variety of roles along he way. There's no better substitute training-wise for an actor than a long run in a good play. When I moved to LA in 1992 I did a lot of plays in small theaters, but it wasn't long before my focus became T.V. and film.
Looking at how you started out in film, 'A Few Good Men,' 'In The Line Of Fire,' and 'Malice' - that's a pretty great way to start a career. You were working with some big actors - was it difficult?
Actually, working with actors like Nicholson and Eastwood was not difficult at all. It never struck me as intimidating; I just saw it as an opportunity to watch how they worked. And they couldn't have been nicer. My role in AFGM was teeny-tiny, but Jack was kind and complimentary. And I'm pretty sure Eastwood saved my job for me on IN THE LINE OF FIRE. I had one scene in which I drop him off at LAX. I pull up to the terminal, stop, he gets out, and we have a brief conversation before he walks off. Well, I had never driven a car onscreen before, and my head was spinning with all the information: Start here, drive there, land with your front wheels on the two sandbags, don't look to the left, etc., etc. Add to that the fact that Clint Eastwood was sitting in my passenger seat, and… on the first take I drove about 2 miles an hour, hit my spot, and we played the scene. The director -- Wolfgang Petersen -- yells "Cut," walks over and kindly says in his German-inflected English: "Yeah -- that was a little…wimpy. A little wimpy. Remember, you're a secret service agent. You're tough. You could probably drive a little bit faster." Okay. Take two -- I barrel-ass into frame and jam on the breaks as I hit my sandbags. In my peripheral vision I see Eastwood kind of planing back and forth as he absorbs the force of my short-stop. I immediately hear "Cut!" and someone runs over -- not the director, an AD maybe -- and starts laying in to me: "What are you, nuts?! That's Clint Eastwood you're driving! The star of the movie! You trying to kill him?!" Before I can formulate a response, Eastwood gets out, slams the door, and tells this guy "The director of the film just called this man a 'wimp.'" Of course he's gonna get in there and drive like that. That's what he was told do." How great is that? Clint Eastwood -- my hero. Classic.
I really liked your role as Tim Messick in 'From The Earth To The Moon.' Is it difficult coming into a project where you only have one or two small scenes to do? There must be a different kind of pressure to when you're a regular?
Absolutely. Counter-intuitively, having a smaller part can be more nerve-wracking than a big, meaty one. Early on, I had some roles that were just a line or two. You can really screw yourself up, obsessively running a two-line bit in your head. "From the Earth to the Moon" wasn't really a tiny role, it was basically one nice scene where I'm being interviewed about my part in the space program. I have a good monologue, filled with quite a bit of technical mumbo-jumbo. I count this as one of my strengths as an actor -- the confident recitation of shit I don't understand. When it was time to run the scene for the first time, I walked around the room, figuring out the blocking and said my bit. I finished and the director, Lili Zanuck, says -- in front of the whole crew -- "That sounded like you were just trying to say the words in the right order." Incredibly embarrassing! I had the presence of mind to tell her that that's exactly what I was trying to do, as it was the first time I had ever run a complex scene. The shooting proceeded to go fine, but for me it was an object lesson in bad directing. There's no reason to humiliate or set your actors on edge. To get the best final product you want to create a relaxed, comfortable place for your actors to inhabit. On a related note, Zanuck has gone on to direct only another three episodes of T.V. since 1998, so there you go…
How did 'Sports Night' come about, was the role written for you?
"Sports Night" was Aaron Sorkin's first T.V. pilot and he let me read it early on. I loved it and really wanted to play the role of "Dan Rydell." Josh Charles was ultimately so good as Dan, and most parts I've played are so different from him, that some people can't imagine I was up for the role. In truth, it's my kind of character and I did come close to getting it. I was at Hollywood Park on a poker binge as I waited to hear the news. Aaron called me and told me it wasn't going to happen. I was pretty crushed, but I'm good at bouncing back. I was somewhere in the bouncing back process a couple weeks later when Aaron called and said "Hey, do you remember the role of 'Jeremy?'" In the original script, Jeremy was much younger and had a more peripheral role. Aaron started to pitch me on the idea of his tailoring it to me. I interrupted him and said "Aaron, if you're asking me whether I'm interested, of course! I'll play anything you got for me." Aaron re-wrote the role and I went in to read for Jamie Tarses and Stu Bloomberg at ABC. Felicity Huffman and Sabrina Lloyd had already been cast and in a gesture of kindness I still appreciate, came in to read with me. It was Jeremy's interview scene from the pilot. Twenty years into my career, I am still very poor at auditioning, but this was an easy one. It was an incredibly well-written, brilliantly funny scene that had been created for me. If I couldn't nail this one, I had no excuse. I felt like the audition went great. I walked out into the hall, and a couple minutes later Aaron came charging out, picked me up and held me aloft. I said "Either you're saying I got the job, or you suck at delivering bad news."
What are the challenges of being a regular on a show?
I wish I could tell you it's a big challenge, but it's not. Being a regular on a T.V. series is a very cushy gig: learn the lines, hit your marks, collect big check. Not much to it. Sure, the days can be very long on an hour drama, but that's why they call it "work." I hate whiney actors who piss and moan about how difficult their jobs are. Ditch digging is hard. Television acting is a cakewalk.
I think one of your unique qualities is having a certain humor and charisma about you, and that's something that comes from you, not the character on the page. Is this something you're aware of?
That's an extremely kind thing to say. I appreciate it. I've been fortunate, though, that the characters I've played longest -- "Jeremy" on SPORTS NIGHT and "Will" on THE WEST WING -- were inherently funny on the page. I think there's always a through-line of humor to Aaron's writing. Maybe as a result of that, I am always looking for the comic aspect to whatever role I'm playing.
And whilst I certainly meant that last question as a compliment, I wonder - can it be a limitation? Could you play the role of a President, or a Mafia boss?
I do think I can play a greater variety of roles than I have thus far -- not sure whether President and Mafia boss are among them, though "consigliere" I can do. Typecasting is a real thing, for sure. If you are seen doing one type of role then Hollywood is probably going to look to you for more of that. It cuts both ways too. I'm sure I am on Smarty-Jew-nerd lists, and that helps me get work. But most of us get into acting because we're drawn to the idea of playing an array of characters, and I'm a bit disappointed that I haven't been able to broaden the range of roles I'm offered. I thought I'd come out to LA and book a sitcom, or play the crazy supporting comic guy in films. Hasn't happened. Maybe as I slide further into my 40's, I'll finally become the comic character actor I've always imagined myself to be.
It was great to see you back with Aaron Sorkin in 'The West Wing.' For me, it's the greatest TV show of all time. You came along at an interesting time, only a season before your friend Sorkin, and Tommy Schlamme were to leave the show - what effect did this have on the cast?
It had a big effect on the cast, for sure. It caught everyone by surprise -- bit of a bombshell. I remember the cast being really rocked. There was a big meeting with Tommy and Aaron. There were a lot of tears, and some protestations along the lines of "If you guys go, I don't want to do the show anymore!" On a personal and creative level, I was extremely disappointed to hear they were leaving, but on a career level I was thinking "Easy now, people. I just got here. Let's not do anything rash…" So sure, Tommy is one of the great Producer/Directors out there, and for my money, no one writes like Aaron. But I give credit to John Wells and the writing staff for keeping TWW going as a really great, quality show for the remainder of its run.
There was a definite shift in the writing, and I noticed that a lot in your character. Did it seem different to you?
Yes, character and plot-wise, Will Bailey underwent a real shift. He went off to run the campaign of V.P. "Bingo" Bob Russell -- a move that caused many of The West Wing's hardcore fans to vilify the character. It's funny, I still deal with fans' anger towards Will! It amuses me. Shortly after John Wells took over, he asked me to come talk to him. He explained that he felt that Will's story had played out a bit, and that as an alternative to becoming repetitive, or to writing the character out, they had come up with the "Bingo" Bob scenario. I said "sounds good to me" and left, thankful that John had figured out a way to keep me involved with the show. I come from the school of acting in which you pick up the script, learn your lines, and show up prepared. I don't really think it's my job to weigh in on storylines. And honestly, I don't care much whether my character is good or noble or heroic or a douchebag. My character is the guy who says the things the writers have him say. It's that simple. So, would I have written the same story for Will? Maybe not. Would Aaron Sorkin have written it the same way? Definitely not. But I think the writers continued to write great stuff for me, and that they wrote Will's arc in a plausible way.
Focusing on a few more questions about the life of an actor -- how do you find most of your work?
As I've mentioned earlier, I am -- sadly -- not the King of Auditioning. I'm not sure what it is. I just find the process mortifying. I have a real fear of overacting, and as a result I think I almost always underplay things at auditions. Aspiring actors out there, heed my call: "Underplaying does not get you the job! Make a strong choice and go for it!" Twenty years in, I still need to process this rule myself. In any event, I do occasionally book things in the room, but most of my jobs come in the form of offers from people who know my work already.
Acting is so tough to get in to - what is the difference between someone who makes it and someone who doesn't? Is it luck, or is there a character trait that makes the difference do you think?
Sad fact: There is a huge amount of luck involved. There just is. Subtract my relationship with Aaron Sorkin and I don't know whether I'd be a professional actor. That said, I do believe there are many other factors that contribute. One really important character trait is confidence. So many actors lack it, but if you don't think you're good, why would you expect someone else to be taken with you? You have to believe in your own talent, and let that belief carry you through the avalanche of rejection that comes with pursuing a career in this field.
What is the difference between working on television and film?
I have worked far more in the former, so I'm no expert on the subject. But as far as the work goes, I find them very similar. Acting on camera is acting on camera. It's the trappings that are different. Film work carries a certain attendant glitz with the fancy locations, the premieres, and so on. But television work strikes me as a much better and more stable job for a husband and daddy, which is what I am first and foremost.
What are you currently working on?
I thought you'd never ask! I am extremely excited to be in post-production on a web series for SONY's Crackle.com website. It's called BACKWASH, and I wrote and produced it, and I star in it with Michael Ian Black, Michael Panes, Noah Emmerich, Lindsey Kraft, and Joe Lo Truglio. It also features supporting work from a host of amazing people (most of them old friends): Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman, Hank Azaria, John Cho, Steven Weber, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Allison Janney, Dulé Hill, and many more. It's directed by Danny Leiner ("Dude, Where's My Car, "Harold & Kumar"), who is fantastic. It's a 13-part comedy about three losers who inadvertently rob a bank. It's kind of an old-school, slapstick romp. I had an absolute blast making it. It should start airing early this summer. Rather than go on about it here, let me plug my blog. If anyone is interested, they can follow the project here: http://blog.crackle.com/tag/backwash-blog/. I'm also posting a lot of info on Twitter, so please follow if you like: "@JoshMalina."
What else would you like to achieve with your career?
I do want to keep writing, creating material for myself and others. I sold a sitcom pilot to CBS this past season that I wrote with a friend. It didn't ultimately get made, but I'd like to continue pursuing that goal. As I mentioned, I'd really like to establish myself more firmly as a comic actor. I want to find (or create) that balls-out comic role that has thus far eluded me.
Excellent interview. I loved him on The West Wing. But then I love The West Wing full stop.ReplyDelete
I love this interview - I've been a huge Joshua Malina fan since Sports Night!ReplyDelete
Awesome interview - thanks so much to you for the great questions and to Joshua for the insight. He's such a funny and humble person, it makes me proud to be a fan of his. Looking forward to Backwash!ReplyDelete
Fantastic interview! Josh Malina is brilliant. I loved him on both Sports Night and the West Wing. Hell, I've even loved him in his guest roles on Psych and In Plain Sight!ReplyDelete
Great piece. It's refreshing to read an interview that candid and self-deprecating. Great questions!ReplyDelete
I LOVED this interview! I completely agree, Joshua Malina is completely under-utilised as an actor. He's simply a joy to watch.ReplyDelete
terrific interview! Josh Malina is a great actor and a mensch. and the only reason I even log on to twitter is to see what he's saying. it's spit out your coffee funny.ReplyDelete
Loved West Wing & Sports Night and loved him as Will & Jeremy! I'm with Claire in saying that "a husband and daddy, which is what I am first and foremost"... that made me smile too, however since following him on Twitter I'm no longer a fan of Joshua Malina and that makes me sad.ReplyDelete
If you like Josh, check this out:ReplyDelete
Awesome write up!ReplyDelete