Friday 18 February 2011

WILLIAM DUFFY - Actor Interview

After a long spell in this industry, actors tend to go one of two ways-- bitter and grumpy, or wise and inspiring. WILLAM DUFFY is one of those who took the latter path. This interview was originally going to be very short, but William's knowledge and wisdom on the industry and the craft of acting are as fascinating as anyone I've ever spoken to, and I know a lot of actors.  So we ended up talking at length about his career.

He's best known for his work as Larry on THE WEST WING; and has also worked on many other TV shows, which we talk about in this interview. 

You have been acting for over twenty years -- What do you know now that you didn't know when you started?

Wow. How much space to do you have ? Hmmm, … there are a ton of things you learn as an actor over such a long period of time – both about yourself and about the business. One of the most important for me is: Don’t let being an actor drive you crazy. Especially with auditions. The nutty thing you learn, is that our success in this business (whatever that’s defined as), is almost completely dependent upon what other people think of your work – not necessarily on how talented you are. It’s why everyone has a different favorite movie, or actor, or director, or genre, etc. There’s no “formula” to success, or even booking a job. 2 + 2 doesn’t always equal 4 in show business, so you must learn quickly not to look for any logic. When I walk out of an audition – for example, I just had one today for a series regular on a pilot – if I know in my mind that I did at least an 8 out of 10 – which I think I did today - I’m happy, and I realize it’s now completely out of my hands. I did my part. If I feel I did 7 out of 10 or worse, I know I have no one to look to but myself, and I need to be better the next audition. Regardless, good or bad, I mentally walk away from it after it’s over. I NEVER dwell on the “W’s”: “Why didn’t they cast me?”, “What did I do wrong?”, “What were they looking for?”, “What did they think of me”, and of course, “Was I any good?” and “Will I ever work again?”.

I learned early on in my career to avoid these paralyzing questions because I know, for a fact, that they’re really unanswerable. How? Because early in my career in New York City, I think I did a smart thing: I was a reader for many casting directors. By sitting in that room with the “powers that be” I learned first hand: 1) What many actors do wrong in an audition room, and 2) that many times, believe or not, the best actor does not get the job. This latter one is a hard one to swallow, but very true. There are so many factors – subjective and objective – one’s so stupid you could not possibly imagine - that go into a casting decision, that you just can’t worry about it after you leave an audition. Learn to just go in, do your best, and let the rest take its illogical course !

What was the worst audition you ever had?

Hah, there’s too many to count ! It happens. We’re human. We mess up. Let’s see, early in my career, I remember auditioning for a 3-line role … and I said 2 of them wrong ! I’ve had auditions where they changed the sides to be read … and I didn’t know it. Uhhh … I once auditioned for a musical … but didn’t know that it was a musical (and I don’t sing) ! That was bad. I’ve lost my place in auditions. You try to be off the page with the lines as much as possible, but sometimes you just go blank. It happens. Oh God, one audition - I can’t say it was my worst audition – but it was memorable – was with a casting director (who shall remain nameless) who, after I finished what I felt was a really good audition for them, said to me, “Well, you seem smart enough to know when it’ll be time to quit acting.” … I’m serious. They actually said that. I was floored. I actually cracked up right in front of them and walked out. Needless to say, I did not book that job. … But about three weeks later, I did get the call that I was going to be recurring on “The West Wing”. (see part about “logic” in question #1 above !!)

I loved your character in 'The West Wing' -- but I am curious about what the experience is like to be a regular on a show, but to be one of the guy's behind the other guys. Is it frustrating not having bigger storylines?

Hey, we’re actors – we love the sound of our own voice ! Of course, the more lines the merrier ! No, seriously, I would have loved having more to say on TWW, but with 9 extremely talented series regulars having to be serviced, it was amazing to just be a part of it in any capacity. Many people wrote in, or wrote me asking to have more “revealed” about my character, Larry. Many even wrote in online forums about what they felt my “storylines” were. But as Aaron (Sorkin) once said, he saw Larry as representing many different people in the White House, not just one. The unique advantage to this, especially for a recurring character, like Larry, was that because TWW was such an ensemble oriented show, it allowed me to be written into many of the larger characters’ storylines, rather than just associated with only one of them. As a result, over the seven years, I had many scenes with virtually every series regular on the show. It was amazing to work with all that incredible talent. You learn so much. Would I have liked a few storylines ? Absolutely. But I would never trade in a moment I was on that show. For me, it was one of – if not the – best experience of my acting career so far.

William with Martin Sheen, Mary McCormack, and Josh Malina (with Chris Misiano behind them)

What is it like coming onto an established show, like "Heroes" or "The Event" and being part of one or two episodes? Is it daunting, or just a lot of fun?

For me, it’s always fun. However, I don’t mean “fun” in a relaxed, kicked back, party time way. Make no mistake: it’s work. It’s my job. I can honestly state that I have enjoyed every day I have worked as an actor; regardless of the movie, television show, commercial or theater project. I mean that. I have NEVER woke up and dreaded heading to a set or rehearsal. Now, some projects have been easier than others, and I have to admit that TWW was the most professionally run set I have ever been on – especially given the extreme budgets and pressures we operated under – so I was spoiled for seven years. But it also showed me the importance of being prepared for other shows I might work on - so that it could be a fun experience. While I feel I’ve always had great work ethics, I did learn from my seven seasons on TWW to respect any show I work on. What I mean by that is, I rarely audition for a TV show without having seen at least one episode. Pilots and/or movies are different, but if I can watch something the director has done before, or read the entire script, I will. Too many times, on TWW, guest actors would not have done their homework and watched an episode of the show and/or become familiar with the rhythms of the show. It’s the same when I work on a different, established show. I want to know the feel of that show, so that when I walk onto that set, with actors - probably most of whom I’ve never met before, who already have that feel - I know I can jump right in, and know what role I play in that feel. THAT makes it fun. For me, it’s imperative. For some of my friend’s, they never watch TV, yet audition and/or work a lot. That would be daunting for me. To work on ”Heroes” was vastly different than working on “The Event” and I made sure I watched those shows before I even auditioned. (Thank God for the Internet ! ) I often relate it to sports: I like to know a bit about the stadium and teammates I’m playing with before I start. That way, I can have fun creating and doing my craft and feel at ease to even experiment a little. Again, I saw too many days where new actors had no idea how the specific rhythms of TWW operated – and it dragged the whole day down. I just can’t allow myself to even think that could happen because then the “fun” is gone.

Why do you think these people got hired? The style was so specific, I'm surprised these people slipped through the net. But then, I guess with so many episodes and storylines, you can't guarantee every actor is prepared?

Oh no, it wasn't a matter of slipping through any net. The casting directors did an amazing job of supplying incredible actors for each episode. Because don't forget, in an audition, you're 1) reading with one person - usually a non-actor - even if it's a multi-person scene, 2) you rarely read the entire role, and 3) if you're a big enough name ... you don't audition, you're just offered the role. No, casting had nothing to do with it. We, as actors, are responsible once we book a job to prepare as much as possible for the shooting. However, during the first couple seasons, while audiences (and actors) were getting to know this new "style" of show, it was a very different experience for any guest actor - regardless of their resume - to come play with us. I think most actors prepared, but they prepared like they would for other shows, and not for our show. It's kinda like, you may know how to drive your car really well around town, because you do it a lot, but you now put yourself behind the wheel on a five-lane highway in Los Angeles with everyone doing 70+ mph, and it's a whole new ballgame ! I was just always surprised when a guest actor really had no idea what was expected. And I'll admit, as the show gained it's immense popularity, and the style and expectations of Aaron's writing became more familiar to actors, there were less and less problems.

Also, going back to what you said earlier - how some actors don't watch TV or films at all. That's fascinating to me. I meet actors like that, and I don't get it. That's like working as a chef and not having eaten a meal in five years. For me it's everything. 

Me too. It's like a musician who doesn't listen to music ! But everyone works differently. Again, there's no formula, there's no prerequisites. For me, as an actor, I like knowing who the characters are on the show I'm going to work on ! That way I can have an idea of who's in the scene with me, a little bit about story lines, and how I'm fitting in. Also, it's nice when someone in the casting room asks "Have you seen the show?" you can say "yes" rather than "no, I don't watch TV." To me, that's kinda like, "Wow, you're standing in front of us, looking to be hired, but you don't even believe in what we all do for a living?" I can understand if you don't care for a show. We don't love every show on TV. Heck, I've auditioned for and/or worked on shows I wasn't crazy about. But I have to at least watch the show to know whether I like it or not ! Again, that's my way of working and researching. It gives me more confidence when I walk in the room or on the set. Conversely, I mean, c'mon, let's be real: Martin Sheen never said, "Hey folks, can we break early today, I forgot to DVR, "CSI" !" But, it wasn't unusual between scene set-ups or takes, to have discussions about some shows, actors or episodes that people had watched recently or recommended. Hey,... it's not for everyone. I'm just amazed and baffled by actors who don't watch TV shows AT ALL. I can't do it .... but it's a choice by many actors - of all levels - from new to well-established ones.

But I think those actors have their limits; in that, sure they may have great techniques and ideas and intuition; but if you're thrown into an Aaron Sorkin TV show, or a Woody Allen movie, for example -- I think knowing that world is so important. What do you think?

I agree. Absolutely. Like I said, I know it is for me. Techniques, ideas and intuition are essential to acting - all acting. They're what help us express ourselves. And some actors are terrific at one thing, one character, one "type". They do it well, and when you cast them, you know exactly what you will get. And they can be extremely successful - especially in TV where there is very little time to develop characters very far from ourselves. They'll work all the same types of shows. Many times casting or a director will say, "bring me Actor X - they do this type of role well, and I don't have to worry about them". So yes, there's definitely a need for actors who "have their limits" as you said. But, to paraphrase Stellar Adler: imagination is what separates all of us. So for me, and I can only speak for myself, I can't utilize my unique imagination unless I have a feel for how the project, director and even the network, operates. In TV, I don't audition for a drama like "Castle" the same as I do for a drama like "Southland", or a comedy like "The Office" the same as a comedy like "Two and Half Men". A show on TNT is different than a show on ABC. I don't prepare for a Quentin Tarantino movie audition the same as a Woody Allen movie audition. But I won't know the difference if I don't stay current or at least brief myself beforehand. So for me ... watching TV or movies - that's part of how I prepare and stimulate my imagination. ( Though, I'm not sure Stanislavski included watching "Two and Half Men" in "An Actor Prepares", but I'm sure the gist is in there ! )

And I feel it's even more crucial for a show like TWW. You take writers like Pinter, Mamet, Shepard, Shakespeare and Aaron Sorkin, who are detailed rhythmic language writers - where every word is chosen carefully .... if you don't know that going into an audition or onto a set .... you're screwed. See, I think the producers of TWW were smart. I think they chose our ensemble cast because 1) they knew we knew how to actually be an ensemble cast - because almost everyone of us was highly trained in the theater, and 2) they knew because of that theater training, we knew how to pace the dialogue. Many of us - from series regulars (Brad, Joshua) , to recurring (myself, Clark Gregg, Tim Busfield, Ron Ostrow), to guest actors (Noah Emmerich) - had all worked together with Aaron on previous theater projects, like "A Few Good Men" and knew exactly what was expected. Also - this may give you a little insight into Aaron's writing - he writes musically. Each scene of each episode is part of a concert, and each actor plays like an instrument. But for the music to work, you have to hit every note as written - or in this case - say every word as written. You don't ad lib Mozart ... you don't ad lib Sorkin. And if you don't know this going in, if you haven't memorized every word as written, your part - like any instrument played in an orchestra - stands out and throws everything off by a beat or so. And the piece as a whole falls short. Couldn't be more obvious then when you watch any of the now famous West Wing "Walk & Talks". The way each actor (instrument) flows down a hallway delivering their lines (music) with other actors (instruments) darting in and out of the scene adding their quick contributions. It may sound kooky, but if you've watched it and/or lived it ... it's true. In fact, I interviewed Aaron once - a la James Lipton - live, for a charity event for my theatre company for a couple hours, and we talked about this very thing. I told him I would sit at our table reads of each episode and watch him physically conduct with his hands many of the scenes as they were being read. He agreed. Hmmm ... I think I may have gotten a bit off point, but what I'm trying to say is that "knowing that world" as you put it, can only, in my opinion, better you as an actor; because it allows you to use your imagination with your other tools (technique, ideas, intuition) to be creative at a higher level.

A thing that happens a lot with actors I know, most of whom are very talented; is that they feel stuck. They're not getting roles, their confidence is dropping, and the keys to their careers seem outside of themselves. Have you been in that situation? And what advice do you give for getting out of it?

(Sigh) Yeah, the dreaded “business” side of “show business”. We ALL experience that “stuck” feeling at one time or another. And, many times, more than once. Earlier, I mentioned how we are at the mercy of “the powers that be” in this business and how crazy and frustrated it can make us. Consequently, we, as artists, will experience some of our biggest highs and biggest lows in life from this business. Professionally, personally, financially, emotionally. The trick is to somehow keep it in perspective. And to that, I really have no one answer.

I truly adore this profession, but I feel one key to surviving in this business is to not live in it with blinders on. Because when it comes right down to it: it is a business. And a harsh one. And as such, you must make your own definition of “success” and make it a realistic one. Otherwise, I feel you’ll never enjoy what you do. And realistically, this business tells us “no” a lot more than it tells us “yes”. Make peace with that. My ex-wife (a non-actor) once said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would become an actor just because they loved the acceptance and reward people give them for their work … when it’s a profession that gives you more rejection of your work than in any other profession ! … Kinda true.

I too have many friends who are far more talented than me and struggle or have left the business due to lack of “success”. Again, it goes back to: the best actor does not always get the role. It’s a very sad truth. And these days, it’s extremely difficult to make your sole living as an actor because available roles are decreasing. With more established movie actors doing TV shows, or being offered roles, many established TV actors are doing smaller TV roles, which in turn affects every level of TV actor below that. Combine that decrease in available roles, with pay rates decreasing and less shows being shot, and it’s no wonder many actors – especially those who look to TV as a main financial source are, as you put it, “feeling stuck” and experiencing “their confidence dropping”. Again, my advice is to realistically define “success”, and what “making a living as an actor” means to you. Why are you an actor?

I try to work on the “show” side of “show business” as much as I can. I train, take classes, work on small projects – all to keep my instrument tuned and my mind creatively active. I find as many ways to stay creative as I can as I strive toward my definitions. But I do it both inside AND outside of acting – because I know I’m usually unemployed as an actor more than I’m employed as one. For me, when I’m not acting, I tutor kids having trouble academically. It’s amazing how showing them how to creatively look at their homework keeps my creative acting side alive. I also have a financial background, so I utilize my creativity even in a mathematical lens. I also write and play music, I draw, and, … most importantly, I find as much theater to do as possible. I was trained on the stage in New York City, and I think ANY stage – from community theater to Broadway - is an invaluable venue to work on. I am fortunate to belong to an amazing theatre company here in Los Angeles. We are constantly doing readings, workshops and main stage productions. I find theater a terrific playground to work on roles, feel the excitement of creating with other artists, hone my memorization skills, and get jazzed performing live. I’m currently doing the world premiere of a provocative play by Academy Award Nominated writer, Nicholas Kazan, and I am loving every moment of the process. Making no money doing it, … but loving the feeling of being a creative actor !

I love your passion! And I love the honesty, too. "I’m usually unemployed as an actor more than I’m employed as one" -- that's not something you hear from actors, often. Most actors I know try to appear as if they are always employed! But then, I guess that is the hard part -- when someone says, "what are you working on right now?" How do you answer that when everything is slow? 

See, I think you have to be honest - especially to yourself. It goes back to my thoughts on being realistic about why you are or want to become an actor. If it's to be regularly employed ... choose again. I was an accountant - a CPA in fact. I could easily be regularly employed as a partner in a large firm or corporation by now. Making far more money than I make as an actor. But, I wasn't fulfilled creatively or happy. So I left and did what I found to be a new career that I love. But I know my happiness can't be dependent on being regularly employed because it's very VERY rare to be consistently employed as an actor year after year. The list of such people is tiny. In fact, I think I read that over 90% of SAG and AFTRA's membership is unemployed at any one time. So again, be realistic ! Look at my time on TWW. I recurred for all seven seasons - I worked on about 50 episodes - from the pilot to the final episode. I did roughly 1/3 of all the episodes in that series. Sounds amazing right ? But that means I didn't work on about 2/3 of them ! For the majority of the show's run ... I wasn't employed ! I was looking for other work until they wrote Larry back in.

Please, every actor knows that we are all always looking for a job - even when we have one. And every actor knows that times are slow. Actors trying to impress other actors makes me laugh - it's senseless; we all know what the business is like every day ! We ask each other all the time: "Are you auditioning a lot?", "Is it slow for you?", etc. And the answer is always the same: "I wish I was auditioning more". I just tell them I’m keeping busy in my other creative outlets – which is true. Looking for work is just as much a part of being an actor as the acting itself is. We have to face it, live with it or think about changing professions.

And I think that question is linked to the guy who says "you know when to give up acting," -- I think half of the work in this industry, especially for people starting out or going through a tough time, is convincing the non-industry people in their lives that they're not talentless and wasting their time. It shouldn't matter what your neighbour, or the-old-school-friend-you-see-in-the-mall thinks of your work, but it can often rankle. You can say "Hey, I was Larry in The West Wing," -- but how else can people fend off the naysayers and the negative people? 

Nah, you can't let what people outside of the industry say get to you. I'm not saying don't care about them - couldn't be further from the truth - some are huge parts of our lives. I'm just saying it's very difficult for many non-industry people to understand this profession - especially being an actor. Many people think we are ALL like the actors they see on TV or in the movies ... or that every actor works all the time. It's not their fault - they have no real frame of reference. To most, if you call acting your profession, then you should be employed and working in that profession, right ? They work in their profession - be it plumber, CEO, salesperson, cashier, insurance broker, whatever. They were trained, found a job and now work; you were trained ... where's your job ? Makes sense ... just not in "show-biz world." I really can’t spend the time convincing someone to believe in an illogical profession ! I’d lose ! The important thing I try to do is have a good support system around me – comprised of both industry and non-industry people. It keeps me sane. I’m fortunate: My immediate family is fantastic. They always support me. Do they actually approve of my choice of profession ? … Don’t know. But they support my decision 100%. And that’s more important. Same with my non-industry friends: couldn’t be more proud of me and supportive. They love that I’m doing what I want to do. Can’t ask for anything better.

There’s too much negativity and rejection in this business already, so why would I want more of it in my non-business life and friends. To your question: I don’t try to “fend off the naysayers and negative people”. I just nod and accept them. Hell, they’re right ! What I do IS crazy! But I love it.

Care to share?


  1. Nice to see --- and hear --- that he's got his head screwed on right. Seems unusual in that profession. Great post!

  2. Great to hear honest answers to in an interview. Some really good insight rather than cookie cutter responses. always enjoyed his work.

  3. What a truly interesting, honest and informative interview. Thank you so much for posting this. Absolutely fascinating.

  4. Thanks for steering me here. Definitely needed it.

  5. Very inspiring. I like the old expression, "You don't choose acting, Acting chooses You". For me, (and William Duffy, from the sound of his interview) Acting is not just a "job". It is a lifestyle. Yes it is a business (if you approach it that way, and most actors do) but it's not just about making money. It has to be about the passion, the art. This may be corny but who pays the birds to sing? nobody, it's just what they do, actors, the ones in it for the deeper reasons, act because they love it. If you can quit acting then it probably wasn't your calling in the first place.