Is Acting Really Just Being the Drunk Uncle Who Shows Up On the Couch with the Bag of Fritos? Andrew McCarthy on Directing TV
Two things distinguish director Andrew McCarthy’s television work: exceptionally loose, naturalistic performances, and a rigorously elegant sense of framing and blocking. An actor’s director in the best sense, in that he treats behavior as one component of a fully integrated, visually expressive whole, McCarthy’s episodes of any given series are almost always that program’s most emotionally and cinematically layered. Even on a show like The Blacklist that already has a strongly established visual style, McCarthy is able to integrate his own preoccupations with the preexisting framework to both serve the franchise and deepen it. (He also elicits delightful effects from star James Spader, with whom McCarthy worked as an actor in Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, and Mannequin.) A diverse craftsman as comfortable with teen comedy and melodrama (Gossip Girl, The Carrie Diaries) as he is with tragicomic middle-aged malaise (Happyish), period intrigue (Turn), and political satire (Alpha House), McCarthy feels like an old Hollywood studio system pro transplanted to the 21st century.
Some of McCarthy’s best work as both director and actor is currently on display on ABC’s The Family, for my money one of the two best series to premiere this spring (the other being FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson). Created by Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal writer Jenna Bans, it’s a spectacularly absorbing drama about a suburban family thrown into turmoil by the return of a boy who claims to be the presumed dead son who went missing ten years earlier. The series consists of an elaborate network of mysteries that go far beyond the question of the boy’s true identity (which, in any case, has already been revealed on the fifth episode of the season); all of the characters have their own secrets, and Bans gets considerable mileage out of the complex moral and philosophical implications of her characters’ behavior. This is one of those rare TV mysteries that keeps the audience guessing but plays fair; it promises a lot in its initial episodes, and then not only delivers upon but exceeds that sense of promise with a convoluted yet clear narrative refreshingly absent of red herrings. Every narrative and thematic idea that’s raised is thoroughly, thrillingly explored by Bans, her writing staff, and a cast led by Joan Allen, Rupert Graves, and Alison Pill.
In a pitch-perfect ensemble, McCarthy is the high point as Hank Asher, an anguished pedophile who spent ten years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s an uncommonly multifaceted character played to perfection by McCarthy, who provokes a wide array of responses in the viewer — he inspires complete empathy without soft-pedaling Hank’s profound (and profoundly disturbing) darkness. For the first time since the beginning of his directing career, McCarthy is doing double-duty on The Family, having directed three episodes to date while also giving the performance of his career. I spoke with McCarthy by phone as he prepared an episode of Halt and Catch Fire to get some insights into his process, and find out what goes into directing one of the best shows on television.
Filmmaker: You don’t usually direct shows in which you’re also acting, but The Family is an exception. Did they approach you as an actor first, or as a director, or was it a package deal?
McCarthy: I first heard about it when my manager gave me the script and said, “Joan Allen’s doing this,” which sounded promising. They were originally thinking of me to play the husband role, and I said, “Well, I’ve played that part before. What about this pariah over here?” Things evolved from there, and I had spoken with Jenna a year earlier about possibly directing a pilot of hers that didn’t go forward. So we had already had those kinds of conversations, and when I agreed to do The Family as an actor she said she’d like me to direct a couple and I said, “Perfect!” It was interesting, because we shot the pilot, and then started the rest of the series months later; I directed episode three, so I was prepping as soon as we started the series. When I would show up to act in other director’s episodes, I was more consciously aware of what they were doing than I might otherwise be as an actor – I was going to school at the same time as I was acting.
Filmmaker: I would think it would be challenging to lose self-consciousness in the way that you need to as an actor when you’re directing yourself, since to direct you have to be hyper-aware of everything.
McCarthy: I’d only done it once before, and it was the first time I ever directed episodic. I was on a show called Lipstick Jungle, and directing that was a lot more overwhelming – mainly because it was all new to me. It wasn’t as hard as you would think on The Family, because the guy was so specific and not really me, whereas so often characters are just an extension of yourself. Here it was like putting on a hat, because everything about Hank was so different from me both internally and physically, down to his walk. But it did take a little adjustment, because he’s very insular and doesn’t speak a lot, and directing is anything but that – you have to really take the floor and communicate well to a large group of people so that they all know what they’re supposed to be doing. So it took a few minutes sometimes to make that shift; when I was directing myself I probably slowed down a bit. But there was also great liberty because the first thing I had to check at the door with this character was my vanity, so I wasn’t ever looking at the monitor thinking, “Oh God, that’s not a good angle for me.” Making sure I was attractive was removed from the equation, because nothing about this guy was attractive! [laughs]
Filmmaker: It’s a great performance, and I’m curious if you think the years you’ve spent directing have influenced or altered your acting in any way.
McCarthy: For the last five years I’ve barely been acting at all – I’ve only been directing – and I didn’t really know how it would feel to return to it. It was actually a big relief, because now that I direct there’s no burden on my acting – if I was only acting, I might not have even done this role. I’d have thought, “The guy’s a pedophile, you don’t want to be perceived in this way,” but now I don’t care. It’s an interesting role, I haven’t done it before, so my attitude is let’s go for it – there’s a great freedom in that way. I’m also certainly a more compliant actor for other directors now that I’ve been on the other side of it – I don’t fight anything, partly because I’m so relieved when I don’t have all that responsibility. The director has to throw the whole dinner party, and acting is just being the drunk uncle who shows up on the couch with a bag of Fritos. I understand the burdens of directing now, and I’ve learned that directors are absolutely unconcerned with a lot of the silly questions that I thought were really important when I was just acting. It’s funny, because as a director who comes from being an actor, people invariably think I’m going to really get into it with the actors, but frankly I’d rather they just show up and nail it. If they want to talk about it I’m happy to – I understand and have experienced all the anxieties, and I can help work through them – but I’m much more into the visual aspect of telling the story than dealing with the actors. People are surprised that that isn’t a priority for me at all.
Filmmaker: You say that, but I’ve found that often the performances on episodes you direct have a slightly looser, more natural quality than episodes by other directors on the same series. So you must be doing something with the actors to facilitate that.
McCarthy: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to let anything slide that isn’t truthful or authentic – that’s a given, of course we have to get that right. I try to be as encouraging as possible, because the worst thing you can hear as an actor is “Cut, one more.” All that means is, “Cut you failed.” That may not literally be what the director is saying, but if you’re wide open and vulnerable as an actor that’s what you hear, and it makes you tense up. All I ever tell actors is to go back to Acting 101: Why are you in the room? What do you want? What are you trying to get? When I say cut, I tell the actors, “That’s great, but what about…?” It seems like such an obvious thing, yet most directors don’t do it. I guess I’ve been on the receiving end of it so often that I know how I behave, and I know that I’m more relaxed if it’s not just, “Cut, go again.” I want people to be engaged, and some of that comes from using props and the world around them – if you’re in the kitchen, boil some water, or scrub the pot…do something!
Filmmaker: I think you just articulated what I’m getting at when I sense a more naturalistic tone in your work…people are always doing something, they’re not just standing around waiting for each other to speak.
McCarthy: Well, people rarely just stand there at the counter when they’re in the kitchen. And what you’re talking about, it all starts with blocking – if you block well, everything falls into place. I always try to block truthfully; in other words, I’m not going to ask the actor to move somewhere that doesn’t make sense just because it’s a good shot. Every night before I shoot I walk around my living room with the script acting out all the parts; my wife walks in and says, “What are you doing?” and I tell her, “I’m blocking, leave me alone!” [laughs] I play Joan Allen’s part, I play Alison Pill’s part, so that when the actors walk in the next day I can tell them what I’m thinking and why. Whether or not they want to do it exactly the way I’ve planned, we’re starting from an organic place where they can see that I’ve thought through how and why they would be placed in a certain way, and from there we can start working on behavior. It keeps the actors from falling back on melodramatic mood acting, which is just terrible.
Filmmaker: Well, you see that kind of mood acting on a lot of series that have been on the air for a while, where the leads start to rely on certain default gestures and line readings that have become rote. Do you ever come across that, and how do you push those actors out of their comfort zones?
McCarthy: They have to want it, first of all. And if they don’t that’s fine, but usually people want to be engaged – yes, sometimes they’ll just grind it out when they’ve been on a series for a long time, but when it comes down to it they really would rather do creative, rewarding work. If people start behaving badly and just want to get out of there, fine, but if you can tap back into why they’re there in the first place, they’re going to like that and be excited by that. And that goes for everyone from the prop guy to number one on the call sheet. If a prop guy walks up to me and asks, “Do you want the blue coffee cup or the red one,” instead of just telling him the blue one, I say, “You’ve been on the show longer, what do you think?” Then the next time he comes back at me he might have an interesting suggestion of his own that comes from him feeling like he’s in the game and empowered — he’s not just punching a clock, I’ve called on him to being some of his creativity to the show. If you can do that with everybody, suddenly everybody wants to be there, everyone’s engaged, you go home earlier, and I get to take credit for everyone’s great ideas.
With actors, if they just come in and do their usual shtick, I’ll usually say, “Okay, that’s great, but what if…?” and they see that you’re invested. You let them know that you’re noticing details about their performance — just that alone, the fact that they realize you’re actually watching, usually leads them to step it up a little. With someone like James Spader — I worked with him last week on The Blacklist, and he’s a really fantastic actor who doesn’t need much from the director — I can just say “hey, I noticed you’re doing this,” and he’ll say “oh, okay,” and that’s all the conversation we need to have. I’m a believer in the idea that sometimes just bringing up the question provides its own answer, though some actors require heavier lifting. I very rarely encounter actors who don’t want to do better, even if they may act that way at first. I was on that show Gossip Girl, and by the end the kids were just like, “Whatever, where do you want me,” but I would find that as soon as I engaged them it became contagious and they lost that attitude – I mean, people want to come off well.
Filmmaker: As a big fan of Less than Zero and Pretty in Pink, I was so excited to see you working with Spader again, even if one of you was behind the camera and one was in front of it. How did that reunion come about?
McCarthy: I worked with a DP on another show who was close with the showrunner on The Blacklist, and he said, “I just worked with this director who’s great,” and the showrunner said, “Terrific, I need some new directors, who is he?” I met with producing director Michael Watkins and got the job, and then I walked on the set not having seen James in years, though we were quite close when we were kids. We picked up right where we left off; we were laughing about something and somebody on the set said, “So, you guys worked together in your twenties and now you’re doing again, what’s it like?” James said, “We’re exactly the same, only more so,” and that’s how I feel about it. There’s just no substitute for knowing somebody that well and that long — it makes working together a real pleasure, especially since James is so talented and so hard working. He works as hard as anybody in the business.
Filmmaker: Thinking about The Blacklist leads me to a larger question, which is how you straddle the line between your own sensibility and that of any given series. On the one hand, you’re being hired to direct shows with their own preexisting styles, but on the other they’ve presumably hired you because they want you to bring your point of view to the material. How do you reconcile those two things?
McCarthy: That’s the hardest part of the job. They want you to make it fresh and make it different and make it interesting — but don’t fuck with our show! [laughs] Again, I always start with blocking and trying to make it organic, which then dictates where you put the camera — and that doesn’t mean the easiest place to put it, but the best place to put it. How much leeway you have to make it your own depends on the people. For instance, Jenji Kohan [creator of Orange is the New Black] just says, “Capture my dialogue and go make your movie” — she just wants to hear her actresses saying her lines. On a show like The Blacklist you can get as cinematic as you want to, while other shows do not lend themselves to that. The biggest challenge of episodic directing is getting the lay of the land politically — who has the power, who’s really running the show, who’s insecure, who’s compensating, who’s the devil in the room…the actual work of being on the floor is something I’ve done for thirty-odd years, so it’s relatively easy. It’s the politics and the dynamics that are difficult. On The Blacklist they just say, “Go, bring it in,” but on another show you might have the writer tapping you on the shoulder telling you you need a close-up. And that can be a challenge, particularly if they’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience on a set and they want to assert themselves. Now, some of the most successful TV directors are just get-along guys who’ll say, “Sure, great idea, let’s do that close-up!” I’m not always so easygoing about it; I’ll explain to the writer why I want to shoot it in a certain way, and try to make them see why I think that would work better. I’ll usually offer to shoot the close-up as well so they have it. And then they always cut to the close-up. [laughs] Left to my own devices I prefer a certain formality with the camera — my own style doesn’t lean toward hand-held verite. Having said that, Orange is the New Black is largely hand-held and I love it.
Filmmaker: How much influence do you have over casting when you’re directing episodic? Do you get to choose the actors who are guest starring or being introduced in your episodes? The reason I ask is that one of the things I loved about your “Of Puppies and Monsters” episode of The Family was the casting of Matthew Lawlor as the FBI agent and Zoe Perry as Jane…they were both fantastic and really kicked that show up to another level.
McCarthy: It all depends. On Jenji’s show she likes to cast everybody, even day players — she has a great eye for casting and wants to pick her people. On other shows, maybe they’ll have you pick your top two and send them to the producer and showrunner; if I feel particularly strongly, maybe I’ll only send them one and not give them another choice unless they ask for it. In the case of Matthew Lawlor there were a couple other people being considered who were more on the nose — square-jawed blonde guys with stubble — and I saw Matthew and said, “What about this guy? He’s quirky and human.” God forbid we get some actual human beings on TV! What I loved about him was that he showed up for the audition and his hair was a mess. [laughs] He was a little befuddled, dropping his pages, and I thought, “I really like this guy.” And they said great, though with a bigger part like that it has to go to the network to get approved and all that kind of stuff.
Filmmaker: Does the fact that you’re an actor who’s in every episode of the series allow you to have a little more influence over the series as a whole than you would as a director on another show, where you might be more of a gun for hire?
McCarthy: Well, I directed three of the first five episodes, not counting the pilot, so right from the beginning I was pretty heavily involved because I was in prep from day one. I was always in the production office, whereas I don’t think any of the other actors ever went to the production office. I was always shooting or in prep for the first ten weeks of work, so during that time I was very involved in every aspect of it — then when that was done I was like, “Thank God! Just call me on Tuesday when my scene is up.”