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Actors fight angst of ensemble ennui

Writers struggle with balancing thesp's needs, complex storylines

Dominic Monaghan was coming off the megahit franchise “Lord of the Rings” when he was cast in Touchstone’s island castaways pilot “Lost” a couple of years back.

In the skein’s Emmy-winning first season, Monaghan’s character, Charlie, played a prominent role and had a significant storyline. In several episodes of the just-completed season, however, Monaghan seemed to have been lost indeed.

This isn’t a slap in the face to Monaghan’s abilities — or any other actor on “Lost” who seems here one week and gone the next three — just an end result of the dilemma drama writers face when dealing with large ensemble casts. Balancing both the needs of the actor — and keeping their respective characters onscreen — while servicing a complex web of storylines in just 42 minutes is a constant struggle.

“It’s a specific challenge as an actor,” says “Lost” actress Yunjin Kim, who plays Sun. “It’s about sharing screen time. Once you work on your episode, you can bet in the next episode you’re probably going to be covered very little or not at all. So it’s like running as fast as you can for seven or eight production days while knowing you’ll reach the end line and then you’ll get a week to refill yourself for the next run.”

Says “Lost” exec producer and co-creator Damon Lindelof, actors shouldn’t take it personally when they’re left on the sidelines for a while.

“From our side, we think that absence makes the heart grow fonder … and we won’t stick a character in a show unless there’s something for them to do. This is never a product of anything other than the fact that they simply don’t play a role in the story we’re telling in that particular episode,” Lindelof explains.

Series such as “Lost,” the recently departed “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” and deceased morgue drama “Six Feet Under” prove that despite characters coming and going, shows can thrive without audiences feeling cheated.

Toward the end of its seven-year run, “West Wing” focused its attention on the presidential election between Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda. Actors who helped establish the drama in its nascent days — Dule Hill, Richard Schiff, Stockard Channing — suddenly were gone or had extremely limited roles as the action left Washington, D.C.

Shifting gears is part of the natural course of a show, says “West Wing” showrunner and exec producer John Wells. Different storylines will come to the forefront at different times and actors must be willing to accept wildly varying amounts of screen time.

And, adds Wells, most thesps acknowledge quality over quantity when it comes to time spent in front of the camera.

“You have to look at it as a repertory company and understand that the majority of weeks there will be a lot to do and other weeks not. When people have something to do, we know it will excite and challenge them,” says Wells. “But when you don’t have as much to do, you like that too because (otherwise) the hours get really long.”

The grind of a 22-episode hourlong drama series can quickly weary the entire cast and crew, so actors are often grateful to get a chance to bow out for a while and either relax with their family or work on another project — often an indie film to help round out their resume.

Wells says there’s no reason for actors to worry (though they are, by nature, an insecure lot) about being left out of the loop if they’ve been left off the call sheet. With deep casts on series such as “Wing” or “Lost” — each with as many as a dozen full-time players — the 42 minutes allocated each week often isn’t enough time to fit everyone in.

“I try to keep actors aware of what’s happening,” says Wells. “If you’re sitting at home for weeks at a time, your assumption is that ‘I’m not doing my job well.’ We don’t want them to worry.

“We would get regular calls once a week from someone’s agent asking if this person’s schedule could work out (if they did an outside project). Everyone enjoys doing something different. It keeps everyone’s work better.”

Alan Ball, who guided “Six Feet Under” for five seasons, says it’s important to rotate as many characters into each episode, even if it’s just for a minute or two.

“I would want them to be in a scene to illuminate their story,” Ball says. “At the beginning of every season, we map out 13 columns with each character and what they’re doing in each episode. We made sure every character is in each episode.”

That being said, Ball purposely didn’t write scenes for Mathew St. Patrick’s character, Keith, during one season because Keith and David (Michael C. Hall) had separated, and there needed to be a sense of absence, of loss.

“We wanted people to know they had split up,” Ball says.

All writers agree that it’s never in anyone’s best interest — the cast, network execs, audiences — to leave a character’s arc hanging in limbo without a plot-driven explanation. The results can cause months-long agitation that may translate into lower ratings.

“We focus on what interests us and try never to drop a storyline and leave a dangling thread,” reiterates Lindelof. “It almost always leads to confusion and disaster.”

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