Utility players pitch in

Though there's little stability, thesps find recurring roles rewarding

It’s no surprise that the holy grail of TV actors is a starring role on a singular successful series. Landing a role as a regular means a steady paycheck, visibility and, most important, the validation of being a “working actor.”

Yet throughout the television universe, well-respected, seasoned actors are popping up in recurring roles on everything from “Desperate Housewives” to “The Office.” This season Mary McCormack has had significant roles on both “ER” and “The West Wing,” while Mary Kay Place has been everywhere from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Numbers” to “Big Love.”

So what’s compelling these high-profile performers to bounce from job to job? Certainly not the stability. And certainly not the paycheck. While some command $12,000 for a one-time appearance, that’s nothing compared with the income of a show’s regulars.

“No. 1 … it’s a tribute to the quality of the writing. The writing is richer,” says casting director Meg Lieberman, who works with “Las Vegas” and “Medium.” “And No. 2, the state of the movie business, which pays a fortune for the name actor and scale for everyone else. So that really wonderful actor who’s in the middle can wait around for a movie role or do something more meaningful in TV.”

Take stage veteran Gregory Itzin, who keeps himself busy between films and theater gigs by landing roles on “Boston Legal,” “Judging Amy” and “24.” For Itzin, recurring roles aren’t just about working, they’re about finding unique characters that challenge and sharpen his creative chops.

“I like when there’s something scary about a role,” Itzin says. “Complexity of character, thought process, motivation. It’s good to be scared … to make something up that exposes something you wouldn’t necessarily want to expose of yourself.”

Seth Green, of “Family Guy” and NBC’s short-lived “Four Kings,” chooses roles in order to work with friends and artists he admires.

“There’s a familiarity and a trust there,” says Green, who accepted an upcoming role on “Entourage” so he could act with childhood pal Kevin Connolly, “like a jazz musician playing with another musician they know. You get into a rhythm and find things that wouldn’t necessarily happen with someone you’ve never worked with before.”

Unfortunately, playing with buddies rarely erases the transient nature of a short-term recurring role — the income’s erratic, and there’s little time to explore characters or gel with co-stars. And the biggest downside of all: the fruitless hope you might, if you’re lucky, be brought back other episodes.

Monica Keena, like so many other performers, knows the danger of indulging in hope your character may survive.

“It’s frustrating when you fall in love with a recurring character and they disappear into nowhere,” says Keena, an actress who spent the past year bouncing from “Entourage” to “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Without a Trace.” “What I like about being a regular is the security. You have a set schedule and money coming in. You can relax and have fun with the character, vs. doing a great job but then not working again for three months.”

This, of course, is the actor’s ultimate tightrope walk: creating a full-bodied character with a 42-minute lifespan. As an artist, you expect to trade in your deepest feelings and vulnerabilities for creative satisfaction; as a businessperson, you expect nothing … you divorce yourself from expectation.

“When you do a play, you do it for six weeks, eight weeks, and say goodbye,” Itzin says. “The same goes for these roles. We do a job, we move on. If you’re lucky enough to come back, it’s a mitzvah … a gift.”

Perhaps, then, the very limitations of short-term roles are part of their allure. The characters may not last, but is there something seductive in going to deeper, more extreme places for short amounts of time?

After all, if you’re going to explore the darker recesses of your soul, why stay there forever?

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