Telepic perks

Short hours, strong scripts draw thesps

So what if the pay’s less? Working in telepics obviously appeals to some bigscreen stars who are used to earning bigger paychecks.

In the past year, to name a few, William H. Macy appeared in TNT’s “Door to Door,” Matthew Broderick in ABC’s “The Music Man,” Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter in HBO’s “Live From Baghdad,” James Spader in FX’s “The Pentagon Papers” and Oscar-winner Chris Cooper in HBO’s “My House in Umbria.”

Exactly why actors make the transition to TV varies. Some actors prefer the shorter shooting schedule and wider audience that telepics typically offer.

Others, like Spader, think the small screen is more daring these days than its big cousin.

Tackling heady material

“I think that the subject matter dealt with on television vs. what’s dealt with in feature films has changed dramatically recently,” Spader says. “The subject matter that used to show itself in feature films, it’s still there but you don’t see it as often now. Television is the forum for that more and more, especially with cable, where you have a little more freedom in terms of content. Not just nudity and language but a little more provocative subject matter.”

With its roiling emotions over the meaning of duty and patriotism, FX’s historically weighty “Pentagon Papers” struck the star of “sex, lies and videotape” and “Secretary” as resonantly contemporary and relevant.

“Things also move very quickly in television,” he adds. “They basically said we’re starting this yesterday and want to know if you’d like to jump in headfirst. There’s something appealing about that.”

Macy was drawn to the moving story of Bill Porter, the real-life inspiration for “Door to Door,” and the actor is squarely in the shorter-time, bigger-audience camp. “You do a big feature, you’re working for three months,” Macy explains, “but a movie of the week, you’re in and out in four weeks, thank you very much.”

Telepic shooting can cover as much as four script pages a day, he says. “I’ve done big, fat features where we shoot maybe only a quarter-page in a whole day. That can be nerve-racking for actors.”

Independent features — several of which appear on Macy’s resume — may not eat up a lot of time, but they don’t give an actor as much exposure. “Dollars to donuts maybe half-a-million people will see an independent feature,” he says. “You do a movie of the week, as many as 20 million people will see it. I get recognized for ‘Door to Door’ as much as for anything else I’ve ever done.”

Macy was also co-author of “Door to Door” along with the telepic’s director, Steven Schachter, his writing partner of the last 15 years. Writing has long been a sideline for the actor, who originally penned features with Schachter in the 1980s (none were made).

“I definitely love television movies of the week. They’re really quite wonderful to do,” Macy says.

For Cooper, HBO offered the right combination of just about everything he likes in a project. Maggie Smith, “one of our best actresses,” as he describes her, would be involved; William Trevor, “whose stories are wonderful,” had written the original short story the telepic was based on; and Richard Loncraine, “who’d just finished (HBO’s) ‘The Gathering Storm,’ which I liked,” was to direct.

And then there was the role he was to play. “It may not appear to be as difficult a role as I’ve played in other things,” Cooper says, “but there was a part to this character that was so reticent and insular, there was challenge in playing that. He could easily be played as a two-dimensional university type, too reserved or withdrawn. The challenge of the role appealed to me.

“Whether it’s TV or film isn’t so important as the character and the script. And I do try to find out who I’ll be working with and what they’ve done previously. That combination all came together in ‘My House in Umbria.’ Plus shooting in Italy didn’t hurt.”

Call it a teleperk.