Guest stars face trial by fire

First impressions key for specialized actors

Guest-starring on a series can be a trial by fire, says Michael Cudlitz, who should know. In the past year, he’s appeared in episodes of “CSI,” “Lost,” “Saving Grace,” “Eleventh Hour,” “Knight Rider” and “Life,” aside from his starring role in NBC’s new cop drama “Southland.”

“Guest spots are the first day of school, every day,” he says. “You get emotionally intense stuff on shows, and that’s your job. You don’t get to have a bad day at work, or you’ll suck on the show. Regulars can have a bad day; they’ll just cut around it. You don’t have that luxury at all as a guest star. So you have to be prepared and knock it out of the park or suffer the consequences. You’ll look like a jerk.”

Nearly every actor knows the pressure of auditioning for a guest spot on a TV show, but some make getting work look easy. Patrick Fischler has enjoyed a career year, with extended story arcs on “Mad Men” (where he memorably played self-loathing comic Jimmy Barrett) and “Lost.” He also turned up on “Burn Notice,” “Cold Case,” “Pushing Daisies” and “The Middleman.”

Zejlko Ivanek parlayed his Emmy for FX’s “Damages” into a raft of work this season, including recurring roles on “Heroes” and “Big Love” and one-shots on “House,” “True Blood” and “The Mentalist.” Anne Dudek scored recurring roles on three of TV’s best-reviewed series: “Mad Men,” “House” and “Big Love.”

“It’s been an insane year,” marvels Fischler, who found himself rushing from his “Burn Notice” job in Miami to his “Mad Men” audition, then balancing his time between “Lost” and “Southland” and, finally, squeezing in his character’s death in “Lost’s” season finale so he could be home with his wife as she gave birth to their first child.

“To be honest, with my baby coming and the whole stress of being in Hawaii, I’m one of the few people on ‘Lost’ who was OK with dying,” Fischler deadpans. “I said, ‘You can kill me. I’m totally cool with it.'”

On the other hand, Fischler confesses to not always being so family-minded. He postponed a vacation so he could shoot the “Mad Men” episode in which Jimmy virulently confronted Don Draper (Jon Hamm).

“They told me, ‘You’re going to want to cancel that trip,’ and then they sent me the script, and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, I am canceling that trip.’ I get to tell off Don, and in the history of that show no one else has done that,” Fischler recalls.

What accounts for actors’ winning streaks? Katie Jacobs, exec producer on “House,” deflects the notion that showrunners go with a hot actor.

“Generally, we don’t like to cast actors who are appearing on a lot of other shows,” she says. “It’s hard for the audience to get lost in the story if their face is too familiar. They’ll be thinking, ‘Where do I know that guy from?’ If they’re not usually on TV, it gives the audience a better chance to just go on that ride and get lost in that character. The best actors are chameleonlike.”

She explains her exception that proves her rule: “Anne Dudek is great, that’s why she’s on so many shows.”

Cudlitz and Fischler add that connections help. Cudlitz had insinuated himself with the folks at Jerry Bruckheimer Prods.; Fischler had worked with Carlton Cuse on “Nash Bridges” before winning his “Lost” assignment.

Jacobs says one of the best parts of her job is being able to offer roles to actors she has previously met, without asking them to audition.

And all credit each show’s casting directors for their keen eyes as to what works on their specific shows.

“My hat’s off to the casting of ‘Mad Men,'” Jacobs says. “They did such a good job finding specific faces and very detailed actors who are right for that world.”

And yet, more than any actor on “Mad Men,” Jacobs asserts that in the future, she wants to cast the show’s creator.

“I’d love to have Matthew Weiner on my show,” she says, semi-cheekily, semi-seriously. “He’d be a great clinic patient.”