Writers, actors build character together

Best roles combine scribe's vision, thesp's intuition

For actors in television drama, feeling comfortable with a character can be tricky. How much of the role is what the writer does, and how much is what an actor brings?

“It’s a coming together,” says John Slattery, who plays rakish advertising exec Roger Sterling on AMC’s Emmy-winning “Mad Men.” “In the beginning, you don’t know what it is. They see what you do, that you can handle language, or tell a joke, or handle heavy emotional scenes, and then they aren’t afraid to write to that strength.” Slattery says Roger’s wry delivery ended up altering the creator’s original vision.

“Matt (Weiner) said one time that he didn’t think Roger was as funny as he turned out to be,” he says.

In the sitcom world, however, rehearsed character work may be changed instantaneously on taping day when an audience’s reaction is figured in. Jim Parsons, who plays socially awkward theoretical physicist Sheldon on CBS’ four-camera laffer “The Big Bang Theory,” recalls one such instance from the first episode of the second season.

“(Kaley Cuoco’s character) Penny was asking Sheldon for advice, but he was coming off way too harsh,” says Parsons, who remembered hearing gasps from the crowd instead of laughter. “It’s a fine line Sheldon walks, bluntly stating the obvious in that scientific mindset. We had to finesse it right there in front of the audience. At one point Chuck (Lorre, the show’s exec producer) came up to me and said, ‘Sorry it’s taking so long, but we’re trying to save your character.'”

Parsons won’t allow himself to feel too proprietary about Sheldon. He feels the “Big Bang” writers have a firm grasp of who the character is and that he’s simply embodying their vision.

“I enjoy taking them at their word,” says Parsons. “Even when they try something that seems a little bit out of character, I leap at the chance to make it happen. This is our character.”

On AMC’s edgy series “Breaking Bad,” star Bryan Cranston says he and creator Vince Gilligan were in sync early on about the emotional starting point of chemistry teacher Walter White’s journey from milquetoast to meth dealer.

“I thought he should be soft and pudgy and white, like the name,” says Cranston. “I wanted a mustache that made me feel impotent when I looked in the mirror, and I sure got it. It then created a bigger contrast to where he was going to go.”

Kyle Chandler adds that physical surroundings play a part, too. Just arriving to the Austin set of “Friday Night Lights” makes him feel like a Texas high school football coach.

“It’s like Superman with the cape,” says Chandler. “All of a sudden, the accent pops up strong.”

Slattery agrees that costumes can really help define a character. Before shooting started on season three of “Mad Men,” the fittings were a sort of instant recall. “It was funny to get back in those clothes and really feel like home and not feel like ‘Who is this guy?,’ ” he says.

But TV is tricky, he cautions.

“I did a show where a female character had been making booty calls at night to an unknown party,” says Slattery. “Eight episodes in, the writers said to this woman, ‘You’re making those calls to a woman.’ She was like, ‘Huh! All of a sudden I’m gay.’ That can happen, too. It’s not up to us.”