Discerning TV viewers are to be forgiven if they feel like Gerald McRaney is stalking them. Like a latter-day version of the Scarlet Pimpernel, he’s been popping up all over — in the prestige cable dramas “Southland” and “Justified,” Netflix’s “House of Cards,” a sitcom stint on “Mike & Molly.” “I’m everywhere,” McRaney quips.
(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)
Yet the actor’s full dance card — flitting from one show to another, in a manner he likens to being part of an old-time repertory company — is emblematic of a larger trend, in which studios increasingly bypass locking up actors in supporting roles and series deals, instead extending an invitation that reads, “Be our guest.”
For both parties, the guest-actor relationship offers tradeoffs and benefits — a rare coalescence of commerce and creativity. Studios and producers save money by not signing performers for ongoing supporting roles, and they possess more freedom, especially within serialized dramas, to keep the audience off-balance by having a character, say, catch a stray bullet.
As for actors, while the money isn’t as good as series regular roles, those thesps who are in demand have the flexibility of not being tethered to a single program. While guest star pay is low for workaday actors, those that have some clout can cobble together a good living by going from show to show.
That’s certainly been the case for McRaney, who — having starred in series like “Major Dad” and “Jericho” — says if offered a series part, “At this point I have no desire to jump back just for the sake of it. From an artistic point of view, this is what acting is all about. This is the kind of acting I’ve always wanted to do. I like mixing things up. I like putting on different characters from time to time.”
Geoffrey Brandt, who with his wife Jill Gordon-Brandt represents McRaney through their Course Management, acknowledges agents and managers would always prefer their clients land deals like Mark Harmon’s — a series regular commanding a huge salary via renewals of his long-running CBS hit “NCIS.” But there’s also something to be said for keeping actors happy by being able to take on meaty roles and do work that satisfies them.
“This is sort of a win-win period for studios and representatives,” Brandt says, adding in regard to performers in guest arcs, “They’re nonexclusive, and that’s the critical aspect of this conversation.”
Certain programs have been especially adept at capitalizing on the situation, among them CBS’ “The Good Wife” — which draws on the acting pool in New York — and FX’s “Justified.”
SAG/AFTRA guidelines set scale for “top of show” guest stars at roughly $7,700 an episode for hourlong programs, and $4,800 for half-hours. Series regulars in supporting roles, by contrast, could easily earn significantly more, and (with some exceptions) must be guaranteed at least seven episodic appearances per season, with options built in for future years.
For producers, the thrill of being able to bring in high-quality, recognizable performers for multi-episode arcs is offset, somewhat, by the logistics associated with working around their schedules. “It’s absolutely more difficult logistically,” says Michelle King, exec producer of “The Good Wife” with her husband, Robert. “If they have other obligations, you can’t get them.”
Robert King says the need to substitute another actor who was initially called for in the script happens every episode on their show, but the writing staff has embraced the idea of having an assortment of characters who pop in and out — whose fictional lives continue, essentially, even when they’re not around.
“We want the show to be similar to real life,” he says. “We like that sense of the character doesn’t leave your set and disappear. It’s a fuller experience with the audience.”
Thus far only one guest actor, Alan Cumming, has been upgraded to regular status. And as “Justified” showrunner Graham Yost notes, it simply wouldn’t be feasible to employ the array of actors featured on his FX program without retaining them on a guest basis.
“You couldn’t afford to do it,” says Yost, who also produces “The Americans” for the cable network. “We’ve been very fortunate because people have gotten a kick out of the show. (And) because people like the show in the television world, it’s not a bad credit to have.”
Although most of the actors have been recruited on a writefirst, cast-second basis, Yost says the producers created characters specifically for Jeremy Davies, who appeared throughout a second season that saw Margo Martindale earn an Emmy for her work; and Patton Oswalt, a “Justified” fan, whose role grew from a single episode to multiple appearances because the chemistry worked.
Martindale is one of several performers who have found themselves in near-constant demand — appearing this season in “The Americans,” “New Girl” and Showtime’s upcoming “Masters of Sex” — along with players like Stephen Root (“Boardwalk Empire,” “True Blood”) and Carrie Preston, who in addition to a supporting role on “True Blood” has been seen in “Good Wife” and “Person of Interest” (opposite her husband, Michael Emerson). Dallas Roberts has even had the distinction of airing opposite himself Sunday nights, in “Good Wife” (where he recurs as the main character’s brother) and in an extended arc on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
Of her memorable stint on “Justified,” Martindale says, “That was one of those things you do for a dime that paid off big.”
Unlike McRaney, though, Martindale admits she doesn’t relish jumping from one show to the next, or occupying different characters from week to week.
“Do I want to have a steady job? Yes,” she says. “I’d love the financial security of that.”
Booking actors on a guest basis has made life more complicated not just for writers, but for casting directors as well. “There are certain shows that can get anybody,” says Dawn Steinberg, head of casting at Sony Pictures Television. “When you have an arc on a really cool, classy show, it helps.”
Different networks place varying restrictions on how performers can be used, and the lack of exclusivity for studios — or guarantees for performers — requires more nimbleness to accommodate the parties.
Although actors might make less money, for someone like McRaney, there’s something gained in not being locked into a role for five or six years that might not be creatively fulfilling.
“All too often, young actors don’t consider that,” he says. “The worst thing is to be trapped in something you don’t want to be doing.”
Adds Jill Gordon-Brandt: “As we all know, actors get bored. When an actor’s in demand, it’s terrific. When an actor isn’t, it’s tough either way.”
Even so, during a chat in which he sounds like the happiest guy in the room, McRaney also captures the push-pull challenge actors and their representatives face in gaining greater liberty in exchange for less security.
McRaney describes himself as “sort of a gypsy at heart” who is having the time of his life flitting from playing a Warren Buffett-like billionaire to a drunken ex-cop to a seedy criminal When asked about down time between roles, he says, “I consider anything after two weeks not to be a vacation, but unemployment.”
Man for All Seasons
Gerald McRaney has logged guest shots on four high-profile shows in recent weeks: