Actors on Actors: Hollywood’s A-List Finds Meaty Roles on Television

A List Actors Television Renaissance
Neil Stevens for Variety

Josh Gad has taken Broadway by storm in “The Book of Mormon,” headlined the hit film “The Wedding Ringer” and voiced one of the most beloved animated characters of all time as Olaf the snowman in “Frozen.” So what prompted him to accept the role opposite Billy Crystal in the FX comedy “The Comedians?”

“The paycheck, obviously,” he dead-panned.

Attending Variety’s first Actors on Actors Emmy Studio, Gad said, “It really is the Golden Age of TV right now, especially on cable.”

That theme would be echoed again and again by all the A-list talent who visited our studio over the course over a weekend in March, including two-time Academy Award winners Jessica Lange (FX’s “American Horror Story”) and Jane Fonda, who’s tackling her first gig as a TV regular in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.” As we paired up TV’s top stars for conversations about their craft — Oscar nominees Viola Davis (ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder”), Taraji P. Henson (Fox’s “Empire”), Clive Owen (Cinemax’s “The Knick”) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Sundance/BBC’s “The Honorable Woman”), to name a few — they all described the irresistible draw of television. The pendulum has swung, and the medium long shunned as second-rate now offers tremendous opportunities.

What’s behind the shift? Leaving aside the troubles plaguing the film business, the influx of new outlets hungry for content — from cable channels to digital studios like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and Yahoo — has established a virtual playground for creatives. Writers can experiment with edgier fare — and it’s not just about nudity and language.

Take “Transparent.” It wouldn’t be a good fit for network television, where there are necessary act breaks and a certain narrative pace expected of a
half-hour series. But it has flourished on Amazon.

Innovative programmers are now willing to embrace shorter seasons, which means actors best known for work on the bigscreen — like Michael Sheen (Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”) and Jamie Dornan (Netflix/BBC’s “The Fall”) — no longer have to hesitate about the time commitment of a series.

And any stigma of doing television, once a concern for movie stars, has completely evaporated. One of film’s biggest draws, James Franco, has inked a deal with Hulu for the nine-episode series “11/22/63,” produced by J.J. Abrams.

Which is not to say there isn’t powerhouse entertainment happening on broadcast, particularly for women. Three-time Emmy winner Julianna Margulies continues to shine on CBS hit “The Good Wife,” while Kerry Washington fearlessly paces her topnotch cast on ABC’s “Scandal.”

Also on the Alphabet, Davis — who headlines one of this season’s hottest new shows — said she finds joy in seeing a character described with adjectives like “sexy,” “messy,” “mysterious,” “smart.” Such roles aren’t usually given, she says, “to a woman like me, of my size, of my hue, of my age.”

And then there’s “Empire” — Fox’s brashy, smashy hit. Henson couldn’t believe it wasn’t on HBO. But the network embraced the risk, and rode the wave to the success story of the season.

So what draws actors to choose their roles? It’s all about the material. As the saying goes, “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.”

Owen admitted he wasn’t looking to do TV, but couldn’t put down the script for “The Knick.”

It was Fonda who summed up every actor’s desire perfectly: “We all want to go where the good writing is.”

And these days, it’s on television.