Supporting Actors Roundtable: Stars on Scene-Stealing Roles, Auditions, and Why TV Takes Big Risks

The amount of talent gathered around the table was impressive indeed. Each of the actors at the Variety Studio — Miranda Otto (“Homeland”), Anthony Mackie (“All the Way”), Christian Slater (“Mr. Robot”), Regina King (a double threat for “American Crime” and “The Leftovers”), Jonathan Banks (“Better Call Saul”), and Maggie Siff (“Billions”) — all delivered killer performances this season (yes, Miranda, we’re looking at you). But once the joking stopped (Mr. Banks, for the record, never really did), the thespians got down to serious talk about their experiences in the business.

What drew you to your current roles?

Miranda Otto: I went into an audition. I met with [showrunner] Alex Gansa, and he told me a bit about the character and it sounded really juicy. He told me I was going to be having an affair with Saul Berenson and that I was actually a double agent, and I just trusted it and went with it.

Christian Slater (to Jonathan Banks): You want to go?

Jonathan Banks: Poverty.

Slater: Poverty! That’s always a good thing.

Banks: How was I gonna get the next kid through college? Please god almighty let me have this job! Way too many kids.

Slater: That is a motivator. (To Maggie Siff) How did you get involved in your show?

Maggie Siff: I was at home with my baby. She was 9 months old and I didn’t want to work, but I read the script and the pilot of our show was so brilliant, and the role was really exciting and multi-dimensional, and I was like, I want to try to get this job, so I put myself on tape, at home. My husband was my reader. You know, when you put yourself on tape for something it’s particularly strange. You’re sending it out into the ether.

Banks: I have a bad attitude anytime — I have a bad attitude, period — but anytime anybody asks me to put something on tape, I’m thinking, “You don’t f—ing think enough of me to have me come in there.”

“I’m fortunate enough right now to be in a situation where I’m working with someone who is just so remarkably prepared and has really thought the whole thing through.”
Christian Slater

Regina King: I just recently had this happen. I’m not going to mention the project, but the role wasn’t something that was really different from anything I’ve played, but they really wanted me to be on tape, and I wanted to be part of this franchise, so I put myself on tape. I was directing in Atlanta so I had to take away from what I was doing and they ultimately offered it to someone else. Who didn’t put themselves on tape.

Slater: Really? After you’d done the tape? That’s crazy.

Banks: Happens all the time. I will call them out. I will say exactly what the projects were, because I had to go through dialogue and dialogue and dialogue.

Slater: I guess one of the things I like about it is I can set up the camera and I can tape the lines up.

Anthony Mackie: That’s smart. I’ve never done that before.

Slater: I’m there all alone so nobody has any idea that I’m actually just reading the wall. Now on the other hand it’s never worked for me, and every time I’ve done that I’ve never gotten the job, so maybe they’re onto me, but that’s what I’ve tried.

Mackie: And what made you choose “Mr. Robot”?

Slater: I read the script, and I thought it was extraordinarily fascinating. Certainly a subject matter that hadn’t really been explored before. And I did really like the character. But you know every time you do get involved with something it’s a risk, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Every time you get involved with something it’s that leap of faith. You hope for the best, and this particular circumstance, which is rare, things seem to go somewhat well.

Miranda Otto: Did you know what your arc would be? Did you have a strong idea of where you were going?

Slater: I did, because I had an instinct about the character when I first read the pilot, is this guy really there? I was very suspicious about that. So when I sat down with [creator] Sam [Esmail], he said, “Do you really want to know?,” and he gave me the storyline of the whole first season. I’m fortunate enough right now to be in a situation where I’m working with somebody who is just so remarkably prepared and has really just thought the whole thing through. Probably like Vince Gilligan. I can only imagine.

Big Breaks: The actors also swapped stories of how they landed their breakout roles. Variety/Rex Shutterstock

Banks: I’ve been doing this now for several years, the character Mike. There are things from “Breaking Bad” to “Better Call Saul” that you’ll see. An ashtray that’s broken has a meaning. They’ll run the chance of seeing that five years later. I had said to Vince at one point, “Whatever’s happening to Mike has to do with his son,” and when they talked to me about doing “Better Call Saul,” they said, “Well, do you remember when you talked about your son?” So I never had a hesitation about doing this character again. I love this character.

Slater: It’s incredible. That is amazing, that kind of insight and level of preparation.

Banks: They’re such good guys, because this is my 50th year since I got my first paycheck. It’s a pleasure to go to work. And I mean I wasn’t quite prepared for that. Because I can be a real crank.

(Chorus of “No” all around.)

Can you talk about your process? How do you find your way into your character?

Mackie: I have a very simplistic, complicated process. I read my script and I highlight all my lines in yellow. And then I highlight what people say about my character in blue. And then I highlight what the writer says about my character in pink.

Slater: Oh, cool!

Mackie: Because the blue and the pink highlights are much more important than the yellow highlights. Because I realize for myself, in real life, that it’s not so much what you think about yourself or what you mean by your actions, but how people perceive your actions and what you’re trying to do. I think what people say about you is much more important than what you think and what you say about yourself. So, if I read something and my character says something (that) comes across in a nice way, but then the other character is answering to his snide asshole remark, that completely changes the way I would say that. I just try to come at it from that perspective.

“I never had a hesitation about doing this character again. I love this character.”
Jonathan Banks

Did that change for “All the Way,” where you were playing an actual person?

Mackie: It’s very difficult playing an actual person as opposed to a fictional person. That’s a whole can of worms, playing such a legendary figure like Martin Luther King. It was very important to not try and be Martin Luther King. Because I’m 5’11” 190 pounds, and he was 5’7”, 190 pounds. So there was no way I could be him. I couldn’t look like him, so I can only try and capture the essence of him. What was really important to me was that essence, that tangible idea of who he was and what he was trying to achieve. That’s basically where my character came from.

Slater: Oh man, beautiful.

Banks: You were great. At some point you and I, away from all this, will talk. I grew up in D.C., and I was in D.C. the night that he was assassinated and the city burned. And the absolute horrible pain of all that. It minimizes it by me even trying to put words to it.

Mackie: I’m all ears.

King: Oh gosh, I wish the way I prepared was as interesting as that.

Banks: We’ll get you your own markers.

King: Maybe orange! I think I’m like most actors with my preparation. I build a backstory even though it’s not necessarily on the page or a scene or part of the play, but I always build a backstory, where I thought she went to school, did she even go to school? Did she go to college? The people that are part of her family or friends, how did they meet? I build off of that. If I’m playing a role where a lot of the work that I’m doing is a two-hander, I will build a back-story with that actor. In “American Crime,” Andre Benjamin and I had a lot of scenes, so we went to dinner a couple times and decided we met each other at Northwestern, and just created this whole backstory of who our parents were. That’s fun to me. That’s part of the excitement of what we do.

Mackie: Except when you get an actor that doesn’t read the script.

King: Or doesn’t understand what they’re saying.

Siff: I find that I prepare differently depending on if it’s television, film or theater. I feel with television, the unique thing about it is that you’re working so fast. So I just lock myself in a room and try to imagine the other side of the conversation as much as I can. Not just what I’m saying, but the depth of the language of the other person, so that I can have a response to it that’s in the moment. So that I can be prepared for wherever it may go because there’s no time for rehearsing.

Mackie: I did “Law & Order” once and I was like, why would anyone do TV? This is the craziest, this is a job? This is why I quit

Quiet on the Set? Jonathan Banks made sure to keep everyone laughing during the roundtable. Variety/Rex Shutterstock

Banks: You didn’t quit McDonald’s, let’s be honest now.

Mackie: They decided I needed other career aspirations, but that was just because I liked the chicken nuggets.

King: I also find with some scenes like I did in “The Leftovers” — I had this eight-page scene with Carrie Coon — (and) we felt the less we talked about it, the better we were going to be in that moment.

Slater: Yes, have some spontaneity, keep it natural and loose. I do use some technology, I use the Rehearsal 2 app. Write that down, it’s incredible. You can download your script into it and instead of having to buy a bunch of highlighters you can actually highlight with your finger.

Otto: Don’t you worry that it’s going to get hacked? I always feel this huge responsibility to the script when it arrives, keeping it confidential. I worry about my sides, I worry where everything goes, I worry that I’m going to be the leak. I give all my scripts back!

Christian, you had all the scripts for this season before you started filming. Did that help you?

Slater: On this show, everything has been prepared and laid out. When we finished the first season they took about a month off and then all the writers got together and wrote out the whole season. So when we came back to start shooting again we were given like a phonebook-sized script for the whole season. And we did, over the course of two days, a read-through. I had never experienced anything like that.

Otto: That’s more like the English model, because they’ll have it all written beforehand.

Slater: And one director, too, right?

Otto: Yes, I think they often will have one director for the whole thing or two directors. They don’t switch directors every week like here.

Slater: That’s definitely challenging, but on this we’re doing a scene on one day from episode 202 and 204 and 207.

King: It’s like “Game of Thrones.”

Slater:  I’m enjoying the c–p out of it. It’s definitely been a unique challenge.

Otto: Is that because you’re using specific locations and they’re trying to shoot on location?

Slater: That’s right. So they’re shooting it more like you would a movie. We have one director, Sam Esmail is doing them all this particular season. I don’t know what he’s going to do for next season.

Mackie: So it’s like a 400-page movie?

Slater: Pretty much, yeah.

Mackie: Kill me off second episode! Introduce me, blow me up, put me in the truck.

Banks: I’d be careful, because that job at McDonald’s is not still open, right?

How much research do you do when you’re playing real-life people? How much do you rely on advisers?

Slater: It’s always nice when you’re playing a real-life person to have that, all that wealth of information.

Otto: I really like research. For this role I did a lot of research, just to be really clear on the world that you’re working in. They had an adviser who was in the CIA before, and so I got to speak to him a lot on the phone, which was one of the most exciting things of the job. He would run me through stuff in the script, I would ask him questions about everything. He was fantastic.

Slater: Did he give you any secrets?

Otto: No, no, he’s too cool for that.

“There was no way I could look like I him, so I can only try and capture the essence of him. What was really important to me was that tangible idea of who he was.”

King: I feel like you get good information (working with advisers). A lot of times I find little physical things that I might infuse into the character just from being around a person that actually (does the job).

Otto: Because you tend to borrow from your own craft, you borrow from other movies, or the way you’ve seen things, to actually speak to people who are the real deal really helps you know how it works.

Siff: I love talking to people who are actually in the world or the milieu. I love reading fiction and nonfiction. I feel like things go in ways that you can’t control, something will inspire you or you’ll dream about something and several days later you’ll remember something. It’s a very imperfect science how you come to characters.

Otto: I’m with you. It’s really osmosis, you don’t know what is going to be the thing that ends up being the real sort of creative launch point.

Banks: So, Jonathan, we were wondering how, how do you prepare?

Slater: I love it!

Banks: I’m so glad you asked. This is the seventh or eighth year with Mike, and it’s Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s child, but if something appears (in the script) that I go, “Mike would never say that! What are you doing?” And they go, “Yes, he would.”

King: Have you ever won that?

Banks: Only in the rarest of times, because I really do trust them. But you start with a character and then you’re still doing the backstory 20 years later, you’re still going, “Oh my god get out of my head.” I love Mike’s backstory. Because Mike has been hard and lost, a lost soul a long, long, long time. And at some point I want the beast to be touched. You’ve never seen him touched gently. And he would collapse under that treatment. He wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Let’s talk about TV vs. film. What opportunities do you see in television right now?

Mackie: I think TV is boundless. What’s interesting, 10 years ago the perception of TV was very different. Because I remember having this conversation with my agent and he was like, you can’t do TV! If you get TV, you won’t be considered a real film actor. It’s just so interesting how that’s evolved and changed with cable television. I think it’s interesting now all the people who were making the movies we grew up watching and loving are now working in television. So they’re making TV shows in the way that we grew up loving and watching film. If you’re 25 and older, they don’t really make movies for you anymore.

Otto: Not many.

Mackie: You just have to go to “Shrek” with your kids and hope they throw in three or four adult jokes, so you can enjoy it.

Otto: I just feel like TV takes more risks than film. Film has gotten very safe, it’s very compartmentalized about what type of things will be successful. And whereas in TV since all these new platforms opened, they’re saying to writers go out there, write the most different show that you can write. Write something that’s really original and different. And so there’s been this spate of amazing shows.

King: And you can tell a story, especially now with cable, that’s richer and more developed because you have 10 or 13 hours of TV, opposed to a two-hour film.

Mackie: Now I find there’s not enough space on my DVR. Because I’m recording five or six shows, my wife’s recording seven or eight shows, my 6-year-old son is recording five. It’s a full-time job to try and watch everything you want to watch on television.

Otto: That’s very true.

Mackie: It’s literally 60 to 70 hours a week. I’ve got to catch up on “Game of Thrones.”

Banks: No, you don’t! Because Peter (Dinklage) won the Emmy.

(Everyone laughs.)

Slater: I really feel like TV has become like independent film. It’s so hard to get independent movies made right now, financially, so like you were saying, there’s all these different platforms for all these phenomenally talented people to come and tell their stories.

Otto: It’s all about the writing.

Mackie: Because film is made for such a specific demographic now, with TV you can reach a broader market. And I think now we’ve reached the next level of television with this O.J. Simpson show, “American Crime Story.” That’s everybody’s guilty pleasure.

King: Not to be confused with “American Crime”!

Mackie: But to get a cast like that in such a small number of episodes now, the sky’s the limit. Because you know people would buy into it.

Slater: The door’s blown off!

Mackie: I’m interested to see in the next three to five years where that is going to evolve, because now you have Hulu, you have Amazon. It’s not just HBO and Showtime and Cinemax anymore.

Banks: It’s still going to be the writing. And now I am going to sound like Father Time, because I was doing television in the ’70s and the ’80s. And the trail of cocaine that went from everywhere, and pretty much if the camera didn’t fall over you printed it. From people your age, I feel a lot more dedication to the craft. That’s a huge sweeping generalization, but oh my god, the writing is so much better in so many places. I don’t see how in five years that’ll change. Great writers will be great writers if they’re still attracted to it. Every once in a while when I speak at a university, and I find the writers are more interested in TV than they are in film.

King: I think what’s going to change though in five years is that the broadcast networks are going to start following the model of cable and it’s not going to be 22 episodes. I think it’s going to be 10 to 13 episodes.

Mackie: Because you can get you for three months and shoot 10 episodes and you’re out.