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Michael Cerveris Reflects on Theater Roots and His Road to ‘Gotham’ and ‘Mosaic’

Michael Cerveris First Time in Variety
helen green; photo reference: Andrew H. Walker/REX/Shutterstock

Michael Cerveris’ television resume reads like a wishlist of projects, starting with his earliest days in the industry, when he appeared on the acclaimed 1986 series “Fame” with Debbie Allen to guest starring stints on “21 Jump Street” (in 1990), “Quantum Leap” (in 1991) and the original “CSI” (2001). The past decade has seen him expand into creating cult favorite characters on dramas including “Fringe,” “Treme” and “The Good Wife,” but this past year may prove to have been his busiest. In addition to trying his hand at comedy on Amazon’s version of “The Tick,” Cerveris is also in Fox’s superhero origin story “Gotham” and Steven Soderbergh’s interactive limited series “Mosaic.”

Cerveris was first mentioned in Variety on Dec. 4, 1985, when he was listed as part of the cast for Jud Taylor’s CBS miniseries “Doubletake.”

Although “Doubletake” was the first project that put you on Variety‘s radar, it was not your first on-screen credit.

I had trained as a theater actor at Yale and imagined my career was going to head primarily in that direction, but then I decided I also wanted to eat and pay rent, and so I did background on all of the soaps that filmed in New York. That was kind of my on-camera training because we didn’t really have any on-camera training at Yale, so that was a great place for me in understanding what marks were and how you hit them.

Being that “Doubletake” was a bigger role than you were used to doing, did you feel extra pressure going into that audition?

The stakes of each audition seemed to be the last audition you would ever have. You also were trying to leave a good impression on the casting director so word would get back to your agents, who you were also still fresh with and wanted to make a good impression on. Even if you didn’t get it, you wanted good reports to go back. So I remember being really nervous about it, and I just wanted to leave no choice but for them to give me the role, all the while feeling like, “Of course I’m not going to get this role because I never have.” I went in with a combination optimistic and fatalistic mind.

Whose careers did you want to emulate at the time?

I grew up admiring Robert Duvall and Ed Harris, and in high school I went on a theater trip to London and saw an actor named Michael Bryant in a production of Ibsen’s “Brand” and was just blown away. I would say my earliest stage mentors or the people I revered were the people like him and Len Cariou, who I saw in “Sweeney Todd.”

How did you and Jud work together on “Doubletake?”

He treated me like I deserved to be there and like a colleague and a professional, and that was a really valuable thing as a very young actor — to have the feeling that your insights and thoughts were valid and be made to feel like you belonged there. That means so much when you’re at an early point in your career. Until people take a chance on you and have faith in you, it’s very hard to have faith in yourself.