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Jake McDorman Talks ‘Murphy Brown’ Politics, Bonding With Candice Bergen

Jake McDorman was only two years old when “Murphy Brown” premiered on CBS in 1988, so he did not feel a personal sense of nostalgia when auditioning for the revival. But the cultural relevance of the show, which bridged politics and humor, seemed to resonate so much today that the “Lady Bird” and “American Sniper” actor welcomed a return to the small screen. He co-stars in the revival as the title character’s adult son, Avery, who’s a TV news anchor at a rival station.

Were you specifically looking to get back into more traditionally comedic work last pilot season?

I really don’t have any specificity — I’ve never been in the position really to be like, “I’m only looking at comedies, I’m only looking at dramas.” It’s really who you’re working with and if it’s a great script and you feel like you actually have something to bring to it that’s going to make it better or do it justice. What was interesting about my last job on television was it definitely wasn’t a comedy when we started but it definitely started becoming that way. And I don’t know if that was just because of the combination of people working on that — we all had the same taste in movies, the same pop culture references that we’d make all of the time, so maybe that just turned into what it was. But I kind of feel like it was because we had these giant special effects in the pilot that we couldn’t afford anymore, and they were like, “You know what else feels like a special effect? If you’re having a hearty laugh!” So it made it a fun romp.

What drew you to “Murphy Brown”?

After that [show, “Limitless”] was gone, a lot happened. That was February 2016, and there was November 2016, and everything kind of just changed where finding my place and what I wanted to do felt different. I was becoming more politically aware and excited to have those conversations. … I just knew it was really important to me — and increasing in importance. And that was a personal truth. I didn’t necessarily expect that to influence the next job in the industry that I took. But karmically it made sense, it sort of ticked two boxes. I feel like you go through a few evolutions where you’re like, “Well, what does this mean to me anymore?” I’ve been [acting] for 15 years, and you change so much that I think it’s necessary to reevaluate every so often.”What movies do I want to participate in?” I started when I was 16 so then you’re like “I want to be in cool movies. Light sabers look good!” But then you get older and you’re like, “Maybe I want to be in projects that don’t send this message — or that send this message so I can feel liberated in a way and not taken advantage of or with an agenda.” I was going through the most recent iteration of that, and this came up at the perfect time.

How do you feel about your character’s politics?

I knew enough about “Murphy Brown” going in that I knew it would be really surprising if she had a far-right son — somebody who is fighting for the journalistic integrity of Fox News. So I read the script and you don’t know where he lies, but in talking with Diane, she mapped it out for me and laid out why it’s a good opportunity for him [to work there]. It’s a big part of Avery’s arc in the season that he grew up, obviously, in an incredibly liberal environment with his mother and the people she worked with, and I think his heart is there. But he’s also gotten to the age where he’s now branching out for the first time with his own journalistic endeavor — during this epicenter of political earthquake. He was on the campaign trail in almost every state for two years, covering it, and I think he saw there were a lot of people who aren’t my mom, people who aren’t of that ilk, who are this kind of massive blind spot to the people I know so well. And the thing that I admire about him and what seems to be his ecosystem unfolding that sometimes puts him in conflict with Murphy is he’s like, “If both sides stay on a soapbox, this is a result of that. This situation we’re in, we have to make an effort to reach out — we have to drive our efforts toward the middle — even though this is the most polarizing time we’ve lived in.” And that’s admirable. … He’s been on the ground floor seeing this grassroots movement at a more intimate level than Murphy has and so it’s the outrage of it that’s brought Murphy on the air; it’s the understanding of it that’s brought Avery on the air. And that’s the source of a lot of their competition. And that’s a really important aspect because you don’t want to just fall into an echo chamber.

What was most important about creating mother-son chemistry with Candice Bergen?

It’s really just a vibe. I flew out to New York to test with Candice, and castings in New York are just usually very different than castings in LA. In LA it’s usually on a studio lot or kind of in the back room of some rented office space, and Bernie’s [Telsey] office in New York — he cast “Wicked” and “Hamilton” — there are these tunnels and hallways of actors preparing vocal warmups and doing pirouettes where you just feel like, “Oh man, those are triple threats.” And so I was nervous, obviously, and Candice just busted open the door and said, “McDorman, get your ass in here!” And I had never met her before, and I don’t know why, but it calmed me down. It just established it would be no bulls—. So it’s just been really easy to just talk soul to soul. There was a long period of just them turning on the camera and us making conversation. I think at its heart, that’s what a large part of the new show is. She has raised Avery, and he is setting out on his own to make his mark in the only world he’s ever known. A touchstone for Murphy is her relationship with Avery, and when you come home, it’s kind of the way she was with Eldin: Everything happens in the newsroom, she comes home, he can kind of call her on her bulls—, and that dynamic has extended even deeper with her own son.

Have you had to adjust your performance style to account for the live sitcom audience?

It’s, in a lot of ways easier, if you don’t get too intimidated by it. Because you just pick up on their frequency. And there’s a particular way everything reads and runs, and the cast got together and they had been doing this for 10 seasons, and the last time was 20 years ago, but you wouldn’t know it — they just hit the ground running. Film moves at a slower pace and is so up close, and you have your coverage where you’re kind of turning it on, but everyone’s on all of the time and on the same team in one of these. There’s a lot of technical differences, but at the same time having an audience is energizing in a way that’s really special. The good thing about Avery is he’s not like the yuck-yuck guy. There’s a lot of tender scenes, which kind of runs through the series. “Murphy Brown” can make it real and make it important and slow it down in a way that I don’t think a lot of traditional sitcoms can.

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