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Q&A: Raul Esparza & Anna Chlumsky Give Their Advice to Actors and Dish on Their Guest Star Roles on ‘Law & Order: SVU’

anna-chlumsky-raul-esparzaTonight’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit takes on the Fifty Shades of Grey books and puts their own special spin on it. Called ‘Twenty-Five Acts’, the episode has Anna Chlumsky as a popular author of an S&M novel who, when victimized by a TV host (Roger Bart) intent on bringing her novel to life, gets help  from Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Rollins (Kelli Giddish) and a new Manhattan District Attorney (guest star Raul Esparza).  

Chlumsky, is currently starring on HBO’s Veep with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and will soon be seen in Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship. She’s also has appeared in several plays in New York, most recently in the play 3C, a dark take-off of the sitcom, Three’s Company.

Esparza just came off the Broadway musical, Leap of Faith, a musical adaptation of the film by the same name. He’s also starred as Riff Raff in the 2000 Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show, Cabaret, Taboo (where he received a Tony Award nomination), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Sondheim’s Company, where he got his second Tony nomination.  I saw him last year in Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play, Arcadia, and he was excellent as Valentine.

I got a chance to talk to both Chlumsky and Esparza in a conference call and they were both the coolest people to chat with. They talked about their time working on SVU and their super fantastic awesome advice to actors. Seriously, it’s the best. Go read it. Now!

Law & Order: SVU airs tonight at 9pm on NBC

Raul, you’re known as a Broadway star, are there any satisfactions of working for the camera that aren’t true of doing stage acting?

Raul Esparza: What’s great about being in front of a camera is that you can do it over and over again until you get it right. You can make lots of mistakes and nobody knows about them.

Another thing that’s amazing, actually, without being flip is that you get really challenged to try to find the most simple and direct way to convey all the things that it might take you a whole play to reach, you know the back of the house with. You have to figure out how to do that in the simplest and most direct way in that moment in front of the camera, and that’s a real challenge to figure out how little you can do that conveys all of that, you know that conveys the most. And it’s a big learning curve and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Anna, can you talk about the difference in adapting your performance tone from the style of comedy of Veep to the style of drama on Law & Order: SVU?

Anna Chlumsky: Yeah, I – you know I don’t really kind of take into account whether it’s comedy or drama. I really – what I – the way I like to approach anything, regardless of the tone of it is just to get the truth of it as close as possible to, you know play the character and play her scene and play – you know play her story, you know as truthfully as possible.

And so, I – you end up having to trust the text very much to – in a comedy to get the laughs, or in a drama to, as Raul was saying, just really convey what’s happening. And as long as, you know you’re present then you’re getting it across.

Raul Esparza: That being said, she’s try – she’s really a laugh riot in this episode.

Anna Chlumsky: Oh, God. Don’t even get me started.

Raul Esparza: I’m not.

Anna Chlumsky: Thank you. Oh, God.

What is the biggest difference for you between doing television versus movies?

Anna Chlumsky: I think the biggest difference between television and film is – I mean, there’s two main differences that I’m learning right now, and one is speed. It’s – you know on a TV show you’ve got probably like a five to seven-day episode where you have to get all – everything in and tell a really complete story, you know in very little time. And so, it really kind of teaches you to be as prepared as possible, and then to just kind of fly by the seat of your pants once you get on set and hear “Action.” And then, you just kind of, you know have to really trust what you’ve prepared, and you may only get one shot at it, you know? You may not get a whole bunch of takes. And in a film sometimes you get a little bit longer, depending on who’s directing it and what the budget is.

And also, the other – you know the other thing is with a film you have – which is – this is also kind of like a play, you have a beginning, middle, and an end that you are telling. Like, you know how this story ends. When you’re on a series you – you know you can find things out about your character that you never knew or that you never maybe analyzed back when, you know you did the pilot. You’re always learning more and more about this person you’re playing, and you’re playing just that person usually, you know? I mean, some – you know I can’t think of many series where you switch out the roles, like on stage sometimes you do.

So, you – you know it’s really just a very intimate relationship, and then a – and hopefully an ongoing relationship with the character on a series.

What’s it like coming onto the Law & Order set?

Raul Esparza: The set’s really friendly actually. Yeah. I mean, the set’s great. And Mariska, particularly is just like an incredibly welcoming host, so to speak…

Anna Chlumsky: Dreamy.

Raul Esparza: She feels like the – she’s not the star of the show, she’s sort of the welcome for everybody. Yeah, she’s the den mother or the Queen Bee, which may be sounds insulting, and that’s not what I mean. She’s but the thing is, if she didn’t set that tone, then you couldn’t play. And one of the best things I think that I felt, I don’t want to put words in Anna’s mouth, but certainly the two of us had a good time. We had fun trying stuff. It was a friendly, welcoming, warm set.

And it is very easy to feel very unwelcome when you are a guest star on a TV show, because you know they’re in their thing, they’re in their mode, you just jump sort of jump in, you jump out, you’re done, and this wasn’t like that at all. We felt like a group of hoodlums actually who had taken over the courtroom. We had a very good time, and she just kind of set that tone. But, they all did it. It’s a good group of people over there.

Anna Chlumsky: Really inviting. Really, really inviting.

Anna, do you find that it’s difficult or easy to do more guest spots when Veep isn’t filming?

Anna Chlumsky: I – you know I love working. So yeah, it’s always nice to breath in a hiatus, but at the same time it’s an absolute joy to get a shot to play around with other types of roles, you know when you – when you’re on break from the one that you play a lot. So, it’s – yeah, it’s a delicious thing to be able to work this much.

SVU has a reputation of giving its guest stars some of the more serious or scary scenes. How do you guys get into that mindset, and what do you do in between takes to relieve that tension?

Anna Chlumsky: I – you know it’s interesting. This is the first time on film – or on screen that I’ve had to do such intense, violent-type work. And yeah, I’ve done stuff like that on stage before, but not so close up and on screen. And, you know it is – it’s a different animal, so it’s like – you know it – you definitely know you’re at work, which is a wonderful thing. It’s like after you say, “Cut,” like you’re not in that anymore, you know? You get – they definitely allow you to communicate as – you know as an actor. I did the scene and I always felt reminded of that, you know? I never felt necessarily that I was – that I didn’t have voice or, you know like I was definitely always a part of the collaboration on those scenes, and that was really generous of them and important, I think, you know given the nature of those scenes.

And yeah, they made me feel really comfortable right away. I mean, you know one of our first rehearsals was a stunt rehearsal, and so that – you know I – that right away just made me go, “Oh yeah, they got it figured out. They’ve been doing this a long time.”

Raul Esparza: But particularly, you’ve got that – you got the sexual side of things in this since it’s – you know it’s – the episode’s called Twenty-five Acts. It’s clearly hinting at 50 Shades of Grey. So we’re – there’s the extra level of SVU covering sexual crimes, but on top of that there’s the sexual sort of…

Raul, had had you ever worked with or known Roger Bart before?

Raul Esparza: I’ve known Roger for many years, but we’ve never worked together. Roger – I knew of Roger actually when I did a show Off-Broadway called Tick, Tick…Boom! that Jon Larson wrote, because the Larson family had been close friends with Roger Bart for a long time, and Jon Larson named the role of Roger in Rent after Roger Bart. And so, Roger’s been – he’s been – in the Broadway circles, you know he’s someone that I have admired greatly, and boy is that man funny and wonderful to play with.

So no, we had never done anything on stage together, but we’ve known of each other and been around each other socially a great deal. And it took a TV show to make it happen instead of a Broadway show, so that’s funny.

What’s your advice to actors?

Raul Esparza: My advice to actors generally is be yourself. I think it’s a business, particularly in Hollywood that goes out of its way to try to find the next, you know insert name here. And you cannot be that person. You cannot be that start. Actually, I’ve always said that seeking celebrity or stardom, which is what a lot of things seemed to be geared towards now, particularly reality television, which is about nothing but seeking celebrity, which is an entirely different thing from being an actor.

I’ve always said that doing that is like trying to get struck by lightning. So, what you have to do is do your work, and you do your work and you do your work, and stick with it. And the best work you can do is use yourself and be yourself. Now, that sounds simple, but it’s so damn hard, because especially when you’re starting out you have no Goddamn idea who you are and who you’re supposed to be.

And so, it’s easy for them to say, “Be like this. Be like that. Change this about yourself. Change your name. Act this way. What we’re looking for is the next Brad Pitt.” Well, I will never be the next Brad Pitt. It’s simply not going to happen. But, I can be the next Raul Esparza. So, you have to somehow hold onto that.

Anna Chlumsky: The one and only.

Raul Esparza: The one and only.

Anna Chlumsky: The one and only.

Raul Esparza: But, I do believe that, and it’s not an easy task to set yourself, because it requires faith that what you have to offer is worth something, even if everybody else tells you it’s not. But, it – that’s, honestly, the only way I’ve managed to stay sane.

And also, the other thing I’d say is everybody’s path is their own. I could no more build my career exactly the way Anna has built hers if I tried to follow her every step. I just -we cannot – you can’t say to somebody, “How did you do it,” and then try to do it that way. The questions asked, “How do you get an agent? You know, how do I get into those calls, and how do I get that part?” And, you know as though they were a formula. Everybody’s path is their own and there are no mistakes along that path, which is another hard thing to remember.

I wish we had a cookbook that told us how to do this. You know what I mean? But, we don’t.

And that kind of honesty with yourself, my God, it’s hard, because you – it’s so easy as an actor to lose hope and to feel like it’s not going to work out and – when all you have to hang on to is yourself. It helps to have good friends and it helps to try to know your own heart and believe that what your heart has to say is – somebody wants to hear.

Anna Chlumsky: And my advice, I’ll try to – you know I – I’ll try to kind of list the things I’ve said in the past. But persevere, number one. Again, harder said – you know easier said than done, but do it; persevere. Trust your work, because that’s what you’ve got and that’s what you’re doing it for is your work.

And – oh shoot, I had another one. Oh, crap. Well, you know it’s oh, oh, oh, oh, this one, be seen. The best recipe I can think of, and – I mean, and I don’t – you know there is no recipe, and Raul’s absolutely right, but I do think that there’s a universality to be seen doing your best work. You know, do it. Don’t just sit there and, you know, “Oh, oh, so and so doesn’t like me,” or whatever. Like, just do your work. Do your work and…

Raul Esparza: You know what, that’s true. That’s so true. Like, own…

Anna Chlumsky: The second you can be seen doing it, take that advantage, because  it’s all you’re going to have to…

Raul Esparza: Own the work and do the work.

Anna Chlumsky: Yeah.

Raul Esparza: I think it’s better to be working rather than sitting at home waiting for the phone call. And I also think that it’s important – I mean, of course there’s a big difference between building a career, and then working as an actor.

And building a career gets more complicated, but when you’re starting out, like for me it was like take everything you can, because you just want to work.

You’ve just got learn work, work, work. And I don’t know about you. Anna, but I learned from other actors. Like.. I watch – I just watch you and steal shamelessly.

Anna Chlumsky: Well, good for you, because you’re going to be amazing if you watch me. (Now, that) – and also be completely cheeky at all times. No, I – but that’s true. I mean, that’s the beauty of what we do.

I always say this is that it’s all work in a way in way. It’s – you know if you’re paying attention to the way that humans behave, if you’re paying attention to what any of us do, you’re working, and that’s really exciting. You know, when you’re – you know if you don’t have a – I mean you always have a job. You may not have work, but you always have a job, and your job is to act. And that’s – that was wonderful advice that my mother gave me when things were really looking hairy for a while

And – you know and what – and my last – Bette Davis said this, but I always, always – have it written in every one of my little notebooks and everything, is love the sweat. Love the sweat.

Raul Esparza: That’s a fantastic quote, Love the sweat.

Anna Chlumsky: Isn’t that – it’s the best.

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