Q&A: Christopher McDonald and Mark Valley Talk ‘Harry’s Law’
Harry’s Law, the NBC show starring the great Kathy Bates, returned to NBC’s Sunday line-up after a brief hiatus and two of its stars, Christopher McDonald and Mark Valley, took some time out of their schedule for a conference call to talk about its return.
McDonald, who plays Tommy Jefferson, studied theater in London and also attended the Stella Adler Acting Conservatory in New York. He’s always been a favorite of mine; from Thelma and Louise, Quiz Show and even Boardwalk Empire, I love to watch his work.
Valley, Oliver Richard on the show, was most recently on the FOX’s Human Target. He graduated from West Point and majored in math and engineering and began his acting career while serving in the Army. He also wrote and performed a one-man show, Walls, Wars and Whiskey about his experiences growing up in upstate New York and in the military.
The two talked about how they prepare for their day on set, memorizing lines and their advice to actors.
Harry’s Law airs on Sundays at 8/7c on NBC
How did you two get to know each other as actors in order for your characters to work together effectively? What was the process like for both of you?
Mark Valley: My process was basically showing up and just meeting Chris and, you know, and being relieved that he wasn’t actually Tommy Jefferson. And then it’s pretty much really just kind of in the script, and we just kind of play off each other and have a good time. It’s a little more like a basketball court in there to be honest with you, so it’s a lot of fun.
Christopher McDonald: I’d have to agree. It’s just basically if it’s on the page then we – I mean if we were on a page where we didn’t like each other we’d be of course contentious in life too, because that’s what kind of actors we are.
Mark Valley: Yes, I mean we’d stab each other in the back in a heartbeat, you know, it’s – the competition is pretty stiff, but you know, we manage don’t we?
Christopher McDonald: We manage, yes. I actually like Mark Valley.
Mark Valley: Yes I like you too. But I don’t – the thing – here’s the thing, I don’t like Chris as much as he likes me. So I just want to make sure that’s clear.
Chris, what do you like about Tommy, who Tommy is now as compared to when you first started with the character?
Christopher McDonald: Well that’s a good question. I feel that Tommy – each week is like opening up a gift from David Kelley and his team of talented writers. I never know where they’re going to take me next, and I find that extremely challenging.
Last week I had to cry a bit and I had to pull that one out, and I had to – some – like the big – a perfect example is the show that’s on Sunday. Now Tommy was a blowhard in Season 1, he just came through and would let both guns go blasting away.
It’s really interesting to go to dark places with – and funny at the same time, which is great about David’s writing is it’s pretty dark to be caught and then tell this woman how much you love her in front of, you know, a co-star even, you know.
When you’re working with somebody in the office and you’re not really working with them, you need their help badly. It turned out quite moving though, and funny.
Mark Valley: Yes it was an interesting opportunity for Oliver to get to know Tommy a little bit better too. I mean I think it was also an opportunity for him to see, “Oh wow, there’s some tragic flaws here in his character.” I love this guy.
Christopher McDonald: Yes it’s true. So to answer your question in a nutshell basically, from like both barrels blazing away you get to peeling away the layers of this character and finding his weaknesses, which is always really fun to play. And – but like I say, “I’m surprised every week where they’re going to have me going.”
For both of you, what brought you to the role, what drew to it?
Christopher McDonald: Well, for me it was simple. I heard David Kelley and I’ve been dying to work with him. I’ve loved his work for years. And then I heard Kathy Bates and I didn’t even have to read it, I was like, “Yes, I’ll definitely do it.”
But I just came on a guest star and David liked what I did and he kept on writing it. So the thespian gods were smiling on me and I got to become a series regular this year.
Mark Valley: Thespian gods. Yes, for me I was unemployed and that’s what drew me to the role (personally). It’s actually I thought it might be nice to play – after doing an action role I thought, “Man it would be nice to play a lawyer and just wear a suit and a tie every day and walk around in an air-conditioned place and say smart things with really talented actors.” So that’s what appealed to me.
You guys are both veterans at this, you’ve been doing it awhile. How prepared are you when you guys when you get to the set? Do you memorize your sides the night before or when you’re eating breakfast the morning of?
Mark Valley: I have to say, if I have really paragraphs or a scene that’s longer than a half-a-page I memorize it home, but sometimes I’ll just memorize it the morning of if it’s really small and just sort of see where the scene is going and just react off of what’s happening and – but yes, I have to memorize the night before or else I can’t really hold on to it that well.
Christopher McDonald: I’m the same way, if it’s smaller bits it’s great to watch the scene and you know, how the whole scene envelopes into, you know, it’s tone as it were. And it’s great to keep it spontaneous so you’re not like, “Boy that sounded really better in the shower.”
But if it’s a closing argument I work on it exhaustingly. I spend hours and hours and hours prepping it, like a lawyer would I think, because you really have to be convincing. This is – if you can convince a jury, and if you’re, you know, you’re really down and your closing can really make a huge difference and turn the whole case, you really have to be – have great conviction.
And the last thing you want to be thinking about is your lines. You want to be really thinking about the action on how to turn their minds around to your point of view. So there’s been hours and hours of stuff for it – of preparation.
And that’s why I marvel so much at Kathy Bates because literally she does every episode she’ll do a closing argument that is truly remarkable. I watch it and it’s like an (oriya), and so I know that she’s putting the hours in too. So I take my hat to her.
What’s your advice to actors?
Christopher McDonald: Preparation, preparation, preparation, Shakespeare said it best, “Readiness is all.” That’s what I think. I think if you’re ready and prepared when you show up on a set you can let it sing. It’s like being in show, like a stage show, and your closing night you’re so much better than you were opening night, because you know you’ve lived with this character a long time.
So I think the more prepared you are before you step on the stage for any scene, the more relaxed you’ll be, the more confident you’ll be and the more you can have the lucky accidents which make a good scene great.
Mark Valley: Yes I agree, it’s preparation. And it’s not – in that – I think preparation in other areas as well is important. I mean you know, to understand the issue, to understand the scene, to listen to the other actors, to understand the script and so forth. And those things are – those things also weigh in with your overall preparation. Yes, be prepared. Have fun.
Mark, how did your military background prepare you to become an actor?
Mark Valley: Well it’s interesting, because I mean people will often say that they could never deal with being in the military or having someone telling them what to do. And you know, Chris and I have chosen a profession where largely there’s somebody else telling what to say, what to wear, where to stand, how to say it, where to say it and when to do it, you know.
So I’d have to say that, there are quite few parallels in being able to, you know, to take – more or less take orders but still maintain your own individuality and put your own sort of creative stamp on something.