Interview: Royal Pains Mark Feuerstein: “The challenge of what we do as a whole, is to surprise yourself”

Actor Mark Feurstein

Just like his character in the hit USA show, Royal Pains, Mark Feuerstein isn’t afraid to take risks.

When he heard about the role of Dr. Hank Lawson, he phoned up the creator,  Andrew Lenchewski, who he barely knew, congratulated him on the project and told him that he was going to be the lead in the show. Now that’s a risk taker.

And look how it turned out. He got the part and almost 2 seasons later, the show is a bona-fide hit.

Mark gives a great interview. He was incredibly candid about his career, the show and has some great advice for actors!

Royal Pains airs Thursdays at 9/8c.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download from iTunes.

When you first started the show up to now, how does your character still surprise you?

Mark Feuerstein: That is a great question and I would expect nothing less from the Daily Actor.  That’s actually, Lance, the challenge of what we do as a whole, is to surprise yourself and to allow a character who’s already had stories told about him and similar words put in his mouth over the course of 30 episodes to remain fresh and new.

The writers do most of that work.  They are so good at changing the game and keeping it fresh, keeping it interesting.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have a writing staff that doesn’t phone it in, that hasn’t gotten bored with it.  I can only expect in season three they’re going to up the stakes and up the game even more for our characters.

But, as the actor playing that character, you just try to find substitutions in your own life and the truth is your own life is never empty of high stake situations from me, being the father of three children and having a wife who I love very much and parents who I love to imagine scenarios where you might, in the case of our father, Eddie R. Lawson, might lose your father.  Or, in the case of your brother might do damage that will be irreparable.

So, it’s all about getting creative in your own mind with the work of imagining scenarios that evoke emotions that help tell the story because often enough if we rely just on the words we’re okay because the words do it so often.  But in situations where you’re just not feeling it, you have to find a way to, as you said, surprise yourself.

What’s your advice to actors?

Mark Feuerstein: This is a line that I sometimes feel weird because it sounds so crass to say it, but it was something so bold of this producer who really didn’t want to help me said to me when I met with her to see about anything that she could do, and it was that there’s no one in the Mark Feuerstein business more than Mark Feuerstein.

And that is sort of a, I mean, I guess there’s something about that because you have to believe that if you have a manager and an agent and people who write for you and are rooting for you in your corner, they’re going to help you along the way, but I think the line is more about taking responsibility because if you do leave it to other people to make those phone calls on your behalf, if you don’t take the risk of reaching out.

I mean, when I got Royal Pains, I don’t want to bore you with a long story, but I’ll keep it short.  Basically it was a moment in my career where I was doing a show called Masters of Horror, which wasn’t my best work, let’s put it that way and I can’t say I loved that.  It was fine, but I didn’t love the episode I did.  And it was just a moment in time where my wife was about to have a baby, I wanted to work, earn a little money.

And the producer of that was a guy named Adam Goldworm who went to USC with a guy names Andrew Lenchewski, who I had met years earlier because his dad took out my wisdom teeth and told me I should meet with him.  So, a year after shooting Masters of Horror I’m having lunch with  Adam Goldworm, this producer who I just kind of became friends with, whether you call it networking or not, he was a new friend and he told me, by the way, Andrew is shooting this new pilot for USA.  Isn’t that great?

And I said, yeah, that’s great.  Give me your cell phone, I want to congratulate him.  And I called Andrew right up and I said, “Andrew, first of all, I want to congratulate you on the fact that you’re making a pilot for USA and I heard it’s about a doctor to the rich and the not so rich in the Hamptons, so second, I want to congratulate you on the fact that I’m going to be starring in it.”

And it was pretty bold, but a month later, after jumping through a lot of hoops for Bonnie Hammer, the head of many networks now at NBC Universal, I was.  And it’s the greatest story of my career to date.

What is it that made you decide to be an actor?  You said your family were lawyers and did that business.  What was it about acting that made you decide to go your own way?

Mark Feuerstein: My story is kind of unique, like everyone I guess thinks their own story is, and in high school if you had asked me what I was going to be I was going to be a lawyer like my dad and my other uncles, some of whom went to Harvard Law School and made a great living as lawyers in Manhattan.

I had been very involved in all the extracurricular activities that would get you into a good college; student politics, I was captain of football and wrestling teams.  I did well enough in school to get into a good school, Princeton.  And then I got there and I was doing all these extracurricular activities again, thinking that when you’re apply to Harvard Law School they care if you were able to organize a dance for the class of ’93, which, of course, they don’t give a shit about.

So, at one point in my freshman year at Princeton I scrapped everything.  I said, what am I doing?  I don’t genuinely care about a lot of this and I had fun in modern drama class in 11th grade reading scenes from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Chekov plays, so I auditioned for this play on a whim.

I was on my way to football practice on the lightweight football team and I didn’t get the first part I auditioned for, but I did get the next part, a play by Lyle Kessler, a Philadelphia playwright, called “Orphans” and it was actually, I mean the crazy synergy of life, the luck, that I was acting with a guy names Josh Klausner, who ended up writing the story for the movie Date Night and is a very talented writer and director now.

And my next director was Eugene Jarecki, brother of Andrew Jarecki, who did Capturing the Freidmans and Eugene, who he himself directed Why We Fight and a bunch of fascinating documentaries himself, and I just happened into the group of people who I thought were maybe the coolest on the planet and wanted to be a little more like them and the rush of being on stage and making people laugh and making people cry and something about my psychosis as a second child, younger sibling, wanting attention combined and, bam, an actor is born.

How did working with Henry Winkler bring out the best in you as an actor, in terms of something unexpected?

Mark Feuerstein: Henry is always present; he’s always listening as an actor.  He only wants for you to do the best work you can do, meaning he’s concerned not only for himself, and he’s always great, but also for his scene partner, so there’s this moment that I love from season two in one of his first episodes; I think it was like the first episode he shot.  We’re standing on the deck of Ms. Newport’s house at a party she’s throwing for her daughter.  It’s like the second or third time I’ve seen our dad out there and he just shows up at this party and I’m very resentful and I’m very dismissive of him.

The line in the script was, “I hope that soon you’ll be able to trust me.”  My reaction was something like, yeah, whatever, goodbye.  But when the camera was on me and not on him, he changed the line and he said, “Hank, I love you.”  Instead of being able to just dismiss it, it got this reaction out of me that was vulnerable, unexpected and much more interesting than what had been evoked just by the words on the page, because he just gave a much higher stakes feed into my line and that’s the kind of actor he is.

How did you prepare for your role as a doctor on the show?

Mark Feuerstein: I followed doctors around, whoever would allow me to.  I met with concierge doctors.  I sat in on a brain surgery approaching the time of shooting, staring through a hole in somebody’s head and looking into the center of who they are.

I talked to concierge doctors about who their clients are.  I think they’re generally slightly older and slightly less attractive than the ones you see on Royal Pains, but I got a sense for what niche this concierge medicine thing has filled in our marketplace.  And we have on staff on the show a doctor named Irving Danish.  He’s an emergency surgeon in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  And not only is he the onset doctor who is helping to make sure that everything we’re performing is accurate.  He’s also the doctor who is giving the writers their ideas for the emergency situations that come up on the show, so there’s a great synergy that happens because he’s the one who thought of these, who researched them and who offered them up to be written.

So, right there on set we have the best source ever.  He’s also the best guy ever because if you’re suffering from something actual on set, whether it’s me getting vertigo from diving into a pool ten times in a row or Paulo having headache, he’s right there.  So, there are actual medical episodes that he’s taking care of while also giving us the brilliant fake ones.

What would you say you and your character Hank have in common?

Mark Feuerstein: That’s a great question.  I think wish more than is actually true.  But I would say the aspiration of Hank, the hope that he is living the best life he can for who he is; I share that with Hank.  Hank is trying to do the most good for the most people where he can and given what happened to him back in Brooklyn, he has to make do with a new situation out in Long Island and as an actor, you’re always trying to find the best opportunities.

I certainly have, just like Hank, my own skeletons in the closet, as my manager would say, everything from a bad TV show here and there to a bad audition here and there.  So the name of the show this Thursday night is “Mulligan,” which means, in golf terms, a do-over.  And just like my character gets a do-over in Long Island, just like Henry Winkler’s character gets a do-over I feel that as an actor I’ve been given a do-over with Royal Pains to do it right.

What are the challenges you face in portraying Hank?

Mark Feuerstein:  Nah, it’s nothin’, I phone it in.  No, it’s a great role that there are many challenges.  There are challenges in terms of the high stakes emotion that is called upon Hank every week, whether it’s for a patient or his brother or his father or Divya or Jill.  I love the role because I get to be romantic, dramatic, comedic and this medical MacGyver.  So, it’s thrilling for all those reasons.

But there are moments, in addition to just the acting of it and the emotional challenges of just acting really beautifully written scenes, the medical terminology; I’m thinking of things like glossopharyngeal nerve, I’m thinking of familial vasovagal syncope, all the various conditions and ailments that I have to pronounce correctly and have to do it under duress and the pressure of an emergency medical situation.  That’s challenging in and of itself.

But all the challenges that come with this role are never challenges like taking a history test in high school.  They’re the challenges you dream of having.  When I’m walking Carl Schurz park, where I walk on the upper East Side learning my lines for hours on end, just trying to by osmosis shove them into my brain for the time they need to be there, I’m never not aware how lucky I am that I get this challenge every week to learn these beautiful lines, to tell these beautiful stories, as I play this dream role for an actor.

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