In NBC’s new drama, Awake, Jason Isaacs plays Michael Britten, a Detective who is trapped in two separate realities. In one reality, his wife survived, but his son has died; in the other, his son is alive, but his wife is gone. In each world, Britten is ordered into therapy by his department to help him come to grips with his personal tragedy.
Britten’s two therapists, Drs. Lee and Evans, are played by BD Wong (Law & Oder: Special Victims Unit) and Cherry Jones (24). After 11 years on SVU, Wong wasn’t looking to play another therapist but he liked the script for Awake so much, that he didn’t even care he was about to play another Psychiatrist.
While both Wong and Jones are primarily known for their television work, at least for me, their theater work is impresses me most. Jones is a two-time Tony Award winner for The Heiress and Doubt and Wong won his statue for M. Butterfly.
They are two of the nicest people you’ll ever talk with and you can totally tell this in the Q&A. Here, they talk about Awake, how Cherry is the “worst auditioner in the world” and what it’s like to win a Tony.
BD, what was it about this role that made you want to play another psychiatrist?
BD Wong: I didn’t really want to play another psychiatrist or psychologist, but I was looking for a change after being on SVU for 11 years, and I just liked the script, the Awake script, which was then called REM, so much that I kind of just jumped at the chance and I did it rather blind to the fact that the characters were in the same job, actually. I just really thought the script was great and I wanted to be on the show.
Cherry, what brought you to the role?
Cherry Jones: Well, I was contacted by Howard Gordon a while ago, I mean a long time ago, about this show. And he, you know like producers do and writers do, he just told me this very, very rough, rough sketch of the show. And I thought, well that sounds awfully intriguing. And then I guess when they wrote the part they wrote it for a, like a, you know, 29-year-old blonde, very inexperienced, very enthusiastic psychiatrist.
And at that point, you had Britten’s beautiful young wife, you had the tennis instructor for Britten’s son, who was a beautiful young woman, and then you had this young psychiatrist who was a beautiful young woman. And I think finally the producers said to Kyle [Killen], we’ll give you one, we’ll give you two, but we ain’t going to give you three.
And so they upped the age of the psychiatrist and called me and like BD I read the script and I just thought it was really intriguing, had no idea how it could work or sustain itself, but wanted to come along for the ride.
And again, you know, it’s like the thing with pilots, you never have a clue whether they’re going to get picked up or not. And we just, you know, we just didn’t know, except the quality of it sure looked good while we were making it.
BD, you’re a part of Twitter, why is that such an important place for you to connect with fans and promote things you’re working on?
BD Wong: I find it a little bit like a game and I really enjoy it, it really entertains me in a way that I was surprised by, it’s quite addictive. And I do find it a little bit like a platform for a kind of weird performance art, you know, 140 characters for you to say something that’s hopefully interesting and not too self-indulgent.
And I just really have enjoyed it. And the side effects of it being a way to interact with people who are interested in what you’re doing is also been great. You know it’s come in really handy when this show was about to premiere and I’m testing the waters of how people respond to the show and have a good, really god feeling for their enthusiasm for it.
I’d like if each of you could reflect for just a second on kind of what does it mean to you the first time you won a Tony. And in this case, is does this role feel a little bit like you’re doing a play?
BD Wong: Well I’ll just say I don’t, you know, I only have the one Tony so I don’t have more than a frame of reference. But I do feel that the style of this show affords me more of an opportunity even though it’s on television to use some of the – I don’t know, to access some of the fun and the depth of the work that you can possibly do on – I don’t think it’s at all similar really, I always find television completely different from working on stage.
But I do feel that there is a kind of depth to this particular show that is a new thing for me. And I would kind of compare that in some way to the writing and the execution of a good play. But it is still kind of different.
Cherry Jones: Well, I’ll tell you honestly the first time I won a Tony, I was, the next day I was so depressed. I think it’s cause – I think, well, Newt Gingrich is a great example, I can’t believe I just cited Newt Gingrich, but we all like to be the underdog, and there’s something about being the underdog, the expectations are not as great or something, and when you win a Tony, the next day I was young enough that I thought, oh no, now I’ve got to be really good, and it depressed me.
The second one is like, this is great, you know, I was old enough to just enjoy it. But it – I can’t say, I’m like BD, I can’t really say, it’s so different, and of course our roles are rather just physically rather static. So it really is about my brain trying to figure out his brain.
And that’s about as – I don’t know if micro is the right word, but in acting it doesn’t get much smaller than that in a way, because you’re just going from one brain to the next, and just trying to – and we have very different techniques, the two doctors, which is fun to play, although we rarely have – you know, I wish we could be in a court of law sometimes the way he goes about it, just trying to help Detective Britten.
But it’s, I can’t even begin to say that it’s like a play. I mean, I guess it’s like if you string them all together then it’s like a play. If you string all 13 episodes and our scenes together, then it’s like a play, then it’s our play and Britten’s play.
BD Wong: Really not like a play in that, you know, we never see each other face-to-face as characters, we’re not really going head-to-head in that way, except the editor is making us go head-to-head. We are never even in the same room. So we don’t have the action of playing off of each other in that way that you do when you’re on stage. We definitely are robbed of that.
Cherry, last time we saw you on television was on 24. How did you enjoy doing that, and then coming into this show?
Cherry Jones: Well, I loved being the president of the United States. You get a lot of respect in airports, especially from the screeners. No, it was a great job. And things have gotten much more quiet for me now, I’ve gone from president of the United States to a psychiatrist with seemingly only one client, so my responsibilities have become smaller.
But I, you know, it is, it’s cool to just sit in a chair and you can’t even really, I don’t know, I don’t even think of it as acting. It’s something about when it’s that small, and so intimate, it becomes something else, I don’t know, of course it’s acting, but it’s a very different experience from anything I’ve had before.
BD Wong: The thing that I would agree with is that definitely that its focus is taken off of your body entirely when you’re sitting on that chair and is put on your face and inside your brain more. And so you’re – I know exactly what Cherry’s talking about when she says there’s a completely different feeling to the kind of acting that you’re doing.
I don’t think there really is a name for it. It’s just not body acting at all. I mean it’s very rarely at all related to anything you’re doing physically. And so that causes a kind of uber-cerebralness to it, I think, it makes you really aware of the thoughts and the ideas that you’re talking about in a way. It’s almost like turning the lights out or something like that
And you know, like hearing a person’s voice and really being able to concentrate on what it is that they’re saying because you’re only looking at their face and listening to their voice and not processing their body language. So I totally agree with that, I think that’s really an interesting aspect of the part.
BD, you were on Law and Order for 11 years. Did you jump, were you wooed from that to do this, or was your time up there?
BD Wong: No, my time was not up, I was kind of just looking around and I decided at the time when new shows were starting to be cast, I decided to just kind of throw my hat in the ring again and see if anything would turn up. And I was lucky that this came along, and so I just basically kind of quietly transitioned from one to the other. They never even really explained what happened to Dr. Huang and I suppose that left the door open for some kind of reappearance or something, but it was very quiet and uneventful, and so no, I was kind of in my – by my own doing kind of lured from one to the other, really.
It almost seems as though there are two casts on the show? Do you guys get to see each other on set? Do you get to compare notes or sit down and work out ways to exacerbate the differences between the therapists?
BD Wong: We don’t really act with each other but we do pass each other in the night as it were. Our sets are next to each other, Cherry’s office set and my office set are right adjacent to one another. So invariably they shoot our scenes on the same day and we either – one of us will be first and the other one will follow, and they’ll call us in a kind of overlapping way.
So we definitely see each other and we see each other as we’re preparing in makeup and all of that stuff. But we also, you know, like I’ve taken to kind of leaving notes for Cherry on the set and stuff like that, that she might find randomly.
If you had your choice, what would you guys prefer to do, all the time: TV, film, or theater?
BD Wong: The theater.
Cherry Jones: Well, if – yes, theater. If it’s one or the other forever more, I think it’s definitely without any question.
What’s one of the worst auditions you’ve ever had?
BD Wong: Oh, God.
Cherry Jones: Oh, there’s been so many. I have terrible nerves, I’m the worst auditioner in the world. I just become terribly nervous because I can’t stand having one shot. You know, it’s such an unnatural thing to do. It’s like, you know, you, as an actor, if you’re worth your salt, you’re going to grow and grow ad grow each time, and you know often you don’t have the material long enough to really be able to give it your all.
And there’s some people who are much better at it than others. But I remember one in particular, Peter Frechette and I went in to audition for Julie Harris’ Glass Menagerie. I think Calista Flockhart and Zeljko Ivanek eventually got the roles, and Peter and I were just, we were big Lauras and Toms and we were big people, and Julie was so petite, and we just did not do probably our best work that day.
But I remember Peter said as we exited, he said, “You know, Cherry if we ever play Laura and Tom, the only woman we could do it with playing Amanda would be Nancy Marchand.”
I’m the worst auditioner in the world and my heart goes out to anyone out there today who’s going in for an audition.
BD Wong: Yes, I mean I don’t know how to top that. I have had too many bad auditions to even begin to think about the worst one. I do actually like to audition and…
Cherry Jones: Oh, you do not. You’re one of those?
BD Wong: I am one of those. Not that I like to, but I think of it sometimes as a bit of a sport. And yet that doesn’t mean that I, that it’s by any stretch of the imagination that it’s always good or that I always do well or anything like that.
Cherry Jones: That’s a healthy approach.
BD Wong: I don’t know, I just think I’ve made a bit of a game out of it, maybe it’s because I felt like I had to do it so much earlier on in my career that I did it as a survival, you know, some kind of survival mechanism kicked in or something.
Cherry Jones: I usually leave auditions muttering to myself in such a way that people avoid me on the street.
BD Wong: Well, and then I’m always muttering to myself on the way in as well, because I’m trying to over-prepare something. You’re muttering in completely ways on the way in and the way out.
Cherry Jones: Yes, I think half the people in New York City that people think are schizophrenics are just actors coming or going from auditions.
BD Wong: Yes, I find it always, afterwards I feel this really huge sense of relief and a sense of almost always not having done as well as I had hoped for myself.
Cherry Jones: Oh, and then there’s those rare ones where you just feel like you nailed it. Which we can probably note for each of us may be three.
BD Wong: I would say that I have done that very few times and they’re very memorable times. I would say the one time that I knew that I had done that was the audition for M. Butterfly, that was probably – I felt that in such a potent way.
Cherry Jones: How old were you when you did that, BD?
BD Wong: Twenty-seven. Not as young as one might think, but…
Cherry Jones: No, but that’s young.
BD Wong: Extremely inexperienced. But then I did, to finish the anecdote, I was in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse, a musical, and I had to fly back home after this audition to do a performance that evening. And I left the theater on a high, and I got in a taxi and I went to the airport, I went to JFK and realized that my ticket was for Newark.
So I was completely, in a complete state of, you know, disorientation the whole time. I don’t think I can add anything else to that.
David Slade directed the pilot, so what was it like working with him and some of the other directors?
BD Wong: We had some great directors. I like almost every single one, I don’t recall not liking any of them, which is kind of rare for me, I hate to say. I – he was great, he was very helpful, actually he was, you know, my best memory of David Slade is that he was very helpful for me during the audition process because he was the director for the pilot and involved in the process of coaching me before my final test. And that was extremely helpful.
And he gave great notes, and he has a great cinematic eye and I think one of the reasons the pilot looks so great is because there’s a lot of interesting camera moves and interesting lighting choices. In the pilot, kind of sad to me that we didn’t ever go back to this, but there was this, there is this dreamy kind of thing that he did, if you’ll notice in the pilot, that it’s as if the clouds are covering the sun while we’re talking in the office.
BD Wong: He dimmed the lights down and brought them back up at very weird times during the scenes, as if the sun was peeking behind the clouds and it was really interesting, and when you see some of these scenes in the show, I don’t think you really will notice it unless you’re looking for it. It’s quite beautiful and very cinematic.
Cherry Jones: Yes, you know so much more about making television and film, and if that happens in my office I wasn’t aware of it. What a neat – to bring in nature that way, to illuminate and darken the scene, that’s really interesting. I enjoyed him immensely too, I mean he’s a very eccentric man. Very quirky, and I believe he told me that, you know, he was incredibly shy as a young boy and he’s a bit of a performer now. He’s gone the other way, and he’s really delightful. And you just never know what he’s going to do or say next.
And, you know, coming from the theater where you have, you know, if you’re lucky and you’re in a successful production, you have one director, and that’s the only director you’re going to see for months. And, or in my case with Doubt, was the only director I saw, I had worked with in a couple of years, and yet I was, you know, on stage every night of those couple of years.
And with this, you know, every week to have a completely different personality come in and take the helm, it is fascinating, because you know, and you go into the makeup trailer each day of the newest episode and you start polling everyone and say, “Well, what do you think?” and “What is their approach?” and you know, and the answers are always completely different.
And there’s some that work incredibly quickly, and then others, you know, that take their time. But they were, for the most part they were always, they were all very, very gentle with us.
BD, did you always want to be an actor?
BD Wong: Yes it was. I was a very hammy kid and was interested in music and that segued into acting in high school and then I just could not think of anything else. I mean I could not think about anything else, I became so dedicated to it, and so one single-minded about it, and have even to this day, not really loved anything more than it.
And Cherry, what about you? Is this what you always wanted to do?
Cherry Jones: I just never wanted to stop play-acting. I grew up in the woods with all of my childhood friends creating all sorts of dire situations that we had to survive, and it was, you know, to me this is – I still shake my head and wonder that I have been allowed to do what I love so much all of my life. I wish that for everyone. But I do know that it’s unusual, and I – no one is more surprised by my career than I.
BD, how tough was it leaving Law and Order?
BD Wong: It was easy and hard, you know, it’s hard to tear yourself away from anything that’s so comfortable and so, it’s something that was so good to me. I mean it really was the foundation for, you know, for so many things in my career. It was a very important job to have taken.
In my personal life, I signed that contract because my son had been born, and I – you know my son is now 11, and so that’s how I know how long I was on that show, is because I signed that contract because I wanted to stay in New York and not go to L.A. while he was little.
And so personally for me there are a lot of really strong resonances to that show, and yet at the same time as a creative person, after many years of doing the show, I really wanted – I just craved a change, and I craved feeling more a part of the driving thrust of a show than I had felt with being on Law and Order.
And so I was just like I said before, I can’t say it enough, just lucky as can be to be able to make the transition that I made. My son was a little older, I spent the time of shooting season one commuting back and forth to L.A., and it really has been a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed it.
And so it was very easy because I really, really wanted to make, to do something new. And it was difficult because I have very strong emotional and personal ties to that job and that family of people that I was working with.