Have you been watching The Event on NBC? It stars Blair Underwood, Jason Ritter and Bill Smitrovich and Hal Holbrook.
Bill’s an incredible character actor who’s been in dozens of movies and has been a series regular on over 7 shows, including The Event. On the show, he plays ‘Vice President Jarvis’, who’s character is beginning about to have a major part in the story.
Hal Holbrook… well, he’s Hal Holbrook. In the show, he plays Dempsey, “a businessman with shadowy intentions.”
These guys have both been in the business a long time and listening to them talk was a true treat.
I got a chance to talk to them in a media conference call where they talked about the show and the life of an actor. And as a bonus, Mr. Holbrook tells the story of how he got started acting. You’re going to love it.
Hal, I’m curious to know how you identify with a mysterious character like Dempsey when we don’t really know who he is?
Hal Holbrook: Well I know he’s up to no good. And there are so many people in our society today who are also up to no good. They all wear cuff links and take home millions of dollars. So I have some wonderful examples staring at me in the face every day, every time I turn the news on or pick up the newspaper. So I have no problem understanding playing this man.
The thing that’s interesting about a person who is not doing good, sometimes called a villain, I don’t know whether this man’s a villain or not yet I haven’t figured it out, but whatever he is he’s up to no good. But what he thinks – a person who does ill toward other people doesn’t do it with the idea that he’s doing ill. He thinks he’s okay. He doesn’t say, “I’m doing a bad thing.” He thinks he’s doing something good and that’s what this man thinks.
And, Bill, coming off such a meaty episode for Jarvis, what do you like about the direction of the character as compared to who he was in the pilot?
Bill Smitrovich: Well it’s always nice to have your character be revealed in some way and the depth of that character because of this episode, will be revealed as well. But it also sets up great conflicts, inner conflicts, for this character. As Hal so eloquently put, there are a lot of monsters out there who wear cuff links and get millions of dollars a year and I happen to get caught up in this cesspool of promises from those kinds of people.
I have no problem as Hal does, you know, playing a character like this because they do exist and it’s just fun and rewarding to play this kind of character and to investigate the conflicts that go on inside of someone who is I think a really stand-up guy but got caught in the wrong pajamas I should say.
Do you think a show like “The Event” is feeding into the current mood in America or feeding off it?
Bill Smitrovich: Well I think it’s a little bit of both. And certainly there is reason to be paranoid and reason to be concerned. But it’s entertainment. I mean it’s – what – but if we can call it art, and I do believe that we have artists on the show. I don’t think television has been called an art form any time recently but I think art is supposed to be something that, you know, calls people to duty, wakes them up.
I was wondering, so how far ahead of the script – are you told on an episode-by-episode basis? Or are you ever given like ideas of what may come in the future for your character?
Hal Holbrook: I don’t have any idea. I’m just very interested. I’m like a member of the audience. I can’t wait to find out what I’m going to do next, you know.
Bill Smitrovich: Amen. It’s like being in a novel, you know. Go from one chapter to the next, you know, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself. It’s kind of fun to play the immediacy of this moment, you know. And it’s not so necessary for us to really know what our lives are going to be because nobody knows what their lives are going to be.
Hal Holbrook: That’s a very good point. That’s a good point, yeah.
And going into a show like this with a story arc that’s going to go on for a long time with twists, turns and things like that, what were your expectations going in?
Bill Smitrovich: I don’t know. I’m happy to be working. I’ll put it that way. And I’m happy to be working with Hal.
Hal Holbrook: Oh, yeah, working with Bill and good actors. No, I – that’s it, kid. I mean we’re happy to be working. Anybody who isn’t happy to be working these days particularly, you know, has got some kind of a goldmine stuffed somewhere. But it’s wonderful to work with these different actors and have really good actors on this show.
Bill Smitrovich: Yeah. That’s true.
Hal Holbrook: The girl that I played with in this show coming up, Taylor Cole. She is so interesting. Such an interesting young actress. I had a wonderful time playing the scene with her because to begin with she’s very beautiful. She was a model at one time and you can see why. But she’s also a very good actress which is not always the case with a model turned actress, you know.
Bill Smitrovich: Well she’s got a certain raw quality about her that, you know, when we worked together that she’s open and available, you know.
Hal Holbrook: That’s the whole thing. And when I sat down to do this scene with her, you know, I was very aware of her beauty, attractiveness, and then when we started working on the scene I realized well of course what I am reacting to here the character would be reacting. I mean this is a beautiful woman. So something – yeah, no, so I mean that’s part of the scene.
Bill Smitrovich: Well we know your character is not gay.
Hal Holbrook: Yeah. And so the point is that I started – I was reacting to not just the lines I had to say but I was reacting to something that was going on between the two of us and she caught it. And it is played underneath the lines. It’s just there. But it made the scene so interesting. I’m anxious to see how it’s going to come out.
What surprises and challenges have there been in doing a show like this from twists and turns coming every week?
Bill Smitrovich: Well that’s it. The surprises are the twists and turns. An actress that just passed away recently, Jill Clayburgh, God bless her soul. And she said an interesting thing about careers and things like that. She said, “You know, everybody thinks we planned this career out. We don’t plan our careers. Our careers are just the forces of nature, whatever happens, whatever is given to us, whatever opportunity comes to us creates our career. We don’t build this. You know, we might choose what we’re offered but we don’t get to choose our offering.”
Hal Holbrook: That’s so true, Bill. People don’t – I don’t think really understand that anywhere near as true as it actually is.
Bill Smitrovich: We just get an opportunity and we run with it.
Hal Holbrook: Yeah. If somebody hands you a job to begin with and you think it’s good material and, et cetera, and you have the time to do it, you do it. And it can take you I mean, you know, when I was much younger somebody from Universal, Sidney Sheinberg, came to New York. I was – I hardly ever done a movie. I just was a stage actor and he offered me a job playing a lead in a television series for Universal. And I did it. It was called “The Senator” on Sunday night and it changed my whole focus. It changed my whole life as an actor.
How did you get this opportunity to be on “The Event”?
Bill Smitrovich: Well I was sent the script and I went in to meet the producers and the director, Jeffrey Reiner, and they called and said, “You’re the guy.” And I was thrilled. You know, this script was the best pilot script I had read, you know, in a long time and the best of the year as far as I’m concerned. It had more levels. It had more colors. And it, you know, had a reason to live. It was, you know, captivating and a page-turner. You know it was a slam dunk and I’m just tired of wearing general outfits so I’m going to go back to the suit. I figure it’s just a natural progression for me, you know, captain to the general then the joint chiefs of staff and then vice president and then who knows.
Hal Holbrook: Well my agent, (Joe Rice), sent the script here and my sister (Joyce) read it and I read it and I thought it was very interesting, interesting character and didn’t quite understand what was going to be going on with the show because they were very secretive. So I met with them and liked it, you know, and it was a wonderful opportunity.
I didn’t realize when I took the job how interesting this character was going to be though. That’s the thing that’s turned out to be like candy to me because now I’m getting so interested in this character, what an evil person he is. But he has all kinds of sides, you know, like the interesting thing – the thing that’s fun about acting, one of the things of course, is you find all these different colored lights in a character. This guy’s a bad guy, okay. But what else is he? You know.
Bill Smitrovich: There are so many scripts that we get and I’m sure you’ll agree with this where the characters are so one dimensional and just, you know, you’re the bad guy. That’s it. You know, bing, bing. You’re the good the guy and you’re the funny guy. All the characters in this script can be funny. They can be bad. They can be good just like life.
Hal Holbrook: You can feel sorry for them and you can hate them…
Bill Smitrovich: That’s called art.
Bill, did you have any idea when you got the script the turn that your character would take?
Bill Smitrovich: I was waiting for my character to take a turn from the beginning. But well I can tell you at the beginning of the show I felt very much like a vice president. No one was telling me anything and I didn’t know anything. And I was going to a lot of ribbon-cuttings and that was the extent of it. But now this episode clearly launches this character and a major part of the whole story. And I’m just thrilled.
Hal Holbrook: Yeah. It’s – I mean what’s happening to Bill’s character is an example of what this show is all about. You get surprised by the twists and turns that these characters are taking and the situations in which they find themselves.
What’s the most challenging aspect of playing your character?
Hal Holbrook: I would think figuring him out, you know. Thinking about what kind of person this is, bringing it into my own life, bringing it into my own circle of observation of how people behave and slowly getting a specific idea of who this guy is. The interesting thing about the role is the challenges that it offers.
Bill Smitrovich: My particular challenge I would say would be being in the middle of good and evil and how to make that work for myself you know, as the character. You know, I got myself caught up in an evil situation and inherently Jarvis is a good man. And now he finds himself in this cesspool of, I don’t know, promises that he’s keeping or has promised to keep or has been keeping. But it’s a – that’s the challenge just to make it as human as possible, make it as interesting because we are really all about the human condition as actors. We’re not, you know, all humans come in different sizes, colors, shapes and politics, so you’ve got to find the inner core of that character, you know, the – what makes them tick.
Mr. Holbrook, do you ever think about retiring or are you the kind of actor that you’re just going to stop when they stop coming to see you?
Hal Holbrook: Actors do not retire. They get retired. Sooner or later they will retire me and put me back in the closet and you’ll never hear from me again but until that day happens I am not going to reach for a golf club.
But it’s a great – you know, it’s a great privilege to be an actor. I know Bill feels exactly the same way.
Bill Smitrovich: I really do.
Hal Holbrook: It’s a great profession. It’s a great privilege to be an actor.
Bill Smitrovich: It’s the best job in the world when you’re working.
Hal Holbrook: Yeah. And especially if you can deal with interesting material and characters that are really interesting where you can be saying something to people out there through your character. I mean it’s a wonderful way of life and it keeps your brain going. You know, they say that the memory situation, the more you use the memory part of your brain, the longer it will keep working. I’m knocking on wood. Where is some wood? Bang. Bang.
And, you know, part of the challenge is to keep your body working right. So, you know, I keep checking the doctor every few weeks to make sure all the different parts of my body are still working.
Bill Smitrovich: Maybe we better not go into that, Hal.
As far as your characters go, did you help create any of your little quirks or mannerisms that you brought to the character?
Bill Smitrovich: We get actors with a show like this anyway, you know, we’ve got some really fine actors and I think the producers are aware of that. And they give us the words on a page and we take those words and we run with it. And we’re inspired by their words as the writers are inspired by our performances.
So whatever we come up with in our imagination is always in tune with what the writers are thinking about because their looking for answers too. And our – the way we develop and the way we portray our characters gives them the fuel that they need to go on after they’ve started the fire.
Hal Holbrook: Yeah. They have to bet on us, you know. When they cast an actor like Bill or myself in a role they’ve thought over, you know, what they’re looking for and in terms of the character but that’s what they’re looking for. But what we’re going to give them is something they don’t know about until they see it. They trust us because we’re – we’ve proved ourselves out to be a good enough actor for the – to be considered for the part. So then you get – they give us this material and the writer is tremendously important to us. What he puts down, how he puts it down, how he handles dialogue for example is extremely important to us. And we learn this stuff and think about it and then we give back to the writer and the producer and all as well as the audience, we give back what these words and these ideas have formulated inside of us and we give it back to them.
Bill Smitrovich: Yeah. Our interpretation.
Hal Holbrook: Yeah. And so it’s – you know, the producers and writers don’t really know what we’re going to give to them until they see what we’re giving to them. Sometimes it’s a pleasant surprise. There are probably times when it isn’t. It’s called a – I forget what they call it but it’s called a cooperative endeavor here, you know what I mean.
Bill Smitrovich: That’s right. We’re collaborating.
Hal Holbrook: Collaborating. That’s what the theater is. That’s what the show business is. It’s collaboration.
Bill I wanted to find out, out of all the episodes that have aired so far, do you have a maybe an especially memorable scene or an especially challenging scene acting-wise for your character would you say?
Bill Smitrovich: Well the most – one of the most challenging scenes I’ve had so far has been in Episode 8. But I really can’t tell you what it is until it airs. And it’s where I am really stuck in the middle of a conflict coming from three different directions and including my life and is at stake. And I’m on the phone with the president and I had a lot of dialogue and a lot of opportunity to show or display my character’s raison d’être and it was difficult. It was many takes because there was a ballet with the three cameras that they were trying to do at the same time.
So while they’re doing the ballet I’m trying to, you know, give the same or a better performance every take and it’s, you know, that was challenging. I will say that. And then the other challenging thing was working with Hal.
Hal Holbrook: What was challenging about it? I just said my lines, man.
Bill Smitrovich: Well that was the challenging part. I didn’t know mine and you knew yours.
Hal Holbrook: Well I want to tell you, some of these lines I mean they’re kind of – some of the words in there especially this pharmaceutical guy, man alive. That’s really something. Yeah.
Mr. Holbrook, did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?
Hal Holbrook: Well yeah, I mean I was in school and I was at Culver Military Academy in Indiana. And my fourth year, my last year, I had flunked Algebra and I was never very good in math and I flunked Algebra and I had to take it over again in my senior year plus the regular curriculum which meant I had extra credit, you know, hours, extra classes.
So I had to pick something really, really – I mean astronomy was out. You know, I had used up my chapel credit. I needed one more hour of credit and it had to be very, very, I mean, hopelessly simple.
And a friend of mine in the company I was in, (Perry Fisk), was in the dramatics class. There was a dramatics class. They had a very find dramatics class there at Culver. Josh Logan came out of it, people like that. So (Perry) said, “Well you know, you could go out for dramatics Harry Hal,” he called me. “It’s a one hour credit.”
And I said, “No. I wouldn’t want to do -” I didn’t want to tell him that I didn’t want to associate with a bunch of weirdoes because we thought people in the dramatics class were really weird and strange. So I said, “No, I wouldn’t want to do that. I couldn’t go on the stage.” And he said, “Well Major (Mather) will probably just give you one line or something.” And I said, “No, no, no, I couldn’t do that, (Perry).” And then he said, “Well there’s no homework.” I said, “What?”
He said, “There’s no homework.” So that made the decision for me that was it. So I went out for dramatics and before long in the class I started too really like these people. They were very unmilitary and they were fun and they had a great sense of humor.
And when I walked on the stage for the first time I was in the opening scene. I was playing an old man of course and I was in a George M. Cohan play called “Seven Keys to Baldpate.” And I went out there and suddenly I was in front of this great mass of darkness and silence and this blue light was on me and I started to speak and I had this extraordinary feeling for the first time in my life people were listening to me.
For the first time in my life people were listening to me. And I can’t tell you what a feeling it gave me. And when I walked off stage sweating, you know, just perspiring, I stood there breathing heavy, there was an elderly lady who played the character ladies, you know, she was married to one of the guys – teachers and she was sitting there she’d been in Vaudeville and everything. She’s sitting back stage and she looked at me in the dark sweating and breathing and she said, “You’re hooked, Sonny.” She knew.