The Emmy-winning sitcom star is back with a high-concept science-fiction show, Travelers. He talks about working collaboratively, managing egos and trying to stay grounded in La-La-Land:
You spent years as a member of a beloved TV ensemble on Will & Grace. Travelers is another group effort. What is your best tip on creative collaboration?
It’s a combination of leadership and then having the sense to open up the floor. On Will & Grace, the creators knew exactly what they wanted. They came from the traditional world of TV writing, where it was, “Here are the jokes—you deliver them.” Debra Messing and I kept speaking up and offering our suggestions. At first the writers weren’t so keen. It was Jim Burrows, our legendary director, who said to them, “You have four very smart actors here—you should listen to them.” That started a collaboration that was very different from anything else that was going on at the time.
Were there competing egos?
Well, I’ve got a news flash: There’s a lot of ego in show business. But there’s a lot of ego in any business, and it can threaten any group dynamic. It’s about balance. You can’t fully bury your ego; it’s what allowed me to speak up and be part of the creative process.
Is a strong group dynamic something you can work on, or is chemistry one of those “either you have it or you don’t” things?
My experience has been more of the latter. In our business, that’s why the casting director has such a huge responsibility: It’s not just about getting who’s great but getting great people who work together.
The rest of the Travelers ensemble are younger actors, so you were the seasoned veteran on set. What advice did you offer?
Old guys can go on a lot, so I try to tell stories that are actually helpful. One example: On Will & Grace, we would hear from guest stars that it was the most pleasant set they had ever been on. That was very much an intentional thing. As soon as we shot the pilot, the four of us had a little meeting and said, “Let’s not treat anybody the way we have all been treated.” We all had experiences. I guest-starred on Ally McBeal once, and nobody talked to me. I was like, “Anybody? Anybody?” We didn’t want to be those guys. So I told the Travelers group that the tone we set only comes back to reward us.
Why was it important to you to be a producer on Travelers?
As a producer, I got to collaborate on a creative level with Brad [Wright, creator of Travelers]. I was in on the discussions. Of course, there are advantages [of not producing]—you go in, do your job, get out. But that’s like saying, “Every time there’s an important discussion, I’ll excuse myself,” and that’s just not the way I like to work. It’s not a control thing; it’s an experience thing. I’ve been around long enough to have a point of view that might be helpful.
You spent five years at the Stratford Festival. How did that training prepare you for Hollywood?
In so many ways. So many people arrive in L.A. in their late teens or 20s without a lot of experience. When I got there I had a resumé and 10 years doing half of Shakespeare’s canon. It gave me a sense of, “I’m here for the long haul, and if I didn’t get this episode of Melrose Place, it’s OK.”
It that Melrose Place audition hypothetical?
No. It happened. On [the TV series] Lonesome Dove, I had a beard and long hair. It’d be considered a cool look now, but back in ’95, we were all supposed to look like Jason Priestley. So when I went to L.A., I shaved my beard and found a variety of chins, thanks to all of that Canadian beer. I was still thinking like a theatre actor—you don’t have to be chiselled in theatre.
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