Exclusive Interview: Michael Gaston, of Jericho
Exclusive Interview: Michael Gaston, of Jericho
Michael Gaston, who plays Gray Anderson on Jericho, has had a long and expansive career in television.  Gaston has been featured in Prison Break, CSI, Law & Order, The Practice, The West Wing, Without a Trace, NCIS, Ed, Ally McBeal, and The Sopranos, among others.  His new show, Jericho, became of TV's surprise hits in the fall and continues to garner a large fan base.  Michael talked to us at BuddyTV yesterday about how he got into the business and his experiences on Jericho.

Can you give us a little information about how you got into acting in the first place? How’d you break into the business?

Well, I did it in kind of a backwards sort of way.  All the way through high school and into college what I thought I was going to be was a teacher.  I originally thought I wanted to be a teacher and then all my teachers told me what a lousy profession it was and counseled me against it and - this is how sad things are in the state of education in America - my teachers told me I was too smart to be a teacher.  I wasn’t really much of a science or math kid so the only thing we knew about was law, and the only think I knew about law was movies…and that seemed cool.

Those were always exciting scenes in the movies.  And then I met some lawyers and they were collectively the most unhappy group of people that I had ever come across before, or since, and realized that I didn’t want to do that, so I said, “Well, heck with it, I’ll go back to being a teacher.”  And I actually did teach high school for a short time and I used to tutor reading to elementary school kids and did it all the way through school and college and got accepted to teacher's college and the University of California. 

Sort of in the interim, I graduated in December because I had gone away to Europe and took some time off, so I graduated at sort of an odd time of year and decided to take a little theater games class for non major students, you know, a bunch of chemist and engineers sitting around trying to learn how to talk to people.  I saw really quickly what drew me to being a lawyer and being a teacher was the performance side of it, and I was actually pretty darn good at it, and it made me incredibly happy, so I just kind of rolled with it.  And the more I did it, the more I realized I really wanted to do it for a living.  So I got into a school in New York that turned out to be a crack pot school but it got me to New York, and my roommate was a guy from college who was at NYU, in the grad program, one of his classmates was Marsha Gay Harden, who won the Academy Award for Pollock, who I just did a movie with, playing her husband.  And these were real serious young actors who were incredibly good and interesting and exciting and smart.  So I kept falling forward and I fell toward NYU to the grad program, and I got in. 

We were a class of 17 students out of 800 applicants and we got in and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.  I was trained by people who were not only good at what they did, but were actually working in the business and knew the business from a very real and practical place, as well as having a lot of the necessary tools to teach me how to apply my craft and taught me acting in a very dignified way.  So, that’s sort of where I started.  My training was doing theater, I got out of graduate school, went straight to Shakespeare in the Park and understudied a Morgan Freeman production of the Taming of the Shrew in Central Park with Tracy Ullman and Helen Hunt.  I had a little tiny speaking part and sat on the back steps and helped Morgan learn his lines. 

How did you find out about Jericho?  How did you get cast on the show?

Kind of the traditional way.  I live in New York, but I have agents out here, and I came out for pilot season, and this script came along and strangely, I being asked to read for Gerald McRaney’s part, the part of Mr. Green, and I said, “Come on you guys.  I mean I’m bald, but I’m only 44 years old.” This guy, when it was originally written, had a bad heart problem and he was carrying around glycerin pills and it was just crazy, and I said, “I don’t really want to read for this guy, I’ll never get hired here…what about this weird little part of Grey Anderson, he doesn’t do much in the pilot but he looks interesting.”  And they said “Yeah, sure, prepare them both and come into the audition.” I’ve been doing this long enough to know that if you’ve prepared two large parts, you do them both half as well.  So I just said screw it and I didn’t even prepare the part of the mayor and came in to do Grey and read it on tape.

I actually auditioned for a show called Standoff and had been offered a part on that, and so this was the first time in my life that I had two people that wanted me at the same time and it really worked in my favor.  Jericho made an offer really fast and I was ecstatic because I was so thrilled by the idea and the part, and John Turtletaub, who I’m just a huge fan of, and there couldn’t be a better guy who was going to direct it and executive produce it and put together the whole team, and I’m not kidding when I say that it’s the best professional experience I’ve had in the 20 years of doing this.  It’s the greatest group of people, the material is great.  Really smart smart actors who are really dedicated.  Even one of the grips told me he’s been doing this for 30 years; he said it’s the most fun he’s had going to work his career.  It’s just a great situation.

While shooting the pilot, how confident were you in the show, that you’d be picked up and what was the general feeling around the set?

The general feeling I think…I’ve done seven pilots and only two have been picked up.  The last two actually – Blind Justice and this.  And I don’t know if you remember this, but last year CBS picked up almost every show they had on the air early.  So, before we even made the pilot, they had already picked up almost their whole slate of shows.  It seemed like they needed nothing.  We couldn’t figure out what we were doing there. And personally, you just can’t engage in even worrying about that.  You just have to keep the eye on the prize and do your work, and make it as good as you can knowing that even if no one sees it outside of CBS and some test audiences, you really want to do your best work.  I mean we were on set with some tremendous actors – Lenny Jenkins, Skeet, Gerald and Pamela.  We’re all trying to, in the best sense, impress one another.  When you get out there, you don’t even thinking about that stuff. You’re just trying to make really good TV in the moment and make it as good as you can possibly make it. 

We had a really solid script from Steven Shibosky and we had enough money to do it well.  They weren’t throwing money around, but they also weren’t being stupidly cheap.  And we knew we had something good, I felt like, as I watched what we were doing, although I never saw a frame of it until it was completed in its final final form.  I knew that Skeet was really, really good and I knew that Lenny was incredible.  I could see the stuff going on.

You’ve appeared on a number of TV shows, but mostly as a guest star.   What’s the difference for an actor in terms of approach, performance, etc. when you’re a regular character on a show?

Well, primarily, and it may be a illusory, but you have security.  And you know the people around you.  It’s so much easier to relax.  For me, and I think most actors will tell you, it’s impossible to work when you’re freaked out, when you’re tense, when you don’t know anybody, where you don’t feel accepted.  You’re putting yourself out there and your throwing your little creative ass out on the line. And when you’re doing it amongst respected colleagues who have to do it in front of you day in and day out, and you get to know each other’s kids, and wives and families and everything, it’s such a different feeling.  And your preparation, you get to know who your character is over time.  When you’re a guest on a show, quite often, you don’t even get a script.  You don’t even know your place within the context of the larger story.  But you certainly don’t have your material for more than a day or two.  You have to completely make up your own back story and who you are and ground yourself in reality.  I mean the beauty of being a regular from an acting standpoint, is the ability to relax.

Which do you prefer – TV or film?

I have to say, what most people would probably tell you is they love the movies and the glamour quotient is a little higher.  I find myself enjoying doing a character on television so much more than almost any of the movies I’ve every done.  It really depends, it’s case by case.  You can do really crappy TV with unfriendly people, and have it just be miserable.  On a movie, for the most part, unless you’re the lead every single day on a huge action adventure movie, you’re done in a couple of months…three months maybe.  This is, we all get to know each other, the crew gets to know each other, the families come to work, and you get to really sink your teeth into stuff.

Can you give us any hints, story-wise, on what’s coming up on Jericho in the next couple of episodes?

(Laughs)  Not much.  I’ll tell you that, which everybody knows, the episode that’s on Wednesday night, will be a flashback episode.  It will primarily follow Hawkins before the bomb and Skeet’s character, Jake, before the bomb.  I’m not even in the episode.  A lot of us got a week off.  And then after that, it sort of picks back up.  If anything I’ll say that the action…there’s much more action.  The real understanding that the shit has hit the fan in a profound way, is much more evident.  Things get bad, things get really cold.  And the ways that people…the strategies that people have in coping with that, get more and more radical and crazy and occasionally violent.  There’s some big stuff and we’re going to lose some people.