Joe Mantello (‘Hollywood’) on the ‘mysterious and sphinx-like’ quality of Dick Samuels [Complete Interview Transcript]

Joe Mantello made a rare return to television in the form of Dick Samuels on Netflix’s limited series “Hollywood.” His previous project, “The Normal Heart,” scored him an Emmy nomination.

Mantello recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Tony Ruiz about why he was initially hesitant to do “Hollywood,” how Dick Samuels evolved over the course of the series and whether he wants to start directing more film and TV. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Joe, you’re famous for not acting that often, but when you do, there has to be, I assume, something special that draws you to say yes to stepping in front of the camera. So what was it about Dick Samuels that you said, “OK, yes”?

Joe Mantello: When Ryan [Murphy] and I first talked about it, Dick Samuels didn’t really exist as a character. There was an idea of a character that Ryan spoke to me about. He said a sort of Irving Thalberg-like producer who is the head of production at this fictitious studio, someone who is very interested in the quality and he’s really good at his job, slightly intimidating, slightly mysterious and sphinx-like but that, in fact, he was going to be creating it for me and I got very, very nervous, as I do, mainly because I didn’t want to let Ryan down. But he assured me that there was no way that that was going to happen and that we would kind of collaborate and it would be fun. And then once I found out that Jim Parsons had also been offered a role on it, because we were coming sort of to the end of the filming of “Boys in the Band,” which we shot that summer, which I directed and Jim starred in, we thought, “Oh, well, this is an interesting, unexpected kind of continuation of that.” So I was signing on for Ryan. I trusted that Dick Samuels would follow. But it was Ryan.

GD: It’s so funny because as you watch the show, Dick certainly goes on this journey and when I’m watching it he evolves in a certain way. Is there a particular aspect of Dick that was the most challenging for you to attach yourself to or was there a part that was more fun to playing Dick? 

JM: (Laughs.) To playing Dick. Let’s see. Well, the episodes came out one script at a time. So in the first script, which in fact, I think is Episode 2 of the series, I read it and I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be really good as a series,” but I couldn’t quite see myself in the role because he felt a bit like a suit and there was a lot of exposition, which I don’t think I do particularly well. And I kept saying to Ryan, “I think there are other people who will do this better.” And he said, “No, no, no, you’re not used to episodic television. You’re not used to television. It’s all about the arc and you have to wait. We have to start you in one place so that you can end in a completely different place and I have it all planned out and it’s going to get good, I promise you. But you have to really trust me and we’re going to start here.” And he said, “As Carrie Fisher said, ‘Instant gratification takes too long.’ We’re going to get there and you just have to hang in.” And I said, “OK. I buy it.”

GD: So what was the script? Which episode was it? I have a feeling I know the answer, but what script was it where you started to see, “Oh, OK. This is where this is going”?

JM: It was really the very next script, which was the wild party at George Cukor’s house where you’re seeing this character kind of unleashed from his job at the studio, which makes him behave in a certain way. He gets a little bit tipsy. He crosses a line that he’s never crossed before. There was a beautiful scene that they wrote that Jim Parsons and I have. And again, Jim and I are really good friends. So I thought, “Oh, I understand what this is.” And then, of course, there’s that beautiful scene that they wrote for Dick Samuels and Rock Hudson. And I thought, “Oh, I understand. There’s a lot going on here. The guy is really, really, really complicated and I’m not just going to be the person who’s walking in and being Dr. Exposition,” which was my fear. But I should’ve known that Ryan is much smarter than that. He was way ahead of me. And when I saw the Rock Hudson scene, I thought, “Oh, OK, I understand now what I hope I can contribute to this.”

GD: It’s so interesting because Ryan has kind of coined this term associated with the show, “faction.” And yet, for me, I feel like Dick’s storyline is probably, at least in those early episodes, the most authentic in terms of what life for a gay man in the 1940s might have been like. How much research did you have to do about the time period or did you have to do any? 

JM: I mean, I did a little bit of research. The first thing when he said to me it was based on Irving Thalberg, I got a couple of biographies of Irving Thalberg and made my way through both of those. But it wasn’t an exact parallel. But there were things I found that were little things that I could pull and use and that kind of intimidating sphinx-like quality that they wrote for Dick Samuels was also true of Mr. Thalberg, and he was very, very respected. He said very little, according to these biographies. Extremely intimidating but everybody trusted him because his one goal was to bring quality to these pictures. And so, with that as a starting point and then you walk onto the set and there’s Patti LuPone and my wonderful partner, Holland Taylor and Jim Parsons and all the wonderful actors, then it starts to organically take its own shape and it diverges a little bit from Mr. Thalberg’s story, who actually died very young, I think, at 35 or something. So then we just started playing and I don’t know, because the episodes are coming out one script at a time I imagine that they were kind of looking at the things that we were doing that were really working and started to write towards that. I felt it became closer to all of us as it went on, which was nice. When my playwright friends write a role, like when Terrence McNally would write a role for Nathan Lane, it just fit him like a glove. It was perfect because he understood the rhythm and all of Nathan’s many, many gifts. And that’s what it started to feel like as it went on.

GD: You mentioned Holland Taylor, and I think, and this has been said by a lot of critics as well, is that probably one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the entire season is that scene in her living room with the two of you where you just basically tell her, “I just can’t be with anybody.” When you read scenes like that, do they excite you? “Oh, I can’t wait to get in the sandbox and play that scene”?

JM: Well, definitely. I mean, the writing was extraordinary. But interestingly enough, Holland and I, and we’ve both admitted this to one another, we were really terrified by the scene because we didn’t know how we were going to navigate it. It was slightly more explicit and spelled out and what we were advocating and what we tried to do on the day was to… these are two people who know each other so well and they’re connected and they love each other more than anyone in the world. And here they were being placed in a situation which was incredibly awkward and heartbreaking for both of them and I think we just kind of relied on our instincts. I mean, when you’re on a set and you’re looking in Holland Taylor’s eyes, it’s really hard to lie, you know? It really is. Because she’s bringing her A-game. And so you kind of just have to look at her and say the lines. I remember, as I said, we were both really apprehensive about it. But I think we left that day feeling really full and kind of proud of ourselves, but also of the characters and the way that they had to navigate that very, very fraught moment with one another. So that’s what it was, it was both terrifying and on the day it was easy.

GD: What’s always interesting to me, particularly with Ryan’s shows is he does pull talent from so many places, but this show in particular, he’s pulling so much from the theater and so, that atmosphere, was that different than other acting experiences you’ve had on-camera because so many of you come from the theater? 

JM: I’ve had very few. I mean, in my past life as an actor, I did a little bit of it, mostly episodic TV and a movie or two. But I didn’t have a lot. And what I always found really uncomfortable, what I found made me uncomfortable was being the new person walks onto a set that’s already running like clockwork. You’re there as a guest star. You’re just white-knuckling it, trying to remember your lines. Everyone seems to know one another. You feel sort of out of place. And with this experience walking into it. I know Patti. As I said, I know Jim. Holland and I go way back. I knew Darren [Criss] a little bit. I knew Jeremy [Pope]. So it was walking onto a set where there was already this sense of camaraderie just from where people were coming from. And then on the first day that we were shooting, it was a scene, I think, with Patti and Holland and someone else and you do it once, basically, and then you show the crew and then we all walked back to our little chairs while they were getting ready to light it and Patti said, “Let’s run lines!” Sometimes rehearsal, I think, is a bad word in film and television, which I completely understand because you’re trying to capture the spontaneity of the moment, but those of us who come from the theater, I think we actually flourish when there’s rehearsal because then it becomes second nature and we can find the rhythm of it. So it was great. It was really comfortable from the very beginning because of those previous relationships.

GD: When I was watching this, of course, being a kind of movie nerd myself and a huge theater nerd, I’m thinking of the Oscars episode and I go back in my head and I think about all of the times that you’ve had some experience with awards yourself. I’m wondering, now at this point in your career, does your view about awards and that kind of thing, has that changed over time? 

JM: It has changed in the sense that, to me, the experience of making it is everything. It really is. It’s what I carry away with me. I haven’t actually seen “Hollywood” yet and I’m reluctant to see it because the experience of making it was such great fun. It was challenging, but there was so much affection and camaraderie with the actors, and that’s what I carry away for me. For me to sully it with looking at the final product and kind of looking at myself, I can’t look at myself on a Zoom call, really (laughs). But if I’m going to do this again, I want to be able to do it in a way that is completely unpolluted by my own criticism of, “Oh, is that what my mouth does?” Whatever it is. I want it to be a pure experience. And so for me, the experience of making “Hollywood,” that really was the reward. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that people are finding it such great fun and that they want to tune in and the number of people who’ve said to me… first of all, in the entire time I’ve been doing this as an actor and director, I’ve never had so many emails and texts about a project. People are just kind of devouring the thing. And that’s really, really satisfying. I don’t feel like I have to back that up by seeing it for myself, you know?

GD: Well, and actually, that’s something that is always interesting to talk to people who have experiences as both actors and directors. Are you able when you’re acting to just completely turn off the director side of your brain or is that still kind of there sometimes?

JM: In this particular experience I was able to because we had such excellent directors. I would say that back when I was an actor, when that part of my brain would kick in, it was always because I didn’t trust the person at the helm. That was the exact opposite of what went on here with our directors. I mean, they were all in such individual ways, so fantastic and so helpful and I really, really relied on them because in some way, I’m still new to this form, so there are just things that I don’t know, whereas in the theater, I feel very much at home. And there’s not a lot that throws me in rehearsal. But this, I was really placing all of my trust in these directors and they really came through. So no, specifically about “Hollywood,” it did not kick in at all.

GD: And you had said that because your directorial experience has been almost entirely on stage, I read that you had said that the experience of directing “Boys in the Band” was very different for you than the previous time you had directed. I think it was the film version of “Love! Valour! Compassion!” So has that experience teamed with this experience and the directors that you’ve worked with, has that made you maybe want to step back into directing for television or film as well? 

JM: I have to say, it used to be a closed door and it’s no longer a closed door. I loved the experience of directing “Boys in the Band.” But again, it emerged organically from a process that I was really, really familiar with and actors that I had an intimate working relationship with. What would it be like to walk onto a set with actors that I didn’t know and that I didn’t have a history with and a crew that I didn’t know? I mean, with “Boys in the Band,” I had those guys. They were my foundation and I knew that they had my back and I had theirs and that we were fortunate enough to be turning something that we made and loved and letting it organically evolve into another form. But that’s a very specific experience. That being said, I truly, truly, truly loved it. And I think, again, that was Ryan. Because when you work with Ryan, he surrounds you with the best of the best. And that was the distinction between “Boys in the Band” and my previous experience. It was just a whole different level. And so, yeah, I’m really eager. I’m eager but not desperate to see what comes my way. I like my life as it is. But if there are intriguing possibilities and people who are interesting and challenging and you want to be in the room together, I’m all for it.

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