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Peter Jacobson on Colony, House, and working with remarkably few assholes

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: While it’s true that Peter Jacobson has played a few Jewish guys over the course of his career, as he’s quick to acknowledge in a self-deprecating fashion, his skill at delivering both wit and drama has kept him gainfully employed as an actor for over two decades. Although his film career has seen him appearing alongside George Clooney (Good Night, And Good Luck), Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets), and even Howard Stern (Private Parts), Jacobson has done his most substantial work on the small screen, earning a major profile boost from the five seasons he spent on Fox’s House. These days, Jacobson maintains a recurring role on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, but he also has a full-time gig on USA’s new sci-fi drama, Colony.

Battle Creek (2015)—“Darrel Hardy”
Colony (2016)—“Proxy Snyder”

Peter Jacobson: When I got the call for Colony, I was working on the show Battle Creek, which was really fun, because it was sort of a reunion for me from House. My friend Kal Penn was on it, and David Shore—it’s his show—and some of the writers were from House, so it was a really wonderful, fun time. So I was just in a great mood, and then I got a call from [Colony]. I ran into the casting office and put myself on tape. I met with the casting director, April Webster, and we talked about it and worked it a bit. It obviously felt like a good fit, but I didn’t really know much about it beyond just that. But I got a call later that day saying that they were interested. I didn’t have the role then—I still had to go through hoops after that—but clearly something clicked from my end and something clicked from their end. It’s nice when it happens quickly like that.

The A.V. Club: How would you sum up Proxy Snyder?

PJ: Snyder is cunning and really a shrewd politician. He’s always looking out for himself. But in this world where people are making really stark choices between resisting and collaborating, saving their family or not, looking out for themselves, he strangely was able to get very far very fast, and I think that’s a testament to his ability to step on others on the way up, and to do and say the right thing at the right time. But what I loved about him initially when I read was that I sensed that there was also a soul to this guy, and I think as the series goes on, we see that what I just explained about him is not all he is. And that’s what makes him a fascinating character to me: he’s got a real soul underneath all of that collaboration, and he’s got a heart, and you get to see at little moments that this guy’s not as strong as you might otherwise think.

I’m still so close to it that I’m still kind of tingling just from the joy of the whole experience. Rarely have I had a job that was so fun all the way through... and I’m not saying that just because I want to get picked up. [Laughs.] It’s just that everybody was just so unbelievably nice, the writing was great—there were no hiccups for me. It was a joy from start to finish.

It was also fun shooting with Josh [Holloway], not just how great he is, but just how handsome he is. I always enjoy being the obvious homunculus of the pair. [Laughs.] Not that it’s difficult! Everybody’s always a lot taller than me, but when it’s taller and the physical attributes are so stark, I just always think it’s a good picture. That bodes well for the relationship.

AVC: You haven’t done a ton of sci-fi in your career—just a few bits and pieces here and there. Did Colony feel like a big jump for you?

PJ: I actually did a miniseries for the Syfy channel. But I’ve never done real sci-fi. I’ve never played an alien. I’ve never played some sort of superhero. Which I’d love to do! And I’m frankly shocked that Hollywood hasn’t called me to do a superhero. [Laughs.] But even this is not really serious sci-fi. It’s not, like, really out-there science fiction. But it definitely has the feel to it. There’s definitely a futuristic and otherworldly feeling, which is great, although it’s very much grounded in this world, which is what I think makes it so terrific. It was a really satisfying experience. And I just think Josh and Sarah [Wayne Callies] just act the shit out of it. They’re so on it. And it’s so much about the family instead of whatever it is that’s out there that’s scary, and it’s because of those two. That’s why I think it has the chance to be really good.

The Lost Room (2006)—“Wally Jabrowski”

PJ: The show I mentioned that I did for the Syfy channel was called The Lost Room. Not your typical sci-fi show, but very out-there, creepy and somewhat supernatural. But my character in The Lost Room was this homeless guy who was suffering from being affected or “impacted” by supernatural goings-on. And in a way, that’s what happening with Proxy Snyder, too.

AVC: The Lost Room was pretty great. I actually still have the promotional motel key they sent out with the advance screener.

PJ: Wow! So you know it! Yeah, I love that. People loved that show, those few that watched. I thought it was great! But it seemed like it never got the push it needed.

NYPD Blue (1993)—“Reporter #1”
It Could Happen To You (1994)—“Television Reporter”

AVC: Your first on-camera role that wasn’t a commercial looks like it was playing a reporter in an episode of NYPD Blue.

PJ: And my first film role was also a reporter. [Laughs.] Just a different type. But it’s funny, because my father was a news reporter. I always thought there was something strange about that. But, yes, NYPD Blue. I think I had a line: I met Dennis Franz in front of a squad car and asked him some inane question. And then in the movie—I think it was probably a week later—I played a reporter, and I asked Nicolas Cage a question. It was that movie with Bridget Fonda.

AVC: It Could Happen To You.

PJ: Right. Which used to be called Cop Gives Waitress Million Dollar Tip. Great title, but they had to truncate it. The movie would’ve done better with that title!

AVC: God forbid they should give it a title that stands out.

PJ: Yeah, they don’t want to do that! [Laughs.]

AVC: So how did you find your way into acting in the first place?

PJ: I always loved doing productions in school. You know, grade school, and then high school. In college, I started getting a little more serious. I had made the JV soccer team in my sophomore year and then got cast in a big part in the play, and I couldn’t do both. It got to a point where my coach said, “You can not miss practice like this,” and the director was, like, “You can not miss rehearsals like this.” And it wasn’t like I was making a career choice at that moment, but it felt like two big loves in my life, and I really went for it. So I left the team. Not that I had any hopes of playing professional soccer. [Laughs.] But I really had spent my whole life playing soccer, and the fact that I was willing to give that up for theater, that told me I was moving in that direction.

Some friends of mine in the class ahead of me in college were auditioning for graduate school in New York, and then a few of them got into Juilliard, and it sort of opened my eyes. I didn’t really know anything about it, but it opened my eyes to a possible next step after school, where I could just deepen my knowledge and also not be responsible for life and stay in school. And that was always appealing. [Laughs.] So I wound up auditioning, wound up getting in, and I was off to the races: I was putting in four more years after school to train to be an actor. I was 26 years old, and I still had a locker, for Christ’s sake! But I was on my way. Well, sort of. You know, whatever “on my way” means. I don’t know what that means. It’s a crazy career.

AVC: Well, if you’re acting and getting paid for it, then that means you’re on your way, right?

PJ: Yeah, even if it was just one line with Dennis Franz. [Laughs.] But that was exciting. It was the first time I was really getting a paycheck for acting!

Talk To Me (2000)—“Sandy”

PJ: Oh, my God, that was Kyra Sedgwick! And Beverly D’Angelo. Oh, my God, do I love Beverly D’Angelo. It was just crazy. It was a series shooting in New York in the ’90s that wasn’t Law & Order, which was insane. I felt so lucky. I was the uptight station manager at a radio station, and Kyra was this Howard Stern-ish character. It was my first time as a regular on a series, and it was in New York, so I thought things were really pretty sweet, but I got my first taste of just how hard it is to make a show work.

By the sixth or seventh episode, we could feel that things were tightening up, but you never know. It can be easy and comfortable on the set and you don’t go anywhere, or it can be a stress machine and all of a sudden it’s a hit. But I had a great time, and everybody was super nice. And I got to work with Ed Koch and Gene Simmons, who were guest stars. They were also the two tallest Jewish people ever. [Laughs.] Both of them were, like, 6 foot 6 inches, or 6 foot 7 inches, which was shocking. I’m just sort of a typical Jew. But the show was zany and fun, and Kyra was great. But it definitely didn’t go anywhere.

AVC: The producers clearly weren’t scared of trying to pull in viewers with stunt casting: you had those two guys you mentioned, and then you also had Paulina Porizkova as a guest.

PJ: Oh, that’s right, Paulina was on there. Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the three tallest people ever, now that you mention her. [Laughs] She’s lovely. Actually, I wound up working with her years later. She directed me in an independent feature, and she was great. God, she was the nicest, coolest person. And Gene Simmons was wild. But Ed Koch was the craziest. The stories he told…

Private Parts (1997)—“Lawyer”

AVC: Funny that you referenced Howard Stern a moment ago: Private Parts really was next on my list.

PJ: Yes, I had one really memorable line. It was all the words you’re not allowed to say on the airwaves, so it’s one long list of swear words. I knew it anyway, because I was a huge George Carlin fan. [Laughs.] When I was a kid, I learned the list from his “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” bit. The funny part was that Private Parts was on once when I was on a plane... and you can’t say any of those words on an airplane. So I opened my mouth, and it was just one long beep. I was, like, “My line! My line is gone! That was my part!” Instead, I just had one long beep. But Howard Stern, there’s another hugely tall guy! I don’t know why, I just work with everybody tall. Hugh Laurie is, like, 6 foot 4! Howard Stern is huge, but he was so great. He really made me realize that his radio persona is just his persona on the radio. He’s a mellower, much more down-the-middle guy. He was so lovely and fun, and such a stark contrast to his radio personality.

Showtime (2002)—“Brad Slocum”

PJ: Oh, my God, this is just a walk down memory lane. [Laughs.] I’ve really been at it for a while, haven’t I? That was Robert De Niro, so when I wasn’t so nervous that I thought I was going to throw up, I was having a great time. And that was Rene Russo, too, who was also really cool. She jumped up into the trailer before we started—I had not even met her—and she goes, “Hi! There’s some stuff about this scene that I think we’re gonna change!” And what am I going to say? “No, I don’t think so, Rene.” I said, “Yeah, great!” So we started reworking it and rewriting it, and she was really hands-on that way. And I got to play ping-pong in a scene, which I’ve always loved. I fancy myself a very good ping-pong player. It was very fun. That was one of those movies where I thought the script was just so terrific, and I think the movie fell a little bit short, but I’m not sure why. There’s so much talent in that movie, with Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro.

AVC: And how was De Niro to work with?

PJ: Great! He’s actually kind of shy, you know? But I was learning how to just shut up and not drool. [Laughs.] Which I think if I learned anything in graduate school, it was to not drool around other actors who would normally make you drool. But he was great.

What Just Happened (2008)—“Cal”

PJ: I actually got to work with De Niro again a bunch of years later on the movie What Just Happened. Again, he’s so serious and he’s so good and—in my mind—terrifying, even though he couldn’t have been nicer. But I had a whole “this is a scary experience” thing going. There was one moment in What Just Happened where I just needed to go faster to match him, because the blocking was tricky, with the dialogue, but I just wasn’t doing it for some reason. And he let me know in a very gentle way, because I guess actors don’t like to direct each other, but I was, like, “You can tell me anything you want, sir. I will do it!” [Laughs.] But he was trying to be real gentle about it, and basically I was, like, “Oh, so you want me to go faster? You should’ve just said, ‘Go faster.’ We could’ve saved 10 minutes!” Not that I wanted to save those minutes. I would’ve been happy to have 10 more minutes with him!

Also, between those two gigs, I had actually been at a restaurant in New York and been at the urinal next to him. I did not mention that to him. Normally, you’re, like, “Oh, yeah, we worked together long ago,” because that’s what actors always do. But I did not say to him, “I peed next to you at Nobu in Tribeca about seven years ago.” [Laughs.] I thought that would’ve been in bad taste… although I frankly had the impulse to do it. Fortunately I did not. But I’ve worked with him twice, peed with him once… I think that still counts as three projects.

Path To War (2002)—“Adam Yarmolinsky”
Strip Search (2004)—“John Scanlon”

PJ: Path To War was the last thing that John Frankenheimer directed, I think, before he died. There were some complications in surgery, I believe, not long after that movie. I’m a huge U.S. history buff, and I studied the Vietnam era in college, so when I read the script, I was, like, “I really want to be in this thing so badly…” [Laughs.] It was so thrilling. Yeah, that was great. Frankenheimer was so big… and I’m into the tall thing again! But he was just such a big personality, and just so confident and amazing. Donald Sutherland was also in it, and the two of them sometimes would go at it and have different opinions about stuff. They were like lions. It was just amazing to be around.

I’d booked another movie while I was doing Path To War that was going to conflict by one day, and it looked like I might be able to do it if I could, like, shoot earlier in a scene that day. But it meant asking the assistant directors, and… well, basically, nobody wanted to do anything to help because they were too afraid of Frankenheimer. [Laughs.] So I said, “You know what? Fuck it: I’m going to go talk to him!” So I meditated for an hour, and then I went into his trailer, and he was there, but he happened to be on the phone at the moment with Walter Cronkite’s wife. Frankenheimer’s a guy, he was with Bobby Kennedy on Kennedy’s campaign… He’s just a part of American history, this guy! And he was, like, “Hold on one second, I’m talking to Walter’s wife.” And I was, like, “Oh, I really didn’t need to hear that. I’m already so scared to talk to you…” So I waited and listened to him talk to Walter Cronkite’s wife for a while, and then he got off the phone, and I meekly asked him, I plead my case, I said, “This would be a really great gig for me if you could just do this one thing.” And he was, like, “Oh, no, I can’t do that.” And I walked out with my tail between my legs.

But he was still great. And it was a thrilling, thrilling job. I just loved the whole history of it. But we were supposed to shoot in Washington, D.C., the Pentagon, but they cast the movie, and then 9/11 happened, and they were not able to go to Washington. So they mocked it up in L.A.

AVC: And how was Sidney Lumet?

PJ: Probably the nicest person I’ve ever met. [Laughs.] And I’m not exaggerating. In a way where you’re, like, “You’re Sidney Lumet, you’re one of the greatest directors of all time, and you’re like this?” He felt like a grandfather. He couldn’t have been sweeter. He does so few takes that it’s so relaxed. You’d rehearse, and it was just such a mellow environment. He’s the consummate actor’s director. He’s right in there with helping and constructing, so that by the time the camera’s rolling and you’re doing it, it was just, “Okay!” Every actor wants to do more, because you always think you can improve it, but he was, like, “No, it’s fine.” And you trusted him. He was just super sweet.

White House Down (2013)—“Wallace”

PJ: [Chuckles.] This is so fun. Although then I feel like I blab on endlessly.

AVC: Well, that’s kind of the idea.

PJ: Okay, as long as I’m giving you what you want! [Laughs.] Well, that was my first big blockbuster-y, super-duper, lots-of-money movie. Again, anything government or politics is always exciting for me, and we were in the Capitol building, and we were in Air Force One. I got to die on Air Force One! So that whole element was really exciting for me. Roland Emmerich is just this imp. A fun, impish guy—he’s hopping around the set and could not have been more fun and sweet. It’s, like, this guy has got so much on his shoulders, it’s such a big movie and so much money, and he just had this light air about him. He took his time, and he did whatever the hell he wanted.

I think maybe I’d just wrapped House, so it was my first gig after that. I’d been used to five years of television, where they protect their budget like crazy. If you go five minutes over for lunch, everybody tightens up, and they’re, like, “All right, we’ll take a grace.” They stick to the schedule, because it’s a lot of money, it’s a lot of stuff that can take a long time, and they keep their days. It’s a real system. And if you go five or 10 minutes into lunch, there’s a little bit of tension, but then it’s like clockwork: you know what’s going to happen.

It was my first day, and he did something like 25 takes of this scene where Channing Tatum goes and says hello to this woman, and I’m walking briskly in the background. And after a while, I was getting hungry! And because I was so used to being on House, I was, like, “Well, I’m going to eat soon.” But it just kept going. And it was, like, an hour and a half later. I’m going, “Who does this guy think he is? I mean, I’m hungry!” [Laughs.] But I realized it’s a big budget movie, and Roland Emmerich, he creates… I mean, it looks so real. Say what you will about the movie—I think it really worked in a lot of ways, and some stuff didn’t work—but he creates an atmosphere and a tension, and he can make a fucking movie, that guy. And he was not going to stop until he had it exactly right. And afterwards when you see it, you’re there. You’re in the White House. You’re in the Capitol building.

We had a lot of downtime before they would hook us up and film. Because they wanted us on the screen for these guys, even though they weren’t filming it. But we had days and months in Montreal, where we’d just be there, waiting for the guys in the Pentagon… because most of the movie’s in the Pentagon, with a few clips of us in Air Force One. But we were there for—I’m talking days where we wouldn’t do anything except just tell stories, which is one of the great, wonderful things about our business—if you’re lucky enough to get paid to just sit around and kibitz for two weeks and shoot the shit.

Good Night, And Good Luck. (2005)—“Jimmy”

PJ: God, you make me feel like I’m a successful actor! [Laughs.] I know I’m going to sound like an idiot, because I actually think that everybody’s the nicest guy ever, but I’m telling you: George Clooney, Roland Emmerich, Sidney Lumet—these are literally the nicest people. They’re all so good. Maybe I’m just lucky I’m not working with any assholes… yet.

It was just one scene, but he created a world that was so tight and so real. Here again, it was exciting for me to go back to something that I knew growing up. My father was actually a local anchorman in Chicago, and he knew everybody at CBS and all these guys, so that was sort of his era. He’s a little bit younger, but he knew all about this, and I felt immersed in that world growing up, so it was really exciting. When I met George Clooney, I mentioned that to him, that it was really exciting, and I guess his father was also a big TV guy in Cincinnati when he was growing up. So we bonded on that, and he showed me around the set. He really was just super duper nice.

Again, it was just one scene, a cool elevator scene, where the hardest part was getting the set to shift, so that it looks like you’ve moved from floor one to floor six. Because when the doors open, it can’t be the same set. Although you’re not actually moving: they’re just scrambling around, maybe turning the elevator around. So that was a bit of a difficult thing, technically. But just getting the patter of the dialogue, talking on top of each other… It was just a hyper-real feeling. I loved the period, the ’60s. I felt like I had a really cool tie on. I liked my hat. George Clooney was nice. It was just really a sweet little day of work. And I got a S.A.G. [award] nomination out of it! I was, like, “You included me on that list?” I just couldn’t believe it.

AVC: When we talked to Richard Kind, he said about the movie, “I think I should’ve played Fred Friendly, who was one of the homeliest Jews ever to walk the planet. And instead they get this great-looking Irish guy to play Fred Friendly. Yeah, it was George. He gave himself the role!”

PJ: [Laughs.] Welcome to the business, Richard! He and I can relate: that’s all it ever is. Believe me, I can play a Jewish guy, another Jewish guy, and then another Jewish guy, and then maybe a Cuban guy. Or at least a Middle Eastern guy. But for me, they’re all Jews. Which is good! If it’s a good role, I’m happy to play it.

Oz (1997)—“Carlton Auerback”

PJ: That was really long ago. I had a lot of hair, I think. Cool show. Oh, I know! Rita Moreno’s character, she was a therapist or something in the prison, and I come in as a substitute, and the prisoners give me a horrible time. It was a very loose set. You know, that show was very gritty. Aside from just the subject matter, the way they shot it was gritty also—a lot of overlapping, a lot of testosterone, throwing around the lines—so they had no trouble initiating me and playing what was going on, which was a bunch prisoners giving this little dweeby teacher hell. It’s, like, my son says, “Oh, we had a substitute teacher today,” and I’m, like, “Well, how much hell did you give her?” “We gave her a lot of hell.” So if it’s a bunch of convicts, it’s that much worse. They were throwing shit at me, like erasers—it was definitely a trial by fire. I just had to dive in. But it was fun.

Deconstructing Harry (1997)—“Goldberg”

AVC: ’97 was a pretty good year for you: You were also in a Woody Allen movie that year.

PJ: Deconstructing Harry, yeah. Again, I’m never too long in these things. I just sort of light in for a day or two for a minute or 20-second scene, but it was an experience. Woody Allen, that was a dream come true, although I never really talked to him. [Laughs.] Auditioning for that was fun, because you don’t really hear much about the script. They just said, “They want a Woody Allen type,” so of course I got the call.

I go to the lobby of this hotel on 57th Street, and the casting director, Juliet Taylor, is there, and she’s very sweet. We’re in the waiting room, and you’re instructed not to talk to him when he comes in, because… I don’t know, I guess that’s just the rule. But I was just very nervous. This was really a dream come true! And they didn’t give me any lines, but I didn’t know it was a no-line part. I didn’t know anything. I had no script to read. But he walks out to the waiting room—I didn’t even say “hi,” because I was too scared—and he stops, he looks at me from my feet to the top of my head and back down, and just goes, “Heh heh heh heh.” And then he walks out. [Laughs.] That was it!

So I turned around, and the casting director said, “Thank you.” I was, like, “Did that go well?” Nobody knew. I left, and the next day they were, like, “You got that! You nailed it!” And sure enough, all they needed was guys who looked like him. I was one of a string of Woody types that pop up in that movie. But shooting was great, because it was Billy Crystal. I got to work with him years later, and he was really fun.

Also, interestingly, there’s a big scene where… Well, I don’t know what was actually going on in the movie, but they had just tons of people waiting in a gymnasium for different photo set-ups. I think they look back on his life, so there were all these different people. There were people dressed up as Star Wars characters! We were all being held in a gymnasium at a youth hospital on the Upper West Side, in New York, and I was chatting with this lovely young woman who had just moved up from Miami. She was a model. And I found out a few years later that it was Jennifer Garner! I had no idea then, because she was just starting out, but years later I worked with Scott Foley, her husband at the time, on another TV show [A.U.S.A.], and we made the connection. I was, like, “Oh, my God, that was you? That’s crazy!”

61* (2001)—“Artie Green”

AVC: In regards to when you worked with Billy Crystal again, that would’ve been 61*?

PJ: Yes. That was great. I’m a huge, huge sports fan. A massive sports fan. Although it’s the Cubs, not the Yankees, unfortunately for me. [Laughs.] God, after this, I’m going to feel like I’ve had the best career ever and that I’ve always been happy. I want to talk about all the miserable times, but... God, well, this was the other best thing I’ve ever done. Because it was broadcasting, it was that era, it was sports—sports and politics are basically all I really care about or talk about. You can ask my wife, much to her chagrin. But we went to Detroit and worked at the old Tiger Stadium, which they converted into the old Yankee Stadium, and we were there for a month.

The first day we got there, they had—I guess semi-pro guys or college guys playing the Yankees. Real players, anyway. They weren’t pros, but they really could play. And they were warming up, and I think maybe I’d stepped foot on the grass of Wrigley Field once when I was a little kid, but here I was walking around one of the great old stadiums of baseball history. I was walking the diamond itself! All the guys were taking batting practice—Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane, too, they were getting in there—and I’m in my press outfit, but I’m, like, “I’ve gotta get in there!”

So I stepped into the batter’s box, and I don’t have any gloves on, and the pitcher, he didn’t throw heat—like, this was not a serious fast ball—but it was faster than any moving object I’d ever seen come past me that wasn’t a car. [Laughs.] But it was right there, so I took a swing, and I connected! And I remember that at the instant I connected, I thought, “I just fucking ripped a ball…” And I got halfway through the thought before I felt like my hand was about to fall off, there was so much vibration and so much pain shooting all the way through my body. But because I had swung really hard, I thought, “Well, I did connect, so this must be at least a double!” But when the pain stopped and my body stopped rattling, I realized that the ball had not even gotten past the pitcher. And at that moment, I realized that these guys… Not that I ever thought they weren’t great athletes, but baseball players, what they do is unbelievable. We all know it, but to have gotten to see what it was like to hit a ball… I had no business being there. [Laughs.] But it was a great experience. I just loved being on the set and hanging out with all these guys. Yogi Berra came by and visited, and Mickey Mantle’s son. I got Yogi to sign a ball. And Billy Crystal makes you laugh every single second.

That was my first good-sized part in a TV movie. I’d done a lot of stuff, but I was really in this thing, and I was still really just learning the ropes. But Richard Masur, who’s another great character actor, he was my partner in the movie, and he really taught me how to take care of yourself on a take, to watch your lighting, and to make sure you don’t do something that’ll minimize your coverage. He was just wonderful. But I was still sort of a wreck. I really felt like, “Oh, I’m doing a shitty job.” A lot of actors go through this, though. They say they won’t, but they do. Everybody’s afraid of getting fired every second. And it was a big part—well, not a big part, but a good part—in a really great project, and, well, you know, you want to impress everybody, and I just spent a lot of time worrying that I wasn’t okay. And I think I was okay, but I wasn’t saying anything to anybody, I was just in my head a lot.

Well, at one point, Billy Crystal walks by me—he’s going to talk to somebody else, but he just walks by me—and he glances up at me and just goes, “Stop it! Stop it!” And he knew. He knew exactly what I was doing. I hadn’t talked to him, I hadn’t said, “Oh, Billy, I’m nervous.” I would never say that. He just knew. He was like, “This kid is in his head, he’s just nervous,” and he said it in a way that wasn’t scolding. It was in a fun way, like, “Would you just stop it already?” And it really lightened things up for me. He was really wonderful.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2013)—“Rotenberg”

PJ: That is a crazy show. That is a crazy, nasty, hysterical show. They are so fucking mean. I had never seen the show, and I’ve had people come up and say, “That was the meanest, that episode!” They’re real fans, the ones that watch that show, and they love it. And for good reason. It’s mean, but for some reason, it’s palatable. But they’re the most hideous people in the world, and it was wonderful to be in that world and to be really, really shitty. [Laughs.]

What’s amazing about that is that these guys—Charlie [Day], Glenn [Howerton], and Rob [McElhenney]—they’ve been doing it for a long time now, they created this fucker on their own, and it’s the best story: They just did this show, and then somebody saw it, and somebody put it on the right desk, and then all of a sudden they were in control, and now they’ve got the show that they wanted. I’ve never seen guys collaborate more smoothly, but they figure it out as they go, they’re really involved, and they’re so open. If somebody threw out an idea that nobody liked, they’d say, “Aw, that’s terrible! It’s stupid!” There were no egos involved. It was the most group-think collaborative experience I’ve ever seen, with so much good will that you could just tell they were having a blast... and that is not always the case!

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)—“Otto”

PJ: Oh, that was my first gay porno movie, actually. [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding. But several different people have raised eyebrows on that one, just from the title alone. That was… God, Bradley Cooper! And Leslie Bibb, I think. That was fun. I got to grow my beard out and chew a toothpick and not be in a suit. I’m always an agent or a lawyer or a doctor or a banker. I’m always wearing a tie. In this one, I was a greasy short-order cook. I just liked being greasy! That was a real departure for me.

I’d like to say that Bradley Cooper was an asshole, but he was—like Sidney Lumet, like George Clooney—the nicest guy in the world. [Laughs.] I sound like the biggest ass-kisser ever. But I’m telling the truth, I swear to God! I’m wanting you to find a job where I didn’t like somebody, so I can talk about them!

A Civil Action (1998)—“Neil Jacobs”
Hit And Runway (1999)—“Elliot Springer”

AVC: Hit And Runway caught my eye because you’ve got a credit for something other than acting.

PJ: Wait, what’s my other credit?

AVC: They credit you with having performed a song: “If I Were A Rich Man.”

PJ: Oh, yeah, okay. From Fiddler On The Roof. Of course if Jacobson is going to sing a song, it’s going to be from Fiddler On The Roof. [Laughs.] That was wonderful. I shot that while I was getting married, and I was also working on A Civil Action, which was a really big budget movie. Hit And Runway was a really small budget movie, and we were able to work them both out, but I was balancing back and forth between Boston and New York, and I had my rehearsal dinner and then my honeymoon. It was a crazy, crazy time. But Hit And Runway was a real actor’s experience, because I was in a lot of the movie, and it was a real tense relationship with this guy, and every day I was working and learning lines and really learning what it’s like to be in a movie. That was just a blast. I think it went to, like, the L.A. Film Festival, but it didn’t get much beyond that. But being able to play a role where you’re there almost every day and you’re just in it… I remember it was a whirlwind, but it was a lot of fun.

AVC: Based on the cast list of A Civil Action, it seems like you probably couldn’t turn around without spotting a big name.

PJ: Yes! I sat next to Robert Duvall at the lawyers’ table for six weeks, and it’s still probably the best six weeks of my life. [Laughs.] He, to me, is the greatest film actor ever. I just think Duvall is it. Everybody else, they’re wonderful, but Duvall sets the tone for all of cinema acting. So just to be in his space was amazing. And he’s just a guy. He talks about steak and cars and cattle. He’s just a really funny, normal guy. That was great.

And then Travolta… You just feel that serious movie star quality. We were all walking out after we’d finished shooting a scene, and this is in Boston, so it’s not New York or L.A., where people are little bit more used to stars being around and shooting films. We walked out of this library building downtown, just on our way to lunch, and I was walking a few steps behind Travolta, and when he opened the door, it was as if Jesus had just walked out into the commons. There were, like, 10,000 people, and they started roaring up, because they’d been waiting to see him. It was just crazy! I was, like, “Wow, what a life he’s living. I wouldn’t want that—and I’ll never get that.” [Laughs.] It was really fun. Steve Zaillian is just the sweetest. A very, very wonderful and interesting director. That was really exciting.

Transformers (2007)—“Mr. Hosney”

PJ: I’ve worked a lot! [Laughs.] That was just a day, but that was fun. Oh, yeah, with Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf. When you’re not gaping at Megan Fox enough to listen to what the director’s saying, you can get some work done. And Shia was great. He’s just high energy. He’s into really playing, and I had to be on my toes in a way that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. He’s a very instinctive actor, and—I mean, it’s not like this was a scene from On The Waterfront, but even a little scene, when you’re working with an actor who’s really focused and really in it and throwing a lot at you, you’ve got to keep on your toes. And that’s a lot of fun. I didn’t get to be in a part with the actual machines, but it was still a lot of fun.

Ray Donovan (2013-present)—“Lee Drexler”

PJ: That’s been just great. God, I wish you would… [Starts to laugh.] Really, I’m not doing this just because it’s an interview! Of course, on every job there are moments where you’re not having fun, but my instinct on these is that they’re all really fun jobs. I feel so good about myself! [Laughs.] I love working with Liev [Schreiber]. I’ve known him for a long time. I’d never worked with him before this, but he is one of the most intense actors you can work with. I just think he is a master. Few actors are so self-possessed and so focused and so confident. It’s great to be around him and work with him, because we also have a lot of fun, because we go back to getting out of grad school at the same time and knowing a lot of the same people in New York.

There’s a real intensity to Ray Donovan, but there’s also a lightness to it. My first season I got to work with Elliott Gould, and—like Michael Murphy—he knows the stories, he’s been around forever, and he just loves to talk about his life in the theater. He started out in vaudeville, that guy! And, you know, he was married to Barbra Streisand. He’s just a wonderful raconteur. I wanted to get him and Michael Murphy together and just let them go and just sit and watch and laugh. He’s the sweetest man, Elliott Gould. So it’s been really fun. And it’s a fun character. I like the patter. Lee Drexler, he’s a lawyer, and each season he gets more real for me, more human. I think he started out a little bit over the top, and that has its moments, but I like that now when I play him he’s more grounded, and his relationship with Ray is more real. It’s not a seriously impactful part of the show for anybody but me. [Laughs.] But I love doing it and it’s really a super nice set to work on, and I really like the role. I hope they continue to write for me.

In Justice (2006)—“Yarmulke Jake”
The Good Wife (2011)—“Michael Kahane”

AVC: Given your comments about constantly playing the “Jewish guy,” it must’ve felt like the culmination of your career to play a guy named Yarmulke Jake.

PJ: [Laughs.] Well, you know, what’s funny… Okay, well, first of all, In Justice, that was Michelle and Robert King, who’ve gone on to do The Good Wife. But this was a show with Kyle MacLachlan and Jason O’Mara, and it was short lived, but I thought it was a really good show. It was about these prosecutors—or defense attorneys? I don’t know. Whatever. I’m in so many of them, I don’t know the difference. Anyway, they were helping exonerate people who were wrongly accused. But do you know why he was called Yarmulke Jake? Aside from the fact that he wore a yarmulke.

He was a DNA specialist, and they called him that because he was modeled after these guys in Israel who… Okay, this is gruesome, but after bombings in Israel, they have people who are very, very specialized in reconstruction. Even more so, I think, than anything we do in this country, unfortunately. They’re really amazing at putting whatever body parts back together they can, partially for religious purposes, because they need to have some way to pay respect to those who’ve so tragically died. But there’s a corps of these guys, all of whom are trained beyond belief in doing this kind of thing. Like I said, it’s really a gruesome job, but somebody’s got to do it, right? But they’re really just unbelievably specific and hyper-trained and amazing at that, and on In Justice, they had a character in the United States who was in that vein of talent and skill and focus in this realm, so they referred to him as Yarmulke Jake. I don’t think it was a big part of his character that he was Jewish or Orthodox, it was really just a nod to those guys who are trained in that way in Israel. [Pauses.] You know, I think that actually made sense. Did I explain that all right?

AVC: You did. And presumably it was that connection with the Kings that led you to The Good Wife a few years later.

PJ: Yes! I love that show, and I was on House at the time, but I kept writing to Michelle and saying, “Please! I love your show!” [Laughs.] She’s so sweet. They were, like, “Oh, we’d love to put you in!” And they found something that seemed like a fit, I came on, and had a great… afternoon? I don’t remember if it was one or two days.

I think my stuff was all with Alan Cumming, who I wish I could say was an asshole, but I can’t. He was super nice. And I was unbelievably impressed with his accent. Hugh Laurie was impressive enough, going from English to American, but Alan Cumming’s got a serious accent. [Laughs.] I think he’s Scottish, so when he would bounce back and forth, it was, like, “Wow! You’re good!” And Julianna [Margulies]—I had worked with her on The Lost Room, and we had also done a reading of Richard III years before in New York. She’s lovely. She’s one of those people who, when they’re number one on the call sheet, you know that you’ve got a very mellow, cool set, because it really comes from the top down. That was a really fun place to work.

CSI: Miami (2005)—“George Hammett”

PJ: You know, when you started this, you didn’t say, “I’m going to name jobs, and you’re to kiss everybody’s ass and just tell me how nice everybody was.” That was not the instruction you gave me. So I apologize that that’s what it has become. God, I wish there were some mean people out there. It’d make a much more interesting interview. [Laughs.] But you’ve covered it all. My God, you’ve brought me down memory lane. I’m exhausted!

AVC: I was scrolling through some of your one-off appearances in the hopes of finding an asshole for you, and when I saw CSI: Miami, and I thought, “Well, David Caruso did used to have a reputation…” But then I pulled up the cast list for the episode and discovered that Jon Hamm was also in it. Everybody knows he’s a nice guy.

PJ: [Incredulous.] He was? I didn’t know that! Jesus, look at that. See? “And then there was a crossroads: I became a superstar, and he’s still struggling and playing a bunch of Jewish roles.” [Laughs.] Isn’t that funny how things worked out like that? Now I’ll have to go back and look at that. That’s funny. That was a trip, too. I got a bullet in the head, and I had an allergic reaction to the latex, so I had this big rash on my forehead. But that’s all I remember about that. Although now I’ll remember that I didn’t know Jon Hamm was in it. What did he play in it? A rabbi?

AVC: Would you believe a doctor?

PJ: See? There’s hope! [Laughs.] I have hope for me.

AVC: And his name was Dr. Brent Kessler.

PJ: God, look at him: I’m in the episode, and he plays the Jewish doctor. That’s amazing.

Method & Red (2004)—“Bill Blaford”

PJ: That was just nuts. That was such a blast, but it was crazy. That was Method Man and Redman, and they’re from another planet! [Laughs.] And they’re the funniest, craziest—there’s so much going on with those guys. And it did not always stop once they started rolling. God, it was just too crazy for words. And it was really fun to play. They took these guys into this uptight wealthy white community, and when you’re playing the uptightest and the wealthiest and the whitest of those uptight wealthy white people, it’s really fun whenever you have interactions onscreen with these guys, because the character is ready to be stunned and ready to be completely freaked out by these guys. So the character was fun, and they were just a blast to be around. Really fun and zany. Onset and offset, it was a ride, to say the least.

AVC: You know, I don’t think you’ve worked with any assholes at all. I think this has just been a sham to keep this interview going so that you could continue to feel good about yourself.

PJ: It is. It really is. [Laughs.] No, I mean, Method Man, talk about intimidating. That’s so not my world that I felt like an alien. But they were great! I think they were not certain that they wanted to continue doing the show, because they’re musicians, and this was a show that—well, I think it worked. And we had some good numbers. But I think there was some conflict for them about whether they wanted to keep going. But why things stay or go… I never knew, and I don’t know what the politics were with that. But I had a great time doing it.

I think I’ve lucked out. I think I’ve been able to be in some really good projects with some really good people. I think the better the show usually it means that you’ve got a lot of good people, because it’s sustaining itself. If there’s negative energy, things tend to break down ultimately.

With House, there were moments—because I was on it for so long—when I wanted to blow my brains out, but not because anybody was unpleasant. You know, it becomes more like family, and it becomes so much a part of your life that obviously it’s not a thrill and a joy every day. If you’re lighting in for a day with George Clooney or Sidney Lumet, or a few weeks with Billy Crystal, it’s, like, I guess for me, I would so cherish those moments that I guess I overlooked what assholes they were. [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding! They were wonderful moments.

But something like House, it was probably more of a realistic experience It certainly wasn’t realistic in terms of what the hell I was doing, but as an actor, you’re there every day, and in some days it feels like a regular job. An amazing regular job, but… life happens. So you have moments where you get depressed for three days while you’re doing it, or whatever. I couldn’t stop to be upset or depressed about anything when I was at Tiger Stadium with Billy Crystal shooting for three weeks. I was going to enjoy every second—even though apparently I didn’t. [Laughs.] And there was no mean, scary person. There were scary actors, people who were intimidating, but intimidation is 99 percent in the intimidatee’s head. Hugh Laurie was intimidating, but he’s the greatest guy. He’s so wonderful and smart and funny and serious, and he sets the bar high. So if I was scared, it’s because I wasn’t measuring up. But then when you’re on a show for five years, everyone becomes friends. It’s great.

As Good As It Gets (1997)—“Man At Table”

AVC: Before asking about House, first let’s talk about As Good As It Gets, because of the unique tie-in between the two.

PJ: Oh, yeah. Well, first of all… Jack Nicholson: another really good guy. [Sarcastically.] Wow, can you believe it? But that’s a perfect example: What, I was going to complain about my collar being too tight on my costume? I was spending three days literally just kibitzing with Jack Nicholson at a table! It was heaven! And talk about a normal guy. My God, he was just so real and cool and relaxed and fun. And he was a great performer. He’s such an actor. He really was so focused on every moment. It was great. That was fun. And after House, I still probably get recognized for that more than anything else. “Hey, you were the guy at the table! You were the Jewish guy at the table!” And strangely—as you alluded to a moment ago—working with Lisa Edelstein, who I then worked with on House 10 years later!

That was just really fun. And it really was three days on that set, because it was a long scene. It was at a restaurant that they mocked up in downtown L.A., and there were just so many different pieces to the scene that they had to bounce back and forth between that I think we really were there for three days. And there’s a lot of sitting in the booth, waiting while they shoot something at the other end of the restaurant, and then they come back to you. So we’d literally just sit around, and Jack Nicholson would just talk about his childhood. It was great. And then I’d go home and peel the smile off my face and put it on the mirror. [Laughs.] Because I’d just been grinning from ear to ear for 72 hours. It was really fun.

House M.D. (2007-2012)—“Dr. Chris Taub”

AVC: When you first turned up on House, it was when House was holding a competition to select his new team. Did you know all along that Taub was going to end up on the team?

PJ: No, that was a really bizarro beginning for all of that group, that new team. The way it was pitched to me was that we’d sign up for nine episodes, five of us, with an option for pickup as a regular. So there was me and Kal [Penn], Olivia [Wilde], Annie [Dudek], and Edi [Gathegi], and the five of us knew that we would go down to the wire, and when they started getting to the point where one of us in the final five was going to go, we didn’t really know what was happening before that next script would come out. And sure enough, we started going one by one. First Edi, then Annie left, and then I was lucky enough to be picked to stay on.

But it was a weird experience, because as my wife said when I explained to her the gig was essentially like an audition for nine episodes—because it really was: they were checking out who they wanted to keep on the show—she said, “You’re just nuts, given your own self-inducing anxiety about being liked and being good. You’re fucking crazy to take that!” [Laughs.] “Because that’s just your worst nightmare, every day: ‘Am I going to get fired?’” But it turned out interestingly and went the total opposite direction: we all bonded so much more, I think, because of it. It was such a uniquely weird experience to know that we were there, but we weren’t there… We really had a blast in this weird “what are we doing?” season, and then that turned into a five-year life-altering gig. These are really good people who I’m close with, and it was really neat, but a weird way to start.

AVC: When you found out that they were going to be doing a story about Taub’s marital infidelity, did you go to your wife and warn her? “Now, honey, there’s going to be some stuff going on, so I want you to prepare yourself…”

PJ: [Laughs.] “It’s fiction, honey!” No, I don’t know what was going on, if the writers were vicariously working out issues through me or what. But, no, it’s all in a day’s work. But people would stop me in the street—my demographic tends to be the elderly Jewish women from Miami; I think they tend to fancy me as someone that would’ve been good with their daughter or something—and a lot of them will do the wrist-slapping thing. “Oh, you’re a terrible man! Just terrible!” And I’m, like, “Well, it’s just a show. I’m just playing a character.” But my wife didn’t watch House because she found it to be a little bit disturbing medically, so I was able to keep it from her.

AVC: How did you feel about the plotline surrounding the suicide of Kutner, Kal Penn’s character?

PJ: Well, we knew Kal was leaving, because he was going on to literally bigger and better things. I was very sad for him to go, because we were really close, and it’s hard to lose your pal. We had so much fun, and we were laughing so hard for so many episodes. So it was just a question of how Kutner was going to go, and I thought it turned out great, ultimately.

In a show like House, there’s a wonderful thing that happens: it’s a hugely popular show, and when it’s about medicine and we’re pulling up different random and some very rare, unheard-of diseases—and some not so rare—every week, and millions of people are watching. It’s amazing the attention it gets, and there’s a responsibility there. There are diseases and organizations that try to raise money for these diseases that get very little attention because they aren’t as sexy as others, or just because nobody really knows about them. But if you do an episode about something like transverse myelitis, it’s a real disease that’s out there, there are a lot of people that have it, and it’s hard to get funding for them because people don’t know about it. There are actually a lot of doctors that don’t know about it. But if you do an episode of House, all of a sudden 15 million people are hearing the words, and it’s an opportunity.

I’m preambling this because, while suicide is obviously not a disease, there was a whole thing around the time of that episode where we were being approached by different medical organizations or mental health organizations, and it began a conversation in the House zone which, frankly, was a big zone. There’s a lot of social media, and those fans loved that show, and if there’s a way to get that word out that it’s okay to talk about mental illness, that’s an amazing platform to have. And that began to happen a bit around that episode. In fact, if you recall, they even put a little card at the end of that episode: “If you know somebody who’s suffering, don’t be afraid to talk about it.” So I thought that was an amazing and wonderful thing that came from that episode.

Acting the episode… To me, that’s probably still the most satisfying episode that I ever got to play as an actor. Because Kal and I had a relationship off-screen and we’re really close, and I think that Kutner and Taub had a lot of fun with each other onscreen, so what they gave me in that episode was that Taub really couldn’t deal with it. So when everyone else is mourning Kutner’s suicide and death, I’m the one who’s dealing with the case, and to me, that’s the greatest thing to play as an actor: when you’ve got so much extreme emotion boiling underneath, and yet they’ve given you a lid, and you have to keep it on. That’s a great challenge and a wonderful thing to play. It was very draining emotionally, but it was very satisfying, because there are the moments where you let things peek through, and—it was just a very intense episode and probably my favorite one. Funny you should mention it! [Laughs.]

AVC: As House wrapped up, did you feel like it was time to go, or could you have seen it going on?

PJ: You know, we still always had solid numbers, but in our heyday it was up to, like, 15 or 16 million, and then by the eighth season we were getting, like, 7 or 8 million. And that wasn’t the reason it left—I think there were a lot of complicated reasons—but one of the things that people talked about was, “Well, the numbers weren’t as good as they were.” If we took our numbers from four years ago on House and gave them to any show today… [Laughs.] That show would be a colossal hit! The landscape has changed so drastically, and it’s so funny to me: there’s so much more out there, and the audiences are so dispersed. It really points out to me just how special that time was and that show was.

That being said, I think everybody was tired. And the show had certainly—I wouldn’t say it had run its course, because I think there always could’ve been more, but I think there was a certain feeling that people felt sated, and I don’t think anybody that I spoke to on or around the show said, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe it! That’s a shocker! No, no, no!” So there was a certain readiness and preparedness. But then again, I think we all could’ve done one or two more seasons as well, because the writers were amazing, they were always able to come up with new stuff, and these characters were so well-drawn and so part of us that you never want it to go away. I could’ve played Taub forever.

Why things get canceled or not is so unbelievably out of actors’ hands that it’s one of those things where you’ve just got to ride with it. And I was also commuting; I lived in New York, and I was the guy who was flying home almost every week, so there was a physical exhaustion and an emotional exhaustion for me, and a need to be home more. So that part felt okay about stopping. I was definitely ready for that. My family was ready for that. But you never get tired of making money, and you never get tired of a great acting gig, a same role that you can play for years, with wonderful writing and wonderful actors. I don’t know that I’ll ever get that again. So I’ll always miss that, and I’ll always long for it. I’d jump back into it in a second if they started it back up. I’m not an idiot. That was a great fucking gig. I’ll never see that thing again. I mean, come on.