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Tony Shalhoub on BrainDead, Monk, and acting stoned in Galaxy Quest

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: Tony Shalhoub has repeatedly proven himself adept at dramatic work over the course of his career, but he’s far better known to the average TV viewer or moviegoer for his comedic work, thanks to films like Galaxy Quest and series such as Wings and Monk. Since the latter series wrapped up its eight-season run in 2009, Shalhoub has found his greatest success in short arcs on various series, nearly stealing the final season of Nurse Jackie away from its core cast, and he can currently be seen contributing to the political zombie comedy in CBS’ BrainDead.

BrainDead (2016)—“Senator Red Wheatus”

Tony Shaloub: I was sent the script, and I had been somewhat familiar with Robert and Michelle King. I had been offered a couple of roles on The Good Wife, but I wasn’t able to do them for scheduling reasons and things like that, and I knew that the series was on its last season, so that window was closing. Luckily, they sent me this new piece, and I read it, and it was a no-brainer. Uh, no pun intended. But I thought it was a perfect fit for me.

The A.V. Club: So who is Senator Wheatus?

TS: He’s a Republican senator from Maryland, a career politician—he’s probably been a senator for 20 years or more. But when we first meet him, he’s a guy who’s just kind of turned into a bit of a lush. [Laughs.] He’s become somewhat jaded about his job and the whole political scene, and he drinks a lot and chases women, and he’s basically kind of given up. But then he has this thing happen to him, which I like to refer to as an enhancement, and he cleans up his act. He becomes reinvigorated and is stronger and smarter and more of a fighter, and he swings way, way to the right, and he just becomes a person who isn’t going to put up with compromising anymore.

AVC: It’s a show with a rather unusual tone for a broadcast network.

TS: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think it is. You have to admire CBS for taking a chance on this. But I think the timing is perfect for it.

The Equalizer (1986)—“Terrorist Leader”
Heartburn (1986)—“Airline Passenger” (uncredited)

AVC: In regards to your first on-camera work, it’s hard to tell if it was playing a terrorist leader on The Equalizer or an airplane passenger in Heartburn.

TS: Wow. Yeah, I guess I’d have to look at the chronology of all that. They kind of both happened around the same time. Actually, the airline passenger in Heartburn was a real role that I did, an actual part with three or four days of work, but it all got cut out. My first movie, and I got completely—well, 99 percent—cut out of it. Which was horrible. You know, I did a movie directed by Mike Nichols with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, one of the scenes was with Meryl Streep, and I told the entire known world about this wonderful experience. And this was before the internet, before cell phones, all of that! And then when I found out that I wasn’t in it, I got a really gracious card from Mike Nichols, saying, “Unfortunately, this thing had to go, blah blah blah.” But it’s not like you can go around and tell everyone that you’re not actually in the movie after all. [Laughs.] You can’t just do a mass email or whatever. So... it was horrible. Yeah, it was a very difficult time. But it was my first introduction to the endless rollercoaster which is our business.

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

TS: You know, it was kind of a hobby, I guess, when I was younger. I did some acting in high school and then a little more in college, and it just was the thing that I felt that I wanted to do more than anything else. And then I was fortunate enough to audition for and get into Yale Drama School right after college, and I spent three years there. And then the hook was set.

Stark Raving Mad (1999-2000)—“Ian Stark”

TS: Oh, boy. That was so much fun. That was Steve Levitan, one of the creators of Modern Family, that got me into that. I had known him from Wings. He was one of the writers on Wings.

I’m still not quite sure why that show didn’t make it past the first year. We were having such a good time, and I think we were building a good following. To be frank, I haven’t quite gotten over the cancellation of that. I’m a very sensitive guy!

Too Big To Fail (2011)—“John Mack”

TS: I had the opportunity to meet John Mack just before we started filming. I got to go to his office there at Morgan Stanley, and he was incredibly gracious. It was invaluable, that time that I had sitting with him and familiarizing myself with that world. And he happened to be Lebanese, too, and his father came over from Lebanon like my father did, so we had a lot of common ground.

Longtime Companion (1989)—“Paul’s Doctor”

TS: Yeah! Longtime Companion was really the first movie that I know of that addressed the problem of AIDS. This was back in the ’80s that we did this. That was at a time when a lot of mainstream actors were just sidestepping that kind of material, and that movie actually involved a lot of theater people, a lot of stage actors, and the director—the late, great Norman René—was a theater director I had worked with at the Public Theater. So it was an interesting time and an interesting experiment. Some people thought there was a lot of risk involved, doing a film like that, but we were all very proud of the material. I think it’s still a great film. And an important film.

Big Night (1996)—“Primo”

TS: That was one of the highlights of my life, working with Stanley [Tucci] and Campbell Scott on that project. I had known Stanley—we had done a play together a number of years before on a John Guare play [Moon Over Miami]. I think when we did the first initial reading of Big Night, I read the role of Pascal, the role Ian Holm did, and then a little while later, when they were getting ready to do it, Stanley said, “I’d really like you to do this, but would you be okay doing Primo?” And of course I jumped at the chance.

Interestingly enough, that was 20 years ago, and then just this winter I went to London, and I did another film that Stanley directed called Final Portrait, about Giacometti. So Stanley and I have an opportunity to work together a number of times. He came onto Monk and did an episode, of course. We did The Imposters together. He directed me and my wife [Brooke Adams] on Broadway in Lend Me A Tenor six years ago. But I have fond, fond memories of the filming of Big Night, and it’s one of the movies I think I’m most proud of.

Quick Change (1990)—“Cab Driver”

TS: Quick Change was my first real movie. It was an interesting audition process, because there were no lines in the script. Bill Murray’s character would say something, and Geena Davis and Randy Quaid would say something, and then it would just say, “The cabbie speaks.” How do you audition for that? [Laughs.] So I actually kind of invented a gibberish language, and I scripted it. I sat in my apartment in New York, and I made up words. I made up a whole thing. And then when I went in to audition, I guess they responded well to that.

It was fun, because when we were actually filming, I got to pad my part, because if it only said, “The cabbie speaks,” then I could say whatever I wanted for as long as I wanted, so I would fill it out. Let’s put it that way. [Laughs.] I turned maybe a 10-minute part into a 20-minute part, and I left it up to the editors to decide.

Nurse Jackie (2015)—“Dr. Bernard Prince”

TS: There’s the incomparable Edie Falco and having an opportunity to work with her and that amazing cast, Todd Phillips and that whole producing team, and those amazing writers… You know, now that you’re kind of itemizing all these roles here, I feel like I’ve been very fortunate!

That was an interesting situation because they did not tell me going in where that part was going. They just gave me each script as we were going along, just a few days before we’d start each episode, and I just had no idea that my character had brain cancer. Here we go with the brain again. Do you see a theme developing here? [Laughs.] Anyway, I was just taking everything on face value, playing what I was given, and then we got into about the third or fourth episode, they said, “So do you want to know what’s really happening with your character and, you know, where this is going?” And I said, “Do I need to know before the audience knows?” They said, “Not really.” [Laughs.] “We don’t really feel a burning need to tell you.” I said, “Great! Don’t tell me, and we’ll just keep it going!” I mean, I asked, “Am I going off-track? Is it not going to line up?” And they said, “No, no, just keep doing what you’re doing.” And then eventually I got the script that revealed it, and I just hoped to God that what I’d done didn’t belie that. But that was good in the end. Because my character was keeping it from everyone, so that made it easy to not tip it one way or the other, so that was kind of a good thing.

AVC: Good enough that you were on the verge of stealing the series away from the leads. That’s pretty impressive, considering that cast.

TS: Oh, boy, I don’t know about that. [Laughs.] That’d be a hard, daunting task, wouldn’t it?

Wings (1991-1997)—“Antonio Scarpacci”

TS: That was a good run. I did that for six seasons. The story, of course, is that I had just moved to L.A. from New York, and the show—I think it’d already been on for one season, and I’d been given a script to come in for just this one episode. It was just a one-episode part. And I had never seen the show before, because I had been doing theater up to that point and wasn’t really watching a lot of television, because I was working at night. But when they sent me the script for the audition, I noticed that the main characters’ names were Helen and Joe, and those just happen to be my parents’ names. And then I noticed that Joe’s brother was named Brian, and weirdly my father had a brother named Brian. So I thought this was kind of a bizarre coincidence. Anyway, I went in and tried to fake my way through the best Maine/Italian accent I could find. [Laughs.] And I think they just liked the character, because a few months later, they asked me to come back as a regular. Again, I was very fortunate. Right place, right time.

AVC: You had a particularly memorable episode with your wife, where she played a nun.

TS: Yes, I remember that! I haven’t seen that for awhile, but I remember it. And, of course, Brooke came on and did, oh, I don’t know, four or five different roles on Monk. They just kept throwing her all these curve balls. [Laughs.] So we had a lot of opportunities to work together.

Monk (2001-2009)—“Adrian Monk”

AVC: Looking back, it’s remarkable that Monk lasted as long as it did, especially when you consider the length of the average USA Network series up to that point. It really set a precedent in terms of longevity for the network’s programming.

TS: Yeah! That was at a time, when we first started that, when there were some big changes going on at USA. Kind of a changing of the guard, if you will, but they were in the process of rebranding their network, and the show happened to be a part of that rebranding. The script and the pilot had originally been at ABC. I think that’s kind of common knowledge. But it started at ABC, and they couldn’t quite get the right people involved there, so it kind of languished there for a number of years. And then one executive leaving ABC and going over to USA asked to take it over there and see if they could make it work. And then it came to me, and—well, again, it was a life-changing opportunity, and I feel so grateful that I had it, because it was an enormous amount of fun.

AVC: Was the ending of Monk something that had been planned out in advance?

TS: I don’t know. That’s something you’d really have to ask Andy Breckman, the creator, and that writing team. I would assume when you start a series like this, you don’t really know how long it’s going to go. These things take on a life of their own as a certain point, and you can outline that and plot them out to a certain degree, but I think probably—and I’m guessing—that it was around season five or six that they started to map out where it would go. But it was always contingent upon how long the network wanted to stay with us and how long our loyal fans would still hang on for the ride. It was actually one of those situations where the network never really canceled the show. It was kind of a group decision between me, the writers, and the network to go out on season eight, before the show got old on the vine. The idea of leaving the audience wanting more, I thought that was kind of cool. And I was really, really pleased with the way they wrapped it up. And I think the viewers were, too, because the ratings for our finale were phenomenal.

AVC: I think anyone who’d watched the show regularly probably suspected it would come back to Trudy in the end.

TS: I honestly didn’t know ’til a few weeks before I got that final two-parter. I didn’t honestly know if they were going to maybe kill me off. That idea was always floating there in the ether. Again, it was one of those situations where I didn’t press them to tell me. I was willing to go with whatever they felt was best. But I’m glad it came out the way it did.

AVC: Would you do a Monk movie if the opportunity presented itself?

TS: [Laughs.] That does get bandied about now and then. It’s not really up to me, but, yeah, I never say never. It was a fun character to work on.

Galaxy Quest (1999)—“Fred Kwan”

TS: I seem to have a lot of favorite projects and a lot of high points, but Galaxy Quest, wow, that was almost too much fun, that particular group of actors. And that was the first time I worked with Dean Parisot. He was the director on that. After Galaxy Quest, I asked him to direct the pilot of Monk, which he did, and we’ve been friends for a long, long time.

That was an interesting situation, too. I had first gone in to meet the director for the role of Guy Fleegman, Sam Rockwell’s part. Crewman #6. That was the initial meeting. And then I found out a little while later that Sam was going to do that, and that was great. And then Dean called me up and said, “We would like you to do this guy Fred Kwan.” And I said, “Well, no, that’s an Asian guy. I can’t play an Asian guy! Why don’t you get an Asian guy? There’s a lot of guys out there who could knock this out of the park!” He said, “No, no, no, we think you should do this thing.” And I said [Sighs.] “Well, I can’t play an Asian guy. I won’t play an Asian guy. But I will play a guy who plays an Asian guy.”

So Dean said to me, “Why don’t you take a look at the pilot for Kung Fu?” You know, the David Carradine show? “Because that was a guy who wasn’t an Asian guy playing an Asian guy.” This got really convoluted. [Laughs.] So I watched David Carradine, and then we found out that there was this rumor—I don’t think it was a rumor, I think it was a legend—that David Carradine just smoked a lot of weed on that show. That was the thing. That’s how he was able to channel that kind of Zen, unflappable character. So we decided, “Well, maybe that’s what happened to Fred, too: He just became this kind of burnout.” And then we just kind of rewrote it as we went along. Dean and the writers, we just kind of made it up as we went along, based on that idea: that he’d smoked an enormous amount of pot.

We Are Men (2013)—“Frank Russo”

AVC: Do you have any thoughts on why We Are Men didn’t gel?

TS: I honestly don’t know. I’ve been doing this a long time, and the longer I do it, the less I understand why things work and why things don’t. I just don’t know. When you’re inside something and you’re doing it, sometimes it feels great, and then it doesn’t pan out. Sometimes you do something and you feel like it’s not clicking and it feels like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill, and then it takes off. There’s just no explaining it. I don’t know what to say.

I can tell you this, though: The three guys I was working with and those writers, I was having maybe one of the best times of my life. It was a tremendous amount of fun. Ron Greenberg was the creator and the main writer, and he’s a man I would work for again in a second. I don’t have any bad feelings about it. It was just one of those situations where we felt like we were in a bit of a groove, and for reasons I can’t explain… I don’t know if it was that audiences didn’t buy into it or didn’t want to go along for the ride, or the network didn’t want to give it enough time to germinate, or something else. The TV landscape is a tricky one.

Barton Fink (1991)—“Ben Geisler”
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)—“Freddy Riedenschneider”

TS: I’m going to sound like a broken record, but… those were two of the best experiences. [Laughs.] I mean, those were—damn, I’ve been incredibly fortunate, haven’t I? I adored them.

When I first auditioned for Barton Fink, I had seen their work on Blood Simple, of course, and I felt that was a game-changer. And then when I read Barton Fink, I knew John Turturro and everything, and I thought, “I just have to do this!” I think I would’ve spiraled down and out had I not gotten that job. It was that important to me. I loved it so much. The interesting thing about reading their stuff is that it’s that kind of situation where the character kind of jumps off the page and whacks you in the face. It’s not like you have to hunt and search and experiment. It’s almost like it’s served up to you. And I read this part, Ben Geisler, and the voice just hit me. I wish I could explain it. It doesn’t often happen.

And it happened again on The Man Who Wasn’t There. I didn’t have to read for that one. They just offered it to me. But I had that same experience, where the character just leapt into my head. I just had a great time with those guys.