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The actor: Kim Dickens’ career has clearly been blessed. She’s had the opportunity to work on some of the best TV shows in recent history, with a resume that includes Friday Night Lights, Lost, and a tremendous stint on Deadwood. Her latest finds her working with Wire mastermind David Simon on Treme, HBO’s new drama, set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Her character is much like her others: strong-willed, casually compelling, and distinctly Southern.
Treme (2010)—“Janette Desautel”
Kim Dickens: I was involved with another pilot at HBO, and it didn’t get picked up, so I was free. It was around Christmastime, and the David Simon piece came up, and they flew me to New York. I was so happy, because a) I didn’t have to go through pilot season, and b) it was just the greatest part ever. I feel pretty fortunate about that. That’s about my fourth role with HBO; two of them didn’t actually make it to the air, but one did, so I at least was familiar with all of them over there.
The A.V. Club: Do you feel like you’ve outgrown the pilot-audition process?
KD: You know, you hope you outgrow it, but it always comes back, it seems. Pilot season tends to be grueling, because you can be thrown all of these auditions at once—last-minute, always—and you’re going on three a day, especially back in the day. A lot of auditions, a lot of material, a lot of characters, and the closer you get on things, it’s just this heightened experience, because you emotionally get so invested and have to make all of these decisions about the role when you go in to test for it. You make all the decisions about the actual job, and then you may not get it. Then you’ve got to go test for another one later that day.
AVC: Are you thinking of any specific part?
KD: Gosh, it’s happened so many times. I remember early, early on, the second thing I did was a pilot called Hell at Fox, by Michael Patrick King. It was funny. It was supposed to be, like, the next Friends. [Laughs.] But it was very Michael Patrick King in that it was a lot edgier—probably ahead of its time for network TV. It was about all these waiters in a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. It was taken from his own experience, and most all of us who were in the pilot had been waitresses and waiters as well. It was really funny. They had told us, “Pack your bags, you’re moving to L.A. Your life’s going to change.” And then, of course, it didn’t. [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of the service industry, your character in Treme is based on a real chef, yes?
KD: Yeah, it was inspired by Susan Spicer, the chef and owner of Bayona Restaurant. And also Herbsaint, for a while; she’s not associated with Herbsaint anymore. She was the inspiration for the part. I’ve taken some liberty with her. Susan is a great lady. I’ve spent a lot of time with her in her kitchen. She has a very beautiful, elegant kitchen; she runs it quietly, but with force and strength and respect from everyone.
AVC: David Simon has said in interviews that a few details aren’t realistic on purpose, like when you serve John Goodman’s character the Hubig’s pie.
KD: We have the chefs on set, as consultants, especially with pronunciations of some of the terms, or how you would do something, say if you’re chopping too loudly. Other than that, as far as filling out the character, that’s where I take the liberties. The issue was that Hubig’s wasn’t back and running at that point [after the hurricane]. It took it a little while longer to get back up. So people who are nitpicky say, “Oh, it wouldn’t have happened, it wouldn’t have been a Hubig’s,” but who cares? [Laughs.] We’re really trying to represent the city in the best way, the most honest way, but you have to take dramatic liberties from time to time.
Friday Night Lights (2008-2009)—“Shelby Saracen”
KD: Oh man, I love that show. I was happy to be a part of that. [Writer-producer] Jason Katims and I had a phone conversation, and they offered [the part] to me. I hadn’t watched the show, but I had been a big fan of the movie. I love football movies. So I watched the show and immediately wanted to get on board with it. It was a really fun experience, too. The way they shoot down there is remarkable. Down in Austin, that is.
AVC: How did they do it?
KD: There are these beautifully written, tight scripts, and they have three hand-held cameras they set up everywhere. For example, Jeffrey Reiner was one of the directors I worked with there. He pretty much directed much of the first two seasons. He would come in and say, “Okay, this is the situation. We know what’s going on. This has happened, this has happened, now if I see anybody acting, then it’s not going to work for me.” Then he just walks away, and he says “action.” If you happen to be standing somewhere, listening to him say that, or sitting on the couch, then all of the sudden he says “Action,” and that’s where you start. It was a pretty remarkable experience. It was kind of like improv for actors, based on the script and the story, but you don’t stick to the lines. These cameramen are trained, and they know how to capture it. They find their shot. It makes the process really fast. They shoot about 16 pages a day. And that’s a lot. It’s quite a life for those actors down there.
AVC: Was Reiner’s advice not to act similar to other advice you’ve received?
KD: No, not really. I know on Treme, I remember hearing though other friends who were going in for things, “Oh, they’re looking for very naturalistic actors.” I guess there’s a certain style to it that feels like a documentary. It feels like you’re eavesdropping on both of those shows, Friday Night Lights and Treme. It’s a different texture that you have to be able to fold into.
AVC: Was the plan always to have your character return later in the show?
KD: Originally, it was a guarantee of four episodes with a possibility of more. I loved working with Zach [Gilford] and Louanne Stephens, who plays Grandma Saracen. She’s nothing like that character. She’s hilarious, actually. We had to shoot those scenes where I back the car out, and she goes tumbling out of the car, and it was a wonder we got through the scene. [Laughs.] She’s quite an actress. I look forward to seeing her on her next gig. She was on Dallas.
AVC: Has your natural Southern dialect helped you get parts like this one?
KD: Everything I’ve done in the last several years has been Southern. When I first started out, that wasn’t the case at all. I don’t know what to think about this, really. These are the jobs I’m getting, so you just go with it. I started out in New York, and New York has a way of countering a Southern accent naturally; when I moved to Los Angeles for a job, and I just stayed, the dialect out here doesn’t really counter, and my Southern started coming back. I don’t know if I could really get rid of it at this point.
AVC: As an actor who’s booking work in New York, is having an accent a liability?
KD: Yeah, probably. Back in the day, it seemed like it; you were supposed to lose your accent entirely.
Lost (2006-2009)—“Cassidy Phillips”
KD: Let’s see. I worked with one of the producers and writers before on two different shows, Deadwood and Big Apple, so they thought of me for the part. I started doing it while I was on Deadwood. I’d have to beg and plead to get released in order to fly to Hawaii and cram in all these scenes in a day and fly right back. The fun thing about Lost is that as a guest star, it’s almost like doing a short film. Because you’re usually someone—originally we were flashbacks, then flashforwards and what-have-you, but you end up having this whole huge arc that ends up as a really strong story, and it feels like, good, you did a short film. Makes me want to do another sci-fi show, that’s for sure. They’re so fun. Their fan base is incredible.
FlashForward (2009)—“Kate Stark”
AVC: You did FlashForward. Was there a similar fan outcry as there was with Lost?
KD: Yeah. That was right as it was taking off. People were really excited about it. A lot of Lost fans were excited about it. I haven’t been back at this point. I think it was left open. I’ve only shot two scenes. It’s so secretive over there that I didn’t really know what was going on; I just knew what I was supposed to play. Even on the call sheet—the names on the call sheet were all crazy names except my name. [Laughs.] My name was real. I didn’t know what was going on.
AVC: Is that a skill that you have to get used to as a TV actor, not really knowing and just doing your thing?
KD: As a guest star more so than as a TV actor. When you’re guest-starring on another show, it really requires you to jump through hoops in a way, because you’re servicing the stories of the main characters. You have to be able to portray a lot of different elements. You show up and get on board and get on their journey; you have to be flexible as to what they need for the role.
AVC: When you take on a guest-starring role on a show, how much do you usually watch of the show before you actually go in? Do you read Wikipedia?
KD: On Friday Night Lights, I watched a lot of those, because it was such a unique style. Lost, I did, too. But sometimes you don’t even have the time. You do what you can.
Deadwood (2004-2006)—“Joanie Stubbs”
AVC: You brought up Deadwood earlier; having worked with David Milch twice, including on the short-lived Big Apple, have you been able to discern his working style?
KD: It’s a remarkable experience. One that I sort of can’t believe I’ve had, especially on Deadwood. He’s such an incredible person, so smart and so charming. A lot of times, once you’re into the series, past episode one or two, you don’t get a full script anymore; the pages come in the night before. If you know his writing style, those can be really dense pages, so when you’re in it, you’re really in it, you’re in the trenches over there. He comes in before you rehearse each scene, and he talks about the human behavior, the personality, and how it physically should be portrayed, and what the subtext is, and what you’re really going to try to play here. He ends up telling stories about anything: human behavior, life experiences he’s had. The crew, everybody is sitting there listening; you can hear a pin drop. Sometimes it lasts 15, 20 minutes, and then you get up and start rehearsing it, and he’ll add a little bit more, or just nod and walk away, and then the directors are there to sort of capture that. It’s just a really amazing experience.
AVC: Do you remember any specific stories he told about Joanie?
KD: [Laughs.] Oh, God. You just never played it the way it was written. I think that’s why the show resonated with people. You can play these things in a very contemporary way, because all this behavior is really timeless. We’d all be in the brothel of the Bella Union and he’d come in and tell stories to everybody about, “This is how the trick would be, this is how the john would be, this is how the whores would be.” Then he’d pause and say, “And that’s how it is—or so I’ve read.” [Laughs.] He’s had quite a life, himself. I remember one time I did a scene with Brian Cox. I’m in the scene talking to Charlie Utter, and Brian Cox’s character comes in and invites me to some theater event, and I say something rude back to him to send him off. And David said basically, “You just need to play this not like you’re being rude or have no interest, but you play it as if you’ve had this tremendous crush on this person for about a year. And all you’ve done is plan how you’re going to look when you see him, and what exactly you’re going to say, and how you’re going to pose when you see him, and then as soon as you see him, it all goes out the window and you just say the stupidest thing in the world.” [Laughs.] “That’s how you play the whole scene, and then you recover after that moment.” And it’s not written that way at all.
AVC: Very few of the characters you’ve played have been pushovers. Is that an attitude you bring to the characters, this one included?
KD: You’re cast when you bring in an essence that they see in the character. It’s funny, I wouldn’t even think of the characters as strong-willed. I always think, “Gosh, I started off and one of my first jobs was comedy, and then all of the sudden I became the wounded bird or the drug addict or the criminal”—always the survivor, though. I guess that is the strong-willed part, the survivor in the face of adversity. I don’t necessarily think I’m that way, but there must be an essence that I come in with. I think with any actor, their essence comes through most of the time, if they’re older, if they’re different. That’s an obvious statement, sorry about that, but I think you know what I meant.
AVC: What’s the status of the show? There were rumors about Deadwood TV films for a while, and those have pretty much been squashed, correct?
KD: Yeah, and not a day goes by it seems like that someone doesn’t ask about that, ask me or a lot of the other actors on the show. It’s a shame. I have to say, that one really hurt. It really deserved that ending. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I bet you if somehow it did come around, most all of us would do whatever we could to get there to do our part in it.
Thank You For Smoking (2005)—“Jill Naylor”
KD: Wow, let’s see. I was also shooting Deadwood when I did that, so it was tough. I kind of wish I wasn’t doing two things at once. When I look back at it, I think [Sighs.] “This could have been better.”
AVC: Was it nice to get back to your comedic roots?
KD: Yeah, it’s always fun to work on a comedy. Just go to work and laugh all day.
Hollow Man (2000)—“Sarah Kennedy”
KD: It was so fun to go do a big blockbuster sci-fi thriller movie. It gave so many of us this opportunity to work in an amazing [Paul] Verhoeven voyeuristic journey. You check everything at the door that you know about filmmaking or acting, and you just go get on his journey. [Laughs.] It was about seven months, and there was a lot of tedious work with the green screen. We worked with Kevin Bacon all the time, and he was always painted entirely green, neon green. Some days he would come in his street clothes and we’d all get nervous. “Oh my God, it’s a movie star, he’s so handsome.”
AVC: Did the film meet your expectations as to what you thought a big-budget studio film would be?
KD: I don’t know, I didn’t think it was that bad. Was it that bad?
AVC: Any movie where someone gets felt up by an invisible man isn’t that bad.
KD: [Laughs.] The day I had to do my naked scene, everybody had a long weekend. I had to do two days by myself and the puppeteer who does all the invisible-man actions. Everybody else had a four-day weekend.
The Blind Side (2009)—“Mrs. Boswell”
KD: The whole state of Alabama was turned on its head, it was so excited for that movie, because Nick Saban is our Alabama football coach right now, and of course he was with a different team, then, he was with Ole Miss, wasn’t he? And so all the football coaches back then played themselves, so people were just ecstatic about that. That was fun. I got involved late with that movie, so I just flew in and did it. I didn’t have any rehearsals or anything. I played it the way it read, this sort of well-meaning teacher who went the extra mile. I have an aunt who’s a really cool teacher, like a speech pathologist, and I always watched how she dealt with kids—like adults, like people. I wish I would’ve had more scenes with Sandy [Bullock], that’s all. I had one tiny scene where we exchanged a line, and then that ended up being cut out.
AVC: I was an extra in The Lake House when Sandra Bullock was in it, and we were told that we were not allowed to make eye contact with her unless she initiated the eye contact.
KD: [Laughs.] Wow. Yeah, no, I didn’t have that experience. She seems so approachable that probably everyone would approach her if given the chance.
Truth Or Consequences, N.M. (1997)—“Addy Monroe” / Palookaville (1995)—Laurie
KD: That’s when I got to stop waiting tables, thanks to Kiefer [Sutherland], for casting me in [Truth Or Consequence, N.M.]. I covered all my shifts, I went to Park City and shot the film for a month and a half, came back, and quit the job. [Laughs.] Kiefer gave me my first lead. What happened was, he had seen Palookaville, which was the first film I did. Vincent Gallo and I played lovers in that. So Kiefer cast Vincent and me again as lovers, and even hired the art director from Palookaville. I thought that was cool. A lot of times, people won’t want to do anything that has in any way been done before, or decided before. I thought that took great courage, to say, “Yeah, I want that. That’s what I need in my film too, and then my film’s going to be completely different.” Kiefer was a great director, super fun to be around. And if I ever stumble across it on television, I think it holds up.
AVC: Because you were able to quit your job from that film, was that the moment you knew you were meant to be an actress?
KD: [Laughs.] No, I always thought, “What am I doing? This is crazy.” And then I just kept doing it, and I’m working still. But I still wonder, “What am I supposed to do next?”