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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Charles Shaughnessy: "If it’s an interesting gig, sign me up whatever it is"

This week’s “Stay Tuned” column is all about my joy over Charles Shaughnessy reuniting with Fran Drescher on “Happily Divorced.”

Actually, I think my joy is more about Shaughnessy doing anything…

I was one of those who swooned over him on “Days of Our Lives.” But he truly cemented his place in my heart when he showed his comedy chops on “The Nanny” with Drescher.

In anticipation of Shaughnessy’s guest appearance on “Divorced” Wednesday, August 17th at 10:30 p.m. on TV Land, I had the chance to speak with him about his role, the continued popularity of “The Nanny,” whether he would consider a return to daytime and some very frank talk about the business in general.

He was refreshingly honest, but I was most excited to hear him say my name in that wonderful accent of his…

How did the guest spot come about?

Frannie is one of the most loyal people in this business, which is not usual. It’s not really a business that engenders a lot of that. But she has always used people that she’s enjoyed working with both in front of and behind the cameras. I got on the set this last week and it was amazing how many familiar faces there were. She has always said whenever I’m doing something I would love for you to have a part in it. So I did an episode of her other show, “Living With Fran”—a couple of those, I think. And I did a guest spot on her talk show. And then when this one came up, she just said if we can find the right character, would you do it? And I said, absolutely, just give me a holler and I’ll be there as quick as Jack Robinson. That’s how it came about and they wrote this character and said would I do it, and I was already on my way to the studio.

And it was just such fun. Certainly with a wonderful episode and a fabulously fun experience for that reason but also just great to see everyone. Lee Shallat, who directed a lot of “The Nanny” episodes and our pilot, a lot of the writing team are the same as we had, the wardrobe people, hair and makeup. So it was a real kind of family reunion. Old home week. It was a really thoroughly enjoyable week.

Had you been watching the show?

Yes, I had. My wife and I saw the pilot sort of out of loyalty I guess. And were interested to see and support Fran and Peter [Jacobsen, the show’s co-creator]. And we thought it was a good pilot. A lot of set-up information. And we thought you know, this is going to be a really hard story for them to tell because it was hard to know what the chemistry between Michael [Higgins, who plays Fran’s ex, Peter] and Fran needed to be. They can’t be lovers. They can’t be attracted to each other because of the whole point of the story and they’ve been married for 18 years. So how is it going to work? How are they going to do this each week? And how are they going to make it both funny and truthful? And lo and behold, they did. We saw the second episode, the third and the fourth and we were hooked. And they do it so well. It’s just a really cleverly constructed show each week. It’s very funny. They’ve got these great writers who make it classic sitcom jokes. I mean, it’s just really funny writing. And also terrific heart and great chemistry between the two of them. It’s an utterly charming show. It’s funny and charming. I’m a big fan.

Without giving too much away, tell me about the character you’re playing.

Without giving too much away, he’s a famous, internationally famous boss. He’s a gardener. He’s to gardens what Martha Stewart is to kitchens. He writes books and he travels around and he meets Fran at a book signing. And he seems very charming and attracted and interested in Fran. But let’s just say he turns out to be a very friendly person.

You and Fran have some incredible chemistry. What do you think the secret is to that?

You know, we…Chemistry is always like the billion dollar question. I think it’s indefinable. I think a huge amount is to do with the performers and getting onto an acting level. I think everyone assumes it has to be personal. You have to really get along. And Fran and I do get along. Don’t get me wrong. I adore Fran. She’s just the most wonderful person to work with. But I don’t think that’s necessary. There’s plenty of elements of chemistry, instances of great chemistry with couples who can’t stand each other. But there’s a kind of a vibration in the acting and the performance that works. The way each other finishes…picks up on a cue. Or the energy that you pick up on a scene and the way you kind of finish each other’s lines. The rhythms that you speak and I think that has more to do with it than anything else. It certainly helps if you get along, but I don’t think that’s necessary. It’s very indefinable. It’s an elusive thing. And people spend millions of dollars on movies and TV shows trying to find it. And it’s just when you do get it, it’s like lightning in a bottle.

“The Nanny” is everywhere on cable. What does that mean to you to know that something you did a while ago is still so popular and probably even gaining new fans?

I have to say to be completely honest, it’s a slightly double edged sword. Yes, on the one hand it’s extremely gratifying that the work that we did in those years is continuing to, as you say, I think it’s actually gaining speed. I mean there’s a whole new generation of fans. I’m certainly getting more recognized and more reaction now than I think I ever have in the past. And it’s in just about every country in the world. You could probably fly around the world and find my face. I was actually flying out of Quito, Ecuador, at the beginning of the year because my daughter was studying there. And we were flying out of Kito Airport in Ecuador and was just mobbed my security. They actually pulled me out of the line and had me go onto the tarmac to go through my case. It was the security people. It was really just a set-up to get pictures and autographs. So that’s remarkable and very satisfying. The slight downside is that first of all, it’s all cable. There’s no financial gain in all of this. You’re not going to get paid anything. And your face is very famous around the world 15-20 years younger, so it’s hard as an actor to kind of re-invent yourself and get cast in new things because you’re seen so much as this other person. Someone who’s a sitcom dad 20 years younger. So as a professional thing, it’s a little tricky. And I think this goes for a lot of people who create roles that become very identified. But it’s very satisfying. And it’s not improper. I’ve certainly done some very fun things since. I’m not saying it’s sort of the kiss of death, but it is a challenge definitely.

What else are you working on right now?

Well, I’m um…Acting nowadays, this business has become so fractured that the old days of being a TV actor or even sort of being narrowed down to a sitcom actor or a dramatic actor or a film/movie actor or a voiceover actor. That’s all gone and you kind of build a career in a sort of mosaic, a patchwork of different jobs. It’s more about jobs than building a career path. So I’ve got a lot of different things. I did a voiceover on something last week, an interactive game, I’m doing a new Tom and Jerry cartoon. It’s a sort of Robin Hood Tom and Jerry, I’m the Sheriff of Nottingham. I was doing “My Fair Lady” back east in Boston this summer which was fantastic in this beautiful theatre, the North Shore Theatre. 1500 seats in the round playing Henry Higgins which was just really fun. I guess the most high profile thing was this five episode arc on “Mad Men,” which was really fun. I’m a huge fan of that show so that was a great thrill to do that. That was a couple of seasons ago now. And then it’s just the next gig. It’s that way as an actor. You kind of just wait on the next gig and that’s how it’s always been. That’s how it was pre-“Nanny.” Before “The Nanny” came up it was pilot season and you go up for a few pilots and then suddenly you’re on a six-year show.

I love that. I enjoy that. To be an actor you’ve got to have a very particular personality and I enjoyed the not knowing exactly what I’m going to be doing in five years time. There is an insecurity to it, but there’s a kind of excitement to it.

Some of us will always remember the first time we saw you as Shane Donovan on “Days of Our Lives,” so I have to ask you, is daytime anything you would ever do again?

You know, daytime, I really enjoyed my time there and would never…Yes, daytime is a fabulous place to work. It’s kind of, I think the sun is setting. I mean, I know there are a few left and one or two might survive a bit longer. But that daytime formula is on the way out. And it doesn’t seem like it would be a great move right now. Put it that way. If a really interesting character came up on a show that seemed worthwhile, yes, it’s a job and I enjoy it. It’s a chance to do what I do. But I wouldn’t be quite as open to it as I was a couple years ago. Put it that way.

I think it’s changing. I think there’s going to be a revival of that kind of entertainment, but I think it’s going to be in a completely different format. I think it’s going to be more Internet-based. You know, PDFs and the little five minute webisodes that you can kind of follow on your handhelds and stuff like that.

This business really seems to be changing. I mean, this sitcom is on TV Land, which used to be just about reruns…


Is it trickier now because the business seems to be so rapidly changing?

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s hard to get a bead on the landscape and in a way all you can do is just sort of what comes up in front of you because I think people are trying to interpret what’s happening and it’s too hard to sort of give any reason for it. But what does seem to be happening, because it’s all driven by commerce…I mean, the truth of the matter is you can’t have a TV show unless someone’s paying for it. And the people who have always paid for it are consumers who buy products during the commercials. Or are at least exposed to products during the commercials. And that’s changing. That’s what’s changing the whole thing. And now you’ve got all these cable channels with very special audiences that are getting much smaller audiences. The audience of TV Land is much smaller than the audience of TBS. But it’s a specific audience. It’s like the Golf Channel has a specific audience, ESPN has a specific audience. So you can target those consumers and get a much better success rate so the advertisers will pay a premium because they see more results because they’re selling to more people who will actually buy their stuff. But it’s not as big an audience, not as big of money. It’s not the money you get out of 15, 20 million people watching your show so you can sell a 20 second spot for $300,000. That’s gone. Where it’s going certainly is the big payday is on its way out. But you’re getting different models—pay cable, HBO and things like that. It’s just that everyone’s trying different things. Some are trying subscriptions, some are trying all kinds of different things…You have all these different models. And it does change it.

I don’t think, it’s hard to see how it’s affected as an actor. There still seems to be a lot of work out there. There’s a lot of content out there. It’s just you have to work harder at it. You’re not paid quite as much, it doesn’t come quite as often. So you’ve got to work harder and spread your net a lot wider. But I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I find it fascinating quite honestly, because I think there’s also this huge increase in free stuff. A lot of creative people—actors, writers, directors—are making interesting things and then putting them up on the Internet for free. Money seems to be a little less important now than it was in a strange kind of way. On the one end you’ve got these huge mega-blockbusters making a hundred million in a week or something. But on the other end, you’ve got really talented people doing interesting little five minute webisodic shows for free. So I’m not sure where it’s headed quite honestly.

It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to hang on for the ride.

Exactly. Hang on for the ride, see where it goes and just do the work that comes up in front of you. I mean, in the end we do exactly what we’ve always done. You go on a set and you act. And that doesn’t change. That bit doesn’t change. The business around it is changing. But as an actor we shouldn’t be that involved in the business side that much anyway. Of course, you’ve got to make a living. I think that it hurts this business. I think it hurt actors that it became such a business. I think we took our eye off the ball. It was easy to take your eye off the ball when you come to Hollywood and you get a chance at making $30 million for four days work on a movie. It means a lot of people that really shouldn’t be in this business are trying to get in this business. Because they’re looking for the big payday. Because when I got in it—certainly coming from England—you got in it because this is what you want to do. And you know perfectly well that you’re probably going to be driving a taxi most of your life. I think it’s not necessarily a bad change in the landscape in the grand scheme of things. It is what it is.

If you did do another show, would you want it to be a comedy, or would you prefer it be a drama?

I absolutely don’t mind. It’s like people say would you prefer to do theater or film or TV? It’s like, it’s all different and I’d hate to give up any of it. Most dramas have an element of humor. I always like to play a character with some sort of humor. I think it’s important no matter what you’re doing. There’s a sort of humanity that has to come through. And certainly as far as a work schedule is concerned. There is nothing better than a half-hour sitcom. It’s a great way of life. When you do a one-hour drama, you’re working pretty much non-stop for nine months. You do a half-hour sitcom, it’s extremely user friendly. So from that point of view, that would be fantastic. But if it’s an interesting gig, sign me up whatever it is.

Photo Credit: TV Land