Saturday, December 19, 2015

Belated Obituary & Tribute to Phyllis Davis (1940-2013)

Just over two years ago, I started reading things on the internet that indicated actress Phyllis Davis had passed away.  The first inkling I learned about it was a posting on Davis's IMDB Message Board from a family friend who had heard from her brother that she had passed.  Later, I found a brief online funeral home obituary notice for a Phyllis Davis with the same birth date as the one listed for her on IMDB, which would further confirm that she had died.  However, the funeral home obituary made no mention of her as the Phyllis Davis who had acted in films and television from the 1960s into the early 1990s, so there remained a bit of doubt for awhile as to whether she had indeed passed away.  This doubt was further compounded by the fact that neither major industry trade publications, Variety and Hollywood Reporter, have ever reported her death in the last two years, nor have any major or minor newspapers made mention of her passing as well.  Her death was briefly noted in the obituary section of a Spring 2014 Screen Actors Guild newsletter, but the mention merely consisted of her stage name Phyllis Elizabeth Davis being listed among dozens of other actors who had also died recently.  In fact, it took awhile before Davis's actual IMDB page, which lists her career accomplishments and credits, was updated to make mention that she had passed away, helping to remove any lingering doubt about the issue.  Perhaps the lack of acknowledgment could be due to Davis and her family not wanting to prepare a public statement concerning her death, which is completely understandable given how emotional and complicated the aftermath of a family member's passing can be.  However, an actress as accomplished as Phyllis Davis, who contributed many entertaining performances during her career, deserves some sort of acknowledgement.  She was a good actress capable of both comedy and drama, as well as playing villains and sympathetic parts.  Because I think it is unfortunate for Variety and Hollywood Reporter, the publications who purport to represent the industry that she worked in for over a quarter of a century, to have not paid her the proper respect after all this time, here's my belated tribute and obituary to Phyllis Davis.

Film and television actress Phyllis Davis died of cancer on September 27, 2013 in Henderson, Nevada.  She was 73 years old.  She was born Phyllis Ann Davis on July 17, 1940 in Port Arthur, Texas.  (She was purportedly billed as "Phyllis Elizabeth Davis" in some of her acting appearances as a tribute to her idol Elizabeth Taylor.)  The oldest of three siblings, Davis's parents ran a mortuary business in Nederland, Texas where she grew up.  While her two younger brothers reportedly followed in their parents' footsteps and also became morticians, Davis aspired to become an actress from an early age and studied acting at Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas for one semester before moving to Los Angeles to study at the Pasadena Playhouse.  After a brief stint as a flight attendant for Continental Airlines, Davis's show business career began after her roommate, choreographer Toni Basil, helped her land appearances in theatrical variety shows as well as some small roles in feature films.  By the time her career was underway, Davis was already in her mid-20s.  Her deep voice and comparatively earthy maturity allowed Davis to standout from her conventionally youthful peers.  Davis's big-screen appearances throughout the 1960s included parts in "Lord Love a Duck" (1966), "The Oscar" (1966), "The Last of the Secret Agents" (1966), "Spinout" (1966), "The Swinger" (1966), "Live a Little, Love a Little" (1968), and "The Big Bounce" (1968).  She also appeared in numerous guest roles on popular television shows like "Petticoat Junction," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Wild, Wild West," "The Girl from U.N.C.L.E." and "Adam-12."

Davis's career prospects took a turn for the better when she landed a major role in Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), playing fashion editor Susan Lake, a role that was originally meant to be a continuation of the Anne Welles role played by Barbara Parkins in the original "Valley of the Dolls" (1967) back when the film was planned as a direct sequel to the earlier film.  Despite Davis's disappointment that the role had been modified, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" allowed Davis an opportunity to play a mature, intelligent character that she was not always given an opportunity to essay in her earlier decorative parts in the 1960s.  During this time, Davis also landed a recurring role as one of the repertory of actors used in the "blackout" sections of the popular "Love American Style" anthology sitcom.  Davis appeared regularly on the show for about four seasons, and even landed featured roles in several of the actual scripted vignettes during her time on the series.  Phyllis Davis's participation in "Love American Style" allowed her to demonstrate her talents in light comedy, which helped further distinguish her from her peers and contemporaries.

Phyllis Davis reportedly was originally cast as Bond Girl Plenty O'Toole in "Diamonds are Forever" (1971).  However, sometime after she had signed the contracts, but before she was to report for work in Las Vegas, she was replaced by Lana Wood.  Davis mentioned in a 1992 interview for "Femme Fatales" magazine that she was deeply disappointed in missing out on the Bond movie, but maintained that she still received residual checks whenever the film airs on television or cable due to having signed the contracts before being replaced.  Instead of appearing in the Bond movie, Davis made a memorable lead in the Costa Rica-shot women's prison film "Sweet Sugar" (1972), playing a sassy, quick witted prostitute named Sugar who has been railroaded into working on a corrupt banana republic sugar cane plantation prison run by a psychotic doctor.  Despite the abundance of nudity required, Davis maintains her dignity throughout by projecting qualities of wit, intelligence and decency in the title role.  Sugar continually stands up to the amoral, corrupt men running the prison plantation both for herself and for her fellow inmates.  In one of Davis's most impressive scenes, she comes to the defense of a fellow inmate too sick to cut cane and volunteers to cover her workload while maintaining her own quota.  The scene allows the audience to recognize that Sugar isn't out for herself.  Davis's unusually deep voice, which always distinguished her from her contemporaries, allows her to project confidence and authority throughout the film, particularly in the finale where the machine gun-brandishing Sugar leads a revolt and breakout among her fellow inmates.  As the trailer narrator memorably and accurately intones, Davis and her accomplices were ".38 caliber kittens spitting death as they claw their way to freedom!"  In fact, Davis's performance in "Sweet Sugar" is so good, it makes one sense that she should have been considered for the Tiffany Case, and not Plenty O'Toole, role in "Diamonds are Forever," which was ultimately played by the unimpressive Jill St. John.

Davis continued in the women-in-prison genre the next year with the futuristic drama "Terminal Island" (1973), directed by Stephanie Rothman.  In "Terminal Island," Davis plays one of four female prisoners condemned to live out her existence on an island, after the death penalty has been abolished, along with other death row prisoners, both male and female, where there are no guards and no law and the prisoners are free to do as they wish except leave.  As with "Sweet Sugar," Davis's character actively participates in a civil war revolt against the tyrannical prisoners who intimidate and enslave the more docile prisoners on the island.  However, Davis was purportedly later forced to bring legal action against the producers of a compilation video, called "Famous T & A" (1982), comprised of well-known actresses' nude scenes.  To her dismay, Davis learned that those producers had used, without obtaining her consent, unedited footage of Davis in her skinny dipping scene that was much more graphic than what ended up in the final cut of "Terminal Island."  On a happier note, the other lasting legacy of "Terminal Island" was that it established a lifelong friendship with co-star Tom Selleck, who later cast her in a recurring role in "Magnum P.I." in the late 1980s.

Throughout the 1970s, Davis appeared in other feature films including "The Day of the Dolphin" (1973), the quirky period musical comedy "Train Ride to Hollywood (1975) where she humorously spoofed Vivien Leigh's role as Scarlett O'Hara, and Robert Aldrich's "The Choirboys" (1977), based on Joseph Wambaugh's novel.  In the latter part of the decade, Davis landed her most notable role as Bea Travis, the assistant to Robert Urich's Dan Tanna, on the Aaron Spelling detective series "Vega$" (1978-81).  A former showgirl and single mother, the character of Bea, Tanna's Girl Friday, allowed Davis an opportunity to demonstrate a maternal, sympathetic warmth, as well as qualities of loyalty and courage in the episodes that allowed Bea to get in on the action, that made her an appealing presence on the series.  What was notable about Davis's work on "Vega$" was the seemingly effortless chemistry that underscored the platonic, caring friendship between Dan Tanna and Bea.  Urich and Davis both did good work to sell that friendship with TV audiences and it became one of the human elements that made "Vega$" an entertaining series.

After "Vega$" was unexpectedly cancelled after three seasons, Davis continued working in prime time television throughout the 1980s.  In addition to her aforementioned recurring role on "Magnum P.I.," she became a favorite of "Vega$" producer Aaron Spelling, for whom she appeared eight times on "Fantasy Island," four times on "The Love Boat," as well as the Spelling produced "Finders of Lost Loves," "Matt Houston," and "Hotel."  "Fantasy Island" in particular allowed Davis an opportunity to essay a variety of different kinds of characters.  In one episode, she played a plain-looking woman whose fantasy of becoming glamorous and attractive has unintended consequences.  In another episode, her character has her fantasy fulfilled of becoming Mata Hari.  In yet another episode, her character has an opportunity of becoming the singer/stage actress Lillian Russell.  Davis also made a memorable guest appearance in the 2-hour pilot movie for "Knight Rider" (1982), playing the villainous Tanya Walker, an industrial spy whose wounding and disfigurement of police officer Michael Long leads to his new identity as crime fighter Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff).  She appeared on the December 1980 "Battle of the Network Stars" special and became a staple on game shows throughout the decade including "The Hollywood Squares," "Match Game PM" and "Family Feud."  She wrapped up her career in the early 1990s with appearances in the Andy Sidaris action film "Guns" (1990), as well as small roles in "Exit to Eden" (1994), "Beverly Hills Cop III" (1994), and "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" (1995) before calling it a day and retiring from acting for good.

Phyllis Davis, who never married, was in a long term relationship with legendary actor/entertainer Dean Martin in the late 1970s.  Martin's daughter Deana wrote warmly about Davis in her 2010 memoir "Memories Are Made of This: Dean Martin Through His Daughter's Eyes."  In the book, Ms. Martin recalled how the Martin family liked Davis very much and that she became good friends with the actress, who she described as "funny, beautiful, and down to earth."  Years later, in the late 1980s, Davis was in another long term relationship with flat racing jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr.  While doing a rare radio interview on actor Larry Manetti's CRN network radio show on May 15, 2012, Davis shared that her retirement years in her post-acting life were filled with extensive travel where she lived in countries like Thailand for periods of time, as well as fostering and finding forever homes for animals.  As she explained on air"I enjoyed my life being away from acting, I think, better than acting...Afterwards, I don't know, I think I grew as a person because I went to Asia by myself and went up into the jungle by myself and learned about other people, instead of just thinking about yourself."  Survivors include Davis's brother Weldon Davis of Austin, Texas.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Cameron Watson and Christina Pickles Explain How to "Break a Hip"

A few weeks ago I blogged about the very funny web series "Break a Hip," created by Cameron Watson and starring Christina Pickles.  The series depicts the friendship between a lonely retired English actress transplanted in Hollywood, Elizabeth "Biz" Brantley (played by Pickles), and Wincy (Britt Hennemuth), the young aspiring actor she has hired to help her with errands and chores around her tiny studio apartment.  I was very taken with the series because, underneath its occasionally zany and outrageous humor, there lies a very poignant story of two lonely souls who find solace and comfort with one another.  Because the feelings and emotions in "Break a Hip" have a natural authenticity and spontaneity to it, I wanted to find out more about what went into creating and producing the show.  Both Cameron Watson and Christina Pickles graciously consented to interviews where they discussed the making of the web series, as well as aspects of their lives and careers that provided the creative impetus for their collaboration on "Break a Hip."  Not only did Watson and Pickles explain why they regard this series as a high point in both of their individual careers, they also discussed how the characters of Biz and Wincy reflect the personal experiences and sensibilities of its primary creative personnel.  What ultimately makes "Break a Hip" so effective is how the series's depiction of Biz and the challenges in her life--as a mature actress struggling to survive in a Hollywood that has forgotten all about her--allows Watson and Pickles to express their feelings about the current state of the entertainment industry, as well as how that industry often takes for granted the creative personnel working in their midst.  The show also demonstrates how new entertainment mediums, such as web series, are offering an opportunity for creative individuals to practice their craft without the limitations or impositions placed upon them by corporate entities, and yet still have the potential to reach the widest possible audience than ever before.  I would like to thank Cameron Watson and Christina Pickles for their generosity in finding time to speak with me about "Break a Hip."

The genesis for "Break a Hip" began in the mid-1980s when Cameron Watson arrived in Los Angeles after studying acting at the University of Montevallo in Alabama.  As Watson recalls, "I actually lived the story as a young actor.  When I was first out in LA, I needed a job to earn money so I was a waiter and all kinds of things while I was auditioning.  And, through another actor, I got hooked up with a woman who was an older, retired English actress.  She lived alone in a studio apartment exactly like the character of Biz in 'Break a Hip.'  She had posted an ad on the board at the SAG headquarters looking for an actor to help her with errands and chores part time.  A friend of mine had responded to that and was doing it for quite awhile.  He had to go out of town and he said to me 'Hey, I've got this little gig with this woman.  You just have to take her to the grocery store and to the doctor and she pays you by the hour.  It's not a horrible job, but just get ready, she's tough and she's a real character.'  And I said, 'I'll take it.  I don't care.  What do you mean by tough?'  And he said, 'She's just a character.  You'll get frustrated and you'll laugh and you'll probably get a little mad at her at times.'  And I said, 'Oh, I'll do it for a couple of months.  I really could use the cash.'  And I ended up forging a relationship with her over the course of almost three years, off and on, until she passed away.  I stayed with her as her main person to help her.  She had nobody in the world, she had nobody left."

As Watson started working for this actress and got to know her on a personal level, he found that, "She was still very elegant.  It was kind of a funny dichotomy, I guess.  She lived in this really sad, sad studio apartment that she and her husband had lived in since the 1940s when they first came over from England.  He was a pretty successful character actor and came to Hollywood and did a lot of character work in movies, but she never really translated much to the Hollywood scene.  She had this real elegance and sophistication but she was trapped in this sad life because her husband had died, and all of her pals--all of the actors that she knew, all of her old cronies--they were all dead.  And she was angry.  She was not happy that she was alone.  She felt abandoned.  She felt like she was stuck in this town, and it wasn't home, but there wasn't anybody at home for her to go home to.  And at that time her health was so poor that she could not have traveled back to England anyway.  It was interesting to me to observe this because I was young and hopeful, like the character of Wincy, and I was in Hollywood for the first time.  It was such an interesting, complete opposite end of the spectrum to witness someone at the end of their life living with all this disappointment--and these choices not made and these opportunities not taken--and I was just fascinated by her.  I found her very urbane and funny as hell and I was very attracted to--what's the word?--the finality of a life like that."

Throughout his time running errands and working for this actress, Watson learned some survival skills and life lessons from her that he ultimately applied to his own life and career.  Watson wistfully recalls how, "She would never admit that she was unhappy, she would never admit that she had made these mistakes and that she had these missed opportunities.  I do think she was being hard on herself, but I do think she was a woman whose talent and opportunity was never fully realized.  I think that was the sadness of her, I think that's what kept her stuck in that kind of 'angry-at-the-world' perspective she had.  I don't think she was completely hard on herself because I think there was a reality that she had a bunch of missed opportunities.  She used to tell a story when she was a young actress studying in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  She said there was a dinner party once that took place after class or rehearsal and there was Vivien Leigh and Gielgud and that whole crowd.   And they kept telling her, 'You need to go over and sit at that table with Noel Coward.  Go sit with him, he will love you.'  And she had such fear and self-doubt that she thought to herself, 'I won't be good enough to entertain him.  He'll think I'm nuts.  I'll be less than he expects and I'm not going to go.'  She didn't go sit at his table and so this woman at 80 years old lived with this thought, 'If I had only gone and talked with Noel Coward, I might've become a star.'  That's the sort of burden she lived with herself."  

Even though this actress remained haunted by the missed opportunities from her own life and career, she was still generous enough to mentor Watson about the realities of being a working actor so that he could avoid repeating the same mistakes she had made years earlier.  Watson recalls how, "She sort of skirted around and made fun of things and often would say 'nothing now is good, it was all better in my day.'  But at the same time she would very subtly guide me down the right path and say things like, in that last episode, when Biz tells Wincy 'Oh, you've got to go do this play.  Of course you do,' She would do things like that.  I would say to her that I would have to go to Portland, Oregon to do a play for a couple of months, and I knew it was going to be a real problem because she didn't have any help and she said, 'You have to take this opportunity because this is what you're here to do.  Don't miss these opportunities, don't miss out on fortune when it comes your way.'  And I knew it was coming from a place from someone who had missed a lot of opportunities.  I think the gift that she gave me was to have the perseverance and to buck up and she always used to say 'Get to it, get on with it' like when Christina does in that eighth episode where Wincy is rambling on about something and she would say 'Oh, come on, Wincy.  Get to it.'  I think I learned that more than anything it's just 'Get to it because life is short and it doesn't last forever.'  I think she wanted me to not be her, to be really honest, I think that was the bottom line: To not wake up at 80 years old and go 'Oh, I missed everything.  I missed it all.'  I am glad that she had an opportunity to see some of my early work.  When I started to work, she got to see a lot of the television work I did, and she actually came and saw me do a play before she died, which was wonderful.  She was able to leave knowing that I would be OK, and that made me very happy."

After her passing, Watson forged ahead and continued pursuing his career to where he ultimately established himself as a respected actor and stage director.  During that time, he wrote a full-length feature film screenplay based on his experiences working for this actress.  In 2005, he directed the well-regarded independent feature film "Our Very Own," a coming of age story about five small town teenagers growing up in Shelbyville, Tennessee in 1978, starring Allison Janney and Keith Carradine.  In the wake of "Our Very Own," Watson recalled the screenplay based on his experiences in Hollywood working for this actress, and began considering what he could do to bring this script to fruition.  As Watson recalls, "I always wanted to write a story about her, and the full-length screenplay based on my experiences with her was called 'Lonely on the Moon.'  My colleagues and I first made 'Our Very Own' and that took several years to get made.  We sold it to Miramax and Allison Janney got an Independent Spirit Award nomination from it.  After that film, there was a bit of buzz around me as a new and promising filmmaker and people were asking 'What's next?  What's next?' and I took the 'Lonely on the Moon' script all over town, trying to get it set up.  I couldn't get anyone interested in it because the leading woman was an older actress.  At that time, nobody was interested in a story with an older actress carrying a film.  It's a very different world than the one we live in now which is why we did what we did by turning that screenplay into a web series.  Being old is sort of very groovy right now and very 'in.'  But at that time I was meeting with all of these people who could very easily put this thing together and no one would bite because of the age of the lead character.  I got the script into the hands of a couple of actresses who were that age and had a name, and they all wanted to do it, but I couldn't get anybody interested in financing the movie.  So I put it away and it sat in the drawer for several years."  

After several years of no activity concerning "Lonely on the Moon," it took prodding and encouragement from one of his colleagues to inspire Watson to revisit that script.  As Watson recalls, "Maggie Biggar, who was one of the producers on 'Our Very Own,' kept bringing it up and about three years ago she said, 'Why don't we pull out 'Lonely on the Moon' and do a reading of the screenplay just to see what it's like?  It's been a long time since anybody's looked at it.  It's still kind of a new property.'  And I thought it was a great idea and so I called Christina Pickles.  I'd worked with her and known her a long time.  She didn't know the script at all.  I said to Christina, 'I'm putting together a reading of this old screenplay I wrote.  Would you read the character of Biz?'  And so I cast Christina as Biz for this reading, and Carole Cook read the role of Pearl Goodfish at the reading.  And they were the two actors from the reading who came along once we turned it into the web series.  We rented a space in Hollywood and invited a handful of people for the reading.  It was just for our own purposes.  We weren't trying to raise money or anything.  We read it and it just played beautifully.  People who attended that reading fell in love with the characters of Biz and Wincy.  The reaction was really positive.  So we thought, 'What do we do with this?  Do we try to make another independent movie?  Aww, it takes too long, it takes so much money.  We've done that even though we had some success with it.'  And I just didn't want to do that again, to be really honest, because I just knew how much heavy lifting that that was.  So I put it back in the drawer for maybe a year or so until Christina and I were having lunch one day in Brentwood just to say Hello and I'm looking at her eating lunch and, like a lightening bolt, I just said, 'I know what to do with the screenplay.'  She said, 'What are you talking about?'  And I said, 'I know what to do about 'Lonely on the Moon.'  We're going to reinvent it as a web series.  We're going to break it up into endless episodes.  It can go on forever and ever and you're going to play Biz.'  And she said, 'How are we going to do that?' and I said, 'I don't know, but we're going to do it.'  So she said, 'I'm in.  Let's go!" and we shook hands at the table and that's how the whole thing started."

Once Watson decided to turn his screenplay into a web series, he began reorganizing its characters and scenario into 8-episode segments running approximately ten minutes apiece.  He found that the process of adapting the screenplay into a new format was actually "very easy.  In a screenplay, you have a self-contained amount of time to tell a story.  There's no going on and on and on in an episodic sort of way.  And the device in the screenplay is that Biz hires Wincy to get a list of things done and there were 12 things in the screenplay that she wanted to do before she died because her character knew that she was going to die pretty soon.  So they go on this quest and one of the things was to go find Pearl Goodfish and tell her off and it built to a finale with her trying to get these things done before she died.  But, for the web series, I wanted to leave it open so that they could continue these tasks and these adventures together without the pressure that there's an end in sight.  I removed that from the equation and that really freed me up as a writer to just have fun and go 'Oh!  All they have to do in this episode is go to the grocery store.  And in this episode all they have to do is go to the acting class and experience that.'  It actually made it easier to tell the story and it was more freeing than the screenplay format because it's almost like we get to do a 'day-in-the-life' of these characters over and over and over and that feels nice.  To be perfectly honest about it, I think it makes for a better story in an episodic format than as a full-length screenplay."

After Watson refashioned the story as a web series, he went about raising money to finance its production.  With good humor, Watson recalls how, "I didn't want to go through the process again of raising money for it like we did with the film.  I wanted it to be so creatively free and not have any pressure and not have to owe anybody a lot of money and not have anybody looking over our shoulder going 'Well, what's going to happen with it?'  I just wanted it to be as free as it could be for all of us.  There could be a purity to it that I didn't have during the film because there was so much pressure, even though making the film was a very good experience.  So we did a crowd-funding campaign.  We set up a campaign on Indiegogo.  At that time, Allison Janney agreed to do a part in it, and Carole Cook and Tom Troupe and Priscilla Barnes and Octavia Spencer--basically they all agreed to do the web series if we could get the money off the ground.  For the campaign on Indiegogo, Christina, Britt and I did these funny little videos where we looked like we were chasing people down, knocking on people's doors, such as going up to Allison and saying 'We've got the money for the web series.  Are you going to do it?' and she takes off down the street going 'No, Cam.  Leave me alone.  Don't ever ask me to do that again!'  And then we did a video of me going to Carole and Tom's house and they slam the door in my face saying 'No!  Don't ever come around here again!'  We did another video where we approach Priscilla while she's seated in a restaurant having lunch with Joyce DeWitt, trying to get a commitment from her to do the series, and Priscilla and Joyce flee the restaurant.  So we had this humorous campaign involving some of our stars.  We knew that we could do it cheaply and people were generous enough to work for next to nothing.  We didn't ask for a lot of money, we only asked for $12,000 to shoot all of Season One.  Within 24 hours, we reached that goal, so we let it keep going until the 30 days are up for the campaign and we ended up raising, I think, about $22,000 and we knew we could do the whole thing for $12,000 or $15,000.  So we shot the whole first season--eight episodes--for about $20,000 in 9 days.  It was almost effortless because we put the campaign on Facebook and word-of-mouth took off and people just jumped on board.  Of course, a lot of the people are your high school friends, and your aunt who wants to put a couple of hundred bucks in it.  But we also had people that were strangers who we had no connection to whatsoever that jumped on board because they loved the concept of Christina Pickles and Allison Janney being in a series together.  I am very grateful to everybody for their support."

With the funding in place, Watson worked closely with his actors to ensure that they were properly prepared and rehearsed, and that they had fully developed their roles despite the short shooting schedule.  He recalls that, "We were prepared and we were really ready.  We did a lot of rehearsing and a lot of improv work.  Christina, Britt Hennmuth, and I spent probably 6 or 7 months prior to shooting just sitting around and working on the episodes and tweaking things and working on improv to come up with even better things than what was in the script so, by the time we got to shoot, their relationship was ready to go.  That was a huge part of us being able to shoot as quickly and as economically as we did is that we did an incredible amount of preparation on it.  We also had a table read with most of the cast at the outset, and it was such a smart thing to do and we did it at Christina's house.  She has a wonderful studio space and we set it up like a network table read with a big long table.  Almost the entire cast was able to be there, although I think Allison and Peri Gilpin couldn't be there, but everyone else was there.  So we all sat down and read it straight through without taking a break.  We read episode one through eight and it was so informative for all of the cast to see it as a full story because this season has an arc to it and it builds to a cliffhanger and it was really informative and helpful for everyone to see it as a complete piece, as opposed to it being fragmented 'Oh you're only here for the day, you're only in the acting class episode and you don't know what's going on in the other part of it.'  It was important so everyone got to experience the whole world of this story, which was a smart move on our part."  

While Watson is justifiably proud of every cast member on the series, he reserves particular praise for his lead actress, Christina Pickles, in her ability to create a character that transcends the normal stereotypes of a mature actress struggling to survive in Hollywood.  With considerable pride, Watson explains how, "Christina is just extraordinary in the role.  We had a cast and crew premiere a couple of months ago before we launched it on the internet.  Craig Zadan, who is a big producer, he was there.  I didn't know him at the time, but he just showed up because a friend of a friend invited him and we were tickled and happy that Craig Zadan was at our screening.  Afterwards, at the reception, he came up to me and wanted to meet me as the filmmaker and he said, 'If this was on network television, or a cable format, Christina Pickles would win Emmy Awards.  I've never seen anything like it.  She's at the top of her game and she will win awards for this.'  And I humbly agree with him.  I think she's at the top of her game.  In the scene in the season finale episode where Biz tells him, 'Let's work on the play together.  You'll be good because we'll work on it together and this will be your chance,' Christina has a selfless quality in that moment because she's allowing Biz to surrender her own needs for someone else's happiness which is ultimately what will make her happy."  

Watson also credits the success of the web series to the contributions of Britt Hennemuth, who plays Wincy.  Hennemuth refreshingly avoids the youthful trend of young leading men playing their roles with a cruel, self-satisfied and snarky edge, and instead stands apart from his contemporaries by effectively going for the sincere and straight-forward in his interpretation of Wincy.  Watson recalls how "I found Britt while I was teaching a master class at Pepperdine University.  I work with Seniors working in their BFA program and it's a one-day, four-hour acting class which also has a Q&A and they get to ask questions about once you graduate, how do you get a good agent?, where do you get good pictures made?, and where do you study?, etc.  And Britt was in the first class that I ever did it for Pepperdine.  I just loved his work the minute I saw him.  I just thought he had a quality that I had never seen before.  He had a fresh, unique spin on being a young leading man that you just don't see very often.  I thought he was incredibly watchable and he came to me after the class and he said, 'When I graduate, I'd love to talk with you about continuing to study with you.'  Britt continued to study with me for quite awhile and through the whole process that was when we started to put the wheels together for the web series.  It kind of came to me in a lightning bolt.  One night I was in class watching him do a scene and I just thought, 'There he is: That's Wincy.'  He didn't know Christina, he didn't know anything about the web series, but I just thought he was who we had to have for this role.  I didn't audition anybody else, I didn't make him read with Christina.  We all met for lunch so I could introduce them to each other and she just fell in love with him.  And the rest is on the screen."

"Break a Hip" leading lady Christina Pickles echoes Cameron Watson's enthusiasm for Britt Hennemuth as she explains how, "We're very lucky.  He's become one of my very best friends.  I adore him.  By the third time we met, we were at my house and I have this big room downstairs where we can rehearse and while we were rehearsing we were getting to know each other a little bit.  We were talking and I said, 'I'm not quite sure yet what I'm doing with this character.  I'm really not sure yet.'  And he said, 'Well, I don't know if this helps you, but I know someone who is a very old star and who thinks she's being followed.  She thinks she's being stalked.  She lives her whole life in a sort of fantasy.'  And I thought that that was terribly funny and we told Cameron about it and Cameron wrote it into the script.  It helped me sort of get into this dramatic side of her and it became my favorite episode where we dress up and dance in front of the window trying to show my 'stalker' that this young man is present and he's protecting me.  I just loved it when we danced because it was so much like going back in time to an old movie.  And when we started doing the improv, it kind of began to click and I clicked with Britt and he with me.  And we see each other a lot.  He's just a very bright young man.  Very, very, very smart and intelligent.  And he's wise beyond his years, he tells very funny stories and he's just an amazing guy.  So we really had that chemistry off-screen as well."

For Christina Pickles, playing Biz on "Break a Hip" offered the veteran actress an opportunity to rekindle her passion for her craft.  Originally from England, Pickles has enjoyed an acclaimed and prolific career on Broadway, in films such as Oliver Stone's directorial debut "Seizure" (1974) and for six seasons on the acclaimed dramatic series "St. Elsewhere" (1982-88) where she earned 5 Emmy nominations as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.  More recent generations remember her for her recurring role as Monica (Courtney Cox) and Ross' (David Schwimmer) acerbic mother on the hit NBC sitcom "Friends" (1994-04).  However, even though Pickles has remained prolific and active in recent years, she admits that, until "Break a Hip" came along, it had been awhile since she had been truly enthusiastic about her craft.  Pickles recalls how, "I've known Cameron for a very long time.  We did a pilot together more than 20 years ago and we kept in touch and he has coached me and directed me and I totally trust him.  And we were having lunch one day and we started discussing doing a web series.  I had already done one called 'Children's Hospital' and I had a good time.  And I have been cast by casting directors who watch web series and I thought that this new medium is a way of being in the present.  We need to create our own work and we need to be where we can have some control over it.  So we raised the money and shot 'Break a Hip.'  It was marvelous because it was like the old days when you went into the business to be creative.  And then you weren't allowed to be creative, particularly when you got into television, because all of the decisions were made by corporate people.  The producers are always trying to please the network executives, who are always giving out these notes on how things should be done, and they may not be the best notes.  It happens in the film world as well, where they have screenings and people write down their comments and then you're supposed to look at these comments and change the ending.  So, on 'Break a Hip,' we were free of the corporate world and we had such freedom and it was a marvelous experience because we could go back to why we became actors in the first place, do you know what I mean?  I didn't really realize that that's why I was having such a good time because I didn't really realize how much of a good time I had not been having for quite awhile.  I'd been doing a lot of television, and I am very grateful for the work, but I didn't really think about how dissatisfied I had been for awhile until I started being happy doing the web series and I thought, 'So this is why I went into being an actor and a creative person!'  And Cameron and I and everybody else were creating all around us.  And it was wonderful!"

As Pickles started developing the character of Biz, she soon learned that there were distinct aspects of the character that were similar to people she had known in real life and that she could easily identify with.  As Pickles explains, "She is very British, and I was born in England.  And even though she'd lived in America for a long time, she retained that sort of haughty, impulsive, rude, kind, generous, 'mean-as-can-be' spirit.  (laugh)  I think as I grew into her, I became even more of what Cameron had originally written her to be.  Cameron said that he loved the woman that he based Biz on, he was mad about her, he thought she was wonderful, even though she was so maddening.  I didn't even realize until I looked at the finished product that I could be a person that somebody could also love...That it turned out that I had in fact created that sort of sympathetic character, where her angry and tough qualities were just a defense mechanism covering up her vulnerabilities.  As I started working on the character, I did ask about the woman Biz was based on, I saw pictures of her.  And I also knew somebody else who knew her.  A guy who was my dresser on 'St. Elsewhere' who I became very close to, he had dressed a lot of theater people and he was very great friends with Coral Browne, who was also friends with this woman.  So that was another connection I had with her and, actually, one of the first things I wanted to do after it was made was to show the web series to this gentleman, Eric Harrison, who was a dresser to the stars.  He is extremely funny and has marvelous stories to tell and so I wanted him to see it because it was so much a part of his world and he loved it.  After I learned all of this about that woman, I think I forgot about it, or maybe it went into the deep recesses of my creative brain.  (laugh)  I was not consciously trying to imitate her in my performance.  But, to be perfectly honest, I had a mother who was very tough and a very difficult woman and would speak her mind without thinking and she had a very difficult childhood.  She was a very North Country woman who never edited anything she ever said, which sometimes could be a little embarrassing.  So I kind of know these women.  I felt at home playing them, being them."

Even though there are aspects of Biz that Pickles drew from other people to help create the character, she also readily acknowledges, "There's a lot of me in her as well.  (laugh)  Sure, everybody has experienced disappointment about their career and everybody has wished for other things and everybody has felt unnoticed and passed over in not getting the recognition you once had or feel you deserve.  Every actor goes through that.  That's obviously been my experience and also part of Biz's.  So I could bring my life experience into what she felt, very much so, and I am old and I told Cameron the other day, because Biz is the same age, that I'm thinking about death and my mortality so much these days--not that I'm about to die yet.  And he said, 'Well, don't die yet, because we've got a lot of seasons to do.  We need you.'  (laugh)  What I like about playing Biz is that she has to face her vulnerability in the scene with Octavia Spencer playing her doctor and then she's very ill and she's left alone when Wincy goes off to do the play at the end.  She has to face her mortality--we all have to face it sooner or later, and I have to face it as a person--and I can bring to her an understanding of having to face it as a lonely woman without support.  I'm so lucky in real life because I have a great deal of support.  I have children and grandchildren and family and friends and I have a busy, wonderful life, but Biz is alone!  So I can certainly relate to what she must have gone through."

Christina Pickles has such respect for the character of Biz, she was conscientious about ensuring that the character would not fall into the typical, "mature actress stereotype" exemplified by Gloria Swanson's role as faded silent screen star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's classic "Sunset Boulevard" (1950).  Pickles admits "I wasn't trying to avoid that stereotype.  I just hoped that I *was* avoiding it in my portrayal.  But it did occur to me that people might compare Biz with Norma Desmond.  Anytime somebody says 'This show reminds me of 'Sunset Boulevard,' I think, 'Oh Christ!'  (laugh)  That's not what we wanted at all.  'Sunset Boulevard' is a wonderful film, but our story is very different than that one.  But it's funny: I was in a restaurant the other day and I asked for some water and the waitress was very irritated and said, 'Right, I'll bring your water in a moment.'  And I heard myself say, 'Don't announce it.  Just do it.'  I didn't say it to the waitress, I said it to the person I was dining with.  And I realized at that moment that, in some ways, I had become Biz because that's something she would have said.  (laugh)  When I played Monica and Ross's mother on 'Friends'--people always ask me what it was like to work on that show--well, it was very therapeutic because I got to say things that I am not allowed to say as a mother in real life.  (laugh)  I certainly would never say things to my daughter like my character would say to Monica, 'Darling, don't you think it's time you used a little eye cream around your eyes?  Your eyes are wrinkling.'  I would never say things like that to my daughter, but my character certainly would say it to Monica.  Maybe all of us have certain comments and thoughts that you can't say out loud, but Biz would say it.  My daughter, who is a grown up lawyer with two grown up children, attended the table read of 'Break a Hip' that was held at my house.  She wanted to come hear it and she loved it and she said, 'You know, Mom, this isn't really a big stretch for you, so I wouldn't go overboard with it.'  (laugh)  I loved it, you know, because it kept me real as there is a side of me that is very much like Biz."

Despite the modest and low-budget nature of "Break a Hip," Pickles recalls how every member of the cast and crew stepped up to make this show a quality production.  With gratitude and appreciation, she describes how, "We were so lucky.  We had the best cinematographer in Seth Saint Vincent.  He's just amazing.  He said, I think, during the first episode 'You are the heart and soul of this show.'  And I went, 'Oh my God!  Am I?'  It made me feel that he really understood us and liked our work and that he was on our side.  Everybody who read the script wanted to do it because everybody is so hungry for good projects--that they'll put the money thing to the side and hope that it eventually pays off--but they want to do it anyway because they want to be part of something good so we had marvelous people in all areas.  One of Cameron's producers, Steve Cubine, is a wonderful producer.  He knows how to get the right people for the right projects, he put together this amazing group of people and we shot it in just a few days and it looks so good.  I was stunned by the quality of the production values.  You know the studio apartment that Biz lives in?  Well, our producer Maggie Biggar had somebody renting a studio apartment in the back of her house.  And she asked the tenant if they could use that space as our set for Biz's apartment and they found another place for the tenant to live during the production.  Cameron took that empty room and worked all night and he brought a bed and carpet and other things from his own home and I walked in on the first day of shooting and there was my home.  He created it the night before and it was a marvelous set.  He got one of the actors on the show--a friend of his who was in the acting class episode who is also a carpenter--to make something like a Murphy bed so that it looked like it went up into the wall.  So he created the whole set by working all night long, and there it was!  I thought it was astonishing.  It helped illuminate the character so that, even though she lives in modest surroundings due to her financial situation, it's obvious that she takes care of her home and is not living in squalor."

As Pickles and the rest of the cast and crew started working on "Break a Hip," they soon learned to their delight that, even though this was a story based upon Cameron Watson's life, he was open to improvisation and allowing each of his participants enough freedom to bring their ideas to the table.  Pickles enthusiastically recalls how, "We were all in on the creating and the writing of the piece.  There was no doubt that Cameron wrote it, and this was his vision, but we would sometimes improvise from what he had written.  It was marvelous because it was a very creative process and he was very much open to anything.  I'd often say to him, 'What do you think about this?' and he'd say 'Yeah, let's do it!'  That's why he was so marvelous to work with."  Watson acknowledges that he managed to remain objective while directing Pickles and Hennemuth, even though the series is based on aspects of his early life in Hollywood because "I was able to maintain a separation between reality and fiction while directing them.  They have become such Wincy and such Biz to me, that I don't really think of him as playing me, and Christina's Biz is so uniquely her that there's a real separation in a healthy way of what really happened between my real life experience with that English actress, and what went on in front of the camera.  And I didn't expect that because I thought I would be 'Oh, no, no, no.  It didn't happen like that, it happened like this' but the life of their own that Christina and Britt took on was so bright that they just created their own world without the shadow of my experiences overwhelming them at all, and I think that's really cool.  I didn't go into it expecting that.  I didn't think it would be that way and it's wonderful that it turned out that way."

Watson does not limit his praise to just the two lead actors and also credits the recurring and supporting performers with bringing even more to their roles than was on the page.  In different episodes of the series, accomplished actresses such as Allison Janney (playing Biz's eccentric, banjo-playing landlord Niblett), Priscilla Barnes (as Wincy's outrageous acting coach Sabina Klinefelter), and Octavia Spencer (as Biz's sensible Dr. Trekman) have each created memorable characters in their individual segments.  Like his lead actors, the supporting cast stepped up to the challenge and rewarded the opportunities that Watson provided them to create unique and memorable characters with standout performances.  As Watson explains, "I gave Allison Janney what I call a 'free pass.'  She was so busy working on her series 'Mom' and we had her locked in for one day and it was just a miracle that I was able to have Allison for one day and I had Octavia for one day and I had Priscilla for one day.  The fact that we got all of that talent in a 9 day period was just unbelievable.  And Allison kept going 'I know I'm on next week, I'm on next week...what do I gotta do?' and I just said, 'Just come.  Just show up.'  And she kept going, 'Well, what do I look like?  What do you want her to look like?' and I go 'Hold on.'  So I sent her and her makeup and hair artist a picture of Bobbie Gentry and I said, 'In my head, she looks like this.  Go with it.'  And they both said, 'Do we have free reign?' and I said, 'Yep.  Go as far as you want to go.'  So they show up on set and they worked with the costume designer and the hair stylist and they walked out and I went, 'There she is!  That is Niblett' and then I said to Allison, 'Oh, by the way, here's the banjo that goes with her.  Anything goes.  You have free reign.'  And so Allison--who is so brilliantly confident and professional and, yet, free--took this trip and took flight with it and added her own little frills and little quirks, like when her character says 'I got you now, uh huh, uh huh.'  That was completely Allison being free and in the moment."

Watson also enjoyed the acting class episode with Priscilla Barnes because he felt the veteran actress went the extra mile to make her character sympathetic and sincere despite the outrageous approach with which she teaches acting to her students.  With the same level of praise and enthusiasm, Watson recalls how, "Priscilla was as free and in the moment as Allison because that is how she likes to work.  She's a totally organic actress and did a totally cool thing when she played Sabina teaching her students in acting class.  When we were shooting that day, the kids that played her acting students were all there in hair and makeup and she said to me, 'While you're all setting up, can I take them and just start class with them and give them some exercises?  I want to take them through some of the things that my character would be teaching them in these acting classes.'  I said, 'Go for it' and they were up on stage for an hour doing these crazy acting exercises that Priscilla really knew and they were things from her past.  By the time we were ready to shoot, they were already under the spell of this acting teacher.  There was a really organic feeling on that day of what was happening in that class and Priscilla made that happen.  That's what I think is so beautiful about Priscilla's episode is that it would be very easy to play Sabina as this crazy acting teacher and ridicule the character, but you completely believe the sincerity of what this acting teacher believes."  Christina Pickles also enjoyed the authentic aspect of the acting class episode and recalls how "Priscilla was so wonderful.  I said to her that I thought she was so extraordinary because she believes in that approach to acting, you know.  That is her warm-up to prepare for a scene.  What's great is that it really works for her because she uses it for a practical purpose, but she's also able to make fun of it at the same time."

Not resting on his laurels, Watson is busy preparing for a Season 2 of "Break a Hip," which he expects to begin production on in October.  While remaining understandably guarded about giving away details on it, he is willing to share that "The good news is that the characters we've fallen in love with in Season 1 will all be back.  I'll say that.  Hopefully we're going to have a lot of fun repeating appearances from all of the guests that have been part of the story line like Allison and Peri Gilpin and Priscilla and so everyone comes back in addition to a lot of new and exciting people who will join us.  You know, we left the season with the possibility of Wincy being gone for a long period and her losing the apartment so when we come back to it, the living situation is in upheaval and Wincy goes through a pretty rough time.  We also decided to expand Season 2 so that we'll do ten episodes as opposed to eight.  We all felt like we wanted a little more content to the second season--there are endless things that we can do in depicting their lives day-after-day without painting yourself into a corner--and that's what we're going to do."

Like Cameron Watson, Christina Pickles remains grateful that "Break a Hip" has received a positive response from the public and that they are busy planning for a second season of the series.  Because of the challenges and opportunities offered by the character of Biz, Pickles regards this web series as a high point in her lengthy, diverse, and accomplished career.  With awe and wonder, Pickles observes with humility and appreciation how, "So much has come together.  It's almost like we feel blessed with this project.  The casting is so wonderful and everybody was so happy to do it and it turned out well and we have plans for the future.  We're so lucky that people like it and maybe we might find people who want to help us do something even more with it--like helping us make it a premium cable series or turn it into a Netflix or Amazon Prime streaming series, which would be a dream and would be so great--but who knows?  We just feel very positive about it all.  Of all the projects I have worked on through the years, this has probably been one of my very favorite because I am working with friends--working with people that I love--on wonderful material.  So, yeah, I would say it's one of my favorite projects I've ever done.  The other would be 'The Duchess of Malfi,' a play by Webster that I once did, so I run the gamut, don't I?  (laugh)"

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Remembrances from a Ubiquitous "Law & Order" Guest Actor: An Interview with James Lloyd Reynolds

One of the best things about the epic "Law & Order" TV franchise is how often each series tapped into the reservoir of talented, New York-based actors who come from a strong theater background for guest roles.  The format of each of the "Law & Order" shows--where the regular characters often interacted with potential witnesses, suspects, victims, and bystanders throughout the course of their work--frequently featured meaty one-scene parts for an actor to come in and make a strong impression within a short amount of screen time.  In the last 25 years, the many guest actors who reappeared in different roles throughout the franchise created an unofficial stock company of the best acting talent that New York has to offer.  One of the pleasures while watching all the different "Law & Order" shows is how it allows fans an opportunity to spot the reappearance of a guest actor who already appeared in a different role in an earlier episode from one of the multitude of series set in the universe of New York City's criminal justice system.  In the course of his or her career, a single actor could end up playing a variety of different kinds of characters on one or more of these shows.

One of the many fine New York-based character actors who has appeared multiple times on different "Law & Order" shows is the gifted and talented James Lloyd Reynolds.  A Masters of Fine Art graduate from the Yale University School of Drama, Reynolds has been steadily building a solid reputation over the last several years with numerous appearances in Off-Broadway and Regional Theater productions, as well as film and television.  His recent stage appearances include critically acclaimed performances as Georges in the musical "La Cage Aux Folles" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut; as Cal in the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of Terrence McNally's "Mothers and Sons" opposite Michael Learned; as Sidney in Ira Levin's "Deathtrap" at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, Long Island; and as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont.  The New York Times recently noted, in its review of "La Cage," that "Mr. Reynolds is a gift as Georges, infusing the ballad 'Song on the Sand' with the necessary romance.  He moves from complication to complication with easy fluidity, active and engaged even at his most restrained.  Charismatic, light with a joke and strong of voice, he anchors the evening."

In his numerous television guest roles, Reynolds has distinguished himself by giving subtle and sensitive performances that have helped vividly illuminate the lives of the clean-cut, white collar business professionals he often portrays.  He applied that same low-key and humane perspective to his nuanced supporting performances on the various "Law & Order" shows.  To date, he has made two guest appearances apiece on the original "Law & Order," as well as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."  Reynolds graciously found time to speak with Hill Place Blog to share his memories of working on the "Law & Order" franchise.  Even though the modest nature of his "Law & Order" roles caused Reynolds to humbly chuckle at the start of the interview, "I don't know how much I can tell you about them, but I'll try and share whatever anecdotes and information I can think of," he ultimately had great insights and perspectives concerning both his own personal experiences on these shows, as well as how integral they were in the careers of countless New York actors who, like himself, are interested in remaining well-rounded and maintaining a strong presence in the theater while continuing to pursue opportunities in films and television.  In our conversation, Mr. Reynolds comes across as intelligent, articulate and humble, with a sincerely kind and friendly demeanor.  I'd like to thank Mr. Reynolds for opening up his heart and memories for this interview.  (A special Thank You as well to Mr. Reynolds' agent, Peter Kaiser, at The Talent House in New York, as well as my good friend Tom Lisanti, for their efforts in helping to arrange this interview.)

James Lloyd Reynolds made his debut in the "Law & Order" universe in the brief role of a TV news reporter covering the search for a missing young woman's body in a Long Island marsh area in the "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" episode titled "In the Wee Small Hours," which aired November 6, 2005.  Reynolds recalls that he was cast in the role with the help of a classmate from Yale who was working as a casting associate on "Criminal Intent": "Anne Davison called me in and she booked the first couple of different reporter roles that I played on 'Criminal Intent.'  So that's how I got started on those shows.  And, in fact, I had met a friend of hers who was, a few years later, the casting director for 'SVU'  at a party one night with Anne and then a couple of weeks later was brought in on an audition for him and booked that one.  That's often how these things work, honestly.  I think the casting directors for all of those shows--well, all television shows that are cast in New York--are constantly going to theater across the city, even the smallest little Off-, Off-, Off-Broadway stuff, just to try and find new talent.  Even in a pool of talent as big as New York City, or Los Angeles, trying to constantly find new faces or new talent is their eternal challenge."

Even though Reynolds' role as a TV reporter in his first "Criminal Intent" was not a huge acting challenge, it was still a memorable experience in terms of becoming acquainted with the responsibilities and nuances of working on a major location shoot involving multiple variables.  Reynolds' vignette involves a continuous, almost unbroken shot that starts with the camera documenting the efforts of rescue workers and frogmen searching for the missing girl on land and in the water at the marsh location, panning from right to left as we follow a helicopter racing across the water to participate in the search, eventually coming upon Reynolds and other reporters who are standing on a bridge overlooking the water commenting on the search unfolding before them, as the camera rises up over the bridge to reveal the continued search for the girl on the other side of the marsh.  Reynolds chuckles warmly as he recalls "That was a huge, two-hour episode and I'd never been involved in a shoot as big as that before, because it had a helicopter and boats and scuba divers.  It was just insane.  The woman who is now on Broadway in 'Hand to God,' Geneva Carr, was playing that Nancy Grace-type character.  She was hysterical in that role and we actually got to know each other that day on set.  Anyway, we had a helicopter and the director comes to me and he's like 'Well, listen: Your lines HAVE to be coordinated with this helicopter shot.  Now, I don't want to make you nervous, but every time that helicopter takes off and flies over, it costs $5,000.  Let's try as hard as we can to get it right the first time!  OK...Go!'  (laugh)  I think we ended up shooting it, like, three or four times, not because of anything that was going on with me, but just to get it all right.  Here's an instance where you have a small role, but you get thrown into a position of potentially costing the company thousands and thousands of dollars if you don't know what you're doing.  The one thing I would say--for any young actors who are starting out in the business, or just seasoned theater actors who are trying to break into doing more film and television roles who might be reading this--going in to do one day on one of these episodic shows is really, really challenging and difficult.  It's because you don't know anybody, nobody knows you and, yet, the expectation is that you know what you're doing, you know your lines and you're not going to waste anybody's time.  Nothing will upset a film crew faster than a day player coming in and not being prepared.  So it can be nerve-wracking, but just do your work, pay attention, stay focused and it can be a really rewarding experience."

For his next guest appearance a year later on "Criminal Intent," Reynolds returned to play another TV reporter in a scene where his character, along with other journalists, descend upon a murder suspect as he is getting out of his car right before he is arrested by Detective Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio).  In the scene, Reynolds' character rushes up to Jason Raines (Joel Gretsch) and follows the suspect as he gets out of his car and walks onto the sidewalk where he is confronted by Goren.  Reynolds' character is in the thick of the action as Raines and Goren throw punches and struggle with one another before Goren slaps the handcuffs on his suspect and whisks him away.  Despite the brief nature of his role, Reynolds recalls how the staging and coordination of the actors and action in this scene was, again, a challenging experience: "That was an interesting one because Vincent D'Onofrio just doesn't like to rehearse.  He's just so organic as an actor.  I know it's a cliched term, but it's appropriate because he just does not like to rehearse.  And, in fact, I remember the director that night said to D'Onofrio and to Joel Gretsch--the guest actor from LA who had tons of episodic work under his belt and knew what he was doing--'We've got the fight choreographer here on set and let's plot this out.'  And D'Onofrio was like 'No, no.  Absolutely not.  No, no, no.  Let's just shoot it.  We know what we're doing.'  And so they did, and it was OK, but there was something off and they wanted to shoot it again and both these guys were going, I would say, full out.  I mean, there was nothing pulled back in their fighting.  In fact, at one point the director came over and said 'D'Onofrio, listen: You know, we gotta do this several more times.  Let's back off, just give 50%' and D'Onofrio said 'Absolutely not.  I do not do anything 50%.'  And, in the very next take, I don't honestly know what happened, but I remember the actor from LA's ear ended up bleeding.  And I think that was probably the take they ended up using.  There was a little bit of a challenge for me and the other actors playing reporters to stay in the shot and not end up being caught up in the fight and injured.  But, you know, they shoot it in a way where they edit it down and it looks like you're more in harm's way than you actually are.  But D'Onofrio was something else.  He was just wild to watch.  He just had a very animal-like quality.  'Controlled chaos,' I suppose.  He was great.  His partner, Kathryn Erbe, was of course the calm, soothing force, as is her character, but even on the set her personality was the opposite of D'Onofrio's.  They worked well together.  It was really exciting to film that scene because you've got cars pulling up and doors slamming and people screaming and extras running by and it is kind of amazing how it ends up coming off so well."

The next time Reynolds appeared in the "Law & Order" universe was in the February 2, 2007 episode of the original "Law & Order" titled "Talking Points" as a TV interviewer speaking with Judith Barlow (Charlotte Ross), a right wing political pundit modeled after Ann Coulter, who Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is watching on the television in his office.  It was a very brief appearance where Reynolds' character is only shown from the back, and his face never appears on camera.  Reynolds recalls that, "They shot that whole exchange between me and Charlotte Ross over my shoulder and over her shoulder, not knowing what they were going to end up using.  They ended up only using a tiny bit of it at best.  But there wasn't much more.  There was just two or three or four more questions that were asked."  Even though Reynolds remains appreciative and grateful with how these early appearances in the "Law & Order" franchise allowed him an opportunity to hone his skills working in film and television, he also acknowledges that "Honestly, at first, the roles were not challenging even though they were all great experiences.  On the 'Criminal Intent' appearances, it was a couple of lines here and there as a reporter and it was, you know, quick and flashy.  But after, I guess, essentially proving myself, the casting director would bring me in for larger things.  So I found that the more I went in and proved myself with the 'Law & Order' casting directors, the more I was given larger chunks of material where I got to sort of chew up some stuff and demonstrate what I could do."

One of the notable guest roles that allowed Reynolds more of a challenge was on the original "Law & Order" in the January 23, 2008 episode titled "Driven."  He played the father of a murder victim being questioned by Detectives Ed Green and Cyrus Lupo (Jesse Martin and Jeremy Sisto).  Reynolds was subtle and excellent in underplaying the father's reaction while learning the news of his son's death, choosing to portray his character's stunned silence rather than going for the obvious over the top emotions that another actor might have brought to the scene.  Reynolds fondly recalls how "I had a good part as a grieving father.  That was a really good experience.  To try and cry on cue, you know, trying to do that kind of stuff is not easy.  That was an interesting afternoon because Jesse Martin was winding down his role and was planning to leave the series.  He had already been on there for years, and he was very assured in his role.  He was very nice to work with.  And I think it was Jeremy Sisto's fifth episode and so he was all new to it and still working on finding and developing his role and getting his bearings.  So that contrast was interesting to observe.  We shot that in somebody's apartment.  Most of the 'Law & Order' stuff--unless it's a courtroom scene, or it's a police station scene--everything else is shot on location.  So we were in somebody's apartment that they had rented on the Upper West Side and the family was there because I think they had a daughter who was in love with Jesse and wanted to meet him.  There we were, with the family present, trying to film this really emotional scene.  (laugh)"

After appearing multiple times on the original "Law & Order," as well as "Criminal Intent," Reynolds finally made his way to "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" where he played part of a team of security personnel investigating the disappearance of a woman in a posh commercial office building in the March 10, 2010 episode "Confidential."  Reynolds enjoyed working on this episode because "I loved Russell Jones, who played the building's head of security in that segment.  Oh my God, he's so wonderful and he's such a nice man.  I had previously met him through some other friends and I had actually seen him do something on stage so I was thrilled when I got there that day and realized I would be working with him.  He's just a fantastic, fantastic actor.  He's just terrific.  That episode was also fun because that scene involved our characters working with a lot of technology, and you've got multiple people in the scene, and it was fun to do.  You just kind of have to relax and just enjoy it and not try to get too much in your head about it."

In his most recent appearance on "SVU," the January 30, 2013 episode titled "Criminal Hatred," Reynolds had probably his most challenging role role in the franchise as one of a trio of closeted married businessmen who have been raped by sadistic and ruthless male prostitute Jeremy Jones (Max Carpenter).  Reynolds was sympathetic and touching in the courtroom testimony scenes where his character, as well as ones played by actors Paul Fitzgerald and Jeff Talbott, not only recall the cruelty and brutality of the sexual assault perpetrated against them, but are put in the awkward position of publicly acknowledging their sexual orientation while on the stand.  The testimony in the courtroom continually cuts back and forth between each witness, as the victims recall their sexual assault at the hands of the defendant.  The net effect of the scene is to have each victim's testimony overlap and echo each another, so that it appears in the final version as if it is a single, continuous speech made by one individual instead of bits of testimony culled from three different witnesses.

Reynolds recalls how "When we auditioned, we all had all of the testimony, as if it was just one person.  I think I knew that there were going to be at least two people testifying, but none of us knew until later how they had split those lines up."  When asked whether each actor filmed the entire speech, allowing the editors flexibility during post production to choose the most effective moments from each individual, or whether they only filmed the individual lines of dialogue spoken by each of their characters in the final version, Reynolds says, "I think that Jeff and I both filmed all of the lines from that speech from beginning to end, and then they decided in the editing how to split those lines up between us.  Because otherwise it would have been challenging to get the proper performances for those characters if we only filmed just those short snippets of dialogue that we have in the final version.  We both would have had to film all of that speech to get the right performances from us."

Reynolds also recalls how, "We shot all of the stuff on the stand at 9:00 in the morning.  So we got there and got into costume and got into makeup and there was three of us testifying.  There was the main guest star for the week, Paul Fitzgerald, and then there was Jeff Talbott and myself.  I honestly didn't get to know Paul Fitzgerald at all because he was working on what else was to be shot for his scenes, so he was really working on his lines and so he spent most of his time in his dressing room.  And Jeff and I didn't know each other at all but, you know, you're sitting around and you get to know the people you're working with.  And it turned out that Jeff and I knew a bunch of people in common.  And so we sort of spent the morning laughing about that.  And we also talked a little bit about the fact that we were playing rape victims and there was a little 'Do I want my mother to watch me in this episode?' kind of thing.  And so we shoot all the stuff for the people that are testifying.  And then we think 'Great!  We're finished!  Fantastic, we're done!' and it's like 11:00 in the morning, 11:30, something like that.  'We're going home!'  And then they come and they say 'Well you can get out of costume and you can get out of makeup, but don't leave because Mariska Hargitay is scheduled to come in the afternoon to film her reaction shots to your testimony.'  (laugh)  So we hung out on the set that afternoon and Jeff and I really got to know each other well during those few hours.  And then Mariska Hargitay arrives at 4:30 and they set it up to film her reaction shots.  Jeff and I and Paul Fitzgerald have to do the whole thing again, except now we're not in costume because the camera is not on us.  I remember at the very end that Mariska Hargitay was basically chuckling to herself about the testimony that we had to make because some of those lines unintentionally sounded funny when you hear them out of context.  When you see it on film, it's really quite moving and powerful because it's such a serious subject matter but, when you're filming it, some of it sounded kind of humorous and incongruous at the time."

Even though his experience working on this episode was as positive as all of his other appearances in the "Law & Order" franchise, Reynolds admits that this was a particularly difficult role to play "because as much as you want to prepare for a character, you did have to sort of put yourself in the situation of playing someone who had been raped.  To me, rather than trying to generate some image in your mind of what that character experienced, if you really just listen to the words that you're saying...if you really are present with what is actually coming out of your mouth, it's really kind of enough.  I don't use sense memory, I don't use those sorts of techniques that other actors might refer to by taking memories from the past and trying to put that on top of the scene that you are working on.  I think it's really enough to just be present with what you are saying and let the language be the driving force of what you are performing."

While discussing his work in the multitude of shows in the "Law & Order" franchise, Reynolds recalls the differences that he noticed in the atmosphere and work environment of each series.  Reynolds opines that "the 'Criminal Intent' set was always a little high strung, at least the times I was on there.  And maybe it appeared that way to me because of the type of scenes I was involved with on that show.  And 'SVU' episodes just tend to be of a higher drama, higher stakes because the subject matter they cover is more intense.  The original 'Law & Order' was also a different atmosphere because it was much more intellectual in general.  I think each show definitely had its own feel and it showed itself on-screen.  Sam Waterston, on the original one, he's just such a solid, stoic kind of force that it felt that that was kind of where that show got its central feel."

Outside of his film and television work, Reynolds continues to successfully forge a solid and respected reputation in theater.  With great enthusiasm, Reynolds shares how, "I just recently did Terrence McNally's 'Mothers and Sons,' in Philadelphia this past Winter and Spring with Michael Learned from 'The Waltons.'  It was just a joy to be onstage with her every night and spending nine weeks in Philly working with somebody like that who is such an icon and who brings so many layers to whatever she's doing.  So that was a fantastic experience."  Reynolds also recently assumed the challenge of playing the iconic role of Atticus Finch in the Weston Playhouse's production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," for which he received rave reviews.  Reynolds proudly recalls how that experience "was a joy.  Weston, Vermont couldn't have been more beautiful to work in and everybody at the Weston Playhouse are such genuinely good people.  But, yeah, that was a little intimidating to take on a role that everybody knows.  The challenge is to try and not do Gregory Peck.  I remember the costume designer at the costume meeting said, 'Listen, I know, I get it.  You don't want to imitate Gregory Peck.  But you've got to have a white linen suit.  You've just got to.  There's nothing in the script that says he's got to have a white linen suit, but that's what people expect and that's what people want to see.'  And so there it is.  But I do think that the way the role is written, his dialogue is just out of the ordinary enough that if you say the lines, it almost feels like you're listening to Gregory Peck in the movie.  It's really because of the way the dialogue is written.  In the script he says things that are not part of our daily routine, so you have to give yourself over to it and just accept 'It's OK.  This is Atticus' and then bring your own perspective to the role.  That was a lovely, lovely, lovely production and I had a fantastic time doing that."

This summer, Reynolds is playing the lead role of Georges in the Goodspeed Opera House's production of "La Cage Aux Folles," the landmark Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman musical depicting the loving relationship between a gay couple who manage a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment.  When asked what performances from his career he is particularly proud of, Reynolds readily mentions how this show has been a particularly satisfying and rewarding experience, "This has truly been a highlight of my career so far.  I'm having a very good time playing this role.  I'm doing things that I don't normally get to do.  I'm singing a lot more than I've ever sang in a show before.  There's a little dancing, there's a little soft shoe.  And it's just a very, very funny script and I don't get to do comedy very much.  It's a joy and for some reason this show is resonating with audiences in Connecticut this summer like I've never experienced before.  People are coming up to us and just saying amazing things about this central relationship.  There's just something about the relationship of Georges and Albin which is resonating very strongly with people.  You think that we would sort of be beyond 'La Cage' at this point, but in fact the character of the conservative politician in the second act is ever present today, so it's resonating really well with a lot of people.  As far as being challenged by something and feeling like for whatever reason the challenge was accepted and I'm happy with the results, I would say that I'm really proud of what I'm doing with 'La Cage.'  It's because the three things I get to do in this show--the singing, the dancing, and the comedy--were so not in my wheelhouse.  I'd never worked with this director Rob Ruggiero before, but I'd worked with the Goodspeed twice before, and I know that he was first and foremost looking for an actor, not necessarily a musical theater performer who is primarily a singer.  He was looking for a person who could negotiate the dialogue scenes, as well as the singing and dancing, and so it was a challenge from the beginning.  I've always sung, but I never have had to sing this much.  And even learning how to negotiate eight shows a week vocally--because Georges does a lot of shouting and singing and he has to be the master of ceremonies at the La Cage nightclub--has been challenging as well.  For all of these reasons, I'm having the time of my life right now."

While I am confident that Reynolds has great potential to continue to progress to where he will eventually be widely recognized as a preeminent film and television character actor, he intends to continue maintaining a strong presence in theater and does not plan to focus on one medium at the expense of another.  As he explains, "I enjoy working in all of the mediums.  I don't have an emphasis on one over the other.  I would be unhappy if I would have to decide, you know, that I was going to do one thing.  But, listen, if I were fortunate enough to get offered a recurring or contract role on an episodic television series, that would be thrilling because I've never done that.  I've never had that experience where I get to go back regularly on a series where it becomes my day job.  There's just a confidence and ease that one would experience that would go along with that.  The closest that I have had to that sort of experience is with the Showtime series 'The Affair.'  A grad school friend of mine, Sarah Treem, is the showrunner on that series.  I did a small part on that last season and I've been doing table reads for them on my day off here in New York.  Last week I was out there because Dominic West was not able to be there for the table read, and so I sat in for him and read his part while they all sat around a table and that was really thrilling.  You've got 50 people sitting around the table and all the main cast is there and you've got Showtime executives from LA on the speaker phone in the middle of the room and you've got wildly successful people all around you and there you are reading a script for the very first time so that everybody can hear it.  So that's pretty exciting.  That was the third table read that I had done for them this season and the two leads knew me from last season.  They're all fantastic, they're all nice.  There's not a person involved in that show who is not approachable and cool.  So it's exciting.  That's where I'm at in my career, still.  I still get a little starstruck and I really appreciate these opportunities to work with these people.  I'm not jaded about it and I don't take any of it for granted.  So 'The Affair' is the closest I've had so far to the experience of being part of a series because I've been involved with working with those people several times.  You walk in and they really take care of you.  I would welcome more opportunities to have an actual role and really be part of a series like that."

James Lloyd Reynolds remains grateful for the opportunities he has enjoyed in his career thus far and looks forward to what lies in his future.  He is appreciative of how his "Law & Order" roles allowed him to hone his craft while building a solid list of credits.  Reynolds recognizes how the franchise was very important to New York actors like himself because "Honestly, it kept people financially in a position where they could afford to take riskier parts in theater--sometimes out of town, or for less pay--because then they could come home and they could bank on the idea that they were going to do one or two 'Law & Order' episodes a year.  They paid well enough, and the residuals continue, and so it allowed people to have a certain degree of stability, interestingly enough, so they could practice their craft.  I think it's a constant struggle for theater actors to negotiate the difference between earning a living and pursuing their passions and the different 'Law & Order' shows allowed actors to do that.  And I'm proud of the work I did on the shows, particularly the 'SVU' where I played the closeted rape victim.  I think what I got to do on the witness stand was fulfilling because I was given something substantive where I was able to master that character's emotional journey.  And I felt the same way about the grieving father role that I played on the original 'Law & Order.'  I think both of those provided me good opportunities and challenges.  I'm pleased to have worked in the 'Law & Order' franchise.  I would be glad to work with those people and appear on their shows again anytime."