Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Here’s how you know Damian Young is a great candidate for Random Roles: He has appeared in three separate Law & Order iterations, playing, in total, eight different characters, including a judge and a skeevy author. Over the course of his incredibly varied career, he’s been a psychotic bus driver, an ignored husband, a secret agent, and a political operative, appearing on beloved shows like The Good Wife, House Of Cards, The Comeback, and Californication. He also popped up in movies as varied as Birdman and Edge Of Darkness, and he’s finished filming on his latest projects Catfight and We Only Know So Much.
Law & Order (1999-2010)—“Judge Stephen Emerton”/”Bruce Graham”/”Benson White”/”Daniel Catterson”
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2002-2009)—“Mr. Wetherly”/”Boaz”/”George Tate”
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999)—“Hampton Trill”
The A.V. Club: You came to mind for this feature after I caught you on an old episode of Law & Order.
Damian Young: Which one was it?
AVC: I can’t remember the name or the plot. You were a judge.
DY: That’s funny, because I was riding my bike a couple of days ago and I almost hit somebody—you know, when somebody in a car opens the door and they don’t look—the guy was like, “Hey, hey, hey!” and I was like, “Hey, hey, hey!” And then as I was riding away, he said, “Hey, wait a minute! The other day you were a judge on TV!” So that happened.
AVC: You’ve been on so many episodes of Law & Order.
DY: Yeah, I’ve been on Law & Order classic maybe two or three times…
AVC: It’s actually five times.
DY: Oh, really? Wow. SVU, I think I was on one.
AVC: And then three Criminal Intents.
DY: I remember one was with my friend [Kathryn] Erbe. And the other was with Jeff Goldblum. That was fun. He’s funny.
AVC: That show really goes through New York actors.
DY: There was recently an actor I worked with, Christopher Sieber—I think he had a little blurb in the Times last year or two years ago or something. He’s been in New York 20 years and been in a ton of Broadway shows and he’s a big deal and everything, but in his bio, they always included, “Has yet to appear in Law & Order.” For years. So when he finally got a gig on Law & Order—I think he’s doing Matilda now, but anyway—it was news enough to fit to print.
I think my wife [Welker White] might have done Law & Order more than me. When I moved to New York—I was here in ’84—there was no Law & Order yet. I think the only show shooting in the city was The Equalizer with… I forget the actor’s name. Now I’m sounding like a real old person. “That guy who was in that thing.” Anyway, then Law & Order came along and changed everything.
AVC: The star of The Equalizer was Edward Woodward.
DY: Edward Woodward. And he was in a movie about the Boer War in South Africa in 1980 with Bryan Brown [Breaker Morant]. It was a great movie. And Keith Szarabajka was in [The Equalizer], too.
Anyway, when I moved to New York, there was no question of doing television. There just wasn’t any television here. Well, there were soaps.
As The World Turns (2006)—“Dr. Ross Kreeger”
AVC: You’ve been on a soap.
DY: I did a 10-day hitch on As the World Turns. That was a lot of fun. I played a guy who ran a camp to convert gay teens back to being straight. So, not a very sympathetic character. But I thought, “Oh, it’s a soap.” And the night before I went to shoot, I thought, “I better look at this,” assuming that it would be a line here and a line there. It was like 12 pages, and that first day was really hard.
They do a thing on soaps where, when you cut, they go to commercial with some information dangling, and then they come back from commercial, and whatever scene is there, it has to do a micro-recap of the stuff you’ve already been informed of. So, as an actor, you’re running your lines and thinking, “I’ve already said this.”
There’s nothing worse than being on the stage or on a show of the week, because it’s very disconcerting. It feels like you’ve had some sort of blackout, and now you’re saying the same words again, and somebody’s going to have to haul you off to the hospital.
AVC: Soaps really plow through the material.
DY: I don’t know how people do it for years—those actors who are on the show for years. I really admire them. I don’t know if I would be able to sustain that.
You rehearse a little bit in the morning and then you do 15, sometimes 20 pages. And that one 44-minute episode has to be done that day. So, there’s not a lot of tinkering, not a lot of talking about it.
AVC: Not a lot of finesse.
DY: No. And they have to block it in a way so that, a lot of times, both of you are facing out. It’s like you’re looking at some landscape, when actually you’re just looking at a wall. The camera has to capture both of your faces at the same time. There’s a lot of little things where it’s like, “Ugh, this doesn’t feel good.”
Again, I think I only had maybe eight episodes of that show, so a tiny little amuse-bouche for me of “Soap World.”
The Comeback (2005-2014)—“Mark Berman”
AVC: You did quite a few episodes of The Comeback.
DY: Yes, I believe I was in all of them.
AVC: Ten years apart.
DY: The first one—I forget. There was an election happening when we did the pilot. I think it might have been John Kerry? So that was 12 years ago. That was a long time ago. That was great. I loved doing that show.
AVC: Were you surprised by the long-term success of that show?
DY: A little. I thought, after the first season, that we were in a really good position to do a second season. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the show, but the season ends with Valerie, Lisa [Kudrow]’s character, as a star, but for all the wrong reasons. She’s a reality star instead of a sitcom star. I thought that was great for all the characters in the show The Comeback, the HBO show, because now, all of a sudden, they’re in the reality show. And they’re just as much of a star as Valerie is, and Valerie would have to deal with the fact that everybody in her world is now on an equal artistic plane with her. That, I thought, would have been a great second season. But HBO apparently thought that nothing would be a very good second season, so… let it be written, and so let it be done.
So, it was like, “Oh, that sucks.” It’s rare to be a regular on a television show—super rare—and it’s rare to have something I love doing. And I loved working with all those people. Lisa was so great, and Michael Patrick King was so great. But people would stop me on the street for years and say they loved it. You could see that it was just—I’m not much of a TV historian—but it was on the cusp of some reality revolution that we weren’t quite into yet. I don’t think Housewives was happening yet, or the Kardashians. A lot of people described the show to me as ahead of its time, and perhaps it was. But I was thrilled that it came back. I thought we did a pretty good job with that.
AVC: The way it ended was sweet. It turned out well for your character.
DY: I thought that was a great ending, to go from the reality cameras to the cinematic, fourth-wall narrative storytelling. I thought that was very clever and it put a very beautiful bow on the season and the series. I was really happy when we read the last script. I thought it was great.
AVC: You walked away from the show the first time with unfinished business, and you were able to come back and wrap things up with a bow.
DY: It was like going to your college or theater camp reunion. Instead of everybody getting dressed up and drinking too much and talking about where they are now, you decide to do some theater at the reunion for fun. That’s what it felt like. So many of the same people were there, and we got to use the house that we shot in originally again. I think there was a lot of pressure off a lot of people. When we did the first one, I think it was a year after Friends had gone off the air for Lisa, and Sex And The City had just finished its run on HBO, so there was a little bit of “What’s next?” pressure for Michael and Lisa. This time around, it was so easy. It was great. I loved it.
Sex And The City (2008)—”Karl”
AVC: You were in the Sex And The City movie. Is that because of Michael Patrick King, or did you audition?
DY: Oh, no, I auditioned. I was in L.A. at the time—I forget why—and they wanted me to audition for it. I said, “I don’t understand why I have to. [Laughs.] They can either just say yes or no.” It was Michael and John Melfi, who was producing, and I forget what studio was behind it. I assume that’s what it was, although I still don’t know how this business works 30 years in. Someone has to say yes, and it might have had something to do with that.
Anyway, I put myself on tape for, I think, two lines in that movie. At the time I had some kind of commercial running for a bank, and I think they were worried that I was too associated with this commercial or something. I can’t really remember.
But that was a trip to see all the Sex And The City ladies. I’d actually known Cynthia [Nixon] for a while; she and my wife did a play together in, like, 1984. So that was fun, and I’d already been working with Evan Handler on Californication, and he was in the scene—it was a rehearsal dinner scene. So it was fun to shoot, and it’s always great to see Michael and John Melfi, who are just lovely guys.
Californication (2007-2011)—“Bill Lewis”
AVC: Did you audition for Californication?
DY: I don’t do anything without auditioning. There are no offers where I sit and I go, “No, that’s not right for me right now.” That just doesn’t happen. So I auditioned in New York, and they wanted me to test for Evan’s part, Charlie Runkle. I tested for it and didn’t get it, but they offered me the fiancé, and I said yes to that.
AVC: You seem to get cast a lot as the good guy who’s the alternative. He’s the solid, square guy.
DY: The beta male. I was only in the first season of Californication, but I was the milquetoast foil to Duchovny’s sexy badass. There was nothing sexy or badass about me.
It’s funny because the demographic when it was first on—and maybe still when people stream it—was dudes in their 30s. They watch that show and see his life as something to aspire to, like, “I want to be a sex addict in L.A.” So when people see me on the street, they’re like, “You’re that dick on that show,” because I was the one preventing him from getting back together with his soulmate. Whereas I saw the character as good, solid, loving, and supportive. Other people who watched it, particularly a certain demographic, see my character as a buzzkill.
I didn’t get to do much on that show; Natascha [McElhone] and I didn’t have a lot of—there wasn’t a lot of, “This is why these two people are together.” As far as I think the audience was concerned, there wasn’t much choice. They wanted her to be back with him. It was a surprise to me even at the very end that she was going to leave me on the wedding day.
AVC: You had no idea?
DY: No, they were saying, “We’re going to do two alternative endings. We don’t know if we’re getting picked up for another season, so we want to end it as if it was just ended or leaving open the possibility of a second season.” There was a lot of thinking to do, so up until the very last minute, they or I didn’t know what was going to happen.
I read that scene and said, “Thanks a lot for including me in the show. It was a really great season and I loved working with you.” They said, “Oh, no, you’ll be back.” I said, “Nah, this is it, buddies. We’re done.”
I did actually come back for one episode. There was a trial—Hank finally had to face the music because he had sex with my 16-year-old daughter. That was season four or five or something.
Simple Men (1992)—“Sheriff”
Amateur (1994)—“Edward, Jaque’s Accountant”
No Such Thing (2001)—”Berger”
AVC: You’ve been in three Hal Hartley movies.
DY: Let me see if I can remember. Simple Men, then Amateur, and then No Such Thing? Did I get it right? Because I think originally No Such Thing had a different title, like The Monster or something.
I think Simple Men was the first thing I ever did. No, I had done a short movie before that won an Oscar. It was called The Appointments Of Dennis Jennings, directed by Dean Parisot, and written and starring—I can’t remember his name—the stand-up comedian who’s super deadpan, ushered in that era of comedy? Steven Wright.
Anyway, I was part of a theater company downtown and Hal started hanging out down there because he had worked with Martin Donovan, who was part of this theater company. He started casting people from the plays in this theater company, including me, Chuck Montgomery, David Simons, and James Urbaniak. So that’s how that happened.
It’s interesting; he has a different way of working than most directors. Most directors will try to figure out what we want to do and rehearse with the actors to get a loose idea of how to shoot it. He would always come in with, “This is how we’re going to shoot this scene. You’re going to sit over here; you’re going to sit over here.” He was more interested in making pictures that told stories the actors would have to fill in. It was a lot of work to try to ground that. People say this about Hal all the time, that his movies are about movies as much as they are about the particular narrative. I found that challenging, and then later I found out that not everybody works that way.
AVC: Because you were so young?
DY: Yeah. And then I did some TV show or something where it was more standard, like, “We’re going to do the master, and then we’re going to do coverage, and then we’re going to do close-ups.” That’s sort of the standard recorded-entertainment method right now. But Hal was completely different.
AVC: Did he call you back for those other movies? Were those ones where you got to actually say, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
DY: Actually, yes. I never auditioned for Hal. He offered Simple Men, and then Amateur, and then No Such Thing. He just called me up. I’m now going back on my overall blanket statement that I’ve had to audition for everything.
The Adventures Of Pete & Pete (1993-1995)—“Bus Driver Stu Benedict”
Snow Day (2000)—“Principal Ken Weaver”
The War Next Door (2000)—“Allan Kriegman”
AVC: A lot of the adult actors on The Adventures Of Pete & Pete were from the Lower East Side theater scene, too, right? Like Toby Huss, who played Artie, The Strongest Man In The World?
DY: Oh, yeah, Toby was part of that theater company, too. It was called Cucaracha. We did lots of stuff there. We did regular plays, and we did a cabaret in the summer where we had some kind of performance artist as the headliner, like Ethyl Eichelberger or Penny Arcade or Blue Man—this was before Blue Man had their show at Astor Place, when they were like, “Let’s see how to work with these colors.”
We did a lot of soap opera for three years, and that was pretty great. A lot of the theatrical flotsam and jetsam came downtown over the course of a decade, and we lost our space and it was over.
AVC: How did you end up on Pete & Pete?
DY: I think [creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi] saw Simple Men and they wanted me to do the show. I read for them, and that was it. A couple of weeks later I showed up on the set in New Jersey, and I saw Will and he was sitting at a folding table with a yellow legal pad, trying to finish the script, and it was raining.
It was a long time ago, and TV was just breaking out of the network-dominated world, and Nickelodeon didn’t have a lot of original programming then. Toby was on the show, Martin Donovan was on it, and I met some great people on that. Mike Spiller shot it the first couple of years, and then he went on to Sex And The City, and now he’s a giant deal. Chris Koch directed Snow Day, and now he’s on Modern Family and every other show. The single-camera comedy was not a popular format yet.
I loved doing that show. Those guys let me do whatever I wanted.
AVC: Your character was pretty weird.
DY: Yeah, especially in TV Land. They were like, “Do whatever you want,” so I went as big or ridiculous as I felt. Nobody ever said, “Tone it down. You’re going to break the camera.” I loved that character, how angsty he was. I loved Rick Gomez. All those people were great.
AVC: Did you get to drive a bus?
DY: I don’t think I ever drove it. There were children, so we couldn’t hurt the children. Danny Tamberelli lives a block away from me now, so I see him on the street sometimes.
Then I did Snow Day, and I loved doing that. It was a similar kind of over-the-top character. That was fun. My kids were really little when we did that, so when it came out on VHS, it was fun to show them that.
A couple years after that, Chris and Will had a show that nobody’s ever seen that I was in called The War Next Door. If you ever find a copy of it, you might want to invest five or 10 minutes watching. It was for USA. This was pretty much when USA was the Chuck Norris Network. They were like, “We’re going to be the network of single-camera comedies.” It was us and then some Chad Everett comedy—you can look him up later. I was a retired evil supergenius, and my nemesis at the CIA thinks I’m dead. It begins with him throwing me off a cliff. Then it cuts to him living in the suburbs. He’s settled down, quit the CIA. Then we find out that I’ve killed his next-door neighbors and moved into the house next door so we can continue our eternal dance of death. Every episode is he wants me to leave him alone, and I tease him into some sort of fight, which gets biblical, and I end up dying—either crushed by a trash compactor or blown up or frozen and smashed into a million pieces. And that’s the end of the episode, and then next week it just starts all over again. It’s like Spy Vs. Spy or something.
No one saw that show. People in the business were like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I loved, loved, loved doing that show.
AVC: It sounds ahead of its time. It would work now, but in 2000, it was too much for people.
DY: It was very over the top. What do they say in the TV world? High concept. I thought it was really funny and silly, and I probably had a better time doing it than I would watching it, but I sure as hell had a good time doing it. Anyway, I think they aired eight, and then that was that. But that was my first experience being a regular on a television show, and that was great. I loved it.
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (2014)—“Gabriel”
AVC: Your number one credit on IMDB is Birdman.
DY: Oh, it is? Am I supposed to be managing my IMDB page?
AVC: I don’t think so?
DY: The world just does that for me, right? I thought it was the unseen minions of the web. Anyway, what does that mean? I guess maybe that’s just my latest feature.
AVC: Maybe that’s the one that most IMDB users click on.
DY: Well, I guess, yeah. It was a big-deal movie.
AVC: It won an Oscar.
DY: It was a small part, but it was really great to be in something that I thought was a masterpiece. When we were doing it, we did this scene over and over again. It was similar to shooting The Comeback in a way, because, in The Comeback—because of the nature of the storytelling—it was supposed to be quote-unquote “raw footage” from a reality show. And so they could do very little editing to maintain that conceit. Therefore, it had to be a single take for the entire scene, so you’d have to do the scene from start to finish every single time. Then eventually you’d say, “Okay, I guess we have it.” Probably the last scene that we shot was the one used because that was the one that everybody was just, “Okay, that’s fine,” and then we’d move on.
Birdman was the same in that every scene was done beginning to end. There was no, “Let’s turn the camera around, do a close-up, we can do a pickup here.” There was none of that.
I love working that way. It’s like a play. You can live in the moment, and you don’t have to have that same kind of laser focus that you have to have for close-ups. You can really take in the entire room and all the other actors and play something as more of an ensemble. It can feel very isolating, especially when you’re shot as a single person.
Anyway, I didn’t know that it was going to be great. I just thought it was going to be kind of neat. And then I ran into somebody in makeup on some other project, something for HBO, and she said, “By the way, I heard Birdman’s really good.” And I said, “Oh, really? That’s great.” Then it came out and everybody was talking about how great it was, and then I saw it, and I couldn’t believe how good it was.
I’m from a theater background, and I’m in show business or whatever, so it had that extra appeal to me, with that Broadway backstage that so captured the backstage of Broadway theaters that are dumps. They’re small and cramped and musty with old carpeting, and there are sinks that are disgusting and filled with old makeup. Everybody loves that, and that’s part of what makes Broadway so special. So all of that—I could not believe how good it was and how good everybody was in it. Sometimes you get surprised, I guess.
AVC: Well, you weren’t there for the whole shoot watching.
DY: Right, I was only there for one day, though we came back another day to reshoot for some reason.
The director [Alejandro G. Iñárritu] was so passionate about everything. He was so full of that positive, galvanizing energy that moves everything forward. He’s really infectious to be around, so I can imagine the cast just had a wonderful time. You know, in movies they spend so much time rehearsing before they even set foot on a soundstage.
AVC: Do you like doing theater best, and then TV and movies?
DY: I like all of it. I think I’m at an age where I want the experience of something that is familial, social, and spiritual, and I can get that if I’m doing a play because everybody starts in the same place working toward opening night. And then doing opening night and the struggle to maintain what you’ve created every day. Everybody’s doing it, and I love that. I remember I did a Broadway play eight years ago and the director had the entire cast come every day for the entire rehearsal period, so that everybody had the same experience. I think a lot of actors don’t like that, because they’re like, “Well, I’m not rehearsing. Can’t I go away for four hours?” But I love that.
That’s the experience that I had with The Comeback, because I was a series regular. I was there from the beginning, and I got to know the writers. We were all working toward something with the pilot in the hopes that the pilot gets picked up and we see each other again. The collaborative effort informs the creative process in a way, whereas with most of my television and film, I’m coming into something that is already up and running.
A big part of that job is sensing exactly what the aesthetic is, what the mood is, who’s running things, what personalities I have to deal with, and a lot of people liken it to someone coming off the bench in sports, where everybody’s hot and running up and down the court, and all of a sudden you have to jump in and be at the same pace as everybody. That’s its own skill and I enjoy that, too, but there’s nothing like being there from the beginning, or feeling a certain amount of ownership for the entire production, whether it’s a television show, a film, or a piece of theater. Because of the nature of how theater is done, that comes automatically with theater. But there’s also the money, which sucks in theater, so… [Laughs.] So I also enjoy television spots with residuals.
The Good Wife (2015-2016)—“Clinton Foyle”
AVC: You jumped into The Good Wife fairly late in its run.
DY: I auditioned for that show a million times. I auditioned for Sex And The City, when it was a TV show, like eight times, and for a variety of characters. Toward the end, I’d see Michael [Patrick King] and he’d say, “I think this is going to be the one,” but I never got cast, and I got discouraged. Then of course he had his other show [The Comeback] and I got cast, so you never know. You suck it up and do your best and forget about it immediately.
So, The Good Wife, I auditioned for that a bunch of times—I forget for which parts—and then they called me to just do a part that I didn’t audition for. So again, another example that breaks my rule.
It was a lot of fun. It was a side story, so I didn’t act with any of the regulars though. I was an NSA agent who had something to do with the people on the show. I don’t really know. It was fun to do, and that crew is state-of-the-art. They know what they’re doing. When you show up on the set of a long-running broadcast network procedural, the cast and crew know what they’re doing. There’s no, “I wonder if…” They’re awesome. It was really fun.
AVC: How do you prepare for something like that? You don’t really know your storyline. You might not have seen a lot of the show.
DY: I watched some of the show to get an idea of what the tone is. Even the look of the show can inform you, like, “Oh, I get it. This is a brightly colored show,” or, “This is somber.” Even something like that can help you, or how the pace of the dialogue is very fast on that show.
As far as the character’s concerned, I get a sketch of where he fits into the story and the plot and then learn as much as I can about that. As I said, for this particular show, this was a fourth or fifth storyline in a show that had very little do with—I didn’t have to deal with the minutiae of who was sleeping with who or how an office like this runs, what the hierarchy is, what’s at stake, what do these technical terms mean, or how is this going to track later. You’re there just to serve the story, and that usually helps me. As long as I’m not thinking about anything except serving the story, I usually do all right. If I think, “I have to make something here. I have to create something interesting,” it never works very well. As long as I think about the backstory and how this fits into the overall narrative arc of this episode or this season or the entire series, then I can serve it and have pretty good guideposts.
Damages (2007-2009)—“Well Dressed Man”
House Of Cards (2016)—“Aidan MacAllan”
AVC: Was it the same kind of thing with Damages and House Of Cards?
DY: Yeah. Damages, I think I only did the first season. I said, “Am I the killer?” and they said, “Maybe.” And I said, “You’re telling me maybe because you don’t want to tell me,” and they said, “We don’t know.”
I think when I worked on that show the producers weren’t really on the set very much because they were busy writing, and so I think even the director was like, “I don’t know why you’re doing this.”
There’s an episode where I’m in somebody’s apartment changing a lightbulb, and I said, “Am I just changing a lightbulb?” Then it was, “Let’s do one where you’re just changing a lightbulb. Now let’s do one where you’re planting a bug. Now let’s do one where you’re planting a bomb. Now let’s do one where you’re trying to make friends.” They didn’t know. You just have to hope that whatever you’re doing, they’re going to be able to use.
House Of Cards, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I knew from watching the show and being a fan that they spent a lot of time on a lot of people’s private moments and private lives and personality quirks and character details, which I think is what makes the show so good. I didn’t know what those would end up being, but I had an idea when I read to audition of what I wanted this thing to be.
What’s great about a show like that on Netflix or other services that don’t rely on advertisement is that scenes can breathe. They can be long, they don’t have to have a button, and they don’t put overemphasis on exposition. It’s character-driven, and that I feel like I can contribute to. I can create something that is maybe outside the story a little bit but that helps inform the story and hopefully, if you’re on the show long enough, then that influences what then the writers want to do with the character. It can become more of a symbiotic relationship.
Everybody’s Fine (2009)—“Jeff”
Hope Springs (2012)—“Mike, The Innkeeper”
AVC: You’ve been in two movies where older heralded actors—Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Tommy Lee Jones, in this case—are either rediscovering themselves or falling in love again. What were those like?
DY: Those were fun. Obviously, just being in the same room with those people is kind of the best thing about those projects.
I played Mike The Innkeeper in Hope Springs. I remember that. I didn’t have any dialogue, but to be able to say, “Hey, I’m just going to stand here and watch you get your makeup done,” that was sort of worth the price of admission.
I don’t know why I’m cast sometimes, and I think Everybody’s Fine was another example of me playing the sort of solid husband. Well, I think in that one it was an ex-husband, but there was also something sort of skeevy about the guy. I tend to get those kinds of parts. I don’t know why. That’s just how some people see me.
Oh, Kate Beckinsale was in that, too. She was my ex-wife. That’s the other thing that’s sort of perplexing—being with these beautiful women: Natascha McElhone, Lisa Kudrow, and Kate. It’s like, “How does this work?” and then I remember, “Oh, right, it’s the movie business. Every beautiful woman is married to a troll.” The reverse never happens.
Edge Of Darkness (2010)—”Senator Jim Pine”
AVC: You were also in Edge Of Darkness with Mel Gibson in 2010. That was a hot time for Mel Gibson.
DY: Oh, when Mel Gibson was having his troubles? That was okay. I was doing a play at the time, so I had to leave the play to go to Boston to do those scenes. I was a little torn when I told the cast I had to leave to do it, but they were okay with it and they got an understudy.
I was a little ambivalent about doing that. I think originally De Niro was going to be in that movie in the Ray Winstone role, and I think they even shot some stuff with De Niro. They told me, “Oh, he’s not with the picture anymore,” and I said, “What happened?” Of course, no one wants to tell you anything. Did he leave? Was he fired? What? Everybody just said, “It just wasn’t working, and now we have a new Ray Winstone.”
Mel was lovely. I guess when I got there they were switching from night to day, so he was a little tired, and I didn’t know what specifically we knew in the gossip world about what was going on in his personal life at that time, whether it was getting arrested or having a pregnant girlfriend. I don’t know what was going on.
I was acting with him, and I didn’t know whether I was getting it, and the director didn’t seem very specific in his direction. He just wanted to do it over and over and over again, whatever setup we were doing. And Mel was very subdued and very quiet, and I didn’t really know what his performance was going to be like. I remember asking them if I could look at some playback to get some idea of what we were doing and how we could help make this work better, and I watched some singles on him. There are times when you understand what a movie star is, and this was one of them. Either it’s what I bring to his face or what he’s able to do through a camera—whatever it is, there’s just something utterly compelling about him that transcends explanation.
I don’t know. I just felt that way about him. It made me relax a little bit and not worry so much. And then he ended up telling me all about Guatemala and Apocalypto. So it turned out to be a nice week. And then Ray Winstone shot me in the head.
AVC: How many times do you think you’ve died in projects?
DY: Oh, a lot. In The War Next Door, I died at the end of every episode. So that was 13 times I got killed.
I don’t know. I’ve fallen down a lot. I’ve been beaten up a lot. I’ve beaten people up a lot. But I guess that’s one of the good things about getting older. I don’t have to do so much of that anymore.
I’m really happy when a script doesn’t include running. Like, “He runs away from the cops” or whatever, because you do that over and over again. It’s not very interesting, and it’s kind of just running. I used to do a lot of running. I used to do a lot more action-y things—silly action-y things.
AVC: Now you’re content to play a guy behind a desk or someone that walks slowly.
DY: I like desk stuff. Everything is a challenge. I learn something from everything I do, whether it’s auditioning for a commercial or doing some play on Broadway. Well, there are some things that I walk away from going, “Didn’t learn much, didn’t make much, didn’t like the people.” So that sucks. But most of the time, whether it’s a scene at a desk or whether it’s some action thing, it’s interesting.
Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter (2015)—”Doctor”
AVC: Would you rather wrap up talking about Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter or the Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Object Of My Affection?
DY: Let’s do Neon Joe, because that’s freshest in my mind. That reminded me of Pete & Pete. The art direction was crazy, and a lot of it was really over-the-top, silly stuff. [Jon] Glaser’s hysterical, and I loved working with him.
That brought back a lot of fond memories, because I hadn’t done anything like that in a while. It reminded me of Pete & Pete and Snow Day and that other show that I described. So I loved that. I don’t know if that’s going to get a future life, but I’d love to be on that spaceship again.
AVC: I suppose it’s nice to have a balance of crazy stuff and funny stuff and legal dramas.
DY: And they’re not completely separate. One informs the other. I’ll learn a lot from doing something very straight, and that will ground me for doing something that’s supposed to be comedic, and I think that helps.