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: Eddie Jemison is one of those actors who managed to start on a blockbuster franchise, then went on to create a variety of memorable characters on TV shows from HBO’s Hung to various CSIs to prestige dramas like Six Feet Under and Masters Of Sex. He’s currently in the midst of a bit of a comeback as iZombie villain Mr. Boss; he’s also tearing up the floorboards in the current Lookingglass Theatre production in Chicago of Life Sucks, a modern rewrite of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. (It closes Sunday, November 6.)
Full disclosure: I knew Eddie through a mutual friend approximately 5 million years ago when he was a theater kid and I was a club kid in Chicago. The next time I saw him was onscreen as Livingston Dell in Ocean’s Eleven. Since then, I’ve happily followed his career, and was blown away by his current performance at the Lookingglass, where his angst-ridden character easily won over the entire theater audience. A few days before seeing the play, I met him at the theater to do this interview in person. We hadn’t seen each other in 20-some years, and discovered we both had kids around the same age (early grade school). We also agreed that we hadn’t changed a bit.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)—“Livingston Dell”
Eddie Jemison: I met you in, I’m gonna guess, ’90? No. Before.
The A.V. Club: Like ’89 or ’90.
EJ: I was working at Java Jive. Do you know that place?
AVC: Oh, yeah. Didn’t Fred Armisen work there too for a while?
EJ: You would not believe that place. Fred Armisen. Jill Soloway hung out there all the time. The bass player for Smashing Pumpkins. So many people.
AVC: I think you were in a play already in Chicago when I met you. And the next time I saw you was on the big screen in Ocean’s Eleven. So tell me how that jump went, from Broadway Avenue in Chicago to Steven Soderbergh.
EJ: Well basically, all I did was, I moved to Chicago to do theater. And I was doing theater here and was very happy. And then I started playing music.
AVC: Love Kit.
EJ: I was in this band and living kind of foolishly. Quit acting for about five years to do the band. And then the band, we broke up. And then I was like, “I gotta do something. I’m gonna try to do this play, at Chicago Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen Of Verona.” And then suddenly, everything kind of happened. I got in that play, I met my wife. She wanted to move to L.A. While I was still in the play, I was auditioning for a Coen brothers film that was shooting in town. And Debra Zane, the casting director, had me come in and she’s like, “Wait. You’re Eddie Jemison. Yeah, I’ve been looking for you. Your agent has just folded and I didn’t know where to contact you. I want to cast you in a movie. You’re already cast in a movie. I have a script for you. It’s Ocean’s Eleven.” And I was like, “Whaaaat?” And she was like, “Yeah, Steven Soderbergh, you worked with him in a movie called Schizopolis.” Yeah. I knew him in Louisiana, which is where I’m from. And as it happened, my wife, Laura, was just wanting to move to L.A. So that’s when I moved to L.A. and stopped doing theater and started doing TV and movies. And now I’m back here, 12 years later? Fifteen years later?
AVC: [Laughs.] Circle of life.
EJ: Yeah. It’s the life of an actor, I guess. In the meantime, I made my own movie too, between there, called King Of Herrings, that you can get on iTunes and Amazon and all those places. I directed and wrote and starred. That was like three years ago. Like 2015. And all the Soderbergh actors were in it, because we all went to school together. It was our little gang of actors that went to school in Baton Rouge, at LSU.
AVC: Is that where you met him?
EJ: Yeah. He was hanging around doing little indie films, and he’d see us all doing theater and he’d cast all of us in his movies over the last 20 years.
AVC: Getting on Ocean’s Eleven must have been such a mind-blow. You’re on a set with Brad Pitt and George Clooney for your very first movie.
EJ: It made me very anxious. I walked in the first day and I thought, “Oh this is just acting. I can do this.” But what I didn’t count on… as soon as you’re in a room with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, Don Cheadle and Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould, all those guys—suddenly all the weight of their combined greatness made me very anxious. And here’s the thing I didn’t expect. I thought I’d just be acting, but those guys are really smart and they’re really really funny. They’re not stars by accident. None of those guys are. I’m sure there are stars by accident, but those guys are funnier and smarter and more capable and more conscientious than most people. They just are really big people. [Laughs.] So it made me very nervous. Not so much the acting part, but any time Soderbergh said “cut,” then there’s 11 guys there cracking jokes, and I was never a guy that was really good with a gang of guys anyway. So it made me really anxious to try and be as funny. And I love being funny and talking with fellas, but that was where I think most of my energy went into. Was just trying to be okay hanging around with them, rather than acting. Because their greatness kind of overtook me.
AVC: Which actually worked well for the character though, because Livingston is an anxious kind of guy. Did it get easier with each movie? Like the second or the third time?
EJ: It got really easy on the second movie, because my wife came with us to Rome, and everyone really liked her. And I think they thought, “Eddie can’t be that bad, he’s married to a nice person and we like her.” So I think that eased it for me, it made me less an outsider. I mean, it was the first movie I was ever in.
AVC: That’s so crazy.
EJ: So you know, I was definitely an absolute outsider. But second movie, I was less one. And it was also way more relaxed for the actors. Not for Steven Soderbergh, because he was writing script, editing all on set. And so he was up against it. But we had really a lot of fun. Too much fun sometimes. [Laugh.] But I love that movie. And anyway, made it easier.
The third go around, it was all in L.A., so it didn’t have quite the camaraderie as the first two. Because when you’re in L.A.—I’d assume more for those guys than for me—they’re not isolated and so they have to work on all their other projects that they’re involved in. And they’re all highly involved people. And Laura and I were having a baby, so that made it just more like a job.
AVC: I love the scene in Ocean’s Thirteen where you’re trying to be a poker expert, where you’re dealing cards to them.
EJ: Yeah, that was fun. And in fact, my daughter was born that day. I went right from the hospital to the set. It was really a lot of fun because I remember taking great pride in making Brad Pitt laugh. I always had a soft spot for him. He’s such a sweet, sweet man. And so being kind of a clown had its benefits if I was making the likes of Brad and George laugh.
Bernie Mac was one of my favorites too. He always was a champion of mine. I would crack jokes under my breath and Bernie would be like [Adopts spot-on Bernie Mac voice.] “Casey! Casey, tell ’em what you just said.” I’d say, “Bernie, I’m Eddie.” And he’d say, “I know you, Eddie! I just call you Casey.” I loved him.
AVC: And now they’re doing the female version.
EJ: They’re doing the female version I think in December, and it looks like I might have a cameo in that, so that’ll be kind of fun.
AVC: And you just got a gig with Chicago Med, so you’re staying out here for a while?
EJ: The play ends in the beginning of November. I was supposed to go home. I’m also doing a recurring gig on iZombie. So I’ll be flying from L.A. to leave from Chicago to Vancouver, finishing a couple episodes of iZombie, coming back to Chicago again to do more Chicago Med. And then doing an indie film by a local writer. His name is Brett Nevue, he’s a playwright, you may have heard of him. And he’s doing a pilot for the internet called The Humbler. So I’ll be doing all those things before Christmas, before January.
EJ: And meanwhile, forget all that shooting stuff, I’m doing Life Sucks at the Lookingglass! Which, we get standing ovations every night.
AVC: Is this your first venture back on stage?
EJ: Last 16 years.
AVC: What was the impetus for that? Did you get approached?
EJ: My brother-in-law still is the associate director of Lookingglass. So I’ve been kind of waiting for 16 years for that son of a bitch to call me. When he did, I was like, “I’m doin’ it, I’m doin’ it.”
AVC: I’m really looking forward to seeing it.
EJ: You have to. You must. That’s the reason why I’m here. You got to. You don’t understand how good this play is. You don’t understand. Not me. The play. It’s so good, it’s fucking better than Ocean’s Eleven. Way better.
It’s a rewrite of the play of Uncle Vanya by Chekhov, so it’s a very modern adaptation. In fact, it’s more than an adaptation, it’s a total rewrite. Have you heard of the play Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner? It’s kind of a famous play that was his rewrite of The Seagull and this is his Uncle Vanya. It’s called Life Sucks and so I play a pessimistic, angry [Laughs.] guy who has no job and no real prospects. He’s in love with a woman who is now married to his mentor that he can’t stand. So the person he hates the most in the world possesses the one he loves. So he goes on a tear against academia and does all these things and tries to kill the professor and then considers killing himself. But it’s funny.
AVC: Does it make you want to do more theater?
EJ: Totally. I want to be in Chicago. I’d like to.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2002/2004/2010)—“Vincent”/“Mr. Dorsey”/“Craig Lifford”
CSI: Miami (2003/2011)—“Parker Boyd”/“Arnold Watkins”
Six Feet Under (2002)—“Casket salesman”
Masters Of Sex (2015)—“Hand massager salesman”
AVC: And now you’re working with guys like Rob Thomas and Soderbergh who obviously have a loyalty to you.
AVC: What was it like being on CSI multiple times? Every time you come back and you’re a different person.
EJ: I have to say, it’s just like a job. I wish I could say more about it. But it was a long time ago and on those kinds of jobs, you’re only there for 10 days at the most.
AVC: But you did kind of segue into these two roles on two cable dramas, where you’re the slightly creepy salesman. You’re the casket guy on Six Feet Under and the hand-massager guy on Masters Of Sex. On both of those, when you’re coming into a prestige drama, does that feel like a bigger deal?
EJ: Well, it’s not that it doesn’t feel like a big deal, on CSI or even those things. It’s just that you don’t get a feel for the landscape. You go in, you’re there one day. You’re treading water like mad because you’re just trying to remember your lines and not mess up the stars. And they’re all very nice, especially Lizzy [Caplan on Masters Of Sex] was so nice. You don’t get a feel for what it’s like. I was on a show called Hung where I was a regular.
AVC: Was that based in L.A.?
EJ: It’s based in Detroit, but it’s shot mostly in LA. It was an HBO show with Anne Heche as my wife. That’s much more important than these day roles I’ve done. I was a regular for two years and got to work with Anne Heche and be on an HBO show which was a drama and a comedy. That was more fun. I was a guy who went crazy whose wife leaves him and he kind of falls apart. I was a nervous breakdown.
AVC: That sounds intense to play.
EJ: It was fun. Those things are always more fun. The more intense it is, the more fun it is.
AVC: Does HBO stuff seem more theatrical? Like a more artistic set than some of the network stuff?
EJ: Yeah, definitely. I mean, they have more time. Instead of doing 22 shows a year, they do between eight and 13. iZombie is the same way. They take a lot of time to do it, and they spend more energy, and it’s just more artistic all the way around. They care more about the acting. Not that those shows don’t care, they just don’t have time.
AVC: Well, iZombie is fun, and there you’re a villain.
EJ: He’s a breezy villain though. [Laughs.] I mean, I know I do terrible things in iZombie. Mr. Boss. I love that his name is Stacey Boss. They gave me a great first name, Stacey.
I did a movie with Rob Thomas, the Veronica Mars movie years ago. And I just had a cameo, and he remembered me, God bless him. He said, “I wrote this part for you, would you do it?” I’m like, “Yeah!” And what I love about old Mr. Boss is all these awful awful things are done in his name, but he’s pretty breezy. He’s got a small storefront tax office and he still does people’s personal taxes, like that still matters to him. So while he’s getting people dismembered, he’s also doing his next-door-neighbor-in-the-shopping-mall’s taxes. So that’s a great character, and it’s a great mix of comedy and drama.
AVC: Which Rob Thomas is really good at, like in Veronica Mars.
EJ: He’s a swell, swell, human too. Just as Soderbergh is, you know. Like we keep saying how loyal Soderbergh is. He’s amazingly loyal.
AVC: You’ve hooked up with some interesting people over the course of your career.
EJ: You know, Waitress was a big deal. That was kind of an interesting part, and a great project to be a part of.
AVC: And that’s onstage too now, right?
EJ: Yeah, it’s a Broadway musical. And my partner Adrienne Shelly was also the director, and was murdered right as the film was getting picked up at Sundance. She was really great. She was really sweet and really bossy in the best way too. Like you want a director to believe you can do stuff, she was like, “You can do it, Eddie. In fact, do it now.”
AVC: Your IMDB page is such a long list. Do you take classes in between? I’m just curious about your day-to-day life as an actor.
EJ: Every Wednesday for the last 15 years, I’ve been in this acting class in L.A. where there’s no teacher. It’s just a bunch of actors. We just watch each other do scenes, and write scenes for each other and critique each other.
AVC: Is your wife an actress too?
EJ: She is, she’s the star of King Of Herrings, the film that I wrote and directed. And she’s probably the most talented actor that I know. Everyone in that class thinks that and anybody who has seen that film thinks that.
AVC: That’s awesome. She’s in your acting class?
EJ: Well, she was. Now she’s kinda being a mom and on those nights letting me go.
AVC: Momism takes a lot of time. Especially at this age, you know. Like it’s not as physically taxing, but gets more emotionally exhausting.
EJ: I’d still prefer that. I prefer the emotional exhausting than the physical. It’s tedious and thankless.
AVC: Really messy.
EJ: The days take forever, but they just fly by. It’s so weird. It’s like you’re disoriented all the time.
AVC: Is that why you want to move back to Chicago? More kid-friendly?
EJ: Yeah that, and L.A. was never really that interesting to me. I never really liked it. I like it now more than ever. It took me years to get used to it. But, it’s not my kind of place. The thing I don’t like about L.A. is that it’s very industry-focused. That’s not bad for kids. It’s not hedonistic or anything, not any more shallow than anybody in the Midwest. It’s not that.
What it really is when it comes down to it, it’s a car-based society. You just can’t get around it. And Chicago is not. And Chicago is more urban and affords you all kinds of different things. But the people being better here? It’s not true in the least. Midwestern people love to pride themselves on that. They have the most judgmental assholes ever. I’m sorry, but it’s true.
AVC: Now it feels like your career is snowballing again.
EJ: Yeah, it’s true. It all started with iZombie. When I made my own movie, I had to take a couple of years to do that and I felt like my career other than that film… and the film did well. It won several best picture awards at film festivals. It premiered at the Mann’s Chinese Theatre. So it did well, but my other career kind of stalled. And I feel like when Rob Thomas wrote that part for me in iZombie, it just suddenly things started picking up. I’ve always done indie films, but things started picking up more for, for a lack of a better word, more professional things.
AVC: Are you looking for a lead? Are you looking for a regular series?
EJ: Sure, yeah. That’d be great.
AVC: Do you ever get to a point where it’s almost too busy?
EJ: It’s always too busy, come on. With two kids. It’s always too busy.
AVC: I know. My family is mad at me all the time. My son drew a portrait of our family, and I was behind the laptop. But if it’s work that you love, it’s hard to say no to that.
EJ: When I was editing King Of Herrings, or co-editing it, the kids would be like, “Daddy, get off the computer.” They would like make fun of me, like I was some obsessed teen or something.
AVC: I keep thinking it’s a good example for them, that they can grow up and find a job that they love to do that much. Right?
EJ: That’s true. Yeah. I hope that works out. That’s the cliché, right. And they seem to be true all the time. The older I get the more I realize all those clichés I hated fucking turn out to be true. It makes me so mad. Like, I hated my parents for spouting those clichés and now I’m realizing they were right.
AVC: Like which one comes to mind?
EJ: Like the, “Enjoy the now. Time flies, enjoy it while you can.” When the kids were young I was like, “You enjoy them, a little bit.” But now, I’m like, “You were right!” I wish they were little. And had that baby fat again. Now they’re all big and long.
AVC: Cuddling is no longer the same. It’s a lot more angular.
EJ: Exactly. They’re all big now.
AVC: Do they want to act? Are they creative like you and your wife?
EJ: Daisy was in her first play—she was Sandy in Grease. And she was amazing, actually. I was really impressed. She’s got her mom’s genes.