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.
A Hollywood mainstay for almost all of his adult life, Josh Charles has brought an earnest wittiness with him to everything from John Waters’ Hairspray to The Good Wife. He’s driven a clown-themed food truck in Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, popped three collars for the Wet Hot American Summer sequels, and hopped on a desk for the momentous “O Captain! My Captain!” scene in Dead Poets Society.
Charles’ latest project is the new Netflix series Away, in which he plays the Earth-bound husband of an astronaut, played by Hilary Swank. While his wife is up in space—something he’d wanted for himself before those hopes were dashed by some medical testing—he’s charged with her safety as Mission Commander, as well as the safety of their teenage daughter. Things quickly go awry, and he finds himself more in need of care than doing the caregiving himself. The A.V. Club talked to Charles about some of the highlights of his career, including his time on Sports Night. The transcript is below, and if you’d like to watch and hear him reminisce, there’s a video excerpt above as well.
The A.V. Club: In Away, you play the space-thwarted husband of a Mars One astronaut. Tell me about where you connected with that character when you got the scripts.
Josh Charles: I think I connected with this idea of these astronauts and engineers and the people at NASA, and how much time they dedicate to their jobs, and to their lives. This is this lifelong mission. I think for Matt and [Hilary Swank’s character] Emma, they had this shared dream of both going into space. And because of Matt’s medical condition, that dream was taken from him early on. He’s never able to do that, but rather than being angry about it, he’s just stayed in the NASA world and focused his energy in the engineering world to be intimately involved in this project and putting this thing together. So I think he is just as invested as anybody else involved in making sure this mission is a success. But while that’s happening, there are all these extraordinary obstacles that are thrown in his way while he’s trying to do that. He’s physically struggling and trying desperately to get back to himself.
To answer your question of what would inspire me, it was just the sense of finding a character who is desperate to want to get back to help the mission, to help his wife, and to help raise his daughter. He’s focused on that and facing such insurmountable obstacles left and right. I thought that could potentially be very challenging to play and fun and rich. How do you navigate this marriage through the lens of distance and space and people evolving and changing, no pun intended. They’re away from each other physically, and Matt is away from his own body. Alexis is away from the young woman she’s becoming. How does all of that work? It sounded like it had a lot of potential, so I was really interested in that idea of exploring that and doing that with a character who is flawed and screws up and is trying to do the best he can. I like that idea.
AVC: Your character quickly finds out in the first episode that you can try and have as much control over something as you can, only to quickly have all manner of control taken away from you.
JC: Exactly. Exactly. One hundred percent. And I think that’s part of the dynamic that’s also shifting between Emma and Matt. Neither of them really have much control. But in terms of their daughter specifically, Emma really needs to let go more, and Matt is sort of taking over the reins. That’s not a position that he’s always done by himself, and it’s made even more complicated by his own physical issues that he’s dealing with.
AVC: You’re from Baltimore, and your first movie was with one of Baltimore’s favorite sons—John Waters. How did you land your role in Hairspray? Was it a Baltimore audition?
JC: It’s actually funny. I met John once or twice in Baltimore, but I think I auditioned for it in New York. I was just there working for the summer, interning someplace and going on some auditions and staying with a friend of mine from camp. That’s how I got it. I just auditioned for it. I went on tape or something, and then I got it.
We shot it… I guess maybe it was the next summer? I can’t remember. But yeah, it was a super fun movie to do. John is an incredible, incredible talent and an incredible person. He’s so funny. I knew so many members of the crew just from growing up in Baltimore. We did our dance rehearsals at my dad’s studio.
We went to Dorney Park in Pennsylvania for a week to shoot. So, it’s my first time being on location, staying at the George Washington Motel and just doing all the things that you think about when you think about making movies or whatever. Getting to work with the great Divine, and Debbie Harry and the late Jerry Stiller, who is lovely, and Sonny Bono. Just incredible people. I met John Orofino, who has become one of my best friends. We met on that gig. It was a really fun, fun movie to make.
AVC: It sounds like the easiest way to slide into movies. You knew people on set. You were in comfortable spaces. It doesn’t seem like you had a total deer -in-headlights first day where you were like, “What do I do here?”
JC: No, I didn’t. John made it very comfortable. I don’t think my character had a name. I think I got to name him. I think it was like, “What do you want us to call you?” Iggy was some guy that my dad and his friends knew, somebody they met in high school. I just thought it had a catchy ring to it. I mean, I have one line in the movie. I asked her if she would swim in an integrated swimming pool. That was my one line. The rest of it was dancing and being silly and getting to be around all these great characters. I love that movie, and I loved doing it.
Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead (1991)—“Bryan”
AVC: For whatever reason, I’ve heard a lot of people bring up Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead this summer. It’s very of-the-moment.
JC: Well, they’re going to reboot it with a more diverse cast. That’s what I heard.
AVC: That’s true. I think people are also looking for comforting stuff to watch from their youths and thinking, “I should watch that.” What do you remember about making that movie?
JC: That was fun. Christina [Applegate]’s great. Stephen Herek was such a nice guy. I think it was originally called The Real World. I thought it seemed like a fun job. I got to spend the summer in L.A., and I’d never done that before. I met great people on that movie. I’m blanking because I’m having a brain fart, but the woman [Jayne Brook] who plays my sister ended up playing my shrink on Sports Night. My brain is just fine, but I love her so dearly. She’s so talented and so sweet. I don’t really have a lot of strong memories of that movie. It was a fun time driving to Santa Clarita every day from L.A. and shooting the movie and having a fun time with Christina and laughing.
AVC: Do you remember how they shot the grunion run scene?
JC: I know we shot in Santa Monica. Maybe right on the beach there by the pier?
AVC: Did they just throw fish at you?
JC: Probably? Maybe I blacked it out because of that. I don’t know. I do remember being out there, but I’m sure [the grunion] weren’t there at the time.
AVC: Speaking of Sports Night, that show is so beloved, but ultimately wasn’t successful. It’s something that even comes up in the series finale. Was that a hard lesson to learn, or is that just par for the course in Hollywood?
JC: It was before we’d gone into the single-camera world heavily, at least on a network, so I think it was just a timing thing. I am still proud of the show, though. I think in a way, it’s like, should you look at the British model? They don’t get too greedy. We made two seasons of that show in the States, but in Britain it would have been, like, eight seasons. You know, we got to make a lot, and it was a lot of hard work. It was my first time doing a daily grind on a show, and really seeing what television is like in terms of the half-hour world. It’s five days a week and long hours and lots of takes, but I made some incredible friendships from it. Josh Malina and Peter Krause are still very, very good friends. We had a lot of laughs. I can tell you that it was a lot of laughs.
The Good Wife
(2009-2014, with guest appearances through 2016)—“Will Gardner”
AVC: Is that grind part of the reason you walked away from The Good Wife? Does working on a show for that long become less interesting?
JC: Yeah, but it’s such a different thing, me and that show. Sports Night was just canceled. The Good Wife wasn’t. To your question, I do think Netflix and some of the other streaming places understand more that the 20-episodes-a-year model isn’t always creatively sustainable. I don’t think people want to write anything that much. I don’t, personally. I don’t want to act in that many episodes. I think you can tell your story in fewer episodes, and it leaves people wanting more. Sometimes less is more.
For The Good Wife, I just know I did five years of it, and I think our fifth year was arguably one of the best years of the show. I was most proud of that season, and I loved that experience. I absolutely adore Robert and Michelle King, and I love what they’re doing with The Good Fight spin-off. Frankly, if The Good Wife had been on CBS All Access, I’d still be doing it. If I could do 13 of those a year, that’s a different animal. Doing 22 procedural episodes is a different kind of grind. I’ve always felt very lucky and blessed to have it, but creatively, I’m just someone who’s always looking for different things that I want to explore.
Wainy Days (2007)—“Barney”
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp
Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later
AVC: Speaking of different things, you’ve worked with David Wain a number of times. How did you meet him and how did you get into the Wet Hot universe?
JC: It’s funny. Michael Ian Black and I went to camp together, and Michael Showalter grew up with another kid that I went to camp with, so we’ve known each other—along with David—in the New York circle for a very long time. I’ve been among actors and comedians and all those guys from The State. So I got to do Stella with them, and Michael Showalter and I are still very, very close. So that’s how I got involved in that world. I think they thought of me and they created this new character for me for the Wet Hot series, so that was really fun to do.
When we were talking about my costume, they said we want to do at least a double collar. But Showalter was the one who took it to the third level with the third collar. When I first tried it on, the shirt was so thick that the costume department had to cut just the collar portion off the other shirts and sew them on to one. Otherwise the shirt would have maybe just looked ridiculous. I love doing stuff with those guys. It’s just my kind of humor. It’s silly and fun and a lot of laughs, and I love Wain, Showalter, and Black. They’re funny dudes.
Muppets From Space
AVC: Speaking of funny, let’s say I’m a new actor and I’m walking to set to act opposite the Muppets, what do you tell me? What did you learn from Muppets In Space?
JC: That was a nice, interesting time. I was doing Sports Night, and I had a week off. Maybe we had two weeks off from Sports Night, but I was able to go and do that. No, it was a week off because we had every fourth week off. Anyway, I had a week off, and I thought it would be fun. I knew my niece would like it, and I thought it would be cool to do it. I have always loved the Muppets. So I went and did it. It was in North Carolina, and it was around the Super Bowl, so I went down to the Super Bowl afterwards.
It was a really odd time to be working on that, but I got to work with the great Frank Oz. He was puppeteering Miss Piggy. It’s an amazing experience. The stages, the way they set them up—they’re all lower. That would be the one thing I’d tell you. Let yourself get used to that, because your instinct is to look where the voices are coming from, but you have to stay with the puppet. We did a boxing scene, and I’m meant to be this Men In Black-type character. Frank was puppeteering Miss Piggy, and we were supposed to box. I threw a jab take one, and I just heard “Ow!” and then “Cut!” My jab hit through the puppet, and I thought, “Oh, my god, I just broke his hand,” and how awful that would be. But he was okay.
Dead Poets Society (1989) —“Knox Overstreet”
AVC: People love Dead Poets Society, even now. Do people ever yell “O Captain! My Captain!” at you?
JC: No. No. I mean, I can’t think of anything I’ve ever had yelled at me.
AVC: What are you recognized for most, in your opinion?
JC: It’s a mix. It depends where you are. Sometimes it’s movies. Sometimes it’s In Treatment or Sports Night or The Good Wife. I’d say The Good Wife probably most often, because that’s the most recent thing I’ve done and has the most prominence. And then there are people who love the comedy stuff. They love the Wet Hot stuff. There are those fans. I don’t know. It’s kind of a mixed bag.
AVC: Threesome came out in 1994 and was extremely edgy for the time. It’s still pretty edgy, but now we’re more open to different relationships, especially when we’re talking about movies for younger people. Was there pushback at the time about that movie or did you get the sense that it scandalized people at all?
JC: I did an interview a while ago when I was doing some podcasts, and they were talking about it in sort of a lighthearted way because, like you said, with time, it seems sort of mild now. But yeah, at the time, there wasn’t a lot of stuff like that. I liked the idea that the movie was a very personal story from [writer-director] Andrew [Fleming]. It was funny and romantic, and the characters who were of a different sexual orientation were treated normally.
I think that’s a film that it’s easy to make fun of, and I certainly am not going to defend the merits of it as a film. I haven’t seen it, god, since I made it. But I don’t really watch any of the stuff I’ve done. Maybe once, if ever. So that’s not the argument I’m making. I’d just say that I do think it meant something to some people who maybe felt like the character I played in it. They maybe felt less alone. Some gay men have told me that, and I think that’s great. I’m touched by that. I’m happy. That’s a great thing about playing characters. You can be out there and bring your own humanity to things and hopefully make people feel connected.