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: Patrick Fischler has been on a first-name basis with the Hollywood community since he was a kid, thanks to Patrick’s Roadhouse, the iconic Santa Monica diner his father bought and named after him in the ’70s. Since then, Fischler has become just as well-known for his acting. He began his 25-year acting career in a bit part in Knots Landing, then got his first major break playing an equally small role in the 1994 smash Speed. He’s best known for playing insult comic Jimmy Barrett in Mad Men, as well his mysterious role in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. He can currently be seen in the pivotal role of The Author in ABC’s Once Upon A Time.
The A.V. Club: You mention on your Twitter bio that you prefer not to talk about your Sister, Sister episode. So let’s talk about it.
Patrick Fischler: I knew you were going to ask me about that! In fairness to Sister, Sister I just put that on my Twitter because I thought it was funny. What I remember about that is that I worked with an actual pig, and that is about all I remember. Except that I remember thinking Jackeé [Harry] is pretty damn funny. I always thought she was, and I had been a fan of hers since 227. But that’s about it.
PF: It was my first recurring role on television, and when I got it, it wasn’t supposed to be recurring. It was originally supposed to be one episode, but they liked what I did. At that time, I was just so excited to be returning to a TV show because I hadn’t done it before. I do remember that, because it was a gay character, I didn’t want to be flamboyant, and sadly, what it became was ridiculous, and flamboyant, and silly, and everything I didn’t want it to be. But they really loved my chemistry with Cheech [Marin], so that was a lot of fun working with him, and Don Johnson was… Don Johnson. [Laughs.] But a lot of incredible writers came from that show.
AVC: Yeah, I was going to ask if you had met [Lost creator] Damon Lindelof and [Lost writer] Carlton Cuse during your time there.
PF: I met Carlton on that, and I didn’t even connect that a million years later. But there are so many writers that I’ve gone in the room and met who tell me they wrote for Nash Bridges, and I’m like, “Really?” You’d be shocked how many guys who wrote for that show have their own shows now. Carlton is really smart and really talented, and even back then, on a CBS procedural, he hired some really amazing writers. They’ve gone on to do a lot of cool genre stuff. Very few of them didn’t go on to have great careers.
PF: Lost was one of the rare examples of getting cast on a show I was obsessed with. As an actor, I do a lot of shows that I don’t watch, and it’s rare to get cast on a show I actually watch and knew about before doing it. I couldn’t believe that I got to go into that world. That was another one where I didn’t know how many episodes it was going to be. It started out as one or two, and every time I was going to leave the island, they kept calling to say, “You have to stay. You’re in the next episode.” It was an incredible experience knowing everything about that show, and then going to the beach, going to the plane and seeing it all. The sad part of that is the illusion wears off so when I watched the show that season, it wasn’t the same. The magic had kind of gone. But it was a joy to be on. They were such a welcoming group for a show that popular that was in its fifth season. Josh Holloway, who I did most of my stuff with, was just a complete pleasure.
AVC: As an actor and a fan, were you trying to play the character while figuring out your role in the larger mythology?
PF: Yeah, of course. First of all, when I found out the role was set in the ’70s, already I was like, “Wait, what?” [Laughs.] At that time we didn’t know they would be going back in time, so already that was a mind-blower. I got a pretty good sense that the character wouldn’t amount to some huge thing, but I was just excited to be a part of it. I still was excited every script. I knew I was going to die because the character was such an ass, and I also knew they wouldn’t stay in the ’70s, so I had a feeling they would kill me off. My wife [actor Lauren Bowles] was pregnant at the time so I had to get back for the birth of our daughter, and the show was super cool. They shot stuff out of order to get me back home, and that’s rare. Usually in this business they don’t care about your personal life, and especially with a show that’s so big and has so many moving parts, and they were so accommodating. It was pretty amazing. But I got back to being a fan pretty quickly. When the next season came and I was no longer on the show, it went back to as if I’d never been on it.
AVC: How’d you become involved with this movie?
PF: I just got a call asking if I wanted to do this part. It was one day. I got the script, read the scene and then read the whole thing and thought, “This is a great movie.” I’d always been a fan of Kevin Smith, so that’s a really exciting opportunity when you get to work with a director you’re a big fan of. There’s no bigger rush. And he’s such a lover of TV and movies, anytime we weren’t filming, I was talking to him about his taste in everything. He’s a smart, smart guy. I love TV and I love movies so I could talk about it for 12 hours straight and not even remotely get bored, so we just talked about everything.
AVC: Did you read the script and think, “This could be controversial,” or do you not think about that kind of thing?
PF: I did read it and think that, and I don’t really care about that kind of stuff. But I did think, “This is going to be controversial, but in a way that I believe in.” So I was okay with it. If it aligns with my beliefs, I’m okay with it. I thought people would get mad about it, but that was cool with me.
PF: I was shooting Burn Notice in Florida, and I remember my manager calling and saying, “It’s a shame you’re not here, because I have the perfect part for you on Mad Men.” I couldn’t leave because I was shooting, but I came home in a couple days and got an email from her saying they couldn’t find the guy. She said, “I got you in, and you’re so perfect for this part.” I was so tired because I’d been in Florida for two-and-a-half weeks working all day. I got the sides and it was so much material. Once again, a show I loved, and this was right after the first season so still not a lot of people knew about it. It was still an under-the-radar kind of show.
I went in, I worked on it, and I just had this weird thing where I felt like, “Oh yeah, I found this character.” I felt like I found him pretty quick working on it. I went in and met Matt [Weiner] and just randomly I found out a New York Times writer was in the room when I auditioned. They did a whole story on Matt after the first season and I didn’t know there was a reporter in the room until I read it much later. But I remember reading for him and thinking, “Yeah, I did pretty good here.” I felt good about the audition but I also remember thinking they would go with a bigger name for it. That night my manager called and said, “You booked it, and the table read is tomorrow.” It was that quick a turnover.
AVC: What helped you find the character so quickly? Was Jimmy based on someone?
PF: No, vocally I found him, which is a really big part of it. I’ve never thought about it this much, but Jimmy is a little bit my dad, who passed years ago. My dad was very caustic and very much like this character. I think that, without thinking about it, I did a little bit of my dad. Once I got it I watched a lot of Joey Bishop, because the easy way to go would be Jerry Lewis or Don Rickles and I thought that was too easy. I didn’t need to look at any of that. I wanted Jimmy to have a little bit of charm, even though a lot of people didn’t think he had any. I wanted him to be somewhat charming, otherwise he’s just an ass. Joey Bishop had a way where he was utterly charming even when he was cutting people down, so I watched a lot of him after I booked it.
AVC: Is figuring out the character’s voice a typical part of your process?
PF: Not usually, but this was one of those times. Because it was a stylized piece and it was New York, I thought the voice was the most important thing to find. But that’s usually not my go-to.
AVC: Matt Weiner is notoriously concerned about ensuring nothing leaks before the show airs. Was that the case even back then or was the atmosphere relatively laid-back?
PF: Believe it or not, it was exactly the same level of concern. I remember at the first table read, Matt stressed to everybody, “Please do not talk about this.” We couldn’t even release that I was on the show. It was just as secretive then as it is now, but the reason the show is so great is because of Matt. He’s a perfectionist down to the finest detail. But look at what he created. If that’s what it takes to create a show like that, I’m cool with it. At first it was really nerve-racking because I ultimately wanted to make him happy and do right by his words. But once I got through the first day of shooting I calmed down.
AVC: What did you shoot that first day?
PF: The first day of shooting was the Utz commercial, which is all me for five minutes. It was pretty up and down doing the commercial, and then when the camera’s off me, I insult the woman, all of this stuff. I remember getting through that rehearsal and Matt being pleased. It was a winning experience for me.
AVC: You did an episode of Scandal, which your wife actually recently did too.
PF: Yeah. That was pretty cool because the show wasn’t Scandal yet. I remember they were very nervous about whether they were going to get picked up for the back nine, and they were all just starting this live-tweeting thing. I remember being like, “Really? Is that going to do anything?” I remember thinking it was a total waste of their time, but of course, that was a big part of the show’s success. It’s a fantastic group of people. Kerry Washington is one of the nicest, most wonderful people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. She is a joy. And whenever I’ve seen her outside since then, she always remembers me; she’s always kind and takes a moment to talk. She’s lovely, talented, and gorgeous.
PF: This has been a pretty fantastic job. I didn’t audition for this, I got offered this because these guys, Eddie [Kitsis] and Adam [Horowitz], wrote on Lost. When I got the call to do this, I remember my manager calling and saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but it’s The Author.” At the time, I’d only watched a little bit of the first season so I didn’t have a huge knowledge of it. But it seemed like a pretty big deal, and it’s turned into a pretty great gig. This was another character where I found him vocally. It’s a fun show because it’s very theatrical, very over the top. In a lot of TV acting you have to be very simple, but this is a show where you can really go for it. So I found a little vocal thing for him and it’s been a real joy.
AVC: In 2001, you did these movies which have become huge cult favorites. What was it like performing in those films and seeing how much the passion for them have grown?
PF: It’s kind of incredible and was not expected at the time. I’ll start with Ghost World.
AVC: Did you film that first?
PF: It’s been a while so I don’t quite remember, but I’m going to say no. Don’t forget, Mulholland Drive was a TV pilot originally, so I probably shot that first. But the fun thing about Ghost World is that my wife was in it too, so that was random and crazy. We knew the casting director, who brought us both in. My wife is the woman who tells Thora Birch to “fuck off” at the flea market. Basically we both have one scene and like five lines between us. But they’re both really funny scenes in a really funny movie. My memory of it is thinking, “I’m not doing anything here, I don’t know if this is going to stand out.” But I remember seeing the movie and everyone thinking it was so funny and loving it so much, and I didn’t expect any of that. I did think it was a really good script and fun to work on, but I didn’t think that, to this day, people would be coming up to us to mention that movie.
AVC: Did you feel like you were participating in something really significant when you did Mulholland Drive?
PF: That’s another example of getting to work with a director I admired, and that was like a dream. Growing up I was obsessed with Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, and Twin Peaks. The audition process was cool because you don’t audition for David Lynch at first. You meet the casting director and you don’t do material, you just talk about yourself. She asked where I was from, where I went to school, that kind of thing. I got a call saying I got the part, and then they sent me the scene, and I saw the scene and thought, “What the hell is this? I don’t even know what this means.” But I just went and did it.
I will say this, David Lynch gave me the best direction I think anyone has ever given me. He just told me to be simple, and that was huge for me at the time. I was 30 at the time and that was mind-blowing. He was casually like, “You know, you just had this dream, and you want to tell your friend about it.” My impulse was to be in a panic, like, “You won’t believe this dream I just had!” But instead I just took his advice and took his direction and it was great. He’s a master. I never thought it would look like that or feel like that when we shot it. I think I was playing an agent, by the way.
AVC: Really? That’s been a matter of speculation for fans of the film.
PF: I either know that for a fact or it’s a guess.
AVC: Which is it?
PF: Actually I’m not sure. It’s been so long I don’t quite remember, but I don’t think I’d just make that up. The whole show was going to be about Hollywood and the business, and I knew my character didn’t die, so in my mind, it was going to be this show and I’d come back to it. But no one knew what it was, including Naomi Watts, who wasn’t well-known at the time. We had no idea it would turn into this incredible film. We got letters asking us to come back and do re-shoots because when it didn’t get picked up, StudioCanal gave him some money to finish it as a movie. I think that up until the lesbian love scene is pretty much the pilot we shot. I went back and shot that moment where she sees me at the cash register. I re-shot that for the movie version, and honestly, I have no idea about any of it. People always asks me what it means, and I say, “Whatever you want it to mean.”
AVC: You didn’t come up with anything?
PF: I didn’t. I came up with the fact that it’s Hollywood and Hollywood is rough.
AVC: The most interesting thing about acting to me is the idea of playing a role when you understand very little about how what you’re doing factors into the finished product. Is that something you get comfortable with over time?
PF: I just don’t think about it very often. It’s just the way it is. It can often happen that way. You get cast on a show and you don’t know what’s going to happen eight episodes from now. When you’re doing television, it’s not like a play or a movie where you know what’s coming and can plan for it. I do remember on Mad Men, Matt Weiner told me a line that was four episodes later at the time I booked it. He told me that I say, “I’ve been standing behind guys like that my whole life,” about Don Draper. Matt told me that line when I got cast because he wanted me to know that’s what I’m feeling about Don. That one line was like, “Oh yeah, of course.”
AVC: That was smart.
PF: Yeah, I think he knew that would key me into the guy. It was like, “Just so you know, this line is coming up, just to help you a bit.” That doesn’t happen often. Generally you’re playing one thing, then you get a later script you go, “Oh shit.” But you just think about how the character could have taken that turn. You figure it out.
AVC: You recently worked with the Coen brothers—how was that experience?
PF: Everything you want it to be. They knew exactly what they want. They’re so incredibly smart and a total joy to work for and with. I don’t get a lot of to do, but what I do get to do is so much fun. I’ve been fans of theirs since college, since I saw Blood Simple. You get to see their storyboards, which as an actor is so rare, but they have them up around the set, and that was so exciting to see what we’re shooting. You don’t usually get to be that involved in the process. To watch them do it in person is pretty incredible.