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: When it comes to character actors, the phrase “that guy” can be bandied about a bit too much, but Raphael Sbarge truly fits the mold, having appeared in no less than 15 hour-long dramas that are currently on the air, not to mention all of the other credits on his filmography, which stretches all the way back to 1969. Currently, Sbarge can be seen on TNT’s Murder In The First on a weekly basis, but statistically speaking, there’s a good chance that he could pop up on your television any time you turn it on.
Murder In The First (2014-present)—“David Molk”
Raphael Sbarge: First of all, as you probably know, the show’s in its second season. It did quite well in its first outing. It’s Steven Bochco doing one case over a whole season, which—as we now know—is more how people like to consume their content, and now it’s taking it up a notch in this season. And David Molk, he’s a detective, he’s a divorced single dad, and I think he really cares about what he does and, like some of the detectives I’ve met, it’s not just a job for him. He’s sometimes someone that folks make fun of because he feels so deeply about certain things and can have a sweetheart tendency, but we’re in the midst of this big trajectory. This second year, the focus turns much more into the department, so there’s an opportunity for us to get a bit more backstory on a bunch of the detectives who are there. There was a really violent, intense start to the season with a shooting in a school bus, which kind of served to launch a whole series of trajectories.
I’ve worked with Steven Bochco before on NYPD Blue and L.A. Law over the years, and on a show called Civil Wars. Steven, for all intents and purposes, has been known as the king of television, and for good reason. I think at one point he had one of those $100 million contracts years ago. He’s an extraordinary man and has a tremendous pedigree, and simultaneously he’s been able to retain his humanity and is just a wonderful, kind, mensch of a guy. [Laughs.] And he obviously really cares about actors, if you think about his shows. A hallmark of his shows is that they’re all focused on the faces and the quirks and the wrinkles and the personalities of imperfect people. And that’s what I love about being on the show. I’m so proud of it. The idea of doing long-form storytelling, one might say that he kind of invented it—albeit unsuccessfully—with a show called Murder One years ago. It was much ballyhooed, and in that case it, uh, obviously went off the rails. But he was clearly an innovator in terms of beginning to think about how this would work, so it’s cool that he’s been able to come back to do it again.
Just as a side note, the interesting stat about the first season of the show is that it had, like, a 60 percent DVR rate. So everyone is getting off of linear viewing, but this show for this network had almost 9 and a half million views per episode, I think, which is pretty great. And a 60 percent DVR rate is also fantastic. So it’s been a blast so far, and this is the kind of show that every actors hopes comes their way, so I’m thrilled about it.
The A.V. Club: You touched on this a bit a moment ago, but in regards to following a crime per season, how deeply do you end up being able to explore your character?
RS: Well, in this season, there’s two cases. Actually, there’s several cases, but there’s one main trajectory with this school bus shooting, which… [Laughs.] I’ve been given notes about what I can and can’t say, but there’s that story, but as the season moves forward, that story kind of becomes the B-story, and at that point there’s sort of a turning-inward in the department to try and figure out who’s who and what’s what. That’s where we’ve been able to get a bit more into our characters’ backstories, and that’s where Molk tries to find his way, and… how can I put this provocatively without giving away too much information? Let’s just say he wanders down a dark alley and gets stuck in a bit of an interesting conflict scenario.
AVC: That works.
RS: [Laughs.] Okay, good, because I kind of feel like I’m dancing on coals over here!
AVC: Trying to determine your very first on-camera role is a little difficult: Based on the dates, it looks like it could be Risky Business, but it also could be something called Abuse.
RS: Yeah, Abuse was the first movie I did, and that is actually—weirdly—a cult classic. It was made by an independent filmmaker in New York City. I was 16 years old. It’s a very disturbing movie about child abuse and a cycle of abuse. It’s based upon a story from this gay filmmaker’s life, where he became friends with—and then ultimately lovers with—a young boy who was being abused and helped him get out of his family situation. It was pretty scandalous at the time, back in the ’80s, but I understand from folks who’ve reached out to me over the years that it was a very popular movie, particularly in the gay community, for a long time.
It dealt with some shocking themes at the time, particularly a younger man with an older man, stuff that now seems—well, not everyday, but we’ve certainly moved along in the conversation in a big fashion. So, yeah, it’s still out there, you can still rent it, and, you know, when you do an independent film as an actor, you don’t know necessarily what its trajectory will be or where it’ll end up. I’ve done a bunch of them that’ve just ended up on the filmmakers’ shelves, having never seen the light of day. But this one actually seemed to have quite a life. It won some awards.
By the way, there’s another independent film that I’m thinking you might talk about, too, kind of a weird one that’s more well-known now because he’s kind of become so infamous… It’s a Roger Corman movie called Carnosaur.
AVC: Oh, that’s on my list, believe me.
RS: [Laughs.] All right. I thought it probably would be. But I don’t want to get ahead of you. Go on with whatever’s next on your list.
Sesame Street (1969)—Actor
AVC: Well, normally this is where I’d ask you how you found your way into acting as a profession in the first place, but given your parentage, it seems like you came by it honestly.
RS: Yeah, Mom’s a costume designer in the theater, my dad’s a playwright, they both met at Yale as students, and then my dad went on to be a documentary filmmaker and wrote a book on architecture; my mother wrote a book on the history of costume. She was also a professor at Yale, Tulane, and NYU, and she’s done lots and lots of shows on Broadway, etc. So I really sort of grew up backstage, very much “raised in a trunk,” as they say, and I have some wonderful childhood memories of being with the actors backstage and just hanging out. They’d kind of take me under their wing and hang out with me, and it sort of felt like running away with the circus.
There was something magical about hanging out backstage, looking from the wings into the lights. Seeing all that, it looked like magic to me. My mother worked very hard in the theater, which was difficult and took a lot of patience. Being a costume designer for the theater is not a high-paying gig. [Laughs.] But she was—miraculously—able to support herself just as a costume designer for years, and then as a teacher. But just because we were living in the Lower East Side in a commune in the ’60s, it turned out that we were geographically close to where they were then shooting Sesame Street, so I was on Sesame Street when I was, like, 4-and-a-half.
AVC: Wow. I didn’t realize that.
RS: [Laughs.] Yeah! I did a bunch of episodes of Sesame Street, which is wacky to think about now. At the time… I mean, who knew it was going to be where it is now? But I have vivid memories of meeting Oscar and Big Bird, and Mr. Hooper sat me on a donkey and we talked about the differences between the donkey and a horse. Anyway, they offered me a contract, apparently, and my mother didn’t want to be a stage mother, so she decided to kind of say, “Look, if he’s going to do this, let him do it himself, because it’s too hard.” And she had a burgeoning career of her own at that point, so she didn’t want to be sitting backstage, so she turned it down. But I still ended up around a lot of theater, and when she was working at Yale, if they happened to need kids, I’d be in a show, so there were things like that.
And then when we moved from Connecticut back to New York City, at that point, I was 13, and I decided I wanted to be an actor, so I called an actress friend and said, “What do I do?” And she said, “Well, here’s my agent’s phone number. Give him a call!” So I said, “Okay!” And I bicycled over to the East Side. I did this all on my own, because in New York you can do it on your own. There are no child labor laws, so you literally can do it on your own! [Laughs.] I just had to bring the contract home to be signed by my parents. But with my bus pass in hand… Obviously, I was a very precocious kid, and I just kind of went out and did it. And I got my Screen Actors Guild card almost immediately, and then I got my Equity card at 14 or 15. I was doing a play at the Public [Theater], and just started training and studying in New York City.
I’ve had so many friends who’ve been in the business and gone through so many iterations, but—astonishingly—I’ve somehow been able to carve out a career where I’ve just been able to keep working, I’ve gone through different physical changes and still been able to keep working. It’s just such a difficult business, and I’m painfully aware of that. So, yeah, there’s not a day that I’m not grateful for the fact that I’ve been able to keep working.
AVC: You mentioned the Public Theater a minute ago. I’ve read that your first stage role was actually in Joe Papp’s Shakespeare In The Park production of Henry IV, Part 1.
RS: It was! And then I did another play at the Public, and I did a production of Hamlet that Joe Papp actually directed where I played multiple parts. It was pretty exciting to work with him.
AVC: The cast list for Henry IV, Part 1 is pretty crazy: John Goodman, Val Kilmer…
RS: Yeah! And in Hamlet, Jimmy Smits was a spear carrier! [Laughs.] So those theater experiences were obviously pivotal in my trying to make some sense of what kind of actor I wanted to be, and Joe was very kind to me and gave me some tremendous opportunities. I went on Broadway for the first time when I was 16, with Faye Dunaway [in The Curse Of An Aching Heart] and had a lot of wonderful success in New York doing lots of different plays. And to that end, New York is still very much home. In fact, I have a place there. It’s the place where I got my start, and artistically and spiritually New York very much feels like home.
Independence Day (1996)—“Commander / Tech”
AVC: Not that your character actually had a name, but talk about your high-profile films.
RS: Yeah, it was one of those parts where I went in thinking, “Well, this is a big movie, it’s a couple of scenes,” and it didn’t really seem to have a lot to it. But they just kept sort of adding parts to it, and then ultimately when the movie came out, I had a lot of people say to me, “You didn’t tell me you were in Independence Day!” I mean, I worked on it for three-and-a-half or four weeks, and they used everything I did, so it seemed like there was more to it. [Laughs.] But it’s just become this ridiculously huge movie and iconic in a way, so it was great to be a part of it.
AVC: Does anything in particular stand out about the experience?
RS: Well, I remember meeting Will Smith for the first time and thinking, “My God, that guy’s got charisma! Who is that?” [Laughs.] But I worked on [the scene in] Air Force One a bunch, and I worked with Robert Loggia and… well, basically, I’m sort of scattered around the movie, but I ultimately end up being in that pivotal last section when they finally bomb the aliens. It was a fun movie to be a part of, and it still plays all the time. People constantly come up and say, “Oh, my God, I just saw you in Independence Day.” It’s one of those movies.
Pearl Harbor (2001)—“Kimmel’s Aide”
RS: Pearl Harbor was basically another small part in a big movie, but a movie that was a blast to do. Michael Bay, God knows, is wildly prolific, but I don’t know that the movie ultimately—it didn’t entirely work. But we shot it in Hawaii, in Pearl Harbor, in sites that are kind of holy sites for the military in terms of what happened with Pearl Harbor. I worked with Colm Feore, who I love and adore. I’ve worked with him since, and he’s such a great actor. Basically, I was the guy who’d run around getting him the telegrams. “The Japanese are coming!” and all that. So I shot in Hawaii, Mexico, and L.A.—various places. Again, a huge movie, but it, uh, maybe didn’t have as much staying power as Independence Day.
Risky Business (1983)—“Glenn”
RS: Risky Business, on the other hand, has definitely had staying power. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did that come about? You were coming off a decidedly independent film into one that presumably was at least a bit more high-profile.
RS: I went and auditioned for it. It was just one of those things. I was in New York, and it just kind of came my way. In a way, when I think about it now, it’s sort of miraculous that it happened that way. What was interesting is that Tom [Cruise] wasn’t originally cast in the role. A friend of mine named Brian Backer was cast in the role, and he was sort of a nebbishy, Jewish-y kind of guy. I think he was ultimately cast in a play that Woody Allen wrote, playing sort of a young Woody Allen. But if you read the script and you think about Brian, he was actually more the kid who can’t get laid. [Laughs.] And then apparently Tom just sort of wandered in and literally blew their socks off, and they ultimately fired Brian and hired Tom. And I guess, as they say, the rest is history.
AVC: It’s hard to gauge it now, given how big Tom has become, but was Risky Business a big deal at the time, or was it just another teen movie?
RS: You know, the movie did really well. I know that the producer, Jon Avnet, had—because I’ve spoken to him since—aspirations to kind of create the next Graduate. The Graduate of its day, as it were. I would say that he probably did capture some of that ’80s greed and drive and ambition and did quite well with that. But the movie has seemingly stood the test of time, because there were so many other movies. I mean, I did a whole bunch of them! One was called My Man Adam, one was called My Science Project. There were just so many of them. And some of them found their light of day, some of them didn’t, but this one seems to been one that a lot of people remember from the ’80s. And is that because of Tom? That’s probably part of it. I mean, it was his amazing star turn that obviously made it work. But there’s something about that movie that captured the zeitgeist, something in that moment where you sort of feel like it all comes together. There’s so many people that’ve told me that they’ve watched the movie too many times, that it captured their youth, or that it’s the movie they remember the most from when they were growing up.
My Science Project (1985)—“Sherman”
RS: My Science Project came out right around when Real Genius and Weird Science came out, so there was kind of a glut of that kind of teen movie. It didn’t do very well in theaters. It had kind of a short run. But it seems, from what I’m told, to have had a huge afterlife on—at that time—VHS, and then on DVD, and it discovered a tremendous audience that’s followed it. I have a lot of fond memories of it. I auditioned for it, and they ultimately made a fat suit for me, because I was playing the fat kid. It was a time when I could go out and eat three desserts for dinner because I was trying to gain weight. But in addition to that, what they did was kind of pad me. That was a blast. [Laughs.] And then Fisher Stevens and I were old friends. We grew up together, we did a couple of other movies and plays together in New York, and we were roommates in New York when we got it… and then we were roommates in L.A. when we were shooting it! So it was wild to be a part of that with him and share that experience with someone who I’d known since we were 15 or 16.
AVC: Since everyone will want to know, do you have any Dennis Hopper anecdotes?
RS: Yeah, God, Dennis told me something which was so sweet—he was just the sweetest guy—and that was that it was the first movie he’d ever done where he wasn’t, um, loaded. [Laughs.] And he said [Does a Hopper impression.] “It was a really weird experience, man!” Which was pretty funny. So, yeah, he really was one of the sweetest, most gentle men I’ve ever met. I remember him telling me a lot of James Dean stories. I guess he was friends with him because, you know, they worked together on Rebel Without A Cause. But, yeah, I loved Dennis.
Profiler (1999-2000)—“Danny Burke”
RS: That was a popular show at the time, and I did a bunch of episodes. I played Jamie Luner’s brother—which is funny, because she’s on Murder In The First now—and I had a blast. [Hesitates.] I guess this is probably the case with a lot of the actors you interview for this feature, but people say to me all the time, “God, you sort of pop up everywhere!” Somebody on Twitter called me “the Where’s Waldo? of actors”—that I just keep popping up when you least expect it. It’s sort of a goofy thing, to have worked so long and done so much in so many things. About 10 years ago, somebody saw me in Risky Business and said, “Oh, my God, you were so young!” [Laughs.] I was, like, “Gimme a break, man, I was just a teen.” Some people when they’re 18 go to high school and go to prom. In my case, I did it on film.
Better Days (1986)—“Brian McGuire”
RS: That was a wild ride. That was when The Cosby Show was getting very, very, very popular, and we came out as a show about a white kid who goes back to Brooklyn and befriends a bunch of black kids. It was based on one of the writer-producer’s experiences. But we came out, and somehow what we were doing was somehow branded… I don’t know, the way they were telling the story, there were a few reviews where it was called racist, even though it was as far away from that as you can imagine. I mean, there were street kids in Brooklyn, and they were rapping, but I guess they weren’t lawyers or doctors, like Dr. Huxtable, etc. So I have to say that it kind of came and went. It was sort of the other black show at the time. [Laughs.] And it didn’t fare well.
AVC: Was it a learning curve for you to take on a series-regular role for the first time, or were you just excited about the opportunity?
RS: Honestly, I think anyone would be disingenuous if they sort of said, “Yeah, I had a plan for my career all along, and I knew exactly how this would go.” I mean, if you turn around and look back at your life, it feels like one long major highway, but as you’re on it, it’s a wild zigzag of experiences that seemingly at times have no relationship to each other, and you think to yourself, “How the hell did I get here? What could have possibly brought me from that to this?” But ultimately, as I say, I’m just so grateful to keep working and having these opportunities and different experiences. It’s wild to play both Jiminy Cricket on the one hand and then a serial rapist murderer cannibal on CSI or Cold Case or Nip/Tuck or one of these things. I’m just so grateful for those opportunities to do different things.
Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998)—“Dack Ralter”
Star Wars: Force Commander (2000)—“Dellis Tantor”
Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic (2003) / Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II – The Sith Lords (2004)—“Carth Onasi”
Star Wars: Republic Commando (2005)—“Delta 62 ‘Scorch’”
Mass Effect (2007) / Mass Effect 2 (2010) / Mass Effect (2012)—“Kaidan Alenko”
AVC: You may actually be the most challenging person I’ve ever chatted with for Random Roles. Normally I’m not overwhelmed by an actor’s filmography, but… I mean, good lord, man, there’s just so many things. It’s, like, every freaking credit makes me think, “Oh, I bet he’d have a good story about that one…”
RS: [Laughs.] There’s a lot of weird stuff in the voice-over stuff that I’ve done, like the video games, which have had a huge, surprising life of their own. The Mass Effect series, the Star Wars series… I’m not a gamer, but it’s astonishing, the worlds of these things. The Mass Effect game was done by probably one of the best game producers out there—BioWare—and the game itself is magnificent and has just a huge worldwide following. So they’re part of the tapestry as well, and it’s been a wild experience.
Back To Hannibal: The Return Of Tom Sawyer And Huckleberry Finn (1990)—“Tom Sawyer”
RS: That was for the Disney Channel, and it was a back-door pilot with Paul Winfield and Ned Beatty, sort of an updated version of Tom and Huck as crime fighters. It had a charming thing to it, lots of eye candy, and it was fun to be a part of. Ultimately, I guess they opted against turning it into a series, probably because it was too expensive, being a period piece. But it was certainly fun to be a part of.
AVC: And, as you say, quite a cast. In addition to Winfield and Beatty, William Windom was in it, too.
RS: Oh, yeah, it was an incredible cast. Amazing.
AVC: Did you feel like you needed to go back and revisit the original Mark Twain novels before tackling the role?
RS: Oh, sure. Although any time you have a script that interprets an earlier project, you have to sort of take it on the script’s terms, in a way, and make it work as you have it. But at the same time, I remember the original Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books distinctly. They were a huge part of my youth, so I loved playing in that world.
Star Trek: Voyager (1996-1997)—“Michael Jonas”
RS: I must’ve seen every episode of the original Star Trek series two or three times, so when I finally got to be on a Star Trek series, that was such a blast. It was one of those pinch-me moments. [Excitedly.] “Omigod, omigod, I’m on the bridge!” And talk about a franchise that’s got a core audience.
AVC: You did several episodes of the series, too.
RS: Oh, yeah, I did, like, five or six of them.
AVC: What was it like coming on to an established series as a recurring player? Not that it had been established that long—that was only the second season, I believe—but it was long enough for the regulars to have their chemistry down, presumably.
RS: Well, what I remember about being on the show was that I was Engineering, and they had all of these sort of made-up words. And Garrett Wang [Ensign Harry Kim] was also in Engineering, and he’s such a sweet guy. I’ve told him since that he basically… I don’t know, he just took care of me in a way that I’ll never forget.
What happened was that the words that they made up were so difficult to memorize, and I would arrive literally white-knuckled on set, having run through them all night in my sleep, trying to make sure that I had them, because they were just the most jabberwockian combination of things. So what happened was, he gave me some memorization tools so that I could find my way through it.
That was the scariest part of it. But I remember at one point actually having to resort to writing something on a card because I just couldn’t get it, and I placed it carefully on part of the engineering set so that I could look over and grab it. Of course, I don’t remember what it was. [Laughs.] I just remember that it was just impossible to learn!
BASEketball (1998)—“Minnesota Spokesman” (uncredited)
RS: BASEketball was a small part, but it was a movie I read that I thought was so funny, and I thought it was going to be a huge movie because it was so clever. Ultimately, the movie was a bomb, but I was a part of the table read, and I begged to be a part of it. I said, “I’ll do anything! I’d just love to be a part of it!” So I did one scene, but unfortunately the movie just never went anywhere.
Carnosaur (1993)—“‘Doc’ Smith”
RS: I’m told that Carnosaur is one of the highest-grossing films that Roger Corman ever made, only because he designed it to sort of piggyback on that little Spielberg movie about dinosaurs. [Laughs.] You know, that small little blip of a movie. But he basically counter-programmed it brilliantly. I think the budget was, like, $700,000. It was stupidly small. He had a warehouse in Venice, and we shot 18-hour days. I think we shot the entire movie in, like, three weeks. But the movie made a lot of money only because it came out and was another dinosaur movie to go see when people were suddenly dinosaur hungry.
It’s a very dark, twisted little movie. I think he ended up making two sequels after that, of which I wasn’t a part because I die in a fiery ball at the end of Carnosaur. But it’s actually a funny, creepy little movie, and I think my favorite line—because I play a guy who’s a bit of an alcoholic, or at least someone who likes to drink—is, “Better a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” [Laughs.] So, yeah, that was kooky, but Roger Corman obviously gave a start to a number of amazing people, and I’m just so thrilled to be a part of that company. I mean, people like Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, incredible actors and directors, he’d basically just say, “Okay, go make a movie.” And he created an empire. So it was fun to have worked with him.
Miracle Mile (1988)—“Chip” (voice)
RS: Oh, yeah! Did you see that movie?
RS: Oh, wow, that’s wild! Yeah, that was another one of those weird things where I loved the script and they ultimately said, “Look, there’s no part for you, really, but… there is this part of this guy who kind of launches the whole movie, basically. He’s the guy who calls and says, “There’s been a nuclear attack.” It’s this intense, emotional phone call at the beginning that kind of sets the whole movie into motion. So even though it’s only a voice-over, it’s the inciting incident for everything. The filmmaker, I think he spent, like, seven years to get that movie made, because he believed in it so passionately. It was a neat movie.
AVC: I watched it again before I talked to Anthony Edwards, and for the most part it holds up. It certainly does as far as the tension goes.
RS: Yeah? I should go back and watch that one again. We had the 30th anniversary of Risky Business, and I got to watch it again after many, many, many years, and it was actually a movie that held up. Not all of them do. A lot of those ’80s films probably can, uh, stay in the ’80s. [Laughs.] But it’s nice to hear that you think Miracle Mile holds up.
My Man Adam (1985)—“Adam Swit”
Prison For Children (1987)—“John Parsons”
Riding The Edge (1989)—“Matt”
AVC: Of course, that begs the question, is there an ’80s movie of yours that you’ve revisited that hasn’t held up?
RS: Yeah, there’s a movie of the week I did with John Ritter called Prison For Children. I’m sorry, but that title alone sounds the death knell. [Laughs.] John Ritter was arguably one of the kindest, gentlest, nicest people you could ever meet. Genuinely. But the movie was a real stinker.
AVC: Well, at least that was the same year you did Billionaire Boys Club, which got decidedly more acclaim.
RS: Yeah, that was okay. There’s another movie I did called My Man Adam, which… [Laughs.] I don’t know that it holds up. Someone sent me the trailer recently, which someone put on YouTube, and it’s sort of a Walter Mitty kind of story. I don’t know that that holds up, either. But, hey, they’re out there to embarrass me for years to come.
AVC: Well, the one I was wondering if you might mention, just because I watched the trailer before hopping on the phone with you, was Riding The Edge.
RS: I don’t know about Riding The Edge. I haven’t seen it in a long time, to be honest with you. It was one of those movies—there were a lot of them back then—that was, you know, young man goes to save his father from terrorists. There were a ton of them. And that was one of them. The cool thing about that movie, though, was that we shot it in Israel, and we actually got to shoot in a Palestinian refugee camp at the time, back in ’88, before the Intifada. That was fascinating. We also shot in Jerusalem—literally in the streets of Jerusalem—which you could never do now. I mean, I was riding a motorcycle down the streets of Jerusalem! So that was kind of a wild and crazy thing, as well as being out in a helicopter where—well, anyway, there’s all sorts of crazy things that went on, but the best part about that film was my trip to Israel. Now that the conflicts have increased and with all the tension in the Middle East, there’s no way you could do something like what we did then.
Vision Quest (1985)—“Schmoozler”
AVC: Last ’80s film, I promise, but character names just don’t get any better than “Schmoozler.”
RS: [Laughs.] Ah, yeah, that was based upon a book. A really cool book, actually, about wrestling. What was distinct about that movie for me—well, Linda Fiorentino was one of the sexiest women I’ve ever met, so it was fun being in a movie with her, and Matthew Modine and I were old friends, because we started in New York together. We went through three weeks of wrestling training, which was wildly intense and sort of interesting.
But the most distinct memory I have was being in a club where they’d brought this singer in from New York to do some music, because she was going to maybe do a song for the movie. She was about 5 foot, 5 inches, and had big earrings. I said, “Hi, what’s your name?” She said, “Oh, my name’s Madonna.” I said, “Madonna what?” She said, “No, just Madonna.” “Oh, well, it’s very nice to meet you, Madonna. What are you doing?” “Oh, I’m going to be doing some music.” “That sounds great. Great to meet you.” [Laughs.] So there you go. I guess they found her in some seedy club on the Lower East Side and brought her to Spokane, Washington and had her do some music for the movie. So that’s sort of a wild memory, having met her.
The Guardian (2001-2004)—“Jake Straka”
RS: The Guardian’s a show I’m really proud of. I loved the show. It was Simon Baker, who’s obviously gone on to become one of the richer men in Hollywood, because he’s so stunningly handsome. [Laughs.] But he and I were part of a law firm, and the premise of the show was that a fellow who worked in a corporate law firm was forced into doing community service and had to work basically doing pro bono for child custody cases or children’s services. So there was this juxtaposition between these two worlds, where he was in this high-end corporate world with his dad, played by Dabney Coleman, and then he was in this low-rent world where he’s trying to help kids.
I thought it was a wonderful show. They canceled it while it was still going strong. They canceled it when we were up against 24 and Frasier, which were both big shows, but we were doing as well as them—if not better—on a weekly basis. There was some sort of sea change at the network and I guess they decided to cancel it, but I loved the show. It seems like it’s gotten a new audience because Simon Baker fans who discovered him on The Mentalist have gone and found it online.
AVC: I’ve watched all three seasons, and it’s a much darker show than I think many people may realize.
RS: Yeah! I mean, you could never make that on a network now. But I loved that they were willing to go there. For years afterwards, there were rabid fans of the show who still bemoaned how upset they were that it was gone, because it was really interesting, smart, dark, sometimes very twisted adult fare for a big fat network like CBS at the time.
AVC: As far as your character, do you have a favorite storyline or plot arc from the run of the series?
RS: Well, they took me through all sorts of arcs, with all sorts of different men and all kinds of crazy personal things, and then ultimately decided at the very end, completely out of nowhere, to have him be gay and have him come out. And it was one of those shocker moments. [Laughs.] The executive producer said, “I know we’ve basically been having you involved with women for the past few years, but… you’re going to be gay.” And it was one of those things where it was, like, “Wow, okay, here we go!” So I remember that, and I, uh, definitely remember it being a twist.
AVC: Was that odd for you, though? As an actor who’s spent the previous seasons building his character, I’d think you’d be, like, “Uh, aren’t we kind of back-pedaling on everything we’ve established?” I mean, unless you felt in retrospect like you could actually look back and see the signs.
RS: Yeah, it’d odd when they do that. But it’s also odd when they suddenly decide to stop writing for you altogether and kill you off, which happens, too. In this case, it was certainly a dynamic twist. [Laughs.] And it got a bit of attention. And he was having to live a bit of a double life of not talking about being gay, and then having a “beard” and pretending to be straight. So that was sort of interesting. I liked that part of it, the challenge. But when you’re in the writers’ room and you’re trying to make decisions about how it’s all going to work, I guess sometimes it’s whatever seems like it could be the biggest twist is the best way to further the show.
It’s interesting. Even with Murder In The First, we don’t know who the killer is. We don’t know who the final reveal is. We didn’t know last year till we got the script. And on Once Upon A Time, you never know where it’s going to go till you get the script, either. They keep it under lock and key. And sometimes that’s part of the fun.
Once Upon A Time (2011-2014)—“Archie Hopper / Jiminy Cricket”
AVC: So what did you think when you heard about the role of Archie Hopper and learned, “Oh, by the way, he’s also Jiminy Cricket”?
RS: Well, of course, I auditioned for the show, but when I went in, I was confused by what I read as to whether they just wanted a voice match or a rehash of what we know of Jiminy Cricket from the movie. And they said, “Oh, no, we want it real.” Which I think is kind of a hallmark of what they’ve done so brilliantly with Once Upon A Time: take characters that we know or already have a relationship with and reinvent them. In the pilot, I literally had one scene, and there was no way to really know where it was all going. What they said was that what they wanted to do was give him a huge backstory, which they did.
That whole first season of Once Upon A Time was just spectacular. They did all these wonderful backstories of all these characters, and it was so magical and inventive and just sort of surprising. And they ended up creating a back story for Jiminy Cricket, which really touched my heart. You know, the character was essentially the voice of one’s conscience, but as opposed to being just a goody two-shoes, he’s someone who’s done the wrong thing his whole life and really suffered, and he ultimately makes the decision to do the right thing because he knows the difference. I always thought that was a brilliant take on how someone evolves a sense of right and wrong and understanding what “conscience” means.
AVC: Is there any likelihood that Archie will be seen again on the show?
RS: You know, there is a likelihood, but it’s sort of out of my control, not knowing what they want to do with the writing. And there’s so many storylines. I did one episode at the beginning of the year—I did some voice work—but… I mean, they don’t tell us anyway, so there’s no way of knowing when I might or might not come back.
Nip/Tuck (2005)—“Silas Prine”
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2010)—“Wayne Hankett”
Hawaii Five-0 (2015)—“Sam Alexander”
By Way Of Helena (2015)—“Dr. Morris”
AVC: Trying to pick which one-off appearances are worth asking about is a fool’s errand—there are just too damned many to choose from—but do you have a particular favorite series that you’ve guested on?
RS: You know, the one that seems to get a lot of comments is the episode of SVU I did. It was very scary and disturbing. I also loved the episode of Nip/Tuck I did, who was another weird, dark character. What else? [Long pause.] You know, it’s like you said: There’s just so many. It’s incredible how many different iterations I’ve done. I actually just did a Hawaii Five-0 that I had a blast doing.
I know it’s a recurring theme, but I’m just grateful that I get keeping to work and keep getting these wonderful opportunities. Murder In The First is an incredible show, and so is Once Upon A Time. I just finished a Western—a period piece, with Woody Harrelson and Liam Hemsworth—that’s going to be out later this year, I think, called By Way Of Helena. I just feel incredibly lucky to be doing it and to have been doing since—well, geez, if I started when I was 4 and you do the math on that, I’ve doing this for 47 years. That’s not bad!