Interview with John Billingsley

myFanbase got the opportunity to ask actor John Billingsley who starred in "Prison Break" and will also starr in the seventh season of "24" about his current projects and his life as an actor.

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1. You just completed several films like "The Least of These", "American Summer", "The Man from Earth" and "The World According to Barnes". What can you tell us about their stories and the characters you played?

"The Least of These" is about a small Catholic boy's school in New England. I play a priest (teacher at the school) who is embroiled in a cover up of another teacher's pederasty. It stars Isaiah Washington as a new teacher investigating the mystery, and features Bob Gunton and Robert Loggia as well as some terrific young actors.
"American Summer" is the latest in the "American Pie" series and is a very VERRRY broad comedy about teenage kids running a brothel (of sorts). I play a pot smoking College professor.
"The Man from Earth" is by Jerome Bixby (author of the classic "Twilight Zone" episode "It's A Good Life", as well as many other famous stories and tv scripts) and is about a man who claims to be immortal and a passel of disbelieving friends he tells his story to (I'm the jokester in the group). It's sort of a meditation on the difference between morality and religion, and has just been released on DVD.
"The World According to Barnes" was actually the pilot for a tv show that didn't get picked up. I did a number of tv projects this year, including several failed pilots: "Atlanta" (Paul Reiser from "Mad About You" was the producer), "Suspect" (Guy Ritchie directed) and a pretty funny comedy called "Me and Lee" (starring Lee Majors) about a young man who gets 'bionicized' by Lee Majors (who has, in the fiction, a laboratory in his basement).

2. What advantages or disadvantages do you see between shooting movies and shooting shows?

Differences. Well, on tv you'll shoot about 8 or 9 pages a day and things move very very fast: not a lot of coverage (different camera angles), not a lot of takes, and very little improvisation or rehearsal. You really have to come to work knowing your stuff, knowing your lines. You need, as an actor, to have made a lot of very strong, clear decisions. Film operates at a more leisurely pace - you may only shoot 3 or 4 pages a day, there will be a fair amount of rehearsal, discussion of different possibilities, perhaps even some improvisation, and a lot of different camera angles will be employed. You can get tired of shooting the same scene over and over again, and there may be longer waits in between 'set-ups' (any time they change the camera position it's a new 'set-up') because it can take a very long time to light, but on the other hand you also feel like a scene (not all scenes, mind you) can be explored a bit more fully. (Edgar G. Robinson once said that he acts for free, it's the waiting around he gets paid for). However, there is a fundamental difference between big budget studio financed pictures and low budget independently financed features. The latter, because there isn't as much money (consequently, there isn't as much time) are more similar in feel to tv - and of course the biggest difference of all comes into play if you are a recurring character in a tv show, or a series regular, simply because you are going to be playing the same character over a very loooong (hopefully) arc of time, and that character changes and evolves, sometimes in surprising ways, which poses it's own set of challenges, different challenges then you'll have when shooting a single feature . . .

3. You will play the part of Latham in the 7th season of "24". Can you tell us a little bit about that character? For how many episodes will you be part of that show?

I'm actually not allowed to tell anybody anything about what I'm doing on "24" - all I can say is that I'm the McGuffin (that's a term that the director Alfred Hitchcock popularized that refers to the event, person, etc., that kicks the plot in gear - the thing that people are chasing, or trying to stop - anyway, I've got 'the secret code' that the villains want . . . also, I can tell you that there is torture involved . . . (surprise surprise, when is there not torture involved on "24" . . . )

4. You already played in several TV shows. What was your favorite guest appearance?

Possibly playing horrible serial killer on "Cold Case", although there have been a lot of fun ones down the years. . . several (different) scuzzbags on "NYPD Blue" some years back, had fun playing a scaredy pants scientist on "Stargate", enjoyed playing a homeless symphony conductor on a short lived show called "Time of Your Life" (with Jennifer Love Hewitt), got cockroaches dumped on my head (playing corrupt food inspector on show called "Martial Law") and can probably say that was the least amount of fun I've ever had on a set . . . have probably guested on about 50 tv shows, they kind of begin to blur . . . and of course had a lot of fun on "Star Trek" and "The Nine" and "The Others" as a series regular. . .

5. In the first season of "Prison Break" you play the role of Terrence Steadman, a character that was thought to be dead. How was it to play a character the whole first season was about but that was nearly never seen on screen?

Well, it was a nice paycheck for very little work and I got to go to Chicago, a fun city to visit, and I got to know Patty Wettig, who is a lovely person - but that wasn't a terribly involved or interesting part, obviously, so not much I can say about it . . .

6. Do you regret it somehow that you quit "Prison Break" for working on "The Nine"?

Well, you'll always take a series regular gig over a recurring guest star gig, if for no other reason because the money is MUCCCH BETTER ..... However, I didn't want to quit "Prison Break", and Fox wanted me to continue doing it, too: ABC vetoed it cuz they didn't want to have to hassle with potential schedule conflicts, which was understandable. Given the fact that Steadman only lasted for a few episodes beyond my departure anyway, it wasn't really much of a loss.

7. Why do you think was "The Nine" not so successful and had sometimes very low ratings?

Hard to give you a short answer there. I think there were a lot of dark, complicated, serialized dramas on the air that year, and the audience didn't have the time or the patience to watch another one; I think the marketing campaign stressed the 'mystery' of what happened in the bank when the mystery didn't seem, at least initially, all that complex or interesting, and I think the marketers presented the show to fans as more of an action-adventure show than a relationship based show about how people 'get on with their lives after a life-changing trauma'. I think it consequently attracted the wrong audience (not helped by putting it behind "LOST", another mysterious, complicated action adventure show). I think, for instance, it tested better with women than with men and could have stood being marketed to that audience, and put in a time slot where more female viewers might have found it. I'm not sure the storytelling was as gripping as it needed to be in the first few weeks after the premiere, either, cuz that's make or break time these days - you don't get more than three episodes or so to hook an audience. I also think ABC didn't move us to another time slot as quickly as they should have (after premiere numbers told them that we weren't going to hold "Lost" audience) . . . c'est la vie . . .

8. Do you like playing some kind of "strange" characters or are these roles always relegated to you?

Well, every character worth playing is 'strange', insofar as every person is unique, interesting, with a particular world view and a very special way of interpreting their life experiences . . . if by strange you mean 'creepy', yes I have played my share of creepy guys but in part that's cuz I think the industry now delights in casting guys about whom you could say: 'you'd never expect THAT GUY to be the killer', and I've tried to stay away from nutso fucko roles this year to give myself a break . . . haven't killed anyone in months now!

9. What do you remember best when you think of your time on the set of "Star Trek - Enterprise"?

The laughs are what you remember best, and those moments, or scenes, when you really felt you got a chance to throw your elbows around, acting wise - I have fond memories of several episodes (Dear Doctor, A Night In Sickbay, the one where everybody gets put to sleep and I have the run of the ship . . . my nude scene . . .) I remember hanging around crafty (snack table is called craft service table, or crafty) with the guys . . . . watching the Red Sox win the World Series (our line producer was a huge Red Sox fan and promised to run around the lot in his underpants if the Sox won, which we held him to . . . ). I remember holiday parties, winning the Halloween contest in year l (Phlox in Bondage, coupled with a focus puller who was my dominatrix), Secret Santa (everybody picks a name from a hat and surprises them all through the Xmas season with little gifts and treats and then there's a big bash at which we all reveal each other's identities . . .). I remember the crew football pool and a friendly rivalry I had with Jeff, in makeup, to see who'd come out ahead at the end of the year, and birthdays and people's babies getting born . . for the actors, of course, we were only part of the family toward's the 'tail end' of the STREK phenomenon . . . a lot of crew members worked side by side, l4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for almost l5 years: so, of course, I remember how sad and teary-eyed it was to say goodbye at the end.

10. Before you started working for television you were well-known for several theatre plays and founding theatre companies. Do you sometimes still play on stage?

The last play I did was about three plus years ago now (one man show about the life and times of Ambrose Bierce, a great and neglected American satirist from the turn of the century). Hard to find time for stage work, and of course as you get older (mortgage!) it's harder to justify not making any money . . . plus, I really enjoy on camera work. But I hope to return to the stage again (although I was never well known as a stage actor: the companies I founded and ran and worked at in Seattle, WA, were very much 'under the radar', as they say).

11. Your wife Bonita Friedericy is also an actress and you already played together on screen. Do you like that or is it more difficult to play with someone you also see at home?

I love working with Bonnie, love love love it, and only wish we could do it more often.

12. You are a big baseball fan. What else hobbies do you have?

Baseball fan, yes. Also a reader. Primarily a reader. I have a library of about 9000 (dusty) books, crammed into a house that really shouldn't have 9000 (dusty) books in it, and more than anything else in the world I like to hole up and read the day away . . .

13. Since myFanbase is an online magazine about TV series do you have a favorite one?

My favorite tv series right now is probably "Dexter". In the past, I've been a big fan of "The Sopranos", "Six Feet Under" (actually, I'll be playing a role, albeit fairly small, in the new Alan Ball series "True Blood" that premieres next year - assuming the current writer's strike is settled fairly soon) and a variety of English mini-series that are show here in a haphazard fashion (currently watching "5 Days", about a mysterious kidnapping). Having said that, my wife and I both really like to read, and we have a lot of pals so we socialize a fair amount, so we don't have a ton of time for TV. We usually watch about 4 hours a week, max, although we do sample almost every new show, each year, so we have a sense of what we're being asked to audition for (between us we've probably auditioned for almost every show on tv, and many of the shows that didn't make it beyond a few episodes . . . ).

Catherine Bühnsack - myFanbase