Article From: TV AV Club
The actor: It may surprise fans who got to know his work during the 21st century, but longtime actor (and more recently, director) Nestor Carbonell originally came to prominence as a sitcom star in the ’90s. The actor’s first big attention-getting credit was the NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan, before he jumped ahead to even bigger and better things with roles on Lost, Bates Motel, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and more. We recently spoke with Carbonell—via Zoom from his home during lockdown—where he was able to fill us in on some enlightening stories about his new role on Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, the benefits of being one of the original heroes on The Tick, and why it’s a pain in the ass to get famous for doing an accent that everyone thinks is your real voice.
The Morning Show (2019)—“Yanko Flores”
Nestor Carbonell: It was a gift to be able to work not just with the amazing cast and talented crew, but then also to reunite with Kerry Ehrin—from the amazing experience of working with her on Bates Motel. She got the job of showrunning—essentially reimagining the show, because I think there had been an earlier version they had pitched—with the backdrop of #MeToo. After the dust settled, she reached out to me and said, “Look, I’m doing this show—I don’t know if you’re available. Is there something you’d love to play?” I think she was still sort of conceiving it, so I said, “Look, if there’s room for a weathercaster, I’ve always wanted to play a weatherman.” [Laughs.] She goes, “Well, I can’t guarantee you the role, but let’s see what happens.” And, sure enough, eventually it happened, and—as Kerry so often does—she layers every role with so much depth. Going back and getting to work with her on The Morning Show—she would only travel when she could, because she wrote here in L.A.—but she would come over on set as much as she could. I mean, when she got the job, I think she only had a couple months to re-conceive a new pilot.
So she was always under the gun that first season. I think it’ll be a slightly different season two, especially now given the shutdown. But a lot of it was just really writing and rewriting on the fly. And the shooting of it, obviously, the same way, because we had to sort of adapt to what was ready to shoot.
AVC: Was there something about being on this giant Apple flagship series that surprised you, or was unexpected to you as you were on set each day?
NC: It’s incredible because, even with this looming deadline of, “Okay, we sort of have to roll with the punches of a deadline,” particularly with the onus on Kerry and all the writers—we delivered it, or we try to deliver it on set. And obviously Mimi Leder establishing the show, that’s a lot on her plate—monstrous. Even so, and this is to the cast and Mimi Leder’s credit, too, it was a loose set. It was very relaxed. And if you can create that environment, given these incredible deadlines, that’s a gift to any cast member or crew member. Because it’s a lot easier to perform when you’re relaxed [Laughs.] than when you’re tense. I certainly never felt that tension, and I credit Mimi and the cast for that, because they kept it very relaxed.
As The World Turns (1989)—“Alberto Cordova”
NC: Oh, my god. That’s really funny. That was sort of my first gig on screen. I was in college. And I booked this thing over the summer, I believe. But it was hysterical, because I was, like, a 19-year-old dictator of this fictitious Latin American country. And I remember [Laughs.] I had a beret, and I had this perfectly placed makeup—you know, always dust on my face. It was epic. But it was a gift in the sense that, first off, I was so green. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d taken a few acting classes in college and suddenly I thought I was an actor. So I was terrible. I was awful.
But I saw these other actors who were given the same amount of time I was to prepare, and I was, like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” What a skill to be able to deliver on such short notice, and yet filling it with such history. You know, even though they’d had the characters longer, it was just—immediately, I had that sort of realization: “Okay, I’m going to need to study this to be able to understand what this is about.” And, thankfully, there was a person in college who was able to open my eyes to and study later on the Meisner technique—this teacher we had, David Wheeler, introduced us to Meisner and so I started out after that. But, yes, Alberto Cordova was my first on-camera role, and I learned a lot from that stint.
AVC: Even just the process of shooting, at the time was it, like, “Wait, what does ‘hitting a mark’ mean?”
NC: Oh, completely. Completely. I didn’t know what a mark was. I think it was either three or four cameras, you know, it’s a soap opera. There’s only a second take if you maybe swear on camera. It’s pretty much one take, occasionally a pickup here and there. I’d done a little bit of theater in school, not much. But I had no concept of hitting a mark, being aware of where my light was, or casting a shadow on another actor—or blocking them, for that matter… I had no clue. None whatsoever. I was completely green, I was thrown to the wolves.
At the time, it’s mortifying. You see it, and you go, “Oh, my god, that was just so bad.” But, when you step back so many years later, you go, “You know, had I not done all those horrible [Laughs.]—made all those horrible choices, I wouldn’t know what a better choice was.” So I try now with perspective to look back on all those as a valuable learning experience. So yeah, I’m grateful for every gig. I see them all as gifts.
AVC: This was your first time as a series regular, right?
NC: It was. I didn’t know anything about sitcoms—I’d never studied it. And, sure enough, I had to find out that there’s a level of musicality to it. There’s a bit of a math to it. It’s its own world. It’s a hybrid: It’s not quite TV, it’s not quite theater. It’s something in between. And I kind of figured it out—I thought I did—in a couple of guest-star auditions. So eventually I worked my way into that world, and that was a time when sitcoms were really prevalent on primetime.
So this Gianni character came from the first show the WB ever produced, called Muscle. It was the first line-up—it was the launching of that network. And I went in thinking, “I better get this thing.” [Laughs.] Because there’s not much on the horizon, and I’m not getting any younger already, and I’ve been out here three years. I tested two or three times. I ended up getting the job. I think there were 11 series regulars on that show. And it was [longtime TV producers] Witt/Thomas—they were trying to do the show Soap, but in a gym. So it was broad satire. And I played this sort of lounge lizard, gigolo character at the gym. I do remember a speech by Witt and Thomas at the beginning of that series, saying—Paul Witt saying, you know, “We have you guys, we’re excited about the show, we’re likely going to go five years, so we suggest—we know you’re all young—that you don’t date each other, okay?”
And it was a very relaxed, very loose sort of thing as a piece of advice. Which, sure enough, three weeks later I was dating Shannon Kenny, who is now my wife. [Laughs.] So the show didn’t go five years—it only went 13 episodes—but at least we’re still together, so [Laughs.] At the time, it was almost a recipe for dating: It’s taboo to date each other, so of course we’re going to date each other. But we didn’t tell anybody and I don’t think anyone knew. We kept it hidden. Yeah, our kids can thank us for that show, for sure.
AVC: You have the honor of being on the first series ever canceled by The WB, as well.
NC: [Laughs.] Yes, exactly! We thought we were it, like, “Oh, this is it.” Sure enough, we were the first one canceled. Just when you think you have a series regular role that goes to air, you also realize that it’s almost a miracle to be on a show that goes the distance. There’s so many steps. And you learn that quickly: Okay, it’s great you get a callback, it’s great to book a gig, or to screen-test—all these steps to get a series regular role—it goes to pilot, then it has to be picked up to go to series. And then you hope, obviously, that the ratings will sustain a year, and then years beyond that. There’s so many steps. To me it’s always a miracle when you see a show that goes four or five seasons.
AVC: Were you guys aware of all the behind-the-scenes chaos of WB figuring out how to be a network, how they quickly decided to drop you?
NC: We were pretty insulated for the most part. I mean, you can’t help but look at numbers. Back then it was all in the newspaper. We would wait for the ratings and it was, like, “Ooh, okay. That’s a one point one, or a one point oh.” And we kind of knew within the lineup, we’re not doing so hot. So we had a sense. I remember before the ratings came out, as we were shooting—even rehearsing—I remember other actors telling me, “Don’t buy a new car just yet. Just wait.” You know? It’s sort of the curse of an actor who gets a series regular role and goes to air. There’s 13 guaranteed. It’s like, don’t make any big decisions just yet. Thank god I didn’t. I had that car that broke down all the time [Laughs.] but at least I could afford it—it was paid for—for another year or two after that.
The Tick (2001-2002)—“Batmanuel”
NC: That was one of my favorite jobs. I had just come off a sitcom—Suddenly Susan—for four years with Brooke Shields and a great cast, and I had done this accent on the show, this sort of Castilian accent based on a friend of mine. It got to the point where a lot of people just assumed I had that accent in real life. So, in speaking with my manager and my agents at the time, you have to do the proverbial thing that every actor does after doing a role for a while: You have to murder that role. “All right, so I won’t do another accented role, I’ll just get away from that.” Lo and behold, my agents get a call from Barry Sonnenfeld that he and Ben Edlund are doing a show called The Tick for Fox, and they want me to play the role of Batmanuel. And I go, “Oh, that sounds so funny,” and I read it and I go, “Great”—and they want me to do an accent. It’s, like, oh my god!
On the one hand, this is the most amazing material; on the other hand, I thought I was going to murder this role. But I took a meeting with those guys; I met with them, and I went, “How can I not do this? Who cares? It’s just so good.” So I dove right in and had the best time. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. I think it was ahead of its time. It was before cable series were prominent, but we had a blast.
AVC: It was ahead of its time, but it still has an enduring cult fan base. Do you still encounter The Tick fans?
NC: I absolutely do. Whenever I meet them, either if it’s at a convention or it’s just on the street, I love that it still resonates with them. Because it’s one of my favorite jobs. The writing was so good. Ben Edlund obviously wrote it, but Larry Charles had a roomful of phenomenal writers, and the cast was extraordinary: Patrick Warburton, David Burke, Liz Vassey. And Barry Sonnenfeld spared no expense with the costumes. The pilot, I’m sure, was a fortune. But I remember Patrick had 10 Tick suits. Made for him. Barry wanted to make the suits as seamless as possible, so it was only in two pieces. But then Patrick would sweat so much that they had to build a room for him and just blow massive A/C. He couldn’t really sit, so they had this wooden thing, kind of like a bench—that was sort of inclined, that he would just lean against, you know?
AVC: The Tick would just lean back and get blasted with air?
NC: And just cool down between takes. It was unbelievable. You had a guy just to do the animatronics of his antennae—just dedicated to doing that whenever he spoke. I mean, it was an extraordinary production. So, yes, I love it when people come up to me and talk to me about that. We knew at the time there was nothing else like it on TV. And sadly, it didn’t go beyond that, but I love it when people come up and quote the show.
Bates Motel (2013-2017)—“Sheriff Alex Romero”
NC: Carlton Cuse, whom I’d worked with on Lost, approached me about the role initially. He called me and he said, “Listen, I have this part for this sheriff that I’m thinking of you for in this show, this prequel to Psycho. Would you be interested in playing it?” I said, “Well, yeah—have you guys written a pilot or anything?” He said, “We’ve written six episodes already.” A&E had ordered six, thinking they were only going to do six, but apparently they loved the six so much, they said, “No, we need four more.” So if you watch the first season, it’s interesting: The first six episodes are kind of a contained arc in and of themselves, and then they reboot and do another four leading from that and do a separate arc. But it feels seamless.
I remember he sent me the first six; I was up until four in the morning—I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t have as much to do on the show at the time, but I was like, “I am definitely going to hop on this beautiful train, because this is just so well written.” The one thing Carlton told me was, “We’re going to tease this dynamic between you and Vera Farmiga’s character Norma Bates in the beginning—she’s going to hate you and stuff, but if there’s chemistry, we’ll write you into a sort of long-playing romance.” Thankfully, I guess there was, and so that’s where that role went.
The first season, he said, “I can’t hire you yet—because of the budget, I can’t hire you as a regular, but you’re going to be in it pretty much every episode.” I think I did eight of the 10. He said, “But you’ll be a regular after that in the second season.” And that’s what happened. So I would just fly back and forth to Vancouver, and then, later on, I relocated to a certain extent—I would still fly back to see the family. But that show was just amazing. Just the writing is extraordinary, but then you have this incredible cast: Vera and Freddie spearheading the show, Max Thieriot, Olivia Cooke. Kenny Johnson came on later as a regular.
So in a weird way, it was the Little Engine That Could with firepower of talent—even though we didn’t have enormous numbers, the network was really behind it. And we had the sense we were probably going to go the distance. I think we actually executed the plan that Kerry and Carlton always had, which was to do only five seasons. I think there was hope from the network that we’d do more, but they went, “No, we don’t want to ruin it. We don’t want to extend it beyond what it should be.” And so they got to shoot their plan, which is always a beautiful ending.
I’ll tell you one strange thing that happened. I remember going to set, landing in Vancouver—I’d only gotten the role three weeks prior—but I decided to grow a mustache. I thought, “I think the sheriff needs a mustache, for sure.” And I showed up on set with this mustache, and Carlton was there—I wanted to show him the ’stache. I thought he needed some mass on him, and I didn’t have three weeks to put on 30 pounds, so I was said, “I think the mustache will add some gravitas to the sheriff.” [Laughs.] I remember the look on his face, like, “Ah, it’s an interesting ’stache. But what if…”—and he showed me a picture of this character I played on a movie called Smokin’ Aces where I had my head completely shaved. And I said, “Okay, I can do that.” He said, “Why don’t we just lose it all? Lose the ’stache and the hair.”
So just things like that; I thought I was married to the ’stache and the bigger hair, and we went completely opposite. Just sort of pivoting, and learning to pivot, and learning to roll with whatever the creative element of the day is. And that, to me, was freeing. And I learned a lot as an actor, as much as I did a director, because of it.
Smokin’ Aces (2006)—“Pasquale Acosta/‘S.A. Gerald Diego’”
NC: That was a wild experience shooting the role, but also getting that part. I was recurring at the time on Strong Medicine, and I get this audition to go in for [writer/director] Joe Carnahan to read for this part. I remember reading for it, —and I remember thinking, I’ve got to fight for this role, because I really want this. He had made a comment, like, “Yeah, you know, maybe if we mess up your hair, I could see you in that role.” And I’m thinking, “If Joe is saying that, I wonder if he’s thinking there’s something with my physicality,” because I’m very clean-cut, I’m coming off playing this businessman, Mark Cuban type. I thought, “Maybe he needs to see me all roughed up.” You know, just a visual. And if nothing else, it’s an excuse to reach out to him and say, “Hey, I’m still here.” So I hired one of the makeup artists on Strong Medicine to mess me up and take pictures of me, and I sent those to Joe. And I got the offer not long after that, which was amazing.
But then it got further complicated, because he wanted me to shave my head, and yet I had this job to do. And they did not want me to have my head shaved, suddenly, on the show. There were scheduling issues too, but the big stipulation was the whole hair thing. And he said, “No, I really want your hair to be shaved off.” And I said, “I mean, I’d love to shave my head off, but I have to fulfill this other obligation.” So, on my own, I just hired Renate [Leuschner]. Renate is one of the biggest wigmakers here in Hollywood. She actually did my mustache on The Tick. I’d never met her, but I’d heard about her, and I reached out to her and I said, “Can you make a wig in two days?” And she said, “Come on over.” And I paid her to do this wig, and, sure enough, I was able to do both. So I learned a lot, not just from the role, but from the business. This notion of, if you really want something, it’s not always going to go your way, but you can make inroads that are unconventional to make things happen.
AVC: Not only that, but you had the honor of being in a to-the-death shootout with Ray Liotta.
NC: [Laughs.] I did. Though my character didn’t actually die. I lived. Ray died! But that’s so funny about that scene; it’s an elevator scene, and Joe had hired these incredible stunt coordinators. One of whom, I only knew his first name, because I think he was British Special Forces. But he really taught us. Joe was going, “I want this to be safe, but I want it to be gnarly, and I want you in this elevator shooting at each other. But I want it to be safe.” And Ray was very cautious about it—as was I, like, “Yeah, let’s make this safe.”
I had this thing where I was going to stab him—this thing coming out of my wrist—and then we’re going to shoot each other, but we can’t point right at each other because it’s too dangerous, naturally, in this confined space. But all week, Ray’s, like, “Okay, let’s work this out.” I go, “Let’s do it!” So we kept working, rehearsing it, for about five days: learning how to use the guns properly—one was coming out of my sleeve—there’s all these technical things we had to work on. Lo and behold, on the day of the shoot, we had really rehearsed this thing to death. The physicality of it. And on the first take, we go: I stab him with the thing, it’s fine, we lean back and start shooting at each other, and Ray starts shooting at me, and one of the shell casings comes out of his gun and just clips him on the nose, cuts him right on the nose. [Laughs.] And it’s, like, “Cut! Stop!” Of all the people to get hurt, it was Ray!
But after that, god bless him, they just put a little makeup on there and we went to town. And then eventually—I think the very last shot—they brought in two stuntmen and finished off the very top shot. I hope I didn’t ruin that for you. [Laughs.]
Ringer (2011-2012)—“Agent Victor Machado”
AVC: This is another show where it seems like: great cast, interesting premise, but just felt like maybe it didn’t get the time to find its footing.
NC: You know, it’s interesting. I think we were doing well. But then, in an effort to protect the show—we were going up against a juggernaut, I don’t know if it was Bachelor, or which show it was at the time. The CW network said, “No, let’s take you off for six weeks while they do this special show.” In the end, when we came back, it really hurt us. Because we lost eyeballs, we lost that momentum. So I think that may have been sort of the beginning of the end in terms of that show. But we had a blast. We shot it here in L.A. I had just come off of Lost, and we had relocated to Hawaii, which was another gift from that show, for that last season. Up until then, I was flying back and forth. But I got to come back and shoot this fun show here in L.A. with my family, so we could all be together as well. So that was a real gift, but, again, short-lived, I think in large part due to the fact that we kind of went off the air a little bit.
The Dark Knight (2008); The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—“Mayor Anthony Garcia”
NC: It’s so funny how that came about. I got a call from my agent, they said, “Look, they want you to go in for this part tomorrow.” And I’d seen Batman Begins, and I loved it, but I was, like, “Wow, that’s tomorrow?” It was this speech—I couldn’t. “No, it’s tomorrow, it has to be tomorrow.” I go, “It can’t be another day?” “No, it can’t be any other day.” So I was, like, “All right, I guess this is tomorrow.” So I worked on it all night. I didn’t expect Chris Nolan to be there, and he was there with Emma Thomas, his wife and producer, and I was, like, “Oh, my god, here we go.”
One of the things that struck me, too, was that he had on a tie, a coat and tie. Later on, I would ask him, because I thought that was incredible: “He’s got a coat and tie?” He had his computer there, and they were looking at the audition through the lens of the computer, which I also thought was so smart, because, ultimately, that’s the image you’re going to see. It’s not a play. So I was trying to take all of this in, and I thought it went well. And then I just remember Chris saying, [In English accent.] “Very nice.” And I thought, Oh, okay. I guess I didn’t get it, but he thought it was nice. So I forgot about it.
At the time, I was doing Lost, and I was flying back and forth—I was recurring on it. I remember it was months later: I was in the jungle, doing a scene with Michael Emerson and a few other cast mates. And I remember getting a call from my manager, saying, “Hey, so listen, Chris Nolan wants to see tape on you.” I go, “What do you mean? For what?” “For the movie.” “What movie?” “The Batman movie.” I said, “That was months ago.” He said, “I know. They want to see tape.” I said, “I think we should send him Smokin’ Aces. It’s just more interesting, even if it has nothing to do with the character.” So we reached out to Joe Carnahan, and, god bless him, he was so amazing—the movie wasn’t out, so he had Universal cut together three or four scenes from the movie, and then I got the offer right after that. It was a trip.
AVC: How was the experience different between the first film and then the second one, four years later?
NC: I didn’t know if I was coming back. In the first one, again, I didn’t know what my role was. It was at a time when—I remember Lost was the first show where I’d seen this—where if you got your script, your name was on every page. So I didn’t know what that was until I quickly realized, “Oh, it’s not that they’re welcoming you to the show, they just don’t want you to photocopy it and disseminate it to the internet.” So for The Dark Knight I didn’t get a full script, I just got red pages. Red pages are harder to photocopy, and they were just my scenes. They were shorter scenes, and they were more contained scenes.
The Dark Knight Rises experience was different in the sense that we shot in Pittsburgh for Dark Knight Rises, whereas for Dark Knight, Chicago doubled for Gotham. I asked Chris why he didn’t go back to Chicago, and he felt he’d shot it out: “I just wanted a different look.” Which made a lot of sense. I tried to pick his brain as much as I could while I was there. I remember in The Dark Knight, I had to give a speech, but it wasn’t scripted. This was different. It was just sort of a few lines that I had to speak while the Joker is setting up to assassinate me. And I remember thinking, “Oh, wow, there’s no speech, but I know that he’s going to have to cut to some of my verbiage,” because it needs cutaways. So I just wrote my own speech, like, oh, I’ll just write some things. And I’d shot another scene, and I get to my hotel room in Chicago, and that night, there’s a giant speech there for the next day. And I’m going, “Oh, I guess my little speech is not going to work.” [Laughs.]
I didn’t know if I was going to have a prompter, so I was up all night memorizing this thing. Like, “Oh, man, I better nail this.” And I remember asking Maggie Gyllenhaal, as we were doing this parade scene, to see if she wouldn’t mind just running lines, or just listening to see if I was getting these lines. God bless her, man, she was so sweet about it. So then I get on this podium, and I see Chris in the audience in my close-up and he’s shooting with the IMAX camera. And there’s 1,200 background extras there, and I’m going, “Wow, so this is nothing.” [Laughs.] And I’m not completely off-book. And I remember doing my first take, and halfway through, I just froze up. Like, “Oh, here we go. This is a deer-in-headlights moment.” And Chris is going, “Nestor, don’t worry; it’s just me.” And I go, “Exactly. It’s just you.” [Laughs.]
But he was so disarming that after that, I completely relaxed. It was a fun experience. Yeah, I did not expect to have to learn a speech the night before. But he said, “Look, you can read it as well if you want. It doesn’t matter.” But I wanted, obviously, to do that. I definitely got the speech in advance for The Dark Knight Rises. And then I got to shoot in Pittsburgh at the Heinz Stadium, which was amazing. [Pause.] I was going to say a blast, but I was going to spare you that pun.
Lost (2007-2010)—“Richard Alpert”
AVC: So much of what people loved about Lost was its high drama and portentous, elevated emotions. But could you share something from set that just made you laugh?
NC: Oh, my god, there’s so many. I will tell you one thing: I couldn’t get over the production value on that show. It was insane, particularly for network TV. I couldn’t get over walking into these caves that I’d only seen onscreen, getting introduced to these caves, leaning on one, and realizing that I’m leaning on styrofoam. [Laughs.] These big statues, all of these caves, were all beautifully crafted out of styrofoam. And I remember asking the producers, “What’s going on? This is incredible.” They’re like, “Every piece of styrofoam that is shipped to Hawaii comes to our set.” So those are the first things I remember noticing, about just how productions get around building these monstrous sets. They find and improvise ingenious ways of realizing the writers’ vision given the budgets. That was sort of eye-opening to me.
When I got the episode that was my backstory, “Ab Aeterno,” I remember Carlton called me before and said, “Listen, I’m going to send you a script that we’ve been working on. It’s your backstory that I think you’re really going to like and I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with it.” And I remember getting this script and loving it, thinking, “Oh, my god, this is incredible.” And then I realized that I’ve got to gallop in a number of scenes. And I go, “Oh, my god, I do not know how to ride a horse.” [Laughs.] I mean, at camp maybe, when I was 9, but I’ve got to gallop, and jump off the horse. And they asked me, “Do you ride?” I go, “No, no.” And thankfully they had somebody there to help me—two or three days of crash course in riding. That was just painful physically. I didn’t know how hard it was to ride, especially when you ride in the incorrect way. And then I remember actually galloping on cobblestone, going, “I’m going to go over. I’m going to fly over this horse’s head.” [Laughs.] Thankfully, I didn’t.
But it was a monstrous episode. We had more time than most to do that episode, because it was period, and it was sort of its own contained storyline for the most part. But I remember there was a scene where this boar attacks me on the ship, The Black Rock. And I’m thinking, “Okay, that’ll be interesting. Probably CGI.” Because they CGI-ed the smoke monster. I get there on the day, and there was a wild boar on the set. And I go, “Okay, it’ll just be the boar, and they’ll get it to run over, and then I’ll step in, and they’ll cut it together and stitch it together.” No. No, I had to be in the frame for one of the wide shots. And I’m thinking, “Okay, so what’s going to happen here?” Because I’m chained here and this thing is supposed to come at me. I go, “What’s going to stop this thing from just impaling me?” And there was a couple wranglers there—they were on the sides—and they were, like, “We got you.” I’m going, “Do you? You’re really far away!” [Laughs.]
It was safe. But if you see my face—I was genuinely scared out of my mind. But they definitely had my back. And the irony was that the boar wouldn’t charge, so they had to sort of do it in different takes. But I remember thinking, like, “Oh, my god, I’m going to die.” [Laughs.] Richard is not immortal!
House (2005)—“Jeffrey Reilich” Century City (2004)—“Tom Montero”
AVC: You’ve done a number of one-off guest appearances on shows, but this one seems memorable.
NC: Yes. I had worked with [series creator] David Shore previously, oddly enough. He had written on a show called Century City right before that—we only did nine episodes; it was a mid-season replacement. Great cast: Viola Davis was in there, Ioan Gruffudd, who I would work with later on Ringer, Hector Elizondo, who I would later work with on Cane. It was a futuristic show about lawyers in Century City—I think it was 2030. Amazing what they guessed the world would look like in 2030 to what it looks like now, only 10 years off.
So that was short-lived, but then the producer Katie Jacobs called me and said, “Look, we’re doing this show.” I think it had already started airing—it was the first season, the critical acclaim was enormous, but the ratings weren’t supporting it. It was sort of, like, oh, this thing’s probably not going to go. But of course, I was, like, “Yeah, I’ll come in and do that.” And working with Hugh Laurie was awesome. I didn’t know that he was British. He kept in character on and off takes, and his accent was amazing, and I had no idea. I just remember what a gracious guy he was—an incredible lead, and so accommodating to everybody. So I loved that experience. And, lo and behold, the show would later move on to a different time slot and just blow up. And then the whole world got to see what an enormous talent he and the other cast were.
But it’s interesting hopping on a show where it’s low-profile, and then you see the difference when it’s high-profile in the sense that there’s a huge following. As was the case later on with Lost. I hopped on that incredible juggernaut of a moving train. In a weird way, there’s a level of comfort in going to a show that there aren’t that many eyeballs on, because it sort of frees you up—it takes a little bit of the onus off.
Suddenly Susan (1996-2000)—“Luis Rivera”
NC: I credit that role and that show for basically giving me a career. Really, that show opened the door for me, certainly in TV. I’d done Muscle, but again, that was a show that didn’t get many eyeballs. I knew going into this show that it was going to have so much attention, given the time slot—we were between Seinfeld and ER. So you could basically put snow there, and it would have gotten 20 million viewers. I think we opened at something like 27 million viewers. It might have been higher; it was a big number. And we stayed in the 20s throughout that season. And then the back nine, I think we moved between Friends and Seinfeld, which is not a shabby move to make.
That, to me, was eye-opening, because it was such a high-profile show, which also meant that it got a lot of scrutiny. So I definitely felt the pressure cooker of that experience, and initially because there was just this pressure to make the show sort of live up to this incredible lineup. There’s no question that opened the doors for me. And not everybody gets that kind of luck and that kind of opportunity to hop on a show that gets that attention, that opens doors—there’s so much talent here in Hollywood. There’s just so much that, unfortunately, not everyone gets those opportunities. And I know how lucky I was to get that shot.
Again, that role really wasn’t written that way on the page. I went in and sort of created this character based on a friend of mine and I brought this character to the role and the writers took to it, as did the network and the studio. So thankfully that worked out. But that was the beginning for me of having a career—my goal was always to have a career where I could raise a family. And certainly I credit that show for giving me that.