It’s long been said that TV makes stars, not the other way around. But that doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying to have it the other way around. A year after my first column examining the timing of A-listers making the leap from big screen to small, there’s a whole new crop of performers ready for their close-ups — and all the career-risking scrutiny that entails. Once again, I’ve graded each actor on the Goldilocks scale: Are they coming to TV too soon, too late, or is their timing just right? Though many of these shows are still months away from premiering, there are still predictions to be made and a whole lot of history to serve as a guide. For every Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, there’s a Michael J. Fox in The Michael J. Fox Show. (Among the lessons: Always reach for the craziest wig, and never, ever agree to put your name in the title.) Projects that look like face-saving lifeboats in theory can, in practice, turn out to be colossal shipwrecks. Don’t believe me? Just ask John Malkovich, currently doing a Tony-winning version of the dead man’s float on NBC’s Crossbones. With that in mind, here’s my completely subjective guide to whether 2014’s medium-switching stars are likely to sink or swim.
Last Seen on TV: As Janie Starks in Their Eyes Were Watching God (ABC TV movie), 3/6/05
The Project: Extant (CBS)
Making the move from movies to TV isn’t as simple as collecting paychecks and having your assistant source servings of gluten-free humble pie. These days, the landing spot matters just as much as the decision to jump in the first place. Since taking home the trophy for Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry has been stuck in the same post-Oscar purgatory as many fair-to-middling winners before her: deemed unable to open a movie on her own, yet unwilling to accept supporting parts below her pay grade. (I call this the “Adrien Brody.”) TV has long made sense as a destination for Berry, whose cinematic highlights thus far in 2014 include getting impaled in a summer blockbuster. The question is how to get there.
Berry is a unique talent. She has the looks and charisma of a movie star, even if she doesn’t have the bankability of one. This makes it impossible to cram her into just any small-screen project. It’s not that she doesn’t necessarily have the chops to tackle something transformative — she won that Monster’s Ball Oscar for a reason — it’s that audiences haven’t displayed much inclination to see her try.1 (Whether TV’s ongoing Difficult Men factory has any dark, knotty female leads on offer is another story, and a tragic one at that.) Also, at age 47, Berry doesn’t particularly need to reinvent her career. She just needs to continue it. The trick would be locating a part as broad as it is deep, something that feels like the type of movie that audiences expect Berry to be making, only one that costs nothing and requires no trip to the theater.
For proof of that, please see Things We Lost in the Fire or Frankie & Alice. Go ahead. You would be among the first.
Remarkably, Berry’s reps found her just such a part, as astronaut Molly Woods in CBS’s summer “event series” Extant. The show, which debuted on CBS a week ago to decent, if unspectacular, numbers, is a prime example of what I’ve taken to calling TV-plus: a broadcast effort tarted up with cash, special effects, and marketing to feel somehow more weighty than it actually is. (Other examples of TV-plus: CBS’s Under the Dome, NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Fox’s upcoming Gracepoint.) What’s even more impressive to me, in the early going, is that Extant isn’t just worthy of Berry’s talents — she’s particularly good when she lets herself go moony, letting unfathomable events roll over her face like a lightning storm — it’s straight-up worthy. Though not nearly as ambitious as many of the summer’s other big premieres, it beats them handily when it comes to basic entertainment.
The plot is a riveting, if recycled, grab bag of Rosemary’s Baby and Gravity: After a 13-month solo stay on a privately run space station, Berry’s Woods returns to Earth only to discover she’s pregnant. It’s the sort of story that takes flight only if it has a lead strong enough to carry both the necessary genre shenanigans and our attention, something Berry manages with aplomb. Even better is Extant’s hyper-precise and clever production design, which makes its near future of android children, driverless cars, and all-iPad-everything look downright plausible. (The only thing on this show I’m not buying yet is Goran Visnjic’s cardigans.) This is the rare step down that feels like a step in the right direction.
The Verdict: Just right
Last Seen on TV: As Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway & Gellhorn (HBO TV movie), 5/28/12
The Project: The Knick (Cinemax)
There’s something to be said for actors who refuse to give people what they want. Whether it’s scruples or suicide, I find it downright admirable when someone whose job it is to read other people’s words refuses to play by the book. In 1998, British actor Clive Owen drew global acclaim for the way he filled out a tuxedo in the brilliantly dark crime film Croupier. Though Owen’s career had been going just fine, with regular bookings on English TV, his Hollywood future suddenly seemed both bright and inevitable. One way or another, it would also involve tuxedos.
But the taciturn Owen has resisted the snug cummerbund of global celebrity. Hotly tipped to replace Pierce Brosnan as 007 — again, that tuxedo — Owen took himself out of the running early. Instead of quippy and suave, he doubled down on the dark and dour: as a furious orphan in Gosford Park, a doomed assassin in The Bourne Identity, a cuckold in Closer. Owen’s best performances relied on the heavy personal gravity that would have only weighed down a zippy quip-machine like Bond. In Children of Men, nothing — not even open warfare in the streets — communicated dystopia as keenly as Owen’s anguished face.
There are limits to brooding, of course, and pitfalls, too — as anyone who saw Owen attempt to charm his way through the promising but flawed Duplicity can tell you: It was like watching Atlas attempt to tango. By the time Owen washed up in HBO’s dreadful Hemingway & Gellhorn, his serious shtick felt less like resistance and more like giving up.
Enter Steven Soderbergh, who wisely cast Owen as the unexpected lead in his altogether surprising first foray into TV. The Knick, which I’ll be reviewing in full soon, is a grand and unsettling historical drama about physicians in turn-of-the-20th-century Manhattan. Owen, replete with a scalpel-sharp mustache, is John Thackery, a gifted surgeon and towering asshole whose groundbreaking attempts to modernize medicine are often undercut by his tendency to inject cocaine into his toes. There’s a fine ensemble around Owen to help lighten the load, but his real partner is Soderbergh’s dancing camera. With the lens darting from one period detail to another — an electric light buzzing in a disease-riddled hallway, a gush of blue-black blood pooling beneath a barely anesthetized patient — Owen is free to burrow into his character’s darkness. He’s the plunger, not the needle, and the show is all the better for it.
The Verdict: Just right
Last Seen on TV: As Herman Mankiewicz in RKO 281 (HBO TV movie), 11/20/99
The Project: Crossbones (NBC)
When I included Malkovich in the first iteration of this column, I had no idea the debut of Crossbones was more than a year away. From that impossible vantage point, I was under the impression that whatever the merits of Crossbones itself — a questionable pirate epic captained by Neil Cross, the previously landlocked creator of Luther — Malkovich would undoubtedly be the best thing in it. I assumed his going-for-the-jugular gusto would be able to keep nearly any ship from sinking.
Now that the show’s first and, inevitably, last season has almost finished airing, it’s remarkable to note how wrong I was. Crossbones itself was fine: an inoffensive, throwback entertainment that often buckled just when it should have swashed. But Malkovich — where to begin! I hope that tapes of this historically awful performance can be buried like treasure beneath the white sands of the Caribbean so that future generations may one day unearth them. With their highly advanced brains, perhaps they will be able to figure out the origins of Malkovich’s truly insane accent and the decision-making behind the implementation of it. As Blackbeard, a pirate lord who practices acupuncture and obsesses over clocks, Malkovich appeared to be phoning in his performance from some as-yet-undiscovered European nation, one untroubled by diction and uninterested in comprehension. Whether it was the work of a man desperate to swim away from a wreck or an indulged artiste unaware the exigencies of television don’t allow for limitless takes, we’ll never know. Just be warned that, in Crossbones, the once-great John Malkovich has sailed far past the bounds of mortal ken. Last year I said this part was too soon for someone of his stature. Now it doesn’t take a roomful of clocks to realize it’s actually far …
The Verdict: Too late
Last Seen on TV: As Marcus Portius Cato in Caesar (TNT TV movie), 2002
The Project: Peter Pan Live! (NBC)
Look, Christopher Walken is a national treasure. He should be encouraged to follow his muse wherever it may take him, even if that path is often rocky. Though best known for his wiseguy roles, Walken is actually happiest when given the chance to sing and dance. His history of live performance on NBC? Also impeccable.
So why am I down on the announcement that Walken will be filling the frills of Captain Hook for NBC’s upcoming live performance of the classic 1954 musical Peter Pan? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t just seem like a gimmick — it is a gimmick. Though Walken’s love for theater isn’t cynical at all, NBC’s wholehearted embrace of Broadway mostly is. That’s why famous person Carrie Underwood got the lead in the surprise smash The Sound of Music Live! instead of actual musical genius Audra McDonald. Casting the 71-year-old Walken in a broadly comic role in what will inevitably be a camped-up live broadcast just seems iffy, with the potential to veer into cruelty. There are so many better landing spots for Walken if he’s really interested in doing TV, from the sublime (can you imagine him as a lead in a second season of Fargo?) to the necessary and ridiculous (I would jump back into Ray Donovan in a heartbeat if Walken would agree to go toe-to-toe with Jon Voight for a season). Maybe I’m just sensitive here, but I like Walken best when he’s the one in charge of deciding if people should laugh at him or not.
The Verdict: Too soon
Last Seen on TV: As Dr. Isobel “Izzie” Stevens on Grey’s Anatomy, 1/21/10
The Project: State of Affairs (NBC)
TV fans are historically a forgiving bunch. It’s something they have in common with minor league baseball enthusiasts or, apparently, the citizens of Akron, Ohio. None of these people begrudge favorite sons when they move on to bigger and presumably better things. In fact, the reaction is very often the opposite: Not only did no one resent George Clooney for checking out of ER, most viewers actively cheered him. One of ours is finally making it! (Even if “it” = a movie with sculpted, rubber nipples.)
Of course, that happened in the dark ages of the 1990s, when TV’s deep-seated inferiority complex was based on actual inferiority. These days, it takes a lot for actors to consider leaving the comforting womb of episodic television — especially when so many A-listers are clamoring to get back in. This helps provide some context for the vitriol directed at Katherine Heigl, an actress who was America’s sweetheart while balancing Grey’s Anatomy with rom-com success and America’s punching bag when she bailed on the former in pursuit of the latter. Though accusations of her “difficulty” deep-sixed both her film career and her personal reputation, I’ve never thought this was a fair way to consider Heigl’s talent. Lots of beloved performers have treated the catering crew appallingly. It’s called acting for a reason. Heigl’s greater sin seems to have been misunderstanding her own very real — and, I would argue, very limited — charms. She was exceptional on Grey’s, her natural flintiness adding a spark to what was otherwise a bar of particularly expensive soap. She was similarly good sparring with Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, a standard-issue rom-com tarted up with pinkeye jokes. She only really started taking heat around the time she started packing it.
So I’m not optimistic for Heigl’s much-hyped TV return in State of Affairs, a sort of Scandal meets Homeland–lite set to premiere this fall on NBC. Not only does it reek of desperation — here she is slinking back to the small town she famously spurned just four years ago — it seems like a poor fit. It’ll be tough to accept Heigl as a hard-charging CIA analyst with a focus on international affairs, especially when she’s so much better engaging in domestic ones. Heigl isn’t wrong to seek refuge in television. Her mistake was leaving in the first place.
The Verdict: Too late
Last Seen on TV: As Herman Tarnower in Mrs. Harris (HBO TV movie), 2/25/06
The Project: Tut (Spike TV)
Of all the great English actors working today, few seem as unconcerned with legacy as Sir Ben Kingsley. His IMDb page reads like the cardiogram of an adrenaline junkie, rising and falling in wild, vertiginous spikes: from the highs of Gandhi and Sexy Beast to the impossible lows of Bloodrayne and The Love Guru. So while Sir Ben’s choice of where, when, and how to make his return to television is certainly strange, it’s also not particularly surprising. One of the few movies he hasn’t appeared in could more or less serve as his professional autobiography.
Still, signing on to topline the first scripted series from bro-factory Spike is a head-scratcher. Tut, from the questionable brain trust behind the controversial Kennedys miniseries, will seek to tell the story of an Egyptian ruler who died more than 3,000 years ago and who was last popular about 1,500 years ago, when Steve Martin recorded this song. Kingsley will take the role of Ay, the sort of wise and whispery adviser character the Oscar winner could play in his sleep — and recently has. (The part sounds much more fun when you imagine it being said aloud like a T.I. ad lib.) Tut may well be great when it debuts in the fall of 2015, and if so I’ll end up eating my words like a juicy Nile perch. I’m not objecting to it so much as I am to the space it’s taking in Kingsley’s schedule. If Sir Ben were serious about taking on a challenging TV role — and there’s absolutely no evidence that he is — it’s dizzying to think of the possibilities. Wouldn’t Kingsley absolutely slay as a conniving lord on Game of Thrones? Or as a KGB mastermind on The Americans? Or as the prime minister of the U.K. on Veep? Or as just about anyone on anything other than Ay on Tut? (Mindy Lahiri’s latest silver fox? Hannibal’s newest slice of ham? A replacement chair for Shakira on The Voice?) There aren’t many actors who can improve anything they appear in. A paycheck can’t be worth this much lost potential.
The Verdict: Too soon
Last Seen on TV: As Lynda P. Frazier on United States of Tara, 5/17/10
The Project: How to Get Away With Murder (ABC)
Sometimes the move to TV is more than a simple binary. Viola Davis hasn’t crashed out of movies, nor has she found the part of a lifetime on the small screen. What’s fueling her turn to television is an opportunity long denied her, no matter how many accolades and Oscar nominations she’s rung up: the chance to be a star. Davis said as much yesterday to the assembled hordes at the summer TCA press tour. And who can blame her? At a certain point, even the most patient performer will bridle at being asked to play her umpteenth saintly mother or stern, personality-free authority figure. Eventually all actors want to drive the plot, not merely react to it.
And so while the jury remains out on the long-term prospects of How to Get Away With Murder — though as the latest sudsy model to roll off the Shonda Rhimes production line, ABC will give it absolutely every possible opportunity to thrive — it’s already succeeded in giving the supremely talented Davis more freedom than she earned in nearly two decades of moviemaking. As celebrity law professor Annalise Keating, Davis is able to play sexy, dangerous, appealing, appalling, and terrifying all in a single hour. Even better: She looks like she’s having a whole hell of a lot of fun. That a role like this was available to a brilliant African American actress only on television isn’t just a win for the small screen — it is also, to borrow a word you’ll hear a lot in reference to this show, a Scandal.
The Verdict: Just right
Last Seen on TV: As Billy Callahan on Scrubs, 1/25/05
The Project: True Detective … MAYBE (HBO)
Look, I’ll tell you what’s too soon: anyone writing anything about a casting rumor involving True Detective’s second season. HBO is milking this thing for all it’s worth, and the more time we spend ginning up hashtags and daydreaming about potential superstar combos, the less there is left to worry about just what, exactly, the “secret occult history of the United States transportation system” truly is.
But. But. Colin Farrell, you guys! I’ve made my feelings for this grossly underappreciated actor known in the past, but I’m not above doing it again here. Though Farrell has movie-star looks, he wears them like a curse, not a gift. There’s an ocean of anxiety churning just behind those glistening eyes — before Farrell embraced sobriety, it was mostly an ocean of rail whiskey and flopsweat — and no actor alive is as skilled at making mania sympathetic. He’s not showing off, he’s showing everything. Though he’s made some undeniable cheesy choices and is prone to faux-profundity, I stand firm in my declaration of his jittery, unpredictable genius.
In other words, I feel about Colin Farrell the way other people do about True Detective Season 1. Which makes him the perfect choice to play a no-doubt broken man trapped in a no-doubt broken landscape. I may not think much of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing, but the man certainly knows how to put actors in positions to succeed. Few people need that success as much as Colin Farrell, a great actor in search of a worthy role. Handing him a plum part in True D 2: Men Behaving Badly would take us from the highs of the McConnaissance to the peaks of the Farrellevation. Time may be a flat circle, but I wish this rumor would hurry up and get confirmed.
The Verdict: Carcosaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!