This has been a pretty amazing 18 months for you hasn't it, what with the success of 24 and your whirlwind courtship and marriage to co-star Xander Berkeley? It definitely has, it's been just like the show - one big adrenaline rush. But I would say by far the best thing that's happened was meeting Xander. Having said that I think I've had enough momentous changes in my life for a while.
How did 24 originally come your way - was it shot as a pilot and then picked up? It's like any show that they try to get made in Hollywood, you take the pilot by itself because you never know if it's going to go further than that. And as an entity within itself it was an interesting project, it set up a lot of intrigue as to where all these characters would go. We got to explore one hour of a day that had the potential to be very interesting, and I think it set up a lot of very interesting relationships that could be explored. And on top of that you got to work in a realm that was sort of unknown. So I was intrigued on many levels just doing the pilot. Then when it got picked up it was exciting to see where it was going, you remained close to it because you never know what people are going to respond to, what the network will feel confident in. You just do your job and hope you do it well, not thinking about the results.
When did you realise the phenomenon you were a part of? I think when I saw the first episode put together I realised that we had really created something different, and I got excited and started to become even more intrigued by it. I wanted it to do well from that moment, and to continue on. I think what [director] Stephen Hopkins established in the format and the look of it was really thrilling to see, I wanted to continue telling that story from that point onward.
So because of all this was the writing done very far in advance of what was being shot? They were basically writing it as they went along. They projected certain plot lines I think, but a lot of things changed through the course of the year. Relationships changed, peoples' jobs changed and became more clear. Even key plot points that they had thought of, like the assassination attempt on Senator Palmer, was supposed to happen originally around show 18. They began to see that they couldn't extend it for that long, it was coming up to show 7 and they realised they would have to do it sooner otherwise they would lose the audience. So they had to start turning in a different direction with that story.
It is incredible that a show can peak so often during one storyline, isn't it? Those dramatic peaks seem to happen all the time on our show, and I think it's because they've set up so many interesting relationships, and have the potential for so many guest stars to come in and throw a loop on these peoples' lives that they can sustain that intrigue, and so many climaxes. Doing it this way keeps you in the moment, that's for sure. Each hour explores the subtleties of emotion and action that happen. Usually in an hour you might get two minutes to describe the agony you feel from an event, but in this you get the whole episode to experience pain and recover. You learn to extend things in real time, which of course is the way it happens in life.
Is it true you were filming season one during September 11 2001? We'd just started, we were on about episode 3 or 4. It seemed more and more from that point that 24 had started to mirror the world we were living in. You just have to see the second season to see how close it is to what's happening right now. I don't know if someone tapped into some kind of universal pulse, or if they are consciously mirroring what's going on in the world, but it is very pertinent to the times we are living in.
How did you get in the spirit of the piece, were you able to do a lot of research? I tried to jump start myself into the technology that we'd be employing by renting Enemy of the State. That was just to get a sense of the NSA's invasion into our privacy and to understand the tools they use for their investigations. That gave me a sense of just how much information we have at our fingertips. Things like this can also feed the paranoia in us all.
Xander Berkeley (George Mason)
When did you and Sarah know that there was something special between you? I'd say it was pretty clear right from the start that this 'thing' was of a different order altogether, to anything either of us had experienced. Love at first sight is such a cliché that one doesn't know what it means. It was certainly intrigue and fascination and attraction, and an interest in getting to know each other as friends. But at that point we were inclined to keep the relationship to ourselves. It might have made other people uncomfortable. And it was good preparation for our roles, practising the art of keeping secrets!
Did you get to do very much research? One of the most interesting characters we talked to was a guy who has a big background in British special forces, who now does freelance security in Los Angeles. He's worked with all kinds of people at all different levels and I've had some really disturbing conversations with him. We both read a lot of books, Sarah was more vigilant than I was because she was a series regular. We also watched all those cool spy movies from the 1960s.
What was your feeling going in to what was essentially a pilot for a show that might never come to anything? My character was not a regular, and I didn't think he was really expected back, even if the show did get picked up. You never know with a pilot. The nice thing is it was just offered to me, so I didn't have to jump through hoops or think about it too much. I was very pleasantly surprised when it came to doing it that Kiefer Sutherland was signed on and Stephen Hopkins would be directing. He was so smart in the approach he was taking to it that it was good fun working on it. I was happy to be called back in. They made the character recur throughout the last twelve episodes of the first season after a scattered few in the first half. And then they made him a regular in the second season. I've always had more of a penchant for film and have never really pursued a career in TV, but I must say I've thoroughly enjoyed this.
The idea of shooting a linear story and doing it apparently in real time is presumably much more difficult than it sounds. What about matching scenes shot days apart, and varying weather conditions and so on? The good thing is it was shot in Los Angeles, so the weather conditions never changed. The next challenge is how to make the actors look like they've just gone through a harrowing day rather than the weeks of filming we'd actually done. That's why they have to make the days so harrowing, to justify us looking so bad by the end! They shoot everything out of sequence in movies all the time, sometimes it takes place over a short period of time, sometimes it takes place over months. It's almost as difficult to keep track of that as it is to keep track of something like 24. At least on this we didn't have to worry about putting on the wrong costume for a scene. It was a case of 'was my tie this loose, or a little tighter?'. It was a case micro management and attention to detail. The continuity lady had the hardest job of all because everything had to dovetail so immediately from one thing to the next. There's a lot of complexity of course in stringing 24 episodes together, backing them up against one another so that it flows smoothly.
What's the mood like on set generally? I can't imagine a better profession for meeting a like minded group of people. On every film the cast and crew feels like a band of gypsies who come together for this time and this experience. You move on with a great sense of camaraderie and familiarity, but this one has been really great. It's just an extraordinary group of people, the entire cast and crew, and all the post production technicians too. We get along so incredibly well that we all feel incredibly lucky.
Is it odd acting scenes for one episode when the real motivation for your character might be unknown, and not discovered until a much later, as yet unwritten episode? I'm still of the confirmed belief that actors do their best work when they have the optimum amount of information. I find it a little bit condescending when the view is expressed that they do better work when things are kept from them. But who knows?
You seem to be one of the hardest working actors in the business, with dozens of films to your credit. Is it difficult for a working character actor to constantly come up with something challenging for yourself and surprising for the audience? You make a mark with one thing and then it's difficult to erase that mark - for better or worse. It's probably the same everywhere. Those who do the hiring generally want to hire a known commodity. They hire somebody to do something that they've seen them do a version of before. You're always trying to slip out from those constraints, and stretch the borders a bit. I try to never play the same character twice, and do as many physical and vocal variations, to bring as many different qualities to a role as I can. Generally speaking I'm drawn more to a character who's a bit disreputable than I am to one that's boring just because it's more exciting to play. But once you've played enough shady characters they don't want to hire you to play the good guy any more because they think everybody is associating you with bad guys. The nice thing about 24 is that it starts out that way, but continually reveals new levels and qualities and dimensions of the character. And that certainly goes into the new season, as it makes him so much more appealing than he started out.
You do seem to have one of those very familiar faces that people would be able to identify without necessarily being able to name. Would you agree? I consider myself more familiar than famous, and I enjoy being able to fly under the radar as it were. I can don the cloak of invisibility and be the observer rather than the observed, because I'm apt to stay more in touch with the minutiae of human behaviour wherever I go. I do get the comment 'have you been in here before?', 'I know you'. That can be embarrassing, because then you have to say you don't know them and that sounds rude. There are those who have a few drinks in them who will go, 'Dude! You're in the movies! Just give us one ... we're all beating ourselves up trying to think of one'. So you name one and they go: 'no that's not it!'.
Has the success of 24 changed that? Do you now get recognised on the street more often? After years and years of managing to fly under the radar I've suddenly found myself hitting it, and sending out bleeps of media recognition. Suddenly people knew my name, knew the show and knew me from the show instead of the odd cinephile knowing who I was. And because Sarah and I travel around together so much a lot of time we do get recognised, though thankfully it doesn't feel as embarrassing or personal, it's a case of 'we love your show, thanks very much, goodbye'. They don't really interfere. And 24 viewers tend to be really cool and smart people by and large. It's a pleasure meeting them.
Can you describe your first meeting with Sarah? We just met on the set. Here I had been for years very apprehensive about doing a TV series and even more apprehensive about getting married, but I did both and have been very pleasantly surprised with each.
Dennis Haysbert (Senator David Palmer)
Can you remember when, once the series had been commissioned, you knew for sure that it was going to run its whole course? Well it was nip and tuck for a while whether we were going to have the entire 24 episodes. We got up to the tenth or eleventh episodes and we still hadn't heard. I'm sure they had a fail safe plan, we could have ended it at 13 if we had to, just have a big bomb go off or something. But as it happened they kept us on.
Is shooting 24 any different from shooting anything else, given the unique way the story plays out to the audience? It may just be a little different because it is so linear. We can literally go into a sequence and tell the truth at this moment, not knowing that down the line it could turn out to be a lie. That's kind of like life, you really don't know what's going to happen. We only get two scripts at a time, so that arc is constantly being built. It's like a serial, with a past.
How did you get the role of Palmer? I auditioned for the role. I just knew I had to be a part of it. I kind of knew it was for me, it just had that feeling.
Is there a typical Dennis Haysbert script you get sent, or go after? "No, I always think that I can do about anything and I'll always try to live up to that. I'm always trying to get my agents to bend a story or bend an audition part to my point of view. Sometimes they are successful at that and sometimes they're not.
Are you conscious, because of your status in the industry and your profile on 24, that you are seen as a role model to young black actors everywhere? I think by pursuing my career in the way I try to I am being a role model of sorts. I don't mind that, I think that's great. If I'm doing something that they're going to aspire to, something that will get them out of their situation, then great. But I also think that I can inspire other people simply by human nature. That is something I love having the opportunity to do. I knew what I wanted to do when I was a kid, though it wasn't until my early teens that the idea finally manifested itself in me. After it did I looked back to when I was about 9 or 10, and remembered the kind of movies I'd watch. All the old movies from the 40s and 50s were on television then and I'd sit at home and see them, and they were all classics.
Did you have a hero or a role model of your own back then? I very much enjoyed Sidney Poitier's stuff, because nobody else was doing anything remotely like it, black or white. Where everybody else was being told 'no' this guy was being told 'yes'. I said then that I wanted to be where this guy was, I wanted to do the kind of movies that this guy did because they were colour blind. His colour was incidental to what he was doing. That's what I strive for, I strive to uplift the whole human race, not just one race. I want to inspire everyone.
You have had a very successful career to date, acting in a wide variety of movies. Is it possible to quantify what difference 24 has made to your career? I think I'm more recognisable now within the industry than I've ever been thanks to 24. And I'm very thankful for that. People always have stopped me on the street from time to time, but now they're asking me what's going to happen next. They'll say 'you're okay, I hope you survive', or 'I'd vote for you'. I say 'bless your heart, but I ain't gonna run for President anytime soon'. I still have a little of my life to myself. Becoming a presidential candidate not only is my life under the microscope but my entire family's life is too.
You've played a lot of sportsmen in movies - was a sporting career ever on the cards for you? I considered it, but it was my mother early on who stimulated my cultural interests. I started to play musical instruments until I found theatre. And that really fit me. There were times on stage where the feeling I would get would be absolutely euphoric. It was like a high, I said then that I really liked that. So I always jump at the chance to get back into theatre even though it is a luxury to do in terms of the time it takes. You get an immediate gratification from it, just like sport. You can feel the buzz of an audience, and yet be able to hear a pin drop. You know they're out there, while you're doing what you do. And you can tell you have them by how still they are. Then when you leave the stage and those lights come up and the applause begins, it fills you up.
How did you pursue your ambitions back then? I just started doing as many different plays as I could, trying to go as far, emotionally and psychologically as I could. I did well enough to get an audition and ultimately be accepted at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts.
Have you ever been able to meet Sidney Poitier since then and express your feelings to him personally? I have met Sidney Poitier. Nothing short of working with him will do really, but I'll take what I've been given. To be in his presence and to tell him how I feel about him, I was also fortunate to be included in the tribute for the Oscars. To be included in that was the culmination of a dream.