Richard Brooks and Clayton Rohner:
Heaven Can Wait
Imagine Good and Evil as football teams, with equivalent grounding in offensive strategy and defensive maneuvers. The Almighty and the Prince of Darkness sit in their respective box seats watching, but they leave managing the players to coaches and agents, who think like the mere mortals they train. Since the uniforms are virtually identical, you can't always tell who plays for which team. Someone's immortal soul is at stake on every play, and death is a constant danger, but it's a lot of fun...once you get used to the dirt.
G vs. E, the new supernatural comedy-thriller on USA, offers a roughly similar view of the balance of power. The muddled souls who play for the G team are even coached by NFL star Deacon Jones...the man who coined the phrase "quarterback sack." Set on the gritty, retro side of Hollywood, G vs. E follows the escapades of Chandler Smythe, a fallen angel drafted by the good guys - with eternal redemption as a contract incentive.
Chandler is paired with Henry McNeil, a veteran who teaches the rookie how to play offense for "the Big Guy Upstairs." Their job is to track down citizens trapped in Faustian bargains with morlocks, the minions of...oh, could it be...well, I don't know...SATAN! If Chandler and Henry can't get the rookies on the E team to break their contracts, they tackle hard - and if necks snap, well, that's the breaks.
"It's not like we have some kind of great hatred for evil, we just recognize them as the other team, and it's our job to stop them - we just happen to be the good," explains actor Richard Brooks, who plays Henry. "The G are not perfect and the E are not completely evil, if things were different I'd be on the other side. That's one of the things I like about it."
Yet Brooks and co-star Clayton Rohner, who plays Chandler, both sound delighted to be playing for the good guys. Enthusiastic fans of series creators the Pate brothers, of co-star Marshall Bell, and of each other, the two have found that saving souls generates a lot more black comedy than one might expect.
The Rain King
Dealing with the supernatural is nothing new for Murder One star Rohner, who played reverse-aging Admiral Mark Jameson on Star Trek: The Next Generation and phony rainmaker Daryl Moots on The X-Files. He has no problem with the possibility of the existence of demons. "We called Orrin Hatch a morlock!" he reports gleefully. "And Gavin MacLeod," Captain Steubing on The Love Boat.
"We are very fallen angels, we're hanging on by a feather. I don't want them to make us more good, but I wish they'd make the bad guys a little more bad sometimes. Real evil. We have to be careful, because we go very broad, like The Simpsons - we're swinging one way and then we're swinging the other way, but it's an exciting ride."
Rohner signed on after meeting the Pate brothers and renting The Grave, their acclaimed independent film. "I wasn't a hard sell," says the actor. "We had to donate our time and it was kind of a guerilla production, the very first episode we made, no one had bought it. But these guys are great, I liked their vision, so I said, I'll do it. I try not to take jobs based on money - more on who I'm working with."
The show was darker originally - somewhat more like Brimstone, on which Brooks had appeared before signing onto G vs. E. "Richard actually came in after we had done this pilot presentation, and he changed it drastically," Rohner notes. "Richard's so funny that it just changed the feel of the story so damn much."
Rohner believes he was hired because "I'm sort of that Men in Black/Sam Spade kind of thing, Humphrey Bogart-y kind of dress, my hair was always crazy straight up and as a matter of fact, I just wore my street clothes to the audition." Brooks, on the other hand, was hired in part because of his extremely diverse resume and his screen chemistry with Rohner, plus his sense of humor and the retro sensibility he brought to a show which executive producer Josh Pate had pitched as "techno-Blaxploitation."
"There were a lot of good actors coming in, but he had a lot of chops - really strong actor, and he turned out to be the funniest too. His character's name was originally Virgil, but they wanted a name that didn't sound at all black. Henry's an easy name for me because I have a lot of association with it, my dog is named Henry," laughs Rohner.
A student of Lee Strasberg who teaches acting classes despite the fact that he once gave up acting to work as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, Los Angeles native Rohner had some reservations about signing onto a series. The critically-acclaimed Murder One never took off, a fact Rohner blames on the network's failure to give it time to develop.
"Look at JAG, it was at the bottom of the ratings and now it's in the top 20. X Files started out dead last," he points out. "I think Brimstone was probably very good in its production, but it got watered down. The networks being so fastidious, your art becomes about pleasing the group, it becomes very commodified, you revert to the lowest common denominator."
"But when I got involved with these guys and USA, they gave us so much leeway, it's like making a mini-independent film every week," he adds. "For me, it's the best possible situation."
In addition to using split screens, unusual camera angles, and lighting unlike any other network series, the producers allow the two leads a lot of flexibility in the dialogue. "A lot of our scenes are completely improvised - they'll literally write on the page, 'Chandler and Henry get in car, drive to house, improvise,'" reveals Rohner. "They'll just say a couple of things that we have to include, and we'll riff. We do it six or seven times, and they pick the best pieces. Richard and I have a really good rapport, so it's really easy to let us just go off. And I ad lib in a lot of the scenes, because I have to kind of make it my own."
After Law and Order
For Brooks, the opportunity to insert his own sense of humor was a major reason for accepting the role of Henry. Best known for dramatic appearances on NYPD Blue, ER, Chicago Hope, and Hill Street Blues, in addition to his regular role as Assistant D.A. Paul Robinette on Law and Order, the actor was anxious to take on a comedy.
"I was really attracted to the fact that it was funny. It had a lot of humor and action, and was more about the relationship of the characters. I thought that would allow me more avenues to act and to interact with my partner - just have more fun," he states. "I saw it as a great chance to play on the buddy comedy kind of relationship within the action thriller. I was really influenced by Rush Hour and 48 Hours - in the middle of trying to solve the case, the guys have this sort of bickering relationship and wisecracks. I really wanted a chance to do that."
The fact that the show shoots in Los Angeles, where he works as a director and a musician when he's not acting, was appealing to Brooks as well. "It's perfect, I'm ten minutes away from my house! We may be the only show shooting here," he jokes, referring to the recent shift of television production to Canada and Europe - a situation which has caused great stress in the Screen Actors' Guild. "We were lucky we made a good deal with the unions, because Hollywood is such a part of this show. Fighting evil in Vancouver just isn't the same."
An alumnus of Interlochen Arts Academy and the Circle in the Square repertory company, Brooks likes playing retro. "We definitely wanted to change my clean-cut image from Law and Order - I really wanted to go as far away from that as I could, because people still have such a strong image of me from that show. I had wanted to be perceived as a real dramatic actor, but now it's hard for me to bring in another side of what I like to do, like music and comedy. Most of the time everyone tries to go the other way - you have a lot of comics trying to do drama."
After great visibility on a serious drama, how does it feel to film an episode with a title like "Men Are From Mars, Women Are Evil"? "I was looking for a series where I wouldn't get bored, where it would continue to be a challenge as an actor, and this is a good showcase for what I can do," Brooks notes. "I tried to create Henry as this '70s composite man who wants to be a soul singer like Marvin Gaye. He admired the Shaft and all the Black Panthers and Richard Pryor. He wanted to be an actor/singer/karate man, a ladies' man, getting into a lot of trouble along the way, but basically being a good guy."
"We want to have fun with the possibilities of saving souls as creative talent," he adds. "For us it's a creative window to do just about anything. There's one episode that's keyed in on my character about country clubs being dens of morlocks. When I go in there to play golf, there's a whole level of racism. We kind of make a big satire on a Tiger Woods kind of guy, Cougar Pines. They goad him into a skins game."
But where Rohner says he would like the show to deal with more serious issues, Brooks wants the humor to remain at the forefront. "I think people want to be entertained - when you sit down, time is precious, and laughter is the best thing," he says. "When you put actors like Clayton and me, you're going to have a different kind of comedy - not like a sitcom, it's cool humor. I love working with Clayton Rohner. We get to ad-lib, we get a lot of leeway. It has been a real collaboration, and Clayton and I seemed to quickly have this rapport where we could just play."
The director and producer of Johnny B. Good, which has a video and pay-per-view distribution deal for next year, Brooks says he has learned a great deal from the Pate brothers and hopes to have a chance to direct on G vs. E.
"It's a little difficult when you're in almost every scene to prep the shows, but I'm learning so much from them as filmmakers, because it's so opposite from the traditional TV rules as far as the jump cuts, the low angles, the extreme wide-angle lenses, split screens. They're very inventive. I feel like they're like scholars even though they're young guys; they really know their stuff, and you have to admire that."
Like Rohner, Brooks admires the writers' willingness to take risks, like killing off Emmanuel Lewis' morlock character despite his apparent youth. "The show is totally on the edge, it's totally risky, we're not following any traditional kind of television," observes the actor. "We just want to push the whole thing. Anything can happen. We're trying to fight evil with real primitive tools and technology, we don't have anything advanced - we've got rotary telephones, typewriters instead of word processors, and if you die you're dead."
The fact that their characters are dead already is not of great concern to the actors. "I'm more worried about dying than the fact that I'm dead! People are trying to kill me!" exclaims Rohner. "For me it doesn't feel very much like I'm dead; I feel more alive than when I was alive."
Chandler has left behind a son who's frequently getting into trouble, a storyline Rohner would like to see deepened. "Instead of seeing other people faced with Faustian choices, I'd like to see sort of what existential dilemma Chandler has," he admits. "Where does he really come apart, what is his weak link, what's his Achilles heel? I want to know a little more about what Chandler's fighting for. Right now he's fighting for the chance to see his dead wife, and I would like to see him broaden that out somewhere and become a little more pro-active."
Henry's backstory will be explored more in the upcoming episode "To Be Or Not To Be Evil." Brooks is quite happy with his character in that "there's always something fun to do or something fun to learn in every episode, like I learned to play golf and I learned to ride motorcycles. One of the reasons I became an actor was not to have to be the same person all the time - if I was a lawyer, I'd be a lawyer, but here I can be a lawyer one day and I can be a football star the next, and then maybe a doctor or an accountant or a reporter."
Brooks also enjoys creating the dialogue on the show, which includes considerably more profanity than one normally hears on network, incompletely bleeped out at times for humorous effect. "I feel this way on the show and I felt this way making my movie: I think there's a lot of humor in profanity," he declares. "A lot of people miss that because it's always said so angrily, but in an expressive way it's doubly funny. It's kind of South Park-ish. It creates this kind of natural flow to the scenes which I really like, retro-cool and kind of hip and new too - a Pulp Fiction feel in a way, when you have that kind of relationship and that kind of dialogue."
A musician by avocation which he would like to make his vocation, Brooks gave the Pates his CD and they used one of his songs in the episode "Airplane." In addition to directing, he hopes to work on his music during the show's hiatus. At the time of these interviews, G vs. E had not officially been picked up for a full season, but USA has since announced that it will return, and that The Incredible Hulk's Lou Ferrigno would guest star.
"We just did thirteen, and we shut down for a couple of weeks," explains Rohner, who had heard that the network had rented the studio space and paid for scripts for a full 22-episode season. "I don't assume anything until I get the call, though."
The producer of the film Got A Dog, in which he also stars, Rohner plans to spend most of his free time surfing. "I'm addicted, I'm a long-boarder, I started surfing five years ago and I can't get enough of it. We're going to do a surfing episode, they've already worked that in. And I love dirt bikes, motorcross, motorcycles and gardening." He dreams of moving to Puerto Vallarta to surf three months out of the year, spending the rest of his time acting and teaching in Los Angeles.
Brooks, who says he would like to be in league with Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and other directors who are highly respected as dramatic actors, hopes to involve his company Flat Top Entertainment in community projects. "I do some things around with the church and with the neighborhood. I'm really into this whole independent film and music scene," he explains. "Right now I'm really involved with the show, but on breaks, I stop and remember, 'What do I do?!'"
Both actors express hope that G vs. E will have a long run. "You're always looking for that hit, and you're always trying to make projects that you're in a hit that allows you to explore some part of your acting ability which you haven't really had to explore," concludes Brooks.
Signed for five-year contracts with the Almighty - or, rather, with USA - the G team stands poised to keep the laughs coming for as long as morlocks roam the Earth.