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Dylan McDermott on Playing the Bad Guy on 'Hostages'

'I do bring this stuff home with me,' actor says

Dylan McDermott as Duncan Carlisle on 'Hostages.'
Nicole Rivelli/CBS
September 23, 2013 2:05 PM ET

Riding high on the success of procedurals such as CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds, it has been years since CBS dabbled in the serialized drama television genre. The overwhelming strength of cable TV in recent years, however, has prompted the network to dip their toe in the pool once again, first with the Stephen King adaptation Under the Dome and, with much better results, one of this fall's best new dramas, Hostages. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott, the tension-filled series kicks off tonight on CBS at 10 P.M. Eastern. We recently sat down with McDermott to find out how he plans on keeping viewers on the edge of their seats for the next 15 weeks.

The New TV Season: What Doesn't Suck

I was pretty skeptical of Hostages before I watched the pilot, having just heard the premise, but I was surprised how much I really enjoyed the show. It's super tense.
We're working on episode six now, and it just keeps rolling and unveiling and all these secrets come out. I've been so, so impressed by the scripts, because sometimes you make a pilot and you have to trust those words that the show is going to be just as good as the pilot, and sometimes it isn't. But these scripts have really been so taut and so great, so I've been really pleased with it.

How did you get connected with Jerry Bruckheimer and come aboard?
I had done another show for Jerry called Dark Blue on TNT for a couple of seasons, so we had a really nice working relationship. They called me up and pitched me the idea of the show, and Toni [Collette] was already attached, and I was a big fan of hers, so I felt very comfortable with JBTV and Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who also pitched me the idea of the show. I just thought it was a great idea, and I loved how different it was. Then I read the script and it was phenomenal, so it was an easy yes for me. And Jeffrey proved to be that guy who is smarter than everybody else in the room, so I really trusted him along the way as well.

When you first got that initial pitch, were you nervous and skeptical as well? Did you wonder how you'd keep the story going for 15 episodes?
Yeah. I think everybody has the same reservations about the show, which I don't mind, because it keeps the intrigue of the show. My theory was, "Let's get through the first season and see how it goes." Right now, being on episode six, I can tell you that I just heard from Warner Bros. and they were like, "You know what? This is the series." Because it's real time, for one. The whole season is only two weeks. I think that softens the blow for everybody, when you realize that the whole season is only two weeks. If we're lucky enough to get another season, then that might be another two weeks. Given the fact that it's real time really helps the cause.

Jerry has said that it's not set up to be a one season mini-series. Are you locked in and prepared to go for more than one season on Hostages?
Yeah, absolutely. When you sign on to do a TV show, you've got to be prepared to take the long haul. After The Practice, I know what it is and I know what comes with the dinner, so it's not a mystery to me. I know how hard it is, how hard it is to sustain a show and keep it on the air. I'm not coming into this blind.

Are you surprised how many stories you can actually tell within the constraints of the Hostages format?
Oh, my God, man. I swear, I just read a new script today, and it's the writers they have and Nachmanoff and breaking these stories and keeping our audience in their seats, just like we talked about. They have done that for six episodes in a row, so I have a lot of faith that the 15 episodes that we do this year are all going to be . . . there's no fat on this stuff. It is streamlined. It is taut. It's exciting. I think that CBS is really trying to look to the future. Obviously, cable has dominated for so long now that they know they have to change, and this is their first foray into that. If we're successful, I think you're going to see a lot more of these shows.

In the series, you're part FBI agent and family man, and you're part criminal. You've been playing a villain a lot recently. Do you have a preference between playing good or bad?
I played a lot of good guys early in my career, so I felt that I had enough of those in the bank, whether it be Steel Magnolias or In the Line of Fire or Miracle on 34th Street or even the guy in The Practice. So I had a lot of reserve there. I've played a few bad guys along the way, in Wonderland and a few others as well, but I always like to go back and forth. I think I've met my match here with Hostages, because he really does walk that line. He's not just a bad guy. There's a reason that he's doing what he's doing. Although he does awful things at times, in his own mind, whether it be deluded or not – obviously if you're going to kill the president, something's not altogether right – there's a lot going on with this guy that's really intriguing to me. And difficult to play, by the way, because, at least for me, I have to enter into a place that is sort of sinister in tone, and I end up being this guy more than I am Dylan throughout the day. That's not easy to play.

How do you balance being the fan favorite versus the villain?
It's not easy, man, I can tell you that. Because you end up – at least I do; maybe there are actors that don't – but I do bring this stuff home with me. Especially this role. Some roles hit you harder than others. Sometimes you can walk away from them and you're OK but, for whatever reason, Hostages has not been easy for me. It's a role that I've been taking home with me and carrying around with me. Again, this comes with the dinner sometimes, being an actor. Sometimes things hit you in ways that you're not prepared for and you just have to take the ride.

You mentioned that Toni was one of the things that really pulled you into the show. How has it been facing off with her?
Phenomenal. She's just great. She's just a great actress, period, and when you're going against her you better have your shit together, because she'll wipe you off the screen. I think that we're a good match for each other, Toni and I, because we're both Scorpios – we're both funny and dark at the same time. And so the idea of her and I in this show together has been a really good match.

Being on a Bruckheimer project must be fun.
Oh, yeah. We're shooting in New York, number one, and we're getting really good directors and the scripts have been great and we have a phenomenal crew, and the cast – the cast is one of the best casts that I've ever worked with. Every actor is tremendous. They fit their roles perfectly. So it's just really cool people.

Is there a difference working for the different networks and cable channels?
I must say that Hostages isn't the only drama that CBS picked up for the fall, and the campaign they've launched for our show is beyond my wildest dreams. That poster and that trailer is everywhere. You can't walk five feet without seeing that, so when they say they're going to get behind something, they really mean it. When I see it everywhere, I'm thrilled because, as an actor, it really helps us to go to work. A lot of times people don't have the money or they're not willing to do it or they'll do just a little bit, but my God, CBS is throwing everything they have at this show.

Do you feel like you got more creative freedom at a place like FX, though?
I mean, you can probably get away with more sex and violence on FX, but on Hostages we're pushing the envelope. I feel like we're not holding back.

It definitely doesn't feel cookie-cutter or sanitized in any way.
No, so it's exciting, because I like to be a part of things like this, where it hasn't been done before. Where it's original. This is the beginning of network television changing. That's exciting stuff because, like you said, CBS doesn't normally do this.

American Horror Story was pretty groundbreaking in the way it has told complete stories in each of its seasons. How does it feel to be back in "reality" on TV as opposed to living in the crazy, macabre Ryan Murphy world?
[Laughs] I love American Horror Story. The first season was so much fun, and then to come back as a serial killer in the second season, and to play that guy that was just completely different – going from the psychiatrist to the patient – what's better than that? Hopefully this year we'll be able to squeeze something in where I'll be back. American Horror Story is like going home for me. Ryan calls me up and says, "I want you to do this," and I'm like, "Yeah, whatever you want me to do." That's a great place for me to create and form different characters, so I love it. I think he's a genius, and whatever he asks me to do I'm like, "Sure."

So there's definitely a chance that we'll see you pop up in American Horror Story: Coven at some point?
Yeah, there's a chance. I think it comes down to scheduling, but Ryan and I talked about it, and I'm hopeful that we can work it out.

How different is it working with someone like Ryan compared to Jerry?
Ryan is his own person. He's just so creative, and he's a visionary. I really think that he's like the Andy Warhol of television in many respects. He's the guy that sees things before anyone else, and he understands pop culture better than anybody else. Obviously, Jerry is a hitmaker. This guy has just had so many hits throughout the years it's ridiculous, so he's a visionary in terms of making hit movies and television shows. It's great to be in business with both of those guys, because those are the guys that make things happen. And the fact that they chose me to be part of their projects, I'm completely flattered and happy about that, believe me.

They're good bedfellows to have.
[Laughs] Yeah, not bad, right?

Do you actually get to watch any TV besides your own shows, since you're working so much?
Not recently, because I've been working 15 hours a day on Hostages. We have to jam a lot into a short period of time with this six-month schedule, so we're actually getting ready to go into making two episodes at the same time. It's already intense. I can't even imagine what that's going to look like.

So I won't spoil Breaking Bad for you, then.

OK, thanks! [Laughs]

You've only finished six episodes of the show so far, but do you have a favorite memory (either onscreen or off) of working on Hostages?
The other night, I won't tell you why, but I had Ellen (Toni Collette) digging a grave. I made her dig a grave for someone, and we were in the middle of the woods. It was just her and I and the crew. I have this speech that's about a page and a half long, and I'm holding the gun to her and making her dig this grave, and it was one of those moments where I wasn't thinking. I was really just in it. I was Duncan – there was no separation between Dylan and Duncan. Like I was truly this guy. I felt that sort of unified thing that actors sometimes talk about that gives you the high. That's the reason I act – when there's no line there. I think that was the moment for me when I realized that I was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time. I got that hit, that buzz, that actors get when they create, and it felt like I was just in the right place. And it felt really good to me.

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