by Emma Loggins
Wendy Watson thought mindless temp jobs were tough. Then she bravely faced a creature way beyond the bounds of her reality, and in so doing, impressed the straight-laced hero known as the Middleman. Hello, new career! Now she’s balancing her art, her friends, and saving the planet while battling alien evils for the world’s most ludicrously secret organization. The Middleman — fighting evil so you don’t have to.
We had the honor of sitting down with The Middleman star, Matt Keeslar. Here’s what he had to say:
What is your favorite part about working on the show so far?
M. Keeslar: My favorite part about working on the show is the great group of people that Javier, the creator, has assembled for us. It’s an amazing crew, a really terrific cast. Natalie Morales plays Wendy, the lead in the show, and she’s a very talented newcomer, along with Brit Morgan and Jake Smollett, who are also young and very talented actors. We have Mary Pat Gleason, who is playing my android assistant, Ida, and she is a really fun, terrific actress to work with, much more experienced than probably any of us on set.
The writing team has been really terrific too. They’ve put together what I think are progressively better scripts. Even though I was much enamored with the original pilot script, I think that the script has gotten better as they’ve taken more chances and looked at new and interesting ways of spinning the iconic comic book hero.
Since the comic book fan base is so passionate; did you feel any pressure playing a comic book character?
M. Keeslar: The short answer to that is no. I didn’t feel a lot of pressure coming from the comic book fan base. I think that, like all fan bases, some people will love “The Middleman” and some people will have difficulties with it. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, this comic book super hero, so, it is, in a way, both an ironic statement about comic heroes in general, and also a really passionate and loving look at comics and all of their multi-facets. It’s a loving portrayal, but also a lampoon at the same time. We’re taking a look at it through the eyes of Wendy Watson, your average, everyday art school graduate and how she sees the iconic comic book character played by myself, “The Middleman.”
We interviewed Javier a couple of weeks back and he talked about how he knew you found “The Last Days of Disco” and you’re the one that he wanted for this role. Can you talk a little bit about how you were approached for this and what your initial thoughts were?
M. Keeslar: I was sent a script that my manager said you have to read, because it’s great. I sat down as soon as I got it, read it that night, called my manager and said okay, I want to play this part, and I didn’t really care that much about what channel it was going to be on, or any of the other details involved. All I knew was that this was a great part and a great part for me to play. So I think the next day, they set up a breakfast with Javier and I met him for coffee and he basically said we really want you to play this part. That you’re going to have to go through the whole audition process so that ABC Family can feel like they’re participants in this process, but basically, you’re the guy that we want to do this.
I felt very confident going into the audition, even though it was quite a strenuous audition. I had to learn a lot of dialogue, but I felt, from the get-go, that this was a part that I could really play and I could do justice to.
You’ve had a lot of eclectic roles in the past. Is that something that led you to really enjoy auditions for this role, and how is it different from other things that you’ve played so far?
M. Keeslar: This character is very different from other things that I’ve played and that’s by design, in a way. I like to look for different and challenging roles to play, just because it keeps my interest and it keeps me excited about doing something new, and I think that, in a way, the various and eclectic roles that you mentioned from my past have helped, because “The Middleman” is kind of a jack-of-all-trades. He knows a little bit about everything.
So, being able to do stunt work was important, and that’s something that I had experienced in the past. Being able to do a large amount of dialogue and learn it relatively quickly was something that I had experienced on “The Last Days of Disco,” as one of the other interviewers mentioned. Learning how to play a comic character who takes himself seriously was something that I’ve also been working on with other characters in another project.
I think that the eclectic characters that I’ve played in the past have helped me to put together “The Middleman” and, even though he isn’t a character all in and of himself, he kind of knows a little bit of everything.
With the quick wit and the dialogue, I want to ask you do you have a favorite male/female crime fighting, crime solving duo that inspired you to want to work this project?
M. Keeslar: I have to say that it’s odd that it happens to be that they have a movie coming out on it, but “Get Smart” was a huge favorite of mine growing up as a kid and I always had a crush on Agent 99. I always thought that that was the epitome of the comic crime fighting duo when I was a kid growing up, so I suppose that would be it, the “Get Smart” duo I would hold up as the watermark for all crime fighting male/female duos.
I think this owes a lot to “The Avengers” and to “Moonlighting” and to many other shows where the male/female characters had a repartee, a banter that they kept going throughout the series that gave them some conflict, but also showed how closely they were connected to one another.
Can you talk a little bit about how your character evolves this season?
M. Keeslar: The evolution of “The Middleman” throughout the series is kind of tricky, because he starts off to be so enigmatic and the man of mystery. There are a lot of things about his back-story, his history that you don’t really get to know about throughout the course of the series, but, as the series progresses, you see how “The Middleman” is kind of trapped by his job. That he has a hard time having a life outside of fighting comic book evil, and is hemmed in by the impractical life of constantly having to save the world. So, when relationships develop, he often has to cut them short, because he can’t really devote his attention to anything other than his work, which is, I guess, a difficulty that many superheroes would face.
“The Middleman,” in particular, sees himself as one of the rugged individualists, sort of like a Randolph Scott character from a western, and has chosen a life of solitude. That is explored more and more throughout the course of the series and the difficulties that would ensue from somebody making those choices, so there’s a loneliness that he would ultimately experience, although we never get too much into the melodrama of that, but it is a part of who “The Middleman” is. The fact that his real family is Ida, his android, a dominating schoolmarm android, and his sidekick, Wendy, who is the only one who is really able to have a life outside of “The Middleman” organization.
What have you found the most difficult part of the translation from the comic book to actually acting it in real people?
M. Keeslar: A lot of those difficulties are handled by the writers, the writing team, but just as an actor, I think that when I read a comic book and I see the picture of the person there and the comic book artist has already made the person’s not only what they look like, but how they express themselves and their different gestures and looks in the comic book. They work well for exactly that medium. They work well for pictures in a book, but when you actually translate that to humanity, to a real living, breathing human, you have to be much more subtle with your choices as an actor, because otherwise, it would look all eye-popping, manic acting, more like pantomime than actual acting like a human.
That was difficult for me to say okay, this is the way that Les McLain and Javier saw the comics and saw the hero in the comic book, but I, Matt Keeslar, am not that person at all, and my interpretation is going to be that of an actor and using an actor’s imagination to come up with the way that “The Middleman” would react to a certain situation, or the way that he would express himself, and that’s always a difficulty. It’s not as difficult when you have a novel. I did an interpretation of “Dune” where I played a character that was in the novel, and you get an idea. Although they do give a character description, you get more of the thoughts and feelings of the character, the internal monologue, which is actually very helpful as an actor to get an idea of what the person is thinking in their heads. But to actually see the character in a picture can sometimes be distracting and lead an actor to making bad choices, choices of playing heroic rather than playing a human. That was my initial challenge was to make “The Middleman” less comic book and more human.
In a recent interview, you said that your Julliard education was focused on classic theater and not necessarily the television and the film, which has been your career. My question is how has that classic training affected how you approach your role as “The Middleman?”
M. Keeslar: In a way, “The Middleman” and the character of the middleman is kind of perfect for a classically trained actor, because it’s so focused on the verbal, on the way that he uses language, and a big part of the Julliard training is looking at language rich plays like Shaw, Shakespeare, or Moliere where the characters express themselves through very long thoughts with their language rather than a specifically emotional place. Although there’s always emotion behind the language, it always has to be the language and the emotion has to be married to one another.
The big part of classical training is following the thought, the living thought of the character that you’re thinking as you’re speaking, which is different from other types of acting styles. A lot of times, in movies and television, and even in modern theatre, the style is about the thought and the emotion coming before the line or after the line, but not necessarily on the line. Classical training is more about the thought and the emotion occurring as you’re speaking, because otherwise, a production of “Hamlet” would be seven hours long if you took the time to emote prior to each of your utterances.
In that way, “The Middleman” is very much like a classical theater character or a character from a language rich play. There, of course, are differences as well. Obviously, this person is dealing with people who aren’t necessarily as involved in language as he is, so there has to be a fair amount of modern acting, acting off of the lines, as well as acting on the lines. But, so far as following the thought and being able to articulate and have enough breath control to get through these long monologues, I think that the classical training was very helpful.
Who do you see this audience for? Is this a kid’s show, a tweens show, a family show, who do you think is going to watch this?
M. Keeslar: I’m not sure, and frankly, this is speaking for myself, but I don’t really think about the demographic when choosing a role necessarily. I choose a role based on whether or not I like it and whether or not it seems like it would be a fun thing to do. It’s only an afterthought of well, what would this actually appeal to, or who would this actually appeal to. Having watched it myself, I could see this being something that a tween audience, both male and female, would enjoy, but, at the same time, I think there aren’t enough references to television shows like “The Avengers” and movies like “Planet of the Apes” and “Scarface” that it would also appeal to the parents of those tweens.
I think also the emotional relationships that will develop throughout the course of the series, although you didn’t see it as much in the pilot, the emotional relationships between Wendy and her paramours, between Lacy and Wendy, the two roommates, and also ultimately between “The Middleman” and the rest of the cast. You’ll see that those are more focused on the ABC Family demographic of the 18 to 35 year old female that it’s more about the relationships and the emotional relationships between the characters as the series progresses, not just about the monsters.
I guess, to answer your question, it should appeal to everyone from tween to adult. Obviously there are monsters and special effects that are more focused on the kids’ side of the equation, and there are more emotional relationships that would focus more on the 18 to 35 year old range, and there are a lot of pop culture references that come from the ’60s and ’70s that would obviously be more focused on the adults watching the show.
In the first episode, we see you tackling a talking ape who is targeting the Mafia. What is some of the craziest stuff that you’ve had to do on the show so far?
M. Keeslar: In one of the episodes we battle trout craving zombies, people who have been bitten by Peruvian flying pike and have turned into zombies who crave the flesh of trout. Natalie and I were covered in fish gore and then tracked down by these trout zombies, so that was an odd thing.
I had a scene where I had to fight 100 Mexican wrestlers in a sandy Aztec pyramid set, which was a lot of fun, kind of hard work, but also pretty silly. The fighting styles ranged everywhere from WWF to Kung Fu. In general, “The Middleman’s” naivetÃ© also beats him to make a lot of unintentional double entendre about sex, sexuality, and his own lifestyle choices, and those have been probably some of my sillier utterances throughout the show.
Now that you’ve told us about some of the different scenes that you’ve filmed, what has been your favorite thing that you’ve done so far in the show, either favorite role or favorite thing you filmed?
M. Keeslar: I think that my favorite moment comes actually quite late in the series. It was like episode 107 or something, where a relationship develops between myself and Wendy’s roommate, Lacy, and we go to see a movie together. It was a great opportunity for me to show that “The Middleman” isn’t just Mr. Perfect all the time, that he doesn’t have all of the answers to everything, that he actually has an emotional side to him and a shy little boy side to him, as well as the tough guy persona that he puts on all the time.
I think that was my favorite in a way because, in that episode, we have this relationship that goes all the way through until we take a trip on a yacht that’s supposed to be like a copy of “The Titanic” and we called it “Our Titanic Episode.” It gives a real 1950s sort of emotional journey for “The Middleman” that, at once, is modern in the sense that it’s taking place in the present day, but also, it’s a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1920s and ’30s and the innocent emotional scenes of those old films as well, which I really enjoyed playing.
In today’s world, what does it take to be an effective hero?
M. Keeslar: In today’s world, I think that a hero has to be savvy of the world’s events and the fact that the world is getting smaller. That a hero in the present day has to be able to draw from many areas, and you’ll see that in “The Middleman.” The reason that he is effective is because he can speak Hebrew and Chinese, he can fight in a Kung Fu style, yet is very interested in art and artists and is offended when somebody is plagiarizing Wendy’s paintings. He’s a person who takes in the full picture, the big picture of what’s going on in the world, and I think that that’s what makes an effective hero, someone who understands the interrelatedness of humanity and the fact that our global world is getting smaller and smaller.
You really do have just a rich and varied experience as a working actor in film and in television, and now you’re carrying the show. You’re the lead actor on the show. Could you talk a little bit about some of the changes and some of the differences you’re experiencing from going from doing a guest spot or doing a role in a movie to being the lead actor and carrying the show?
M. Keeslar: First of all, the workload is different when you’re playing a major part on a television series. I spend most of my time either there on set, or learning my lines at home, so it’s pretty much a 24/7 job that I don’t really get a lot of opportunities to take time off. That’s a difficulty that I didn’t necessarily have when going from guest spot to guest spot. But, at the same time, that amount of work also makes the job very satisfying, because I get to connect all of the dots of the character.
That the character I can work on for a longer period of time. I think we’ve been doing it now for ten or twelve weeks, or something like that and it’s rare that I get an opportunity, as an actor, to look at the many facets of a different character and see how he reacts in many different situations. That’s the wonderful thing about getting to play a part on a series is that you really get to explore the many facets of the character. You get to look at the full person, and we haven’t even scratched the surface. There’s so much more to discover, because “The Middleman” is so enigmatic.
That’s a pretty great thing about playing a large role on a television show. I think there is also something kind of nice about being one of the people on-set who creates the tone of the working environment. Generally, on a film, or on a guest spot, the tone of the working environment has already been set prior to you arriving, or prior to me arriving I should say.
This is nice in a way, because I’ve been there from the inception, from the pilot, and I’ve been talking to and working with Javier, the creator, since I guess September of last year. So I have an opportunity, a very rare opportunity for me, to be able to say this is the way that I want to work. I want to be somebody who is very professional and comes to work prepared everyday, and is ready to go when they ask me to go, and all of the things that I’ve always wanted to bring to a working environment and a set that I haven’t been able to in the past, just because of the small parts that I’ve played.
That’s another great thing about playing a larger role is that you really get to have an influence on the set as part of one of the creators of the show, and a very small part of the show, but still, one of the creators of the entire working experience.
Can you talk specifically about the relationship between “The Middleman” and Wendy, how it’s going to develop in the future, and what kind of dynamic develops between the two characters?
M. Keeslar: The relationship between Wendy and “The Middleman” starts off as a boss and employee. I think that you see that early on in the pilot. I’m the head of this phony temp agency and the head of “The Middleman” Organization, and I’m convincing Wendy to sign up as one of our employees.
As the series progresses and Wendy starts to become more of a middleman herself, as her training progresses, the relationship first goes from an older brother, younger sister relationship to more of a brother, sister, peer relationship, and that’s as far as we’ve gotten as far as shooting is concerned.
Now we’re in episode eight, or whatever, it’s getting to the point where we’re more like peers and more on an even footing, rather than my character being the one who knows everything and Wendy’s character being the one who is left out. That’s something that actually the writers have worked on creating is this idea that we become soldiers in arms, like our lives are intertwined in a way that generally only happens in battle, partners. We’re crime fighting partners.
Aside from that, whatever underlying relationships or whatever will develop in the future, I don’t think anyone really knows. The creator, Javier, might know, but he’s not letting us in on it. Not yet anyway. So we’ll have to see how it develops from there, but certainly, it does not stay boss and employee, or boss and assistant, or whatever it is in the pilot. It changes throughout the course of it for us to be more peers and more equals as we continue.
You’ve talked a little bit about how your previous experience has helped with the dialogue and the monologues, but how difficult are those to learn week-to-week, especially now since you’re in episode eight, so you’ve done a lot of them? I’m just curious.
M. Keeslar: Learning difficult dialogue like that is something that anyone can do, actor or non-actor. It just depends on how much time you’re willing to put into it and that’s really the part of the equation that makes it, I guess, difficult, is having the amount of discipline it takes to sit down for a couple of hours on my day off and just drill the lines and just go over it and over it until it becomes second nature. Then, as soon as you deliver lines, you have to forget them, because if you start thinking about oh, my gosh, what did I do last week, or what did I say last week, or whatever, then it becomes all confused into a big mash of word salad.
It’s not that it’s a particularly difficult task. I think anyone could do it. It’s just that the difficulty comes from having the discipline to actually sit down and make yourself learn the dialogue, which is a challenge. Particularly a challenge when, after working a 12 or 14 hour day and coming home and knowing that you have another couple of hours to go with learning the dialogue for the next day.
Is there a major difference, or explain the difference between a feature film and a TV series in terms of ad lib versus sticking strictly to the script dialogue?
M. Keeslar: Different feature film directors have different ways of working. Some directors are very insistent upon sticking to the script. Other directors are a little bit more liberal with the way that they approach the script. For example, Whit Stillman, a director that I worked with, who was also the writer, and this is generally what happens with writer/directors. He made sure that we said every single word, right down to the punctuation, that everything was exactly as he had written it.
But I’ve worked with a lot of other directors who really just want to get the idea of the scene. They want to tell the story and whatever words you use to tell the story are the words they’ll use. For example, like working with Christopher Guest, there wasn’t a script at all. We had an outline of the movie “Waiting for Guffman” and we just made up all of the dialogue, so there weren’t any lines.
However, on a television show, at least from the experience that I’ve had, particularly on “The Middleman,” you have to be verbatim, exact words that the writers had written every single time, and you can’t change anything, not an article or a preposition. It all has to be exactly as they’ve written it, particularly on “The Middleman” because Javier, the Writer/Executive Producer, has put a lot of care and thought into the words that he has written and the words that he wants us to say. That makes it a little bit more challenging in a way, because you can’t just learn the general idea of what your character is saying. You have to learn the very specific verbiage that your character uses, and that is definitely a challenge, but when you have, in television in general, the writer takes precedence over the director and in feature films, many times the director will take precedence over the writer. Film is more of a director’s medium and television ends up, at least in my experience, in being more of a writer/creator’s medium.
f you ever had the opportunity, and I guess it sounds like the time to do it, would you be interested in writing or directing for the show?
M. Keeslar: I would. I would really love to direct an episode maybe in season three or four, once we really know our characters and maybe there was an episode that “The Middleman” didn’t have quite so much dialogue. But yes, I would really love to direct one, and I would also love to write one. They seem, right now, to be writing mostly like a committee in the writer’s room, but I think that as the series progresses and we all become more familiar with the characters and the way they speak, and they way that a plot line could go, as the series becomes more procedural, I think that I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at writing one of these. I think that it would be a lot of fun.
Basically, there’s no holds barred when it comes to the situations that you could come up with. As long as they’re ABC Family friendly, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted, so it would be an interesting challenge and I think it would be a lot of fun.
I would love to direct something too. I just think it would be a great opportunity to get on the other side of the camera and see how things are done that way.
You told us how you went to Julliard and everything, but what got you started in acting in the first place?
M. Keeslar: My first full-scale production play was in high school doing a play called “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and I auditioned for it because the girl that I was dating was auditioning for it, and she thought that we could do the play together. As it turned out, she didn’t get the part in the play.
But you did.
M. Keeslar: But I did, and I learned from doing that, and then community theater in high school, and then eventually doing summer stock. The theater was a great family of people who all had the similar ideas, or similar attitudes about the theater and a life, the more artistic groups. It was a group that I fell into rather than into being on the football team or the basketball team. The theater was the family that I was drawn into and that I felt more of an affinity for.
What advice would you give to a young actor who wants to pursue a career in film and television?
M. Keeslar: I think, first and foremost, and, of course, take it with a grain of salt, because this is coming from a person who has his first series, but I think that, first and foremost, training is important, so working with an acting teacher, understanding the basic techniques of acting I think is very important for a young actor. That it can help give you something to rely upon when things are just coming naturally, when you have to actually technically create something. Then it’s nice to have some kind of training or technique to fall back on. I think that’s probably it.
Can you tell us who your personal heroes might be, whether in acting or who have maybe otherwise affected your life?
M. Keeslar: As an actor, I’m a huge fan of Marlon Brando. I think that’s a pretty clichÃ© thing for an actor to say, but it’s true. Also, William Hurt and Kevin Kline, two of the actors who actually went to Julliard, and probably the main reason that I went to Julliard was being inspired by their performances.
In life, Kurt Vonnegut is one of my heroes, as a writer, as a storyteller. He also has been a big influence on my love of science fiction, which also is directly related to “The Middleman”.
A lot of other writers have been influences through the way that I work and my imagination, but I would say that those are some of my big heroes of my working world.
Can you tell us anything about your latest project, “Deadly Suspicion?”
M. Keeslar: “Deadly Suspicion” is a TV movie that I made with Mary Lou Henner where she plays my domineering mother who is determined to make me the Governor of California. The show owes a lot to “Manchurian Candidate” or one of those other movies where the main character is really the mother and she’s pushing her son to be this public figure. The ways that she goes about achieving those goals are nefarious and end up being the drama of the piece.
In this particular show, Mary Lou Henner is the evil, domineering mother, and Emily Burgle, who plays my girlfriend, is the only one who sees her for who she truly is. The rest of the cast is blind to her scheming ways.
It eventually devolves into quite a crazy blood fest, but, at least in the inception, it’s about a domineering mom.