Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad", Michael C. Hall of "Dexter,"… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
They are on five of the most critically acclaimed dramas on television, playing five of the most riveting characters ever written for the small screen. And they are the primary culprits behind the nation's DVR overload on Sunday nights.
The Envelope gathered Claire Danes, who plays bipolar CIA operative Carrie Mathison on Showtime's "Homeland"; Michael C. Hall, the titular serial killer/forensics expert on Showtime's "Dexter"; Jon Hamm, smooth ad man Don Draper on AMC's "Mad Men"; Julianna Margulies, who plays lawyer and betrayed wife Alicia Florrick on CBS' "The Good Wife"; and Aaron Paul, the meth-making Jesse Pinkman on AMC's "Breaking Bad" — all previous Emmy nominees or winners — for a free-ranging discussion with The Times' deputy television editor Joy Press about sex on TV, their most difficult shoots, how helpful "comedy camp" would be and how research for the role of a serial killer can take you only so far.
Below are edited excerpts from the conversation. Or, if you prefer, watch the video here.
Joy Press: What's the hardest scene you've ever done? Do you ever look at scripts and just go, I can't do this?
Michael C. Hall: Sometimes I'll maybe take issue with how something's happening, but as far as what happens, it always is justifiable. When we started out, it was kind of like walking a tightrope, you know, there's a serial killer, he says he's not human, we're meant to be maybe suspicious about that, and at this point it feels like [walking] a piece of dental floss or something as opposed to a tightrope.
VIDEO: Actors talk drama
Julianna Margulies: I did "Sopranos" for six episodes, and there was a scene — I've never done a lot of naked things, I've always tried to keep my clothes on, and there was a scene where I was shooting up heroin with Michael Imperioli and it was written that I throw up, crawl on my hands and knees and throw up into a garbage can.
Jon Hamm: I'm pretty sure that scene was written by Matt Weiner, by the way.
JM: And it was. It was.
JH: Why am I not surprised?
JM: And I remember getting the pages for it — because you never got a full script — and I was like, "No, wait, wait, wait a minute, this is such gratuitous, this is, you know, I can't, I'm going to crawl in a bra and panties" — and it was a mental block for me. I couldn't get past what it seemed to represent to them as opposed to what I was doing with the character. And then I called my buddy, Griffin Dunne, and was like, "I don't even know what to do with this, I can't," and he goes, "Just shut up and do it." And it was such great advice because I was building up a whole story; whether it was true or not, it didn't matter. The truth is it was a great challenge because I was completely petrified, but it was such a great set and such wonderful people, and the writing did lead up to that point and it did make total sense.
JP: So when you watched it, it felt good?
JM: Yeah. I mean, the vodka beforehand helped, but it was fine. I was really glad that I had done it, and it felt like it was absolutely right for the character.
VIDEO: Actors talk comedy
JP: Aaron, I assume you have encountered some extreme things in your scripts?
Aaron Paul: My character Jesse, he's such an emotional wreck at times, you know? He's just struggling to kind of find his way. I think the scene where he wakes up and he finds his girlfriend lying next to him dead and it was like truly the first love of his life. That was a really rough scene for me to do because how I kind of tackle scenes, I try and just feel like I'm truly living it — and I think all of us do, really — and that was really rough.
Claire Danes: There is a scene in that weekend episode [in which suspected terrorist Sgt. Nick Brody and Carrie drive out to a secluded cabin] where it was really challenging. It's kind of this romantic weekend that turns into an interrogation, and it's really elaborate and layered and way too much was going on, and ultimately, Brody [played by Damian Lewis] puts a gun to Carrie's head. And when that happened my adrenaline just spiked and actually my heart was — I couldn't breathe. And it was good for that take and good for that moment, but then my body took over and then the opposite occurred — everything dropped and all of my senses were totally dulled. And I had the whole other half of the day to do the rest of the scene where I was supposed to still be at that pitch and that adrenalized but my body wasn't allowing me to go there. I think my imagination just got really tripped up, when a gun went to my head I stopped being able to differentiate pretend from reality, so that was weird.