Q&A with Sean Maher

by Joey

Sean was recently in Vancouver doing re-shoots for an episode of Human Target, and he was nice enough to agree to meet with me one evening. I've had the chance to meet him previously at conventions, so I already knew he was a lovely person, and chatting with him that night confirmed that he's a wonderfully kind and agreeable man. He was very relaxed throughout the evening, and it was apparent that he's very happy with his life at the moment! We talked casually for a while, then proceeded to do an informal interview for the website. Here is a transcription of that conversation.

Please do not reproduce this interview in its entirety anywhere, and credit us if you are reposting a quote!

SM.i: So to start, we had some questions about your career. How did you get into acting? In high school, yeah?

Sean: Yeah, in high school. Somebody’s written somewhere that I went to a musical theater sleep-away, a camp, and it’s partly true. The first show I ever did was Jesus Christ Superstar, at a summer camp, and then I came back to school and did Bye Bye Birdie. Then, the summer after that, I did West Side Story. I played Tony and I think that’s probably the summer that changed my life. That’s when I think it clicked. It was sort of the essence of doing a show, in the theater, coming together with a group of people... And that summer, it was the first time that I'd really, really experienced that to its fullest. I always remember that curtain call, of West Side Story, and I had never felt that happy in my life. I’d never felt that fulfilled. I’d never felt that high in my life. So, I always remember that. I was 16 years old and it was just this amazing summer, and it all had to do with the work and the other actors and... And then that was it. When I went back that year, back to high school, we were doing Into the Woods, and we were quite blessed because we had such a core group in my class. Like my friend, who I’m still quite close with, Eyal Podell, who’s a working actor. David Harbour, who’s a working actor… There were two other girls... And we were a core group of very serious kids who wanted to really act, and then there were a lot of very serious lighting designers and very serious directors. So, we had so many people who wanted to do more, so I think our drama teacher - she just let us go. So by the time I was a senior, we were doing three or four productions.

SM.i: Wow, that's pretty intense.

Sean: Yeah, and I was still singing a lot, so we were doing concerts and one-act plays and plays and a musical and then the senior musical, which I directed. So it was just very easy for me to just go full steam ahead with it while I was still in high school.

SM.i: So you were singing before you got into acting then?

Sean: Yeah, I started with singing.

SM.i: Interesting. When did you start that?

Sean: You know, I don’t remember. Honestly? I don’t even know how that happened. I feel like I just opened up my voice – OK, another part of the first question. When I saw Into the Woods on Broadway with my mother, that’s when I decided that this is something that I wanted to do. Before that I had never considered acting.

SM.i: How old were you when that happened?

Sean: Oh gosh, I want to say 14 or 15, I don’t remember, kind of young. I was so blown away by that. I feel like maybe I got the album or something and just tried to sing once, and I was actually quite good at it. So yeah, it’s a joke – that I sort of just opened up my mouth and just decided to sing one day, and I was blessed with this beautiful voice and so… Then I went to NYU for musical theater, and then from musical theater to this brief stint at the experimental theater wing before I ended up at Playwrights Horizons for two years.

SM.i: So you were trained in theater. How did you go from that into camera work?

Sean: It was actually sort of a fluke. When you graduate from NYU, they do league nights, where they take a small group of the graduating class and they present them to managers and agents and casting directors and producers, etc. So I auditioned – there’s two separate ones, there’s a musical theater one and a drama one. I auditioned for the musical theater one and got in; and then I was doing a production of Yerma at Playwrights Horizons the night that I was supposed to perform, so I couldn’t do it. At the time I was so upset, because I never thought I’d get into the drama one. I always thought, "Oh my voice, my voice is my thing." So, I got into the drama one - much to my surprise - and I performed for that. There was a casting director’s assistant there for one of the soaps. She brought me in for an audition, my very first audition, and she was like, "We want to test you for this soap, you need an agent. Do you have an agent?" And I was like… I had no idea. She was like, "I’m going to make some phone calls for you." Next thing I know, I run back to my apartment and I’ve got messages on my machine – this is back when there were answering machines – and the first person was Stephen Hirsh. He was my very first agent, he was the first person I ever met, I sort of fell in love with him, and that was it. I went with him. There were just more camera opportunities, and then the first job that I booked was a lead in a pilot. [ed: Ryan Caulfield]

SM.i: How did that happen?

Sean: I just auditioned. I actually just walked in... It’s funny, at first they didn’t want to see me for the lead because he was supposed to play basketball and they didn’t think I was tall enough, so I read for another role. And then I came back to read for the lead and ended up going to L.A. and testing for it and got it. And that production, working on the pilot, then when it got picked up going into production, I always considered that to be my crash course in camera work. Because there was this amazing older actor - his name is Michael Rispoli - he played the older cop and I was the younger cop, and he was just an amazing man and an amazing actor and he showed me the ropes. Like, he showed me where my mark was, how to hit my mark, who the DP [ed: Director of Photography] was…

SM.i: Because it’s a completely different world, right?

Sean: An entirely different world. And it’s funny because you’re not trained... Some of the hardest things on set are hitting your mark and knowing where the camera is at all times and knowing the different angles and knowing coverage and all the stuff - I still don’t understand the geography of the camera. Y’know, when you turn around to do different coverage and you hear the DP being like, "Oh, we were looking left to right over there, so we’ve got to look left to right over here," and they tell you to look someplace that feels a little off, but I always trust that they know because I have no idea. And not all the time, but every now and then they shot it from a weird angle... So all that stuff you don’t learn in school, and that’s the stuff that can pull you out of it. Because you think it’s just going to be like on stage, just you and the other actor, but it’s not. Because there’s like 30 people surrounding you and a piece of tape on the ground that you’re supposed to be standing on. And if you don’t find your light, then the shot’s not good; and if it’s a close-up and you move a couple of inches, then you’re blurry. So, lots of that stuff I feel like I learned very quickly working on Ryan Caulfield.

SM.i: Do you feel that now you like that better, over theater, or is it a question of not finding as many opportunities in theater?

Sean: I sort of rode the wave of TV and film and I just wasn’t available to do theater. So it was a question of opportunity, but I think they’re so different and it’s always just a question of good work. Right now, I do have a burning desire to do theater, I’d love to sing again, get back to that. But it’s hard, living in Los Angeles, it’s – few and far between, the opportunities for theater. There’s a ton out there, but it's just…

SM.i: And I can imagine it would be a big change, moving back to New York.

Sean: Well, sort of. I mean if it was the right thing – I would say in New York, LA, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto… I don’t think I’d be off doing summer stock in Ohio or... It’s funny, there was something in Akron, there's a great theater in Akron and I was like, heh, I don’t know about that. [He chuckles.] But New York, yeah, New York's not that big of a shift.

SM.i: So you do keep an eye out for stuff that goes on in New York.

Sean: Yeah, I do, and I think in the future my manager and I will think about scheduling New York professional trips. Just go in there – because there’s lots, there’s an independent film world there… And I’m always what’s considered local hire. If something’s shooting in NY, and if they’re going to audition actors in LA but they can’t afford to pay to put the actors up, they’ll only look for local hires. So I always consider myself a local hire, because I have enough friends there that I can stay with. Or if it's worth it, I could figure something out. So New York is never a problem.

SM.i: Would you actually like to move back to New York?

Sean: I think so, eventually. I do miss NY, and I love LA but I do miss NY from time to time. I have a yearning for it. A nostalgia.

SM.i: I can definitely see how that would happen. So one other thing we were wondering – you’ve done a lot of TV shows, and more and more they get canceled so fast. How do you deal with that frustration of putting yourself in a project and you don’t even know if it’s going to go more than one, two, three episodes on the air? Is that hard?

Sean: Yes. It got easier. I think the first time it happened, it was like a death. When Ryan Caulfield got canceled... Y’know, it was my first job, and you do kind of live in this bubble before you air. You think this show is the most amazing thing, and you’re doing six, seven episodes before you go to air, so you’ve created bonds with people and you feel like a family. So Ryan Caulfield felt a bit like a death. And then, by the time I got to Firefly… The irony of the Firefly journey, for me, was that when it was canceled, I was like, "Oh well, chalk it up to another canceled show." And that was when Joss was like, "No way. We’re not done. We’re gonna make a movie." And I was like, "Yeah, right. I’ve heard this before." Because I felt like I had been jaded, because I think that was my… fourth canceled show. So, yeah, by the time Firefly got canceled, I think I was just a little used to it, and just felt like, "All right, well, let’s move on to something else." So that’s why I'm always so shocked at the Firefly phenomenon. It was the exact opposite of what I had been used to. Because when Ryan Caulfield was canceled, all those discussions were going on. “It’s not done. We’re going to a different network. We’re doing this. We’re doing that...” Like I even related that to my agent, "Oh no, this isn’t finished. Don’t you worry. We’re going to find a home for this. That’s what they’re telling me on set. It’s fine." And you know, it never happens, or rarely happens, I guess. Firefly is the little engine that could. It’s a phenomenon of its own.

SM.i: So was it really shocking then, when you got the phone call that Serenity was happening?

Sean: Yeah, I remember exactly where I was. I was on Orlando, it’s a street in LA just north of Melrose, and I just pulled off to the side of the road because I was just like, "Wait, what? We’re really doing this?" And my agent was like, "We have the offer." And I was like, "All right, I gotta go!" And then we all called each other, like, "Did you get an offer?" [he laughs] It was just – because we kind of knew it was happening but we just didn’t – I honestly didn’t believe that it was going to happen. Even at the read-through, we were all just like… We kept laughing because we couldn’t believe we were doing this. I’d look over at Jewel and she’d be like, "Heeheehee." [He laughs himself.]

SM.i: Is it still a surprise today, when you go to conventions?

Sean: Yes, always.

SM.i: It’s got to be strange, because it’s this one project that turned into…

Sean: Not strange, never strange… Just always really wonderful – I’m trying to find the right word for it. Not strange… I don’t know, it’s just wonderful, it just brings you home. I mean, all the time, people... Like the Immigrations Officer tonight was all, this is business business, talk talk talk, and then as I'm walking away, he said, "Firefly rules". And I was like, "Thanks, buddy." It’s like... They’re everywhere, the fans, and I’m never like, "Oh, this is so strange." I’m just like, "Wow!" It’s extraordinary to be part of something that reached so many people. And I feel like people continue... People who have recently seen the show, new fans who are like, "Oh my gosh, my girlfriend made me watch it this weekend and I was so happy and what an amazing show." And I just feel like everybody who gets a taste of it loves it. I’m always amazed at that. I feel like I’ve rarely met – or maybe people don’t tell me - people who’ve seen the show who didn’t like it. I always find the people who are so shocked and pleasantly surprised, like "Oh my god, I didn’t want to watch it, but I did and, oh my god, it was so amazing."

SM.i: That’s actually sort of my own story. I knew Joss from his former work and then when I heard about Firefly, I was like, I don’t like sci-fi, I don’t like western, why on earth would I watch this?

Sean: Yeah, exactly, why would you want to watch this?

SM.i: So I didn’t watch it for the longest time and then one day I guess my brother and I finally got a hold of it, and we were like, "Oh my god, somehow even though we don’t like sci-fi, we don’t like western, this is awesome." And I agree, I haven’t met a whole lot of people who’ve seen the show and who are not compelled by it.

Sean: It’s amazing.

[At this point in the interview, I asked him what episodes he has guest-starred in for The Mentalist ("Bleeding Heart" - airing January 21) and Human Target ("Embassy Row" - airing January 27). I then asked Sean to tell us more about the characters he will be playing. Since the answers give spoilers for both shows, we put them on a separate page. Click here if you want to read, or otherwise just continue!]

SM.i: Is there any kind of part that you would really like…

Sean: Dexter. I always go back to Dexter. It’s so funny because I would always say that. People would always ask me that, and I’d always say, "I want to play a serial killer." And people would be like, "Uh?" I was like, "Oh, is that strange?"

SM.i: No, I can totally see it. [I laugh.]

Sean: And then Dexter came... I actually auditioned for Dexter and I met the producers on that, and obviously didn’t get it, but still... It’s my favorite show, I just love the work that Michael C. Hall does on that. That’s the type of role. The unexpected, I think, is what I like.

SM.i: So right now you’re set to work on a movie, Timing. What was it in the script or the character of Connor that spoke to you? Why did that particular script resonate?

Sean: I think… So, the script as a whole resonated because I thought it was written beautifully and it was really touching. It’s just a really lovely story. And then the character of Connor, I think I was just drawn to him mostly because of his flaws. He’s not perfect, he struggles with alcohol... I love vulnerability in characters, I love characters that are flawed, that sometimes don’t do the right things, they make mistakes, and it’s all the above with him. And I really love their relationship - the Colin Ferguson character and my character. It’s just a great relationship, and in the mainstream of entertainment, I think it’s nice to see a gay couple that’s not the stereotypical Will and Jack. I think we’ve done that and I think we need to break through with stereotypes first because I think people need to get comfortable... You know the Jeffersons were our first take of an African-American family, before we got to the Cosbys, and now it’s like second nature that there’s black characters on television. I think with any minorities... Like Ted on Wedding Wars, I loved that he didn’t know if he wanted to get married. It’s just like the stereotype – y’know, loud gay people and all they want to do is fight, scream and get married - and he was this super clean-cut, not seemingly gay man who was like, "You know what, I’m gay and I’m not sure if I want to get married." I loved that about Ted, because not everybody wants to get married. So I think, again with Timing, it stays away from the clichés of what we’ve seen in the past.

SM.i: So you mentioned that you liked characters that are flawed and that seems to be the exact opposite of Simon. So I’m curious as to what happened with Simon, what was it about him that drew you to him?

Sean: Gosh, I don’t know. I think for Simon it was the Simon/River relationship that I loved. But that was hard - to not get dirty, not make mistakes - and I think we were going there, we just never had a chance to get there. But there was so much about Simon that I loved. But you’re right... It’s hard for me sometimes, when I go on auditions and I’m like, "Oh, you know, where can I be vulnerable?" Because I do think Simon was vulnerable, at times. But, yeah. It’s hard for me sometimes to go with the alpha male. I’ve been told by my acting coach to try more alpha male, which is hard for me because I always like to be vulnerable and flawed and that’s just what I connect with more, I guess. But, yeah, Simon was a little perfect – sometimes exhaustingly so!

SM.i: I think you mentioned at the convention last weekend that you auditioned for a part in V you didn’t get? [Sean nods.] I’m curious, have you ever auditioned for other shows that have Joss alumni or Firefly alumni on them?

Sean: Hm… Dollhouse. Actually, I screen-tested for Dollhouse.

SM.i: For what part?

Sean: For Victor. One of the dolls. Who’s the guy who got it?

SM.i: Enver Gjokaj.

Sean: Enver, that’s it. We actually had a great time, testing together. We tested against each other for that and I was actually... During the testing process, you spend a lot of time together with the other actors and some actors you really like... and I’m always happy, if I don’t get it, that someone that I like did get it. And he was a great guy, so I was super happy for him.

SM.i: Can you tell me a little bit more about the testing process? You go and audition and if they like you, they call you back for testing, is that it?

Sean: Yeah… a little more complicated, but that’s basically it. Sometimes it can be longer but usually you go in, meet with producers, and then, if they like you, they’ll offer what’s called a test deal. So then you're... your agent says... "Oh, they want to test you," is the phrase. And then they call for quotes, and you start making a deal. So you basically sign your deal before you test. Sometimes I’ve tested against one person, sometimes there’s six actors, it’s all across the board, it depends on the project and the producers and the network. And then once you sign your deal, you’re basically done. If you get the job, you’re "bound"; but if you don’t get it, then your deal is done. So when you go and test, usually you do studio and then network - sometimes they’re on two different days, sometimes they’re on the same day, it’s always different. Sometimes in the past I’ve not had to go to studio I just go to network. Like 20th Century FOX I worked with a lot so there was a time when I didn’t have to... Like for Firefly I only went to the network. And [testing] is quite possibly the most awful… It’s such a strange way to do it and it never gets easier, and I always laugh at it and I never think... No actor thinks that they do their best work, because you can’t possibly with 25 executives just, like, all looking at you. But now... Dollhouse we actually went on camera, with Joss, so we actually did, like, a traditional screen test, which I’ve only done a couple of times before, normally you walk into a room. But I hear that people are starting now to do it on camera – I know FOX specifically is starting to do it on camera. Which I think is smart because you can’t get the best performance out of an actor in that kind of situation. A lot of the best actors can’t audition.

SM.i: It must be such a stressful situation to walk into.

Sean: Yeah. You try your best to focus and not mind so much because you get one shot, you just go in and you just do it. One of the difficulties, also, of auditioning is working the room. You going in there and chitchatting, and the casting director’s not ready with the camera or something, and you’re in the room with a bunch of producers and you want to make a great impression, but at the same time you don’t want to be schmoozing too much. The test itself, you don’t even have to look at anybody. You could just go in, do your work, and leave; which is sometimes nice. But still – I think the moments up until the second that you're walking in are just awful.

SM.i: Why, is it just the pressure?

Sean: The pressure… just, everything. [He chuckles.] You potentially have signed, so you’re kind of mentally already there, especially if it’s a location stop, and you’ve figured things out. Like, "I might be moving to Atlanta" and "Okay, here it goes, my life may potentially drastically change in the next few moments." And that’s really a lot, and it’s like you have these few seconds to nail it, and hope that the stars align. Even the ones that I’ve thought, "Ugh, I’ve screwed up," or it didn’t go as well… Like David Kelly is really hard to read, I thought David Kelly hated me, and I got cast in a pilot for him. [ed: Halley’s Comet] I didn’t think I was getting it at all. You know, sometimes they don’t laugh. You think it’s you, but it’s really they’re just not listening to you. They’re just looking at your hair color and wondering if you’re going to fit with the lead girl, and there’s so much going on that has nothing to do with your acting. But it’s hard not to take it personally.

SM.i: I was gonna say, because there’s so much that they’re judging you on that you can’t really do anything about. What are you going to do about your eye color, right?

Sean: Yeah, yeah.

SM.i: So what do you do to prepare for an audition? Anything specific that you do?

Sean: Like prepare at home, or once I’m there?

SM.i: Maybe more at home?

Sean: I just walk around the house… I try and work [on the script] as much as possible and then know that when I’m leaving my house it’s the last time that I’m going to look at it, because then I try not to look at it again. I do this breathing, I do this energy healing that I’ve also been really into. I’ve been training with a healer, so I do this pranayama breathing at home. It’s pretty intense, it moves the energy around. So I do that, after I’ve done all the work. I sort of pace around the house and try to get as comfortable with the words in my mouth as possible, and I make sure I’ve got all my character’s thoughts and then do my breathing – after I’ve already decided what to wear and what time I’m gonna go – I do my breathing and then my main concern is just staying focused and open and not worry about the words anymore, and trust that I have them. Sometimes I’ll sit in the car and do a little more breathing. And it’s hard. Because sometimes you get there and you have to wait for an hour and it’s hard to… Lately I’ve been trying to leave my Blackberry, just stay in the thoughts of my character as opposed to typing things.

SM.i: So once you have a part what’s the process to get into character? To get to know that character. Do you do research at all, or do you just go by the script and the director?

Sean: Again, I think it depends on the role. Like for Brian’s Song, it was an actual person. Sometimes that was easier, in that regard, because there was so much on him and there was so much research, and then we were writing the script with his widow. So she was a phone call away if I had any question about him. Like, I knew what food he liked and what kind of person he really was. And then Simon was an entirely different experience, where I was pretty much going off of Joss’s take on that, and then Joss sort of let us be - who we were. But then The $treet I did research stockbrokers, and I sort of modeled that character after my brother but... It was interesting because that was the first time that I picked a person who I thought – he was really like my brother in so many ways. But mainly I just try and make text resources, like what's on the page, what is the character thinking.

SM.i: Is there a style of director that you like or does it shift?

Sean: It does shift, right now I’m obsessed with Jim Sheridan. I love, obviously, My Left Foot. And In America is one of my favorite movies of all times. And then I just saw Brothers recently. Alexander Payne, I’ve always loved. Christopher Guest and all those guys… Waiting for Guffman is, like, my other favorite movie of all time.

SM.i: Is it people that you like their work or you’d actually like to work with them? Is there a difference?

Sean: There’s no difference. People that I love their work, I would love to work with.

SM.i: And I’m curious, do you like TV or movie better as a medium for entertainment, not for work necessarily?

Sean: I think they’re both the same. I enjoy… One of my favorite things to do on a day off is head to the movies. An afternoon by myself, I love to do that. So yeah, I think they’re both sort of the same thing, you curl up and get lost in a show.

SM.i: Well, that's it for now, I don't want to keep you too long! Thank you so much for answering these questions for us.

Sean: No, thank you.