In the past three years, Anthony Edwards’ work on the number one rated television show E.R. has earned him nominations for nine major acting awards, two of which he has won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Male Television Performer and the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Dramatic Actor. Yet, after spending an afternoon with Edwards I was left with the impression that he might be just as happy and fulfilled doing E.R. on a local cable access station without any of the ratings and all of the awards-as long as it was good work and at least entertaining to someone.
All of the accolades seem to have changed very little in what this unassuming actor calls his “real life.” Indeed in person he seemed so “normal” that I almost couldn’t help but feel as if somewhere on my way to do a story about a big Hollywood star that I had run into my next door neighbor. Perhaps it is this “ordinary” quality about him that has made it so easy for millions of Americans to invite him into their living rooms in the ten o’clock hour of every Thursday evening.
Even being named in a recent poll as “The Sexiest Man on E.R.” seems to have had little effect on the actor who asks himself, “Why is there such vanity about hair? make a point to bathe. I worry about boogers in my nose and I ask the makeup artist to cover up my pimples, but beyond that I try not to be too vain.”
He confesses that this is all part of his conscious choice to “usually be smaller than life.” When he is asked about what it feels like to be famous he responds, “It makes me feel like hiding under a rock. It helps that I like the show-I truly think we’re famous because we are doing the best hour on television. But I’m not comfortable with fame. It’s like having a hump.” Edwards readily admits that he never came to Hollywood hoping or thinking that he could be a star. Instead his priority was always to just have fun doing great acting.
Yet, Edwards certainly was never encouraged by what he saw on television as a child. In fact he would have never of had the opportunity to watch a show like E.R., as evening television was not allowed in his parent’s house. Instead Edwards drew his inspiration for acting in his school plays and within Santa Barbara’s local community theatres. His boyhood idols weren’t the likes of Newman, Redford or DeNiro as one might expect. Instead he watched musicals with Gene Kelly, which made him dream of becoming “a song and dance man.” To this end he and fellow actor and school chum, Eric Stoltz began taking ballet classes in high school. Later he would attend London’s Royal Academy of the Arts and the University of Southern California all with a single goal in mind becoming a good actor.
This unconventional and in many ways classical education in the arts and acting has left Edwards focused and grounded to what he feels matters most in Hollywood-quality art and entertainment. This dedication to the craft of acting has led him to a rather bumpy road to stardom. Because it was never something he consciously sought, he has experienced it sporadically throughout his young career. Yet at thirty-five with a wife and two kids, he isn’t letting the Hollywood spotlight change his focus or his drive to produce quality work. To this end he has continued to work as a creative force on E.R. and in his own pro duction company with Warner Brothers.
Recently Edwards has been using his visibility in Hollywood to press for changes in the casting of actors with disabilities. As a long-time member of Santa Barbara’s Access Theatre he has had the opportunity himself to work in the disability community and become better aware of the issues concerning actors with disabilities. Chet Cooper and began our conversation with Anthony about how E.R. approach es its unique position and opportunity in this respect.
Chet Cooper: Do you think people connect the setting of E.R. as a place that shows the thin line between anyone instantly acquiring a disability? Most of the characters in any given week on E.R. are at the crossroads per se-their lives are changing.
Anthony Edwards: Yeah think that is where E.R. succeeds and that is where all things succeed because they are original. People relate to things that feel real to them. All the good, happy, over-sexed and moneyed endings on TV are not the way most of us feel in our lives. The success of E.R. think is not relying on overly sentimental stories that are solved where people’s lives wrap up nicely with happy endings.
CC: When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
AE: guess since I’ve always done it that’s a strange question, I started as a kid and it was always something liked doing.
CC: How did you get started?
AE: Within the school system. Santa Barbara has really good theatre in the schools. There was so much opportunity. It was like being in a small town that had a great little league set up where you loved to play baseball.
I think it is a real crime what has happened where there is no money for arts in schools. Kids aren’t getting anywhere near the opportunities that I had. It’s now considered extracurricular when it is important as reading and writing.
CC: Things have really changed for you since those school days. How have you taken all of the attention of having the top show on television? We even recently saw that you were voted as “The Sexiest Man on E.R.”
AE: And you agree with that poll? (laughs). It’s like living in a hula hoop. The majority of talk or attention this show gets has nothing to do with the show and more to do with just being the show of the moment. It’s not reality based.
CC: But was being on a “#1 show” one of your goals or dreams?
AE: No I never dreamed about being on a hit series. I’ve never really related my dreams to that specific of a work goal. I was always enjoying the moment. Acting, writing, looking for roles and getting involved with people and trying to create something that would be entertaining to people. With E.R. we were all very lucky to get this combination of people together in the right story in the right way to take it to the level it has reached.
CC: What are your plans after E.R.?
AE: I’m kind of doing it now, I’m developing a lot of projects to direct and I’m working with different writers and bringing together a lot of talent trying to get other deals and television shows and films set up. Which is the kind of theatre I’ve always enjoyed which you only experience when you don’t act. It’s about being interesting and not getting bored. If you’re bored everything is going to suffer. But I’m having fun as an actor here it’s not boring….. knock on wood.
I only ended up in this industry because I like to act. There are definitely roles within this industry that are industry related but to be a good actor you really have to want to act first. At the same time my goal was never to go to Hollywood to make movies. think if you come here with that attitude then you’ve missed a few steps. My only goal was to act in theatre. But as with everyone’s life the road changes and I ended up here. Now I’m focusing more on my production company with Warner Bros. We executive produced a movie in London last summer and we have about ten or twelve other projects in different stages of development. And its all been a lot of fun.”
CC: I recently met you and the casting directors of E.R. at a national conference for the Association for Theatre and Accessibility’s. Your group’s panel discussed the casting of actors with disabilities on E.R. How did this occur?
AE: On E.R. there has been an ongoing awareness of this issue. John Levy is the casting director, his education is growing more in relation to how many actors there are who are available with different disabilities. think they’ve made a very conscious and good effort in trying to hire actors with disabilities, whether they are visually impaired, hearing impaired or people in chairs.
I think our show is a natural for it because it is always trying to do a nice cross-culture of inner-city life certainly the disabled community is a big part of that especially in county. As far as the business, it’s a tough thing because it’s hard when you establish a label like, “We must hire more black actors.” If you do that it can really create a separation of black actors. Ultimately the goal is we just want to have “actors” and the same applies in the disabled community. know that it’s hard because you first have to define yourself by creating a separation, yet the goal is to eliminate the separation so that’s the big challenge of it.
What thought was so positive about the conference was that it’s a perfect example of what should be happening. You’re not going to solve all the problems but once you’re talking about the issues there is enlightenment that comes through that. In particular John Levy’s assistant who was at the conference learned all kinds of things that she didn’t know about in relation to actors with disabilities.
CC: In attending the conference and hearing what actors with disabilities had to say what do you think made the strongest impact on the casting directors of E.R.?
AE: They were previously unaware of the anger and the feelings in the community of actors with disabilities. There is also that natural thing that happens when people are first confronted with a person with a disability where you ask yourself, “How do even talk about this?” As opposed to the fact that an actor in a wheelchair is very aware that they are in a wheel chair and that it is okay to approach the subject with them about their disability and how much movement they have. We have this kind of taboo in relation to these subjects where people may not want to talk to a blind person about being blind.
CC: Where did your awareness of these issues come from?
AE: It came from working with people with disabilities in Access Theatre. Being in Santa Barbara and watching Rod Lathim’s theatre company grow and doing the documentary of his group which is where faced my own fears in relation to it. I can relate to people’s anxieties to it because they are very natural.
Being around someone with a disability like Neil Markus has really made me more aware. Like he says everyday for him is an attempt to make a work of art through movement the physical movement of his body or being able to communicate at all.
I remember doing the documentary and thinking it was a little bit uncomfortable to be around at first. And then of course Neil Marcus and his greatness took it a whole other step further. One day at lunch he made us all imitate him eating which became hysterically funny for everyone involved.
The most important thing I’ve learned from being around it is that the inherent definition of disability and communicating from your experience is exactly what the theatre should be anyway. To me Tennessee Williams was always communicating to people through his disability in relation to emotional, sexual, or you know whatever his problems were in being a human being. His disabilities were not as visible as a person in a chair but expressions of the confrontations he had with his own experience were what made him a great playwright. And that is what I think everybody in the theatre should be doing all of the time.
What always impressed me about Access Theatre was that it was doing what the theatre should always be doing which is exploring honestly areas which are frightening and hysterically funny. A lot of times we get very lazy and most of entertainment is very lazy entertainment. It’s not very explored or really delving into characters but instead very light and very frosty. There’s less risk and not a lot of passion from the audience or the people involved in it. We live in a very comfortable society we don’t really have great poverty that other generations have experienced or other societies experience everyday. We are a very pampered, taken care of country in a lot of ways. We don’t really have dark ness as part of our everyday lives.
We tend to anesthetize ourselves through shopping malls, money and television instead of actually having these feelings. Yet, the reason why Access Theatre’s plays work well is because people need them. People are always looking for that real experience the story that has been explored deeply by a playwright or an artist and in whatever form whether it’s dance or music.
CC: Have you been able to translate these experiences to what’s going on with E.R.?
AE: I try to do it by example. I do it also by being really supportive of people who make good choices in casting. When we had actors with Downs Syndrome on the set it was a really positive experience. I believe you can’t educate people by telling them what to do you can only support them in their good decisions.
CC: Can you describe your experience playing a character with a disability on Northern Exposure?
AE: That was an interesting role because people with what is now known as “Valley Fever” or these allergic reactions people are having to their environments at that time were seen as crackpots or extra sensitive to chemicals of the twentieth century. As an actor that was a fun role because I could paint with a big brush with all of those extreme conditions. It was a lot of fun to dive into. I guess I liked Mike Monroe, the “Bubble Man,” because he was taking such action about his disability and his survival.
CC: What do you think about the issue of casting people with disabilities in roles that call for a person with a disability?
AE: I think if the script calls for a gay black woman you will probably from a director’s point of view know that a gay black actress will probably have some insight into that role that another doesn’t. But a non-gay black woman could also play person that role and possibly a Chinese woman could play that role as it isn’t necessary that she is even black.
I don’t think you can make a general statement that parts which call for a person in a chair need to be played by actors with disabilities because it is still an artistic medium. I think if the decision is made on the basis of a negative bias towards people in chairs then that’s wrong. But if creative decisions are made based on the availability of actors in chairs then as long as people with disabilities are getting the opportunity then that’s fair. But I mean also understand now the open anger that they’re not even getting in the doors That is wrong. But don’t believe you can dictate a rule or a law through the union that only hearing impaired actors can play hearing impaired roles. I’ve never seen a benefit of censorship. I’m very anti-censorship. I don’t believe we should have any chips in television sets because I think it’s all up to the individual.
I think the most general statement that you can make is that if you have a person in a chair or a per son with a disability that you should try to find actors with those disabilities to play the part. Much the same way the producers of E.R. make very specific attempts to hire female or black directors because the industry is so heavily weighted on white male directors.
I think this translates into the storyline as well. More is done on E.R. powerfully without ever making a point. Simply by showing and not commenting we have been much more powerful. People turn off to being lectured. Especially on television where they may be coming home and saying to themselves, “I’ve had the worst day of my life” and they just want to be entertained. The ability to fulfill both aspects of educating and entertaining depends on the greatness of writing. Great writing will work for so many people on so many levels as opposed to great agendas.
Look at great classical fictional writing. Take Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams-the experience in those plays is so multifaceted for the audience because of the depth at which the stories are being told as opposed to Barney and the way people think kids want to learn and they don’t. That way of simplifying, “We have a lesson to learn.” I think that kind of writing is just being lazy.
MG: Are you surprised that an intelligent drama like E.R. has received such a popular appeal?
AE: No, because every great success I can attribute to is always that. Not to offend anyone but if you think about what has been great television it’s not Happy Days. I think it’s a constant battle because there is always people who want to exploit for the moment and when they are successful you end up with mediocrity. People like Jerry Seinfeld or Helen Hunt and Paul Riser, they work so hard to make a great show appear effortless and funny. For people who don’t have that talent or intelligence they end up with this kind of dumb vacuous television.
I think we are growing as a species but that the battles will always be the same. Years ago I worked with John Huston on the last movie he made Mr. North and every movie made was a battle and he is considered one of Hollywood’s best directors. By the time John Huston had made 15 great movies people should have just written him blank checks to make whatever movie he wanted.
People forget that it always has been hard and perhaps it should be that way. That is probably what makes it worthwhile. My experience has always been that the process of things is where the joy lies anyway and not the result. If it were easy it probably wouldn’t be important. It’s hard to get people to spend money on a great idea. At the same time it would be easier to make a scary violent brutal film. We could get money for that really quickly. But you’d still have to live with your own conscience. I wouldn’t be any good at making a movie like that it wouldn’t be gory enough.