Woodburn being frisked before the interview, found several disturbing objects, but no weapons
Behind the scenes of Hot Flash with Lia Martirosyan playing the fed-up home owner
He was always the joker: First to make his mother laugh, and then comedy club audiences. Roles in college plays led to the New York stage, and then to a roll of the dice in Los Angeles. Danny Woodburn’s been on Seinfeld, Bones, and the new Showtime series, Happyish on TV, and in Watchmen, Mirror Mirror, and the 2014 redo of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the big screen. Behind the scenes, he’s an advocate for people with disabilities; serves on the Screen Actors Guild’s Performers with Disabilities Committee; and received the DREAM Award from the Disability Rights Legal Center. Married to his muse, actress Amy Buchwald, they frequently collaborate, giving taboo topics a twist. Recently, the actor met up with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper in Los Angeles.
LiaMartirosyan: Let’s tell everybody what you’ve been up to. Danny
Woodburn: Are you going to transcribe this? Chet
Cooper: And change everything you say.
Woodburn: Then you’ll take out all the stupid stuff?
Lia Martirosyan: Those are the best parts. (laughter)
Woodburn: So let’s see. In January, I worked on an episode of a sitcom called Melissa & Joey. Unfortunately, when we were doing it, we found out that it had been canceled.
Woodburn: Then in February I did an episode of HAPPYish, which recently aired. I’ve shot two of those.
Cooper: That’s an interesting show.
Woodburn: It’s peculiar. It’ll get its footing, at some point—probably when I appear.
Martirosyan: What’s your character?
Woodburn: He’s an actor who portrays a real Keebler elf in a Keebler elf commercial. And apparently my character’s very Method and kind of an a**. I play a lot of obnoxious jerks. Typecasting, I guess.
Martirosyan: My sister-in-law was just asking me, “Was he from Bones?” And I said, “I don’t really watch Bones, so I’m not sure if he was on it.” And she goes, “Yeah, he was, and he was kind of an a**!”
Woodburn: It’s a good character because he’s very outside the box. He’s one of the heads of the State Department, so I get to wear a suit, which means they get to make me a suit, which means I get to keep the suit. The only nice clothes I own come from some set somewhere. The tuxedo that I was married in was made for an episode of Tracy Takes On…
Cooper: So that’s why you wore that Shakespearean outfit the other day?
Woodburn: Nothing else was clean! Okay, so then in March I went to Minneapolis to give a talk for an organization called Partnership Resources Inc., which is a nonprofit that helps those who advocate for people with disabilities. I talked about my upbringing, my struggles as an actor, that kind of thing. From there we went to Cincinnati for the RealABILITIES Film Festival. It’s a big deal. Have you ever been?
Cooper: Not yet, but we’re a sponsor.
Woodburn: When I got back to LA, I did another episode of HAPPYish. I’m on the third and seventh episodes of the show. I spent most of the shoot scheming and yelling at Rob Reiner, which I enjoyed.
Cooper: Did you ask them how they get away with using real company’s logos, like Viagra?
Woodburn: I think they’re going to go for it until somebody yells at them.
Cooper: National Lampoon broke a legal barrier: If it’s known to be parody you can get away with it, without it being considered slander.
Woodburn: Right. I remember John Belushi had that Wheaties spoof. He’s out of shape, smokes, and is competing for the Olympics, and he goes, “I’ve trained a lot of hours, and I’ve downed a lot of donuts,” and he has what looks like a Wheaties box, but it’s called Donuts, and he pours ‘em all in a bowl.
Martirosyan: That’s funny. So what else is going on?
Woodburn: I’ve been working with my wife on her musical about domestic violence. We’ve been shopping it, trying to get funding. I had a meeting with the Minnesota Vikings. They contributed some money towards the production. We’re trying to get grants, and we work with an organization called Cornerstone, which helps women and their children get out of domestic violence situations and into a safe haven. They’re sponsoring us to put the show up in Minnesota.
Cooper: A musical? That’s different.
Woodburn: The first of its kind. So we’re busy. I’m chasing after people at the NFL.
Cooper: I hear they’re hard to catch.
Woodburn: (laughs) Hopefully someone will take enough of an interest to at least sit down and talk with me. When I was in New York, year before last, we produced a reading of it at St. Luke’s Theater. That was a big deal. We cast it, rehearsed it, blocked it, and I even lit it. It was almost like a full-fledged production put together in 20 hours. The audience appreciated it. My wife and I established a nonprofit called the Mulberry Tree Group. We take taboo subjects and address them in the arts, be it poetry, theater, musicals… Some of these things fall in line with that mission, including domestic violence, incest, depression. My wife has a dance script based on depression. She also did a project called “Awakenings Through Poetry,” which was for hospice workers and people who have Alzheimer’s. And then we have her musical, and another somewhat taboo subject is, of course, women going through menopause, so we decided to film a new web series, hopefully called “Hot Flash.” You got questions? I got answers.
Cooper: The talk you gave in Cincinnati, is that something you’ve honed to do around the country for different organizations?
Woodburn: When I went to Cincinnati 10 years ago, I did the keynote at a dinner gala awards ceremony for the Inclusion Network. I talked about how the city could be more inclusive of people with disabilities and why that was important. I ended up connecting with the RealABILITIES people there. They had banners up around town with Marlee Matlin and Daryl “Chill” Mitchell. And then Kurt Yaeger from Sons of Anarchy came out, and they put up banners with his picture and mine on them. I’d never seen my face on a banner in any city, so I was like, “I’d love to get a picture of that.”
Cooper: Usually your picture’s up at the post office? (laughter)
Woodburn: Right. But there it was hanging off streetlights. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to get a shot of it, so I asked if someone could take a picture of it and send it to me. Instead, they shipped me the whole banner. I said, “What am I gonna do with a nine-foot image of myself?”
Cooper: Wrap it around your car!
Woodburn: Hang it like a flag.
Martirosyan: It would have been good to see the banner as it hung in the city. They didn’t get that that’s what you wanted?
Woodburn: I guess not. It’s kind of tough to enjoy it stretched out across my living room floor.
Martirosyan: What about a slip-and-slide?
Woodburn: Or at the bottom of my pool, so I can look down on myself. (laughter)
Cooper: Tell us about Hot Flash. That’s a web series?
Woodburn: Yeah, we’re looking for funding. Once it’s done, we’ll put it out there. I’m going to reach out to some drug companies, and see if they’d be interested in producing it.
Cooper: That’s a good idea.
Woodburn: ‘Cause people don’t really talk about women’s parts very 46 ABILITY much. Not that we’re talking about women’s parts, but you know… Also I’m looking for an editor for the web series, because some of the things that we’re going to add in post-production will be funny.
Martirosyan: Looking forward to it.
Woodburn: When I was a kid, I would stick chewing gum anywhere, and it sometimes ended up in my hair the next morning. I had a lot of gum in my hair as a kid.
Martirosyan: How long was your hair?
Woodburn: Long. I was 10 in 1974, so you can imagine I had a lot of hippieness going on at my house.
Cooper: Where did you grow up?
Woodburn: Just north of Philadelphia.
Martirosyan: When did you get into acting?
Woodburn: It’s funny. I took a drama class in high school, which I loved, but my high school was focused on science and kids becoming veterinarians or doctors. I was thinking about psychology. But as a kid, I always did comedy with my friends. I was totally into listening to comedy albums on a record player. But we only had one speed on our record player—78 RPMs. I played a Woody Guthrie record that probably belonged to my mother; it was called Songs to Grow On. To make my mom laugh I would improvise them as a little kid, which was my first foray into performance.
Martirosyan: Do you sing?
Woodburn: I did a musical about Vietnam called Viet Rock in college. But I needed to be drowned out by everybody around me. It was written in the ‘60s, and a buddy of mine, who’s a very talented musician and songwriter, was the musical director. It was a good show. Then they asked us to take it around, and we did it in New York and in a run at regional theaters in Philadelphia.
Cooper: Were you in college at the time?
Woodburn: Yes. I went to Temple University. They had a good film and theater department. I did a lot of theater in college. And then I went to New York and did Viet Rock. Around then, a buddy and I were deciding whether we should go to LA or New York. I came out and visited a friend in San Diego, and once I experienced San Diego in June, I thought, “California is the place I want to be.” (laughter)
Martirosyan: (singing)“California the place to be.”
Cooper: (to Lia) Do you know what show that’s from?
Woodburn: Come on, you can do it.
Cooper: That’s before her time.
Martirosyan: Green Acres! (singing) “Green Acres is the place to be.”
Cooper: Wasn’t that Beverly Hillbillies?
Woodburn: She’s half right: The tune Lia was singing was the Green Acres’ theme. “California is the place you ought to be” is a lyric from the Beverly Hillbillies. The line went on: “so they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly—Hills, that’s is. Swimming pools, movie stars.”
The other song goes: “Green Acres is the place to be, clean livin’ is the life for me.” I don’t know the rest. I just remember the line that always disturbed me was when he said, “You are my wife.” And she said, “Goodbye, city life.” Like, “I’m givin’ it all up now ‘cause I’m the woman.” Even as a little kid I was like, “Why does she have to do that? Why does she have to live the city? Just because she’s the wife?”
Martirosyan: There’s a lot of that kind of stuff in old films. You know, the no-sound movies.
Cooper: I think they call them “silent” movies.
Woodburn: The no-sound movies! I’d turn ‘em up. (laughter)
Cooper: Do you use digital cameras to shoot your web series?
Woodburn: Yes, the RedX.
Cooper: Those are nice.
Woodburn: With 4X digital, you can take a shot and enlarge it and not lose quality. Frank Capra had a problem with that in It’s a Wonderful Life: On one of the takes, Jimmy Stewart is on the bridge doing his monologue before he’s about to jump in the water and end it all. Stewart thought he was doing his close-up, but he was still in the wide shot, and he did this full-on emotional moment that they loved, so they had to enlarge it to bring the image closer, if memory serves.
Martirosyan: How are you with crying on cue?
Woodburn: Good, if I pull out enough nose hairs.
Actually, I try not to think of crying on cue. I want to find the moment when it’s appropriate for the character. If I can grab onto the reality of the scene, then it should just come. But as you know, being in my class, I’m a real believer that we can alter our physical state to get where we need to. You think about the contortion that your face is in when you’re going to cry, or when something is emotionally devastating, or sapping, or draining, or whatever. Just like when you smile, if you physically put a smile on your face, you feel better. The feeling comes from the activity.
Cooper: You and Lia know each other from—
Woodburn: She’s come to a lot of different—
Martirosyan: I’ve taken his improv and scene—
Woodburn: —the classes I’ve been involved in with David Zimmerman.
Martirosyan: Do you get most of your gigs through personal contacts or through agents?
Woodburn: Not necessarily from personal contacts, but maybe by people reaching out to me. There’ve been a handful of movies or directors I’ve worked with over the years that began with people reaching out to me and it went from there. I worked on this kids’ series of movies called Santa Buddies. I did about three, and then that director called on me again just last month to come and do a movie called Monkey Up, which has a talking Capuchin monkey in it. I play some big-time movie director, which is very outside the box for me.
Cooper: Is that animation?
Woodburn: No, it’s live action, but the monkey will be voiced. They’ll probably do something in post-production to make his mouth move. I don’t know how much they do. They did it with dogs. I haven’t seen them do it with monkeys yet. This is the director’s second monkey movie, and I think he’s spoiled now because the monkeys are smarter and follow direction better.
The guy would flip open his thumb and index finger and say, “Smile!” and the monkey would smile. He would say, “Come in and pick that up,” and the monkey would come in and pick the thing up. He would say, “Walk,” and he could get the monkey to actually pace. So the monkey and I are pacing in a scene and having a conversation.
Martirosyan: That’s really funny. Has it gotten easier? Do you still have to hustle for gigs?
Woodburn: Always. I’ve written some scripts, so I want to pursue different production companies to take a 48 ABILITY meeting with me. And my wife and I, we write together. I have a phone meeting this afternoon with somebody at Amazon Studios to see what they’re looking for, and to see if anything we’ve created might work for them. I’ve gone to New York and met with people at The History Channel or A&E. I’ve had meetings at NBC. It takes a lot of hustle.
Same thing with acting jobs. If I see something I want, then I’ll push my manager and agent to get me in. And then there’s a group of casting directors that are in my corner, and periodically they’ll call and say: “Why don’t you come in and read for this?” That’s after being at this for 25 years. If there’s anything to do with little people, my agent and my manager are on top of it. It’s the stuff that maybe I might be able to go out for, that isn’t specific to a little person, that I’m interested in. Characters that I could play, you know, some other a**hole.
Cooper: “Anything that comes up that says ‘a**hole,’ I’m goin’ for it!”
Woodburn: I’ve played nice guys, too.
Martirosyan: At what stage in your career did Seinfeld come along?
Woodburn: It was my first sitcom. At that point I had done maybe three jobs, including an episode of Hunter, and a series called Pros & Cons with James Earl Jones and Richard Crenna. That was one of my favorites because I played an actor in, like, a cornflakes commercial. I was dressed as a strawberry. And there was another guy with me who had no lines, and he was jealous that I had all the lines. My character wouldn’t do anything right, and the director goes, “What’s the problem?” and I’d go, “Well, I need to know my motivation.”
And he goes, “Your motivation is survival, ‘cause in about two minutes about 500 gallons of milk is gonna come crashing down on you.” I was like, “Okay, got it.” After that scene, they go, “Where’s strawberry number two?” So they’re diggin’ around for the other strawberry in the cornflakes, and he’s kicking me the whole time that I’m doing my lines. I knew this guy, and I didn’t really care for him that much as it was.
Cooper: That really happened?
Woodburn: As we were shooting it. He was trying to screw me up. So I grab him by his leaf lapels—
—and I go, “If you kick me one more time I’m gonna beat the livin’ #%&@ out of you!” So we were two giant strawberries going at it in a 15-foot bowl of cornflakes.
Woodburn: It totally was. That was my second speaking role on television. And then I did a movie about a bear called The Magic of the Golden Bear, with Mr. T and Cheech Marin. It was low budget. After that I did an episode of Murder, She Wrote. So I had four gigs, four speaking roles, before Seinfeld. But I had worked on a sitcom in other capacities, just never on camera, so I sort of knew how things went. I went in for a couple of auditions. I met with the main casting director, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. It was between me and three other guys.
The day of the last call back, they said, “Can you go to work right now?” and I said, “Yes, absolutely.” When you do a sitcom, the first thing that happens in the week is the table read. All the actors sit around a table, and behind the table are the writers. Behind the writers are the producers. The network is usually there sometimes to listen. So this was a big table read. And when it came time for Michael and I to fight with each other, we went at it across the table and got big laughs. So I knew this was gonna be a good episode. But I had no idea that I was gonna come back. But every year they had me back for another episode or two. It was a very exciting time, especially when they were ending the series. People came out of the woodwork wanting to work with me. It’s really helped me. And even though the show’s been off the air for 17 years, it doesn’t feel like it to some people.
Cooper: I still catch it every so often.
Martirosyan: I used to watch it all the time with my dad.
Woodburn: That first episode we rehearsed all week, working out how we were gonna do the fight scene. It was originally written that I jumped on his back. That just didn’t feel right to me. It felt like the stereotypical image of little people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to bite somebody on the a** in some capacity or another. Not on that show, no, but on other things.
Martirosyan: And you said no?
Woodburn: Why on earth would I ever do that? There’s this desire, sometimes, to make little men animal like, either patting them on the head, or having them bite. It’s dehumanizing. So I try to steer clear of that. But this was different: face-to-face, mano a mano, just two guys who got in a fight. And Michael had so much control over his body that I essentially just grabbed onto him and hung on for dear life. In the scene where we were throwing each other around, shaking each other by the lapels, he was all over the place, and just sort of keeping me from falling over. He was throwing himself left and right, and it looked like I was shaking the living daylights out of him, but it was really him doing it, and I was just hanging on to make sure I didn’t hit the ground.
He was very gracious, and he invited me to his house to watch the episode I was in with him. That had never happened to me before, and it hasn’t happened since.
Martirosyan: You know, I Googled your name and found something on a Wikipedia page, I’ll keep my opinion quiet for now. It says, “Born July 26th, American film, television, and stage actor who may be best known for having played Mickey Abbott on the sitcom Seinfeld. He has dwarfism. As a result, his most common roles are Christmas elves.”
Woodburn: I don’t know who posted that, but clearly it’s not somebody who knows my work.
Martirosyan: So not only did I want to know what you think about that, but also wanted to put it out there so someone could change it.
Woodburn: I can count, on one hand, how many times out of the 200 different appearances on things that I’ve made that I’ve played an elf character. Once for that series of movies for the kids and offhand, I can’t even think of another time. I was a character dressed as an elf—but not necessarily an elf—like a guy who’s doing a job, but not an elf per se. It’s peculiar. My thing about playing any kind of character that is fantastical is that there has to be dimensionality to it. If it’s just somebody showing up and standing in a room and being an elf or being a gnome or a dwarf, it’s not something I would do. The interesting thing to me is that little people seem to be the only ones criticized for that, whereas when we see every character in The Hobbit series played by an average-sized person, nobody makes any commentary about that. I spoke to CNN Headline News live regarding the depiction of little people in Mirror, Mirror, and I got a lot of flak for it. I’ve had casting agents say of me, “He could never play a doctor.” It’s an absurd thing to say when the chief of orthopedic pediatrics at Johns Hopkins is a person with achondroplastic dwarfism. Which is why when Peter Dinklage plays this Game of Thrones character, everybody goes bonkers because they’ve never necessarily seen that kind of role for such an extended period of time. When somebody says, “Why is this average-sized person being shrunk down to play a little person?”
Nobody ever criticizes that, but they will criticize the role of a little person in an average-sized role. If somebody were to be in blackface, playing African-American, people would be up in arms about it. When I brought up the subject, I got a lot of flak because people thought I was saying it’s akin to the struggle of African Americans for respect. And in some sense, I do feel it is akin to that. It’s interesting what people will leap to defend and leap to criticize.
Cooper: Do you think that’s criticism or ignorance?
Cooper: It’s ironic that they are questioning a little person playing a doctor and that you were thinking of going into medicine.
Woodburn: I was accepted into the pre-med program at Penn State around 1984. There’s such an upswing of little people in the public eye right now… All the reality shows that have come on since Little People, Big World, which goes to show that we can be as obnoxious as anybody else. (laughter) I think attitudes towards disability need to be spotlighted. People need to be shown that this is not a way to interact with people with disability. And it’s clear that there’s still tremendous prejudice out there, because two-thirds of our population is unemployed. And yet we make up 20 percent, if not more, of the people of this country. To say nothing of other countries.
Woodburn: Other countries, maybe without the same medical care, might find that the population is larger. Countries that are at war are gonna have a larger population of people with a disability. In China, there are actual height requirements for some jobs. So parents will put their children through torturous limb-lengthening surgeries, because their society literally looks down on people of smaller stature.
Cooper: We’ve been working with China on changing attitudes. They’ve been studying what we’ve been doing with ABILITY Magazine—and they’re pretty candid in talking with us about their goal of an unlimited, barrier-free concept.
Woodburn: I don’t find my struggle to be related to my size in any way. I find it to be related to my syndrome, in that society sees me in a certain way because I have a dwarfism, and whatever physical things come along with my package have given me the struggles that I’ve had. But it’s never been about me being four feet tall. That’s not the issue at hand. It’s not about, I can’t reach #*@%. There’s always something that somebody can’t reach. Anybody who shops at Costco knows they’re not gettin’ anything off the top shelf without help. So it’s about perspective.
Cooper: I’m still trying to reach happiness. It’s way up there. I need help with that.