If actor Neil Patrick Harris is serious about holding onto his “hardest working man in show business” moniker, he might want to watch out for Mike O’Malley. For when O’Malley isn’t making audiences reach for the kleenex box in his Emmy Nominated turn as Kurt’s understanding father Burt Hummel on the hit fox show GLEE, he’s part of the hilariously twisted writer’s room responsible for the hit Showtime’s series SHAMELESS and starring in his potential Fox midseason comedy FAMILY ALBUM. But just how does he do it? Well, we recently had the pleasure of chatting with the actor to find out just that.
When you were first handed the script for GLEE, did you ever imagine that it would turn into the worldwide phenomenon that it has?
Mike O’Malley: Well I didn’t audition for it, they just called me up and asked me to do it which was kind of a cool thing. I knew about the show, I had an awareness of it because my sister Kerry — who is a Broadway actress and starred in the showtime series BROTHERHOOD — tested for the part of Terri. But also I knew Ryan [Murphy] and Brad [Falchuk] because I had shot PRETTY/HANDSOME which is a pilot they had done for FX a year earlier. Anyways we don’t have to talk about a show nobody has seen, but Ryan has always been a very brave writer and sure enough being involved with that, I had a great experience with him and so he called me up to read this part [Burt Hummel]. I did, and at first I thought I could see where this is going, and then of course it went some place I didn’t see where it was going.
Did it make it easier saying yes to a role knowing what a positive impact it would have?
I’m just such a fan as Ryan as a guy, as a creative person my only question was where should I show up. I can’t say if the character was saying the exact opposite I would have said no to him which is interesting. I believe in the overall idea of what Ryan Murphy does and wants to do in his writing so if he were to all me up and ask me to play a character that the audience thought was despicable, I understand enough in terms of storytelling that sometimes you need those characters so you can tell your story. If Burt Hummel was a completely intolerant guy would I have said no, I wouldn’t do this, I can’t say I would have said no. But I’m happy it’s the other way around.
Having recently heard you on the Adam Carolla’s podcast, one really got the sense that you’re incredibly protective of the character and Burt’s relationship with Kurt.
Here’s what I think. You cannot deny that people are ridiculed and hurt by other people’s intolerance and it’s time for us to stop acting like that’s okay. We’re just past the point. As much as people want to say “Ahhh, come’on I’m just saying this word and making a joke,” or “Ahhh, come’on life’s tough,” or, ” I got picked on when I was a kid,” very few people have wanted to kill themselves. Imagine if every American teenaged boy wanted to kill themselves for wanting to have sex with girls? People don’t understand unless they have friends, or people in their lives and families or seek out literature or characters are of a different persuasion then them. So what’s great about GLEE where here is this character like Kurt is going through all this stuff and they’ve dramatized his experience of it. It’s not a grown man whose coming out, it’s someone who is coming to terms with who he is in an environment that yes is sometimes intolerant but it’s also very tolerant.
For a group of inexperienced twenty-somethings, the cast of GLEE have handled themselves remarkably well over the course of the past three years. Looking back to when you were twenty, how do you think you would have handled the fame and public scrutiny that comes hand-in-hand with starring in a hit television show?
I like to think that because I have great parents I would have handled myself the correct way. I think that they’re all just very nice people and extremely hard working. I went to see their live show, 18,000 fans screaming, and they put on this incredible show. And I know how hard they work during the year, they just seem to be handling it with real grace and consideration. They’re keeping each other in check too, they’re a real team and I think that when you’re a team like that there are leaders from within the team and there is self policing going on. By the way, I’m speculating, but I’m there a decent amount and all I see is people working hard and getting along. All this drama, I swear to God I’ve never seen any of it, all I see is people working hard, laughing with one another.
Before we move onto your other favorite project of mine, we’ve have to ask one more GLEE related question: Are you ever going to get to sing on the show?
Let’s make a move for it! I’ll sing anything Ryan wants me to. I can carry a tune. I could fake a good country song depending on what it was. If Artie can have a fantasy sequence where he dances, I can certainly have a fantasy sequence where I sing.
One thing that audiences may-or-may-not know about you is that aside from starring on GLEE, you’re a writer on the hit Showtime series SHAMELESS. Can you elaborate a little more on your involvement with the show?
I’m a writer/producer, so I got credited with one episode but I’m in the writer’s room with John Wells and the other writers everyday we meet. So I’m breaking all the stories, giving notes on all the stories, we’re all doing that together.
Do you think sweating it out in the writer’s room makes you a better actor?
Without a doubt yes. If you have great bosses like John Wells and Ryan Murphy, you understand how much thought goes into the scenes they’ve written. So you understand what it is you’re playing and that what it is you have to get across in the scene becomes immensely important because you know where it fits in terms of storytelling. If people are bored they’re not going to keep watching. As an actor on GLEE it taught me to be really specific about what it is I’m trying to convey or what my obstacles are in the scenes so that it’s incredibly apparent to whoever is watching what’s going on with the character.
One of the most interesting aspects about SHAMELESS is the polarizing nature of Gallagher patriarch Frank. What are the debates like inside the writer’s room in terms of how far you should be taking the character?
There was a lot of discussion in the writer’s room as to how far we wanted Bill Macy’s character to go with [Lip's girlfriend] Karen and how could we do that scene and still make people understand that it was a human being and not just a two dimensional villain that was participating in the relationship. It’s been interesting. John [Wells] is very specific about wanting to make certain that the complexity of who Frank is. There’s a monstrosity and narcism to alcoholism that you see the Gallagher children go through. And I think that messiness of it and the fact that you do hate him is what makes it an interesting show to write. It’s not just about what ridiculous thing can we do this week, it’s more about how people overcome and struggle with succumb to the monstrous of everyday human behaviours that we impose upon one another.
Is it wrong that one of the appeals of the show is how much better SHAMELESS makes me feel about my own life?
The great part about writing for it is that you’re able to feel these things, so if what it does in a good way and make you turn off the show and say maybe I should vote for — now I’m brining politics into this and I don’t want to this is my perspective — what does this show when I look at the circumstances of this family what does it make me think about? Does it make me think about the fact that schools should be better and that alcoholism is a real disease? Does it make you think about anything other than thank God I’m not in this family? It’s giving you a glimpse into a world that you don’t really see on television very much and that it’s not just here are these poor people, it’s like holy sh*t man look at what these people are up against.
If your name was to be read on Emmy night, what would you prefer to win for: Acting or writing?
What do I prefer, people are constantly asking me this. I think the act of writing a script is an immensely, all encompassing creative endeavor. I like the challenge of coming up with a story, getting notes on why a story doesn’t work, trying to work with your colleagues on finding out what the best solution is, going off on your own trying to write dialogue that you think accurately would tell that story best and that knowing, really well, what your contribution has been to creating that finished product. Knowing what jokes you came up with in your backyard, driving down the street, or whatever an observation you might have about life or human interaction that you always wanted to articulate. Just the idea that these characters are speaking through you, the challenge of that, the craft of that, the emotional work that it takes to do that really well when you get it right is immensely gratifying.
Where as the acting part of it, the hard work that you’ve done is mostly work that you’ve done in your 20′s. Learning how to act so that when you get to set you let everything fall away and just be as truthful as you can in the scene. So often times when you’re acting it just feels more like playing, just kind of more like I’m going to show up, we got to shoot two scenes today and at the end of the day yo know you work has done and you can move on to the next thing.
As a writer you can finish a script, think it’s amazing, and the next day be told that only 50% of it is acceptable for whatever reason. They either like it or don’t like it. Hey, you think it’s great, that’s why you passed in it, but then you find out only half of it is great. So you got to go back to the drawing board, and that relentless. Going back to the drawing board is a different kind of work. It’s a challenge and frustrating but when you finally succeed you also have the gratification of knowing what you contribute to the episode.
And finally, how do you managed to juggle guesting on GLEE, writing on SHAMELESS and a potential midseason Fox pilot that is FAMILY ALBUM?
I shot the pilot before SHAMELESS started up again, and because it was a 20th Century Fox project for Fox Television they worked out the schedule with Ryan Murphy so that I was available to do that. Now, if we go midseason in August obviously I’d have to get a few days off from SHAMELESS, but we’d be in production then and often times when we’re in the midst of shooting we’re not meeting in the writer’s room as often because we’re off writing our scripts. In terms of GLEE, as part of my deal to do FAMILY ALBUM — because I said to Ryan Murphy that I didn’t want to jump ship and that I love playing this character want to be around and available to play it as long as he wanted me to do it — they [20th Century Fox and Fox Television] worked out a deal to allow me to do six episodes of GLEE, and more, if FAMILY ALBUM doesn’t get picked up.