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Ted Danson and Jason Bateman on the Key to Longevity and Setting the Tone on Set

Back in the early ‘80s, Ted Danson and Jason Bateman were making their mark on TV — with Danson starting his decade-long run as Sam Malone on “Cheers,” a role that would win him two Emmy Awards, and Bateman, beginning his career as a child actor on “Little House on the Prairie.”

Twenty-five years later, they’re both still at it — scoring Emmy noms for their latest roles. The Academy recognized Danson for his is-he-or-isn’t-he-evil devilishly charming Michael on NBC’s comedy “The Good Place,” as well as Bateman’s is-he-or-isn’t-he-immoral devilishly devious Marty Byrde on Netflix’s dark drama “Ozark,” which he also directed.

After sharing effusive praise for each other’s work, the two actors talked with Variety about the responsibilities of being No. 1 on the call sheet, why they really miss multi-cams, and the one role they still want to play.

What do the Emmy nominations mean to you?

Ted Danson: Well, first off, it plunges you into the worst place for an actor or creative type, which is smack dab into your ego. You have a couple of choices: you can go to false humility, or you can think that it actually means something about you. Both are very dangerous, silly places to be. This is the false humility side of my answer. I am really happy that it shines the light on the show, “The Good Place,” because I’m really proud of the writing and what Mike Schur has created. So, that’s cool.

Jason Bateman: Well, but also, it’s old hat for you. You’ve been around this world of high-level execution and reward for many years. I should talk to you about what I should wear. I mean, is it black tie?

Danson: What you should wear is something that has pockets, but yes, it’s black tie. What you really want to do is bring food. It’s four hours.

Bateman: I feel like a newborn in the business with the level of excitement that the morning brought. That was really, really fun. I didn’t think that the show was going to get any recognition. I wasn’t anticipating it, because there’s so many good shows on television right now, both in comedy and in drama. I’m sure Ted would agree, to be lucky enough to be on a show that for one reason or another gets singled out, certainly not because it’s any better or worse than anything else. It’s oftentimes just luck of night, luck of time slot, luck of network, luck of time of year, co-stars. It’s very exciting, as Ted said, to be on something that gets the kind of recognition where the people that work really hard on it can get a little attention as well, ‘cause this isn’t painting. This isn’t golf. These are team sports, and if even one person doesn’t do their job well, it all kind of falls apart.

Danson: I do not have that side of my brain working that would allow me to produce or direct. But it must be deeply satisfying. You were at the core [of the creation of “Ozark”]. You directed. Did you also produce? That has to be more of a thrill, to get your child recognized.

Bateman: Yes, but again you cannot do it all by yourself. You know from doing this as long as you’ve been doing it, what it takes to get all that sausage made. I like the responsibility and the pressure and the privilege to be able to oversee that whole process, and be the person that some people might be going to fix a problem or answer a question. That part was really, really fun. Do you have any desire to share the incredible amount of knowledge and information you’ve absorbed over all of these years in a lane different than the acting.

Danson: No.

Why not?

Danson: I really don’t, ‘cause I’m not a storyteller. Halfway through a story, I get bored even by my storytelling. I really want my director to be a Renaissance man, who knows way more than I do. I’m so thrilled to be that subjective bridegroom who shows up and is delighted by all the work that everyone else has done. I get to go pretend and make believe. That side of my brain that would be the writer, director, producer, I use happily on all the ocean advocacy work I do. I love to brainstorm, come up with solutions, and do all that in that area, but for some reason it doesn’t translate to storytelling.

What makes you say yes to a part? What do you look for in a role?

Bateman: For me right now, I’m really interested in spending what limited talent I’ve got with acting on trying to just be the audience. I’m attracted to parts that are just the Everyman; just really right in the middle, something that you’re not really going to notice as far as character or performance. It fits very well with what I like doing as a director right now too, because if I’ve got a proxy for the audience that’s in front of the camera, somebody I can cut to that would process something absurd comedically, or something unsettling dramatically, then that’s a nice component to have as a director.

Jason Bateman is nominated for two Emmys this year, his third and fourth noms of his career overall.
Jackson Davis/Netflix

Danson: I guess it’s a little bit magical for me. I’ve never been the actor who has a stack of scripts who has to figure out what to do next. I seem to be almost like a contract player in the ‘50s or something. I tend to do what’s next in front of me and I seem to be very, by and large, blessed. I would say that what rings a bell for me with a script is some sense of whimsy, some sense of sense of humor, even if it’s a show like “Damages.” That was a drama, but it was so dark, and everyone was so rotten, that it’s really kind of funny. If it’s a comedy, I hope that there’s some gravitas, or some tragedy or some sadness in it to make the funny more interesting. And then, I really love the idea of finding a part or a character that is, at some level, going through what I’m going through in life.

What do you feel your responsibility is as No. 1 on the call sheet? Given your experience on so many sets, what kind of tone do you want to set on the set?

Danson: I don’t know if I have a truism for that, but based on the project and kind of stuff that I’ve been doing, I do believe that your job, to some degree, is to host. Your job in front of the cameras is clearly the most important thing, but making sure that the set is light and people’s work is appreciated, and that they know you don’t think you’re better or different. You value literally everybody in the crew, and it’s not a manipulation, it’s true. It is such a joint effort, that if crafts service sucks, it’s an unhappy set. If crafts service is brilliant, they’re responsible for the tone and the happiness around the day as well. I’m not a good follow-me-into-the-breach kind of leader. I feel like if I’m behaving correctly and trying to do the right thing in each moment, that’s the best way for me to be a leader, to just mind my P’s and Q’s.

Bateman: That kind of perspective comes from longevity. Ted, I admire you so much for that. It’s not simple to keep a job in this business for longer than five or 10 years, and you’ve done that in spades. I have heard about you on set, that it is a pleasant place to be. It is a familial dynamic, and there’s an easy leadership that comes with that experience and comfort in one’s own skin. I haven’t been lucky enough to see it firsthand yet, but from what I hear, you do set a nice place. I’ll send you all my contact info after this call.

Danson: I’m waiting to be off the record before I totally geek out on you. I so admire you. You know, some people diminish in front of a camera. You’re intelligent, how bright you are in that Everyman role you say you play. It’s so clear. You think and observe and take in with such intelligence that I hugely admire. I can’t take my eyes off of you. You’re amazing.

Bateman: Very nice of you. Thank you. I’m helping that in the editing room. I’m making sure you don’t keep your eyes off me. I use a lot of my own coverage.

Danson: Maybe I should rethink this directing thing.

Your shows have 10 and 13 episodes, shorter than the usual broadcast standard of 22. Does that hold more appeal for you creatively as an actor?

Bateman: For me, the draw to the project was the challenge or masochism, depending on which way you look at it, of directing all 10 episodes. I wouldn’t be able to do that if it was a longer order, and as it turned out, I wasn’t able to carve out enough time to even direct the 10. So, I had to just do the first two and the last two. The approach to this sort of season-long story was that of a 600-page movie. It was a 10-chapter book, if you will. I really like this longform telling of one particular story. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end, all wrapped into these 10 chapters. So that I liked.

Danson: I think it’s also exciting, because all of a sudden you get really good directors and really good writers and actors, who maybe don’t want to commit to 22 episodes, their lives, to nine months of the project, will do four to five to six months on something and consider it like a long movie. So your talent pool expands hugely for television.

Bateman: You know what I do miss, Ted? I’m interested to see if you do, too, is that, I would spend nine months again on a multi-cam show. I truly think that is the best job in show business. There’s nothing like the routine of a sitcom, where you have an audience that comes in once a week, to hear the stuff you’ve been working on for five days. The writers work their ‘nads off and their hours can be not kind, but boy, it is all pleasure and no pain on the acting side, I have found.

“Longevity’s also the result of having fun.”
Ted Danson

Danson: No, I agree. I can’t tell at age 70 now, whether that was a young man’s sport. Even though it’s much more relaxed than theater, you are doing little opening nights once a week. Which comes with a fair amount of adrenaline, at least in the beginning. I can’t tell whether I would want to go back to that, but oh lord, was it great! Three weeks on, one week off. Then you literally took your summer off at the same time your kids were taking their summers off. It was kind of ideal. I agree.

But no one’s making multi-cams anymore. The creative community’s moved off of it. Do you think there’s a chance we’ll see them come back?

Bateman: I guarantee if Ted Danson raises his hand and wants to do another multi-cam, he’d have his choice.

Danson: Here’s a little truism I have learned: Do not have anything developed for you, unless you’re some brilliant standup who truly knows their voice. My rule of thumb now is find the most creative person in the room, ask them what they’re doing and then ask very nicely if you can be part of it in any way. Much better play.

Jason, what have you learned over the course of your career?

Bateman: My brain goes to the most important thing, which is keeping your head down and trying to make yourself proud with everything that you do and say and the way in which you go about your stuff. Because I think the fuel for longevity is trying to do things that you respect and that other people might respect as opposed to trying to get paid a bunch of money or make sure your name’s above the title. That’s kind of a sprinter’s mentality, and it’s just too hard to keep a job in this business running at that pace. I feel so fortunate that I’m still working. Ted’s made a lot of friends and done a lot of great work and that’s why he’s still working, and I hope I can say the same thing, or people say the same thing about me, ‘cause that is really what matters.

Danson: I think longevity’s also the result of having fun. I actually have asked myself, “Is a 70-year-old man supposed to be having so much fun going to work to do make believe? Am I supposed to now move on to serious things?” But I get a thrill driving through a studio gate, turning right on James Stewart Avenue, crossing over Gregory Peck Boulevard. I’m still that excited person that first drove through a studio gate 40 years ago.

You’ve both also had fun this season with improv with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Arrested Development.” How much do you enjoy getting to flex that muscle?

Bateman: Well, we don’t [improv]. The writing is so finely tuned, and they don’t need us dingbats trying to plus it, ‘cause we certainly can’t. However, the style of the show is one of kind of a mockumentary, not too dissimilar from the format on “Curb,” where we try to make it look like it’s made up. We do a lot of um-ing, and er-ing and overlapping to make it seem conversational. Ted, are you in there crafting what the scene might be about, and here’s some of the things we might want to say, and points we might want to touch? Do you back into some favorite lines, or is it all pretty strictly scripted?

Danson: Everything else I’ve done, comedy-wise, is a product of a roomful of incredibly, funny, bright people, and trying to improvise would be stupid because they come up with such great stuff. But on “Curb,” it’s a far less-talented Larry David. I like throwing that in whenever I get interviewed. [Laughs.] You know, when he gets nominated for writing I go, “Wait a minute!” He spent four months doing what all writers of comedies do, with the writing room and you block out the season, the arc of the season. The last thing you do in most comedy rooms is you turn to one of the writers and say, “OK, go spend a week and write the dialogue.” But everything has been planned. Larry takes it right up to, “OK, go write the dialogue.” You improvise and you get the basic gist of what the scene’s about and he’ll tell you the first couple of takes suck. So by the fourth time you’ve almost improvised the whole script.

Ted Danson scored his 12th lead comedy actor Emmy nomination this year and his 15th career nom as well.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Bateman: It sounds like a lot of fun. A lot of fun.

Danson: You know what it is? It’s relaxing. Because your job is the same as going out to dinner with Larry. You try to insult him and make him laugh, and it’s basically what you do when you go to work in front of the cameras. I’m in the gym and I eat one teeny piece of food and I exercise, and I get my sleep, and I don’t drink just to be able to have the energy to do “The Good Place.” With Larry’s show, you can go out, get drunk, smoke dope, get divorced and show up and you’re still fine.

Bateman: You guys must destroy so many good takes by making each other laugh.

Danson: He is the worst offender. Which is what also makes him quite wonderful, ‘cause I’m sure you’ve worked with a lot of standups. Standup comedians aren’t always the most generous with their laughter. But he has hysterics over everybody being funny, which is very sweet, but ruins tons of takes.

We’ve seen a lot reboots and revivals happening lately. Are there any roles in your past you’d ever be interested in revisiting?

Bateman: No, I don’t think so.

Danson: No, I really don’t. Part of being an actor, I think is, when you’re out of a job, you stifle a sob, and part of you is secretly excited to know what’s around the corner. I think I’m more interested still in what’s around the corner.

Bateman: I agree with that. Sometimes, I think about “Little House on the Prairie,” and how I didn’t really realize, of course I was 11, I didn’t realize I was doing a western. I was just like, “ I can’t believe I’m on a TV set.” But I wouldn’t mind getting another whack at doing that show. Maybe we should bring that show back.

Danson: I want to do a western, too! Can I be in that one? Bring it back. I want to do a western.

Bateman: Talk about somebody setting a good tone on a set and being good to people above-the-line and below-the-line: Michael Landon. What a great first experience that was for me around how a set can run and how you can actually get the whole call sheet shot without screaming or yelling or pushing.

Jason, do you think that’s what helped you to navigate the transition from being a child actor to staying in the business?

Bateman: There were a few things that I seem to have gotten half right to bridge that transition, but I think beyond the obvious, of not having the instinct to wake up and be overly self-destructive, I think that getting a job that is somewhat relevant and exciting to the people who hire folks in this business. Getting one of those jobs at that moment of transition, age-wise, is really vital, and for me that was “Arrested Development.” If that show hadn’t come along, I don’t know what I’d be doing today. That was something that America didn’t watch all that much, but the people in Los Angeles watched at least enough to where once that show stopped there was other opportunity for me. I was so appreciative that I had another whack at employment, then I just scrutinized my choices a little bit deeper and, as I knock wood, I’m still going.

Ted, do you think that there was a role for you like that, that transformed your career?

Danson: The obvious is “Cheers.” I’d done a couple of films, but there’s nothing like television to blast you out into the world. I think something that was a transition for me, because after I shot “Cheers” and then “Becker,” I tried one more half-hour and it didn’t quite work; wonderful writers, but didn’t quite work. I felt like I’d stayed too long at the half-hour comedy party, and I was kind of boring myself. I wasn’t funny. There were other people so much funnier, and I was kind of demoralized. Then “Damages” came along and revitalized and excited me about working again, and it was also where I figured out, finally, “Don’t worry about the size of the part, just go be with creative people.” I think that was a turning point for me, and gave me a boost to where I am now.

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