Download: Michael Gaston: a Character Actor Makes Good with the Part of a Lifetime in 'Five Days at Memorial'
Michael Gaston is one of those actors you know you’ve seen before, but you can’t always place just where you’ve seen him. A true working actor, Gaston has well over 100 credits on his resume and has appeared in just over 300 episodes of television. But after seeing his recent performance in Apple TV’s remarkable drama Five Days at Memorial, it’s clear that Gaston’s talents as a dramatic actor have been wildly underused.
In Five Days at Memorial Gaston plays the role of a Department of Justice investigator trying to uncover the truth behind the suspicious deaths of 45 hospital patients in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, all while trying to manage a personal crisis that relates very closely to the investigation. In our conversation, Gaston and I discuss the show, his performance, and his career at length.
Awards Daily: I’ve been proselytizing about Five Days at Memorial for months now, and, while it’s hard to deny Vera Fermiga as the linchpin of the series, because she is so excellent, it was your performance that stood out to me as a revelation. I’ve seldom seen you get to play a role like this. Can you tell me how you came to the show?
Michael Gaston: Aw, thank you so much. That’s really sweet to hear. And it’s not something that I hear generally about my work. I got the role in the standard way. I had done one thing for Carlton before—I played the president of the United States on Jack Ryan—but I guess they had me in mind to play Butch, so they asked me to audition. And immediately from reading the script I just thought, wow, this part—this guy is written as a whole person. This is a real man with a real life and a family and profound tragedy. And then he’s also got this really, really difficult job to do. It was just an incredibly rich character. So I made the audition tape from my sunroom at my house and I sent it in, and I was offered the job. I was thrilled. I was really, really lucky to get picked out of the group to play that part. I’m honestly not sure how it happened.
Awards Daily: He truly is a complex, as you say, “whole” character. But he’s also based on a real guy who was the Assistant Attorney General at that time. Is there an additional level of responsibility you feel playing a real person that you might not feel in a completely fictional role?
Michael Gaston: Certainly. For all sorts of reasons that are above my pay grade, we were not supposed to be in contact with the people that we were playing—for legal reasons, I imagine. But I did as much scouring of the internet to learn as much as I could about Butch Schafer. He starts this investigation off within the context of having lost an adult daughter to medical malpractice. As one of the investigators for Medicaid fraud and malpractice for the state of Louisiana it doesn’t seem like that could be possible, but it’s actually true. And then he has to pursue this important malpractice case where a bunch of patients were killed by their caretakers.
This was all in the script, though, so there was so much of a human being already on the page. I feel very lucky to have the career that I’ve had, but it’s mostly been character work. It’s mostly the delivering of exposition. If I have something other than exposition to tell, it’s usually some horrific crime that I’ve committed, often against a child or some horrible thing like that, and that’s what I’ve spent most of my career doing. In Five Days I felt—and this may sound ridiculous—but it felt easy. I had to learn the lines, but there was a whole complex person there already to inhabit. I didn’t have to invent a bunch of stuff out of thin air.
Awards Daily: You didn’t have to make up your own backstory or inner life.
Michael Gaston: Right. In actor speak, these were the given circumstances. Butch’s circumstances are that he’s recently lost a child and he’s diving into this investigation to keep himself from falling apart. Plus he’s got a wife who’s falling apart and he’s trying his best, as a male of a certain age that is not necessarily wildly, nimbly in touch with his own emotional life, to manage all this in a way that doesn’t feel too terrifying all the time. He’s trying really hard to believe in the good in people. He wants to believe that there’s no way that healthcare professionals killed people on purpose—and he says it over and over again that it just doesn’t make any sense, that he cannot believe these people would do this intentionally—and he has to believe that, or he’s gonna come completely apart because of his daughter.
Awards Daily: As you play him, Butch has an incredible level of professionalism, but he’s also really big hearted. Was it important to you to always be riding that line of showing Butch as this consummate professional who was also struggling against the hurt underneath?
Michael Gaston: Well, I was trying to do what I think Butch was trying to do. He’s trying to stay on task. He’s got a solemn duty and a really important task that needs to be worked out. And I’ve now become friendly with Butch, I can tell you that Butch is a real professional. He wants to do things right in the right way, in whatever he’s doing. And I can tell you the man and the character are profoundly empathetic souls. I don’t know how many lawyers you know, but most of the ones that I know are pretty tight. Even if that’s not who they are naturally, they take comfort in the objective facts of the law in whatever situation it is that they’re working through. And when that becomes too messy for them internally, it becomes really hard to do their job. And it’s embarrassing. And it’s painful. And eventually Butch—I’m talking about the character now—is just overrun by it all, which I think you always know is coming. He’s not going to be able to remain purely professional about any of this stuff.
Awards Daily: I have to ask about your accent on the show. Your voice, at least to me, felt incredibly authentic. I don’t know how many places you’ve lived in your life, but I know you’re from California originally. So I knew you had to be doing an accent. Was it Butch Schafer’s accent?
Michael Gaston: With Butch, the thing that I didn’t do, that I couldn’t do, was find the sound of his voice. So I just had to make something up with the help of our dialect guy John Nelson, who was extraordinary in helping point me in the right direction. I got Butch’s voice from a couple of guys that John turned me on to from watching C-SPAN. An amazing way to get voices is to watch City Council meetings, so I listened to a couple of lawyers from that area and sort of did a hybrid of their two voices.
Awards Daily: I’d call what you did on the show a fairly distinctive, even a bold accent, and sometimes when actors do that it can be distracting. I hardly thought about Butch’s accent at all while I was watching you.
Michael Gaston: Accents used to be much more pure even 50, 60 years ago than they are now. Everybody listens to voices from all over the world, all day, every day. I think that there’s a bias—on the West Coast in many places and certainly in the northeast—that everybody else has an accent. But in reality, everybody has a regionalism. Everybody has a combination of regionalisms. So when you take a place like New Orleans, where people from everywhere in the country have moved there and live there now, it has a lot of the same sounds in it as Brooklyn. People there are from Ireland, they’re from Italy, they’re from the immigrant population, or they’re musicians who came down from New Jersey 20 years ago and now they kind of sound like they’re from New Orleans, but they also kind of sound like they’re from New Jersey.
Butch is actually from Lafayette. Of course, I wanted to make sure I had the right sounds so that I was at least consistent and coherent, but I wasn’t trying to draw attention to my sounds. I think that as actors, it’s easy to become obsessed with the sounds of the speech, and sometimes that happens to the detriment of understanding what people are saying, why they’re saying it, how they’re saying it, and what they’re actually going through emotionally at the time. As an actor, if you are connected, I mean truly connected to the given circumstances, to the point you’re trying to get across, to what is important to you as a character—that’s when people give you the benefit of the doubt about your accent. They don’t even hear it anymore. They’re just having an experience of watching this whole person navigate their way through a situation.
Awards Daily: There’s a lot of very heavy and grim material on the show, but I really want to talk to you about something that was very fun about Five Days that I didn’t see coming, and that was you and Molly Hager. I could not have enjoyed that relationship more. There are lots of films and television shows with cops, lawyers or prosecutors working a case where there’s an older character kind of “teaching the ways of the wise” to the younger person. That’s not the case with you and your partner. Butch is always treating her as an equal, despite the fact that she’s younger. How did you guys avoid that cliché?
Michael Gaston: Well, I mean, it’s in the writing. We didn’t have any of those horrible, tacky traditional things to say to each other. And Molly’s just an extraordinary woman. I knew long before we started shooting that it would be important and really useful to have a good working relationship with Molly. And you don’t know how anybody’s gonna be if you don’t know them. Turns out we have a few people in common, but we didn’t have a lot of friends in common. I’m a generation or more older than Molly, and she spent a lot of her time in the musical theater world in New York, which is not a world I inhabit. By the way, she’s an extraordinary singer. I mean, her voice is astonishing.
But I thought, well, I need to make nice, so who is this woman? So I reached out and I think we decided to go for a walk near where she lives in Jersey. And it was just like, boom. This woman is hilarious and she’s fantastic. She’s just an extraordinarily kind, super funny, wacky person. We got on like crazy and just maintained that all the way through. By the time we got down to New Orleans it was pretty much just the two of us. Julie Ann Emery [who plays nurse Diane Robichaux] came in and out to do a scene on the porch with us and some other people, but the bulk of the hospital workers’ work was done in Toronto. So it was Molly and me every day all day down there working in New Orleans and getting meals at night. I have a friend for life in Molly Hager and so does she. Hopefully we’ll get to do something else again together one day.
Awards Daily: Could you feel the chemistry of that personal connection you had with Molly translating on camera as well?
Michael Gaston: It felt like it was good, but until you see stuff, you don’t know what anything looks like. There were a handful of scenes where we got to actually have fun on screen as a sort of relief from the slog of the whole thing. But honestly, one of my favorite things I’ve ever shot is the scene where she blows up at me and I blow up at her about the list of all the people who aren’t going to be held responsible. And we were able to do that scene again and again, just screaming at each other, because we just loved each other. We’re pals. That’s really rare, and it’s not even necessary, actually.
I’ve had some wonderful productive working relationships with actors where you would never know that there wasn’t much of a life off stage. Ideally everybody’s a skilled professional and you know how to transcend whatever’s going on interpersonally if it’s not particularly positive or relevant to what you’re doing. But the fact that we were playing people who really liked each other, it certainly helped that we really liked each other. In truth, we all became really friendly on Five Days. Some of us knew each other for a long time. Cherry [Jones] and I had known each other for years, because we played husband and wife together once a long time ago. And Vera and I did a play together once at Williamstown. I’m a huge admirer of so many of these people. Julie Ann, for instance. I’m a crazy fanboy of her stuff from Better Call Saul. And I’m really grateful for the relationships that I now have with Carlton Cuse and John Ridley, and all the different people that I had such a wonderful, wonderful time working with.
Awards Daily: Can you talk a bit about your work with the actor who played your wife on the show, Beth Malone? Particularly the scene where the two of you—for me it was the most emotional scene in the show, actually, which is really saying something—where you just hold each other? What was that like?
Michael Gaston: Unlike with Molly, Beth and I didn’t have a lot of time to get to know each other. We did play one scene together on a show a long time ago in New York, but we didn’t really know each other prior to Five Days. But in the scene you’re talking about—where we’re just sort of grabbing each other and holding on—she was just like, bring it in, dude. And I brought it in and we were just like, this is what we are. We’re two people who love each other and we’re free with each other physically. It’s not easy to do. Not everybody’s just able or willing to let some big strange man that they don’t know come in and grab them like they’ve loved each other for 25 years. Beth is an extraordinary professional. Talk about another great singer, by the way. I mean, her and Molly. Beth is one of the great Broadway voices of a generation and a phenomenal actress and incredible woman. I was just really, really lucky. Beth was so warm and so kind and so tender and willing to be vulnerable that it allowed me to do all of that myself with her.
Awards Daily: There was a physicality to your sadness in that scene that goes beyond the words and the tears, I felt like I could almost see that weight in your shoulders. Is it difficult to get to that moment of vulnerability and tenderness? Does it take a lot out of you?
Michael Gaston: I’m a crier. I’m just an emotional person that way. I used to be really ashamed of it when I was a kid, but I’ve been this way my whole life, and now it’s like this superpower to be a big tall guy who can just weep whenever. It doesn’t even have to be that sad. Or really it doesn’t even have to be sad at all. For me, it can just be a beautiful thing, and I’ll just well up. So for me, that was really the easy stuff. After a scene like that with Beth, when it’s over, it honestly just feels good. Because it feels like we had a difficult task and we did a version of it over and over and over again that we were proud of. So that’s actually very uplifting.
As a side story—and I think it’s a decent analogy—my wife is a writer, playwright and TV writer, and watching Five Days at Memorial actually made her happy. As someone who creates stuff, the sadness of it didn’t make her feel sad because of how well executed it was. To her it felt like she saw a beautiful piece of art. I mean, you don’t go to see Goya’s paintings and think, oh, this just makes me so sad. Because while he’s portraying incredibly profound, grotesque things, he’s doing it in a beautiful, beautiful way.
Awards Daily: As you mentioned earlier, you’ve done a lot of exposition. A lot of bit parts. My wife and I were watching, Fleischman is in Trouble the other night and you pop up in that fabulous scene between you and Jesse Eisenberg, where you’re giving him really bad news and he’s hearing the words out of order because his brain just cannot take in, you know, the information he’s being given.
Michael Gaston: Let me tell you, that was the hardest scene I think I’ve ever done. Really, it’s not getting easier to learn lines as a 60 year old man. [Laughs.] But I can tell you, when you have to learn all the words out of order? I mean, I only have like, you know, four sentences or five sentences maybe in that whole scene. But the words are all completely out of order and I worked so goddamn much to learn that. And then I got a call to do ADR sound recording after the fact and I thought, oh Christ, it was hard enough the first time. If I had to like, recreate that scene with the words out of order and match it to my lips… But yeah, I was really grateful for that excellent toupee. Phenomenal work by the hair department.
Awards Daily: As good as you are in those smaller parts, and I’m always happy to see you in them, sometimes there’s a performance where you’re just like, holy hell, this guy doing bit parts deserves big roles. I hope that people seeing your performance in Five Days will take note.
Michael Gaston: That really means a lot to me. Being a part of Five Days was its own reward in many, many ways. It really is. It was an extraordinary experience with exquisite professionals—the writers, the crew, the extraordinary group of actors that I got to work with and friendships that will be lifelong. But I do want people to see it. It really seems the problem we’re having, especially with industry people, is that everybody is saying, oh shit, this show’s amazing, but it’s too hard to watch. And the whole time I’m joking with Molly, like, Jesus, I hope people can persevere long enough in the series to actually see us. Because you don’t even hear our voices for the first five hours of it. I am proud of the work that I did, which is rare for me, and truly, what I hope more than anything is that it just leads to more good work. And I don’t even care where that work is. I would love for it to result in me doing a play in New York that I like. I am cognizant that the show has the potential of just sort of being around and being seen more and more as years go by. I hope it’s sooner rather than later.