With numerous critically well-received TV shows to her credit, Michelle Forbes is riding a crest in a career of character parts. Besides starring in the Golden Globe-winning “True Blood” and “In Treatment,” she is (re)appearing in the short-lived 2000 series “Wonderland,” set in Bellevue mental hospital, which has re-emerged for a run on DirecTV. Eight episodes of “Wonderland” were shot, though only two aired in 2000. Created by “The Kingdom” director Peter Berg, Wonderland was criticized by some as too controversial.
Forbes chatted with Fancast this week about “Wonderland’s” controversy, her Globe-winning shows, “Kalifornia” costar Brad Pitt, the fierceness of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” and hanging out in wintry Bellevue.
Q: What interested you about “True Blood” and “In Treatment”?
MF: They’re both very unique shows. The format of “In Treatment” was very exciting for me and all of us, shooting a one-act play in two days. Telling a story in such a different way for television, and being able to be so intimate and intensive in the work, and concentrated, rarely more than two people in the room, sometimes three. “True Blood” is just a wild ride. It’s a very fun and challenging character for me. “In Treatment” was so rooted in our deep, intimate emotions that we don’t often get allowed into. We’re never allowed into anybody else’s therapist’s room. It was fascinating to be a fly on the wall. “True Blood” is quite the opposite. It’s being in this world that is not rooted in reality and human emotion. It’s wonderful to do both at the same time, to alternate between deep reality and hyper-reality.
Q: How much do you pay attention to the buzz around the show? What do you think about both?
MF: I tend to follow it quite a bit. I was in Montreal shooting this Canadian series so I wasn’t able to watch it. As it was unfolding, I was in this odd little bubble. I was following it online to see how it was perceived. And it made me excited. It made me really to watch it! “In Treatment,” it had a rocky opening, and not that many people were watching it. A lot of people said they were terrified of the commitment. It sounded so massive. They said 45 shows, five nights a week. It was wonderful to watch the audience grow and become so connected to the show and become emotionally impacted by it.
Q: Did you talk with your costars since Jan. 11’s Golden Globes?
MF: Absolutely, I was so thrilled for my gorgeous TV husband Gabriel [Byrne, who won Best Actor]. I was so sad he wasn’t able to make it because he was sick. I was looking forward to seeing him even though I saw a few weeks earlier in New York. Absolutely thrilled for Anna [Paquin, who won Best Actress]. I only saw her briefly and gave her a big congrats. I’ll see them more each week. They’re both just lovely people.
Q: Does it feel like you’re shooting a movie every week?
MF: “In Treatment” didn’t. It felt more like shooting a play actually, with no rehearsal. We just happened to be in close-up. “True Blood” does feel more like a film in that we are shooting on film, not HD. They’re spending 10 days on an episode, instead of the usual seven or eight, like a lot of shows do. A lot of attention is being paid. The production values are high. The great thing about cable is that you don’t have to do a nine-month haul. “In Treatment” was about four months I think, which is about what it takes to shoot a film. And the same with “True Blood,” it’s going to be a little bit longer, but you have a more finite period to tell a story, and you can go off and do other things. I jut finished this project in Canada called “Durham Country,” which is a Canadian miniseries that won a bunch of Geminis, which are their Emmys. That was a six-hour miniseries we shot in three months. The production values on that are extraordinary, so beautiful to look at. The television landscape is changing. It’s no longer the ugly cousin hiding in the basement. It’s absolutely more cinematic. And I think equal to what we’ve seen in the past.
Q: Why did you like “Durham Country”?
MF: They sent me the first series, and I thought it was beautifully shot. It’s so dark and such an odd story. I just really wanted to work with this writer. Hugh Dillon, the lead actor, is so intensely charismatic. I jumped at the chance to work with him.
Q: Being a “Star Trek” veteran, what do you think of J.J. Abrams’ new “Star Trek” movie?
MF: It’s been 17 years since I did “Star Trek [The Next Generation]” so I don’t really follow it. I don’t know much about the movie, but I guess it’s a good thing they’re doing. I’m not quite sure how the fans feel about it. I know in that genre, fans get upset with remakes and what have you. But why not, I guess it’s about time. We remake everything these days don’t we?
Q: Was staying true to what the fans an issue with “Star Trek: The Next Generation”?
MF: Well, it was so long ago, 17 years. I don’t recall. I was such a young actor. I just did what everybody else did and just told the story as best I could as an actor. I knew what “Star Trek” was, but wasn’t familiar with the new show until I started doing it. You jump into it like any other project.
Q: What is “Wonderland”? It’s from 2000, and what is it like seeing it on DirecTV now?
MF: Well, who knew? I think it’s a wonderful thing. You work on these projects that are profound and meaningful, for whatever reason. We got to spend a lot of time at Bellevue with the doctors and patients. When you have that quality of emotional exchange, it becomes an experience that you don’t necessarily dispose of. It sits in your reservoir of experience. I still remember all the stories on a deep-down emotional level. This story I just finished, “Durham County,” I played a woman whose mind was fracturing. It was wonderful to have had that experience at Bellevue, to have seen first-hand up close, and to understand that better. I was grateful to have that experience nine years ago. But it is disappointing when everyone works so hard. We spent six months in New York in the winter, in a mental hospital. Our dressing rooms were the rooms of the patients, solitary confinement. It was fairly grim. It took a lot out of everyone. It’s really lovely that nine years later, it’s taken off the shelf and people are able to see what I thought was a really important story to tell about this dissected portion of our society that we are terrified of and don’t want to pay attention to.
Q: How did you get the character just right?
MF: I spent a LOT of time at Bellevue, a few days seven or eight hours a stretch, talking with the doctors, picking their brains, observing them, having lunch, laughing with them. That was important because you an intense duty to get it right. It was the communion with the patients that left me with the most residual feeling. It’s just devastating to see these people who are suffering, and these fractured families, people just trying to survive in a system that is overrun and overwhelmed. It was a beautifully intense experience.
Q: Why do you think “Wonderland” was canceled? Was it “ER’s” popularity in your timeslot?
MF: I think there were many mitigating factors involved. One, it was a bit shocking at the time. I had just finished doing “Homicide: Life on the Street.” That show struggled to find an audience because it wasn’t necessarily your good cop/bad cop. It was your existential dogma cop series of the 90s. It didn’t have the comfort level that a lot of procedurals do. I didn’t have a lot of high hopes for Wonderland knowing how intense it was, emotionally and psychologically. Violent and physically gruesome as well, at times. I wasn’t sure being on a major network that it would survive. Had it been on cable, it might have had a better chance. If we premiered it today, it would have had a better chance. But there were other factors. They put us against “ER,” which was still in its prime. Regis Philbin came along doing that “Millionaire” show. They were showing that 10 nights a week. America was loving it. Also, there was a changing of the guard at ABC. The new guard came in and said, ‘I want to start with a clean slate.’ It’s the fate of many shows. You get into the network and studio politics, and the political correctness of this country. It’s difficult for shows to get the right tone. But now that shows have opened up on cable, with “Mad Men,” “The Wire,” “Sopranos,” and “Sex and the City,” it’s all happened since then. The audience is in a much more open place. They want to be challenged intellectually and emotionally.
Q: Are you a reality TV fan?
MF: I’m not really. Occasionally, I’ll find something that tickles me, like “Top Chef.” But overall, not a big fan of the reality. I still don’t quite understand why they call it reality TV when it’s not very real. They should call it unreality TV. Isn’t a lot of it scripted and manipulated? Didn’t this whole craze start with “The Real World”? That was the first time I remember it entering into my consciousness. I have to say I was doing a film and I ended up watching that whole season in my hotel room. I was kind of fascinated by that, because it wasn’t booze-driven. I felt it brought the youth of America together from different races, economics, parts of the country, religions and put them together. They all had aspirations and jobs. I thought it was a fascinating social experiment. How we’ve broken down to hot tubs and vodka I have no idea. It’s turned into something I don’t quite understand.
Q: How did “Guiding Light” (for which you got a Daytime Emmy nomination) prep you for a Hollywood career?
MF: That was actually my first paying gig. You work very fast in that world, as I recall. There was a lot of dialogue to be learned, and I was playing two characters at once. It was baptism by fire. It gave me an understanding that I could be a triathlon runner, as it were! Those are some very long days, and there is a ton of dialogue, and you’re flying by the seat of your pants. The thing I found most challenging and unrewarding about that world is you tend to skim over a lot of things. You don’t have the ability to be terribly intensive. There is so much work you’re trying to put forth in one day.
MF: I actually really did, I think we all did. It was the four of us three months together in a Cadillac. We spent a lot of time together. He was lovely, such a hard worker, that’s what I remember the most about him. Extraordinarily committed and earnest. It was an interesting dynamic between the four of us. We had many long hours sitting in that car with all of our weird props. There were a few yuks going on.
Q: What’s next?
MF: Right now, it’s mostly “True Blood.” I’m also shooting a small film in about a week. Four series – pretty good huh? After the strike, that’s a good thing.