An Interview with Actor Richard Schiff

The former West Wing star and Emmy winner talks about his role in the TNT original movie Innocent, and his years as an "actor's actor."

By , Columnist

Richard Schiff’s role as White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler on The West Wing won him an Emmy and a multitude of accolades from critics and viewers alike. However, as an "actor’s actor," Schiff is much more than this iconic role. He has co-starred in over 50 feature films, performed on stage on Broadway and London’s West End, and continues to work in television. He can be seen this January in the new Showtime series, House of Lies, co-starring Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell, where he plays a bad Wall Street consultant. Schiff calls the role "one of the must fun experiences I ever had."

He also stars in TNT’s original movie Innocent, based on the novel by Scott Turow. Although somewhat weary from his flight home from Israel the day before, Schiff was kind enough to chat with me about his projects, past and present.

You’ll be co-starring in the TNT original movie Innocent. Could you talk about the premise of the film and your role in it?

Innocent is adapted from a Scott Turow novel. Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent, as well. The movie starred Harrison Ford and Raul Julia. It was a really wonderful film that my friend John Spencer was in. This is the sequel, 20 years later. Same characters. I play a lawyer named Tommy Molto who had tried Rusty Sabich for murdering a colleague 20 years earlier and now Rusty is the judge, so we have a relationship. Rusty is presumed to be a suspect in his wife’s murder. My character reluctantly has to press charges and bring him to trial. That’s the backstory of it.

Richard-Schiff-1_hslg.jpgScott Turow is a wonderful novelist. He was on the set and I got to know him quite a bit. Really talented writer. Mike Robe, who directed and adapted the novel, has worked with Scott on numerous other projects and did an incredible job adapting this to the screen, highlighting some of the pungent writing that Scott brings to his books.

I had a great time working with great actors like Bill Pullman and Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden. So I was thrilled to take it and had a fantastic time shooting it up in Vancouver.

You seem to be working all the time, either in films, the theater, or TV. Do you have a preference for one over the other?

I have a preference, yeah. I have a really strong preference to do really good work. It’s a little more controllable in theater but then you can’t control the day to day variations of your own instrument. So some nights are fantastic and some nights are just not there. That’s when you really have to use your training to get through. A football player having an off night still finds a way to win. That’s what make theater so fascinating for me, and then there’s the immediate presence of the audience and the relationship that you have.

When you’re on set there’s a very intimate relationship depending on the nature of the material. With the camera, it becomes a very personal relationship. With the audience it’s just as deeply personal but it’s a much larger lens. There’s nothing like being on stage and sharing the preciousness of a moment with an audience.

richard-schiff200.jpgYou’re playing Christina Applegate’s father on the sitcom Up All Night. Is this your first time working on a situation comedy?

I started out doing sitcoms. I was doing Murphy Brown and all of those sitcoms early on. It’s funny, I get to go back a little bit. I enjoyed it. Christina is a very talented lady. My wife is [played by] Blythe Danner. I’ve always been a fan of hers. We actually worked together a few years ago on a TV movie. It’s nice. It’s a sitcom and it’s developing. I think they’ll find their voice, find out what kind of show they are down the road and now maybe I’m part of that process. I think they’ve got something there with those two. They’re really talented.

Shows sometimes have difficulty getting picked up.

I’ve been on two new shows this fall and the days I was there, they got picked up for the back nine. That happened with Up All Night. The day I showed up they got picked up. I just did Once Upon a Time. The day I got there they got picked up.

Do you have a recurring role on Once Upon a Time?

I thought it was [just] one and I was happy to go up there to do one because I’m a little bit busy. But all the actors said, “Oh, yeah, you’ll be back, you’ll be back. You have to come back because you’re the reason that this happens.” They don’t tell the actors because they don’t want anyone to know what the story is. I’d be happy to go back there. I kind of love the character I play. I think that show is really fun, actually.

Toby_Ziegler.jpgWhen you look back on your role as Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, how do you remember it? What was it like being part of such a groundbreaking show?

I don’t sit around and think about it. Sometimes people ask if the show affected American politics. At the time I thought, no, and now after the 2008 election and running around on the campaign trail and meeting with thousands of Obama volunteers, all of whom would run up to me and go, “You’re the reason why I’m doing this," [it’s a different story]. In 2004, if you’d asked me if The West Wing had any effect on the American political landscape I would say, no, look at the election. Bush actually won this time. So, no. But in 2008, with all of those young people volunteering for every candidate, especially Obama’s large army of young volunteers, all of whom were West Wing fanatics, I would say, yes, we actually did have an effect on the course of history in a very small way.

Innocent premieres on Tuesday, November 29 at 9 PM on TNT.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning Blogcritics.org website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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