Mark Harelik is an actor known for his work on series including The Morning Show, Preacher, Wings and The Big Bang Theory. He has also starred in acclaimed films such as Election, 42, and Trumbo. I spoke with Mark about the origins of his career in the film industry, portraying Dave Novotny in Election, his work on stage, and his portrayal of God in Preacher.
I want to begin by talking about your origins in the industry and where you started your career.
It’s a question that even when people think they know the answer they really don’t. When you establish either a career path or a passion path for yourself as a young person, when you first begin to battle the professional world those reasons for engaging it, just from my observation, usually change. Sometimes they change radically. I would say in terms of the performing arts music, dance, acting, and anything where you are standing on a stage and saying, ‘everybody shut up and look at me.’ It requires a form of arrogance to do that in the first place. I don’t mean that pejoratively, I just mean that as a quality of arrogating yourself to stand up in front of people and say shut up and listen to me. Most young people enter that realm as literally just the impulse to say shut up and look at me, watch what I can do. I have a skillset that I want to show off, or I have a realm of enquiry I feel very passionate about and it deserves your attention at this moment, more than your attention deserves mine. Really what you’re serving as a young person when you start out in performing arts is you’re serving your ego, serving your emotional impulses and I would say it falls largely under the realm of showing off.
I first became a professional in 1979. That was my first stage union card. That was 41 years ago. It was because I wanted to establish my self-importance. It was an emotional need for me. I’m hazarding a guess that for most young artists that’s their origin. As you meet a group of peers, or as you begin to be challenged by directors and mentors and other writers you begin to find that there are other purposes that lie beyond the initial satisfaction of having to prove my existence by asking everyone to shut up and look at me. That leads into the realm of empathy. So, I would say my origin in the performing arts and especially once I began writing, which was right around the time I was working on Election. Maybe a little bit later, but generally in that time of my life I kind of discovered that the performing arts are actually the empathy arts. The empathetic arts.
If you accept the idea that humans operate socially on the theory of mind. I look at you and judging by your facial expressions, even the almost wedge of nothing that I know about you, I still know that you’re a thinking person that is listening to me and I’m processing that somehow in order to emphasis with how you might be hearing me. You have this brain chemistry that establishes the same thing for you so that it sort of comes as an early-mid career mid revelation that what I do on stage, or on film, or in my writing actually goes into the brain chemistry and the thought processes of the people observing, and that in some small way they are able to experience what my character is experiencing. They are experiencing what the written character is experiencing. Suddenly the telescope, or the zoom lens suddenly zooms way out and the perspective changes from personal, which is my needs, to something with a multiplicity of perspectives, which is what you might need, or what kind of channel I would like to open with you so that basically you’ll have mercy on me, mercy on my character. You’ll have mercy operating in the world that this character operates in.
I’m going to share with you a random thought regarding this and thinking about our conversation. I’m reading in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a profile of a Guatemalan immigrant whose skeleton was found in the Arizona desert. The investigative reporter tracked his bones and found his young wife that was waiting to hear from him in Guatemala. The process it took to get his bones processed and put in a mini casket and sent back to Guatemala. I had so many empathetic resonances with his story, based on this young immigrant’s personal story and his personal desires. I realised that in the most immediate sense, the policies setters, we have Trump right now and he has policies regarding immigration. But even policies that I endorse in a certain way have to guard themselves against the person empathetic response that I had in order to set some sort of national policy. Because otherwise they would say, ‘everybody please come in, I’ll move over, I’ll make room for you, sit down next to me. I’ll share my meal with you.’
In terms of national policy nobody can do that, which creates the massive immigration dilemma. This power of empathy and wanting to channel it is the ultimate driving force. In terms of an origin story, the empathy channel may be the long term goal, but I seriously doubt it is anybody’s origin, my origin was selfish. It’s the only way to reach people’s hearts and then maybe a vast reorganisation of people’s hearts can create a political framework, to try to find a solution. Perhaps the empathetic aspect of that political framework is compromise because compromise can only be achieved through empathy.
So my real origin was in sort of a rebirth in the discovery of empathy. I would say that I found it first through my efforts to write, rather than my efforts to act because acting is so much bound up in immediate response of either the audience or my fellow directors, or actors, or reviews, or whether or not I was hired back to the second season of television show X. It’s bloggy territory, but in writing, especially since my earliest explorations in writing had to do with immigration stories and misplacement, I realised that empathy is the only way you can start in finding a reason to bring a fictional character forward. What are other reasons? Laughter, fetishist indulgence, which Preacher is a prime example of. Performing is a sticky bog. A career is not something you build going forward, a career is something that you look back and see what tracks you have travelled, that you never could have imagined you travelled. You can’t chart out your life. You can establish a general direction for yourself, but you can only see your career by looking back.
You portrayed Dave Novotny in Election. Could you tell me more about this?
I had a great deal of confidence when I was cast in Election. My original meeting with Alexander Payne, I got the job on the spot. It was very relaxing and encouraging because I realised very quickly that I was the character he wanted when I walked in the door, very different from the character Tom Perrotta wrote in his book. I don’t really know what he thinks of the way my character was portrayed on screen. But then in Election I entered this very strange terrain that I was unable to navigate because the fact it was a comedy and I don’t really know what’s funny. I don’t really know how to manufacture a comic moment, so a lot of the comedy came out in the way that Alexander cut it together. A lot of stuff I didn’t know was funny. I was working a lot with two actors whose responses to me were so opaque that I really didn’t know where I stood in relationship to them.
Reese Witherspoon at that time was very young, although be it very intelligent and talented and perceptive, but her star was sky rocketing at that time. This was her big, breakout, explosive role which I think everybody had a sense that was being created at the time. Certainly Alexander knew it. She was within herself the entire time. Matthew Broderick is just opaque, it’s one of his mystiques as an actor that I find fascinating. When I watch him on film you never really quite know what he’s thinking and it’s not through any particular deafness of his own. When you’re right there with him at any given moment you have no idea what he’s thinking. He is so intensely private. I found myself prepped between these two characters and found myself really on my own which I guess one is in one’s real life in trying to navigate the emotional terrain.
The one thing which I discovered these beginnings of this empathetic channel with David Novotny is that he’s a pathetic, needy teenager in the body of an adult man. It was a little too easy for me to take pity on my adolescent self and let him speak and let him come through, my 16 year old self. My skinny, awkward, socially inept-self come through the guise of this adult married man. That’s when it occurred to me this is how I take pity on myself as a younger bumbling sexually inept, in articulate, love-needing teenager. Somehow it became shockingly easy to tap into. Then when I watched the film I realised oh that’s where the comedy is. There was comedy there because I was empathising with this teenager in an adult’s body. When he’s having his pathetic breakdown over being busted and he’s being taken to the principal’s office like a ninth grader, it’s totally genuine and remorseful and pathetic and fully empathetic and just so funny. And so fucking absurdly and painfully funny. I had no idea at the time. My impression was the movie was a little dark, a little slow, and it was a little expressionless. That turns out to be Alexander Payne’s gift.
So he didn’t direct Election as if it were a comedy?
No. Not is so many words, but you can tell his aesthetic was do less and don’t feel that you have to be expressive at all, in any way. I mean God knows, and I mean this as praise, but that is one of Matthew Broderick’s great gifts. He is under no obligation to be expressive and it works like a charm, still as opaque. I wouldn’t say that he is unfriendly, he’s just there. He was there like a chair is there, or a table.
There is a scene when Matthew Broderick is in the shower in Election and it just instantly reminded me of a middle aged Ferris Bueller, which makes the film all the more funny.
Absolutely. Over here it is a famous double-bill movie feature, back when there were still double-bills at the movies. My tendency is to be a little bit juicier and he’s dry, in a very appealing way. It made it kind of lonely working together, we never really hung around.
I recently discovered an alternative ending to Election which would have made the film much more dramatic.
It was certainly less disguised in terms of Reese Witherspoon’s character having achieved her objectives and was on her way to dangerous heights. It is one of the reasons that the movie continues to be popular. As I recall her ambition leads her to a very empty place. Right now President Trump’s chief advisor is a young man named Steven Miller and there’s a lot in the news these days about what he was like in high school. He was very much a Tracy Flick. Look where his trajectory has landed him. Alexander very astutely picked that for the trajectory of his character 25 years ahead of one of his Tracy Flick’s ending up at the President’s elbow.
Re-watching Election it definitely feels more political than when I first saw the film at a younger age. I think it was Obama who said it was his favourite political film…
One can’t see that everything about high-school life is political. It’s all about hierarchy and status and the size of your group and the success, and cohesiveness of your group. It’s so savage. I have a 15 year old son who is entering his second year of high school. At this point he has a little more maturity than I did, I don’t see him getting caught in one of these horrible peer, trawling nets. I could be wrong, I don’t know.
You’ve done a lot of comedy. You also played a role in The Comeback episode in Seinfeld.
The kind of comedic character I enjoy playing: Milos is right down the centre of it because it is basically goofy comedy, it’s a one man two governors comedy. I just have a ball with it because a character, especially a character with an accent and a ponytail, is such a great mask. It’s fun to have fun with. Jerry is on the Matthew Broderick scale of things, but he enjoys people perhaps a little bit more than Matthew. When you’re on a television show you have to be a little bit more available. The main thing I remember about working with Jerry is on the day we shot the tennis playing scene we were under a tent that was set up in an outdoor court and there was a blustering rainstorm. So we were there for five or six hours and we just played tennis. It was one of my favourite afternoons and he’s making little observations and side questions, but mostly we just had a good time playing tennis. In that episode I was too good with my right hand so I played everything left handed to make sure I was bad enough, but I just enjoyed the pathetic quality of that. I knew the comedically pathetic side of that character. I think that in comedy the more pathetic the character the easier it is for me to grasp it, I don’t know why that is. The psychology may be too deep for me. I do enjoy outrageous comedy.
I played a character on The Big Bang Theory. I think I came in maybe the first or second season, I don’t remember. But with Dr. Gablehauser I was unable to find his pathetic luck, what was pathetically comedic about him and so for that reason they dropped my character after I was in it for two seasons. I don’t know whose decision that was. I think it was Chuck Lorre’s. That was a real vivid example to me where I kept searching for the pathetic, absurd quality of his comedy, but I just couldn’t find it. I was a generic bullshitter, but wasn’t specific enough for the comedy of the show. It was an interesting experience for me to find an inability to find what was the really pathetic part of this guy. I knew he was based on Carl Sagen and I just wasn’t able to mock him enough to find it, maybe if I went back knowing that. Chuck Lorre was massively unhelpful in that. Glad to be gone from it, but glad to be on their residuals catalogue.
Do you prefer working in comedy?
No I don’t. There’s so much pressure. The highest pressure is in the kind of skit comedy or sitcom comedy that is done in front of a live audience with four cameras. It’s too nerve wracking for me. I suppose there’s a lot of comedy in Preacher, but there was the privacy of working behind the single lens and the opportunity even on a fast day to fail several times in a row and still get another take. In TV three takes, maybe four takes. In film 15-20 takes if you need it. In Preacher I was able to work with a few directors who were willing just to be very honest and give a lot of good feedback saying, ‘let’s take it again, let’s take it again.’ Then there is the freedom to fail. It really is a wonderful freedom to have, to be able to fail.
Strangely on stage, even though it is present tense and you’re only doing it once because of the repetition of doing it night after night there’s that same freedom to fail. It’s the one thing lacking in sitcom television. I wish I was better at it because it is the most high paying of all the TV jobs, much more high paying than film and single camera-work, but so be it.
Looking back I have a whole career doing nothing else and I support my family and I get stopped at lot: ‘Were you at my cousins wedding?’ Or, ‘do we go to the same dentist?’ or, ‘do you shop in the whole foods in Beverly Hills because I feel like I’ve seen you before?’ That always gives me a secret thrill because it means they’ve been watching me, but don’t know where they have seen me. I’m sprinkled around like salt and pepper. I’m never the beef, but I’m always in the flavor.
You portrayed God in Preacher.
Well they had to get to God eventually. From the very beginning if you’re cast as God when the major character is searching for God you know you’re going to have a swell final season. I was pumped for that.
Was there a lot of creative freedom when it came to portraying God?
It was all creative freedom which not only was it nervous making, but it left me a little clueless at times. There were a couple of times when I was being asked to confront a character and gaze off into the distance planning my next move, and I would say, ‘okay what is that next move I’m planning?’ And the director would say, even the writer would say, ‘we don’t really know yet. So come up with some specific options for yourself.’ I said to the showrunner after it was all over, ‘I could have done a much better and more specific job if I’d known what the trajectory of the final season was going to be.’ He said, ‘yeah but we were working under the circumstances and the storyline kept changing. You did fine.’ So I guess my generic pondering off into the distance was able to justify whatever happened on the next episode.
The more I was able to realise that God is actually something of a clueless slob, it really was a lot of fun to do. Living in this trashed out trailer and his love of the eternally wasted life of New Orleans was just as a hungry lonely old dog who could never settle on anything. I really like that.
So improvisation was the biggest challenge in portraying the character?
Yeah. It’s not the kind of thing where I could take copious notes and take a history and trajectory for myself, so it was a lot of just on the spot notions. Which was fun because at least in our version of Preacher, the television version, God is a fan of jazz. It’s a more continually manipulating the theme and trying not to be overwhelmed by the knowledge that there is this force loose in the universe that is so much greater than him. He’s just trying to put it off as long as possible, see off genesis.
A large majority of the cast I noticed are British.
The final season was so much fun because we filmed in Melbourne and Americans like myself were in the extreme minority. He’s British, she’s Irish. Several of the leads were from Australia and New Zealand with a smattering of Americans, it was really fun to work on. The Australian crew loved it so much. The guys that were in charge of the buckets of blood and how to pump warm red syrup through throbbing veins, they just loved all of that. It was fun enjoying it with them. My stuntman cracked a rib falling on my behalf and he was very proud of that.
I’ve parked my RV in front of the Alamo in San Antonio which was the scene of the last stand of the Texans during the Mexico war. That’s where I meet Jesse and he discovers that all I want is for him to love me and so he uses his genesis power to throw me all around and smash me into walls. So all I had to do was fall on the ground with an oomph and get up with an angry confused face. My stunt guy was being flung around 30 or 40 feet on this crane and smashed into the ground. There was one time when they let loose the cable several feet before they were supposed to let it loose above the ground and he hit the ground. I was watching on camera and thought that’s an impressive bounce you took and then he didn’t get up. Everybody ran out there and I saw people saying: ‘Stay down.’ He went away in an ambulance. Blood on the set. It’s considered good luck. He was okay and it upped his street cred for future stunt work. Taking a bullet.
You also do a lot of stage work. Is that something you would like to continue to do?
Yes I enjoy it very much. It’s hard to schedule because it’s extremely time consuming, frequently more time consuming than doing a film. It usually involves being away from home and I have a young family. So I’ve had to do less and less of it, but I enjoy it immensely. It can’t be beat. There’s nothing like it. In film and television it is the audience that gets the real experience of the storytelling, the actor really doesn’t unless you are the one or two major characters that are in the work every day. I love stage work and directing as well. The last thing I did was directing one of my own plays and it I got to work with marvellous actors and I got to work on my script. I didn’t perfect it, but with the actors help I was able to burnish it to whatever polish it would withstand. I loved doing it and the immersion of it. Everybody sitting in the same room and cogitating together.
One of the difficulties of stage work, I haven’t done an extremely long run, but I’ve done a couple of things that are commercial on Broadway that had multi-month runs for me and there’s a whole new challenge there of finding a way to keep it new, every night with a repetition. The repetition that is initially useful becomes an enemy after a while. Empathy is a good notion of fall back on when you start feeling stale on stage because you realise there are people out there who have paid good money for their ticket. They are sitting and willing and available so you have that empathy channel that’s open to them.
I suppose with the current climate everything has been postponed…
It has. The last thing I filmed, I worked on a couple of episodes on the Perry Mason miniseries with Matthew Rhys. That’s the last thing that I did that was in the can. I auditioned for something recently that will go into production at a time TBD. I’ve got to spend time with my family, my wife and our dogs and travelling around my caravan around the western US, which I think is what a lot of people in the US are doing now. We’ve sort of been exploring the outdoors. Opportunists and lucky enough to have some savings on which to do that. A lot of my peers don’t have a lot of financial padding and are just stuck waiting in their apartments.