Exclusive Interview: Mike O’Malley Talks About Being A Dad on GLEE and A Writer on SHAMELESS

Mike O'Malley

Congratulations on a successful season of ‘Glee‘. How does it feel to have passed the cap of the sophomore season?

Mike O’Malley: It’s been really great to be involved with a show that emotionally connects with it’s audience in the way that it does. I recently had an opportunity to go to the ‘Glee‘ live show and just to see in person, not just the phenomenon that ‘Glee‘ is, but really the joy it brings a lot of people. So, to just be a part of that kind of show is something that I think a lot of people who are involved creatively as actors and writers and creative people, directors, people on the crew, they want to feel that the thing they’re working on matters to people.

And it’s undeniable that this show matters to a lot of people and it matters to them in a way that a lot of things that we work on doesn’t. In particular in my role, I’ve been on television for a long time and the shows that I’ve worked on people have enjoyed, but to work on a role where people come up and say to you, ‘God, that scene just had me crying and that scene meant so much to me,’ or ‘I wish when I was a kid my father was like you,’ those kinds of things don’t happen everyday in your life as an actor. You feel as if all your time spent pursuing this matters in some way to other people. A lot of the reason so many of us do this is because we just like participating in a medium where stories are told because stories matter to people. When you find out that they do it’s pretty gratifying.

From the show until now, is there a difference on the set in how you guys approach the shoot knowing the show is a phenomenon? Does that change anything?

Mike O’Malley: In terms of the demands the show puts on me, they’re different than the demands that the show puts on the rest of the cast because they’re all having to learn singing and dancing and they’re constantly doing publicity for the show. They have given over their lives to the show one hundred percent, sixteen hours a day, and they’ve been doing that for two years.

For me, when we come in and do my scenes with Chris [Colfer] or with Cory [Monteith], often times those scenes are very quiet scenes that two or three people are in. There’s no choreography. There’s no singing. There’s no playback. There’s not a lot of camera movement. I did one episode this year when I got married where I had to learn a lot of dancing, and it was funny because of course my dancing was the comic relief in the piece. So, I used my natural bad skill at dancing to enhance the performance.

From year to year, we now know what it is that we’re doing in the sense that we now know that a lot of people are watching and paying attention and you’re always going to work even when a show is in it’s infancy and doesn’t necessarily have the ratings or it hasn’t even aired yet, you’re still approaching your work the same way. You’re approaching it with dedication and focus, but when you then know that there’s people paying attention to it there’s a different, I think, demand in making certain that you get the scene right.

In particular for me, when I had the episode with the sex talk, Ryan [Murphy] talked about this and I think he’s right because he directed that episode, it’s that here’s the first time we’ve had or seen this conversation happen on television which is a straight man giving his son, with knowledge that his son is gay and probably has not had sex, and he’s giving him his perspective on what’s important about that experience.

What’s important is to recognize that the stuff that’s being thrown around in the mix is the stuff that makes life and it deserves a lot more reverence than people give it. I think to hear that conversation happen unexpectedly from a guy who you think has nothing to tell his son was really beautiful and refreshing.

Your character is dealing with his son being gay realistically, in a way that most people don’t tend to see –

Mike O’Malley: I think what’s the hardest thing for parents is to understand that their children are not just there to be improved versions of themselves. They’re individuals with individual drives, with individual fates if you believe in that sort of thing, with individual needs that have nothing to do with who you are as a parent. You have to get out of the way sometimes, but I think what you always fall back on, and I know this because I’m a parent of three children myself, is that you fall back on the idea that, okay, if you love these kids and you’ve lived, for the most part, a good life, then when they fall upon hard times or they struggle at times you can be someone who can be a lighthouse in a sense for them.

‘Avoid these rocks. Avoid these shoals over here. Steer yourself away from behavior or friends or influences that can harm you as much as you can, but I’m right here and I’m always going to be here for you.’ When you then get, as a parent, into a circumstance where you feel like you have nothing to give your kid…and I think that’s a real struggle for Burt, that he feels he’s had to get over the hurdle of just because you’re gay doesn’t mean I have nothing to still offer you in terms of guidance and support and love as a parent.

That’s what I think is wonderful about it, he’s realizing that as he goes on, like, ‘Okay, just because my kid says that he’s gay doesn’t mean, number one, that I don’t love him as much. Maybe we aren’t interested in the same things, but that doesn’t mean that I now am off the hook for all the other parenting that needs to take place.’ I think it’s Kurt’s struggle also, to realize, ‘Okay, here’s my dad who likes all these things that I don’t like. How could he possibly understand what it’s like to be me.’ But from the perspective of the kid in this situation, they also have to begin to look at their parents as human beings and not just people preventing them from doing fun things or who don’t understand what it’s like to have the demands of text messaging, whatever it is, whatever the ridiculous thing is that young adults…and you can’t put the onus on them so much because they are the young people in the circumstance, but I think it’s important to continue to show on ‘Glee‘ that parents are human beings first.

Kids have to remember that, too, about them, that just because they’re older doesn’t mean necessarily that they’ve figured it all out. I mean that in a good way and not in a bad way, like, not ‘Why are these people in charge of me? They don’t know anything,’ and more as, ‘They’re struggling to find themselves, too, and find their way through a world that’s constantly changing. They’re driven by emotions and passions just like everyone else.’ How’s that for a long winded answer?

Where do you see the show and your character’s relationship with Kurt going in the third season?

Mike O’Malley: I say this not as a dodge, but only because it’s the absolute truth. I have no knowledge of it. I am not consulted. I am not asked to contribute and I have no idea. I can say this. I love working on the show. I specifically, when I was offered another show, a pilot for FOX, had a conversation with everybody at FOX and with Ryan, saying, ‘I want to play this character until you no longer want me to play this character because it’s the best character that I’ve ever played.’ So, they know that, but it’s a story about kids. It’s not a story about their parents. I hope that as the show goes on I continue to find ways to get more involved because I love working on it.

Not a dodge at all.

Mike O’Malley: It’s true. They don’t tell me, but I did make a deal so that I would be back for more. In terms of what the story is, I don’t know.

You’re also a writer/producer on the Showtime series ‘Shameless‘.

Mike O’Malley: Yes, if you can believe that.

Can you talk about that experience?

Mike O’Malley: A few years ago when John Wells was trying to adapt ‘Shameless‘ into a series for HBO and they were working on finishing the script and sending it in, I was asked to come in and consult and just pitch on some jokes and just a little bit of perspective. I think that I was meeting John on something else, too. So, I worked on that and then, gosh, it was about a year later that HBO didn’t pick it up, but Showtime did. Then, as a result of that, right before they went to shoot the pilot I then went in again to work, just pitch on some jokes to be in the pilot, and then when they picked it up they asked me to come on as a writer/producer. So, last year I worked on it the whole season and I wrote episode six last year, and then this year –

Killer Carl’, is that it?

Mike O’Malley: Killer Carl’, yep, where Carl was about to be kicked out of school for being a menace to society. Then this year I’ve been working on it. It was kind of great because it really dovetailed with ‘Glee‘ and so I was able to do both at the same time, and then when ‘Glee‘ really ended is when things really started to pick up on ‘Shameless‘ second season. Write now I’m writing episode two of the second season and John Wells is directing.

Since there’s the British version of this show, do the writers take inspiration from it?

Mike O’Malley: Well, last year’s season, a lot of our stories were taken from the British series. This season it’s all brand new stories. I don’t know if cherry pick is the right word, but we used the stories that really mirrored in the British series the first year. Although, in my episode there was a couple of things, in ‘Killer Carl’. There were some things that were in the British series, but not all of it, and then this year it’s all stories that are just coming from the imagination of John Wells and his writing staff.

It’s still a popular show, the British version. What’s been the typical response from fans of the British versions when they see this version?

Mike O’Malley: Well, Paul Abbott is a producer on our series, too, and he’s the one who created it and a lot of the stories came from his life. So, he’s very involved in this show, in giving notes and pitching stories and being here. I think because there’s an awareness of that, I mean Paul Abbott is just such an amazing writer and I can’t believe that I’m getting to work with him because ‘State of Play’ is one of my favorite mini-series ever. I recommend that anyone who’s not seen that watch it.

But I think a lot of people weren’t sure if it was going to work, but I also don’t seek out a lot of comments by people who disagree with what we’re planning to write. It’s not like I’m, like, ‘Oh, British “Shameless” versus American “Shameless”.’ I think there’s seems to be a built in class identity that’s in the British series that their audience seems to give over to in a different way than our audience. In our country the classes are defined by the earning of money, I guess, more so than the stature. I

‘m no sociologist. I can’t talk about that intelligently, but I think people, if you’re constantly going to be looking at the comparison of what was this was before and then trying to make it American, you’re going to find things that disappoint you and then things that you’re happy with. Whereas, if you just came to the American series on your own you’re going to like it for what it is just because it seems like a discovery rather than a retread.

What can you tease about the second season of Shameless US?

Mike O’Malley: What can I tease that I don’t get in trouble about? I think in the second season what we’re really going for is that it’s taking place in the summertime. I think the summertime in Chicago, the Gallagher family looks upon it as it’s harvest. Fiona is working at an outdoor deck, making some money. All the kids, there’s an exposure to the outside world and to being out and about and there’s a way to make money and scrape together money in the summertime in Chicago that you just can’t do in the wintertime because everyone is buckled up and in, in their own way.

The way that they scrape things together and be inventive and are scrappy in this season is going to inform a lot of their own resourcefulness, but I also think that Emmy Rossum’s character’s, Fiona, there’s a lightness to her being twenty one and living in Chicago and being young and attractive and being intelligent that in the first few episodes she’s not as weighed down by her responsibilities of trying to keep things together. It’s because her family has really risen to the task of helping one another in ways that they haven’t before.

Gun to your head, if you had to pick between writer/producer on ‘Shameless’ or actor on ‘Glee‘, it’s one or the other, which would you pick?

Mike O’Malley: Well, I’d say actor on ‘Glee‘, and I would say that because that’s also what my contract says. You know what, I’ll be honest with you. I spent a long time trying to get into the position where both of these things are…and I hope when you publish the this the question says ‘gun to your head’ so that I don’t get a call from John Wells, saying, ‘Okay, well, you got your wish, buddy.’

As an actor I had done comedy for so long, and yet always felt that I had the ability to do other roles. I think when you’re in a show that has the exposure that ‘Glee‘ has and you’re able to get great writing and directing and work with great actors and then all of a sudden you’re out there; I’ve been acting for a long time and then all of a sudden you get an Emmy nomination and everyone who you’ve grown up with…it confers upon you a legitimate pat on the back that everyone who’s not in show business recognizes. ‘Oh, I guess you must be half decent at this because you got an Emmy nomination and that’s the seal of approval in a way from your industry.’ So, that’s something that I’ve been doing for twenty years and then twenty years into acting and being on television you get your first Emmy nomination. You can’t just turn your nose up at that. It has completely changed things for me because Ryan Murphy has given me a role which allows me to shine.

And the work on ‘Shameless’, that’s hard work, man. When you’re an actor, you come in and you have these great scenes that are all ready written and you perform and you’re lit as beautifully as you can be lit and you’re acting in a great thing. With ‘Shameless’, it’s like you get your notes, and it’s like, ‘Okay, go home and fix these,’ and your crouched over a computer, pulling out whatever remains of your hair trying to make it work. It’s very gratifying when the scene goes well, but I can show up to work at ‘Shameless’ and think that I’ve done a great job and find out immediately from someone else that I didn’t just because of their reaction to my script. Whereas, it’s unlikely that I’m going to show up to ‘Glee‘ and with all the preparation that I’ve done not execute like a professional.

Two different experiences, then.

Mike O’Malley: Yeah. Trying to write a show is a much more creative process than trying to perform a scene well as a professional actor. A lot of the mess about your life as an actor, or trying to get things done as an actor, that was all done in your twenties when you were trying to learn how to act. When a scene is well written it’s not difficult to act.

If you could guest star on any show you wanted. which one would it be?

Mike O’Malley: Probably ‘Mad Men‘. I don’t know where I fit in that world. I love ‘Friday Night Lights‘, too, but that’s not around anymore. I would love to guest star on, I’d have to say ‘Mad Men‘ for drama and for comedy probably ‘Parks and Recreation‘.

Any upcoming projects that you can talk about?

Mike O’Malley: I’m currently writing a script for TBS, for Conan O’Brien’s company, and it’s called ‘An American Couple’. Hopefully they’ll pick that up and we’ll be shooting that. Right now that’s just about it. I have my hands full with ‘Shameless‘ and ‘An American Couple‘, and certainly ‘Glee‘. It’s been great.