One on One: Richard Schiff of ‘House of Lies’

Richard Schiff House of LiesI had the chance to chat with Richard Schiff, who plays Skip Galweather, the owner and founder of House of Lies’ titular consulting firm. The Showtime series is already a bit of a hit, even with its almost alarming level of smut. It may be a bit of a stretch for long-time TV fans who remember Schiff as the trustworthy “older brother” Toby Zeigler on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing to stomach his role on the smart, yet slutty, new series, but if you can get past that, the series and his role within it are a dose of dark comedy gold. I picked the actor’s brain on Showtime’s latest hit and on his upcoming role on ABC’s Once Upon a Time, and he had quite a bit to say.

I wanted to talk to you about House of Lies. It’s a really interesting, great show and I was wondering what initially attracted you to this sort of dark comedy.

Well Don Cheadle — who was an acquaintance, now a good friend, I consider him to be — he asked me like a year ago would you be interested in doing another series. And I said “Ehh, I don’t know” and I’ve been hoping on guest spots here and there a couple times. And then 6 months, a year later he said would you consider doing my TV show? And I texted him back saying “I’m already considering it.” And he said, “Well let me send you the pilot” because they had already shot the pilot and I saw it and I just immediately loved it. I thought it was great. I thought it was off the cliff and unapologetic and hardcore funny. Then they told me a little bit about the role and showed me the first script and I was a little worried because I’ve been offered shows before sometimes as a regular and other times recurring where there’s this one theme and it doesn’t grow from there, but they kind of promised and then I met with Matt Carnahan and the writers and just fell in love with Matt immediately. And they said “No, no, no, this is going to be what it’s going to be.” And I told them I just came back from England where I was doing this very far-fetched comedy on stage over there. So I said “I’m in a really funky mood, so can we just take this character wherever we want to take him?” And they were like “Oh God yeah, absolutely.” So I said, “Okay, I’m in.” And Matthew Carnahan lived up to his word. He let me take the character where it seemed like the most fun and I have to say I just had a blast mostly working with Donny and I just — he’s obviously a brilliant actor and I always admired and loved his work. We worked together kind of barely on a movie many years ago when we first met and I’ve always been a huge fan of his. Not only of his work, but of him as a human being. And his career in the way he manages his career and produces stuff. The fact that he was a producer helped quite a bit because I trusted it a lot more. So it was kind of an easy choice and I don’t regret it for a second because I had a blast. I just had so much fun doing this show. I just loved it. I loved every second of it.

Yeah. I’ve really enjoyed it, but I have to admit even for Showtime I was a little surprised at how risque it was. When you first got the script was there anything that you were like, “That can’t be on television!” or “I can’t say that!”

No I was excited to be able to say that. Actually today I have to go in and do ADR looping and it’s always, you know, for the airplane version, since I forgot the fact that I kind of expressed myself in some ways that I’d have to then cover up for a more pleasant version of it. No I — we often talked about on the West Wing, you know, “Imagine if we were on cable. We could talk the way in the White House the way Richard Nixon talked in the White House. Or LBJ talked in the White House.”

That’d be a very different show!

Yeah, it would be a very different show. I’m actually glad we didn’t. For this though, there’s some…what do you call it…there’s some areas in life where people are going to express themselves as colorfully as they can to make their points and drug dealing and Wall Street are kind of the same arena when you think about it. So yes they should be free to kind of express themselves, but it’s not the language that I thought was freaky, but the explicitness of the sexual activity on the show. I was like “wow.” That’s why I described it as off the cliff. It’s not even on the cliff or edgy. It’s free-falling way off the cliff and I kind of loved that about it.

Absolutely and part of that I think is this relationship that we see between Marty (Cheadle) and your character. You know, normally in a show like this you would expect for that relationship to sort of go a certain way. For one person to be sort of the mentor and the other person to look up to them and as the show continues I think we really see that it’s not a typical relationship that you would expect. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you worked to build that with Don?

Yeah, you know, sometimes I don’t intellectualize — I try not to as often as I can these days because that part of my brain isn’t as interesting to me as the other part of my brain. And I just kind of wanted to see how this character would be. I didn’t really come with any preconceptions or fixed ideas and as the language was coming out of me and the circumstance of even the first episode, he seemed like a bit of a nut, a bit of a guy who kind of is enamored with his own power and his ability to play three-dimensional chess. And I found that I/he, had a giddiness, you know, he was kind of giddy with it and I just kind of went with that. And Marty is someone who A: if he ever needed a mentor, would never admit it and B he would never need a mentor. So I think he’s someone who resents anyone putting handcuffs on him or exerting any sort of power over him and I’m someone who wants to exert power over everything in my sphere, so that created a very fun dynamic between the two of us that builds and builds and builds towards the climax of our relationship. I consider Wall Street to be a free frawl, which it is clearly because it’s unregulated and people do whatever the f**k they want.

So what I found very interesting just looking at the debacle of that street over the last 15-20 years, if not over the last 40 years since Regan…30 years — there’s no longer, if there ever had been, there’s no longer any part of the equation or logarithm that they use to do their business that includes the common good of anything or anyone. You know, the greater good for society — building a better America or building a better international theme is not of their equation. There only equation is how do I make more money by lunch than anyone else that I’m competing with. There are obviously a few exceptions like Warren Buckland and a few others, but pretty much it’s “Can I sell air to you and make you think that it’s gold.” And so, you know, how does a guy like that live with himself? Well he makes it a game and it’s just a game of monopoly and he likes to win. That’s how I look at it, so if ever — usually I end up playing these self-aware kind of somewhat profound on some level characters, but the self awareness is something I’ve been accused of and this guy doesn’t have that. You know, he’s unaware of his effect on the world and doesn’t care what his effect on the world is. He just wants what he wants and that’s the end of it. He’s a fun character to play. And to go up against someone as worthy an opponent as Don, his character Marty, just makes the acting of it that much more fun.

That must be really fun. Especially since so many of us know you as Toby for so many years, who’s just worlds apart, I think, from that. It’s been really fun from the snippets I’ve seen.

How much have you seen?

They sent us five episodes and it’s the first three episodes and two more after that, so they gave us a nice picture of what the season is supposed to be. I think the last one I saw was a helicopter scene.

Okay, so you have a pretty good idea where it’s heading. 

So, I guess I was just kind of wondering, is that sort of the big thing or does it get messier from there?

Oh it gets very messy even on a literal basis. No, it gets — that’s just the set up. You just saw the set up.

Nice. That’s going to be really good.

I loved it. I loved the culmination of our little battle. I loved doing it. It was really challenging by the way. Usually when you’re doing this kind of stuff — I mean, I’ve done some comedies lately in England and a couple of other lighter stuff and by lighter I mean not necessarily so dramatic — and usually your challenge is to come and have fun and in this case that was mostly what we did while still paying very careful attention to the three dimensional game of chess that I was playing with Don’s character and any others that happened to come into the story. But the last episode that I’m in, it’s very challenging and so therefore I can say that the writers really did a good job of reaching the climax with that storyline.

Awesome. Well I can’t wait to see how that all folds out. It’s quite a set up.

Yes, it’s quite the set up and it does pay off, which doesn’t happen very often so I’m thrilled and there was talk about having me back and who knows what their storyline is going to be once they figure it out. But I’d be happy to go back there. I think it’s an absolute delight to work with everyone there. It was one of the happiest sets I’ve ever been on.

Even with all the debauchery (laughs).

Well debauchery I think is a happy set of circumstances for actors. And everybody else. Ben Schwartz is hysterical and a really great guy as is Josh Lawson. Kristen Bell is — I fell in love with her the first time I ever saw her on screen and it only gets worse or better depending on the way you look at it when you meet her in person. She is a delight. And Matthew Carnahan and Stephen Hawkins provide for a fantastic atmosphere on the set. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed it. I just think they’re all great.

Well it certainly comes across that everyone is having a good time when the final product comes out. It’s just really great.

You can tell.

Yeah, you can tell. There’s a chemistry.

The opposite is like those romantic comedies where you see it and go “Wow, those two actors did not get along at all.” I mean you can see it on the screen even though they’re supposed to fall in love. You can tell when they’re having fun and when they’re just working and we had the pleasure to do both.

Well I hope they — I don’t know what the finale is going to be like, maybe I’ll be mad at your character — but I hope that they bring you back. I’ve been enjoying it so far.

Oh, thank you. I hope so too. It’s one of the good jobs, so you want to carry that through as much as they let you.

Yeah. And before I let you go I just wanted to quickly touch on that you’ll also have a little bit of time on Once Upon a Time, which is another show we’re big fans of around here and I was wondering what — I believe I heard you were going to be Snow White’s father? Is that correct?


You don’t make it into the real world, you’re in the past? Sort of flashback scenes?

Yeah, not yet. I’m not in the real world. The one episode that I did was in the storyland world. I play a king and Snow White’s dad…daddy. And I come across Jim Carlow’s character, the genie, and I don’t know how much more they would want me to say.

Yeah, they’re probably pretty mum on that.

Yeah, they’re pretty mum on that stuff, but I very much enjoyed that show as well. It was a very different character for me, I don’t usually wear a crown on my head. Matter of fact, I’ve never worn a crown on my head with the exception of a few playful nights in our bedroom. I actually got the offer to do that show and it just so happened that it was premiering that weekend, so I told my kids to watch it and I said if you like the show, I’ll do it. And my daughter finished watching it and said “Daddy, you have to do that show!” She loved it. And I think it’s a very creative premise and well written. Embarrassingly I didn’t know some of these people on the show and found out that some of them were very big, worldwide stars. I’m a little behind with all that, but not knowing that, they certainly didn’t act like they were big-time superstars and they were all delightful. They were really sweet. We hung out a little bit in Vancouver. And very talented. The lovely lady who played Snow White and Lana…the guy who plays the prince. It’s been a while so I’m forgetting their names, but they’re all — you can tell right away when there’s a group of actors that know what they’re doing — and they were all great. And Giancarlo is an old friend and he’s fanstastic and so we shot up in the mountains of Vancouver that day and that was just gorgeous.

That must’ve been amazing.

It was beautiful. Halfway up to Mount Whistler, Bristol Mountain or whatever it is, and the scenery there is gorgeous on the water and the mountains and the fog and the snow cap on the top. Cold, but really beautiful. So the actors were saying “No, you have to come back because you have to explain this and you have to explain that. You’ve got to go into the real world, etc.” The producers haven’t said anything so I have no idea if I’m going back, but I’d be happy to if they invite me.

Well let’s hope you get a chance to come back and go into the real world. That would be a really interesting story, I think.

I have a perfect character for them to introduce if they — I’ve thought it out, but they don’t consult with me. They didn’t invite me into the writer’s room like they did on House of Blues, so their plans for me might be limited, but that’s perfectly fine. It was fun to do and I’m happy to have done it.

The next episode of House of Lies airs Sunday, Jan. 15 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.