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upfronts 2014

Season of Suspense: 7 Actors Discuss the Pilot Process

Beginning May 12 at the New York upfronts, the major networks will announce which of their pilots have earned spots on the fall schedule. Vulture spoke with seven actors who are waiting by the phone.

Ben Feldman
A to Z (NBC)
A romantic comedy about online daters.

How many pilots have you been in?
This was my sixth or seventh. The first one I did was on the WB. We shot it and everyone was like, “You’re gonna be a star!” We got picked up for midseason. Then we shot our second episode, and it was terrible. I watched the craft service go from sushi to old chicken, and then it got canceled.

What's it like to do a pilot test?
It’s like meeting a girl at a bar, getting wasted, going home, and sleeping with her. A test is sort of the next morning afterward, where the lights come on and you awkwardly collect your clothes and you knock a bottle of wine over and fumble for the door.

What is it like auditioning for pilots while you’re still on Mad Men?
I feel like I’m openly cheating on a girlfriend.

How do you find out?
I had done another pilot, and I showed up to set one day and one of the actors was like, “Oh man, I’m so sorry about your pilot. “ And I didn’t know what he was talking about, but Nikki Finke had already called us dead on Deadline Hollywood, so I learned from another cast member.

What happens if the pilot isn't picked up?
I have an audition for a movie today. And if the show doesn’t go, what usually happens is the producers call you, “Okay, we’re so sorry. The network is so stupid. Don’t worry, we’re shopping it around,” and then you’re supposed to be really excited, "Oh, hopefully another network buys it.” Usually that doesn’t happen.

And if it is, how do you celebrate?
I’m taking my wife to Hawaii for her 30th birthday before the upfronts, so we’ll already be mid-celebration, regardless. I think inevitably we’re gonna be going to a luau.

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Billy Brown
How to Get Away With Murder (ABC)

A thriller set in law school.

How many pilots have you been in?
Seven or eight. Some guys have been in 20, 25 pilots.

How do you find out?
Production will call or maybe casting calls my rep or my manager. And maybe they get on the phone and conference with me, as they did last year with Hostages when it got picked up. I kind of play it close to the vest a lot, so I don’t really run through the streets and, you know, shout and scream, but I’ll be definitely hyped, I’ll be jazzed. There’ll be some yelling, but I’m not really the one who’s sprinting up and down the neighborhood, screaming, “My show got picked up!”

Is this show as crazy as Scandal?
I do get a clear impression Shonda Rhimes and the team of writers will not be holding back. At all. So bat-shit crazy, audiences will get a bowl full of it.

What will you do if the show isn’t picked up?
Take trips to Vegas and Brazil, ’cause you’ve gotta drown the sorrows. But you can’t just wallow in misery. You can’t put too much stock in what you can’t control, because you’ll go fucking crazy: Was it me? Was it them? It’s out of your hands.

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Melanie Brown
The Pro (NBC)

A comedy about a tennis club.

Was this your first pilot season?
I did pilot season when I first got to L.A. 10 or 12 years ago. I auditioned, then I changed my mind and just hung out, rather than work. Then I said, “You know what? I fancy having a go at it again.” And this opportunity came up.

When you do a pilot, do you have to audition?
For me, it’s a choice. I don’t have to do it. I want to. You get to have that nervous feeling before you walk into a room.

What's your character?
I'm Rob Lowe's crazy, scary girlfriend, having to kiss him and yell at him. Well, I'm actually playing myself, but a more amped-up version of myself.  And Rob, people love him, he's already on a hit TV show right now, so hopefully he'll have another hit TV show with this!

What happens if the show doesn't get picked up?
I'm on the set of America's Got Talent, and we're in the middle of our auditions here. So I'm going to be bouncing around here, there, and everywhere, so I'm really hoping that this all figures itself out.  And apart from that, I have three kids, and a bunch of other stuff I've got going on.  

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Fran Kranz
Exposed
(ABC)

A drama about an investigative reporter.

How many pilots have you been in?
I did this one, and two that were picked up — Dollhouse and Welcome to the Captain. I was fired from one, and my part was recast in Friends With Benefits. So that’s five.

Do you feel a collective anxiety during pilot season?
I think the whole process is anathema to creativity, because there's a level of paranoia to it. Obviously you still need to make a pilot. That, I get. That's important. That will never go away. But doing it all at once? That doesn't add up to me. It's like cooking a meal. You can't do it all at once otherwise you're going to burn stuff. You have to do it in stages. If you just microwave a TV dinner [laughs] — no pun intended — but you're going to get a mediocre meal, if you just throw it in the microwave, as opposed to preparing things and having the best ingredients. During pilot season, the talent pool is limited, or distracted at the very least.

How do you feel about your chances this time?
I passed on two tests for other shows just to wait for this one. I literally walked off a studio lot, because I knew that if I signed the contract, it meant I would be potentially locked into that show. A few years ago, I would have gone into the first test. I’ve learned to have a little more patience. I was sick to my stomach doing that, but you have to.

How do you find out?
That's another creepy thing — if only one agent calls you, it's probably bad, but if you get a voice mail from a whole group of agents? That's probably a good thing. So I would get a call. Or who knows? Maybe the director or writer would call me. For Dollhouse, I actually bumped into Joss Whedon at a restaurant, and he told me what a great job I did at the test. I thought, Okay, that means I'm going to get the job. If he didn't want me, he probably would have avoided me. 

How do you celebrate if the show is picked up?
I can pay off my mortgage.  That'll be the first thing I do. And I have a bottle of Beluga Gold vodka, this is like the best Russian vodka, we're talking $250 a bottle kind of thing. I think the last time I had one was when the Lakers beat the Celtics in the finals. [Laughs.

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Rich Sommer
Good Session (CBS)

A couples-therapy comedy.

Do you think Good Session will be picked up?
CBS did, I think, ten pilots this year and announced that they were only taking two. The odds are not in our favor, sort of like The Hunger Games. But we’re going to try to be Katniss and Peeta and convince them to take more winners than they originally agreed on.

How do you find out?
I wasn’t the first choice for Harry on Mad Men, so I got the call two hours before first read-through. The guy they had cast chose not to take the role. So I found out two hours before the read-through and was literally sitting on my couch in my underwear watching Judge Alex. And they called and so it’s like, "Oh my God, yes!" But yeah, Matt Weiner called us personally and let us know. It was good.

What will you do to celebrate if it is picked up?
Frankly, the celebration sort of already happened. Chris Lloyd, who’s the creator, co-creator of Modern Family, he’s a bit of a wine connoisseur, and he gave us a beautiful bottle of Champagne that we had been waiting for the right moment to open. When I got the pilot, we chilled that Champagne and had it.

What will you do next if it’s not picked up?
Just audition. I’m back to where I haven’t been for a long time. I recently had to turn down a play that was a very exciting opportunity because it conflicted with Mad Men, which is about the 9 billionth thing that I’ve had to turn down socially and career-wise because I’ve been on a TV show for seven years.

What is it like leaving a show like Mad Men and doing a pilot again?
I’m not entirely convinced that I have a choice as far as what my next job is. I have a wife and kids, and we all exist off this very silly acting thing that I chose to do. In a perfect world, I would love to transition to another beautifully, carefully scripted show. But I’m lucky that anyone is willing to see me for anything.

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Cristin Milioti
A to Z
(NBC)

How many pilots have you been in?
This is my first. I’ve always joined long-existing shows. Coming from How I Met Your Mother to something that’s brand new is very different. I thought, But wait, if it’s good, it’ll just get picked up, right? But there’s a million people who have to watch it and sign off.

How do you feel about your chances?
It’s will-they-or-won’t-they, very Ross and Rachel. I’m the worst judge of this. No one seems to know what works and doesn’t work. I want it to work so bad.

What do you do if it's not picked up?
You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to go to France! I've never been to France! And I'm going to get messy. Whatever that may mean. [Laughs.] I'm going to get messy, and I'm going to go to France. Like that's the name of a Kanye West album or something: Messy in France.

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Taraji P. Henson*
Empire
(FOX)

A drama set in the world of hip-hop.

Do you think Empire will be picked up?
We’re all calling each other, like, “Did you hear anything?” “No, I didn’t hear.” [Producer] Danny Strong says he feels really good about it. I feel good about the product we turned in. If it doesn’t go at Fox, it’s going to be picked up somewhere.

What do you think the chances are?
You know what? You never know. I guess you can listen to the buzz, but that doesn’t mean anything. It could be somebody up, a higher-up, that feels some kind of way and the fear kicks in and they’re like “No, we can’t do this,” and they back away. You know, The Sopranos was originally pitched to be a Fox show.

How will you celebrate if there’s good news?
[Producer-director] Lee Daniels is gonna want to go out. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll just be home ready to pack, because a pickup means I gotta go to Chicago now.

*Empire was picked up on 5/6. Our interview took place two weeks ago, when its fate was less certain."

*This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the May 5, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: null/Courtesy of Ben Feldman; null/Courtesy of Billy Brown; Marcelo Cantu/Parsons the New School; Erik Ian; null/Courtesy of Rich Sommer; Robert Voets/CBS/Getty Images; null/Courtesy of Taraji P. Henson