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Adam Arkin on The Bridge, Directing Himself, and Getting Mistaken for George Clooney

Adam Arkin. Photo: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

Adam Arkin broke out as an actor in 1990 with the recurring Northern Exposure role of Adam, a barefoot, grungy hermit/gourmet chef who popped up now and then to vex Dr. Joel Fleischman. But his biggest moment on the hit CBS show might have come three years later, when he made his debut on the other side of the camera. He quickly found a niche directing shows that he also appeared in, first, during his long stint on CBS’s Chicago Hope; more recently, on the FX dramas Sons of Anarchy and Justified; and just this past Sunday, on Masters of Sex, when he turned up as a PR man our recapper referred to as a “silver fox.” Tonight he joins the cast of The Bridge, playing a role he describes as “an upstanding, well-meaning DEA agent” (it should come as no surprise that he directed an August episode of the FX show). Arkin found a window in his super tight schedule to talk with Vulture about his latest gigs, clashing with Mandy Patinkin on Chicago Hope, and getting mistaken for George Clooney back in the day.

Has this acting/directing thing been coincidental, or is it a plan of yours?
It’s funny — early on, I started getting directing opportunities on shows on which I was already a cast member, like Northern Exposure and Chicago Hope. And now I’ve done a kind of strange 180 in which I’ve gotten involved with shows like Sons of Anarchy and Justified as a director first and foremost, but there have been roles that have come up that have been pitched to me by producers. I’ve never gone in trying to give myself work as an actor. It’s been delightful to get to do both, especially on shows I have that much respect for.

You just turned up on Masters of Sex and are now doing The Bridge. Is it hard to switch between shows that have such different tones?
There’s an element to it that’s a challenge, but that’s what keeps it interesting and fresh. I used to try and make a point of not talking too much about my father [Alan Arkin], and I find as I get older, I talk about him more and more. His attitude about his own career as an actor was that it was incumbent on everyone to develop as much diversity as possible. And these shows couldn’t be more different. Masters is a period piece, and there’s a sophistication and refinement to it. It’s very literary — the dialogue is a huge part of the show. It’s akin to a kind of playwriting. The Bridge is not as theatrical in its writing. It’s a contemporary piece, and much edgier and more visual in its storytelling. But both are really intelligent in their own way.

You’ve played a couple of very dark characters in recent seasons — a white supremacist on Sons of Anarchy and a Detroit mob boss on Justified. Were you looking for those kinds of roles?
Neither of those shows is going to have Mary Poppins showing up. If you’re going to take guest roles on either of those shows, the law of averages leads you to believe they’re going to be on the darker side, because the terrain that both travel is very dark. It wasn’t by choice. I didn’t wake up saying, “I want to start playing nefarious people.” They just were the opportunities that were presented on both of those shows. You’re either going to be a perpetrator or a victim on either one.

What’s it like to direct yourself?
I’ve oddly become used to it. Directing and acting on Masters was a little challenging because it was the first time I directed myself on a show that I hadn’t established a character on already. That was a little bit more daunting than previous experiences I had. The cast was getting to know me in two different roles simultaneously, so I was conscious of whether they were comfortable. As a director, one of my first jobs is to make sure I’m speaking a common language with the cast and earning their trust. And doing that while I was simultaneously having to introduce myself as an acting partner was a little more mind-bending. But it all worked out, I think.

This whole acting-directing thing started with Northern Exposure. What do you remember about the first episode you directed in 1993?
I remember simultaneously feeling like it was a dream come true and a real wake-up call as to how much I had to learn. I had a lot of help on that show. I’d been involved with it as an actor for some time. For as much preparation as I had and as much as I’d grown up on sets and in the business, once the reins were handed to me, it was just amazing to me how much of a student I felt like I was. One of the beauties of directing is if you’re doing it right, you have the opportunity to feel that way forever. I’m always amazed at how much more there is to know. Every job I do, I feel like part of the gift of it is I get to learn more.

What do you get recognized for most often?
It’s a really weird grab bag. A lot of people know me from Sons of Anarchy. I still get recognized quite a bit from the Will Smith movie HitchNorthern Exposure people mention a lot, and oddly enough, despite the fact that Chicago Hope was on for six years and I was in every episode of the show produced, it’s on the lower end of the scale of what people will talk about if they do recognize me.

Your Northern Exposure character is so vivid in my memory, yet I know you weren’t in that many episodes. Do you find people remember you being on it more than you actually were?
Yes. I’m always complimented by that. I also think that is a byproduct of something the show did really effectively: It did such a brilliant job of creating a sense of place that once you established yourself as a character in that place, people felt like they were visiting you every week even if you had only been on three months ago. You were associated with the magic of Cicely, Alaska, and that was it. You were there.

The character had a distinctive wardrobe. Did you keep any of the clothes?
No. I should’ve tried to hold onto the hat. I couldn’t hold onto the shoes because he never wore any.

That’s true. Was it dangerous walking around the set in bare feet? Did you ever step on anything sharp?
No. There were a couple of times where I had to work hard not to get frostbite, but other than that, no injuries.

We recently looked back at 1994–95 TV, and the face-off between Chicago Hope and ER. What were your expectations going into fall that season?
I make a point of not having expectations when it comes to how anything’s going to be received, because I’ve just been fooled too many times. What I remember about it is that everybody was too busy doing their job to live in the world of comparisons. The thing that would be frustrating is how much it would be brought up in the media, assuming that we were all thinking and worrying about it all the time.

How did you feel when ER crushed Chicago Hope on Thursday at 10, and the show had to be moved to a different time slot and eventually a different night?
Any show that is on the air for six years and did the kind of numbers that Chicago Hope did is, by virtually any standard, a pretty major hit. And what became a little frustrating after a while was being a hit wasn’t good enough because the assumption was we were all tearing our hair out that we weren’t this phenomenon that really comes along once or twice in a generation in terms of the longevity that ER had. It was beyond a hit. It was a juggernaut of virtually unknown success for an hourlong drama, except maybe Gunsmoke. Those just don’t come along so often. Chicago Hope had to settle for being a hit, and that’s fine with me.

Did you ever get mistaken for George Clooney?
Not only did I get mistaken for him, I got mistaken for him when I was going into the Emmys by a photographer. I was walking in, and I kept hearing somebody say, “Hey, George! Hey, George!” And I realized one of the photographers was calling me. I finally stopped and said, “Hey, buddy, it’s not George.” And he lowered his camera and said, “Oh, excuse me. Mr. Clooney!”

Still, I’d take that as a compliment. He’s not a bad-looking guy.
I don’t think I look exactly like him, but I look maybe 20 percent like him. So I’m really fine if somebody wants to start paying me $4 million a picture.

Does he ever get mistaken for you?
I don’t think he’s ever gotten mistaken for me, and if he does, then I’m sorry for him. Now he knows what it’s like.

What was it like working with Mandy Patinkin on Chicago Hope? He’s got a reputation for being intense and unpredictable.
My relationship with Mandy was intense, and it was familial. Mandy is like a brother, in all of what that means. We’ve known each other a long time. I have tremendous respect for him. I think he’s a genius. Both of us have had moments where we’ve found working with one another challenging, but the rewards always outweighed any of the challenges. I have a deep and abiding love for the guy.

It seems to me that the new Golden Age of television started around 1994. Were you aware at the time that there was a paradigm shift and that TV was starting to get good, for lack of a better word?
I was aware of the fact that with the advent of cable shows, there were going to be many more outlets, and as a result of that, there was a palpable feeling that people were going to be able to take more chances. With the success of cable shows that were groundbreaking, it represented a challenge to the networks to compete with the innovation. They were going to have to up their game. I didn’t spend a lot of time developing any kind of theses about it, but in looking back, there was a feeling that the game was going to be changing.

How do you view the TV landscape now?
It really hasn’t stopped changing. It’s not just cable anymore. Now cable is almost in the position the networks were in earlier, with the advent of web series. It’s very healthy in the long run, because with so many technological outlets and so many people having the ability to tell stories, the thing that’s going to start setting shows apart is going to be the originality of what those stories are and how they’re told. Because the means of getting them out to the public is so expansive now. So what will be weeded out is people who aren’t doing stuff in a way that’s very innovative.

Well, you’re right in the middle of all that good stuff.
I’ve been very lucky and blessed to be able to keep growing. Which is all I’ve ever really wanted to do.

Adam Arkin on The Bridge and Chicago Hope