Life Lessons From An Assassin
Scandal's George Newbern has learned a lot on the way to Shondaland.
Recognized from his role as Steve Martin’s son-in-law to-be in 1991’s Father of the Bride, George Newbern is making life difficult for an entirely new crowd on ABC’s Scandal.
Emmys.com had the opportunity to talk with Newbern about the hit show, his killer character, and life lessons for all.
When did you first know you wanted to act and how did your family respond to your Hollywood dreams?
I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was not necessarily a hotbed of theatrical opportunity. However, they happened to have a great children’s theater, and since I wasn’t good at sports, theater was the perfect outlet for me. I started doing plays for fun, did a bunch of musicals, was a ballet dancer for four or five years.
Then, when I was 14, I won a scholarship to a Minneapolis children’s theater, so I spent half of my 8th grade year in Minnesota, which was eye-opening, to say the least.
And your parents were okay with that?
They were! I never would have let my kid do that! But they did, so I got in early and learned a lot about the theatrical world, which, in Minneapolis, was far more sophisticated than in Little Rock.
I did it for fun for a long time, but eventually you have to ask yourself, “Am I any good at this?” It wasn’t until I was in high school that I thought, “I think I can do this.” So, I went to Northwestern in Chicago, where I got further validation of, “I think I really can do this.” I got some great parts in stage shows in Chicago and it kind of took off from there, but it all started at the children’s theater.
And from Chicago you made the move to Hollywood?
Well, I was doing tons of musicals at Northwestern and my junior year, with no experience in film or television at all, I auditioned for a movie called, Back to the Future. They ended up flying me out to L.A. to screen test. I was 20 and they flew me out for a four-hour screen test with Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Christopher Lloyd, everybody…Steven Spielberg was there, I mean, let me tell you, my head was spinning.
Clearly, I didn’t get the job, but, in life, you get little validations along the way and that was a big one for me. That experience made me go, “Hmm, I think I’m going go to Los Angeles.” I was planning on going to New York, but I headed out to L.A. and started auditioning.
Now, I am not the typical example at all. I was lucky. I never had to work at a restaurant, I was able to support myself my first couple of years in Los Angeles. I’ve been stupidly blessed in that respect. Now, many years later, I’ve hit some serious droughts, but that’s just part of the whole thing. As a 22 year old, you can’t anticipate that; you don’t know how that’s going to work out because you have all your eggs in one basket.
So, what are your feelings on back-up plans?
Okay, here it is, if I could have seen the future when I was 22, I would have immediately jumped into a screenwriting class and learned how to write. In terms of being a working actor and having more determination in a creative life, writing is the key.
Writing really generates everything. First and foremost, people are looking for material, and if you can generate it, you’ve opened up avenues of possibility 10-fold, 100-fold.
The process of writing does something to an actor or any creative person that makes them feel better, it makes them feel ready for whatever else it is that happens to them. There doesn’t even have to be a payoff, but you feel like you’re taking charge. Even if you’re just journaling every day; that’s substance. It’s something.
The writing in Scandal is certainly not lacking substance. In your own words, would you explain the premise of the show?
I would have to say; it is a sexy, political, soap opera/Greek drama. It’s everything rolled into one and somehow manages to survive, despite many of the characters going back on themselves. Scandal has managed to inhabit a world that breaks all kinds of rules and the audience has embraced it. I think that’s been the genius of Shonda [Rhimes] and the writers: they’ve found an elixir in rule breaking.
Yes, it’s modern day film noir. No character is altogether ‘good’ and really, no one character is entirely ‘bad’.
Exactly, and my character is the embodiment of that. I came on as a guest star and Charlie was this black-ops, mercenary, spy-guy. I’ve almost died four or five times and I think that character is perfect for what the show is: every character is up for whatever will keep them alive.
Everyone is practical in their morality, not that it’s a good thing nor is it necessarily what people should do in real life, but it works for the show.
Your character is a career assassin, but he doesn’t just kill people, he tortures them…yet, audiences love Charlie; why do you think people cheer for a bad guy?
There is such a dramatic feel to the show, my character sometimes allows for a bit of a respite from all of the ‘Scandalness’. My wife calls it, ‘treacle.’ The writers have to add treacle in there, something sweet in the seriousness, so I think my character is a little bit of treacle in Scandal. I think that’s why audiences respond because Charlie is a natural pause in the midst of insanity.
On the other side of the common knowledge coin, actors like to play bad guys. What attracted you to the role of a ruthless assassin?
My bread and butter has mostly been the nice guy, the funny guy, the boyfriend, the guy the girl marries; that role has been my stock and that’s great, I’m happy to do that. But this part has turned into such a delicious meal.
The writers have been super generous in giving me some of the lighter stuff amidst all the darkness, and yet Charlie is still capable of some heavy things. From a writing standpoint, it gives a nice depth to the character.
What helped you figure out how to play the character?
Charlie sort of has the physicality of a panther; he lurks and he slides, he’s centered and can move quickly, and I constantly try to remember that. It’s Acting 101. You think of an animal their behavior, what is their spine is like and all that. I just have to remember to always get back to what that feels like physically to me: observing, moving, and sliding.
As I get older, it’s the simpler stuff that works to help ground me and keep focused on what I’m doing.
How do you deal with NOT knowing where Charlie will land from one episode to the next?
It has definitely been a sweaty arm-pit kind of life, I’ll be honest. When I go to table reads, I try not to wear any darks shirts because they don’t tell me if I’m going to die this week or not. I try to take it one day at a time, which forces me to live in the moment and that has been a real challenge, personally.
I’ve been in over 50 episodes and each time I just say, “Whelp, let’s see what next week is like.”
As an on-screen veteran, do you still get surprised in this job? What surprises you?
I’m in my early 50’s and I still have these moments when I just sit in my trailer, look around, look out at the studio lot and think, “I cannot believe I actually got this job! Someone pays me to do this?” I’m shocked; I’m still shocked.
Actually, I think the word is, grateful. The more I cultivate the grateful part, the better I fell about everything. That’s just a life lesson.
I don’t ask about feedback on auditions anymore: I don’t ask who got the job or why didn’t I get the job because it is irrelevant; there’s so much out of my control after a certain point. So when I do get the job, or have a great day, or a great scene, I’m just so grateful that someone paid me to do what I love and I can pay my bills. I try to make it as simple as I can.
Is that the most important thing you’ve learned that along the way? Did anyone ever give you Hollywood advice?
I’m married and have three kids and I think the greatest thing I picked up was to NOT focus so much on being successful in my work. I focus on having a life first. I think the happier you are, the more creative and confident you will be, and the more jobs you will get.
At certain times in my career I have turned inward and only focused on absolutely having to land a job. The clutching is the absolute worst. You’ve heard it a million times, the less you care the better, but it really means, have a life. Have a life first and the entertainment world will either happen or it won’t.
I used to feel like I would physically going to die if I didn’t get a particular job. Then I wouldn’t get the job and I’d still be alive; I’d just feel like crap.
Right, and now what?
Exactly. Now what? Do I want to just continue to feel like crap? No. That’s the biggest thing.
That’s the point, right? The “Now what?” That’s when you’re tested: are you going to keep going or are you going to go back to Little Rock and be a teacher?
That’s right! Believe me, I’ve thought about it many times. You hang in there and you do it. I auditioned for Shondaland at least 10 times and when this guest spot came open and I thought, “Really, do I have to go audition again? They know me!”
But, I got in the car, I went, I got it, and it turned into a five-year job. I wasn’t doing anything different than I’d ever done on other auditions; it only meant, get in the car and go, show up, keep showing up. That was my lesson. I almost didn’t go.