From playing the long-suffering, yet supportive brother in ELI STONE to portraying a sociopath that will literally kill anyone in his path on SCANDAL to portraying the lovable young father of a budding columnist in THE CARRIE DIARIES,has had a remarkable and widely-diverse acting career. He is currently co-stars in HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE and has a mysterious new role on ABC’s drama CASTLE this season; and the double-duty on both these series just adds to an acting resume that continues to expand rapidly with the new opportunities in digital media.
So what is the secret to Matt’s success? In an exclusive interview,talked about where his good fortune seems to spring from and the fun he is having carving out these incredible and, soon to be, iconic roles.
You seem to be popping up all over the place right now on television, that must feel pretty good.
MATT: (Laughs) I’m not going to lie. It’s always nice to be busy. It’s much better than the alternative.
I know you are probably under some strict rules about what you can or cannot say about your role on CASTLE, but can you just generally talk about it?
MATT: We can very generally talk about it. I’m actually very surprised. I honestly don’t know where it is headed because they will not tell me. But I can tell you that I’ll be in multiple episodes, that I’ll be in the premiere, and I’ll be holding myself out to be somebody that I am not. I think that was pretty much the list of talking points.
Without getting into specifics, could you talk about the experience of working on the show. Was it fun, challenging, surprising?
MATT: Working on CASTLE is great. It’s in its seventh season and they’ve got the thing wired now. I mostly worked with Nathan [Fillion] and it was lovely. He is jus a really lovely guy. So easy to work with and very generous. Plus, the show looks great. I feel they do a great job with the look of the show. So I’m excited to see where my character and the story goes.
Are we supposed to assume that your character on CASTLE will be back?
MATT: (Laughs) I’m supposed to. That’s the plan. But I’ll get shot if I tell you when or where that might happen.
Maybe you can talk about how you got cast on CASTLE and what drew you to the role?
MATT: It was an offer that came in and then I called the producers because there wasn’t much to it. I just couldn’t figure it out. But they couldn’t tell me much or they didn’t want to tell me much. They basically just talked about what their plan was for this season with the odds that things could morph and change as the story progresses. But what’s happening is sort of a major reinvention for the show and my character has a lot to do with that. So I’m excited. Even though the show’s been on for six seasons and is entering its seventh season, this feels like it is going to be a new start for it and it’s exciting to be in on that.
Is that new for you where someone approaches out of the blue and says they have a recurring character that they want to create for you and will you please come do it?
MATT: (Laughs) I’ve been fortunate enough to have that happen before. SCANDAL called and offered the character of Billy Chambers to me in their first season, which wound up just being a hoot. That was a total blast. Joe Kennedy on BOARDWALK EMPIRE was the same way. I had worked with Howard Korder, who is the executive producer. I had done one of his plays years ago and he thought I would be right for the role of Joe, so he gave me a call. It’s one of those things where if you hang around long enough, you get to know most of the people in town and then that makes communications easier. So I’m lucky to get offered roles like that. Extremely lucky.
That has to be flattering where you reach a point in your career where they are creating characters specifically for you.
MATT: Well, these were characters that were going to be in the shows. It wasn’t like they said, “Hey, Matt. Let’s make up a new character for you.” Like Joe Kennedy was in the plan for BOARDWALK EMPIRE. But the fact that they called me, out of anybody to go and play him, that is certainly flattering.
Speaking of that role, how did that come about? You do not strike me as someone that gets cast as a politician. You kind of give off a squeaky-clean image.
MATT: (Laughs) Really? That’s surprising to me. Well, Joe Kennedy is not a politician. He’s more of a businessman and he really was self-made. He was an Irish-American at a time when they were discriminated against to the extreme and he really had to fight, tooth and claw, for everything he got in life. So the character I’m playing is really much more of a businessman than a politician, and you’re seeing him held up to the light against Nucky, side by side. And what are the differences between these two men? Not much. They both have very similar backgrounds — though one managed to make himself a legitimate businessman, and the other is on the other side of the ledger. So I think that is what this season is trying to do: compare and contrast these two very similar guys and try to show Nucky another path towards some kind of legitimacy.
For you, what drew you to the role of Joe Kennedy? What do you see in it that you want to play?
MATT: I see a guy that came from somewhat humble beginnings and really made himself into a legend. Joe Kennedy is like the Zelig of the early 20th Century. He shows up everywhere. He goes to Harvard at a time when Irish-Americans could barely walk past Harvard, let alone get into it. He becomes a banker — only through sheer will — because again, he would not be hired by most banks based on his heritage. He then gets into the stock market and is extraordinarily intuitive, not to mention engages heavily in insider trading to make his money, but anticipates the crash well before anyone else does and gets out. Then, also, goes into movie production. He starts a production company and has an affair with Gloria Swanson. Then after that, gets into the booze business when prohibition is about to end. He always seemed to be one step ahead of everything. Great intuition and great ambition. He also likes to play in these moral gray areas, where he’s walking right up to the line of what is legal or illegal and tiptoeing along it and not quite stepping over it. He loved to play in that area. Then the last part of his life, his whole goal in his business life was to make enough money so that all of his children could devote themselves to public service and not have to worry about making money, which he did. He created this enormous legacy for the country. It’s really an astonishing life. So it was easy to want to be a part of that on a show like BOARDWALK EMPIRE, which does everything so well, and it’s the last season. It was exciting. (Laughs) That’s probably a longer answer than you were anticipating, but he’s a rich character.
Have you actually studied about Joe Kennedy and his family?
MATT: I’ve read a couple different biographies. One was called “The Patriarch” (by David Nasaw) which was actually commissioned by his family. It’s very dense, very layered, but very historically accurate. Then there’s another written by Ted Schwartz called, “Joseph P. Kennedy: The Mogul, The Mob, The Statesman, and the Making of an American Myth.” It’s a little more on the tabloid side of autobiographical sources, but there was a lot to write about with regards to him.
Do you always research your roles so in-depth?
MATT: Yeah, if it’s a historical figure, then I do. One of the weird twists in this is that about 15 years ago I actually played Ted Kennedy in the mini-series. There’s obviously a wealth of information about Ted Kennedy. There’s almost too much to look at and read. But if I’m playing somebody who has a record out there, I am interested in knowing what that record is. Then if it is somebody fictional like a divorce lawyer, then I’d probably read “divorce law for dummies.” (Laughs) I just try to be prepared for any circumstance.
You are also working on an independent web-series, “One & Done” ( www.oneanddoneshow.com) What can you share about that?
MATT: It’s about four guys reaching middle age that decide to re-form their high school basketball team. They are all in various stages of disrepair, disillusion, and divorce. They can kind of see the other side of the hill looming up quickly and they want to do something to sort of stave off this encroaching sense of mortality. So they decide to go back and play basketball. Naturally, it’s not going to turn out well. They are too old for this. It is what I like to call a show that will “pull your heart-strings while they pull their ham-strings.” (Laughs) It’s a lot of fun. It’s going to be web-based. We’ve shot the pilot episode where they get back together and we have sketched out a 7-episode season that we are currently writing. We are also starting a Kickstarter campaign for it that launches October 1st. It is the first time I have tried to do something like this. I have written and produced other things, but never gone the Kickstarter route. So we are really curious to see how it turns out. We believe in it. I think it’s really good and everybody will get a chance to see it. We will release it as part of the campaign so that people know what they are getting into. I had a ball making it, mainly because I can relate, so sadly, to it. (Laughs)
What drew you to this kind of project where it was designed for digital media and would be online only? Are you looking to create a niche in that area?
MATT: Yeah. I’m co-producing this with my brother who has been in the internet start-up business in New York for about 15 years now. He is really interested in where online content is going — how the Googles and the YouTubes and Yahoos — are going. How all of these online content providers are going into production and how they are still trying to find ways to monetize the format. But it is getting closer. It sort of feels like this frontier that is rapidly developing. So he was really interested in being a part of that and floating some trial balloons in that area, and this is one of them. So we’re going to see how it goes. I am mainly just excited about the content because it is something I can relate to and it is something we can control. In this environment, we can write and shoot exactly what we want to write and shoot and tell the story we want to tell. As one on the creative-side of things, that’s really exciting.
Do you find that it is something that demands a large time-commitment that you may not have time for? It seems like writing and producing an online series would be a large commitment.
MATT: It is. It’s taken up time for sure. But, luckily, I have a great team in place. Not only my brother, we have other producers onboard and other people helping to design the campaign. Knowing that it is going to be web-content, the episodes are going to be 8 to 10 minutes a piece, max, you can design the shooting schedule where you shoot the entire season in about two weeks. So we are able to move that quickly and able to schedule and format it in such a way that it’s not like taking several months out of your life to get this thing produced. This is something that can be done quickly and still be quality. So that’s the nut we are really trying to crack, and we think we can.
Are passion-projects such as this something you want to do more of in the future?
MATT: Always. Especially as a writer. There are all kinds of passion-projects. Like being able to work with Spike Jonze was a passion-project of mine and I got the chance to do that. That was in a big movie, so this is a little different. I’m also a playwright and I’ve been produced at theaters in L.A. and Michigan. All that stuff is really what feeds you. It’s not like there’s some master plan. You’re always working on a bunch of things at once because it’s interesting to you. It’s the work you want to be doing. I’m very lucky.
You also have a film out in the film festival circuit right now, “Teacher of the Year.” What’s the substance of that and how did you get involved with it?
MATT: I got sent the script and I really liked it. So I put myself on tape and sent it in to the director and then got the offer. Then I was shooting it about a week after that. It was a whirlwind deal. The guy who wrote it, his name is Jason Strouse, and he use to write for television and was a comedian for a time, but is now a school teacher. So I felt like he had a really authentic and intimate connection with teachers and teaching. The voice felt very honest in the script, so I was drawn to it. I felt very lucky to be playing a part in telling the main story that he was trying to tell. The bonus was that he ended up getting all these great comedians, just hilarious people, to portray the other teachers in the school — like the Sklar brothers, Keegan-Michael Key, Larry Joe Campbell — so he turned this small, heart-felt movie into that plus a super funny exploration of public schools. It just turned out great. It turned out well beyond my expectations. I’m really happy with it.
From the promos, “Teacher of the Year” looks like it might be a dark comedy. Would you describe it that way, or would you describe it as a straight drama?
MATT: I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a dark comedy, it’s more of an off-beat comedy. But some of it is pretty broad. At its heart, it has a simpler, more dramatic story about a guy who is teacher of the year, who is faced with a decision about his professional life. He is offered this position lobbying for a private school organization. So does he choose to stay where he is, teaching kids and doing work that he likes (which is really hard work and which he will not make a lot of money doing) or does he take this position and turn his life around completely but make much more money and provide a more secure future for his family? So the movie is ultimately about a very personal choice that this one family has to make. It is just feathered with all these brilliant comedic performances.
So what is next for you, that you can share? CASTLE should be opening up a few opportunities for you.
MATT: (Laughs) Well, that’s the bulk of it for now. CASTLE should be really interesting. Like I said, I don’t even know where it’s headed. But I think the fans are going to be really interested and really taken with the new direction. And we’ll see. Anything can happen.
Be sure to catch Matt Letscher in BOARDWALK EMPIRE on Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on HBO and in his new role on CASTLE starting Monday, September 29th at 10:00 p.m on ABC.