From Steve Carell in Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show” and Netflix’s “Space Force” to Russell Crowe in Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice,” the 2019-’20 television season has been punctuated by big-screen actors who have returned to television after years away.
It has been decades since Crowe was in the medium: The actor got his start on Australian soap “Neighbours” in the late 1980s before moving onto big-screen roles. But even a few years can make a big difference, as was the case for such actors as Carell, who last appeared regularly on the small screen in 2013 when he starred in “The Office”; Jason Segel, who starred on “How I Met Your Mother” in 2014; and Forest Whitaker, who was a series regular in “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior” in 2011 but has guest starred on “Empire” more recently.
For Whitaker, the concept of Epix’s “Godfather of Harlem” — a dramatized telling of the life of mobster Bumpy Johnson — drew him in even before there was a script.
“To be honest, when they first approached me I said I was only interested if we could find a place to tell the story where it could be around criminality and the civil-rights movement and Malcolm [X],” says Whitaker, who also executive produces the series. “It was an interesting thing to be able to explore how people try to reach for that American Dream in their own ways, by any means necessary.”
Whitaker’s version of Johnson — returning to his now-drug-ridden neighborhood after 11 years in prison — is a reserved intellectual, a crime boss who feels a responsibility to protect his family and community but engages in often-violent means to achieve them, “kind of like a banker with a propensity for violence,” he says.
“It is quite a challenge to play a character who’s suppressing,” he continues. “You have to choose moments carefully for when to allow [emotions] out. It does take a delicacy to let those things erupt. But there will always be a certain part of you that’s under the skin from experiences, and in a way the anger that he internally has — and the frustration he has, too, based on the people who are not allowing him to live out his dreams the way he wants to — you layer it.”
Segel, who not only stars in AMC’s “Dispatches From Elsewhere” but also created the anthology, tried to write the project as a movie; however, he concluded it wasn’t “participatory” enough for the audience. Crafting it as a TV series, centered on a small group of strangers who meet after responding to a mysterious flyer, felt more interactive. Each character’s existential crisis gets a star turn in the season’s early episodes.
Segel says his portrayal of author David Foster Wallace in the 2015 film “End of the Tour” deeply shaped his approach to his “Dispatches” character Peter, a man weighed down by the mundanity of the everyday. “Dispatches” was his opportunity to “check in” with himself as an artist for the first time in about a decade.
“To say, ‘I think this is beautiful, I think this is representative of what I wanted to say’ — I answered a lot of the questions that I went into the process with: Am I even capable of doing this?” says Segel.
For “City on a Hill” star Aldis Hodge, the parallels between the politics and racism of 1990s Boston and the world today were what drew him to the Showtime drama about assistant district attorney Decourcy Ward, who must join forces with a corrupt FBI agent (Kevin Bacon, who also returned to regular TV for the first time since 2017 with this series).
“There are a lot of people who live in a blanketed reality where they think that racism is not as prominent as it is in this country because they don’t live under the consequences,” says Hodge. “They don’t live with the effects. But, me, of course [I] can’t escape those effects. So with this project, the character who’s the ADA who’s sitting there, trying to fight for the little guy, he’s trying to fight against crooked cops — he stood for a lot of things that currently I believe in and [am] dealing with, and I felt like it’d be a nice representation for me to explain, or at least communicate, some of what I felt needs to be dealt with in real life.”
Hodge last had a significant presence on TV as a recurring character on AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies” several years ago, but it was his 2008-’12 work on “Leverage,” as an early 20-something actor, that helped him develop a voice as an advocate for representation. Even before the “City on a Hill” pilot was shot, he discussed with production the idea of hiring more Black staff writers.
“We need different voices to fill out the stories from a different perspective of authenticity,” says Hodge. “And they allowed me the freedom to approach that, present that and they worked with me so we could get more Black writers for these stories.”
The greatest challenge in his Showtime role, he says, is “figuring out [Ward’s] threshold for tolerance and seeking justice.” A TV role requires some forethought, so that inhabiting a character for several seasons becomes
a fulfilling and authentic-seeming journey. What it no longer requires — particularly on a cable or streaming series, with average episode orders of 10-13 — is an enormous time commitment.
Whitaker was excited about the possibility of creating his character and the universe around him, but knew that he would still be able to find time to participate in film projects.
“It’s a different time, I think, where you can move back and forth between mediums pretty easily,” he says.
Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.