Mark Feuerstein is Hank Lawson in the new USA Network original series ROYAL PAINS, which premieres tonight, Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 10/9c, immediately following the hit series BURN NOTICE (at its new time, 9/8c). Recently I had a chance to visit the set of ROYAL PAINS to meet the cast and had the pleasure of chatting with Mark to discus his new role.
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Mark Feuerstein: Sure. That’s an easy way to begin. All right. So, I am playing Hank Lawson. And my character is, at the beginning of the pilot, a doctor in an ER in Brooklyn. And he’s playing hoops with a bunch of neighborhood kids. And one of them drops down.
I guess the conflict of Hank is that he’s somewhat—I mean there’s one thing that you don’t know from the pilot, which is that in his past, his father lost all the family money in the stock market. And they had to downsize from a nice house in maybe Passaic, New Jersey to a little two-bedroom apartment, and so money is fraught for Hank. And so now he’s got to take care of rich people while resenting them too.
And so as the show evolves, he by force of will, kind of ends up taking care of people who are not so rich as well, which was this perfect kind of marriage of a note from the studio and the character himself, because this note—I don’t know if anybody talked about this yet, but there was a note came down from on high in the middle of the writing of the first episode after the pilot from—when I say on high, I’m referring to Bonnie Hammer and Jeff Zucker.
They both address the issue of a world where there’s a lot of money. And I don’t know whether it was the character or the fact of us being in a tough economic time, but for both reasons, they felt it would be better for the character to take care of not just rich people because it’s not so likable, and it’s not necessarily as interesting to have a guy who’s just taking care of rich people and making a lot of money doing it, but also maybe viewers don’t necessarily just want to watch a world where everybody has the money that they have just lost.
So, they decided that every week, we would tell a story about a rich person and a story about a not so rich person. And it’s been great for the show because in Episode Three, Jill and I become kind of like a Bonnie and Clyde team where she’s got all these patients who’ve been left aside by the system. They’ve lost their health care. And I steal one of these pages and find a guy on the docks, which was great, because we got to use the docks and shoot what would be Montauk but really it was like Bayside, New Jersey, Bayville, Long Island, Exit 33.
But anyway, we got to tell a story about a dockworker who has hepatitis C, and I go out of my way to find the right medicine for him because he has been left behind. So, I get to become this—in this show, she says of me ‘The Robin Hood of Medicine’, sort of to take from the rich and giving to the less rich.
EM: Would you say this show is about a guy who considers himself an advocate for the underdog, learning to appreciate the people who are wealthy or just learning to tolerate them, just kind of like, “Okay, this is what I’ve got to do now.” Or he is really saying, “Okay, these people are worth something, not just have money.”
MF: That’s a great question.
EM: How’d I do?
MF: It’s a great question, really, because it’s so easy—I mean I’ve even been asked the question by other reporters. Is it so simple or so black and white that rich people are just kind of inherently bad? And it’s obviously not the case. And we wouldn’t write a show or present a show to you that said that. So, the rich are complicated as well as the not as rich, in our show. And Hank is not necessarily just doing it as a means to an end, taking care of the rich people, he actually gets to know them.
So, the kid in the pilot, Tucker, we don’t just leave it there. Every week there are these amazing characters that we do leave there because we can’t possibly incorporate every story and every character that we introduce. And it’s kind of a bummer because they’re all kind of fascinating and great characters. We have a great writing team.
But Tucker is one of those that we keep alive. And the rest we kill. The rest they all blow up, like a big accident, very convenient, gone.
But Tucker, I go back to his house and there’s a whole thing with me and his dad who’s played by Andrew McCarthy.
MF: Yeah, he’s great. He’s perfect. It’s kind of like a nice homage to the Brat Pack. And he plays sort of the rich—a little more of the jerky rich character. But his son is the one we care about. And we realize it’s not just—it’s not so—the grass is not always greener. This kid has no dad really. He’s never there. And I become sort of a surrogate father figure to the kid.
So, by getting to know these characters who have money, you realize the grass ain’t always greener. There are lots of problems even in homes where they have a lot of privilege.
EM: You talk about Hank learning from the people. In the conference call last week, one of the producers—and I don’t remember which one it was—said something that I thought was really interesting, which was, “You can look at it as a classic fish out of water story, but in the end it’s not that the Hamptons change Hank; it’s that Hank changes the Hamptons.”
And I thought, “Wow! That’s a pretty tall order.”
MF: Yeah, that is a pretty tall order. I did not realize that was what I was doing. That’s great. Could you tell me how to do that?
Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. I mean, yes, this—but it does change him as well. I don’t think you can possibly say that one happens without the other happening too.
But, yeah, I mean I think it’s—and the funny thing is the term ‘fish out of water’. I mean, Hank is a guy like me in my own life who has been—had like a foot in the world of the not as rich, like growing up in Passaic, New Jersey, I’m sure he wasn’t surrounded by privilege. But then here he is like able to hold his own. And he clearly is well educated and whatnot in a world of sophistication and whatnot.
And so by being, straddling these two worlds, I think he’s able to bring something to this world that may not already be there, which is heart and a sense of you know, social responsibility. And he and Jill kind of discover that in each other, which is why I love that relationship because it’s not based in, “Oh, I’m cute, you’re hot. Let’s get this on.”
It’s like you know, in the pilot we share something we truly believe in, and we share a basic humanitarian concern.
So, yeah, I think he does bring that to the Hamptons—a superficial world, he brings some substance. But I think some substance is also brought to him along the way.
EM: Can you talk about how you got involved with this show?
MF: Yes, with pleasure. I actually knew Andrew Lenchewski prior to my auditioning for this show. About 12 years earlier, his father who is an oral surgeon in Manhattan, took out my wisdom teeth. You know that story—same old, same old. He’s this adorable guy named Doctor Enrique Lenchewski. And he said—he’s from Montevideo. And he said, “Mark, you should meet my son. He’s a good guy. He’s a writer in LA. You should talk to him.”
So, I went to—I called him up. I invited him to a party I was having. And we became fast friends. And we stayed in touch over the last 10 years. But then I was with a friend of ours who told me that Andrew’s pilot was picked up to be made for USA. So, I, in my typical cocky fashion, called him and said, “Hey, congratulations on your pilot getting made. And congratulations that I’ll be starring in it.”
And then a month later, it was true because I had gone through this whole audition process, which was rigorous. But finally it worked out. And there I was.
And then after the pilot got picked up, they had to put together a staff. And the guy who got the role of Executive Producer running the writers room is someone who I had played football against in high school when he was at Fieldston and I was at Dalton, and then in college, when he was on the lightweight football team at Penn and I was on the lightweight football team at Princeton, and who’s one of my boys from New York. Like we’re all part of a group of guys who are really good friends.
And then Jace Alexander who is our Directing Co-Exec EP, had been a board member of Naked Angels in New York, the theater company, where I had done this play called Funky Crazy Boogaloo Boy like 10 years ago. So, yeah, that’s me—funky crazy and boogaloo.
But anyway—so, he was actually asked to weigh in when we were casting—when they were casting the pilot and he gave me a big vote of approval, which was helpful in the process. And so it’s like this ‘meant to be’ kind of team that was put together. And that’s why I just feel like there’s something about the show that was really meant to be.
EM: So, what is it about doctors because you were 3 Lbs…
MF: What are you going to do with a Jewish actor—be a doctor! Sometimes a lawyer, maybe an accountant, therapist once in a while? Look, I’ve got to make my parents proud somehow—pretty, pretty shocked when–.
EM: [So when] playing doctors and lawyers.
MF: My whole career is just to compensate for the fact that I became an actor. So, I try to play as many reliable characters as I can.
Beyond that, I don’t know. I mean I think I guess, I seem like somebody who might care about people. So, I get a lot of roles as doctors. It’s a very different show from 3 Lbs. I don’t know if you guys know that was the show I did with Stanley Tucci about brain surgeons. And I have to say—without in anyway disparaging that show because I really liked that show; I thought it was great and it had—it was really ambitious and it was maybe not the right moment for a show like that on TV, but working at USA and writing a show that is not just servicing a procedural element is such a relief for me, because when you’re working with a network like CBS—and I’ll be happy to work for them another time—but there is a sort of nervousness that creeps into the process because there are so many executives whose job it is to make sure that everything is sort of in line with the philosophy or the goal of the network as it relates to the show. And there’s a lot of notes and it really inhibits the creative process.
And we got those on 3 Lbs. And I remember it was like we were trying to add character to each of the characters in the show. And it was like, “No, no, let’s just service the procedures, so every week people get a new story and there’s no issue about the serialized element. And you just—you can watch that one episode by itself, and that’s all you have to see. And then nobody has to worry about catching up and all that.”
EM: Law and order for a brain surgeon?
MF: Right, exactly, exactly, perfect. You should be an executive.
So, anyway, here there’s no issue. Like we actually have a procedural element where every week, there are these new characters and we take it from beginning to middle to end. But then there are also these subplots of romance and brotherly relationships and business relationships with Boris and whatnot that trickle throughout the entire season. So, it’s like this perfect marriage of the two, which I don’t believe you can do on the networks as well, or with as much creative freedom.
EM: It seems that so often now the shows have literally an episode to make it or break it.
MF: Right. Exactly.
EM: You know with—we all sat here twittering during our breaks, where everything is micro-blogging and instantaneous and live feeds in real time. How do you as an actor in getting to know a character and devoting yourself and your time and, obviously, your personal life, to a project, how do you wrestle with that, that literally it could be on the air for 30 minutes, and that someone’s made the decision that it’s gone?
MF: I would like to direct you to my therapist. Her name is Samantha Fox. She’s wonderful. She’d be happy to talk to you for 25 hours about this issue.
It’s hard. It’s hard. And it’s even harder when you love it because there’s no guarantee that you get to go back to work the next day. But I just—I have a body of experience and work in this business. You try to grow a thicker skin. And you just say, “I am grateful for this moment that I get to be on this set with these amazing people. This crew is unbelievable.”
On this show, like I was saying about the friends who were writing it, somehow it’s like everyone’s here–I mean, you know, yeah, people complain and there’s late hours and it gets to be challenging at moments. But everyone’s in this for the love of the game. They love what they do. And that’s what I’m all about as an actor.
I didn’t choose this profession because it was stable or secure. I chose it because I loved it and–.
EM: So, you have to work in the now only? You can’t–?
MF: What can you do? You take every episode as it comes and every—you know, it’s awesome when you get a piece of information like a scene where I reveal that my father lost all of our money in the stock market, which is this week. And this is Episode Five.
So, I didn’t have that for the first four episodes. But now I know something about my entire childhood that helps inform everything else. And that’s kind of the weird thing and the beauty of making TV. You learn as you go. And everything changes and grows along with the show.
But at least at USA, I know I have 11—we have 12 episodes. We’re going to get to—like 3 Lbs. they said, “We’re going to make eight.” They put three on the air and, “Goodbye. Thanks. Have a nice day.”
EM: Which I personally think is insulting for the viewers if they did manage to successfully [suck] in with marketing and tune in for premiere night and TiVo you the following–you know what I mean?
EM: There’s no conclusion for us. So, I can only imagine how frustrating it is on your end.
MF: It’s very frustrating. But the most frustrating part is being on a network and having your entire support system, your entire infrastructure, constantly nervous and hedging their bets. So, when it was—and I don’t know why we’re going off on networks, but in this case, it’s actually really appropriate. Whereas, with CBS, you’re like, “Did they show a promo once this week for our show? Do they know we’re coming on the air?”
At USA, there was a meeting yesterday where they are talking about billboards across the country, trucks that will be covered in posters for our show. They are sending the message to us, “We believe in you. We didn’t choose to make your show because we wanted to hedge it against five other bets, and hope that maybe someone out there likes it enough for us to justify giving you more money.”
They said, “We believe in you. We’re going to support you, and we are going to give this the best launch we could possibly give, and then let the chips fall where they may.” And that’s the kind of place you want to be at.
EM: So, how are you finding all the medical techno [battles]?
MF: You mean like xanthrochromia and—oh, God, there are so many terms. It’s fine. We have an amazing onset doctor named Dr. Irving Danesh who also likes a nice Danish. But he’s fabulous. And he teaches us every week what we’re—he’s the advisor to the writers and he’s the advisor to us on set. So, it’s like a very homogeneous message and storyline. And he tells us all the diseases and conditions that we’re dealing with and makes sure that all of our procedure is perfect to the letter. And it’s great because I can really save anybody’s life at any moment in time.
EM: A ballpoint pen and a Ziploc bag.
MF: That’s all I need right now. I’ve got a lamp. I’ve got your necklace, your glasses. And I can put you on a heart and lung machine somehow.
EM: The MacGyver of medicine?
EM: They say that in the pilot.
MF: There is a MacGyver element and I have to tell you a story from last week.
There was this moment where a note came in because I was grabbing—I said, “Could you get the hairdryer from over there?” And I grab a hairdryer and a tube. And I grab a tube and a hairdryer and I like—and so I got a note to explain where I was getting the vacuum tube from to say the word ‘Wet Vac’ from somebody because they thought maybe it wasn’t clear. But it was clear and it was not such a great idea because when I said, “Great, a Wet Vac,” the entire crew sort exploded with laughter mocking my MacGyverness. And, of course, I kept MacGyvering for like an hour while they’re laughing hysterically at me for saying Wet Vac. So, I’m not going to do that again.
EM: I’ve asked everyone. So, with the show being set in the Hamptons and the rich and famous, if you could have one guest star on the show, who would it be?
MF: Hmm. Let’s see. That’s a great question. I would say Daniel Day-Lewis. Do you think he’ll do the show? I mean I think he’d be great. He could do the character from My Left Foot, right? And I could help him get down the stairs. [laugh]
EM: Paulo thinks Jerry Seinfeld should play your guys’ Dad.
MF: That’s not bad. I like—there was actually an episode of Good Morning Miami, not to reminisce my various incarnations on television.
EM: Which was a great show.
MF: It was fun. It was fun. But we had an episode, which was actually really on point about when you’re trying to get a guest star on a show. And we were this crappy morning show. The episode was all about trying to get Jerry Seinfeld. And then it went down to Jerry Springer. And then it went down to like Jerry, the guy who sells Italian heroes on the corner. That’s how it’ll go for our father. We’re probably going to have our key grip playing our Dad.
EM: How have you enjoyed filming in the Hamptons or on Long Island? And how is it different from filming in LA?
MF: Well, I think first of all, we’re so lucky to be shooting in Long Island. I mean the show is set in the Hamptons and there’s nothing like the Hamptons. Because of budgets, we could’ve been shooting maybe with a different network or a different production entity in North Carolina, or LA, or Malibu. But it’s absolutely—I mean we were all here in New York City. And anybody who’s been out to Long Island knows it’s just—if you’ve been to LA—not the same.
In LA next to the beach, you have Route 1 right behind you the entire way. Even in Malibu where it is beautiful and luxurious, there are still houses sandwiched right next to each other in these private weird little nooks and crannies. But when you’re on a beach in Bridgehampton or East Hampton, it is so lush and gorgeous and private and secluded. There’s just no way to imitate that.
So, I’m thrilled that we got to shoot in the real Hamptons. And it just wouldn’t have been the same in LA.
For more information about Royal Pains, please visit the USA Networks website. And don’t forget to sign up for our Royal Pains Hamptons gift pack contest going on right now. Click here for your chance to win!
Interview by Tiffany N. D’Emidio