Patrick Fischler: From Mad Men to Californication, the Top-Tier Character Actor is Just Hitting His Stride

BY ANDREW FISH

Patrick Fischler | Mad Med | Lost | Californication
Patrick Fischler (Photo courtesy of Sharp and Associates)

He pushed the elevator button in Speed and helped set the mood of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive over a decade ago, yet it’s in the past few years that Patrick Fischler has truly ingrained himself in the on-screen landscape. You may know him as Jimmy Barrett, the loose-cannon insult comic on Mad Men who told Don Draper off for sleeping with his wife, or Phil, the overzealous security officer on Lost who fought to maintain order until his bitter end. He spent a season on Southland as Detective Kenny “No-Gun” and appeared on a recent Castle to help the crime-fighting lovebirds through a relationship crisis before revealing himself as the killer. As Fischler showed up on his first episode of Californication last year and was so creepily good that he was woven into this year’s story arc, he continued to prove that the essential idiosyncratics of TV and film tend to find their groove when they’re good and seasoned.

Now in his early 40s, he’s having a blast with the juicy roles landing in his lap. David Duchovny’s Hank Moody, for instance, witnessed a certain bit of debauchery and is plenty perplexed to find that Fischler’s Gabriel has followed him to Californication season six as group-therapy leader at rehab. Admitting that he’s played some unlikeable sorts, Fischler inhabits his characters as real people and lets the honesty get the audience in the gut. The actor, who has appeared on over 60 shows, sees Jimmy Barrett as the classic case in point, a guy with big ambitions and bigger obstacles who turned to insults-for-laughs as his only way to the top.

Director Michael Polish’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel, Big Sur, just debuted at Sundance and features Fischler as supporting character Lew Welch, a member of Kerouac’s beatnik gang and unsung poet of the era. And just debuted at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is the short film The Test, starring and executive produced by Fischler and his wife, Lauren Bowles, True Blood‘s blond Wiccan waitress (whose interview you can find here). It’s their latest collaboration since they both appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2011, and the fun they had putting The Test together reminded Fischler of their time in the LA theater company Neurotic Young Urbanites, back in the day. He also enjoyed the unusual opportunity to play a regular guy. “She’s a Southern witch and I’m, you know, playing a controlling, closeted rehab guy or a drunk poet,” he says, “so it’s nice to just be this couple who’s dealing with issues.” Fischler chatted with Iconic Interview on an early winter morning.

Californication is so wonderfully shameless. What did you think when you read the script for that first episode?
When they called to offer me a part on it, at that point it was just going to be that one episode, and I didn’t see a script. I’m like, “Of course, I love Californication! I’ll do it, sure!” And then I got that script and I kept reading and I saw, oh! Okay, so wait, what? Oookay. [laughs] I thought it was pretty funny and the character was great and I love those guys. Then, when my managers called and said, “You know what? They want you to come back for a bunch of episodes this season. They have this idea.” I was like, “Great! Let’s do it!”

What does your character get up to this season?
Hank goes to rehab and I run the rehab, and that causes problems because he and I don’t get along very well. And then throughout the season, he needs my help with something. Running the rehab is the basis, the start of our relationship, me having to deal with all the shit he gives me.

And it all started with his meeting you at a party and seeing all of the strangeness behind the scenes.
Exactly, so that’s why he’s sort of like, are you kidding me? This is the guy who’s running this?

When you gear up to play a character who’s written to be dislikeable, and you’ve done a few…
Yes, I have. [laughs]

Do you get into the character’s headspace to understand the character’s perspective, rather than looking at this person as being dislikable?
Oh, a hundred percent. To me, that’s the irony. Most of the characters that I’ve played that are dislikable, I don’t think of as dislikable – this being one of them. I think Gabriel is actually a good guy who’s trying his best, and he’s sober. He’s maybe got some odd personality traits, but I don’t think he’s dislikable. Jimmy Barrett from Mad Men being the classic of all of them. I thought he had a couple of, how should I say, issues. But I never found him dislikable. Everybody’s got something in them that’s likable. That’s what I ultimately go for; I look at the humanity in everybody. Absolutely you’ve got to start there, and that’s where you build up. I never, ever, look at any of these people as not likable. You can’t really play that. You can’t play “unlikable.” You can give them circumstances and then go from there.

What were Jimmy’s good points?
His good points were, I actually thought he was funny. I thought that when he found someone he cared about, he cared about them. It all came from insecurity, any kind of negative stuff that Jimmy had, it all just came from – probably in high school and growing up – not being Don Draper. Because of the way he looks and the way he was, he had to always think, “I’m never gonna be that guy, so I’m going to have to be something to get me to a level of that guy.” Insecurity is always where a lot of people’s stuff comes from, so that always breaks my heart for somebody.

Heartbreak would seem to be a good motivation for giving a character heart.
Exactly. That’s one of the biggest things. I remember when I got the job, [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner said, “There’s an episode coming, like four episodes from now, where you have a line where you say, “I’ve been standing behind guys like that my whole life.” And he’s like, “That’s the key to this guy.” And I was like, “Oh my God, I totally get it!” Of course!” And that was in one of my last episodes, when I tell January [Jones] that Don has been screwing my wife. So having that at the beginning of the character before I even started work, knowing that that was something I was going to say, really summed up who this guy was.

Was that liberating and fun for you to play a character that everyone wants to punch in the face?
I couldn’t love it more. I mean, I don’t want to play a character like that that’s badly written, but when you get to play a character like that, that is as well written as that, then absolutely. I love playing flawed people. Everybody’s flawed, but sometimes you can read characters and they’re not flawed, and that’s not humanity at all. So playing a guy who is, to most people, unlikable or a jerk, I think it’s great! And when the writing is great, forget about it. Then it’s just heaven.

When you got the part on Lost, did you continue to watch the show once your character showed up?
Oh, yes. Oh, my God. I would never have stopped watching. Lost was such an interesting experience in and of itself because when I got cast in that, it was just supposed to be in that one episode. I was like, “I’ll do this because it’s Lost.” I was so excited. The part wasn’t that big or anything in that first episode, and I was like, “All right! Yeah! I get to go to Hawaii and be on Lost!” I was a fanatic about the show. Cut to, I was there for six months. I ended up doing nine episodes, and I never even really got very much to do. I’m not saying that in any bitter way; the character was always on the sidelines. He was this, you know, asshole, who’s going to sit there and kind of keep Sawyer in his place, but I was so thrilled and so excited to be part of the history of that show. Getting those scripts, there was nothing better than that. When you get scripts for a show that you watch, it’s so exciting. We absolutely keep watching them whether we’re on it or not.

I like the concept of someone going from in front of the screen to behind it, like you’re stepping through your television set.
Absolutely, and that’s what was really weird when I went and did Lost. The weirder part is when you actually go and shoot it, and you’re there, and you’re like, “Oh my God, look! It’s Sawyer! It’s Kate!” A week later, though, they’re not the characters anymore. Because you are hanging out with them and having lunch with them, and then you’re having dinner with them, and then it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is all a TV show.” [laughs] You’re all of a sudden reminded of that. It’s the same with Mad Men, I’d say. But I still watch the show, and in no way, now, when I’m watching it, do I see Jon or January. I’m back now with Don and Betty Draper. I’m back in that world, fully, just being a viewer.

When you were working on Lost, did you find yourself with any inside knowledge on the mythos and back story?
You know, I really didn’t find out anything. [laughs] Because we were there, just shooting, and no one really talked about the show when we were doing it. It was five years in. I wanted to ask these questions, but none of the writers were there; they were all in L.A., so it was just the director, the crew, and the cast. We never really ended up talking about it in that way. Maybe part of me was a little nervous, too, because I didn’t want to know too much. I wish. If I were able to sit down with [co-head writer] Carlton [Cuse] or [co-creator] Damon [Lindelof], which I never really did until I was back in L.A. So I never really got any insight that I could now give you.

What did you think of the ending of Lost?
We loved it. I loved it, I loved it. It was everything I wanted. Did they answer every question? No, absolutely not. Are there, like, 20 or 100 questions where people could be like, “Wait, they never went back to this?” Yes, but for me, I didn’t care. I’m an emotional guy. When a show or a movie knocks me emotionally, I’m there. And it went that route. It totally went the emotional sucker-punch and I loved it. And a lot of it made sense to me; it really summed up the final season of those two worlds that were going on. And that last shot of him just laying, and it was so exactly like the opening, and the dog coming up to him. It was beautiful.

I did a little research into Lew Welch, the character you’re playing in Big Sur. He had this great line that he wrote, “Sober, it’s easier to realize that the atrocities are not arranged for my personal despair.”
Yeah, isn’t that great? He was an amazing, interesting individual, and really, really sad. Because, of those guys, he was the one that really didn’t make it. Kerouac and [Neal] Cassady and Philip Whalen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, they all went a route [where] they got what they wanted in some way – and Lew Welch, he never really got it. Did you read how he died?

He left a suicide note and went off into the woods and they never found his body.
They never even found him. He was just a really, really sad guy, and such a complete alcoholic. As a lot of them were, but I think he and Kerouac were kind of the worst. [Welch] was an ad guy in the Mad Men days, in the ’50s, which i thought was so fascinating. I forgot the ad slogan he came up with.

“Raid kills bugs dead”!
Yes, “Raid kills bugs!” So he was this ad guy, and his buddies would always call and say, “You’re wasting your time. That’s not what you should be doing.” So he got into writing later. He was a teacher [for a while]. He was Huey Lewis’ stepfather, did you read that? So the movie takes place years after Kerouac has written On the Road and has become a sensation, and everybody wants to meet him and be him, and he can’t deal with his fame. So Kerouac comes back west and Ferlinghetti basically says, come stay in this cabin in Bug Sur. You’ll be alone and no one will bother you. And so it’s about this time period when he came out here and dealt with Cassady and Lew Welch, and all these guys. They all went up to this cabin and drank themselves into oblivion. [laughs] It’s got a great cast and it was such an amazing experience for all of us. Talk about being a group; it was like summer camp for six weeks.

In Big Sur, the iconic location.
Oh my God, we were in it. We drove into places I couldn’t believe. The cabin we used, we had to take these little buggies to get over rivers. When I tell you it was the middle of nowhere? It was the middle of nowhere, and it was beautiful. We were out there. Our trailers were so far away that we were lost into this. It was done not expensively, and it was really a great experience. I look back on it very fondly.

What do you like about your character in the film?
He’s very free in a lot of the movie because he’s with Jack. I think he really respected and loved Kerouac a lot. To be totally frank, I’ve never played a character who’s a drunk, and that’s really fun, playing that. These guys drank so much; they were drinking alcohol all the time. Also, playing someone who’s so innately sad inside, too. I love that, because there’s so much you can plow for.

You’ve known your wife, Lauren Bowles, a long time.
25 years.

I’ve read that you and she were friends for a long time before you started dating.
We met when I was 18 and we were part of a circle who are still best friends. We were friends until we were 25, and then at around 25 or 26, something shifted. We had a really tough year, my dad died, and something changed. We, all of a sudden, were like, “Wait, I think we like each other.” [laughs] It was a very interesting shift, something we both didn’t fully expect. So we’ve been together as a couple for, like, 17 years.

Tell us what it was like working with David Lynch on Mulholland Drive.
I wish I could work with David Lynch every week. It’s funny because as our careers go forward, in the rear-view mirror the stuff keeps getting deeper and deeper, but there’s stuff that lives right up in the front of that mirror. Like as close as Mad Men or even as close as Californication. It still lives right there, and Mulholland Drive is one of those. [Partly] because of the effect that it had on people. I still get stopped everywhere for it. [Lynch] was so – I hate this word but I’m using it and I wish I could find a better one – so normal. So not at all what I expected. Here I was in my early 30s and I was a fanatic of his; I thought Blue Velvet was one of the greatest movies ever made. So to get this job and work with him… I didn’t meet him for the audition. You don’t audition for David. You just meet the casting director and you get out on tape telling about your life. She asked you questions like, “Where are you from? Where did you go to high school? Where did you grow up? What do your parents do?” You just talk. So when I got a call saying he has a part and he wants you to be in this, I was like, “Oh my God! I forgot about that!” Then I got the script and thought, “This is a monologue. What the hell is this?” I didn’t understand at all what it had to do with anything. You know it was [originally] a [TV] pilot. Later, when I talked to David, I was like, “How do I come back?” He said, “Oh, you play in episode two and then you come back.” So it was going to be a [recurring] part, so I don’t die when I fall [in the scene]. One of the best directions I’ve ever gotten – because I was nervous and young – [was when] he said to me, “Simple. Just be simple. You’re just talking to him and you’re tellin’ him your dream.” When he gave me that, I thought, “That’s so funny, because that is all that’s happening here.” All he had to say to me was “simple” and I was like, “Okay, I got it.”

Do you have any thoughts about what your scene represented in the larger scheme of that film?
[laughs] I’ve learned now, because it’s been so many years of people asking me that, when they either see me on the street or I meet them at a party or interview, and I really give the same answer. I feel like I have something that I think, but I think the best way to enjoy that movie – I really mean this – is to interpret it. Whatever it means to you, and you think, then that’s what it is. That may seem like a safe answer, but I really believe it. That’s what I’ve realized. Because I’ve talked to so many people about what they think so much of that movie means, and I’m always fascinated by that, everyone’s different opinions. So I got to place where I was just like, I think it’s best for everyone to just have their own thought on it, and that is what it is. So in answer to the question, no, I don’t. But maybe inside somewhere, I do. [laughs]

The term “character actor” is a strange one because all actors play characters. Do you identify with that term, and what does it mean to you?
I love what you just said, that all actors play characters, so I’m going to steal that. The term “character actor,” to me, to be honest with you, means I get to play really interesting characters. If this is what a character actor is, okay! Daniel Day-Lewis is a character actor. He’s a leading man in terms of a man who’s incredibly good looking and tall, but you look at the parts that guys plays, there’s nothing “leading man” about it. He’s not safe at all. [Parts played by character actors] are always more interesting, always! I’d so much rather be a character actor, and I didn’t think that when I was about 23. When I first started in this business, I remember feeling like, “I hate that this is how I look, because I wish that I could get these parts.” In your 20s, it’s not so great to be a character actor, because there are not a lot of parts for characters. But that all shifts around the 30s. And now, forget it, my God. It’s going to get even better and better for me. Forties, fifties, sixties. Anything you look at, any time you look at any parts that are great, there are always going to be good characters actor playing them.

Like Stephen Tobolowsky, who’s on Californication with you. He played the insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day and hundreds of other great roles.
He’s fantastic; that’s a great example. You and I could sit and play a drinking game for eight hours and we could list so many of those guys. He’s like a “that guy,” which is kind of what I am. The guy who you see and you’re like, “That guy!” And even a lot of great leading-men actors become character actors, because the parts they play are so much more interesting. I think Jon Hamm, who is obviously such a leading man, doesn’t want to just play the good-looking guy. After Mad Men, he’ll be doing some amazing work. He’s a great actor.

Tell us about working on Two Guns with Denzel Washington.
That was a pretty amazing experience. That was a hard one, because – I’m not gonna lie – I sat there during a lot of our scenes and I would look at him and he was one foot away from me, in my face, and I thought, Denzel Washington! [laughs] So it was a little hard to get past that. I did after an hour or two. Anything I say about him has already been said, but he’s no joke. He’s intense and so friggin’ talented. Unbelievable. So that was a great experience. And I also got to work with Bill Paxton, who I hadn’t worked with since Twister, back in the day, many years ago. So that was really fun, too, and so different from Denzel. Denzel’s so intense, and Bill’s just like everybody’s favorite person in the world. You meet him and everybody’s like, “I love Bill Paxton!” So he just comes on set and everyone smiles.

What do you love about what you do?
Number one, I love that I get to do, in my life, what I want to do. The fact that I get to do this and make a living at it makes me the happiest guy in the world. Number two, what I love about actually acting is I love being able to take aspects of myself that are, maybe, buried deep inside me and that I don’t get to put out into the world very often, and I love finding these characters where I can let a little of that loose.

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