Thursday, January 14, 2016

88th Annual Academy Award Nominations

The 88th Annual Academy Award nomination were announced this morning. The awards will be presented Feb. 28 on ABC, with Chris Rock hosting.

Here's the list of nominees for the main categories (with my predictions in italics):

• The Big Short
• Bridge of Spies
• Brooklyn
• Mad Max: Fury Road
• The Martian
• The Revenant
• Room
• Spotlight

• Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
• Matt Damon, The Martian
• Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
• Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
• Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

• Cate Blanchett, Carol
• Brie Larson, Room
• Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
• Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
• Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

• Christian Bale, The Big Short
• Tom Hardy, The Revenant
• Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
• Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
• Sylvester Stallone, Creed

• Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
• Rooney Mara, Carol
• Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
• Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
• Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

• Adam McKay - The Big Short
• George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
• Alejandro G. Iñárritu - The Revenant
• Lenny Abrahamson - Room
• Tom McCarthy - Spotlight

• Anomalisa
• Boy and the World
• Inside Out
• Shaun the Sheep Movie
• When Marnie Was There

• "Earned It" - Fifty Shades of Grey
• "Manta Ray" - Racing Extinction
• "Simple Song #3" - Youth
• "Til It Happens to You" - The Hunting Ground
• "Writing's on the Wall" - Spectre

• The Big Short
• Brooklyn
• Carol
• The Martian
• Room

• Bridge of Spies
• Ex Machina
• Inside Out
• Straight Outta Compton

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Interview: Dayo Okeniyi Is Pushing the Envelope

Dayo Okeniyi, photo by Corey Nickols
Millions of “Hunger Games” fans remember Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh, the District 2 tribute who saved Katniss’ life when Clove was about to kill her (he overheard Clove admitting to Katniss that she was the one who killed Rue, Thresh’s fellow District 2 tribute, so he snapped Clove’s neck in a rage). And millions more moviegoers will recognize him as Danny Dyson from “Terminator Genisys” (with rumors of a sequel abounding). But millions of television watchers are now going to get to know him as Michael Loman, the newbie detective on NBC’s newest cop drama called “Shades of Blue,” which also stars none other than Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta. The series makes its debut tonight, Jan. 7 at 10/9c, and I spoke with Dayo recently so he could give me the scoop on this intense new drama, as well as a little “Hunger Games” scoop.

Celebrity Extra: With the long “Hunger Games” road coming to an end with the November release of “Mockingjay: Part Two,” how do you look back on your time filming that blockbuster hit?

Dayo Okeniyi: Because of “Mockingjay” being in theaters now, “The Hunger Games” has been on TV a lot lately. Last night I was just flipping through channels — I was watching the football game and they were at halftime — and I stopped on ABC Family, and they’re showing my big scene from the movie, and I got so fricking excited. That movie still fricking excites me. I can still feel the jitters from when I got the callback for the part. I still love that movie. Love, love, love, love, love.

CE: I know you’ve got plenty of movie experience, but tell me how the change to serial television has been.

DO: I love TV because I just love the idea of telling a longer story. I love the linear idea of being the character, and watching that person live over the course of a series or a couple of seasons. And as an actor, it’s just amazing because you get to play every facet of a human being. Usually with a movie, it’s two hours long, and so you have to come up with a crazy excuse for why somebody goes through a very dramatic arc within an hour and a half. Human beings aren’t like that. We grow and we live and we learn, and over the course of years we become the people who we are in the moment. It gives you the chance to stretch as an actor.

And then “Shades of Blue” came along, and I read the script and I was like: “Oh my God. This is amazing.” And then you hear Ray Liotta’s involved and Drea de Matteo’s involved — and Jennifer Lopez! I mean, come on!

CE: Tell me what sets this apart from other cop dramas on television today.

DO: NBC is pushing the envelope, and I think fans are going to be surprised to see a network studio making a show like this. I’m reading the script, and some of the things I’m reading, I’m like, “Can we do this on NBC? This is not HBO.” This is some risqué stuff. NBC picked the best people for the part and tried to assemble a cast that really reflects what America looks like today. Just the honesty and brutality and beauty and truth of the writing — I was very surprised. 

The show is not a procedural show. It’s a serial type of show; it feels like a movie. That’s the type of television I love, whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or “Empire” or “The Sopranos” — serialized television where you get to live with these people. And the cool thing about our show is it has that high-stakes element to it all the time. And at the end of the day, you want to be a part of something that you would want to watch yourself.

CE: Tell me about your character, Michael Loman.

DO: This character is something that I have never played before. With Thresh in “The Hunger Games,” I was the strong, silent type, you know, still waters run deep. And I really wanted to play something different. There’s something about this character in that he wears his heart on his sleeve. And in this world that we live in, it’s very tough to be that person. He’s a new detective and fresh on the job with Ray Liotta’s crew, and he jumps into the deep end. When the show starts it’s his first day, and a lot of stuff goes down. Over the course of 13 episodes, we get to really learn the truth of what it’s like to be a detective in modern America. And I just love the script. When writers are that good, your job is very, very simple. I just feel blessed beyond description.

CE: I like this new trend of TV series running for fewer episodes, with those episodes packed full of action and storyline progression.

DO: Me too. I love the fact that a lot of shows nowadays are going in that direction of shorter orders of carefully put-together quality television. And the nature of our show is that it moves quickly. The immediacy of the situation is always at play with every episode, which is one thing I really like.

CE: Tell me about your character and how he fits into the fabric of the show.

DO: Michael Loman is the wild card. And I say that because when we start off the show, Ray Liotta’s crew — with Jennifer Lopez, Drea de Matteo, Hampton Fluker and Vincent Laresca — they’ve been together for a very long time. And they’ve developed a friendship and a bond and a lot of belief in what they do, although it is questionable. My character, Michael Loman, has just made detective, and he’s assigned to this task force; he was requested by Ray Liotta’s character, Lt. Wozniak.

So you have to think, why would Wozniak choose this character to join them? Is there something about Loman’s past we don’t know? Is Wozniak using him? Or does Wozniak see something in him? There are a lot of things with this character that we’re unsure of, and as the story starts to unravel, he finds himself in compromising situations and questions if he can remain the person that he came into this force as.

Jennifer Lopez and Dayo Okeniyi, courtesy NBC
CE: What is it like working with Ray Liotta?

DO: Ray is one of my top 10 favorite, most dynamic actors of all time. And “Goodfellas” is one of my favorite movies; I can quote it from beginning to end. I just try not to geek-out on set. But I’ll go home and call my buddies and be like, “Ray Liotta just told me in a scene, ‘Let’s go for a ride.’” Because if Ray Liotta tells you in a movie, ‘Let’s go for a ride,’ you’re going to die. So, I remember reading one of the drafts, and Wozniak comes up to Loman, and he’s like: “Loman, put down the phone. Let’s go for a ride.” And I was like: “Oh my God! Am I going to die?” I’m pretty sure I’m the first person to go for a ride with Ray Liotta and not die (laughs).

CE: Jennifer Lopez is an executive producer as well as the star of the series. How was she to work with?

DO: Awesome! To be honest, when I found out I was going to be part of the show, I was nervous about Jennifer because she’s never done television like this before. And she really is a musician at heart. But I’ll tell you, when we had the table read, as soon as she opened her mouth, everybody’s jaw dropped. She had such a handle on this character; it was incredible.

And like you said, she’s an executive producer on the show, and so she was integral in the development of it. She showed up on set and gave 100 percent every single day. She was so committed to the role and committed to keeping it gritty; there was no vanity involved. She was so awesome, so giving, and so loving as a person and character. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with her.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Interview: Heroes Reborn Keeps Gatlin Green on Her Toes

Gatlin Green as Emily on Heroes Reborn
Courtesy NBC
Young actress Gatlin Green is a rising star with many talents: The Nashville native is a singer, actress and model who’s starring in the juggernaut series “Heroes Reborn.” Ever since rumblings that the hit series was returning to NBC, fans around the world have rejoiced. This limited event series picks up from its winter hiatus tomorrow night at 8/7c for three more episodes, with the hopes that the show might return the following year with another event series. When I spoke with Gatlin recently, she was all for continuing the “Heroes” saga, and our fingers will be crossed that this hope comes to fruition.

Celebrity Extra: You’ve been singing professionally since you were a young child, and acting and modeling almost as long. Have you always known that you wanted to perform in some sort of capacity?

Gatlin Green: It all happened through my mom. She was a singer in a group called Sierra, and they toured for about 10 years. It was awesome. She did a photo shoot, and we (the kids) ended up showing up at the last minute. She pulled us on the stage and the photographer shot pictures of us, and he said that we took really good directions, and that we should think about getting an agent. So my mom did take us to an agency — she thought just for modeling — but when we got there, they asked us if we wanted to do acting. At 4 and 6 years old, my brother and I said: “Yeah! Absolutely!” From then on, we traveled back and forth from Nashville to L.A. We finally moved to L.A. about a year ago, and it’s been such an awesome experience and journey for us.

CE: Were you a fan of “Heroes” before being cast as Emily?

GG: I actually missed it on the first go-round because I was too young, but I definitely knew how huge it was and how much of a cult following it had of super-dedicated fans who absolutely loved it. I was excited that it would be coming back, and I knew the ginormous opportunity I had been given with the opportunity to audition for it.

CE: And this summer you got a taste of epic fandom of the “Heroes” crowd when you went to Comic-Con.

GG: That was my first full-on Comic-Con experience. I have to say it’s probably one of my favorite things we’ve done to this day, because it was so much fun. And I’m a nerd a little bit. I’m not an extremist nerd in that I can memorize all the facts about “Dr. Who” and every director of every episode and the writers and all of that, but I love “Dr. Who.” I love “Spider-Man.” And I will nerd out with you about that if we ever talk about it. So Comic-Con was super exciting for me.

CE: The “Heroes Reborn” cast must have been in high demand too, since it’s so popular.

GG: Oh my gosh, yeah. It was back-to-back tons of stuff. For us as a cast, it was different because we’re a brand-new show. Of course, we have the “Heroes” fan base, but nobody really knew what to expect with this new show. We were walking in blind because most of us had never been to Comic-Con. I think it was beyond any expectations that we might have had. We all had a blast.

CE: How did you go about preparing for and creating the character of Emily?

GG: It’s interesting because of the way that we shot the show. We’d get only a few scripts at a time, maybe one or two, because we’d usually film a set of two episodes at a time. So I never had the full story of who Emily was. We were figuring that out as we went along and seeing where the scripts would take her, and then trying to put my own twist on it and making it my own character. Thankfully she’s a pretty sweet and simple character, so there’s not a lot to make your own apart from that. But it was definitely cool to adapt to what each episode was with Emily, and it was exciting to get the new scripts to see what Emily was going to get into, what chaos or drama was going to happen around Emily. It was definitely fun having to be on my toes as Emily.

CE: What is it like working on the show? It seems like it would be a really fun cast and vibe.

GG: It’s really fun. It’s been a fun, easygoing show. It’s awesome to get to work with such amazing actors every day. That’s such an awesome opportunity. And they are pros at it. It’s really exciting to be able to work with them.

CE: What are some of your favorite things about working on the series?

GG: You show up, and it’s something different every day. There might be some crazy scene going on. And there may be stunts or explosions. It’s just really fun to be a part of.

CE: How is the cast to work with?

GG: An overall generalization is that it’s a hilarious cast. They’re all just funny people. You’ve got these super-dramatic scenes going on, and you call cut, and then we’re all making jokes and laughing. One of my favorite parts about filming is that we just get to have fun. It’s like a flip of a switch, and we’re all crying and screaming and shooting each other. And then flip the switch back, and we’re laughing and making jokes and super-lighthearted and fun.

I got to go to Paris for episode six, and that was so much fun. It was the first time I’d ever been to Paris. It was really fun to get to work in Paris and to get to see the sights and getting to work with a mostly French crew. That was a crazy experience. You have the everyday ins and outs of getting to laugh and joke around and be a family with the cast, and then you get to do stuff like traveling to Paris. It’s been super-fun.

CE: Can you give me any spoilers for what we can expect as the season rounds out?

GG: I think it’s fair to say that there will be some romance between Emily and Tommy. I think it’s really cool how we start seeing different characters cross paths with each other. I think that’s always super-cool, how “Heroes” does that. And then there’s obviously some intense drama and more conflict in certain areas. I think it will be really cool to see what happens with all the different characters and all the different storylines. But definitely look forward to some plot twists and drama and romance.

CE: Has there been talk of having another season of this event series? I have a feeling that 13 episodes just won’t be enough for fans!

GG: I think with any show like “Heroes,” or any of these shows that have such a big following, there’s always going to be talk about more seasons, spinoffs and stuff like that. With “Heroes Reborn” right now, it’s been set as a miniseries, and that’s all we know right now. Obviously, anything can happen. And I’d be super-happy if something did happen. We’re all on our toes waiting to hear if anything will happen. We’re all in this together.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Interview: Connor Jessup — From Falling Skies to American Crime

Most of us know Connor Jessup as Noah Wyle’s character’s son, Ben Mason, on “Falling Skies.” Now that that series has wrapped, Connor has moved on to a completely different character from the one we’re used to seeing. In season two of ABC’s “American Crime,” the story centers on Connor’s character, Taylor Blaine, who accuses two players on an elite private high school’s championship basketball team of drugging and assaulting him and then posting the pictures online. While the two schools at the center of the story are worlds apart in status, the lives of the students and teachers at both become inextricably linked. The 10-episode second season begins Jan. 6, but I have the scoop from Connor on what fans can expect now.

Celebrity Extra: Going from the sci-fi action of “Falling Skies” to the character of Taylor on “American Crime” really is a 180 for you. How excited were you to tackle this new character?

Connor Jessup: It’s hard not to slip into what sounds like hyperbole in talking about the experience of working on “Falling Skies,” just because it was so dominant in my life for such an important time of my life. I spent six months a year on that set from the age of 15 to 20. As anyone can tell you, those are pretty important years. It was such a massive experience. It changed who I am. I got to work with so many interesting actors. And I got to work with so many directors with so many different stories in so many different places. It was the best school I could possibly have had. We finished shooting this past January, so it’s been a while now since I’ve been on the ground in it, but it’s been interesting to think about it. It feels both immediate and incredibly far away.

Getting the part on “American Crime” was a mixture of luck, circumstance and experience. And it’s just like it really is just something that happened. I’ve never joined a TV show after it’s been going; here was a proven product. The first season stood head and shoulders above any network TV I’d seen recently. And that, honestly, was incredibly exciting. And then when I learned more about what this season in particular was about and what the character was about, and then as we’ve been shooting — as I’ve learned more and more and more — it’s something I’ve never experienced before. It’s been a real gift.

CE: Can you tell me a little about this new season?

CJ: Every season of the show is self-contained. The first season was its own story. They finished that, and the second season kicks off with a completely new story and completely new characters. This season is set in Indianapolis, and it focuses on a private school and a public school, and the inciting incident this year is that my character, who starts the season as kind of a financial-aid scholarship student at the private school, accuses a few of the other students, players on the basketball team at the private school, of sexually assaulting him at one of the school’s parties. So, that happens even before the series begins. The entire season is an exploration of the ramifications and the ripples that that accusation, that crime, has on the victims as well as on the accused, on the families, the community, the school administration. It’s really a mural of what a crime does in a community like this.

CE: Were you a little intimidated to take on such an incredible and horrific subject matter?

CJ: Yes, I was intimidated. I was terrified. I was terrified not just because of the heaviness of it, but because you are surrounded by people who are doing such incredible work that you feel a certain obligation to that, like if you don’t do everything in your physical power to play as close to their level as you can manage that you’re letting yourself down. It’s not coming from anyone else, and everyone here is lovely and supportive, but it’s a real self-imposed sense of dread. Or it was at the beginning. But that has kind of faded as we’ve gotten into it, and people have been so wonderful to work with and so supportive. But what was important to me — the main thing in terms of the heaviness of it — was that Taylor from the very beginning, and pretty much through the whole season, is ostensibly a victim. And it was really important to me that there was a little more to Taylor than that.

CE: When it comes to playing Taylor, how aware were you of really making sure you get it right and making it true to the circumstances? I know that’s hard when you’re in the moment of filming, but things like sexual assault, especially in kids so young, can be a difficult subject to navigate.

CJ: That’s a really hard question to answer because, like you said, you can’t really think about it in those terms when you’re doing it. You really have to keep thinking of the characters in as specific a way as possible. For me, Taylor is going through a lot of things that a lot of people have gone through, which are very pressing issues right now. But he’s going through them in his own way. He’s an individual and his circumstances are individual. So, my hope is just to capture that individual experience in a good way so hopefully that will speak to some broader experience.

To step back for a second, I find that not a lot of people in popular culture, certainly popular television, are talking about consent or fluid sexuality, or class and how class relates to sexuality, or the relationship between sports and masculinity. And those things are all kind of the focus of the season. So I’m very interested to see how it all comes together and how people respond.

CE: How is life on the set of “American Crime”? Can it get a bit tense because of the subject matter?

CJ: The show has such a large ensemble cast. It takes eight days to shoot an episode. Of those eight days, all of us only tend to work three days per episode. So, those are three tense days. But then you get a whole bunch of days off, so it really hasn’t been too hard to air it out. And the people are lovely. I’ve found that anytime I’ve done something that’s more dramatic, off set people tend to be especially friendly. People know how to balance these things.

Everyone is just so lovely. Everyone genuinely is incredibly decent, fun people. We’ve all been karaoking like six times. It’s a good group of people, and despite the subject matter, it’s been a fun time.

CE: Most of your scenes are with Lili Taylor, who plays your mom. She is always phenomenal. What was she like to work with?

CJ: Dear God, I couldn’t believe my luck. As anyone who has seen her in anything will tell you, she’s a genius. And she was amazing last season, but she was a supporting character then. This year, in my opinion, she is the star of the whole season. She is so — again it’s hard for me to sound like I’m not going insane when I talk about her — but she’s taught me more just with her acting and working with her than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. She spends the whole season on this quest for justice for me. And she does it with such a dignity and such a relentless, almost obsessive, beautiful passion in every scene — she never milks a moment. She never overplays anything. I think she’s really going to affect a lot of people. I know she affected me.

CE: So you’ve got Lili and the wonderful Felicity Huffman working off each other ...

CJ: She and Felicity together are a little slice of perfect.

CE: What sets “American Crime” apart from other police dramas out there — obviously aside from the many Emmy Awards it’s won?

CJ: The good thing about “American Crime” is the plot is obviously there, and the plot keeps things moving, but the core of the show is the human plot, so it’s not a procedural. There are procedural elements, but they are mostly happening in the background. The core of the show is how the ramifications of how all these cracks start to appear in the community and how it affects them.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Q and A: Week of Nov. 16

Scott Michael Foster, courtesy ABC
Q: I love ABC’s new series “Blood and Oil.” The actor who plays Don Johnson’s son in the drama looks familiar. What else has he done? — Eric P., Lancaster, Pennsylvania

A: Scott Michael Foster is the fellow you’re thinking of. The 30-year-old actor was a regular cast member on “Greek,” spent a season on “Californication” as Becca’s boyfriend who Hank couldn’t stand, was on “Once Upon a Time,” and “Chasing Life.” Now he plays Hap Briggs’ (Don Johnson) ne’er-do-well son, Wick, on the nighttime sudster. He recently wrapped on the feature film “My Dead Boyfriend,” which was directed by Anthony Edwards and also stars Heather Graham, John Corbett and Gina Gershon.

Despite the star power of Don Johnson, Amber Valletta and Chace Crawford, ABC recently announced that it has cut back its original order of “Blood and Oil” from 13 episodes to 10, which could mean that this first season of “Blood and Oil” very well might be its last if there isn’t a drastic upturn in its ratings. Look for season one to air its finale in December.

Q: I just found “Mike and Molly” on reruns, and I love the show. Please tell me it has not been canceled. If not, when will it return for a new season? — Tony O. in Florida

A: The hit CBS sitcom starring Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell will be back for a sixth season. While the network (as of this writing) has not yet announced a premiere date, it will be toward the end of this year, so keep an eye on your local TV listings. For late-breaking news about this show — and many other shows, movies and celebrities — be sure to follow me on Twitter (

Q: Can you give me an update on Masterpiece Mystery’s “Sherlock”? I can’t wait for this series to start back up again! — Diana T., via email

A: While season four of the series doesn’t start shooting until spring 2016, we do have a TV special to tide us over. Called “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride,” Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman reprise their roles of Sherlock and Watson, respectively, to bring us this 90-minute movie. It will premiere on Jan. 1, 2016, in both the U.S. and U.K. — a first for this series, as the U.K. usually airs the series first — at 9 p.m. ET, as well as online at

Q: Where has Chris Vance and his series “Transporter” gone? Will TNT air season three? If he is not involved with the series, what is he doing now? — Laura B., via email

A: As of this writing, TNT has not announced whether “Transporter: The Series” will be back for a third season. However, if you need your Chris Vance fix now, he has a recurring role on CBS’s “Supergirl” as the villain Non. His first appearance is in episode eight, which airs Dec. 14.

Q: Can you tell me what the actress who plays Maeby on “Arrested Development” has been doing lately? — Linda R. in Virginia

A: Alia Shawkat stars in a new TBS dark-comedy series of her own, which is currently in development. It’s called “Search Party,” and it co-stars John Early, John Reynolds and Meredith Hagner. The show follows a group of four self-absorbed 20-somethings who come together when a former college acquaintance mysteriously disappears. The series will debut sometime in 2016.

Q: My wife heard that there is going to be a new “Star Trek” series. Is that true? — Paul T., via email

A: A new “Star Trek” series has indeed been greenlighted at CBS, with an expected debut in January 2017. Prolific writer and producer Alex Kurtzman (producer of the “Star Trek” feature-film reboots) is developing. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “The new ‘Star Trek’ will introduce new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966.” The latest in the “Star Trek” feature films won’t premiere until 2019, but die-hard Trekkies will have plenty to tide them over until then.

Gatlin Green, courtesy NBC
Q: I am so happy that “Heroes” is back! Will there be another season? — DeeDee T., via email

A: “Heroes Reborn,” which started airing in September on Thursday nights on NBC, has been billed as an “event miniseries,” although that’s not to say there can’t be another season of this event. I recently spoke with series co-star Gatlin Green, who plays Emily on the show, and she told me she’d be down for continuing her role on the show. Gatlin said: “I think with a show like ‘Heroes,’ or any of these shows that have such big followings, there’s always going to be talk about more seasons, spin-offs and stuff like that. Obviously, anything can happen, and I’d be super happy if something did happen. We’re all on our toes waiting to hear if anything will happen.”

Gatlin gave me some minor spoilers to get you through the rest of the run of this miniseries, which wraps in December: “There will be some romance between Emily and Tommy. And, like ‘Heroes’ always does, I think it’s really cool to see how we’ve started seeing the characters cross paths with each other. There’s obviously intense drama and more conflict in certain areas. I think it will be cool to see what happens with all the different characters and all the different storylines. But definitely look forward to plot twists and drama and romance.”

Check back later for my entire interview with Gatlin.

Q: A local boy was nominated for a Nickelodeon HALO Award for his service to the community, and I wondered where I can watch the ceremony? — Fred R., Miami

A: Hosted, created and executive- produced by Nick Cannon, the “2015 Nickelodeon HALO Awards” is a one-of-a-kind concert event that honors young leaders from across the country. Now in its seventh year, the awards show recognizes teens who are doing extraordinary things in their communities by Helping and Leading Others (HALO).

The ceremony will be simulcast Sunday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m. (ET/PT) across Nickelodeon, TeenNick, Nicktoons, TV Land, CMT, and the Nick App. Walk the Moon (“Shut Up and Dance”) will perform. The four award honorees are Ethan Cruikshank (16) of Mechanicsville, Virginia; Riley Gantt (15) of Sherman Oaks, California; Joshua Williams (14) of Miami Beach, Florida; and Ruchita Zaparde (18) of Plainsboro, New Jersey.

Q: Can you give me any “Nashville” news? — Eric P., Lancaster, Pennsylvania

A: Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor, singer and guitarist Steve Kazee will join the show as Riff in early 2016. His character is described as a country-music star at the top of his game 10 years ago; however, everything changed when he met Heidi, a Southern beauty with a budding musical career of her own. He fell in love and chose to leave fame and fortune behind for life with Heidi. But since he’s a new character on the nighttime sudster, I’ll assume it didn’t work out and he’s trying to make a musical comeback.

Interview: Agent X's Olga Fonda—Next Big Action Star?

Olga Fonda, photo by Dorit Thies
Russian beauty Olga Fonda is perhaps best known to TV audiences for playing Nadia on “The Vampire Diaries.” She also wowed moviegoers — and Hugh Jackman — when she co-starred in the feature film “Real Steel.” Now she’s co-starring opposite Hollywood heavyweight Sharon Stone in the new TNT drama “Agent X,” which airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT. I spoke with her recently about her new role, and she can’t wait for fans to get drawn into the action and intrigue of this sure-to-be-hit action/spy drama.

Celebrity Extra: You came to the U.S. from Russia when you were 14. Tell me how this opportunity came about for you.

Olga Fonda: The United States was always known as a land of opportunities and dreams. So, when I got the opportunity to go to the United States as an exchange student, I happily grabbed it. I always wanted to get an experience of living in different countries, studying in different countries, learning the different cultures and, of course, learning English was such a plus because I knew having this experience that when I got back to Russia, I’d definitely have better opportunities. I’m very happy and grateful that my parents supported this, because I know it wasn’t very easy for them.

CE: What brought you back to the U.S. after the exchange program was over?

OF: I came back after two years to go to university. Within those two years, the exchange rate of dollars and rubles grew dramatically. If I’m not mistaken, when I went there the first time the dollar was about six rubles; two years later, the dollar grew to like 26 rubles. My parents just couldn’t afford it. I’d been trying to get a scholarship to college, and they called me and said, “We can give you half a scholarship,” and I said, “Unfortunately, I just can’t afford it.” So they called me back and said: “You have a presidential scholarship. Please come back.” So, I couldn’t let that opportunity go. It was beyond something that I could imagine.

CE: I know you’ve modeled and you’re an actress; how did you get involved in it in the first place? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?

OF: I’ve always been fascinated with the beautiful and glamorous world of the film industry. When I came here, I got discovered into modeling, and I started filming commercials, as well. So, I started taking acting classes to make myself a better actor and to work on the dialects and my accent. I just fell in love with it. One day a friend of mine called and said: “Listen, in my building they are casting this role for an independent movie and they can’t find a girl. They are looking for a Russian girl with a dancing background.” I said: “Yes, I have a dancing background, but I don’t have any credits. I don’t have a presentation theatrically. I’m just in commercials and taking acting classes.” She said: “Why don’t you try? Why don’t you call casting and go in?”

So I talked to casting. I was so nervous. I went into the room, and the director was there. Her name is Barra Grant. I read it once, and she had me read it again. It was the most terrifying experience ever. Before I left the room she goes: “Congratulations! You booked it.” I think I almost fainted. I was so shocked. Barra pretty much started my acting career. She was the first director who believed in me and gave me the opportunity before I had any credits or theatrical presentations. And then after that, I was able to get a presentation together.

CE: Tell me about your audition for “The Vampire Diaries.”

OF: To be honest, I was struggling with the audition. I went into the room, and it went so quickly. When I came out, I was so nervous because I didn’t know if I did well. When I got home, my manager called me and said: “You booked the role. Can you get on a plane in two hours?” I was like, “Wait ... what?” I had to drop everything. I went to Atlanta for one episode, and I ended up staying there for several more. They were great, the cast and crew. They were such a great team and very welcoming. And they are like one big family. I couldn’t have asked for a better first big TV series. It was the best.

CE: I am going to assume that it was wonderful working with Hugh Jackman in “Real Steel.”

OF: It was my first big film, and working with him was amazing. He is such a nice guy. Probably one of the nicest guys I’ve met, and he’s very professional. He has a beautiful and sweet family. He used to bring his kids on set a lot. One memory that I still have, it was so cute: His son, Oscar, at that time was fascinated with the Russian language and was studying Russian. I remember he says, “Come with me outside.” So Oscar takes me outside, and he spells my name and a few Russian words with chalk on the ground. I even took a picture of it. That was a beautiful moment.

CE: What was filming like? What was life like on the set?

OF: No matter what kind of role you had — big or small — on the set, everyone — directors, producers, main actors — they all treated everyone with such respect. They were so humble, and they were so professional. That experience became such a great lesson for me that I try to take with me on every set I go.

Olga Fonda at the Agent X premiere
CE: You have to be so excited to be co-starring in the highly anticipated TNT series “Agent X.”

OF: It’s a dream come true! I cannot express how excited and honored I am to be working with this cast and crew.

CE: What did you think about the show, as well as your character, Olga Petrovka, when you first read the script?

OF: The pilot is very well-written. It’s entertaining. It’s a great combination of drama and action. And (creator) Blake (Herron) did a fantastic job of creating an interesting story and strong characters. Of course, playing Olga Petrovka is a dream come true for me because I’ve always wanted to play an action character.

CE: That leads right to my next question, which is that it looks like such a fun and bad-ass role to play, you must be having a ball!

OF: When I read about Olga, that was the first thing that — besides her having colors and layers, and being an interesting, intriguing and fun character — she always had a lot of action. And that was something that originally drew me to her.

CE: What are some other things that will draw viewers to the show?

OF: It’s a great mix of different genders and different ages, and a great mix of action, mystery and drama. And it has a sense of humor. It’s a well-done show. As you know, it’s about a secret agent who works for the vice president. And you have beautiful Sharon Stone and Jeff Hephner, who is this really good-looking guy. And I think people would be drawn to the show because of them and because of big action sequences. But I think they will enjoy learning about the different characters within the show and what their real intentions are.

CE: What is everyone like to work with?

OF: Everyone is amazing. When we first started filming the pilot, especially the first day of being on set and shooting with these guys, everyone was so excited to be there. It was such a magical day. For me personally, it’s a great experience just to watch them perform; I learn so much by just watching them. Sharon is beautiful and smart and a talented woman. And she is fun to be around. She is very supportive of her fellow actors. She’s a superstar.

And Jeff, I call Jeff a super action star. He’s this talented, nice good-looking guy with a great sense of humor. We have so much fun together. We have moments where we are filming a scene and laugh so hard that we’re crying. It’s nice to work with someone who you can share these laughs with.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Interview: Eden Sher on Sue Heck's "Small Victories"

Eden Sher got her start on nighttime dramas like “Weeds,” “The O.C.” and “Veronica Mars,” but these days she’s known as the dorky and lovable sister on “The Middle,” which airs Wednesday nights on ABC. She has been nominated for and has won countless acting awards for her work on the sitcom, garnering Sue Heck a place in everyone’s hearts. When I spoke with her, she told me how it all got started, as well as how much fun they all have on “The Middle.”

Celebrity Extra: Had you always know you wanted to be an actress, or was it something you came across and said, “Hey, I can do this!”?

Eden Sher: A little bit of both. I watched a documentary about Spalding Gray, and he has this part where he is saying his one monologue where he’s like: “Some people are trained to become actors and some people are just born acting out.” Constantly attention-seeking, I guess. And I think that’s more the route I took. It always felt natural, and I was just always performing.

When I was 8 or 9 is when I finally convinced my mom to let me try it professionally. I would just see TV shows and I was like: “I can do that! I can do that better! I can do that better than that person. Please let me try. Please.” Until finally she let me, and then when I was 15, I thought, “OK, this is not just something that I love to do — I think I can actually make money doing this.”

CE: “The Middle” has been going strong for six years now. That is always such a milestone, especially for a sitcom in these fickle times of short attention spans and whatnot.

ES: Oh, yeah, definitely. Everyone hopes that their show will go more than two episodes without getting canceled, but no one really expects it. But to go six years, and to be a universally liked show, you can’t possibly predict how it’s going to be received. And it is so gratifying when it is received well. It’s a really intense feeling of gratitude.

CE: I think it helps that “The Middle” isn’t your typical sitcom. It’s smart, sometimes outlandish, and always funny.

ES: Totally. I always think of it like, OK, our show was definitely consumer before realistic. My character especially is an exaggerated version of what is presented, but I try to play it with as much authenticity as possible. I think this person might exist in every city in every state, but on a smaller scale.

CE: Sue is ridiculously optimistic, even when she fails. How do you approach playing her?

ES: It’s so funny, because I get asked a similar version of that question a lot, and I sometimes don’t understand it, because I feel like she succeeds once an episode. Sue has these small victories throughout the episode, and I never feel like Sue’s been let down.

CE: What’s it like on the set of “The Middle”?

ES: I hate every single one of those people. I do not make eye contact. They address me as Mademoiselle Sher. (Laughs) Of course, I love them. When we’re not filming, I always hang out with Charlie (McDermott), and I lunch with Neil (Flynn) on the reg. And I see Patty (Patricia Heaton). I don’t see Atticus (Shaffer) that much outside the set, but he also doesn’t live in LA. When we all have scenes together, it’s super. There aren’t words to express the immense feeling of gratitude that I feel on a daily basis. It’s so unusual to get a work environment where you truly enjoy every person you work with.

CE: What are your fan interactions like? What’s their feedback been like?

ES: They are the best. I love seeing and reading what they think on Twitter. My favorite was on Halloween — I was shocked by how many people tweeted me pictures of themselves dressed up as Sue. Oh my God. It was amazing. It was awesome.