An interview with Timothy Busfield
With leading roles such as Elliot from “Thirtysomething,” to more iconic roles like Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds, Timothy Busfield has had his fair share of success. Now, Busfield has broadened his skills with directing and producing. Coming off directing from Marvel’s Wastelanders: Black Widow podcast, Busfield chats with Steve Cooper about how he got into the industry, what has changed in the industry and more. You can find the complete interview online at coopertalk.net.
Q: You have a new podcast coming out called Marvel’s Wastelanders: Black Widow that you directed. Tell me about it.
A: They’ve come up with the idea that 30 years in the future, whichever Avengers are left… they’ve got their hands full with Earth in the future. They’re trying one by one… to get things right … We’re new in Wastelanders, old man Star Lord, old man Hawkeye, old lady Black Widow and we’re gonna work our way to a finale. There’s gonna be six, 10 episode series all together I think five or six, and we’re on the third.
Q: You’re a guy from Michigan. How did this whole acting career get started?
A: My sister and brother did it, so in junior high I wanted to be on the same stage they were on when I saw them. I was able to perform on stage where I saw my brother and older sister, adapted something and wrote my first showbiz play in high school. I always knew … I said, “I’m gonna be a movie star,” … I realized there’s a path for that just like there is for athletes. High school, college at East Tennessee State University, …and regional theaters. Then Broadway, off Broadway, and into movies and TV. I just followed that traditional route.
Q: Tell me about The Revenge of the Nerds. Was it an easy role to get?
A: First of all the script was sent to me and I read it and loved it … It was tight. The characters were well drawn, and I originally read for the Tony Edwards role …I didn’t get it … Then I got a call about a month later and they said they have one more nerd to cast … So I went to a thrift store at Pico Boulevard in LA … I found the glasses and then sort of did my hair like Gene Wilder in Frankenstein and found a suit that was a Henry Kissinger type and then I found the walk, and sort of stuck my chin … I went to the audition and Susan Arnold came out and said, “Who are you? I don’t know you,” and I said, “I have an audition. I have the four o’ clock,” and she said, “I don’t know you.” I pulled my glasses down and said, “It’s Tim Busfield,” and she said, “Oh my god, oh my god.” So I went in … and Jeff Kanew said, “You got the part kid.”
Q: Since you started in theater was it easy to adjust to TV?
A: Going from theater my first TV series was a sitcom, or Stripes was my first movie … Theater and comedy are very close … It was effortless for me… and because of [Revenge of the] Nerds I knew I could go to dailys everyday … They put them on a projector and you see yourself in like those old … screening rooms, smoke filled, people are in there smoking and they’re showing the dailys from the day before and I got a chance to … watch the look and say no don’t do that … I was really confident …
Q: When you were in “Thirtysomething” how would people act towards you in public?
A: The difference in television then and now is we only had four networks … our audience was 20 million, and when your audience is 20 million, you can’t really go anywhere without people recognizing you … A woman came up to me at a supermarket in Los Angeles … she caught me flush with a slap … and she caught me flush. I saw stars for a second. I looked at her like what are you doing? … Ya know, she apologized and she then immediately jumped all over me and I was like I didn’t write it. They take it very seriously.
Q: How did you go from being an actor to a director?
A: I was surely lucky. Peter Horton … came in as a director, Ed and Marshall had liked Peter to direct on the show from the beginning … Then Kenny Olin said if Horton’s directing then I want to direct, and they said OK. Then I said OK if Olin’s directing, I get to direct, and they said OK. Then it turned out that the guys preferred sort of no bad habits, to basic TV directors that shot all TV the same way … we were encouraged and taught by those guys to become filmmakers.
Q: Is it hard to direct yourself?
A: I actually prefer it because I can set the tempo. By the time you shoot the scene, you’ve read the scenes so many times. It’s not like you show up on the set and they give you a scene and you have to figure it out on the spot. You know how you’re going to block and stage that scene, and you’ve read it so many times. So for me I prefer to act in scenes where I’m directing myself. I like to do both … I’ve directed myself in just about every show that I’ve produced for sure and many others where they’ve said will you be in the episode you’re directing and you know it doesn’t alter my performance at all. I prefer it.
Q: How did becoming producer make you a better director?
A: You learn a lot when you’re in a management position; you learn a lot about what you need, not necessarily what you want. And piecing together film is a lot of math and a lot of pieces. When you’re producing you really get a sense of what you need, not what you want … I was able to be behind the director or there to clean up their work, and say you know we need a shot … those are the things you don’t think about when you’re just directing. Those are the things you think about when it’s your job to deliver to the network on time.
Q: How has the industry changed?
A: What I think the business has shifted is that, you know, we had training, and you see it with the British actors especially. Used to be that everyone came up through the theater one way or another, it seemed like. Everybody came with a performance … They all came from the theater. American acting now, you can just take an acting class and be discovered and really not have ever had to observe what it is to be functional through a story. You don’t have theatrical playfulness. Whereas you look at all the BBC mysteries and you look at the British actors, they’re all classically trained.