Peter Jacobson is an American actor. He has enjoyed much success for his portrayal of Dr. Chris Taub on the series House. He is currently starring as Proxy Snyder on Colony and recently joined the cast of The Americans as Agent Wolfe. Peter was a delight to chat with and very funny.
PC: You were born in Chicago, a fourth-generation American with close ties to the Jewish community?
PJ: I was born in Chicago. Born and raised. Most of my family came over from Eastern Europe, not in the Ellis Island years (the turn of the 20th century), but mid to late 19th century; they came from Russia and Ukraine, and I think Lithuania. I’m sure those ancestors had ties to their Jewish communities in Europe. And I’m sure when my family came here they were, like most Jews that immigrated to the US, deeply connected to their Jewish roots. But my parents were not religious, so I grew up not feeling very connected.
PC: Did you not?
PJ: I’ve been in New York now for almost 30 years. It’s a very different kind of feeling, the Jewish community here. It feels to me like a much more essentially Jewish city than Chicago, mostly because of the much larger Jewish population. Growing up, we were not practicing Jews, so I didn’t have a bar mitzvah.
PC: So what was a typical weekend like, for you, growing up in Chicago?
PJ: Hard to remember… I’m getting on in years. Oh, you know, a typical Sunday was probably spent repairing my collection of old vintage cars, and then maybe playing eight rounds of golf. That’s not true. Those were things I definitely didn’t do. I don’t really know. I think a typical weekend would have been skateboarding around the block and hanging out with my friends in the neighbourhood, and not doing as much homework as my sister. Growing up we weren’t particularly close. But as adults, we became very connected and close.
PC: Is she older or younger?
PJ: She’s almost two years older. She definitely used to boss me around, and she could convince me to do just about anything she wanted (like most older siblings). But as teenagers we began to lead more separate lives. I’m pretty sure I was a disgusting little adolescent creature in her eyes. But, you know, we both grew up, and we’re very close. I’ve always been a big sports fan. Growing up in Chicago, we had season tickets to the football team, the Bears. My sister and my dad and I went to most of their home games in the 1970s. They usually lost, and it was particularly freezing at the stadium, but we loved going together.
PC: I was reading about your Dad, being a very successful reporter and news anchor. Did his career choice rub off on you?
PJ: Yeah, it was definitely an interesting experience for me in that regard. By the time I was a teenager, my dad had become a very well known local TV newsman. He and Bill Kurtis, who was his partner, sort of set the tone in the 1970s for good, hard-nosed Chicago news. They kind of ruled the TV news roost and became pretty famous locally. They had their photographs on buses and billboards, so I was very aware of it growing up. That had its advantages, and I think it also had its disadvantages. Part of me certainly enjoyed the glow of his fame and going out and having people notice him, notice us, and notice me. So maybe somewhere in my little developing soul, I became interested in the spotlight, and maybe some of that nudged me into a career that, if you really do succeed, you get a certain amount of public attention. I certainly don’t ever remember thinking consciously, “Oh, I want to be famous, so I’m going to be an actor.” But maybe on some deep, dark, psychological level that has been functioning somewhere.
Today’s television news is just a circus – not sure you can even call it ‘news’- but back then in the 70s and early 80s, their broadcast was all about serious news. He was an anchorman so he’d read the news; but he was most well known for his personal political commentary, which he would research and write himself. And every night he would do this three or four minute commentary, talking about corruption in the city, Mayor Daley, other politicians etc. Chicago has always been a rough and tumble town, and in the day, it was referred to as the ‘Beirut of politics’. So there was always something or someone for him go after. He would work on the commentary during the day then come home for dinner, and then go back at night again, at about 9:30, to do the news at 10 PM. And I would often go with him at night. There was a time growing up when I probably went with him almost every night of the week. I’d finish my homework, and then finish my day at the newsroom.
Back then their news set was really unique. They did their broadcast from inside the actual newsroom. My dad and Kurtis sat at the news desk with all the other reporters and everyone who worked for the station buzzing around in the background. It was exciting to watch, and hugely exciting to be there. I loved it, especially being around the cameras. I’d also watch him put his make-up on every night. You know, TV news is entertainment in a way. And there was something about the lights and cameras and the drama that was very appealing. I’ve grown up being a news and politics junkie, It’s a big part of my life, and I think that’s a direct line from my father. From early on I was exposed to that.
PC: Your dad still broadcasts on radio now doesn’t he?
PJ: Yeah. He’s retired, but he’s the kind of guy who never really retires. You don’t see too many old school anchormen out there, it’s mostly a younger breed now. But he stays very plugged in to the Chicago news scene. And he’s been doing some of his commentary work for a local radio station a couple times a week.
PC: You graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School. What makes Juilliard so special? Why, even in the U.K. do we know about it?
PJ: I think, first of all, because it’s a damn good school, and the faculty has always been great. The school was founded by John Houseman. And Michael Kahn, Moni Yakim, Liz Smith and so many more, these were and are some of the greats of the American theatre. And they put together and developed a program that is just really really solid and wonderful. It’s also a famous school, I think, because a lot of famous actors have come out of Juilliard; Kevin Kline, Robin Williams, Christopher Reeve, Patti LuPone, Kevin Spacey.
You know, at any school where you have some illustrious alumnae, the school gains a positive reputation. But beyond that, and most importantly, it’s really held its own for decades as a rigorous, excellent training program. And I think that’s probably how you know about it in the U.K. Also, the head of the program for many years was Michael Langham, He was English, from London I think, and was a very successful director in England, and truly a master of Shakespeare.
Juilliard, more than most of the other American drama schools, has always been very focused on Shakespeare, and what you might call classical training. When I was there, Juilliard also had a funny reputation for sometimes turning out actors who sounded stuffy and stiff playing Shakespeare. There was a not so positive Juilliard stereotype, almost like Americans trying to sound British. I think those Juilliard actors might just have been more versed in verse, or were still developing their classical training. I guarantee you we were not being trained to act like you have a pole up your butt.
PC: When you first started out, did you have the struggles that most actors seem to have or did you get work quite quickly? What sort of jobs were you doing to support yourself?
PJ: I did not get work right out of the gate. Well that’s not really true. When I graduated I got cast in a summer festival, a non-equity company up at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. In two months we did four plays, as non union actors. I did that right after I graduated from Juilliard, and then I came back to New York in the fall. And I remember the morning after I came home (probably the first week in September) and woke up in my bed, and I realized on this day in this moment, that for the first time in my life, or at least since I was four years old, that I was not part of an educational institution. Straight out of college I had gone to Juilliard. That was four more years. I was now 26 years old. I had an agent, but I didn’t have a job, and nobody was telling me what time to get up and what class to go to. I had no job and no prospects. So I had a bit of a panic attack. I worked my way out of that eventually. But I think for the first nine months or so I didn’t get an acting job.
It’s a fickle business and it’s always hard to get work. That was a very difficult time for me. I had support from my family, which was a real blessing. When I graduated I didn’t want to live off their support. It was important for me, since I was not working as an actor, to make my own way. I worked as a waiter. I was a terrible waiter. I was an even worse bartender. I also tutored kids for college entrance exams. At that stage, you try to have enough to get by, and hope that the acting takes off. And certainly knowing that I probably had family support if things got ugly was an advantage that many actors never get. That was a leg up for me.
PC: When it did take off, what sort of productions did you get involved with?
PJ: It never really took off, you know. There are some actors who do take off all of a sudden. But the vast majority, they’re living the typical life of an actor, trying to get work, getting work, and then trying again to get work. But every now and then, an actor will get a job that really quickly and clearly puts him on a whole other level. I feel like my trajectory has been a slow and steady uphill climb, and I’m grateful for that. There are times when I think, “Oh shit, I wish I was further along.” I’ll probably always think that. No matter what I do, or how well I do it, or how successful I am or become, I will always want more, wish it was more. That’s just sort of in my DNA; a connection to my Jewish roots right there.
PC: See you do have strong Jewish ties!
PJ: But I’m also aware of the fact that it’s such a difficult business, and my upward trajectory has been a blessing, and I’ve been very lucky to have that. After about nine months of no work after graduating, I got cast in Brecht’s ‘The Three Penny Opera’ at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Then right on the heels of that, I did Shakespeare in the Park in New York. Played one of the leads in their production of The Comedy of Errors. It was a pretty big jump, to get cast as a lead in Shakespeare in the Park. That was my first equity gig; and frankly, because it was such a big, exciting gig, I also got that false sense of, “Now I won’t have to audition much, this will be the thing that sends me off to the races.” But that’s not what happened. It was a great job, and it took me to the next level in helping me to continue getting work. It was a break in that I guess I was getting a smooth take off. And fortunately, it’s been pretty much an upward slope since then, which is good.
So I never really ‘broke out’. I just consistently worked for seven or eight years in New York. I pretty much went from play to play, without ever going too long in between. And then after a few years, I started dabbling in TV.
PC: What was your first TV role? NYPD Blue?
PJ: Yes it was. I played a reporter. I also played a reporter in my first film role. It was the film ‘It Could Happen to You‘ with Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda. Just a mini moment in a scene. I shoved a microphone in Nicholas Cage’s face and asked him a question. And I was probably already pretty well trained for that…
PC: What was that like? Were you like, “Oh man I’m working with Nicholas Cage” or are you just sort of, “hmm”?
PJ: In those first few roles, when you’re really just getting your feet wet, and you only have a line or two, it’s more intimidating than anything else. Whether you’re doing a TV gig or film gig for the first time, there’s so much to that day that’s exciting – wardrobe, make-up etc. And it’s altogether different from the stage work, from what I knew and was trained for, so that was very exciting. I thought it was neat to be working with Nicholas Cage. He’s a very interesting actor. But I didn’t have anything to say to him personally, and I certainly would not have imposed myself in there and gotten all chatty. I had a long way to go before I had earned the right to be chatty.
PC: Whereas now, if you were in a film with Nicholas Cage, he’d be coming over to you…
PJ: Well, I doubt that (laughing)… but I would feel more comfortable talking to him about life and the business.
PC: After that you worked with Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro?
PJ: I feel very lucky to have even spent just a day shooting a scene with those guys. With Jack Nicholson, I didn’t have any lines. I was in a scene playing a Jewish guy at a table in a restaurant (with Lisa Edelstein. We would work together on House years later). But it was a long, complicated scene in ‘As Good As It Gets’. We actually shot it over three days. There was a lot of sitting around, waiting for them to shoot different parts of the scene. And while we were waiting, I did spend a fair amount of time, just sitting at this booth in this restaurant, chatting to Jack Nicholson. And that was amazing. And part of that is because he was very easy, comfortable and welcoming, and interested. When I was sitting there, and he was talking about family, and he was just so nice, I was sort of walking (or sitting) on air for those three days. And I worked with Robert De Niro on a movie called ‘What Just Happened‘. I don’t know either of them personally. I just know them through that time on set.
I don’t know them well enough to say who they are as people, but their work personas… Robert DeNiro was very nice, but just totally different from Jack Nicholson, because he seems so shy. They seem sort of opposites. I didn’t get into any real conversation with DeNiro, but it was a bigger scene and we were more focused on the work; and I felt more intimidated because he was less, sort of naturally open. So for me, when I’m working with people like that who I really respect, I can get those moments of, “Holy shit! I can’t believe it”, but you just have to flow with the more chatty actors, and then respect the boundaries of those who are more internal or shy.
PC: Ha, that’s like me being on the phone to you. I’m like, “whoa!”
PJ: I just refuse to believe that (laughs)
PC: It’s true (laughing). I was reading that about how fond you are of Robert Duvall. What was he like? (If you don’t mind me talking about other people obviously).
PJ: Oh of course, it’s easier to do that than talk about myself. I think he is just about the greatest film actor of our time. But, you know, it’s a very personal thing. For my money, what I love, what I respond to, he is the best. And I did get to spend some time with him on the film ‘A Civil Action‘. He was one of the lead attorneys in the film, and I played his associate. I didn’t really have much to say (in the film) at all. But my character sort of followed his character around, always a step behind, or sitting next to him at some legal table. And believe me, that was enough for me. It was my first big movie in which I appeared for more than two seconds, so just knowing that I was consistently in the same frame with Robert Duvall was pretty thrilling. What’s amazing is how utterly simple and minimal and easy his work is up close. He’s just completely self possessed and relaxed. And then when you watch him on screen, that simplicity becomes complex, filled with so much presence and emotion. And, yet again, minimal. It’s an amazing quality. Can’t really explain it. But it’s superb. Anyway, because we shot over a couple months, I did get a chance to relax and chat and get to know him a bit. He’s lovely. Old school. Told great stories about starting out in New York, being Dustin Hoffman’s roommate. You can imagine how fun it is to hear about that stuff. And we also talked a lot about tango dancing and cattle. I obviously don’t know anything about tango dancing or cattle. But I held my own. I had to. It was Robert Duvall. And sometimes I would get that double consciousness thing going, where he’s talking to me about Argentinian steers, and I’m actually listening and comprehending, but at the same time a voice in my head is screaming, “Holy shit! Robert Duvall is talking to ME about Argentinian steers!”
PC: I want to think he’s just a really nice, solid guy.
PJ: Seems he really is. I’ve had the luck of working with some Hollywood greats. Elliot Gould and John Voight on Ray Donovan. Michael Murphy. These guys tell some pretty amazing stories. So I do really love all those ‘down’ moments, in between takes, or scenes. Elliot Gould talked about starting out as a kid in vaudeville. Michael Murphy told me about working with Elvis. Elvis! There’s a whole lot of sitting and waiting around in the movie and TV business. I’ve always loved the chit chat, the banter, the kibitzing. And yeah, the work is kind of fun too.
PC: It’s an amazing cast on Ray Donovan: Jon Voight and James Woods. I mean…come on James Woods!
PJ: Yeah. I didn’t get a chance to hang with James Woods. But that really is fun when they open up about their lives and careers, it’s a real unique window. I feel lucky to have had time with those guys.
PC: I am always surprised and feel blessed that I have had a lot of help from some of the actors I’ve interviewed: Xander Berkeley, Charles Baker and Kelly AuCoin have all introduced me to other people to interview which I think is amazing, that they take the time to do that. I keep in touch with them and they are, you know, just regular people, lovely people.
PJ: That is great. I get that. But then again, Jack Nicholson can never really be just a regular guy. I mean, of course he is. He’s a man with a family and friends and a career. But these guys, their lives are obviously so unique in many ways. Maybe some are more regular than others in their uniqueness.
PC: You have appeared in an extensive array of TV productions, do you feel you’re the go to guy for portraying Jewish characters, or not necessarily so? Do you feel typecast?
PJ: Yes, I definitely feel typecast. I’m sure every actor feels typecast, There’s no way around that. You are who you are; and in movies, and I think especially TV, actors get cast because of their looks or specific qualities that they have. Everybody is a certain type, and any actor who works is using, or trading on their type. There’s no way around it really. The question is, what do you as a performer do with your type? And also, does the industry ultimately give you enough opportunities to grow within, or without that type? It’s certainly different for everyone. For me, I can’t really avoid, or play around the fact that I’m Jewish, or at least what agents and casting directors like to refer to as ethnic. When I’m playing a role, even if it doesn’t matter, or it’s not specifically indicated that the character is Jewish or ethnic, people will sometimes assume that the character is, because I obviously am. I can’t avoid that. Sometimes I wish I could because, like every actor, I don’t want to be limited in what I get to play because of my physical appearance. So many of the roles I get are people whose jobs fall into the category of professions that our society sees as stereotypically Jewish. I play more doctors and lawyers and businessmen than most other actors. That can be frustrating and feel very limiting. It’s also pretty funny. The other day I told my son I was leaving for an audition, and he said, “For what, another doctor?” My fellow Jewish actors, or I should say my fellow ‘Jewish looking’ actors know what I’m talking about. I’m torn. I can get very annoyed and upset at this kind of type casting. But the other side of it, really the much bigger side, is that I’ve had the opportunity to play a whole lot of wonderful characters in my career. If the majority of them are doctors and lawyers, so be it. I’ve made a successful career out of those guys. They’ve paid the bills. And as long as they’re interesting, smart and well written doctors and lawyers, in interesting, smart and well written projects, then I’m thrilled to play every one of them. I mean, come on, I’m a lucky man to have played the doctor I played on House, and the lawyer I played on Ray Donovan. And yet… whatever role Brad Pitt is playing next would probably be fun. I think I’m ready for that.
My character in The Americans, we don’t know, is he Jewish? We probably assume so. Again, hard not to when it’s my face. But is Wolfe being Jewish an important part of the character? Doesn’t seem like it, but who knows? Maybe he’ll spend all of season five trying to convert Stan Beaman to Judaism, or maybe he’ll just show up at work two days in a row with a thing of gefilte fish. It doesn’t really matter to me. He’s a cool character in a cool job… and I get to be on The Americans!
PC: I think I read where you said you are never going to play the blond surfer boy…
PJ: Yeah, took me a while to realize that. About a month ago I finally got the message that that role’s just not going to happen for me (laughs). I have a 14-year-old son and, you know, basically every movie in Hollywood today is geared towards him and his friends. The Marvel Universe. And there is this sort of underlying tension in our household, you know, “Where is my super hero role?” “When is dad going to get cast in one of those movies?”
PC: I’m sure it’s only a matter of time
PJ: I don’t know. I mean, maybe Iron Man needs a lawyer…
PC: A reporter? Who knows? The roles are endless. You could play any of them.
PJ: They are, and we joke about that. But, if you’re really an actor, then you SHOULD believe you can play any character. You’re constantly told you can’t. And that’s the challenge: to keep pushing and pushing against that resistance, when you’re not getting the opportunities.
PC: Obviously, for some time yet, you are going to be recognized for your character Dr Chris Taub in House. What was the process, from getting your audition, to your first day on set?
PJ: I had just come back to LA from shooting a mini-series in Australia for three months called ‘The Starter Wife’. I was with my family, and we decided to stay in LA for a few days before going on home to New York. My manager called me about an audition for a recurring role on ‘House‘ that could also possibly turn into a series regular. I was told it would be nine episodes in which my character would be trying to get chosen for House’s new team. Which also meant that I, the actor, would essentially be auditioning through all those episodes. This seemed like it might be pretty stressful for me. Few actors are immune to that voice in your head that questions or judges your own work, wondering whether or not you’re doing a good job, whether people like your work or not. So here was a chance to worry about that for three months in a row. Yay. But ‘House’ was already a huge hit, and the role and the whole experience seemed like it could very interesting. I went to the audition and it went really well. I was almost on my way to the airport to go back to New York a few days later when I got a call that the producers wanted to see me again. I think they were just looking to make sure that I was right, maybe confirming that they liked me, or didn’t like me. See? It’s a natural part of the business to think this way. REALLY hard to avoid it.
Anyway, if writers and producers are hiring somebody for nine episodes and possibly way beyond, they want to make sure they’re hiring someone they want around. You rarely can know exactly what those guys are looking for on the other side of the audition room. But I went back in, after changing our travel plans. A couple weeks later I heard I got the gig. So I went from finishing a three month job I loved in Australia to not knowing what’s coming next, expecting to go back to New York and unwind for hopefully not an eternity, and then sort of suddenly I’m on ‘House’ for three months. And then I get picked for the team, and now I’m on ‘House’ for five years. There’s rarely any logic or even really a clear narrative to an acting career. You take it as it goes. And how it goes has tons of unknown and uncontrollable elements. So if you’re not a naturally go-with-the-flow kind of guy, which I most definitely am not, it can be stressful.
But of course also thrilling. I was in Chicago with my whole family for my father’s 70th birthday party when I got the offer, and so I had to change my travel plans AGAIN and cut out early to be on set for my first scene like within 48 hours. I remember being pretty nervous when I met Hugh Laurie, but he was lovely. Coming onto a new show can feel like being back at your first day of school. I met the other new cast members, and everybody was friendly. In fact we wound up getting along really well, became very close. Probably the weird tension of this nine episode audition made us bond even more. And I loved that job. I think I really loved it from day one, actually from the audition. Right away, I clicked with Taub. Sometimes you can walk into an audition and feel something’s missing in a role, something’s just off, or you just know you haven’t found it yet. The hope is that everyone in the room feels like the energy is right and something clicks. And that’s how it felt with David Shore and Katie Jacobs and me and Dr. Taub. Right away it felt like a fit.
PC: Do you hang out with your fellow actors at nights or weekends?
PJ: It’s kind of interesting when you come up through the theatre. I find the theatre is a much more social experience than TV. Surprising. You rehearse intensely for weeks, and then every night for weeks you’re performing together in front of a paying audience. And any actor will tell you that when the curtain comes down, even though it’s usually after 10PM, everybody usually wants to go out and get a drink, eat, socialize. It’s how you unwind, personally and as a company. So theatre has always felt more social than TV and film.
PC: I suppose you’re all starting and finishing at the same time and it’s not like that on a set is it?
PJ: Exactly. There’s something about the energy and intensity of performing live, the fun of that, the terror of that. You’re experiencing that together every single night. Some nights are great, some nights suck. And there’s tons of in between. But I think it’s often more intense than TV and film. You’re all out on that limb. And it can be very bonding. I made tons of friends in the theatre, and I was very involved in that social life. But when I started doing TV, I noticed the difference. Especially being a guest actor on a show, which is the bulk of most actors’ experience in TV. It’s hugely different from being a regular cast member. You’re coming in for a day or two or four, and you’re not part of the regular cast. You’re meeting so many new people, trying to impress all of them, trying to make sure you fit in to something that’s not really yours. And then the schedule of TV is so different, and not at all unifying. You may be done shooting for the day, but your cast mates might be working for another six hours. Or you’re working until one in the morning, and you might have to be back at work the next morning. You’re often not on the same schedule, and so it doesn’t feel quite as intimate.
That being said, when you’re a series regular on a show it’s a different ball game. On Colony, which we’ve done two seasons of so far, or on House, where I did five seasons, you really do have a much more bonding experience. I would say in those unique cases even more bonding than in the theatre. There’s a huge crew, and the writers and your fellow cast members who, even if you’re not on the exact same schedule, you’re all really in the trenches together, getting to know each other over a long period of time. You’re all trying to make a TV show come to life, and give it a long and healthy life – a rare and difficult thing to do. That’s VERY bonding. Certainly professionally, and often in those cases, socially as well. So on House I got very close to Kal and Olivia and Jesse and Omar and Hugh. So many hours of working, stressing, kibitzing, laughing. That was a wonderful and intimate trench to be in together. And because House was so popular and successful, it made that work and all those experiences that much more intense. Colony has a similar feel to it for me. We’re just starting out. And so far so good, and my dream is that it really takes off. But the similar feeling is one of real closeness with the cast and crew and writers. Really fun, wonderful, talented people. All of them. It’s been super fun from the very first day.
PC: Do you think House finished at the right time or do you feel there was still some meat left on the bone?
PJ: When you look back on a show that was that popular, and, frankly, that good even at the end, then it doesn’t feel like the right time to end, it could have kept going. At the same time, as an actor, playing a role for five years, I felt like there was a part of me that wanted to do something else. And we all probably felt some of the exhaustion from being on it that long. So I was kind of ready to move on. Of course the day after it’s over, you’re thinking about how you could have gone on making that show and that money forever. But really, it did feel in many ways like we had done this thing, and it had played itself out. But my sense was that the bulk of the decision to stop was due to the ongoing and exhausting squabbling between the network and the studio. FOX aired the show, but their rival NBC/Universal owned it. And I think they never got happy with each other, especially when the ratings did begin to dip somewhat. For some perspective though, House’s ratings in it’s final season, while not what they were in it’s heydey, would be considered a huge hit in today’s ratings world. The TV world and it’s business model has shifted so dramatically in just four years.
PC: I was wondering had you ever had that scenario where people say, “You played a doctor can you look at my swollen elbow?” or, “I have a rash”.
PJ: I was in a hospital recently and this older guy looked at me in a long, confused way that seemed more than just the usual actor-from-House-sighting. He seemed genuinely perplexed for a moment, and I felt like he was trying to put together the fact that he recognized me as a doctor, and he was seeing me in a hospital, but it didn’t seem right. But who knows? Made me chuckle. I often get, “Hey doc.” from people, which I think is sweet. One time a man came up to me in an airport and asked me if I would examine his wife’s injured arm. He was serious. I couldn’t believe it at first. But I found a way to politely remind him, or maybe even reveal to him that I was only a doctor on TV.
PC: I can’t help you at all!
PJ: Can’t help you, actually don’t know shit about medicine.
PC: You play Lee Drexler in ‘Ray Donovan’. Is it beneficial to know the story arc when you join a series? Do they give you much information on your character’s story?
PJ: It just really depends on the character and the show. For Lee Drexler I didn’t really know, or need to know what was coming up. His stuff was usually pretty contained within an episode or two. And if a storyline was ongoing, I always felt comfortable asking what was coming around the bend, or at least how the story was going to play out. That information is obviously helpful. For a character I’m playing over a bunch of episodes, I don’t need to know where he’s going to be a year from now. But within the episode you’re shooting you want to get as much information as you can; what’s happening, where is it going. Lee Drexler had some nice little story arcs, and he’s also fun in the way he sort of pops in and out.
With Taub, I had wonderful story arcs every season. He had a full life outside of the hospital, and part of the big joy of being on the show was that the writers gave me so much great stuff to play, Taub at work and Taub at home. And with a procedural like House, I was thrilled to get the chance to fill out the life of Taub in so many fun and interesting ways. Colony is different because it flows outward in so many new directions. There’s no resolution or conclusion after each episode. It’s an ongoing narrative. And with Ryan Condal and Carlton Cuse writing, every episode is a hell of a new ride. So I sometimes do need a little more information about what’s happening down the line with Snyder, if I feel that it’ll help inform what I’m currently playing. Plus, it’s just fun to know. But I also don’t like nudging them about it. They’re so wonderfully consistent and smart writing Snyder, that I feel I can just jump off and go wherever they take me. As long as he doesn’t get a bullet in the head, as seems to happen rather suddenly with some characters. I would want to get a heads up on that, for sure.
PC: At the end of Colony, season one, your character, Alan Snyder, did not turn out to be that guy we’d seen all season. He changed at the end and we were all asking “What’s next?”
PJ: Yeah, that’s a good example of why they’re such good writers. And also why I love playing that guy. In season two he’s no longer the governor of the bloc. He’s elsewhere, and he’s still an incredible survivor, and we get to see him in a very very very different environment than when he was in charge. And really, it’s so much fun for me that way. I can’t tell you what’s next, but I think people will love it.
PC: Can we hope your character Snyder has some redeeming qualities and that he’s not altogether nasty, manipulative, and conniving etc.
PJ: Absolutely. That’s what I love most about him. He’s not just a typical bad guy. While he has all those qualities that you just mentioned in spades, it’s the other side of him, the softer, more conflicted, the human side that makes him truly interesting. And we’ll get to see all of it. Snyder’s a very real guy; and in the extreme circumstances the Arrival has put him in, he’s revealed to be something of a mystery. A very cunning guy. I love him.
PC: What sort of criteria must a script meet, before you will consider it when your agent presents it to you?
PJ: I don’t have a lot of guidelines. I don’t say, “I will only look at this.” I want to work. I’m not too picky. So I’ll look at anything that’s good. Gotta know what’s there before you accept or reject it.
PC: Would you always look for the work to ideally be in New York or LA?
PJ: I live in New York, and so I’m always looking for a job here. But I look first at the show and the role and the production. And if that’s all good, then I’ll go wherever the show needs me to go. I was working in Moscow in April on a Russian TV show, that will never air in the US. It was the most incredible experience. It took a while for their production company and the Screen Actor’s Guild to get everything squared away, because American actors rarely work on Russian projects. And so I was the only American on the show. I brought my dad with me. They gave me a translator, who was with me all the time, especially on the set. They took us to the Bolshoi Ballet, we got to tour around Moscow. One of the great experiences of my life. Actually, it’s one of the things I dream about as an actor. Not just being on a successful show in New York, but getting a chance to work around the world. Have my work take me places I would probably never go. And get treated really really well while I’m there.
PC: What were the food and the drink like?
PJ: Great! It was very Russian. Funny how that happens. A lot of really good vodka and really rich food.
PC: Well that was nice enough in itself!
PJ: I loved it! I love to travel, and working in another country, another culture can be amazing. In Russia, TV production seems very similar to production in the US; it just seemed a little smaller scale, more what we would call guerilla, because their industry doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of money that we do here. But that has zero bearing on the talent, the artistry, the energy, all of that was fantastic. Interestingly different sensibilities at times, which made it all the more exciting for me.
PC: Do the Russian cast and crew all hanker to come to New York?
PJ: I would imagine some do for the same reasons that I wanted to go there; it’s exciting to work in a different place, a different culture. And who wouldn’t want to visit New York?
PC: When you come home from a day’s shoot, how do you separate yourself from what you have been doing all day long?
PJ: I tend not to hang on to a role when I get home. I’m pretty good at letting it go. Once I’m done, I’m done. But If I have to work the next day, I probably do stay more in the headspace of the character. I recently shot a scene for Colony, which I won’t describe to you, but it was violent and upsetting. I held on to that one longer. I came home, and I think I was a little quieter, and I wanted to be by myself and let that one drain out of my system. But, generally speaking, I don’t think I’m the kind of actor who is so transformed that I can’t get out of character, I’m not that guy.
PC: When you’re out and about on the streets of New York how do you deal with attention you get from fans? Some of the actors I’ve interviewed have said it’s not as much of an issue in New York because people just don’t bother you as much, would you agree with that?
PJ: I think it’s different in different cities. In Los Angeles, I don’t usually get noticed because I never see anyone because I’m always in a car. In New York I’m not in a car, but New Yorkers tend to not engage unless you’re standing in their way. Also, in New York there are tons of tourists, and they’re the ones who often will say something, or ask for a picture. And there’s something about New York that makes people less shy. It’s a bustling, loud, in your face city. So I do get “Hey doc!” there more than anyplace else. But when I’m home in Chicago, or as I’ve noticed, any place that isn’t New York or Los Angeles, people maybe aren’t as used to seeing actors that they recognize walking around. So then there’s more “Hey, I know you from House.” Or “Oh wow! What are you doing here?”.
PC: Does that get wearing when that happens? Do you think, “Just leave me alone” or are you quite happy to respond?
PJ: I really believe that if I’m lucky enough to have a career in film and television, and some of the stuff I do makes me recognizable, then that’s part of my job. I just can’t imagine being rude, or not being willing to be engaged with the people who watch the stuff that I do. They are the people you do the shows for. And frankly, what actor doesn’t want to be on a successful TV show or in a successful movie? So if you’re lucky enough for that to happen, how dare you be offended by that result – being recognized by the people that made the show or the film successful in the first place? Now, that being said, I also don’t think it’s ok if somebody is too pushy or rude. But that happens so rarely to me. House was so popular that people often still come up to me and talk about the show. And I can’t say I’m always ready and eager to chat about it, but certainly there’s always a way to have that exchange respectfully. And there are times when I’m busy with my family or something, and maybe I don’t want to engage. So then I try to respectfully make it clear that I’m occupied, or that I don’t have the time. But I can barely think of times when people aren’t polite. And again, it’s what I do, so people wanting to talk to me about a show, that’s part of the job.
PC: So you have now appeared on our screens on The Americans as Agent Wolfe. Were you already watching the show before you joined? I always find actors don’t have time to watch a lot of TV.
PJ: I don’t watch a lot of TV. And I’m annoyed by that. I want to watch more. There’s so much great TV out there. So much that I think I just become paralyzed, and I don’t even know where to go next. Also, this binge watching thing can be pretty time consuming. I did just binge all of Stranger Things. Loved that. It was a lot of fun. And I could of course binge The Americans over and over. It’s such a great show.
PC: I think it really is and I’ve interviewed Lev Gorn, Alison Wright and Kelly AuCoin and they all say the same thing: that it’s a really special cast and on set everyone is really happy when someone does a particular scene well, which may not always be the case on other sets.
PJ: I’ve only been in, I think, four episodes; and that was at the end of the 4th season. So I haven’t felt like I’m really an integral part of that family yet.
PC: Yeah, and of course there’s been a lot of changeover.
PJ: When I first stepped on the set, I felt that if I’m lucky enough to be on this show for a long time, it’ll be a great place to work. These are good, smart people, and it’s a very fun place to be. And yes, that is not always the case on other sets.
PC: Are the super fans quite happy for you to replace Agent Gadd or do they say, “Oh well that’s not what the other guy would have done?”
PJ: Probably some say that, but it goes with the territory. I’m not Richard Thomas, and my character will not be anything like him, so I’m not worried in that regard. But, at the same time, I am certainly aware of the fact that Richard Thomas is, well…I thought he was fantastic. He is such an interesting, sweet, smart person, and he brought so much to agent Gadd. So I do feel a little guilty that there are likely many many fans of the show who didn’t want to see him go. And some who might understandably be thinking, “Why the hell do I have to watch Jacobson now?” But that’s TV.
PC: I think, as a fan, you do think like that a little. Like, if Lev Gorn’s character (Arkady) has gone for good, I’m going to be gutted. I really like him. I will be like, “This new guy’s not Lev”. But after a few episodes you actually forget that and think, “Yeah, actually this guy is alright.”
PJ: I never intended to do my Richard Thomas imitation. Especially since I don’t have a Richard Thomas imitation. I just gotta be me, and hope it works for the show, and that it works for the viewers.
PC: The cast has been so good. In a lot of shows you might think the leading man is outstanding but on The Americans you know, apart from those we’ve mentioned and the leads, there’s Margo Martindale and Noah Emmerich. I really just want to interview the entire cast!
PJ: It’s a great, great show. Great writing and great actors. Allison Wright really blew me away in season four. I mean, Jesus, that was such a wonderful, soulful and heartbreaking performance.
PC: Yes, she is fantastic. How do you manage your filming schedule? Do they overlap?
PJ: The reason I am able to do both is because their seasons shoot at different times during the year. Colony starts in the spring and ends in the fall, and The Americans starts in the fall and ends in the spring. So I got lucky. There is a little bit of overlap of the last few episodes of Colony and the first few episodes of The Americans. And technically, I’m a series regular on Colony and a recurring character on The Americans, so The Americans has to work around Colony. But luckily, they’re willing and able to work it out, and I benefit hugely from that.
PJ: I have to tell you right out of the gate I’m not really a big music guy.
PC: Yeah that happens, you either are or you aren’t. I foolishly called my site Absolute Music Chat so must always include music questions… I think we have already established as to whether you are a huge fan of music or a more casual listener?
PJ: Yeah, definitely casual. There is music I love. I really only listen to music when I’m exercising, or in serious need of relaxation or inspiration.
PC: See for me, I put music on soon as I get up and, before I got more involved just this year in TV, I would listen to music as I went about my day, whether in the bath, in the car, everywhere really.
PJ: I definitely know people like that; my wife is much more into music than me.
PC: I generally find people are either into music or books or art. What is your thing?
PJ: I’m more of a reader. In the last few years I’ve started jumping from book to book. And my pattern has been to alternate fiction and non-fiction.
Of course there’s a lot of music I love; but If music is playing and it’s at a slightly intrusive level, say during a conversation (maybe at a restaurant), I don’t want to hear it. I want the music I want when I want it. I’m not a Scrooge about music. I’m just specific about it.
PC: Yeah Charles Baker (Breaking Bad) said much the same thing. He wants to be sitting up straight, paying attention to what’s playing, not just have it as background noise.
PJ: Yeah, exactly.
PC: Can you remember the first album you were singing along to?
PJ: Other than kiddie stuff, I remember, when I was probably about 4 or 5, my parents were. of course, into the Beatles. So I remember having those big headphones that made you look like an airplane pilot on my head. And it must have been a lot of ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘The White Album’ because growing up I had two those albums in my blood. I knew them thoroughly and intimately since I was tiny. My mother was also a big classical music fan, and she introduced me to it when I was teenager. So while I got the Beatles very early, the first time I was really conscious of, “Oh, I like this music, I’m learning about this music, and I actually want to listen to this music” was with classical. I thank my mom for that.
In any case, I’m kind of a fuddy duddy when it comes to what’s popular today. Doesn’t really interest me much. Although recently I’ve been way more exposed to it because of my teenage son. I can actually watch the Grammy’s now and sort of know what’s going on. But just sort of. I’m still just much more attracted to and affected by earlier music. Really, from old standards through the 60s and 70s. Actually, I’d say my full range is more accurately from mid 16th century through 1987. I’m not sure what that says about me. Probably not much, other than I’m nostalgic. And old.
PC: What would your playlist look like on a road trip?
PJ: I guess mostly music from my childhood through college.
PC: You wouldn’t have music playing whilst learning a script?
PJ: Definitely not. That would mess me up. Couldn’t do it.
PC: Do you go to see much in the way of live music?
PJ: My wife will often recall specific rock concerts from her childhood. I think most people can do that. But I just didn’t have that experience growing up. The first concert I ever went to was Kiss, in 1978, and all I remember was Gene Simmons spitting blood, and that I got a headache.
I remember my dad offered me tickets to The Rolling Stones concert when I was in high school, and I mentioned to some kids at school that I had the tickets, but that I didn’t want to go. And so that apparently exposed me as being even more uncool than I already was. I got teased. “Jacobson what’s wrong with you? You’re a loser. You have tickets to the Stones, and you don’t want to go?”
PC: Did you go?
PJ: No. I might have been a big music nerd, but I also had some semblance of a spine. I wasn’t going to let myself be shamed in to a Stones concert. I was scared of Mick Jagger. But I love him now. Just took me a while. And I’ve seen the Stones in concert twice. I went to see U2 a few years ago, and Springsteen. Probably my first real great concert experience was Bruce, in 1981..ish. I think ‘The River’ tour. Amazing. I mean, that man leaves it all out there.
PC: Is there a movie soundtrack you like particularly?
PJ: I used to psyche myself up before going on stage with the soundtrack to Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Henry V’.
PC: Is there a song that takes you back to a special place or time?
PJ: One song that really takes me back to a very specific time and place is Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’. It’s this haunting song about a real shipwreck on Lake Superior in the early 70s. It’s very repetitive, but gripping. And it connects me to my summers at camp in northern Wisconsin. We used to listen to that song all the time. And growing up on Lake Michigan, swimming in Superior in the summertime, anyone who grew up around the Great Lakes knows that song. It just drops me right back to my camp cabin in the North Woods, listening on my bunk to my counselor’s eight track tape. THAT’S my childhood right there.
PC: Do you play an instrument?
PJ: I played the recorder in 5th grade. I played piano when I was a kid, for three or four years. I think I was pretty good, but I hated practising. I just stopped at some point because other things in my life took over. I’m still able to work my way through a song, very very slowly.
PC: You can sing, I believe?
PJ: I can sing. You probably wouldn’t want me singing the lead in a Broadway show, but I have what you would call a ‘character voice’. I can hold my own, and, you know, act the hell out of a song.
PC: What music would you like to be played at your funeral?
PJ: I’ll be dead so I won’t care.
PC: The last record that excited you?
PJ: I mean, I can’t remember the last record I bought and listened to all the way through. Do people even buy records anymore? It’s all right there on itunes, any song you want, whenever you want it, which sort of defeats the idea of listening to an album doesn’t it? In college I used to listen to REM’s ‘Murmur’ all the time. Most recently would have to be Coldplay’s ‘X and Y’. And that’s not very recent.
PC: Do you ever get up on the dance floor?
PJ: I used to all the time in college, in my 20s. I loved dancing. Today, there’s no amount of liquor that would get me out there. No more. No way. Too old. Too bald.
Three questions I ask everyone
PC: What is your favourite word?
PJ: I don’t have a favorite word. I use the word ‘literally’ too much. Doesn’t sound smart. In Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, the character Costard says the word ‘honorificabilitudinitadibus’. That’s a great word. And I like how close ‘balaclava’ and ‘baklava’ are, and that one is a scarf that covers your face and neck, and the other is a yummy Greek desert.
PC: How would you describe your perfect day?
PJ: Perfect day (and evenings) for me usually involve some time spent on a beach.
PC: I couldn’t possibly live without…
PJ: Sports, a good hamburger, and the movie ‘Tootsie’.
You can find Peter on Twitter
Thanks to Davina Baynes my editor
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.