Joshua Malina ("Sports Night," "The West Wing" and many guest-starring roles on TV) has lately neen on "In Plain Sight," which begins a new season at 10 p.m. Sunday on USA Network. The series stars Mary McCormack -- another "West Wing" alum -- as federal marshal Mary Shannon, working in the witness-protection program in Albuquerque, NM; Malina is Peter Alpert, boyfriend of Shannon's often troubled sister Brandi (Nichole Hiltz). Malina and I talked (and laughed) recently about "IPS," Malina's funny Internet series "Backwash," his ongoing pranking with Bradley Whitford and other topics. After the jump, excerpts.
Working on "In Plain Sight": "It's great," he said, "it being Mary McCormack's show, and she being my old [onscreen] girlfriend from 'The West Wing.' I just love Mary, and ... two seasons ago, she called me out of the blue -- actually texted me, 'We're going to offer you an arc on the show.' I never anticipated it would be this regular. I'm psyched. I loved the material. I love the group of people. And Nichole Hiltz is fun to work with."
Being the stable figure among some eccentric women: "That's . . . not what I normally play," he said. "I don't think I'm usually anybody's stability anchor, so it's kind of fun for me. Obviously they've got crazy family dynamics, and the characters are all out there, and it's fun to be this kind of stabilizing influence in Brandi's life."
Not getting in the upcoming episode with friend (and another "West Wing" alum) Bradley Whitford guest-starring: "Terribly disappointed not to be in that one," he said. Since he is in the family side of the show's stories, and the guest stars tend to be in the law-enforcement stories, Malina said that "I don't really get to interact with the guest stars . . . but I did try to get to Bradley. ...
"I was on the threshold of pulling off a great joke," he said. "We have a long history of sort of pranking each other. Twice now -- in an episode of 'West Wing' that he wrote, and on his short-lived series 'The Good Guys' -- he had my character say something to the effect of 'I'm a horrible actor.' ... I have to give him credit, it was a pretty good joke. ... I heard he was going to be on ["In Plain Sight"] and I called Mary and I begged her to try to get the writers to write him a line where he says, 'I can't act.' Probably within 45 minutes she sent me a draft of the script in which, in fact, he said that. It was fantastic, and I thought it was such a great stealth joke because I'm not in the episode, I didn't write it."
The line got a good laugh during a read-through, Malina said, but was cut in the episode's final version -- because it was running long and the scene was not that important. "I still have to get to him somehow," Malina said.
On "Backwash," a 13-episode comedy series Malina did for Crackle.com (it's also available on YouTube): "That was something that was kind of percolating for years. This ridiculous, absurdist, old-school, slapsticky piece of weirdness that I would write and add to, and I had in mind that Michael Panes, an old friend of mine, and I would do something with." He tried it out as a sitcom pilot, and a movie script, but didn't try to sell it; then one day the rise of Internet series prompted them to pitch it to Crackle.com "and delightfully they went for it."
Let me pause her to recommend its blend of learned whimsy and silliness which, as I told Malina, was like someone emptying out everything in his college notebooks. "That is a pretty fair assessment," Malina said. The approach involved "throwing seven jokes when the viewer can process four of them. . . . There's a barrage of ridiculousness."
Malina admits that the series is not for everyone, and that may be why he never tried to sell it as a TV show. "TV executives don't want to hear a pitch that includes, 'It may not be for everybody.' TV sort of has to be for everybody. Obviously there are very good things on TV that appeal to mass audiences. But ... what you're creating has to have really, really broad appeal to work. Things that are marginalia, or a little bit riskier comedically, or a little bit different -- those aren't positive bywords for TV. ... So it's nice that there's a place for that on the web. Then you start seeing some crossover. I mean, 'Children's Hospital' on Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network started out as a web series. ... Sony TV is actually behind our shopping 'Backwash' as a TV series."
Does he prefer writing to acting? "If I'm to be fully candid, I think that because I'm by nature a lazy person, I enjoy acting a lot more than writing. Staring at a blank page can be horrific but being given a page with dialogue on it can be a delight. You know, to me acting is not a hard job. Anybody who says it is, is probably a better actor than I am, or doing more difficult things -- or is lying. Because acting is just pretty easy. You're just a cog in a machine, and the material is not on you to create the material. And when the material is good, you say the words at a reasonable volume, in the correct order, and you come off looking OK."
But how hard is it to find the good words? "I have been very lucky largely as the result of my friendship with Aaron Sorkin. . . . Even when it's not directly written by Aaron, I've gotten to do other things because of my association with him. . . . That being said, sometimes you ... get a little spoiled when you've done a lot of Aaron's stuff. There are a lot of things out there that are not so great, and anyone who is a working actor has to deal with some of that, too. Part of the job."
McCormack, by the way, is pregnant and the pregnancy is being written into the show. "I think it's had a big effect [on the show]," Malina said. "I think I found out very early on. She kind of muttered to me. [When I mentioned how good McCormack is at muttering, Malina agreed.] I've been sitting on it for awhile, very happy and very excited for her. [Now] I think a lot of things are being rewritten. ... A lot of things are being changed. ... I had seen a bunch of scripts that are now being wildly modified. It's funny, too, because Nichole Hiltz was pregnant last year and it wasn't written into the show, so most of our scenes involved making a big salad, or standing behind a counter -- always some big thing blocking her belly."
What's next for Malina? "I've got a few different things that I've shot already. I'm on 'CSI: Miami' opposite the premiere of 'In Plain Sight,' but I should probably not be mentioning that to you. That'll rerun -- watch it another time. I also did the [season] finale of 'Private Practice.' Shonda Rhimes has a new pilot starring Kerry Washington called 'Damage Control.' I'm in that. ... I'm not a regular but if that gets picked up, there are indications that I might be part of that, or have a recurring role on that."
Rhimes -- who is also behind "Private Practice" and "Grey's Anatomy" -- "is terrific," he said. "She is incredibly prolific. ... I am amazed at the extent to which she is able to keep quality control on all her shows, and keep her point of view and her writing. ... As I mentioned earlier, given my own laziness, if I had one hit show -- one -- I would have passed on all the writing. I would have delegated it to other people while I sat at home counting my money."