Saturday, September 26, 2015

EXCLUSIVE: With Andre Braugher of 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine'

I don't remember now which of his many series he was representing. Could it have been so long ago that he was still playing the role for which he may be best known, as arrogant, eccentric, irresistible Detective Frank Pembleton on the classic cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street?

At any rate, I was still a relatively brand-new television critic, writing for The Detroit News, and certainly something of an anomaly: even today there are very few people of color writing about TV on a regular basis, and in the early '90s there were almost none.

Perhaps that was the key. I bumped into Andre Braugher in the elevator of the Santa Monica hotel where the Television Critics Association meetings were being held that summer and we began a casual conversation. It floated into the lobby bar where we talked about a variety of subjects – very few related to acting or television, as I recall – over a round or two of drinks. "What a great guy," I think to myself. I've never been starstruck, but neither had I ever spent significant time chatting with a nationally known actor in a non-interview setting. "He's nothing at all like his characters!"

As we get up to leave, Braugher takes a napkin off the bar and pulls out a pen. He writes down his home number and hands it to me. "If you're ever on the coast, give me a call," he smiles. Well, just how cool is this?

I'd like to tell you this is the start of a beautiful, decades-long friendship. But I would be telling you a lie, for I am a doofus. By the time I returned to Detroit from California a few weeks later, I lost the napkin.

I recount this story to Braugher recently over the phone (no, I didn't find the number; a Beverly Hills publicist set up the call), which elicits a laugh. "I'm glad to know I was perceived as being a nice guy," he says.

He's also being perceived now – for perhaps the first time in his long career – as a comedic actor. He has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series each of the two seasons Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been on the air for his portrayal of Captain Ray Holt, the by-the-book, openly gay commanding officer of TV's wackiest precinct.

As Capt. Ray Holt, the Last (Serious) Man Standing. (FOX/Tommy Garcia)
As Season Three arrives on FOX at 8:30 p.m. EST Sunday (Sept. 27, 2015), however, we find Capt. Holt has been transferred – and demoted – to head his former unit in the NYPD's Public Relations Office, the result of his ongoing insult war with the evil Deputy Chief Madeline Wuntch (guest star Kyra Sedgwick). Holt's farewell to his squad at the end of Season Two was the kind of scene from which YouTube legends are made. And now the 9-9 must deal with a new captain: guest star Bill Hader, former Saturday Night Live stablemate of series star Andy Samberg, as the efficiency-obsessed Capt. Seth Dozerman.

What are we to make of all this? For that matter, what does Braugher think of these big changes, I asked him as our one-on-one interview began.

When you received the script for the Season Two finale, were you at all concerned that you were being written out of the series?

I wasn't concerned in the least. I mean, there's always a cliffhanger at the end of a season. Jake (Andy Samberg) left the first year, Ray left last year, and next year who knows?

As a matter of fact, (co-executive producer) Dan Goor gave me a call after the script came out and said, 'Oh, in case you were wondering whether or not you're on the show, we have this whole elaborate thing planned out, blah, blah, blah,' I told him I had no doubts. Other people asked, 'Are you leaving the show? Where are you going?' I said, 'I'm sure they have something planned and they're going to resolve it.' I know these guys (Goor and Michael Schur) to be sharp and funny. They're not crashing their own show.

I think I have a contract that runs six years, and I think they're happy with my work. I've gotten two consecutive Emmy nominations. So I think I'm good.

Did you have any misgivings about playing a gay character?

I wasn't concerned about anything other than the fact that typically, gay characters are the butt of the joke. But I understood these guys (Goor and Schur) have a very good pedigree. I've watched The Office and Parks and Recreation and I know these guys are smart writers who create really rich and detailed universes for their characters. So my only question was, what's your intention with this?

Basically it was a five-minute conversation. Dan said his intentions were ultimately respectful. New York is a city that's incredibly diverse and this cast is incredibly diverse as well. It's his attempt to mirror the world, and I think that's wonderful. Raymond Holt is in a long-lasting, monogamous, stable relationship. He said this is not the kind of show where you're going to be wearing pink hot pants one day and dancing to 'YMCA' the next. No matter how crazy the characters are, they're still going to admirable in their own way. And I took him at his word.

It's an especially touchy issue for black actors, no?

You know, African American men in drag or as flamboyant homosexuals is really a very common theme in television, so it was always important for me to stay away from that kind of stuff. So I trusted these guys, and it's proven true. Ray Holt is a very interesting man whose sexual orientation is part of his character as opposed to being his defining trait.

Do you expect that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has impacted your image to the extent that casting directors will think of you now as a comedic actor?

(Laughs.) Possibly. I don't know. I mean, this was so unexpected. I would love to. I would love to take on some comic movies, I'd love to take on some comic challenges. I wasn't born to comedy, but I think there's a place for me. I would love to embrace it wholeheartedly and see where it goes, because I feel rejuvenated as an actor by being involved with this comedy. 
The undeniably diverse (and bizarre) cast of 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' (Scott Schafer/FOX)
Do you have any 'rearview mirror' thoughts about Men of a Certain Age (the short-lived TNT drama co-starring Ray Romano and Scott Bakula, which also earned Braugher two Emmy nominations). It was so good, and seemed to be canceled way too soon.

Well, I guess the numbers weren't good enough. People really had a very strong affection for that show, as did I. And I felt we were telling a really mature kind of comic tale about men in this time of their life.

You know, it's typically true of television that men at this age are the butt of the joke, and this was a show that loved them and understood them. You could see it in the writing. So I was sorry to see it go, but that's been the story of my entire career. It's not my decision. It's not my network. I would have done something different and I would have loved to go on with the show. Ray is a comic genius, period, and Scott is a perfect gentleman. But once again, it was TNT's call. If the numbers don't satisfy them, it's time to go.

They (TV networks) do love to pull the plug too early on the shows, you know? Shows don't get a chance to build. They just yank 'em. If farmers ripped up their crops as quickly as networks rip up television shows, nothing would ever grow. But I went on to Last Resort (the military drama that aired one season on ABC), and right after that I went on to Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So I consider myself fortunate as an actor to have been gainfully employed for five years in a row.

Does anyone still recognize you as Frank Pembleton, or has too much water flowed under the bridge since Homicide?
As Det. Frank Pembleton

Yeah, sure, from people my age (53). Because those are the people who saw the show when it ran on the network or saw it in DVD or boxed sets. But you know, the show doesn't stream, so there's a whole generation that knows nothing about that show. I mean, you can't find it on Hulu or iTunes, you can't buy it. You can see excerpts that people have posted on YouTube, but that's it.

It was a really interesting show, but no one can actually see it anymore. It's going to disappear, because you can't watch it. Test it out. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's the neanderthal in me coming out, but I don't consider myself a novice on a computer. And I don't see any way for an ordinary individual to watch an episode of Homicide. It's going to fade from consciousness.