Sunday, 31 December 2006
The Men of Crossing Jordan
[Published in Melt Magazine]
“I have a better butt than Dr. Nigel.”
This is the last sentence Steve Valentine says to me about the difference between himself and his Crossing Jordan character Dr. Nigel Townsend. Interviewing this hilariously intense actor is my introduction to the popular NBC series. Created in 2001 by Tim Kring of Providence fame, Crossing Jordan follows forensic medical examiner Jordan Cavanaugh (Jill Hennessy) and her cohorts as they solve weekly mysteries about dead people.
One fan described Crossing Jordan as a mystery series about a strong female who leads with a combination of intuition, strength and bull-headedness. Because the three supporting male characters take care of the lab aspects of the medical office, Jordan is free to pursue the pieces to her weekly forensic puzzle. These male characters also represent a twist on traditional roles: females supporting a male lead. That is, Jordan is an imperfect female who maintains her sex appeal. Besides, what female on this planet would turn down assistance from a power trio like Steve Valentine, Ravi Kapoor and Miguel Ferrer?
Born across the pond, Steve Valentine turned down a chance for his own Vegas comedy show to pursue acting. Although he first left home in Liverpool at 16, it wasn’t until he was 22 that Steve and his then wife, made the big move to the U.S.
“We drove into Hollywood and the first apartment we stopped at was run by an English couple: I didn’t have any American credit but they gave us a break,” Steve explains. He finished his story by saying that he had hoped to get work at the famous Magic Castle and magically ended up by living on the same block.
“What was amazing is that the couple even helped us find jobs. They worked in Beverly Hills so I got a chance to go to interviews too. I sold antiques which I didn’t know anything about but I had this English accent so I…”
Steve’s voice trails off as I laugh. With his fast paced speech that reveals years doing stand up, Steve is a verbal whirlwind of humor and self-reflection.
“The great thing about being young is that there’s an invincibility, or it may be naiveté. But it was a big risk for us, I only had a couple thousand in my pocket.”
Serendipity isn’t the only support that Valentine had guiding his career. His mother was a performer with an amateur theatre company who took young Steve to rehearsals. Valentines father was a dockworker who went to night school and ended up by working in the shipping department of Lloyds of London. Watching his father make the changes to improve his family’s situation has been a huge influence on Valentine.
“I remember one specific Christmas, my parents bought my sister a chemistry set, my brother a set of soldiers, I got an acting play kit complete with masks and props. It must have been the one moment of suggestibility,” he laughs, “years later, I’m an actor, my sister’s a scientist and my brother is a soldier.”
While his parents never discouraged their son from acting, they did want him to have a ‘proper job’ as well. The determined Valentine did find other jobs: comedy and magic. Basically he did anything he could to stay on stage. At 16 he left home to join an acting troupe, 18 had him bartending in the former Yugoslavia – which he left before the war.
Another inspiration to the young actor was Bob Hope.
“Bob Hope was inspiring for a number of reasons,” Valentine says quietly. “His humor and his compassion in life appealed to me at a very young age. I loved that no matter how big and successful he got, he was always there entertaining the troops. There is some footage of him doing one of his routines, you hear the battle going off in the background he makes a great one liner about it and continues on with the show. It was very courageous. That kind of humor is what I adopted, very fast paced, one liners, working off the audience.”
Valentine then followed in his mentor’s footsteps by flying into the Falkland Islands during the war with a troupe of entertainers himself. Valentine now works on behalf of animal rights as well as the issue of organ transplants. On the latter issue, he turns into a passionate activist.
“I saw my father in law- have an extra twelve years because of his kidney and pancreas transplant due to diabetes. It was not only an excruciating operation, but because of the costs, many people get to live in excruciating debt.” Steve goes on to explain that to surviving this operation is rare – and to do so with the courage and positive attitude that his father in law showed, was amazing as well as inspiring. Valentine is a bit sheepish as realizes he jumped on his soapbox. But being of service is what serves him. “Because Hollywood is so La La- it is very surreal and unreal - by being involved in real life issues, I don’t have a problem staying grounded.”
Basically, Valentine uses his spare time for service and singing with friends. Singing? Seems that he attended a friend’s birthday bash with live music and he was requested to sing a song as a gift. Valentine got to rehearse his choice of rock song with the band before the ‘gig’ and true to his nature he ‘liked it quite a bit.’
Fortunately for Crossing Jordan fans, Valentine will not be leaving acting for a singing career because acting is his high note of the performing arts. Not only that, but he’s working on a show that he has profound respect for. Crossing Jordan recently hit over 100 episodes, which is a feat very few series replicate. In addition, Valentine had high praise for everyone from the ‘extras’ - who have been with the show since its inception, to the writers, crew and fellow actors.
“The lines between me and Dr. Nigel blurred a long time ago. I don’t have quite the knowledge that Dr. Nigel has, but I am a little wacky and crazy at times. The writers wrote the characters around the actors and then enlarged them. I talk to the writers all the time, and then later I’ll see what I said in the show.”
Valentine even wrote a Crossing Jordan episode entitled “Forget Me Not”. While being in on production for that episode was an education itself, to Valentine, everyday on the series has been an education for which he is grateful. But the best thing that has happened for him is this:
“A woman wrote to me and said ‘my daughter didn’t have any direction in her life. She didn’t know what to do with her self. She started watching the show and is now training to be a medical examiner.’ TV gets a lot of flack for being fluff and entertainment. But to me, a story like that is worth doing the whole series.”
Valentine’s TV series guest roles include Charmed, Dharma & Greg, Diagnosis Murder, JAG, Will & Grace with a recurring role on Nikki. His feature films include The Muse, Mars Attacks and several independent films. He won a Best Actor Falcon Award from the Curtis Theater for his role of Sidney in Deathtrap. Valentine is filming Spiderman 3, scheduled for release in May 2007, in which he plays a fashion photographer.
Ravi Kapoor is already laughing. There are plenty of dead bodies strewn around on the set and one sandwich-wielding corpse is snoring at the word action: now the sight of the snoozing corpse’s sandwich hitting the floor has Dr. Bug out of character. “Bug is constantly looking for purity and perfection which is always going to lead to an infinite series of disappointments,” reports Kapoor of his serious character on A&E’s website. Kapoor, portrays Dr. Bug Mahesh – deep thinker and straight man to the more quirky personalities on the show.
Originally from Liverpool England, Kapoor moved to California with his wife, actress Meera Simhan in 1998. He had 10 years acting experience, but never in comedy. His roles were either intense juvenile lead roles that he played in his 20’s, or straight, serious roles. Playing straight man to fellow Brit Dr. Townsend was a whole new world. Literally.
“Coming to America forced me to have that comic edge because of the roles that I got,” Kapoor explains. “In many ways, they are heavy and morose characters and the comedy comes through that, rather than the light heartedness of the roles.”
Being the father of a two-year old son has also helped Kapoor lighten up. Ironically, Kapoor’s first acting stint in America was in an educational children’s theatre group that traveled to schools with mini-productions ofThe Tempest; The Three Musketeers; The Odysseyand Romeo and Juliet. Since then, Kapoor aficionados know that he portrayed medical student, Dr. Shandar on Giddeon’s Crossing. At the end of it’s only season, Kapoor auditioned for a guest spot on Crossing Jordan.
“Initially the pilot had Dr. Mahesh with the
characteristics that I wanted to avoid: a stereotypical Indian accent and a bumbling geek with a long name. But Tim Kring, the creator was very supportive and moved Dr. Bug to a more well rounded character who is still evolving,” Kapoor is reflective yet passionate about Dr. Bug which he plays with comic flair. Living in America gave Ravi the chance to do the comedy that he loves. But this was not always the case.
A little known fact about this accomplished actor is that as a South Asian actor, he was a bit doubtful of finding multi-dimensional character roles here in America. “This is a generalization: but storytelling in England has a more social and political exploration; whereas storytelling in American television is more entertainment driven.”
Because of this, Kapoor came to the States planning to be a writer who acted, rather than the other way around. He had already written and directed the play Oh Sweet Sita! which played in London and Toronto. Reviewer Kamal Al-Solaylee had this to say: “Oh Sweet Sita! draws on what, at first, seems like an unlikely combination of influences – Shakespeare, Hollywood films and English popular culture(…)Stylistically, the play weds the physical theatre of British performer Stephen Berkoff, a longtime role model for Kapoor, to the comic mannerisms of Charlie Chaplin.”(By the Sita their pants, June 4, 1998, www.eye.net).
During his first years in the States, Kapoor became active in ArtWallah, a Los Angeles based grass roots organization whose mission is to “cultivate, empower and provide a platform for new and established artists of the South Asian diasporas.”Their ArtWallah festival held each summer in Los Angeles * features dance, film, music, literature, theatre, visual arts, and spoken word. Kapoor explains that because South Asians are a relatively new immigrant group it takes time to make an impact on the mainstream culture. One way to impact society is through the arts. Only by valuing a minority group’s experience, does that culture fully integrate and become seen. Part of ArtWallah is the YouthWallah program, where young artists are paired with adult artist mentors. At the upcoming June festival Kapoor is a co-curator for the theatre category.
Kapoor stays grounded with family as well as his activism work. He knows that he is blessed with family and steady work doing what he loves.
Ravi took a moment to give me his take on the roles that he, Valentine and Ferrer play. “I think that Jill’s character has a very tough exterior which effects how she relates to the world. Our characters are sensitive and supportive of her - they are there to back her up emotionally. They know the hard knocks that life has given her.”
In between family, acting, writing and activism, Kapoor’s other passion is reading. He is currently reading some essays by George Orwell, a book on film directors and an issue of American Theatre magazine. Kapoor is also writing, but he wouldn’t say exactly what.
“It took a couple of years to settle here. But on the plane after a trip back to England I realized that I left behind a cold country that’s hard to live in. As the plane was landing, I saw the sun shining on the hills, and I was relieved. It felt good to be home.”
Kapoor has appeared in BBC television series Peacock Spring, Blood & Peaches, and In a Land of Plenty. He played a second-year medical student on Gideon's Crossing, and stasrred in Rice Boy at the Mark Taper Forum with his wife Meera Simhan. In addition, Kapoor is one of the ArtWallah Festival curators and founding members. This year the festival runs the weekend of June 24th: www.artwallah.org/festival.
The Jenerators are kicking out the rock n roll in a wave of sound that has the audience moving to the beat. The band has been together for sixteen years and it shows. The drummer trades places with another band mate and steps up to the microphone. He changes the mood from heavy rock to croon Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door in a Louis Armstrong style baritone. Meet Miguel Ferrer, aka the eclectic Dr. Macy, Chief Medical Examiner on Crossing Jordan.
“Dr. Macy and I both deeply want to do the right thing,” Ferrer chuckles, “but that’s where the similarities end.” This includes the ability to work on corpses. When the show began, the actors took a trip to the Los Angeles County morgue to see how it was done, but not Ferrer. It was a decision that he does not regret. Instead, he relies on the shows technical advisors – who told him more than once that he was being too delicate with the bodies. Ferrer gave MSNBC.com the gory details in a 2005 interview: “they kept telling me I was being too delicate and that I shouldn’t be delicate because (in reality) they just really throw ‘em around and hack ‘em open and do what they gotta do.”
While Ferrer has plenty of experience playing cop and bad guy roles, he says that those characters may be tough, but they have very singular, clear objectives. “Dr. Macy is much more conflicted - like the rest of us. Macy has not gotten boring to me whatsoever. He is so complex. The writing has been consistently interesting and challenging. This has been really fun.”
Another fun challenge for Ferrer has been to direct three episodes of Crossing Jordan, all in the fifth season. He claims that he harassed the executives of the show for four years before he got his chance. It was a lot of hard work, enormous fun and the cast and crew were behind him 1000 percent. However, Ferrer will not be directing again anytime soon. “The first day I directed was extraordinary,” Miguel explains. “The thing is that when you act and direct, you not only work the eight days that you are shooting, you also work on your cut. After an episode, you are worn out afterwards from doing both.”
Ironically enough, doubling as director/actor highlighted one of Miguel’s most embarrassing Crossing Jordan moments. One day he showed up an hour late for work - without a doctor’s note. No excuse. He didn’t oversleep. He knew what time he was supposed to be there. Once he arrived on the set, Ferrer tried acting his way out of it by saying that he looked at the clock and simply saw something different. But the Crossing Jordan crew didn’t believe him. Seems that they are still teasing him about the ‘real reason’ he was late…
In spite of this still embarrassing moment, Ferrer isn’t planning on picking up this ‘drum schticks’ for a permanent gig anytime soon. Although he schlepped his drum kit all over the world keeping a beat on albums like Keith Moon’s “Two Sides Of The Moon”, Ferrer calls it a young man’s job. Because I was curious about why drummers have such a bad rap in the biz, Miguel pulled out his favorite drummer joke:
“ How do you know that a drummer is at the door?”
“The knock keeps speeding up.”
Although Miguel’s sticking with acting, drumming is in his future. He has a script and director Steven Soderbergh lined up for the life of Buddy Rich, the extraordinary drummer of the big band era who later played rock to audiences in the 60’s and 70’s. Miguel is stepping up to do double duty again: this time to produce and portray the famous jazz drummer. “Buddy’s widow and daughter contacted me after seeing Traffic, I became obsessed and now we are just looking for the right place and time. I’m hoping to make a real good movie. This is untouched material and that’s rare for someone this monumental.”
The Buddy Rich project will be the perfect blend for this talented actor/musician. Band mate and friend Bill Mumy told me that when he first cast Ferrer in the television series Sunshine, he had to drag him kicking and screaming onto the set. Ferrer and Mumy have been buddies over 35 years. They even created a comic book character together for Marvel called Comet Man. “I was a starving actor trying to put the rent together. It kept me from having to say ‘do you want fries with that,’” Miguel laughs.
A true friend, Mumy dished an embarrassing musician moment after Ferrer ended his set. Ferrer is into his family big time and brought wife Lorie and sons Rafael, 10 and Lucas, 13 to the gig. While Ferrer left early for some family time, Mumy spilled the beans. “We were playing a convention and shared a hotel room. Miguel ended up by snoring so loud that I actually made him sleep in the bathtub,” Mumy laughs.
In between acting up, singing and hanging with his family, Ferrer stands up for charities he loves such as those regarding children, the firefighters and the LA police.
Before they moved their golf tournament to the desert, Ferrer used to help organize the fundraiser for UCLA Children’s Hospital.
An avid reader, Ferrer is currently reading Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson, and a book which brings us right back to Dr. Macy: Scene of the Crime: Photographs from the LAPD Archive.
Finally, I asked Ferrer the difference between him and Dr. Macy. He said that he was a lot happier than Dr. Macy. To prove it, Miguel ended the interview with a joke:
“What’s the difference between a dead snake in the road and a trombone player?”
“The dead snake was probably on his way to a gig.”
Miguel’s television credits include Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, Broken Badges, The Stand and Twin Peaks. Film credits include Heartbreaker, Robocop, The Manchurian Candidate, Traffic, and Sunshine State and Silver City. He also did a voice over in Disney’s Mulan. His parents are entertainment royalty: late actor Jose Ferrer and the late singer Rosemary Clooney. Miguel’s band, the Jenerators have 3 CD’s available on www.jenerators.com.