Interview: Nichole Hiltz and Joshua Malina of In Plain Sight
by Laura Tucker
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Lately it seems the offerings we find on cable TV are better than what the networks are offering. With the offerings on the USA Channel, this seems to be centered around their commitment to create interesting characters. One show that continues to draw me in is In Plain Sight. Along with the characters, it also has an interesting combination of comedy and drama that makes me laugh, get the chills, and later tear up. Getting the chance to join a conference call with two of the show’s character actors, Nichole Hiltz and Joshua Malina, I didn’t pass it up.
Hiltz stars as Brandi, the sister of U.S. Marshall Mary Shannon. In the first season, Brandi was caught up in a drug ring with her boyfriend, then found an escape. However, the escape brought Mary into trouble and they’re still dealing with it in teh second season. Their mother, Jinx (Leslie Ann Warren), is an alcoholic and recently, arrested for a DUI, was asked to attend an AA meeting. She couldn’t make it, so asked dutiful daughter Brandi to attend in her place, just to get her card signed. It’s here that Brandi meets Peter (Malina) who leads the meeting and is drawn to Brandi as Jinx and her story, and later forgives Brandi for taking the meetings, which he credits for saving his life, so lightly.
Hiltz and Malina have a very natural easy-going repartee with each other, making it easy to see how they work so well together. Asked how the two of them got started in acting, he gives the go ahead to Hiltz, explaining”I’m a remarkable man, and I need time to come up with something.” She then jokes (at least I think she was joking) that she was inspired by Punky Brewster, to which he of course agrees he was too.
More seriously, Hiltz admits to always being in love with film and becoming a character, so she just followed it. He explains it went similarly for him. He never had an “angsty period” of trying to decide what he wanted to do and was always involved with musicals and community theater. He majored in theater at college, and now that he has a wife and child, he thinks it’s too late to do something else, as he has “no other skill set.” Hiltz jokes that not true, as he’s good at “smacking the signs out of my hand.” He agrees, but explains there’s no money in it, so she offers to pay him to stop.
Malina actually does have another skill set, as he was the Executive Producer of Celebrity Poker Showdown. He’s attempted to give poker lessons to the In Plain Sight cast and crew, but hasn’t really gotten anyone on the set to play yet. He and Cristian de la Fuente have been talking about trying to put some type of poker show together, possibly in Chile. However, after someone mentions his nice skin, Malina jokes he’d be modeling skin care products, if he wasn’t acing, to which Hiltz jokes she’d be a rock star. More seriously, he thinks he might be a novelist, as he likes their ability to create entire worlds, or perhaps a screenwriter or writer for TV. Hiltz doesn’t have any skills and has put all her eggs in one basket, but knows she’s good at being fun.
Hiltz brought her fun to In Plain Sight, auditioning several times, to get the part, but she figures Malina may have “just charmed the pants off of everybody.” In reality, he says any time he’s working, it’s almost guaranteed that he didn’t audition, as one way to ensure he doesn’t get the role seems to be by him showing them how he would play it if he did.
Mostly these days, Malina gets work through some sort of connection, and this time it was mary McCormack. He had just finished doing a workshop for the producers of Grumpy Old Men, the Musical, and McCormack texted him saying she thought they were going to offer him an arc on her show. They did, and he was delighted.
McCormack and Malina worked together on The West Wing, and Richard Schiff, also from the political drama, just finished a guest starring role on In Plain Sight last week. Malina figures they can get Dule Hill a role as well, since he’s already working regularly for USA on Psych. He thinks it’s a reflection on McCormack, as she likes to play with her old friends.
Hiltz is very challenged by her role on the show this year and enjoys that the show picked up where last season left off. Brandi is trying to change, but isn’t sure how to do it overnight, causing her to still get into trouble occasionally. All of that certainly isn’t helped by Jinx asking her to go to AA meetings for her. Yet, she’s trying to help her mom in the long run. Brandi is alone alot and doesn’t have her own life, not having a job like Mary. Hiltz likes that her character stumbled onto something like AA that makes her grow, almost by accident. It makes it more like real life.
I asked Hiltz if she would rather have Brandi fall back and always be the bad girl, or if she would rather have her keep trying to be good, yet falling occasionally. She seemed to take offense some at being thought of as the bad girl. I guess it’s probably more telling of how I view things. She just sees her as someone who gets in trouble. She appreciates that she’s growing, otherwise it would be exhausting. Hiltz cheers for her character when she does right, and falls into somewhat of a funk when she does badly. Perhaps it’s also telling that she sometimes feels like the writing is stealing from her own life.
The most memorable scene for Hiltz came last year when Brandi made that decision looking at the baby in the bathtub and started to change her life a little bit. “The writing was really heartbreaking, and it sort of gave me a connection to my sister that we don’t get to hear her say it.” Yet, this year her favorite scenes are the ones with Malina. The chemistry between the two has been really great, and the characters are so unlikely to be together, yet so perfect for each other “in sort of an ironic way.”
Brandi had an amazing speech at her first AA meeting that exposed a lot about her character, but Hiltz doesn’t think she planned it that way. She was just there to get the card signed for her mom, and decided to just have fun with it. Yet, she’d been carrying all this baggage around with her for so long, especially everything from the past year, and it all just spilled out of her somewhat. Hiltz sees it as innocent, yet also kind of realistic. It’s not that she thinks Brandi needs AA, as she thinks her problems are more related to something she could get help with in Al Anon.
Many fans hate both Brandi and Jinx, and Hiltz sees that as confirmation that she’s doing well. She learned quickly not to take it personally. The writers have given her such “great stuff” this year, especially the storyline with Malina, making it really fun and bringing integrity to her character. She figures if every character were perfect, they wouldn’t have a show. And either way, playing Brandi has been amazing.
Malina felt welcome right away, perhaps because he already knew McCormack. He’d also done a play reading with Fred Weller, so knew him as well. “NIchole is a blast,” and he liked her right away. He’s not sure if she felt it too, but they were laughing together, right off the bat. They shot that scene on the bench as their very first together, and it was cold. They had some instant camaderine trying to look like they weren’t cold.
When asked if his character of Peter is someone he’d like to hang out with, Malina admits he and Hiltz joked about Peter in the beginning, referring to him as “Mr. Bummer,” as he seemed like such a “self-righteous recovering alcoholic.” However, Malina happens to enjoy hanging out “with people who are a huge drag.” Peter feels a little taken advantage of by Brandi at first. Malina thinks the way the writers have written him, there’s a lot to him, and now we’ve found out he has a lot of money as well, and he jokes that he certainly enjoys hanging out with the rich. Peter does feel a little taken advantage of by Brandi at first.
Previously playing the “smarter-guy-in-the-room” characters (an interviewer’s description, not Malina’s), Malina finds Peter to have a different kind of vibe and energy from what he’s played before. He even jokes that’s why he doesn’t like to do interviews, because he wants to leave the illusion that he really is that smart. He enjoys the departure of Peter and likes where it’s going, as far as being lied to, not taking it well, then becoming really attracted to her. This is all despite the fact that on paper, these two people wouldn’t normally be attracted to each other.
To prepare for playing Peter, who credits AA as an important part of his recovery, Malina didn’t do anything extra special, such as going to meetings. He knows people in the program and others that should be in the program, and felt he knew it well enough from that standpoint. He’s also not the type of guy that does back story research for characters, especially when the writing is as good as this. It’s all about the text to him (probably that budding novelist in him).
I wondered without giving anything away on what’s to come for his character, if he’s preparing for this like it’s a one-shot deal, or if he’s preparing this character like he’ll be along for the ride, right there next to Hiltz throughout the duration. He recognizes that as being a concern, the inclination to play this like “a very special episode of In Plain Sight.” Yet, he’s trying to keep it low-key to seem like a guy that really does come from this world. He doesn’t want to give too much away, but he is happy to “not walk into an open elevator shaft and die” at the end of the season.
Malina is also happy to work with Leslie Ann Warren, as is Hiltz. She refers to her as “an actor’s actor.” Warren loves to talk about the scene and do deep emotional work. Hiltz has found her very supportive and says they help each other out. Malina mentions one particular great moment with her. He was wearing a shirt from Clue that says, “It was Miss Scarlet with a revolver in the study.” Warren said under her breath to him, “I was Miss Scarlet …” Malina then had a moment of, “Oh my God, holy shit! I’m working with Miss Scarlet!” He’d forgotten all about her playing that role in the film.
Both actors were asked where they would want to be relocated if they had to enter the witness protection program, and while Hiltz recognizes the unfairness of it all, since you don’t get a choice, she’d choose somewhere tropical. Malina guesses Israel so that he could blend in well with “my fellow Jews, Jews, Jews.” He thinks he’d be the safest, ironically, in Israel.
It seems that for both Hiltz and Malina, the best parts of working on In Plain Sight seem to be the same things we enjoy watching, the people, the writing, and mostly the great characters. Malina was a fan before he was even cast, noticing that it makes you care about everybody and has a wide selection of characters. They both like that it can be funny, yet very dark and real at the same time.
Laura Tucker is the webmaster of Reality Shack and its accompanying Reality Shack Blog, provides reviews at Viewpoints, and provides entertainment news pieces at Gather. She is also an Associate Instructor and 2nd dan black belt in tae kwon do with South Elgin Martial Arts. Laura can be reached at LauraBelle@realityshack.com.
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