Actor-director-producer Anthony Edwards

The Golden Globe and three-time SAG winner describes his return to TV in ABC’s new drama, Zero Hour.

Although Anthony Edwards is well known for his Emmy-nominated performance in the hit NBC series ER, the talented actor-director has shown his versatility in everything from serious drama to thrillers, both in front of and behind the camera. He caught the acting bug early and, encouraged by his parents, acted in dozens of plays by age 16. He also studied his craft in London and the University of Southern California. A passionate activist, Edwards chairs Shoe4Africa, a nonprofit that's building a public children's hospital in Kenya. He makes his return to series television with the ABC drama-adventure series, Zero Hour.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Anthony Edwards currently stars in the new ABC drama “Zero Hour,” described as a high-concept series in the mold of “Lost” or “Fringed.” This is Anthony’s first series since his Emmy-nominated turn as Dr. Mark Greene on the critically acclaimed hit series “ER.”

He is also a producer, having brought the Emmy-winning Temple Grandin to HBO. He is currently involved in making a document about the challenges faced by military vets as they reintegrate back into society. So lots to talk to Anthony about tonight, but let’s start by taking a look at a scene from this week’s “Zero Hour.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So how did I do at my effort to describe the show?

Anthony Edwards” What’s great is to see that is like – that’s a scene, there’s scenes in it, but they’ve been advertising it, and there’s a lot of action in it. But I’m used to seeing, like, explosions and running and that. It’s like oh, right, every once in a while we actually sit down and have a conversation, too. (Laughter)

Tavis: I did my turn at it. How would you describe what the show is? You’re the star of it here.

Edwards: Well, I’d describe it as a book that you’ve had that you get when you’re at a beach and someone says, “You’ve got to read this spy thriller book,” and you start turning pages, and you can’t put it down. That’s the fun part of it for me. It’s a mystery, it’s a conspiracy that starts with my wife being abducted and it puts us into this whole other world.

The fun part in a storytelling way is that it was an idea that the writer knew the end. He knew where we’re going to end up in episode 13. So he was able to then tell the story and lay it out in 13 stories, basically, this mystery, with a lot of reveal. So the fun part is that there’s a big reveal every week.

Tavis: Were you instantly drawn to it when you first read it, or did it take you some time to figure out that this was the vehicle to return to network television?

Edwards: Like anything that’s kind of been great in my life, that’s been important, it’s always been a surprise, and I was surprised when I read it. I had been developing a series to do as an actor, and it was going to be a cable show, 13 episodes a year on Showtime, and that show didn’t go.

That was a really character-driven drama. Six months later my manager sends me this thing. He says, “You might like this.” I couldn’t stop reading it. I thought if ABC wants to take this kind of a risk, I’d love to be a part of it because I haven’t seen anything this big on television.

Tavis: But what for you, when you say “risk,” what made it risky for you on the part of the network?

Edwards: That every part of it has to be – the visuals have to be great, the acting has to be great. There’s a ticking clock of storytelling that you have to be true to every week. For me, it’s risky. It felt very different.

It’s been eight years doing very realistic medical drama, and this was things that hearkened back to 1938 Nazi Germany, modern-day conspiracy theories, every episode we’re in a different country. It just felt incredibly ambitious.

Tavis: Speaking of risk, one could argue that there is always a risk in deciding to take time off. It’s a beautiful thing that you get eight seasons on “ER,” as you mentioned. We all, of course, love you on “ER,” loved the series.

So you get eight seasons on there, and I’m not trying to count your money, but I assume you made decent enough money to be able to take some time away. So it’s a beautiful thing, to exercise your agency in that way. But isn’t there a risk in deciding that you’re going to step away from television for a while?

Edwards: I don’t know. Knock wood, but I started acting professionally when I was 16 and I’ve always been able to support myself since then. Like you said, I kind of earned that ability to be able to leave, and my wife and I made a very big decision that we wanted to raise the kids in New York.

Most importantly, I really have never met anybody who says, “I wish I spent less time with my kids when they were younger.” I had this opportunity to do that, and the truth is I did it until, like, a year and a half ago they all looked at me and said, “Get the hell out of here and go back to work. We’re sick of you.”

Tavis: Those kids are big now, and they’re kicking you out the house.

Edwards: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter) When your wife and your children say, “You’ve cooked enough for us, you have to go back to work -” only to say that you’ve got to do what feels right.

I was lucky I’ve made some really fun, interesting movies in the last eight, 10 years. I got to work with David Fincher on that amazing movie “Zodiac,” and I’ve had some creative challenges.

But I also knew that nothing was going to compare to “ER.” “ER” was so huge that whatever I did coming back to television, I’d have to feel as strongly about.

Tavis: I want to go back to something you said a moment ago, because I know every parent watching heard what you said. I’m not a parent but I heard it, and I want to pick up on it if I can. That is this notion that you’ve never heard an adult say “I regret that I spent too much time, more time with my kids when they were young.”

Because you’re right, those are the years you can never, ever get back. What’s been the takeaway for you? You’re Anthony Edwards, you took time away. You wanted to spend time with your family and cook for your kids every night and take them to school.

What’s been the takeaway for you, personally and professionally, of having made that decision? I assume you don’t regret it.

Edwards: Not at all. Everybody loves their children, and when you get to spend time like that, it’s been – everything that’s – as an actor, you need to reflect things in characters that are real and feel in a deep way, and the only way I’ve ever known to do that as an actor is to have those experiences in your life.

So selfishly, you know you’re not going to grow or do anything more interesting as an actor if you stay emotionally and intellectually as you were (laughs) when you were young.

I guess it’s really I just couldn’t imagine it any other way, so it’s hard to say what have I learned other than I feel incredibly fortunate and I really love doing it. It’s been super-fun.

Tavis: To your earlier point, you knew that obviously you had to choose the right vehicle if you were going to navigate your way back to network television, but given how TV has changed, and I’ll let you unpack this because you’re the expert here, but given how TV has changed just in the time that you wrapped “ER,” and now here you are back with this new project, was there any hesitation, any concern, about coming back to television, which again, is nothing like necessarily what it was when you left?

Edwards: No, but I think the way television has changed, and the little bit that I’m experiencing now, is for the better. I don’t think networks would be taking risks with shows like what we’re doing eight years ago, because they had much – a set formula that was working for them.

Now what’s happening is things are happening like “Homeland” and “Downton Abbey” and more of that English style of series in which they’re telling stories in seven, eight, 10 episodes, and audiences are consuming them that way. As a result, they’re making better television.

Tavis: By your own admission, though, Anthony, you were writing a vehicle for yourself for cable.

Edwards: Right.

Tavis: Because that seems to be where there’s so much energy and activity these days.

Edwards: Right.

Tavis: So you’re writing something for cable, for Showtime, but you end up back on network.

Edwards: Right, because Paul Lee, who’s running ABC, is excited about this kind of storytelling. The little time I’ve spent with him, it’s fun to be with someone who’s running a network who’s saying, “This is what I want to do. I want to do something that we can tell it all in 13 episodes, we’re telling big stories, and we’re using the resources of network television.”

Which the other side of it is they’ve been spending million – I don’t know the exact amount, but $3, $4 million an episode to make this television show. So they have that ability to really make them big, which is fun to be a part of. Because the truth is, those tools of having extra cameras, having an incredible art department, being able to shoot with that level of production, it’s fun, too.

As much as I love independent and gritty and that cable version, to tell this story we needed to have that ability to use the CGI and all the FX that come with it.

Tavis: Let me shift it a little bit here. When I last saw you on this set – as a matter of fact, when I last saw you we weren’t even on this set, we were in our old studio.

Edwards: Right, back at KCET, yeah.

Tavis: It’s been a couple of years since you’ve come to see us. But when you were last here you literally were leaving the studio to head back to New York to continue your training for the New York Marathon.

Edwards: That’s right.

Tavis: Which you were running to raise money for a particular charity that was attempting to do some wonderful work in Kenya. I am pleased to report, or I’m pleased to let you report, that you ran the marathon, you completed the marathon, you raised a good amount of money, but most importantly, that project, that children’s hospital you were working on in Kenya – I’ll let you take it from there.

Edwards: Well, the reason why I love being a part of something that is grassroots and you can see the actual changes, the effect of what people do. When we raised money in that marathon and people donated – I believe you donated as well, thank you very much, and you were part of something that actually came true.

Which is we were building the first public children’s hospital for sub-Saharan Africa. There’s 30 million people living in Kenya. They do not have one teaching hospital for pediatrics. So they will now, because of a lot of generosity of people, and so that’s an exciting thing.

Our organization is really kind of one main guy who goes and spends his time in Kenya who’s an ex-runner who’s actually making these things happen on the ground, and a lot of us who support and help to make this happen.

But it’s just an exciting thing when you can say yes, that’s the way charity should work, because it’s hard when people mean well but then you hear the stories of money getting lost or things being (unintelligible).

Tavis: That leads me to my next question, which is of all the things that an actor of your stature gets asked to do, things that get presented to you that you might put your name on, how did this become a passion project for you?

Edwards: It’s as simple as something you love doing, and for me it was running. I didn’t start jogging or running until I was 37 years old. It was something that really helped me change my life. I kind of put out my last cigarette and took care of health in a different way, and it really – and I think that’s a good example of what you need to get into doing something, is you have to be a bit selfish.

What makes you happy? I enjoy running. I enjoy that. Through that, I met someone else who enjoyed running, and he had this idea of wanting to do this charity work, which he was doing, but needed help. As an actor, I could help support someone else’s vision.

That’s what’s exciting to me. For years I worked when I was “ER” with an organization called Cure Autism Now, and it was the largest funder of autism research outside of the government. But it was based on the passion and the individual work of the people who created the organization.

They were a mother and father who did that. So I’m a groupie that way. I see people who are doing something great, I want to support that. That’s what I do. I get a great benefit out of that, helping the experts do what they do.

Tavis: I mentioned this, that you are obviously a documentarian, and this new project, the latest project, is about military vets. Your father, if I read correctly, was a vet.

Edwards: He was. He was, in World War II.

Tavis: In World War II?

Edwards: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s what I thought I read, yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell me about this project.

Edwards: Well, it’s funny, because it is personal in that way too, in that my dad, I was fortunate that he was able to tell me. He’s still alive, but I got him to tell me his story of World War II and his experience.

The long story short is that I was talking to an 87-year-old man who in his recounting of his experience of the first days of combat that he saw, I could see that terrified 18-year-old boy who was in incredible pain.

To see that was really moving as a son, and also realizing that there’s probably been a big disconnect in his life for the experience he had as compared to what it is to be a hero. This coincided with a dear friend of mine who is a great documentarian who, once again, is an expert doing something well who has a real passion about telling these vets’ stories, because he’s also hooked up with a doctor, Dr. Crosby, who has come up with some therapies and work that is really making a difference and helping these vets assimilate back into life.

Because we have these horrific numbers that you hear about, we all hear about, about more vets killing themselves than are dying in combat. Jon Stewart goes on about it every other night, about our inability to take care of people that we asked to do this horrific thing. We as a nation and as a society can do so much more to help.

Tavis: What are some of the major obstacles, the impediments, to their proper reintegration into society?

Edwards: Well, it seems to be that things like this are complicated and individual, and they need individual care. It was the same kind of thing in dealing with kids’ issues with autism.

Every kid is different in how they need to be treated, and that ability to treat people individually and to see those signs requires a lot of focus and a lot of energy. We like things to be simple and just go like oh, well, we’ll just put all these vets here and they’ll get the care. But there’s a lot of complications in relation to these disorders, so.

Tavis: What’s your read on why it is that this issue isn’t given greater priority in our society? Because you’re right – when you think about it, these people put their lives on the line for our freedoms, and when they come back home we really don’t step up in the way that we should.

With all due respect to you, you’re not the first person to say it; you won’t be the last person to say it. It’s been this way since before Vietnam, back to World War II, so this is not even a new story.

Yet it doesn’t seem to get placed high enough on the American agenda, so here you come now with another documentary to help us come face-to-face with our own shortcomings, but why does that even exist? What’s your take on that?

Edwards: I think we’re a country and a society that’s obsessed with youth and money and sex, and that sells. It’s hard to make death or challenges, whether you’re physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged.

My friend Joey Pantoliano has been doing a lot of work in relation to brain disease and people dealing with depression, and we just, as a country, we’re afraid of the ugly stuff because we don’t have a lot of process in dealing with it.

Other cultures – we can learn from it. Other ways have more of an embracing ability of understanding that the frailties of the human condition are as important as our successes or our individual.

But because we’re America and it’s number one at any cost, it’s hard to celebrate our problems, which we can do better.

Tavis: I’m curious – to the extent you’re willing to share with me, what did you take away from your father sitting with you and sharing with you his own stories, his own journey, his own personal narrative about his involvement in World War II? How did that impact you, the son?

Edwards: It kind of broke my heart, in a way, because I know that he didn’t really have the ability to – I don’t know if he was ever given the forum to process that pain that he went through at 18, and that horror that he saw. It was something that he has always had to go, “Ah, it’s okay, it’s okay, don’t worry.” That generation of, “Oh, get over it,” it’s sad. I’m really sorry he had that to deal with.

Tavis: You have a son?

Edwards: I do.

Tavis: Yeah. If your son came to you and said he wanted to serve, knowing what you now know from your father, from these other persons you’ve interviewed, the documentary you’re working on, knowing how we treat or maltreat veterans when they come back, your son comes to you and says, “Dad, I want to enlist,” you say what to your son?

Edwards: Yeah, my initial is no. If you don’t – it’s an interesting thing, because I’ve also been around people who are in the military who love it, and they’re good at it. I’ve been around a lot of Navy pilots that are great pilots, and there’s good.

It’s not to say that – it’s obviously a job that has to be done, and you hope the people that are doing it are loving what they’re doing and being supported for what they do.

So if my son, if that was his real desire, was to serve in the military or to, I don’t know, to be a policeman, people putting themselves in that kind of – ultimately, you have to support what they love. You just want them to go into it with the most amount of tools and intelligence that they can.

Tavis: Speaking of pilots, this just hit me when you said this, because I just read this article the other day. You may know – then again, you may not keep up with this stuff – but I just read that “Top Gun -” is it Blu-ray I read? It’s coming out in Blu-ray or something?

Edwards: That’s right.

Tavis: Is there, like, an anniversary connected to this? Twentieth?

Edwards: They’ll find some way to (unintelligible). (Laughter)

Tavis: There’s got to be some connection. There must be some anniversary, because I just ran across this article, and I don’t remember the details, but obviously you were one of the stars of “Top Gun,” and I’m thinking that this thing is out in Blu-ray now.

How many years ago was that, do you – I’m putting you on the spot here. Do you remember?

Edwards: Oh, well over it must be 26, 27 years ago or whatever, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Edwards: I guess yeah, it’s coming out in 3D, which -

Tavis: I said Blu-ray, I meant 3D, yeah, yeah.

Edwards: Yeah. Well, that’s great. What a gift as an actor, because they can actually take you two-dimensionally and make you three-dimensional. It’s like, excellent.

Tavis: Is that like three times the pay, or do you still get the -

Edwards: We’re just being that much more interesting to watch. (Laughs)

Tavis: When you look back on that project all these years later, how do you situate that in your ongoing corpus of work?

Edwards: It’s not dissimilar to what we’re talking about. There’s things there that I could easily say, “My God, this is a jingoistic movie that is making the military look so romantic,” and yet on the other hand it was also a very commercial film that was made by some very passionate people, and we lost one of them last year. The great Tony Scott, who, you know, as a visualist was doing things and playing in a filmic way that made that movie special.

So I have a lot of different interests in my life, so I kind of find those – you end up around people who like the different movies you were in for different reasons. If you’re at a Twitter convention or something, or there’s a lot of nerd fans, or Upper East Side, where I live in New York, there’s a lot of doctor fans. (Laughter)

Race cars is a big passion of mine, I love going to Formula 1 races, and that is nothing but “Top Gun.” Everybody loves that. There’s something about that machine, adrenaline, speed, all of that, that for people who love that stuff, that movie represents a lot of that.

So I’m part of a circus, right? (Laughter) So I’m not – I definitely don’t think I’m from necessarily the serious part of the circus, but you can do different parts of the circus that will represent different forms of entertainment.

Tavis: Well, you do it well. You’re a great circus act.

Edwards: Well, thank you. (Laughter)

Tavis: If I can extend your metaphor. I’m always glad to have you come on and talk about your new incarnation. The new one is “Zero Hour,” starring Anthony Edwards, and it’s high-concept, but I think you’re going to like it. Anthony, good to have you on.

Edwards: It’s fun, good to see you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you again. Don’t take another three years to come back.

Edwards: All right, I promise.

Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

[Clip]

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • lettiejack

    I very much enjoy Tavis Smiley, before the Smiley Group, I just want to thank you for bringing awesome and informative artist, writers and the world to US!!!

  • Steve Cohn

    I was irate to hear that(ABC) canceled Zero hour. Finally a show that could grasp viewers minds instead of stupid reality shows. Anthony if you read this, the acting and storyline were superb and the dumbing of American’s continues.

Last modified: February 21, 2013 at 9:19 pm