As a self-proclaimed 'Big Music Geek', my movie and television viewing habits have been heavily influenced by my seemingly ceaseless thirst for all things Heavy Metal and Heavy Metal-related. While I've shamelessly devoted countless hours to episodes of Headbangers Ball and VH1 Metal Mania, my unabashed appreciation for scripted dramas has remained steadfastly intact. This obsession is perhaps best exemplified by my ongoing infatuation with the breakout CBS hit Scorpion. Loosely based on the life of computer expert Walter O'Brien, the series focuses on O'Brien and his genius friends as they help each other solve complex global problems and save lives. Recently, acclaimed actor Ari Stidham (The Crazy Ones, Glee, Huge) was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among many other things, his emotionally-charged portrayal of 'human calculator' Sylvester Dodd.
Todd: Let's start with the obvious; how did you become involved with Scorpion? Was it via a standard audition?
Ari: “As far as my involvement initially, it was just through an audition. The audition process was pretty crazy because it happened so quick, but it was through an audition. It was pretty clinical. I auditioned for it and then I got it. It was actually quite that simple, which is weird because it's usually not like that. Usually, you have to audition a couple times. You do a network test to make sure that (Viacom co-President and co-Chief Operating Officer) Les Moonves likes you or whoever your network head is. They sign off on everybody in the show. I did the audition once on a tape and the tape got sent to all those people. Because of the time issue, they needed someone ASAP, so I feel like I totally slipped through the cracks. ...But I got it, which is nuts. It's just fantastic.”
Todd: Once you had officially 'landed' the role, what did you do to prepare yourself for Sylvester as a character?
Ari: “It was a pretty quick process, actually. When I read for the part, I realized how little I had to do. I didn't have to do an accent or change a lot about me. I just had to be a kid who hadn't evolved emotionally. ...(For Sylvester), everything is a traumatic experience. Everything is a ten. He's honest and smart and he's not Rain Man, but he still has all these exposed nerve endings. It's just like he hears everything and he feels everything else, so when I read that I was like 'I get it. I really get this'. As an actor, you have to really listen to everything. ...Any type of good art is calling the spots. Any type of acting is good when it's reacting. I think that this part was written very well and that's why I gravitated towards it. I have to give it up to (former Prison Break Producer) Nick Santora because he thought of a character that is compelling and I understood where he was going with it. That is what happened. He got that I got it, we clicked and then I clicked within the material.”
Todd: How much of your own personality were you able to intertwine within the Sylvester character? Is he you?
Ari: “I think that I would say I'm emotionally inept as a human being in my state of being. ...Your emotions are your emotions and you're going to feel them even if they're crazy or they're not. I like acting because it allows me to feel a lot of emotions. I think I'm sort of addicted to feeling emotions. It's why the really artistic stuff that I do isn't difficult. That's the reason why I'm in the game. It's like asking somebody if it's hard to sing when it's their favorite thing to do. I get to react so big each time with this guy because it's so true to him. To get to play that and to have to play it as honestly and as truthful as possible has been my challenge with this job because with TV, you're moving so fast. Sometimes, these story arcs happen and you're fighting, doing it bigger like it's a caricature because it's such a big story jump. You have to play it with such ferocious authenticity or else it's going to play stupid. You have to really play it real because it's real in this world. It's awesome. It's not stupid. These guys save the world. They can't look go 'It's ridiculous' or look at everything's validity. Everything is art.”
Todd: Watching the show, it's almost as it the character was custom built for you. That's some amazing writing...
Ari: “I've got to tip my hat to the writers and (show creator) Nick Santora, the guy who wrote it. He cast me and we got to know each other through shooting the pilot. He just gets me and I think I get him. Together with (writer/Producer) Nick Wootton and with the writers' room, every week there is always something new that we actually can do. When I get the script and I'm looking at this stuff I go 'Well, this is a new thing that I can bring and just do my performance'. There is an episode called Love Boat that's a huge for my character. You find out a lot about what's going on in his love life and he gains a lot of confidence and saves everybody's life at the end .”
Todd: There has been a great deal of focus on the Sylvester Dodd character during the later part of the season. How do you interact with the various writers so that your character can quickly continue to develop and mature?
Ari: “The whole struggle of my character during this entire first season has been me versus my issues. To continue to see him trump his issues and save the day is the most fun for me to play as an actor. When I get to do that, I have moments of strength that I don't think they realize I could portray because I've been playing this weak dude. There's this give-and-take through performance that's super musical where they'll write something and the way I'll do it I don't think is what they saw I would do with it but it raises the stakes. We work really well together because we communicate about those moments. I think I went about building this character in a very musical way so I could bounce the ball back with another author in an improv way as the show goes on because I don't want it to just be stale where it was like 'This is his catchphrase and this is what he's doing this episode'. I wanted the character to grow a little bit and I don't know how to do that in a way that's not insulting, so you have to do it artistically. It's been great because we've never had any disputes. It's always just been 'Yes'. Bringing it back to music, Bobby McFerrin (of 'Don't Worry. Be Happy' fame), one of the greats in my eyes, has always said 'There's no mistakes. Your mistake is just your next note and you follow it'. Even if there is something that, looking back might not have been the best choice, I think it led us to some really great stuff. I can't believe I feel artistically fulfilled because it's an action show, but it's so much fun, man. It's cool. That's it.”
Todd: Do you feel as if Scorpion has 'meshed' well with already established CBS dramas like NCIS and Person Of Interest? Has the show been able to find a commonality amid the target demographic(s) of its fellow dramas?
Ari: “I honestly think that we fit right in with NCIS for a lot of reasons. I think our audience spans to their audience because of the procedural nature of the show. I also think that has to do with the weekly stories being told. That's the climate of the content right now on CBS, but I love that. I think our other audience comes from people who like shows like the A-Team and want to see adventures on TV like there used to be. I think our show fills this void that was left open by the Movie Of The Week when they left in the early '90's. I think that a lot of people watch them differently now on Netflix, but there are still people who watch TV. Our show is like a different movie every week. It's a new adventure every week, it's serial and it's great. I love our show. I love being on it and I love watching it every week because it's just a new adventure each time. It's not your mom's show. We do crazy stuff. There was a plane flying twenty feet over a Ferrari in the first episode. We save a kid's life by telling him not to breathe underwater for seven minutes, I jump off of a yacht in an episode onto a buoy boat and then three people who are selling illegal armament die because they get sucked into the propeller and then Robert Patrick swims and saves my life from the propeller. I just knock these people off the boat and they perish. That is our show. We do crazy, crazy stuff and it's in genre. It's serial drama that's good TV. It's a return to form and that's why a lot of people are so into it. You don't see stuff like this anymore, but it is coming back.”
Todd: Considering the rating fluctuations, I'm assuming you've been concerned regarding the future of the show.
Ari: “I'm glad you said that because most journalists have been saying 'This show is doing so well. You must have known that it was going to do well' and I go 'No, I didn't. It's been quite the opposite. I was stressing out'. I'm still stressing out because you could give me a million dollars and I'll still go 'Great, so who else do I have to give this money to? Is it really mine?'. I'm still trying to find the wrong thing in there which is like 'Dude, you just got a large sum of money. Just be happy'. I'll always find what's wrong with it. If there's two seasons of a show, I'll be like 'Okay, when are we going to go to the third season? Am I going to ruin it? Am I going to stop being a good actor and they're going to kill me off?' It's like the more time I have, the more precious it all is. I'm like 'Am I going to mess up?'. That's how I feel about it. I'm such an anxious mess. That's why I play it so well.”
Todd: Once the entire cast was assembled, was the chemistry between everyone immediate or did it take a period of time for everyone to gel? With his repertoires, was it difficult for you to interact with Richard Patrick?
Ari: “For me and Eddie Kaye Thomas (i.e. Toby Curtis), it was pretty much immediate. Robert Patrick and I didn't know much about each other. I definitely knew who he was. ...I knew he was the T-1000 (in Terminator 2: Judgment Day), but I think he was expecting me ... Because you look at me and I look like a nerd. I think he might have been expecting me to be like 'Oh my God! It's T-1000. I'm such a big fan!' I just looked at him as my co-worker. ...Obviously, I have mad respect for him. (The 2005 Johnny Cash biopic) Walk The Line is what I know that about with Robert because he's so good in that movie. That's the performance that I was recalling when I was working with him. I was looking at him like an actor and seeing where he's coming from where I can come from to work with him. Because we're all so different, I think that was the coolest part of the process. It came from all of us checking each other out and going 'How are you going to do this?' and 'How are you going to do this? How are you going to do this?'. All of us were like 'We're going to do it real. We're going to play it very real and we're not going to lean into TV. We're going to be honest'. I think that's why the show is doing better than anybody thought Our creators said 'Play it honest because the second you lean into a caricature, it's not going to be good'. It needs to be honest, real and the stakes real high. It's a high octane show.”
Todd: Having had the chance to digest the first season thus far, it's almost as if Scorpion is a 'nerdy' The A-Team.
Ari: “I think that The A-Team had this super, manly quality to it and I think our show has a misfit quality to it. ...I think we're more misfit than manly, but we've got Robert Patrick and that's enough testosterone for us. He's a man's man. His career is so prolific. He's just a beast, man. He is so good. ...I love working with the guy.”
Todd: In hindsight, how do you remember your time working with Robin Williams on The Crazy Ones? Was working with him onstage as great as it appeared it would have been? Did he give you 'good advice' as an actor?
Ari: “It was amazing. The coolest part about it was obviously Robin Williams. There is a lot of great things about Scorpion, but the main part of working on The Crazy Ones was just to get to work with Robin Williams. He was just the greatest. He was kind and he was generous with information, knowledge and with technique tips. He was always telling anecdotes and cracking the crew up. He introduced himself to the extras and he'd talk to all of them. ...The story I always tell, it's one day we were shooting in Los Angeles. He was talking to this large group of people, they were in this new coffee shop. He was talking and this bike messenger rides up in the middle of the shot and starts shouting 'Robin! I love you Robin Williams' and starts quoting his movies and saying things like 'You make me laugh when nobody else can'. Robin just stopped. The take stopped and the director cut. Robin turned around and walked over to him and was like 'Hey, how are you doing, man?' and had a conversation. He took a minute out of his day and made this guy's week. I looked at his eyes and he really had the power to do that, to bring people joy. It changed the game for me as an entertainer, I realized why we're all here after I worked on The Crazy Ones. When he passed, I was devastated as a fan. I wish I had a stronger connection to him. I think it would have been an amazing connection to have, but the truth is I worked with him for four days, tops. I probably had all of five conversations with him, but he changed my life because he's such an icon. It was really very sad when he died. I'm still very sad thinking about him because he was just amazing.”
Todd: Can we discuss your musical endeavor DRTV (Doctor Television). How did it all come together for you?
Ari: “Right now, I'm working on a lot of self-Produced stuff on my Soundcloud like the track 'Julia', which is low-fi. ...When I turned twenty-one, something changed. I don't know what changed but I stopped wanting to make pulpy stuff and move more to grooves. That's like 'Killer', which is on the Soundcloud, so I'm working on more stuff like that's more groove-based. My Production's is sort of Passion Pit-y with some big Confetti and Discovery influences. I don't know if you know Discovery. They had this LP back in 2000 that is a huge influence. I'm working with these Pop Producers and a band called Monomaniac. Dru DeCaro who is a guitarist in Torrance and works with Miguel a lot, is Producing it with his band mate Ryan Coleman. There is some Hip-Hop influences on that one. All that stuff is dropping in April. ...All I can say is that I've got a lot of music coming in April. Once Scorpion ends for me, I will be out of work, so I'll be focusing much more on the music.”
Todd: How did you begin your musical journey? Was it something that you had always intended to undertake on a full-time basis? Was there a particular scenario or incident that 'sparked' your interest in becoming a musician?
Ari: “I was lucky. It was when I was thirteen. I had just had my Bar Mitzvah, which was musical theater themed. I was hanging out with my family and one of my relatives gave me this keyboard that they had bought at Best Buy or Costco or something. I remember playing on it and saying 'I'm going to teach myself to play piano better' because I stopped learning when I was five. I was like 'I know a little bit. I'm going to teach myself chords and I'm going to teach myself how to cheat along with songs so I can get the structure down and then I could send to a dude who knows what to do with these chords'. At thirteen, I knew what an arranger was. ...I knew what the 'Arranged By' credit meant after songs because I was in musical theater a lot, so whenever I would be with the music director of a show, he'd be like 'Well, I sort of changed this part of the song', I'd be like 'That's rewriting the song' and he would explain to me that 'No, it's Arranging it. It's the same song, I'm just changing this part'. I could just comprehend it all at a young age, so I thought 'Is that something I could do?' It all started from a very young age and I just got better at it from age thirteen until now using basically everything that I had at my resources. I'm still using Garage Band because I'm not an amazing Producer, but I hear (Foxygen drummer) Diane Coffee uses Garage Band. Foxygen records to tape but, I hear a lot of bands are starting to release stuff on Garage Band. It's too bad because my interface and all of my equipment is up to date I don't have (digital audio workstation/MIDI sequencer software) Logic (Pro) or peripherals because I'm a fool.”
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