Christopher McDonald, Alfred Molina and Kathy Bates in HARRY'S LAW - Season 2 - "There Will Be Blood" | ©2011 NBC/Greg Gayne

Christopher McDonald, Alfred Molina and Kathy Bates in HARRY'S LAW - Season 2 - "There Will Be Blood" | ©2011 NBC/Greg Gayne

NBC’s David E. Kelley-created HARRY’S LAW is a midwinter hit that’s back for its second season Wednesdays at 9 PM. Kathy Bates plays Harry Korn, a lawyer who turned her back on a lucrative career in patent law to open her own unorthodox legal practice.

Christopher McDonald, the prolific New York-born actor, came aboard as lawyer Tommy Jefferson for what was supposed to be a one-shot role on HARRY’S LAW. The character worked out so well that McDonald is now a series regular. Meanwhile, McDonald is also appearing in his second season of HBO’s Prohibition-era drama BOARDWALK EMPIRE, Sundays at 9 PM, as Attorney General Harry Daugherty.

Here’s what he had to say.

ASSIGNMENT X: How would you describe your HARRY’S LAW character Tommy Jefferson?

McDONALD: I came in in episode two. It’s one of the most flamboyantly brilliant introductions for a character that only David Kelley could write. I have an office pre-lit for press conferences. I’m the kind of lawyer that’s almost the opposite of what Harry is. I’m on the good side of the tracks, I win most of my cases through settlements, because I will use the press to the nth degree to get public favor on my side, and that blows up in my face in the third episode, but I’ve always admired [Harry], since we’ve known each other in the lawyer world. I question her choice of leaving a very lucrative business as a patent lawyer and to start over again at her age is kind of crazy. Even when I was a guest star, David found my voice and just kept on writing stuff and I kept trying to rise to the occasion and he would write more outrageous and wonderful things for a character named Tommy Jefferson, which is a really great and funny thing to start with.

AX: Had you worked with David E. Kelley before?

McDONALD: I wish. I don’t know why I didn’t do any of those wonderful shows he did, but for some reason, no. And when this one came down, it was only going to be one shot. I am so lucky to be a regular, because he’s so great – he makes me laugh every script. He writes more prolifically than any writer I’ve worked with on this show and if he doesn’t like a storyline, or if he likes it but the show is too long and it doesn’t fit, he’ll say that to us, change it, and the next day, he’ll have new pages – that’s how fast he is. He’s got a very sick, funny sense of humor, and I love to be the guy who’s basically spewing his scrawlings, as it were. His day-to-day show runner is Bill D’Elia, who is fantastic. He’s been doing this for twenty years with David. And funnily enough, [D’Elia’s] son Chris is the male star of WHITNEY, which is now our lead-in. So he’s now, “I’ve got two shows to worry about now in the ratings,” I guess.

AX: Tommy started out as a quasi-friendly adversary for Harry. How has Tommy evolved in Season Two?

McDONALD: He did start out as an adversary, quasi-friendly because he respected Harry so much and still does. Through his affiliation with her, he kind of insinuated himself into her life, because he wants by that close proximity to maybe have some of her greatness rub off on him. Because he’s great in a lot of ways, but not the way Harry is. Harry is real deal. Everyone comes to her, because she somehow knows how to get the job done. Actually, he has genuine affection for her now. He knows the kind of cases she’s exceptionally good at and he knows what he’s good at and hopefully they would make a pretty good team together. I think nothing would make him happier than to actually practice law with her.

In Season Two, they have a better relationship, because they’re actually working in the same office, but at two separate firms. One of my favorite things on [the Kelley-created] BOSTON LEGAL was the love story between the two [characters played by William Shatner and James Spader]. It was beautiful, the way they talked to each other. And I have a few episodes where I talk to Harry that are reminiscent of that. You saw a completely different part of Tommy Jefferson, who’s sort of a big, blowhard kind of guy, and you see he has real guts, and the only person he can really connect to is Harry. So it’s a mutual respect club. Although she tolerates me at best in the beginning, you see the growth that happens, and we become friends.

AX: Had you worked with Kathy Bates before?

McDONALD: I had not. I had met her a few times in the world of show business and always loved her, but this is my first time and I’m tickled to death, because she raises the bar and she comes on the set and it’s like, “It’s show time.”

AX: Do you like playing a lawyer, somebody whose life is very much governed by how he says what he says?

McDONALD: I am thrilled by it. As an actor who does a lot of research, I am delving into the great law books, and I’m learning a lot. It’s something I did a little bit when I was doing FAMILY LAW, but it’s a different kind of law. I’m basically a criminal defense attorney now, and there’s a lot of really good stuff out there on it, and when I have to go and give those closing arguments with all that legalese, it’s really helpful to know what you’re talking about.

AX: To talk about another Harry for a minute, you also play Harry Daugherty on BOARDWALK EMPIRE. What’s going on with Harry in Season Two?

McDONALD: I’m alive and kicking and Nucky Thompson wants some payback for favors he did last season.

Erik Palladino and Christopher McDonald in HARRY'S LAW - Season 2 - "Insanity" | ©2011 NBC/Lewis Jacobs

Erik Palladino and Christopher McDonald in HARRY'S LAW - Season 2 - "Insanity" | ©2011 NBC/Lewis Jacobs

AX: How is working on BOARDWALK?

McDONALD: It’s a complete blast. This is done at a pace that is not like any other television I’ve done. Truly, the money is on the screen. They do exceptional work in New York for this series. The writing starts with [series creator] Terence Winter, who’s brilliant also. I’m very lucky to [be working for] two such great writers at this time in my life and the show is extraordinary. It’s dark, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea – Prohibition in the Twenties. Once I got our candidate Warren Harding into office, I’m now elevated to the very enviable position of Attorney General.

AX: So you’re on two different networks as two different lawyers simultaneously.

McDONALD: Two attorneys out of Ohio, funnily enough. And there’s the Harry connection.

AX: You’ve got a unique niche here.

McDONALD: I’m embracing it, because playing lawyers is very much like what actors are. I think out of all the jobs a guy could have, those two are the closest. It’s all an acting job when they’re out there selling it to the jury, it’s a sell job.

AX: How is working opposite Steve Buscemi, who plays Nucky?

McDONALD: I love him. I’ve known him a long time. I thought he was inspired casting [as Nucky]. He is more than up to the task, he brings so much to that guy. His work with Kelly Macdonald [who plays Nucky’s lover Margaret] – there are moments in the end of the season last year that I watch again and again. It brings tears to my eyes. It’s just a beautifully done show.

AX: It says on IMDB that you’re preparing to direct a movie yourself …

McDONALD: I am. The money has fallen out twice. It’s quite frustrating, is the easiest way to say it. The film itself is called WILDWOOD and it’s a beautiful four-hander love story and it takes place in a very rural area. We had the okay and I thought it was a terrific cast and then people get pulled away, and then the money’s not right there, so you can’t really set the date and then I was working. So it’s an ongoing thing. I have my storyboards, I have my production schedule. I could really be plugged in anywhere. It’s a beautiful story and I will get it done when the stars line up.

AX: Would this be your directorial debut?

McDONALD: I’ve directed on stage, but never on film, but it’s the same thing. My experience is that if you get the right team around you, it’s not an impossible thing to do. Yes, you answer a hundred thousand questions over the course of the film, but it’s having your vision and having the power to see that vision through to the end which gives me the most excitement about being a director.

AX: You also have a number of movies coming up as an actor …

McDONALD: GRASSROOTS was done by Stephen Gyllenhaal, Jake Gyllenhaal’s dad. He’s fantastic. The lead, Joel David Moore, was also in a little thing called AVATAR. It’s a grassroots political campaign. I’m the newspaper mentor guy of him and I say, “You can actually win this thing if you do it this way.” It’s a really well-done, very interesting independent movie. Plus I wanted to work with Stephen Gyllenhaal, because I think he’s terrific. He has great visual [style] and he was very, very fast and took great chances with the camera.

THE COLLECTION – I don’t do these very often, but I was invited to come play for a sequel to a very dark, very well-received movie called THE COLLECTOR. It’s Fangoria time. I saw a rough cut of it and I went, “Oh, my God.” I play the father of a girl who gets kidnapped. I have a little time in it, but it’s a joy to be part of something [that is being made by people who] care about it, they don’t just slap it together, and I’ve been in those movies, too, where they just want to get it out there because they want to catch the wave, but this is something that’s really well-crafted.

SOUL TIES, I was invited to join an African-American-themed [film] with a Christian background, about a woman who is having her quarter-life crisis. It’s lovely. We shot that down in Atlanta. I was on that for three days.

TWYLIGHT ZONES is a very prestigious David Chase movie. He did THE SOPRANOS. He’s a great director. He knows exactly what he wants. [The film is set] in the music world in the Sixties. James Gandolfini plays the father of the lead boy and I play the father of the lead girl, and it’s just their stories of coming from the influences of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. It’s terrific. I had a blast doing that. So while I was in New York doing BOARDWALK EMPIRE, I was zipping off on the weekend to do David Chase’s movie, so it was a very fun spring.

AX: What’s BALLS TO THE WALL?

McDONALD: I play the father of this girl , [played by] Jenna Dewan, who is absolutely beautiful, and my wife is [played by] Mimi Rogers, and we have to have our daughter have the perfect wedding, and we’re keeping up appearances for the Joneses. Meanwhile, I’m a terrible gambler on the side and have lost my shirt. So my future son-in-law grows on me by helping me. He becomes a male stripper and gets really good at it, and through that, we pay my debts back and get the money for the wedding and he enters this big competition, and keeping all this separate and secret from his fiancée. He kind of blossoms at the same time I blossom, and at the ripe age of my fifties, I show some skin.

AX: Did you have any hesitation about doing nudity?

McDONALD: I could give you the very European answer – “Oh, it’s our instrument!” Of course I did. I was, “Oh, my God, I’m going to show my ass to the world?” But when it’s funny, it’s okay. And it was really important to the scene. But I thought, “Why didn’t they ask me to do it when I was in my thirties and in really good shape?” [laughs] We showed it at the Newport Film Festival [in California]. I was in the audience and you pay money to have this kind of response. They did a Q and A afterwards and [director] Penelope Spheeris said, “Not since WAYNE’S WORLD has an audience been like you.” We loved Newport Beach. She and her producer partner bought the rights for the film and are taking it on a platform level, starting in Milwaukee, her hometown, and going across the United States that way.

AX: Anything else we should know about HARRY’S LAW?

McDONALD: Here’s what I love about HARRY’S LAW in a nutshell. I love the case of the day that David Kelley brings up. Each week, we look at it like a present. [It] is not ripped from the headlines so much, but for lack of a better term, he takes what’s currently going on in the world and sticks it on our show and gives both sides of it, which is just brilliant writing. There are some people who go, “Get that guy, he’s so wrong!” at the same time they go, “Wow, that was a really good argument for the defense today.” So you see how the law is a very fine line, a very tricky thing. To present both sides like that makes me very happy as an actor and an audience member to watch it. We started this season with a huge murder case. I don’t know how he got the jump on it, but the same case happened [in real life] two weeks later. A woman was killed by her husband. Was it suicide or did he kill her? We had Alfred Molina, a brilliant actor, as a guest star, and Jean Smart as the D.A. What was great about it is that you almost think you’ve figured it out and then, “I wonder if the butler did it.” David wrote me a speech in there where I think he was speaking to himself and speaking to every cast member, speaking to the world. “Hey, enjoy it now. You’re in it. This is it. In a few years, we’ll be in our used-to-be years. I used to be Tommy Jefferson. You used to be Harry Korn. But now, the world is watching. Enjoy it. Have fun. Because this is rare air.” And it really resonates.

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