STAGE TO SCREENS: Stage Actor Steven Pasquale Wears Two Masks on TV's "Do No Harm"

By Christopher Wallenberg
February 9, 2013

Steven Pasquale, late of Broadway's Reasons to be Pretty and Off-Broadway's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide, Fat Pig and A Man of No Importance talks about his new Jekyll-and-Hyde-style TV series "Do No Harm."



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Dr. Jason Cole should be living the high life. The central character in the new NBC medical-thriller drama "Do No Harm," Cole is a renowned neurosurgeon with a flourishing career. He's regarded as a compassionate and caring doc who's always willing to go the extra mile for a patient. He's handsome, successful, and women fawn over him. There's only one problem — and his name is Ian Price.

Ian is Jason's alternate personality. And every night at 8:25 PM, he rears his charming yet diabolical head. For five years, Ian has been kept at bay thanks to a powerful experimental sedative that Jason injects himself with every evening. But when Jason wakes up disoriented inside a trashed hotel room one morning, he knows Ian is back on the loose. Having built up a resistance to the serum, the sociopathic Ian is determined to exact revenge on Jason for keeping him locked away. What ensues is a no-holds-barred game of cat-and-mouse between the alter-egos.

A modern day twist on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "Do No Harm" stars stage veteran Steven Pasquale (pronounced Pahs-QWAL) juggling the dual roles. The actor, who's married to Tony Award-winning actress Laura Benanti (Gyspy), got his start in showbusiness doing musicals — playing Chris in the 1998 American tour of Miss Saigon and starring in productions of A Man of No Importance (Off-Broadway), The Light in the Piazza (regionally) and The Spitfire Grill (Off-Broadway).

While "Do No Harm" marks Pasquale's first lead in a major television series, the 36-year-old actor is no stranger to the medium — having played dim-bulb firefighter Sean Garrity on Denis Leary's cable drama "Rescue Me" for seven seasons (and appearing last year in the "Coma" miniseries and on the sitcom "Up All Night").

Because "Rescue Me" filmed in New York, Pasquale had plenty of time for regular appearances on the New York stage — starring in Neil LaBute's "Reasons to be Pretty" on Broadway and in the 2011 world premiere of Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Public Theater.

Next up for this talented actor — if everything falls into place — will be acting opposite Kelli O'Hara in the world-premiere production of the new musical Far From Heaven at Playwrights Horizons this spring. The show had a "preview production" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, and Pasquale shares that it's actually the first musical he's done in almost 10 years.

Pasquale in Far From Heaven.
photo by T. Charles Erickson

Unfortunately, he may have plenty of time for more theatre in the near future. The premiere episode of "Do No Harm" on Jan. 31 garnered the lowest ratings in history for the debut episode of a new scripted series on the Big Four broadcast networks. It attracted just 3.1 million viewers and a paltry 0.9 rating in the key 18-49 ratings demographic. As this piece was going to press on Feb. 8, NBC cancelled the series.

Pasquale spoke to Playbill.com via phone before hearing the bad news.

"Do No Harm" creator David Schulner said that his pitch to NBC was basically "Dexter" meets "House." What does the series have in common with those two shows?
Steven Pasquale: Well, it's a medical setting, so in terms of "House" it's got a bit of a medical procedural element to it each week. Most every week there's a high-stakes medical case that requires the skill set of Dr. Jason Cole, our hero, inside the hospital. As for "Dexter," the similarity there is that my guy's got to alter-ego named Ian Price who is really conniving and can be malicious and violent and a sexual predator and a drug-addict and a sociopath and kind of an asshole, really. But he's also a master-manipulator and kind of charming. So if we pull it off, the audience will sort of find themselves rooting for Ian and hating themselves for it a little bit.

What drew you to want to play this part?
SP: It was a home-run and an actor's dream to get to play every color on the spectrum. To be this sort of true, earnest, honest, do-gooding hero and then like the ultimate bad boy in the same story. I knew I would get to explore acting muscles that I have not explored before, certainly on camera yet.

Pasquale on "Do No Harm."
Photo by Eric Liebowitz/NBC

What's the challenge of playing these two wildly different personalities?
SP: The ultimate challenge is that I didn't want to create a guy who had an alter-ego that was so completely different behaviorally that all of the peripheral characters would be aware of what is happening. So we wanted to create a gray area in terms of at least their physical behavior and their physical life — the way they walk, the way they sound, the way they move. So that when peripheral characters intersect with either Jason or Ian, that's where all the drama can happen. So we didn't want to make it where one guy's a monster and one guy's all good. We wanted to find a little bit of gray area with both of them.

There's kind of a cat and mouse game going on between Jason and Ian as the series unfolds. Can you describe the dynamic between these two guys and how it evolves during the course of the first season?
SP: Well, in a nutshell, for the past five years, Dr. Jason Cole has kept his alter-ego at bay with an experimental sedative that he takes every night, which has been concocted by a coworker, a brilliant chemist played by Lin Manuel-Miranda. In the first episode, Ian, the alter-ego, has developed an immunity to that drug and he makes an appearance for the first time in five years. Now he's been basically locked away, imprisoned in Jason's mind for the last five years. And that's one of the many reasons that Ian is hellbent on exacting revenge on Jason's life. So they're sort of at war with each other right out of the gate, and it doesn't really let up at all the whole season.

Jason's condition is loosely based on dissociative-identity disorder, otherwise known as split-personality disorder. What kind of research, if any, did you do on the condition?
SP: I did a lot of research. But I didn't want to get too literal with it because it is a fictitious condition [on the show]. We wanted to do everything we could to benefit our storytelling. But for people who suffer from alternate personalities, there are things that are universally true: One is that in order to create an alternate personality, there has to be some serious trauma in a person's life. So I think holding on to that idea, but not knowing what it is. Although there will be a very mysterious plot point that gets quasi-revealed by the season finale about what the origin of his condition is. Secondly, multiple personalities is a very real thing. So like people who live with an alternate personality, sometimes one personality has eyesight that is better than the other; or one is left-handed, and the other is right-handed; or one has a skill-set that the other doesn't have. It's really fascinating how it plays out in the real world. So I liked the idea that it can just be this big, confusing thing for the audience in terms of: Where did Jason come from and where did Ian come from and why did they split into two? We want it to feel like two distinct, different individuals who just happen to inhabit the same body.

Pasquale on "Rescue Me."
FX

You've been a supporting actor on a number of different television series and miniseries, including playing Sean Garrity in "Rescue Me." But now you're a lead who's carrying the show and appearing in almost every scene. What's that adjustment been like for you?
SP: "Rescue Me" was an amazing experience, because it was a really rare ensemble of very funny people. So we all felt like we had our sort of moments to shine. But at the end of the day, it was Dennis [Leary]'s vehicle. I had a very cushy schedule, for lack of a better word. And the on-set experiences were really fun because it was a bunch of really fun guys. We weren't killing ourselves 16 hours a day on that job. So the difference is night and day just in terms of the workload and the pressure. I have to be really vigilant about taking care of myself and doing my homework and making sure I'm on top of everything, because it's my face — or rather both of my faces on the side of every bus. [Laughs.]

Speaking of that, what's it been like seeing your mug on the sides of all the buses and billboards promoting the show everywhere?
SP: You know what's funny? In Philadelphia [where we shoot], there are no billboards or anything around [promoting the show]. So I'm just getting text messages from every person in my life in New York, being like, "You're on my coffee cup this morning!" or like, "I'm waiting for the bus, and your face is staring back at me!" and "There's a billboard of you outside my bedroom." It's just crazy. But I'm actually not in New York to experience it, so it's kind of a strange thing.

Has your wife caught your face on billboards or on buses in L.A.?
SP: Yes! In fact, they have a running joke at her show, "Go On," where they're like, "I saw your husband this morning on the way to work. He's terrifying."

Tell me about making that transition from stage to screen. Was trying your hand at television and film work always a priority and part of your career plan? Or did it just sort of happen?
SP: I've always wanted to be one of those lucky actors who got to do plays and TV and film — and musicals. So I've just been really lucky in that for a long time I've been able to kind of go back and forth. But they're very different skills, and I feel even stronger about that now as I get older than I did as a young actor. Some people can't do both. It's interesting. Like I've seen some of our most brilliant film actors just fall right on their face on stage. And vice versa.

Pasquale on "Do No Harm."
Photo by Eric Liebowitz/NBC

What's the biggest challenge in making that transition from theatre to television acting?
SP: There can be a lifted quality, a slightly lifted energy, in a play or a musical that works beautifully in a theatre environment. But when a camera is right up against your face, nothing can be lifted. It has to be uber-kitchen sink realism because the camera doesn't lie. And it's a terrible feeling to see yourself on camera making a false choice. Stillness and simplicity is really the key working in front of the camera — compared to being on stage where I feel like you're much more free to make bigger choices. But on "Do No Harm," I'm playing a larger-than-life character in Ian, who would probably be perfectly happy on stage, I'm sure.

Do you think "Rescue Me" and series television work that you've done helped to prepare you for playing the lead in a TV show?
SP: With "Rescue Me," it definitely helped to spend seven years just getting used to having a camera in your face. Because that's the biggest thing for an actor. Once you're used to having the camera in your face, then it's no longer an obstacle, and I feel like that's when it gets really fun and interesting. But it takes a long time to get used to that big giant thing staring back at you. It's weird.

What do you miss most about being on the stage that you don't necessarily get working in television?
SP: The theatre is an actor's and a playwright's medium. It's just the actors and a playwright's words. Whereas in television, you've got so many other elements that factor into what happens, especially in post-production. But that's not the case on stage. It's just a very vulnerable, courageous thing to be an actor standing on a stage. And, you know, I love it. I much prefer it, actually. I'm a theatre rat at heart. If I could enjoy the benefits of New York City and just live on an Off-Broadway theater contract, I would do that and only that.

But sometimes that's just not practical!
SP: No, no, not at all. We become grown-ups, and we have kids, and we have to save for college, and we want to go out for nice dinners. So other things become a priority. But I try to do a play every year. I'm probably going to do another one in the spring. So I'm just really excited to get back on stage again.

So does that mean we can expect to see you starring opposite Kelli O'Hara in Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, and Richard Greenberg's stage adaptation of the 2002 film, "Far From Heaven," which get its official world premiere this spring at Playwrights Horizons?
SP: I am 100 percent planning and hoping on doing the production in the spring, provided my television dates don't get in there and screw it up. As of now, I'm like 90 percent sure it's going to work out, and I'm really excited about it. In an ideal world, the show would be in April, May and June, I'd finish the run, and then go right back to work on the television series. But there's also the potential that the series doesn't come back for Season Two. In that case, of course, I'm totally available to do a play. So either way, I think there's a good chance it will work out.

Pasquale on "Do No Harm."
Photo by Eric Liebowitz/NBC

What drew you to the get involved with Far From Heaven and what about the role of Frank, the closeted suburban father with a wife and kids, intrigued you?
SP: Well, three things. Scott Frankel and Michael Korie [the show's composer and lyricist] are really talented guys. And director Michael Greif is one of my favorite collaborators in my life ever. And Kelli O'Hara is one of my oldest friends in New York and a true gem of the theatre. I just want to work with all four of these people. I don't care what the project is. And I love that Frank is not your classic sort of leading man. He's a really tortured and f**ked-up guy, and you don't get that chance to play somebody like that that often in a musical. So I thought that would be hard and challenging and rewarding.

There's so much that's unspoken between sexually repressed Frank and his quietly suffering wife, Cathy, such rich subtext to bring up from under the surface.
SP: We are now so beyond that time and we've come so far. The rampant racism and homophobia that existed in the late '50s feels so long ago, even though it is really only a few generations in the past. And sure, there are some days when it feels like we have so far still to go when it comes to civil rights issues and social progress. But it's easy to forget that in 1958, a gay man would stand in front of a therapist and be like, "There's something wrong with me. I have a disorder. I have something incredibly wrong with me, and I need you to fix it." I mean, that's a long way from where we're at these days.

There are a whole slew of theatre actors in "Do No Harm," from Phylicia Rashad and Lin Manuel-Miranda to Michael Esper, your co-star from the 2011 world premiere of Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide… Did you encourage the directors and producers to look to the stage, to Broadway, when casting the various roles in the show?
PB: Oh, I wish I did! I wish I could take credit for it. But Michael Mayer [Spring Awakening, American Idiot], who directed our pilot, comes from theatre, and Bob Greenblatt, the president of NBC, also is a lover of theatre people. And I was just over-the-moon when Michael Esper got cast. Certainly he's one of my favorite New York actors, and we've worked together for the last like two-and-a-half years at this point. And Phylicia is amazing. And Lin is like a national treasure. That guy's amazing. So we all are just huge theatre nerds. And that's really fun to have that kind of energy on set.

I interviewed your wife, Laura Benanti, a few months ago, about her sitcom "Go On," and we talked about how she's managed to successfully toggle back and forth from doing big classic musicals to really interesting straight plays. She said that it was really important for her to do both. With your own recent roles in the Tony Kushner play, Neil LaBute's "Reasons to Be Pretty," and now the stage adaptation of "Far From Heaven," is that a strategy you've also tried to pursue as an actor?
SP: I started out doing musicals, and it's very easy to just be like a musical guy if that were the case. So I made a decision, a pact very early on to get away from that — to not do just musicals. And I was really lucky in that I got cast in a [straight] play, so I just started doing non-musical things for a very long time. I actually haven't been in a musical since The Light in the Piazza in 2003 [for its premiere in Seattle]. So Far From Heaven was my first time in a musical in like almost 10 years, which I can't believe because I consider it such a part of my makeup as a young actor. But yeah, they're different muscles — a musical, a straight play, a period piece, a TV show, a comedy, a drama, a movie. That's where the challenge comes — trying to keep all those muscles fresh all the time. And I'm always looking to do something different from whatever I've just done before.

Is there a chance we might see you guest-starring on your wife's new Matthew Perry-headlined sitcom "Go On" later this season? Or might she pop up in "Do No Harm" at some point?
SP: Are you kidding? I would love it! Totally. I mean, if we could figure it out schedule-wise, I would absolutely love it. I could play a patient who she's counseling. And she could play somebody with a brain condition on my show, and I'll give her a pretend lobotomy. It would be perfect!

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Steven Pasquale and Alana De La Garza
Photo by David Giesbrecht/NBC