Split Screens Festival got a little sweeter when Raúl Esparza signed on for two Hannibal panels. Though he has spent the bulk of his career on the stage, he has started to carve out space in the world of television. He played Dr. Frederick Chilton in Hannibal and is a current regular as ADA Rafael Barba on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Interested in his take on the current state of television we were able to pull him aside during the festival for an interview.
So how’s Split Screens Festival going, did you enjoy your first panel of the evening?
Raúl Esparza: I really enjoyed being here. First of all I love Matt’s (Matt Zoller Seitz) writing, I’m thrilled that he was up there talking to me and it is nice to be treated with such respect for this work which, you know, for a long time people would talk about television as less than but I think that’s not the case anymore. I know Tribeca does screenings, I know Breaking Bad had a big thing at the Film Society in Lincoln Center. It is amazing to be up there speaking intelligently about what we do with TV.
What are your thoughts on how TV has changed? How have you seen it from the acting perspective, looking back from when you first started to now?
RE: I can’t speak so much to television because most of my career has been stage work but in terms of the kind of television that is being done now, I don’t think it is a coincidence that I’m working now because there’s a strong emphasis on good writing, which is something that I respond to a lot on stage, and characters that are very strongly developed, you know.
I’m not great at like “put down that gun!” I’m not great at the one-liners and that was never a job I was going to be able to do well. This kind of writing that’s happening on television, with such deep character development, there’s now simply no difference between this and film or stage.
I’ve also seen television taking very big chances that it did not take before in terms of form around content, in terms of the shape of how episodes work, and in terms of playing with gray areas, antiheroes, and really pushing the envelope of what can be accomplished technically on a screen. It is a medium that I feel like is really coming into its own in terms of the power that it has to hit us at home and hit us hard and is now telling stories that are not necessarily comfortable all the time which I love. I think that’s a big change.
Look, I got Pushing Daisies with Bryan because I could talk fast and I can do a good comedic monologue, you know, but if it had been a one-liner I wouldn’t have been on that show.
Do you attribute that change to anything or do you see anything specific that contributed to the shift on television from what it was? Was it just the advancement of technology and the internet, or some mix of things?
RE: In part, I don’t remember. How can I say when it actually happened? But at some point people began to realize that television could be a long form storytelling experiment. I feel like shows like The Sopranos really began to change your sense of what you could do on TV. I feel like shows like Friday Night Lights on NBC, you saw what should have been a teen drama turn out to be an amazing exploration of the small town American Dream falling apart and his marriage surviving that. Somewhere in there people were willing to try to tell stories that were a little more complicated. And yes, I think it has a great deal to do with technology.
We’re watching television differently, it is streaming, we can go back and re-watch things. When I Love Lucy premiered and Desi Arnaz bought the film stock to own the episodes the network thought he was out of his mind. The concept of reruns was absurd, you know. It was kind of a joke at the time. He seemed to understand that we were going to re-watch this stuff.
Now I think we’ve caught up with that a lot. This idea of streaming television that came around, I think the guy who used to run Enron was proposing that before the whole company went to pieces, and that was one of their big ideas and they didn’t have the technology to do it. So yeah, I think it has been a little bit of both catching up simultaneously.
What are your thoughts on the fannibals? I have to ask because they show up in force it seems like just about everywhere that you are.
RE: I think it is sensational. There’s a disconnect with television which is really interesting. You do an episode and then it doesn’t air for three months so there’s no response that people have to your work. It’s not like I just did a show on stage and came out the stage door and somebody says “good job.” That relationship where fans show up and are just sort of cheering the show on, and are intensely passionate about it, it is just not an experience you generally get with TV. I think it is amazing to experience, I really do. It’s thrilling, it is the equivalent of having that kind of stage door support or an audience that shows up to be part of it with you.
You don’t get that sense of the audience [typically], I know that they’re out there I’m just not doing it for them. The fact that the audience is showing up to say that they love it is a really nice connection, it really is. It’s just not an opportunity we [usually] get. Our work is done and we don’t get to meet the people who see it and to have those people be passionate about it, what we’re doing, and to catch things it is very meaningful.
Bryan is also someone who was always really supportive of that because the show stayed on because people were crazy about it. That was important to us, that we were pleasing the people who wanted to watch it. Maybe the ratings weren’t amazing but the people who were watching it were loving it intensely. That’s important.
Quality over quantity.
RE: Absolutely. You know, and then supporting us, you wanna know it’s what I always say we meant to do, what we did and it’s amazing when people notice it. Details are there for the people who want to notice them and we’re packing them in so having fannibals be like “we see you” that’s a very special thing to us.
We really appreciated Raúl taking the time to sit down with us to discuss the evolving world of television. It will be interesting to see where the industry goes from here, as writers and creators continue to push the envelope and see how far they can take the small screen.