'My life is my career, my career is my life'
Eric Dane: Acting for real
(CNN) -- "I killed a patient a third of the way through the season."
This -- the malpractice legal environment being what it is -- is probably one of the easiest ways to tell a "television doctor" from a real one. Eric Dane is talking about his character, Dr. Wyatt Cooper on ABC's "Gideon's Crossing" -- not about having killed a patient, himself.
"I've been able to deal with larger issues than the other doctors. They have their day-to-day patients, where I've had this life-changing, eye-opening arc of action. My wife becomes pregnant, the only patient I have I end up killing. It's so dire with Wyatt Cooper that he can't help but change."
It's not unusual to hear actors speak of their characters in first person. What's not entirely common, though, is to hear an actor i weekly television go to the mat for his or her script people.
"The writers are usually on the set at all times with us. I was working until 7 in the morning a couple of times last week. Tom St. George, who had written that particular episode, was there with me until 7 in the morning. The writers have a lot invested in 'Gideon's Crossing.'
"It's a writers' show. The writers have a lot of say-so. They have a lot of involvement in what's going on."
And "what's going on" is the kind of serious commercial television programming that always makes for interesting network-watching when you get into "cancellation season."
"Gideon's Crossing," set in Boston in a large teaching hospital -- where experimental techniques are considered and tried -- does more of its wrangling in the minds and emotions than in the operating room. For example, one episode dealt the great challenge in the deaf community, the parents of a cochlear implant candidate debating whether deafness is a disability or an identity.
And for the most part, this sort of sophisticated issue-oriented story development has won over critics to the show. In October, columnist Marvin Kitman, on CNN.com/Showbiz, wrote, "It is an hourlong hospital series exploring the exciting world of cutting-edge experimental medicine with complex, passionate, intense characters in a rich environment of human and scientific experience. It is a leading candidate for a 'Marvy' as the season's best new drama.'"
But can such welcomes keep the show on the air? "We just don't know yet. The numbers have been up and down. We've been bounced around on the schedule. I don't know what their method is to this and why we went to Monday nights," when the show is seen at 10 p.m. EDT
"I can't think about this stuff too much, it can drive you crazy."
'Choose your battles wisely'
"At the end of the day, you want to work with people you want to work with," Dane says, "regardless of what they've done. Being able to spend 15 hours on a set with somebody and enjoy every minute of it -- that's what it's really about.
"I've been in situations that could have been chaotic. So far, I haven't had to get involved" in the kinds of politics that can make a project a war zone. "You've got to choose your battles and choose them wisely. You're dealing with a lot of egos, a lot of extremely, extremely sensitive people" in commercial television production.
"I think I'm very sensitive. I just try to leave my baggage at the door. I don't want to carry my stuff into a working environment with me and I expect that from other people. If they can't do it, though, I'm surprisingly understanding."
Dane didn't get this insight into the politics of show business from his family. "My father was an architect and interior designer in San Francisco. My mother took care of us -- I have a younger brother, he's 24. And my brother doesn't want anything to do with this business, either."
Dane laughs, in fact, at his relatively unanticipated career direction. San Francisco not being the hub of entertainment that Los Angeles is, Dane says he did only amateur stage work there while growing up. "I was really into athletics in high school. I started by playing Joe Keller in (Arthur Miller's) 'All My Sons.' I ended up cutting a water-polo season short, doing the play -- and realized instantaneously that this was all I'd wanted to do.
"I moved to LA, caught a couple of breaks, did the film with Glenn" Close. That was 1995's "Serving in Silence: the Margarethe Cammermeyer Story," director Jeff Bleckner's treatment of the true story of U.S. Army Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer whose revelation of her homosexuality became a test case for the status of gays in the military.
Despite the kind of luck he had in landing work early, Dane admits to having needed some time to adjust emotionally to Tinseltown's pace and culture.
"I was fairly active socially. I felt at the time that that was more interesting than being an actor," not an uncommon reaction to the seductive social scene of Hollywood.
Unlike some actors, Dane says he doesn't see his character lives and off-set lives as being that different. "I'm the same person regardless of what I'm doing. My private life is the same as my public life. If the two happen to be together, so be it. I live one life -- there just are different categories to it.
"The person I am is who I am. My life is my career, my career is my life. Even my private life -- if it and my career bleed together so be it." Dane is describing a relatively "organic" way of acting, meaning that he uses his own personality and experiences -- in ways that might be evident to people who know him -- in his characters.
"A lot of actors bring themselves to a role whether they're conscious of it or not. Even if an actor 'loses' himself in a role, it's still very 'him.' Anthony Hopkins loses himself the way Anthony Hopkins would lose himself. You can't totally detach yourself, or there's no authenticity to it."
Should Dane end up in the audition calls again because "Gideon's Crossing" isn't picked up for a second season by ABC, he says he'd like to do more TV -- "but I'm spoiled. I'm not opposed to television, the level of quality has really risen in the last five years. Shows are becoming like small films. But if I'm going to do more television, I want it to be good. It may not be as good as this, but it has to be good."
Dane says he has no delusions about fiercely he and other actors will compete to get "good" work.
"This is a selfish business. And you have to be a selfish person. I can't help but be honest. It's written across my forehead. The majority of things I do on a day-to-day basis are for me. That's the way it has to be in this work."
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