The apocrypha Interview: Fred Dalton Thompson
By Kitteridge
 
Fred Dalton Thompson
District Attorney Arthur Branch, 2002-Present
Typical Line: "With all of the money we spend on the so-called war on drugs, we could buy all of the poppy fields in the world and burn them to a crisp. But do we do it? No. And why? Because without a war on something, people in Washington wouldn't get elected."

There aren't a lot of interviews an entertainment writer gets to do where you have to call the actor's office, go through the secretary, who then says, "Senator Thompson will be on the line in a moment." There's an ulp moment if there ever was one. But Thompson, who was elected in 1994 to represent his home state of Tennessee, has a warm Southern affect that immediately makes a person comfortable. He spent much of his acting career, beginning with 1987's No Way Out, playing competent, tough bureaucrats and administrators - the kind of people you'd like to think were really running Washington. And since 2002, he's been bringing the same kind of gravitas to the office of New York's fictional District Attorney.

 
You were excellent in No Way Out.
That was Kevin Costner's breakout role, that's how long ago that was.
And George Dzundza (ex-Max) was in that.
That's exactly right! I never thought about that. I never had any scenes with George either, but the first time I met George was a week or two ago when we were doing a photo shoot for Law & Order [for Vanity Fair]. And I've been a big fan of his all these years. It's like Sean Connery -- I met Sean Connery years after [The Hunt For] Red October at a dinner party. People find it strange how these things work who are not familiar with them.
So, you're just about complete with your first season on the show. What was it like?
It was great from my standpoint. I walked into the middle of one of television's most successful shows ever, and it was and a cast and crew that made me feel welcome and at home. I think Dianne Wiest (ex-Nora), besides being a great actress is apparently great person, I've never had a chance to meet her but everyone seems to have a great fondness for her. So I was very mindful of walking into that situation. But they made me feel extremely welcome. It's been a good thing for me. I had not planned on doing television, it never occurred to me that I would, but of all shows, this is one that touched all the bases as far as I was concerned. Up and running and successful, and dealing with a subject matter I find very interesting and spend a good deal of my professional career in -- the law.
Has it been harder or easier than you expected?
I don't know quite how to answer that. I think I had some adjustments to make. I had to get used to the writers and the writers had to get used to me a little bit, and it was a little bit -- I hadn't done anything like this, even though some say that there isn't much difference in what I've been doing, but it really is getting your legs under you and so forth takes a little adjustment. I felt myself that I had a transition period to go through. It wasn't that surprising to me, because I've been in other situations before, usually with movies, where you have to find your way to where you wanted to be and things like this, and also I think we had to decide the nature of the character, and things that way. So I can't say it was a big surprise to me, but it was certainly some adjustments that I felt like I had to make.
This is your first regular series television appearance, right?
That's right.
Did they give you a character sketch? Did Wolf create the role specifically for you?
Tell you the truth, I don't know about that, I don't know that he did, but I talked to Dick a lot about the character, from the very beginning before I ever met him. He wanted a guy who reflected the post-September 11 situation, and that is maybe a tougher approach to things, a little more law and order, and maybe having a character in coming from that direction provide a little bit more of a counterweight to perhaps others in the office, to provide a little give and take between my character and Sam's and Elizabeth, so we're not all singing off the same sheet of music all the time. I don't know about the Southern outsider part, who comes in and readjusts to New York, but he had that in mind, I think, from the very beginning. That also -- sometimes it makes the lines work a little better for you when you're familiar with the role, let's say.
How much of Branch is you? 
Some. I think one of the adjustments and so forth, one of the things the writers have done is adjust to me a little bit and some of the quips and sayings are things -- I've had some of my friends say, "Do you write that stuff, some of that sounds just like you." And I say, "That's a great compliment to somebody, but not me, whoever wrote that," so yeah, and I think kind of a no-nonsense approach to the prosecuting and you're fair but you go by the book and if you lose you go on to the next case. And don't lose a lot of sleep over it. I think that's kind of the way you've got to be, and let's say I feel comfortable in that role.
How did you come to the role?
That's about it. My agent called me, the first I'd heard about it, and I had already announced I wasn't running for reelection, so it wasn't a matter of leaving the Senate for the show or anything else like that. I had assumed I would go back to a movie from time to time, but never thought about television. So he called me and said he'd had this conversation and it went back and forth for a while. And somewhere, they put Dick and me on the phone together, so I could find out a little more about what was in store, what he had in mind, so it really pretty simple.
Did you have any second thoughts about coming to TV for an extended period?
Well, no, the only -- I wasn't sure of the character. I wanted to make sure that this was not a caricature of a conservative or a Southerner or anything else, that it be a credible character. And a character who was able to hold his own with the others in the office. Not necessarily always being the good guy or the right guy or correct guy, but a character with a credible presence. Dick assured me that's exactly what he had in mind. He said to me the perfect episode is three people with three different takes on a complex issue, and the viewer goes away not sure which one he agrees with. And I must say, that's been the way it's turned out. I feel that we've come about as close as you can to fulfilling that. You've got major directors filming television commercials for television now. I had no false pride about doing television, I assure you, but there are very few shows frankly that I would have cared to be on. And even fewer shows I would have cared to move to Los Angeles to do. That was another practical aspect to it. So it just kind of -- the geography, the subject matter, and the quality of the show, it was really just a fortunate confluence of circumstances from my point.
Did you watch the show before appearing on it? 
Not really, if it wasn't a sports show or some kind of documentary that I wanted to see, I seldom watched television, and very few dramas of any kind. But it was my wife's favorite show and I remember she had talked to me about it and she had mentioned when I wanted to watch one thing and she would want to watch that and she would talk about it, so we had a good laugh when I finally called her up and said, you'll never guess who called, I had to tell her her show, it was really a case of I told you so, now you'll see how good it is.
Do you watch it now?
Oh, yeah.
And are you catching up on TNT?
Yeah, I watch it, and the prior cast members and so forth. I'm looking at it from a totally different standpoint now, of course.
What's your favorite episode?
I'm not sure there are any real highs or real lows, it's just a quality that's always there. They've been able to maintain a high level of quality and it's consistent throughout. You know you're going to get a good show but there's not any particular ones I would say jumped out at me.
How did you get along with the cast members?
They're great. I guess people expect you to say that, but it's really true. I mainly work with Sam [Waterston, Jack] and Elizabeth [Rohm, Serena], mainly, but I and see the others in the hallway quite a bit and we've done photo shoots together, just a great bunch of folks. It's just been unbelievably pleasant day in and day out.
How often are you there? What are your hours like?
It really varies. That's the deal. I don't work many days a week, but you never know when those days are going to be. So everything else has to revolve around it. It varies. But a lot of weeks I'll go in the day before and work maybe one 14 hour day, that's not unusual, or some weeks two days, and occasionally no days, maybe you do a Friday and then the next Monday or something like that and then the next week -- well, it just works out that way. You're still doing the same number of scenes, but because of the flow it can vary that much.
Do you like that it's a relatively "minimalist" role? I mean, Arthur Branch isn't going to have an affair with the secretary.
Well, let's hope not.
It's not the style of the show, after all.
I think everybody wants to be able to optimize their character, but that doesn't necessarily mean dominating screen time. I'm comfortable where it is. Sweeps week, I had double the number of scenes on that episode, and I enjoyed that, too. So a little variety, getting a little more deep into the character and showing a few different aspects is fun, but it's fine with me that that's not every week.
Does it compare at all to your other TV and film work?
The technical part is very similar. But this is better from a lot of different standpoints, one of which is you know the cast and the crew, and you know what to expect, and you know even the directors rotate. I'm getting directors for the second or third time, and that makes it a lot easier and flow a lot better. That's the thing about this kind of television that's different from anything else, this kind of series. It's very story driven, and you'll never get too much in depth with any of the characters, but you've got to move the story along. So it's got to have a brisk pace to it. And you get used to that requirement, and that taste and that's helpful. You know going in what you're looking for.
You were once quoted: "After two years in Washington, I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood."
I've only changed that a little bit -- now it's 8 years. That is still my best laugh line, when I make my speeches. I do quite a bit of speeches around the country now, and that's still one of my favorite lines and people seem to enjoy and really relate to it. Everyone thinks of this as Hollywood. I don't think I've ever made a movie in Hollywood. I think I've done as much work in Wilmington, North Carolina as I've done in Los Angeles, but it's all Hollywood and everyone understands what it means. It occurred to me that when I was in the Senate, people were drawing comparisons and things like that, and what you could say, kind of funny about politics and the institution and I couldn't think of anything funnier than after hanging around here for a while I missed the reality and sincerity of Hollywood.
Do you hear from your former political colleagues about your new role? 
Oh, every once in a while. The ones that are your personal friends are usually talking about something else. Nobody calls up about that in particular. Usually you're talking about something else and it comes up a bit. But it becomes -- when you're doing it every week, it kind of becomes old hat to most people. So they're not waiting breathlessly by the television for their old buddy to come on again. If they're by the set, they'll probably watch it, but they've got plenty to do. Occasionally it might come up in a conversation, but you know how politicians are? "You" might be their second favorite subject, but we know what the first one is, so we're usually talking about something they're doing.
What does your wife say?
She's a pretty tough critic. She's very supportive, but sometimes her praise is a little greater than others, and sometimes she doesn't have much to say. The good part about that is I know when she really is complimentary, she really means it.
And she never says, "You've ruined my show!"
[Laughs] No, she's a great fan to a fault. She's seen the best of what I can do and she kind of expects that all the time. I can judge her temperature as to where on the scale she thinks it might have been that week.
You've remained politically active and have spoken out since leaving the Senate. Gotten any thumbs down from the network about it? 
No, never have. Sometimes you hear some things, scuttlebutt, certain parts of operation that might be happy and certain parts like the controversy and certain parts wish it would all go away, but that's human nature, that's individuals. I have never gotten any kind of a call from anyone about that. And I would be surprised if that would ever happen.
But suits get nervous.
Sure, anything that changes the status quo makes people nervous. It might make things a little easier now for folks to speak out now that we've got a little diversity. Nowadays I think you've got people speaking out on both sides of the issue, and not just the Hollywood perspective, so it makes it a little easier for folks when they've got people who are taking different divergent views but are part of the same family so to speak.
Are you amused at the way people have paired your "rightist" stance with fellow NBC star Martin Sheen's "leftist" outspokenness?
Yeah, that's just too juicy to avoid, for the media, but it's somewhat overly done. But when you get out there, and when you're a public figure you take the good with the bad, and you take a controversial stand, then sometimes it'll be well-treated and sometimes it'll be misinterpreted, and so forth, but I've been pretty pleased overall with the way it's been treated. I think it's a great thing for people to speak out in whatever credibility or knowledge they have, giving people the benefit of, but it's also a good thing to have some diversity of view and for those of us who supported the administration this last time, not to be bashful about expressing that support, even though one would think all of the enlightened opinion in the state of California would be the other way. So I think the give and take is good and let people make up their minds.
What would you like to see Arthur do in the future?
I think he'll always be the second-guesser, the gray eminence, and the sounding board, the boss. Those -- that vantage point can interject and play a point in almost every scenario. That's Arthur's role and he feels pretty comfortable with that. He doesn't need to blaze any dramatic new territory, that's how it seems to me.
Are you gonna stick around as long as Steven Hill did?
I don't have any idea. He certainly set an extremely high standard for that position, I'll say that, but to a certain extent that's up to the powers that be, not just me. I'll just take it a year at a time for now, and enjoy doing it, and we'll see how much others enjoy me doing it.

 
 

whaddya think?