Patrick Fischler is an American television, film, and stage actor. You’ve seen him in over fifty projects, including films like Mulholland Drive, Speed, Old School, and The Black Dhalia. He has an upcoming role as poet Lew Welch in Michael Polish’s Big Sur, a film about Jack Kerouac’s journey with his close friends from New York to California in the wake of all that happened in his life after publishing On The Road.
Fischler has also appeared on Mad Men, Lost, and pretty much any other show that’s been on TV for the past decade. His work has garnered him an AFI Fest Best Actor Award and the opportunity to work alongside the likes of David Lynch and Matthew Weiner. He is also a founding member of the Los Angeles based theater company, Neurotic Young Urbanites.
Fischler will tell anyone who asks that his greatest accomplishments are his daughter, Fia, and his relationship with his wife, Lauren. He loves to cook and secretly wants to be a teacher.
Okay, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Los Angeles, in the City of Angels.
And you come from a long line of actors, like many LA–
Not even remotely. My Dad wanted to be an actor. He did plays in South Africa. He was American, but he went to South Africa when he was in his thirties. So, he always had a sort of love for theater and film and he used the restaurant as his stage. That’s what everybody always said.
What’s the restaurant?
Patrick’s Roadhouse. He bought that when I was five years old and named it after me. It’s sort of an L.A. institution. It had it’s heyday, really, in the mid-eighties, so all these celebrities and political figures would come in, and my dad would stand in the front. He was very flamboyant in these crazy shorts and knee high green socks, and he would sing opera…and insult people, and that was kind of his stage. He almost performed without performing, but it was his life.
Do you think that your desire to be an actor came from your Dad? Came from being in L.A.? Where do you think it really started?
That’s a really good question, actually. I remember as a little kid, as a little little kid, always loving movies and TV. Always. And I was a latchkey kid, so I was opening that door after school and turning on that TV. But I was also into theater. I remember my first New York trip. My dad took me when I was ten. We saw this show called Barnum, a musical, with Glenn Close. This was before she was famous, or anything like that. It was about P.T. Barnum, and it was unbelievable as a kid to see a show about the circus. I was always interested, even at a young age, and my dad took me to a lot of that kind of stuff.
I always knew I wanted to be involved in the business in some way, but I think the acting thing really struck in high school when I got into drama classes after I got back from South Africa because I went to Beverly High and they had an incredible Drama Department.
So you were right on the path?
A big part of it is that I had been in school with these kids from Kindergarten to Eighth grade, same school, and then I bailed in ninth grade and then came back [from South Africa]. Those years between 13 and 16 are so huge. You become such a different person. When I came back, none of the people I was friends with were my friends anymore. At that time there was no internet, no Facebook. I’m in South Africa. There was no communication unless you wrote a letter. So, I lost touch with everyone, and when I came back everyone had changed so much. I think that drew me to finding a crowd that I could relate to. I instantly thought: drama.
I got the experience of doing theater for two years, and I couldn’t have loved it more. I really feel like Beverly High did interesting plays, too. They did The Elephant Man and Amadeus. They did smart theater, and it was incredible to be a part of it.
So, you’re 18, Beverly High, did you go to college at that point?
I did. I got really sick my senior year, so I kind of missed out on college applications. My dad didn’t push me, and no one really told me that I was supposed to apply for college. I’ll put it on myself as well. I kind of never did it until the last minute, so I applied to Cal State Northridge and got in, but at the same time I got an internship at Paramount. That [internship] was through a connection at the Roadhouse [Restaurant]. So I went to Northridge for a couple of months and at the same time was working at Paramount and going to Northridge about two days a week, and basically realized, to be honest, it was kind of a joke. It was not at all where I wanted to be.
All parts of it?
No. Paramount was incredible. That gave me the whole insight to the other side of it that I feel like I now have. As an actor, that’s so interesting. At 18 to be working–I started working in the Story Department, which is where all the scripts come in. So, here I am reading all these movie scripts and then I moved on to work for one of the Vice Presidents, just as some intern. Literally, I’d be in his office and if he needed shit done, I’d do it. He’d say, “I don’t have time to watch this movie. Go watch it. Tell me what it’s about.” Some old movie they were thinking of remaking or something like that. So I’d go to the Paramount Screening Room and watch a movie! It was unbelievable. That was worth so much more than I got from Northridge.
At the same time, my best friends from high school were a year younger than I was, and so they were seniors applying to NYU. They said, “Well, apply to NYU.” I thought, “That’s a good idea. I love New York. Why don’t I do that?” And so, I applied to NYU, flew out to New York, and auditioned. You had to do two monologues, and I got in.
You’re saying that like it’s a footnote. I know people who wrack their brains over auditioning to get into NYU for acting. Do you think that maybe because you were coming from California and you’d been surrounded by this your whole life it was less of a big deal, or did you recognize the magnitude of auditioning for NYU?
I think NYU is harder to get into now than it was then [laughs]. For me, it was a little bit of a footnote. It wasn’t my idea. These guys [his friends], one was an actor and one wanted to be a filmmaker, were both going to go there, and I thought, “Hey, you know what, I hate Northridge. I don’t necessarily want to work at Paramount right now for the rest of my life. I think I want to be an actor. Let’s go to New York.”
I think when I went there to audition it was a big deal because I was going to New York on my own, which was huge. At 18, no one went with me. I was sort of taking it easy a little bit because I didn’t really know what it meant. I didn’t think necessarily that I was going to get in. I had to learn two monologues. I remember, it was The Glass Menagerie, the Tom monologue. I don’t remember the Shakespeare. I think it was Iago. It was Iago. I did it, and I got in, as did my friends.
Everybody got in. That sounds kind of incredible.
Yeah. And we all roomed together, and there were very few three [person] rooms, and we got it!
If you remember it, if that piece is etched out in your brain, I want to hear about that day you auditioned.
I thought you were going to say, “I want to hear you do that monologue.” [Laughs]
I do want to hear you do that monologue.
[More laughter] The trip is etched out in my mind moreso than the day. I remember it was a guy, and he was just some dude sitting behind a desk, and I thought, “Really? You?” I do remember thinking, “This dude just makes the choice?” It’s not like you’re videotaped and shown to a panel. This dude is just sitting there and he says, “Okay, next.”
And that doesn’t change. Auditioning, in general, is just some guy making a choice.
Exactly. He was sort of the gatekeeper of my future. It’s hilarious to think about now. I didn’t think about this like that then. I was nervous, definitely. I was excited about the prospect of being in New York, but I don’t have huge memories of that day. Have I ruined the interview now?
Okay, I gotta go. [More laughter.]
You’re a freshman at Tisch. What happens?
I think it’s very similar to now, but the studios have changed. You pick a program you want to do. At that time it was Strasberg, Adler, Circle in the Square, Experimental Workshop, Playwrights Horizons for those more interested in writing and technical stuff. I don’t know what they offer now, but I chose Circle in the Square for no reason other than I knew a little bit about Strasberg, and it didn’t seem like what I wanted to be studying. Same with Adler, and what I’d heard about Circle was that it was kind of an amalgamation of all the others together. I liked that in my mind, and they had a theater on Broadway, which I thought was cool. For the most part, I think I didn’t know a lot about it and it seemed cool.
What does Circle in The Square entail?
It changes as the years go on. You take a Voice class. You take a Movement class. You take a Scene Study class. You take Alexander technique.
There were some incredible teachers. There was a teacher named Terry Hayden, who at that time was probably, I don’t even know how old, and I think she’s still there. That was a little bit of the Strasberg thing. She would ask you about your family and your past, and all the tears. It was a little therapeutic, looking back on it. She’d do the exercises where she’d say, “You’re doing something in a room at your house, alone. Bring that in on Monday.”
And you met your wife around this time.
I met my wife freshman year, pretty early on. We became incredible friends. Most of my closest friends in Los Angeles now are also people I went to NYU with.
Is there more New York?
There is more New York because I think it’s where I knew that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and where I really found myself as an actor. A professor of mine, Alan Langdon, he still teaches at Circle, is the most incredible, important person I’ve had in my acting life, I think. He really changed how I view everything. He was our scene study teacher, and he directed me in the two plays I did Senior year. One of which was called After The Fall by Arthur Miller, and I was the lead of it. He gave me this role that I thought, “I can’t do this.” It was the first time I think I questioned, “I don’t know if this is possible.” And, not only did I do it, but I felt like I did it great. He’s an incredible teacher. That was when I knew that I wanted to do this. I had a moment my Senior year, before I came back to L.A., of deciding whether I wanted to be an actor or an agent.
Really? I didn’t know that.
Yeah. I thought, “Am I really going to make a living being an actor because I know for a fact I’ll make a living being an agent.” And all my friends laugh at me now. They say, “Remember when you wanted to be an agent?” That was after I did all these plays, and the reality of graduation hit. I think, for me, when graduation was looming, the realities of all this occurred. I saw what I was choosing as my future, and part of me was scared to take chances, and I thought being an agent was not taking a chance. I knew I could do that in two seconds. So, luckily enough, I made this choice, and by the way I didn’t lose sleep over this choice.
And I knew I was moving back to L.A. That’s the thing.
What year was that? Did you move with friends from school?
It was 1992. Yes, a couple of friends. I came with my best friend, Paul, still then and now. We all came out right at the beginning, literally right after school, and I lived down in Santa Monica in an apartment that my dad had rented that I took over, and my friends, of course, lived in Hollywood because that is sort of the thing that people do. I tell people to just skip that phase. It’s not necessary. It’s so not necessary. People think when moving out here, “I’ve got to live in Hollywood or West Hollywood.” I’m the big believer in seeing what L.A. has to offer that New York doesn’t. The beach. The mountains. Hiking. I just thought, “Go west!” Eventually, after about three months, they all moved west, so that didn’t last very long.
These friends of mine that moved out here, we all decided to do three one act plays.
These days, everyone says, “Do your own work.” I feel that 98 percent of people don’t. What was it in you guys that made you decide after three months to put on a night of one acts?
To be honest with you, we all just wanted agents and that was the primary reason. Secondarily, I think we wanted to keep ourselves a little busy because we were all just sort of doing crap, meaning just sitting on our asses. I’m not going to lie, the primary reason was to get an agent.
We put up these three one acts, and one of the girls who came from NYU, she got an agent right when she came out here, and she brought that agent to see the one acts. Don Buchwald Agency. This is where a lot of life is luck. This agent told me and my friend Paul, “You guys should come read and do a monologue for us. For everybody at the agency. You guys are good.” I did a monologue from the play, and I think Paul did as well. We went in, did monologues, and got signed.
Both of you?
Both of us.
This is a big thing: life is a series of events. I feel like that’s a line from a movie. You can believe in luck. You can believe in fate. You can believe in coincidence. I don’t know whatever anyone chooses to believe in. A lot of people don’t like the word luck. I love the word luck because it’s the reality. I feel like I was lucky that this girl had an agent, and that he came to see us. Did my talent get me the agent? Yeah. If I had sucked, would she have wanted to sign me? Probably not. The combination of luck with my talent really helped me at that beginning phase, and it still does.
So we get this agent, and I start auditioning. All of a sudden it’s like, “Put the brakes on. Holy shit, this is different.” There’s this immense difference between theater and TV and film. I’d never really auditioned before. I’d auditioned for plays in school at NYU, but that’s different. Really, it’s the style of acting. It’s a very different beast [in TV and film]. I started auditioning, and got a job pretty quickly.
Do you remember that audition?
I don’t. Literally, I was a pizza delivery boy. I have to back up though, because I did forget to say, and this is important, that I got my SAG card when I was at NYU, once again, through Patrick’s Roadhouse. A woman I’d become friendly with was a producer of a show called Knots Landing, which was a night time soap opera. I had told her that I wanted to try to get my SAG card, and so she got me a part on Knots Landing. A couple of lines. So, that was my first part, when I was 18 or 19. I ended up doing three episodes. I don’t think it was possible for me to have been more scared.
[But] I started getting these little what are called co-star parts on TV, which are three lines, five lines, ten lines, fifteen lines. Not big parts. I got a bunch of those, and then probably a year later I got a part in a movie. My first movie.
Speed. I remember auditioning for this guy on the bus, and it was a bigger part than what I ended up getting, and I had two callbacks for it. I remember not quite understanding that this was kind of a big deal. I’d just done these little parts. I didn’t get it, but the director offered me a part of the guy in the elevator, which was a couple of lines, but was a couple of weeks work. That was an incredible experience because that was a big movie, and at the time no one knew it would be a big movie. I could tell, with all the special effects and all of this stuff. I’d never been a part of that world. That was a pretty intense experience. Then, the movie did great.
Somewhere around this time period you’ve started a theater company?
After we got agents, we all were auditioning and still bored. You move out to L.A., audition for 75-80% crap, and you don’t feel fulfilled when you come from theater and working your ass off. So, we thought we had a great experience with those one-acts, let’s do it again. At that point, more people had emigrated west from NYU. The theater company had gone from 5 to 7 to 9. It kept growing, and we kept doing plays. So through all of this, my theater company, which was called Neurotic Young Urbanites, NYU the annagram, kept doing theater. Year after year. We’d do a play a year, sometimes we’d try to do two. We’d raise the money ourselves. We’d hire a director. We directed internally for a while. We ran this company. I have to say, looking back, it was pretty impressive and exciting.
The TV and film audition experience is a unique beast that a lot of people in college doing theater won’t even know about until it’s in their face. Can you talk about that?
I’ve got to be really careful with this answer because people shouldn’t do what I do. They really shouldn’t. They should do what works for them. That’s a big thing with the world that surrounds all of us. We look for answers in others, and the answers are in ourselves. So, for me, not over-preparing usually works better. I have been doing this now, professionally, for 18 years. It’s easy for me. I don’t spend a lot of time with my material. Once again, this is the other important thing, it depends on the material. It depends on the part. If it’s something in my wheelhouse, meaning parts I play a lot, I don’t need to spend a lot of time with it because I think over-preparing takes away spontaneity.
I think for actors moving out here it’s really important to take an audition class because the camera experience is different than theater. It couldn’t be more different. I was able to learn on my own. I never took a class like that. I don’t know what gave me that skill. Not everybody needs a class, but if you feel like you lack it, even a little bit, take it.
Having done Speed, do you feel like it affected other people’s opinions of you? Did it get “warmer” out there for you?
No, I don’t think I got any parts because I was in Speed. My part was so small. At that time though, it felt huge. Every job, and it should, to an actor at that age, feels huge. I remember going to see it at The Mann’s Chinese [Theater] though, with all of my friends at 11 o’clock at night, opening weekend, and I was thinking, “Holy shit, that’s my face on that screen…and I look awful! [Laughs]. No, it was more, “That’s intense, that’s really cool.” So, it didn’t change anyone’s opinion of me, and I don’t think it made it easier or more friendly, but it probably gave my agents an ability to get me into more rooms because they could say I was in Speed. Maybe someone would remember, and Twister didn’t come from anything other than it was the same director.
Okay, well that’s something.
But I still had to go in and audition. In the meantime, I graduated from co-star stuff to guest spots. A guest spot is the next level up, meaning the part is usually bigger. It could be anywhere from one scene to five scenes. Just a more substantial episodic thing. So, after Twister, I got a recurring part on a show called Nash Bridges, which was a Don Johnson show in the 90s. I auditioned for a one episode thing on that, and they called me back a couple of months later to come back and do another one…and another one…and another one. That grew into, over the course of four years, I think twelve episodes.
Almost like a “real” job.
It really was. At the time, especially. It shot in San Francisco, so I got to go up there. That was pretty amazing, but I was still auditioning. That didn’t necessarily change anything. It did, in a sense, because I just kept taking steps up, but what was interesting is that right around Nash Bridges, towards the end of it I sort of had a big pause in working. I’d say I had a real put your foot on the brakes, almost a year without getting a job.
What did that do to you?
It knocks your ego a little bit, and your confidence. And, I got dropped by my agents.
Even after all the good things that had happened?
Oh, yeah. My agents dropped me. I remember I was in New York at the time with Lauren [Bowles] going to see theater. So, we were in New York, this was 1997 or 1998 and they dropped me. I remember hearing it through my manager at the time, on the phone. I wasn’t working, I guess, enough for them. They’re a big agency, and I think they felt I wasn’t working enough, and my point person who brought me in, who had seen that play, she left. So there was no one there, I guess, that would take me on, and that’s fine. That’s another big part of L.A. I’ve been through a lot of agents.
They say the first breakup is the hardest.
Yeah, it is. Also when you’re the one getting broken up with, it’s harder.
So then I auditioned for something called Mulholland Drive, which at the time was an ABC pilot, not a movie. They were making it as a TV show. That was probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced because I grew up obsessed with David Lynch.
And you were represented again, by now?
I was. My manager helped me get another agent, but I think it was my manager who got me that Mulholland Drive audition.
You had just been dropped by your agent recently, at the bottom of a tough year, and you get an audition for a project that’s pretty awesome. What happens?
I couldn’t prepare myself for it because it wasn’t an audition. Lynch doesn’t audition actors. It was an interview with the casting director, not even him. You go into a room with the casting director, and she asks you about yourself, and he watches those and casts from that.
So, I got cast from talking about myself. He just goes off of look, and instinct, and I remember getting a call saying I had a part in it. I hadn’t read the script. I didn’t know what the part was, and I remember getting the part, not the whole script, and seeing this monologue that I had to do and thinking, “Holy shit, I’ve got to do this?” And, to be totally honest, not really getting it. Then, I got to read the whole script, and I still didn’t really get it because it was a pilot at that point, so it ends in a different place. It’s a totally different thing. It’s the first hour and twenty minutes of the movie. The last 45 minutes of the movie is something totally different. So, we shot it, and I got to go work with, really, one of my, I want to say heroes, but that sounds so…
Talk about the word auteur, it’s created for him. He really is a visionary. That’s an even better word. He was the greatest guy, and he just told me, “Be simple. Be simple,” and that was the key to my performance. Talk about crediting your director with your performance. Those words helped me.
Those words spread much farther than that one monologue. Be simple.
Completely. It took me a long time to learn that. I can go back and watch stuff from the first ten years. You know what, I can go back and watch stuff now, and think, “You just should have been simple.” When I’m simple, it’s the best because you have to remember what the camera does versus a stage. You have to be real in theater, but you have to be bigger because you’ve got to hit people who are so far back. Simple is the key, and it really has taken me a long time to learn it. And, I still forget. I still forget it.
Wow, did David Lynch give me that lesson? He really may have. Wow. I’m sort of blown away by thinking about it now.
Mulholland Drive didn’t get picked up by ABC, which wasn’t a surprise because it was so out there. But about a year later I got a letter from David Lynch. It was a form letter we all got asking if I’d be willing to come back and shoot this stuff for scale. A French production company was giving him [David Lynch] money to finish it. So, I went back, we did some reshoots adding 45 minutes to the movie, and the rest is history. I never thought when I was shooting this that it would become what it became.
[Then] I left the agency I was with because they weren’t doing anything.
So you broke up with them?
I had a manager, and I really felt like this [relationship with the agent] wasn’t working. I told my manager I wanted to get some more meetings, and I got set up with a guy named Stewart Strunk at Peter Strain & Associates, which was in L.A. and New York. He came and saw me in a play, at my theater company which was still going strong through all of this. We were on play number 7 at that point. We had started to get into original works that my wife wrote. This play, Stew came and saw me in, and after harassing and lots of phone calls because it wasn’t at the top of their list, they signed me. This was in 2002, and that was a ginormous turning point for me.
I’d never had an agent this good. A big part of an actor’s life in L.A. is their agent. They are the door in. Without them, you don’t get those auditions. You can try on your own, but it’s really hard. However hard they’re working for you dictates how much you get a chance. He was a hard worker, is a hard worker, and believed in me. So my audition chances changed completely. I started auditioning so much more, and started working so much more.
And you’re still auditioning? Every time it’s like applying for a job, and you’re just really incredibly good at it now?
I am, and I’m not. I’m good at it, but I’m still bad at it. I still fuck it up. I still make bad choices. I still under-prepare when I should have prepared more. I still over-prepare when I should have prepared less. I still am too big. It’s all stills. It doesn’t go away. It depends on where I am in my day, in my life, and what I’m remembering.
Tell me about Mad Men.
At the time I was already a huge fan, and I got this audition, and I thought, “I’m never going to get this part. This is too big.” It was just one of those things where I read through the sides, and I thought, “I get this guy. I’m not going to get this part, but I get this guy.” I went in and auditioned. Matt Weiner, the creator, was in the room. He worked with me. I left. I got a call at 11 o’clock that night from my manager freaking out saying, “You got it. There’s a table read tomorrow.” And Jimmy Barrett became mine (Jimmy Barrett Clip).
You seemed powerful in that role, and to fill your space in Mad Men in a new way.
Once again, a lot of my performance is credited to Matt Weiner. It’s me doing it, but he was very specific with what he wanted, and gave me good direction. He wasn’t wishy washy. He wasn’t giving me direction just to give me direction. He knew what he wanted this character to be, and he was able to tell me, “This is what I want.” He even said, “The register of your voice needs to be a little lower than it is now.” That’s huge because when he said that it already took me somewhere. I credit him for a lot of that [performance].
It’s fun when you get to do more than one episode of something because you get to inhabit someone. You go into these shows where you only do one episode, and it’s like the first day of school and then all of a sudden you’re gone. When you really get to inhabit that character and not just be a, Lauren calls it a story device. A lot of these guest spots on procedurals, they’re story devices. You’re there to serve the regulars, but this was different. I was able to create a character who was going to serve the story, and really fulfill myself as an actor.
You’re a father, and have been for a little while now. Can you talk about the work/life relationship? Do you keep them separate? Do they go together?
I think everything affects your work. When I started dating my wife, it affected my work. When I got married to her, it affected my work. When I became friends with this person or that person it affected my work. I think everything affects your work if you let it, and it should because it affects you as a human being, and you are ultimately your work.
Being a father has maybe changed a couple of things. I would say it has changed my drive because I want to feed and clothe my family, as my wife does. We’re an even working household.
I’ve always thought I would like to go and talk at schools. I would love to teach. I don’t necessarily want to be a teacher, but I love to talk and help in any way I can. It’s hard out here, and you have to surround yourself with a core group of people. Try to make good friends, outside of the business. Try to have a good support system, because you’re going to need it. It’s rough. It’s rough when you’re successful. It’s rough when you’re not successful. It’s rough when you’re in between.
Lauren and I are incredibly lucky because we have a family. I’ve made a living from acting for 18 years, and it has gone up and down, but I haven’t had to have another job. I’ve had fears of having to, and it hasn’t had to happen.
Everything you’ve been saying is relevant to young actors, but the last question is, “If you could say one thing to young actors, what would it be?”…Or fifteen things.
The first one, and please take this in the right way, is: If there’s something you love to do more than acting, do it. If there’s something else that you can do, and you want to do, do it because this is hard and requires everything. It requires everything. I don’t have other passions that even remotely equal this. The question everyone asks, “What would you be if you weren’t an actor?” If I weren’t an actor I’d probably be an executive at a studio or an agent. I’d go that route, but I don’t have passion towards that. Lauren heard a quote recently on NPR that said, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” There’s no better quote, because I don’t work. When I find myself complaining about it, which I still do, when I’m on set or I’m on a job that I feel like is stupid or sucks, I just say, “Hey, you’re doing what you love. It doesn’t get better than that. This isn’t work.” At the end of a sixteen hour day I think, “This isn’t work. Work is when you’re doing something you’re not passionate about. That’s work.”
Interview by Evan Dumouchel
Photo courtesy of the artist