Improvising OK for US actors, but Brits ‘freak out’, says producer

Empire's executive producer says British actors are reluctant to veer off-script and change their lines.

Maura Tierney and Dominic West in The Affair. AP Photo / Showtime, Mark Schafer
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American actors don’t always stick to the script the way their counterparts from the United Kingdom do, but that’s OK, according to two top writer-­producers.

British actors "really freak out" when given the freedom to change their lines, Lee Daniels, the executive producer of Fox's hit drama Empire, told a Hollywood Radio and Television Society panel discussion recently in Beverly Hills.

During production of the 2013 film Lee Daniels' The Butler, the veteran British actor Alan Rickman, playing President Ronald Reagan, "was married to the word", according to Daniels.

“I said: ‘You don’t have to say the word.’ And he was like: ‘No, this is the word’,” he said.

He’s willing to acknowledge that his scripts have room for improvement and that actors can add nuance to characters they come to know so well, Daniels said.

Taraji P Henson, who plays the matriarch Cookie Lyon in Empire, will "add a line or word that makes it sparkle", he said.

Sarah Treem, a producer, agreed with Daniels' assessment. A playwright whose other TV credits include House of Cards, she produces the Showtime drama The Affair with a cast that includes the American actors Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson and, from England, Dominic West and Ruth Wilson.

“British actors really like the text,” she says. “They practise the text, and they’re perfect on the text,” she said.

In contrast, Tierney, a former star of the medical drama ER, is a "genius" at improvising, she added. So much so, the script supervisor asked Treem whether the actress should be told to ­refrain.

“No, let the woman speak,” was Treem’s reply. “She’ll come up with something that is honestly more instinctive and more natural than what’s on the page.”

She noted another difference between nationalities, this time America and France. Treem said that “hate mail” had been posted online after she gave an interview in the United States questioning whether monogamy can hold in a long-term relationship.

“I was on the phone talking with somebody from France about the show and they had this totally different perspective,” said Treem. “It’s great talking to the French.”

At the event, which also included producers from CBS's hit The Good Wife, FX's Fargo and Amazon Studios' Transparent, the panelists were asked about a dream writing project they have yet to pursue.

"I haven't been afraid since Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist," Daniels said. "And I don't think there's been an African-­American horror movie that's really got me to the bones. I think I'd like to tackle that."