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Interview: Xander Berkeley

July 11th, 2011 by Ben Collins Editor

Xander Berkeley wants you—yep, personally you—to project your moral foundation directly onto his wizened-lookin’ mug.

You know this mug. He was George Mason on “24.” Very authoritative-looking, trusting. You’d ask him to hold your camera to take a picture.

Oh, and the moral foundation. You’ll know that, too, even if you didn’t think so.

You’re a teenage girl. You think you need to be cuter. Do you sell your soul to the devil to do it?

You’re a father of a dying child. You want to be the father of a healthy, happy child. Do you sell your soul to the devil to make it happen?

What if he’s not definitely the devil?

See, you’ve got answers to these questions. Berkeley’s new show on Hulu “The Booth at the End” will get them out of you in the most compelling ways possible—and without Xander ever leaving a corner of a Route 66 diner.

It’s “Twin Peaks” mixed in with some Jerry Springer with a dash of “The Price is Right.” It seems like a tricky confluence, but as Berkeley explains, he may have been the perfect Bob Barker for bargaining with the devil.

Hulu: How did you get involved with “The Booth at the End?”

Xander Berkeley: I went to a dinner party in Los Angeles. It’s the first and only time I’ve ever seen work come out of such circumstances. There’s a director there (Jessica Landaw) who is bright and funny and we hit it off. Later in the week, she was also in this meeting, she said she had also directed this thing. In the meeting someone said, “We’re looking for a Xander Berkeley type.” They were very fixated on the idea. They didn’t know an actor of my stature would want to do what was, at the time, a webseries. But (Landaw) says, “Hm, I know a Xander Berkeley.” So she sent me over the script. I thought it was the weirdest, most intriguing thing I’ve seen in a long time. I thought, “This is custom made for me.”

Did you know, before reading the script—before hearing this story, even—there was a Xander Berkeley type?

Well, I was always that off-beat, left of center kind of guy. They were clearly looking to create a sense of mystery with this character in a small space. It’s one of the first times I looked at something and it felt like it had to be me.

This show plays with some big moral questions in this unassuming, inviting-but-weird sort of way. Is that what drew you in to that character?

I have a bit of a fascination with the subject. There’s this sort of Faustian deal with the devil on one hand and what you want on the other. There’s this, “What do you want? What are you willing to pay to get it?” So we have this mysterious guy who’s willing to accept payment for anything in return. You just have to report back and give him the details. He’s not quite human and he’s fascinated with the nature of human morality. It’s a profound and endlessly fascinating subject matter. The way this show delves into it, (show creator Christopher Kubasik) did it in such a strange and enigmatic way.

The fact that this was, in fact, conceived as a webseries really helps with the pacing of the show, I think. It still has this strong, tied-together narrative at the end, but it comes in quick bursts.

I think it did. I think that the whole advent of new media and the constraints that would seem to come with being on one—dealing with the budget and all the other limitations—I think that helped the focus of the show. I come from an experimental theatre background. I’m used to taking those totally obscure, arty independent movies and breaking it apart. It’s a lot different than those big budget things with no constraints, where they got further and further away from what they are. There are a lot of examples of this, where you can chase your own tail with budgets special effects. With stories like this, where you’re focusing on character and story, people have to reveal their stories in one little booth—their whole story. It’s one of the hardest things that they could ever do.

Do you think that these shows are where the future of TV is going to be? Short, segmented, gripping little stories tied together to make these big moral points? Is that the best way to reach people now—you grab them before their attention spans go in another direction?

I ask myself this question about the limitations of attention spans all the time. We haven’t lost our attention span. It’s just become incredibly fractured. People just know how to multitask in a way they haven’t before. Maybe our ability to focus on one thing hasn’t diminished, we’re just better at processing multiple things at one time.

You come across people on “24.” People would rent the entire season and watch it non-stop. That was an unheard of concept before. Watching, with breaks, 10 hours of television at a time. People would come up to me and say, “Oh my God! I’ve been lost for a week. I don’t remember where I was. I was lost for the whole season.” They stay with it. They could watch the entire thing at once.

If you were to make a pitch to someone trying to find something to watch on Hulu after one of those “24” marathons, what would you say to lure them into “The Booth?”

I’d say to watch “Nikita” (Berkeley’s new CW vehicle) because it reinvents the wheel. But just to get specific to the Booth: One of the things that scares people away is what might lure you into it—and it’s that it’s all shot in one booth. But it helps you imagine these stories—to see if you’d do the same thing in that situation—and it covers more territory. In one small space, it gives people the opportunity to examine good and evil in themselves.

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