Independent Filmmaker's Guide
October 20, 2020
House of Cards, Mr. Robot and more: Jeremy Holm
In this episode we spotlight one of the central parts of putting your film together: attaching your actor. So we sit down with actor Jeremy Holm, best known as Agent Nathan Green on “House of Cards”, Mr. Sutherland on “Mr. Robot”, and as the terrifying forest ranger in the indie horror feature The Ranger*. He lays out invaluable lessons for actors on indie sets, TV series and everything in between, as well how filmmakers and actors can build longterm, trusting relationships over an entire career.
*If you haven’t heard our full episode on Creating a Horror Slasher: The Ranger, check it out – Episode 16
Jeremy Holm: Hey, Steven. Thanks for having me, man.
Steven Pierce: It’s always great to get to talk to you. It’s been a little while actually, since we’ve chatted.
Jeremy Holm: You know what I was thinking about? I was thinking about, I did a TV show recently with Michael Sheen who is in Frost/Nixon.
Steven Pierce: There you go.
Jeremy Holm: You and I were also in Frost/Nixon at the St. Louis Rep so long ago.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, definitely. No, that’s how we met. I wasn’t in it. I was sitting behind the table. I had a lot less glamorous position.
Jeremy Holm: You were behind the camera in one of the scenes with the camera, and now you’re behind the camera in another scene with a camera.
Steven Pierce: Honestly, it was the first time. I just graduated from Webster. I got an acting degree. And I knew I wanted to direct at that point. And Steve Wolf was the director of that and also artistic director of the Rep in St. Louis. And he was-
Jeremy Holm: Great guy.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. Great guy. Really good guy. I mean, he supported me a lot throughout my career. Even with that, like that was my first real AD job. Like something that I could really say, “Hey, here’s something that someone knows what the hell it is.” And so that was a really, really fortunate opportunity. It was a really fun thing for me, too. It was the first time I ever got to give notes to professional actors. And Steve would like… I’d hand him a post-it note with the note on it and he’d read it, and then sometimes he’d give it or sometimes he wouldn’t. And then he’d tell me why afterwards. But the fun part was always watching a professional actor take a note, and that I’d get. I was always so nervous and just so anxious about how they’re going to respond, and I’m like, “You’re totally messing this up.”
Jeremy Holm: Well, I’m sorry if I didn’t take your notes. I hope I did.
Steven Pierce: You never. You never took any notes, which is why I brought you here today to drag you over the coals. This is retribution. Full on retribution.
Jeremy Holm: Fair enough. Fair enough. It all comes back, man.
Steven Pierce: So Jeremy, how did you get started actually? You got your BA at Colorado State University, and then you got your MFA, right?
Jeremy Holm: Yeah. At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. And then I took a few years off. I lived in London, I saw a lot of theater, and then I came home and I started auditioning for graduate schools. Then after graduate school, I moved to New York and I got an agent, and the rest is history.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. I mean, was that really the course for you, was like, it’s more of a marathon, less of a sprint? Or did you find success right away?
Jeremy Holm: Well, I thought I was going to. But like within a month of my moving to New York, I booked an episode of Law and Order, just an under five. But there was a scene with Jerry Orbach and Richard Belzer. It was a double episode with Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law and Order, and Ed Sherin directed, who’s a legend in the business. I only had one little scene, but it was then that I realized I had full training as a theatrical stage actor, and I’d had a lot of experience, but I had no idea how to be in front of the camera. And it took me a long, long time to start to learn how to do that. I always feel like I’m at the beginning, no matter what I’m doing. There’s always so much to learn. It is a marathon. It’s a long road. And just like running a marathon, which I used to do, you might feel like giving up, you might wonder why you’re doing it, but you always know there’s a reason to keep running. Like during COVID, that’s what I’ve been thinking about, is how I can be better, what I should be watching. I’ve been reading a lot. I just finished my second read of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. If you ever want a great description of meeting your own death, read that book, man. It’s fantastic.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. You’re talking about your lifelong journey of learning, especially in front of the camera. I mean, a lot of your work is theatrical or has been theatrical. You’ve been on BAM, Cherry Lane Theater, lots of regional work. Do you approach a role differently for film versus theater?
Jeremy Holm: Well, when you’re doing theater, you have a lot more rehearsal time, and you’re preparing alone and with people. So before rehearsal, I would usually spend a couple hours before rehearsal going over whatever scenes we were going to rehearse that day. And then after rehearsal, I would again go over those same scenes, and then I’d take a break. And then that night before I went to bed, I’d work on whatever was going to be up for the next day. And then I’d get up the next day, and work on it before rehearsal. So there’s a lot more rehearsal time. When you’re doing film and TV, sometimes you get the job the day before you’re shooting, so you really don’t have the luxury of all that rehearsals. So you have to have a process and a technique and a really ramped up speedy way to get ready for stuff. You also have to know the amplitude you can use for the camera versus stage. And then also you have to be ready to completely throw out whatever you thought it was, when you hear the directors go in a completely different direction. So they’re two different beasts, but in terms of the text analysis and the imagination, it’s the same muscle.
Steven Pierce: So whenever you day play, so like one of your roles on House of Cards, how many days would you typically… Or your role in House of Cards, how many days would you typically shoot in an episode?
Jeremy Holm: It varied. Some of the episodes I was only in one little scene, so I’d go down for three days, I’d shoot the… I’d go down the day before, I’d shoot the scene and then go home the day after. Sometimes I was down there for three weeks at a time, because I was in a bunch of situation room scenes and they were long, 1-hour days, and I had White House scenes, and situation room in a hallway, or a car. So I’d be down there for two to three weeks, at a stretch. It just depended on the script, and how much Nathan was in each of those scripts.
Steven Pierce: Right. So I guess it’s kind of easy to… I mean, easier, I suppose, once you develop a recurring character, and you’re on a series like House of Cards that has a set tone, and it kind of has the same mood to realize what movie you’re in, I mean, or what show you’re in, right?
Jeremy Holm: Yeah, that’s true. And also you’re more comfortable because… Like I’m still good friends with Lorenzo Millan, who was the sound guy who won Emmys for his work on that show. And I was friends with everybody on set. . And so it’s a family situation. And by the time we wrapped the last season, it was really sad to go because you’re going to miss all these people, you know who their kids are, and when their birthdays are, and what their favorite thing to eat is, and they’re family. I still send Michael Kelly a birthday gift every May when his birthday comes around, because he’s such a good dude.
Steven Pierce: But if you’re on like an independent film, or like your first day on a show like Law and Order… Well, Law and Order also kind of has the same tone. What I’m digging at here, is how do you collaborate with the director? What conversations are you having to figure out what the tone is, how to gauge your performance? Is this supposed to be more light, or am I supposed to be a total asshole? Am I supposed to be more realism-based and like justifying my actions? Like how do you establish that relationship?
Jeremy Holm: That’s a great question. Well, first of all, when you read the script, there are a lot of clues right there. The pace, the mood, the tone, the scene that they’re probably going to use. So that’s your first clue. Then, you look at the production team, and you can kind of see from their lineage other stuff they’ve done. So you know what ball field you’re going to be playing in. Then, a huge part of it, for me, and I think for many actors, is the costume fitting. That’s really going to tell you a lot about what that particular human moves like in their costume, and what they look like in their costume, and how they feel in it. And that’s going to determine a lot of physical things that happen once you get to set.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. I had a very short acting career where I did just some regional stuff and I had a couple of shows at the Rep, but the thing that always would indicate to me the most about how I was going to do with the character was the shoes. I don’t know what it was, but always when I put the shoes on that I was going to be wearing, somehow it really gave me an angle about how it felt to move as that character.
Jeremy Holm: You and Laurence Olivier, he was a big shoe guy, it’s weird.
Steven Pierce: Oh really? I had no idea.
Jeremy Holm: Yeah. Shoes and noses. He always had a fake nose for all his roles, and he was big on the shoes. Yep.
Steven Pierce: Well, there you go. Well, I mean, also as a director, I always really like things to be symmetrical and sci-fi driven, very intense moments. It doesn’t sound like any Kubrickian stuff or anything like that, I’m not trying to align myself with other greats. That’s not what I’m trying to do at all here.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, cool. That’s going to get cut. Going back to what… Let’s talk about some of the indie films you’ve worked on, and back in the beginning. Were you ever doing anything, when you’re trying to translate what you learned on stage to film, did any directors ever give you any like real strong insight and being like, “Yo, do this. Or pull it back. Or do something like that”? Anything that’s ever stuck with you about your process?
Jeremy Holm: You know what’s interesting is, by the time you get to set, you may be have met the director in the audition room, maybe, and you’ve maybe chatted with them a little bit. But more often than not, like when I did the movie The Judge, I never met the director. And even after I was on set, I spoke to him for maybe three minutes, right? Because the director’s job is so big. They’re dealing with five different unions, and a production schedule and money. And they’re dealing with the cinematographer, and all these egos and everywhere. So really, you’re kind of alone. You’re doing what you’re going to do. I did have a great director on House of Cards for a number of episodes. He just learned there was a car scene. We were looking over a car, me and Stanford were looking at each other over a car. And he said, “I don’t know. There’s a moon light. Maybe there’s a glance, someone.” Like he just said, maybe there’s a glance, someone. And he didn’t say what he wanted me to do. He didn’t tell me how to do it. He didn’t tell me when to do it. He just wanted me to introduce some doubt thought in one part of it, he didn’t care which part. And he knew he was going to use whatever that gesture was as like a cutaway point. So he had it so planned out in his mind about how we wanted the scene to have some mystery. He knew he needed that specific three seconds. And great directors often will make their editing work easier by knowing the cut-ins and the cut-outs, when they’re going to transition, when they’re going to do the reverse. And the best director always have the fewest setups.
Like Sam Esmail, he knows what he’s going to see. And so a lot of his scenes, if you ever watch Mr. Robot or One Shots, and it’s just a great really talented camera crew and DP, and they get it all done in one amazing shot. And that will inform the actor as well. It means you need to be efficient, it means you need to know where your frame is, and what you can achieve when the camera’s on you, and when it’s off you so you can move into the next spot when the camera pans back to you. So it’s all a lot of technical stuff. As far as notes I’ve been given or advice I’ve been given from directors, be willing to fail, but show up ready, show up prepared, and don’t be late. Like basic stuff.
Steven Pierce: Right. Showing up’s half the game, right?
Jeremy Holm: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: So whenever you approach a film like The Ranger, whenever you’re going to work on that, what kind of background work are you doing, and how do you bring that to set? What are you looking to the director and the writer to give you, versus what are you looking to bring? Is it always the same?
Jeremy Holm: No, it’s never the same. Every project has its own personality. It’s like meeting a new person. The Ranger was a new person, and I started introducing myself to that entity just by reading the script a lot. And Giaco Furino who wrote it, we had actually worked together before, and when he was rewriting it and working with Jenn Wexler, who was a co-writer and the director, they kind of knew that I was going to play the role, and they kind of wrote to me, and they knew me pretty well. So a lot of the humor in the film is based on my personality in some ways. So I would read the script a lot. Then once I read the script and I learned the scenes, and what the beats in the scenes were, and what was to be achieved in each scene, then it was a matter of being able to play on set and figuring out what tone and energy and pace Jenn was looking for so that I could try to be in that world. I just need to do what I want to do.” Right? So there’s a real tug of war between just being an artful actor and doing what you want to do, and receiving all of this information that’s coming at you, from, you got to stand here, the light is coming from this way, the camera’s panning across you, make sure you turn… You know, all that technical stuff. You need to know when it’s okay to throw it away. So there’s that. When you’re working on indie films, the pace is always faster because there’s less money, as you well know. And so the more prepared you are, and the more you can guess what someone’s going to ask you to do before they ask you to do it, the more time you can save. And maybe if you save that time, you’ll get an extra take out of it, maybe.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. So speaking about the scale of them. What is the schedule? Like if you can kind of compare and contrast your experience on big sets, versus independent sets, and the way that affects your performance.
Jeremy Holm: Right. Well, big sets, there’s a lot more waiting. There’s more pressure. There’s more money. There’s more ego. So you have to be willing to stay calm in that environment, because you could be in your trailer for six hours and then suddenly they call you and you got to go when they call you. You got to be on point when ready to go when they call you, and not let an ego like Kevin Spacey push you off your spot, or whatever it is. You have to be, just do the job. And it’s like putting bread in a toaster, you have to approach it that way. It’s not a big deal, no one’s dying, you’re just doing a job. So that’s big set. You’re waiting a long time but there’s a lot of pressure, and there’s more money involved. So the pressure is even amplified.
Jeremy Holm: On more independent films, you have to take care of a lot of those little details yourself, and you have to be thinking about continuity more. You have to be thinking about ways to save the production team time and money by asking good questions before you start. Like, if we shoot this now, we can shoot the next scene also here before we move. It’s just a quick costume change which I could do very quickly, and we could get that coverage. And then we pop back to the other costume, and then we move everything. You can save an hour at a time doing stuff like that. Also, you have more input in, if you think there’s a necessary line change, there’s not a whole retinue of a writing team that you’d be insulting by asking if you can change a word here or a word there. Also, they want you to be more artistic because you are a big part of the creative team. Whereas on a big movie, you’re not involved in the development of that project for years and years and years, so you’re not going to say anything. You’re just going to say what they told you to say and how they told you to say it. Tends to be a little… The artistry of it is different. In an indie film, you get to be more of an artist, I think. Although the artist in me wants to argue against that, and say, “You’re always an artist.” But you have to pick your moments. You can’t just assume it’s always going to go that way.
Steven Pierce: So whenever you’re doing scenes, you do have a lot of coverage. So they have like a lot of different angles, and a lot of, sound like, a dinner table scene, or a scene that’s going to have a lot of big moving master, and then a lot of individual inserts. How do you pace yourself to make sure you’re ready for your shot without leaving your other actors hanging when it’s their moment?
Jeremy Holm: Okay. Here’s a little secret, if I’m in a scene like that, that has a lot of coverage and props and I’m standing, I… If you watch stuff, and this is kind of a secret of mine, I almost always have one hand in my pocket because that’s 50% less that I have to remember. It’s just easier. It’s just easier man.
Steven Pierce: Less stuff that you can mess with and play with and less gestures, and-
Jeremy Holm: Yeah. And if there’s a prop, I try to get that motherfucker out of my hands as fast… Oh, can I swear on this?
Steven Pierce: Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine.
Jeremy Holm: Okay. I try to get that thing out of my hands as fast as possible. That’s not entirely true, but I always try to hook it to the use of props needs to be hooked to something that you’re doing, either for an overt or a covert reason. If it’s overt, it’s in the text, or if you want to suggest something subliminally, you might… If you want to dismiss someone, you might take off your hat and hang it up while you’re talking to them, just to give them a little finger. But it has to be for a reason. You have to remember you did it. So four hours later, when you got to do it again in a different shot that they added on afterwards, you remember to go, “Yeah, I know. We were talking about that, weren’t we?” And you take off your hat, and you take it off with the same hand. You don’t, for some reason, grab it with the other hand and do this. You do what you did the first time, right? Little things like that, if you’re not paying attention, can really get you not hired the next time. Because the editor’s like, “Sorry, I can’t use that. There’s no continuity. We’re going to have to cut out early. It’ll look weird. He’s holding the drink in the other hand now.” Here’s another little tip, so if I had a glass of water, this is obviously not a glass of water, but if I have a glass of water, that’s this full, right, and we’re going to do a lot of coverage and I take a drink, I don’t drink anything. I pretend, I acted, so that the level is the same, so the props guy doesn’t have to continue… And there are times when that’s obviously, you can’t do that.
Steven Pierce: Well, you can’t do that. But, yeah.
Jeremy Holm: Right. But when you can do it, help the production team out. So there are little things like that on the long days with the massive coverage. You’re free a little bit, because if they’re going to do a lot of coverage, they’re also going to do a lot of takes. And so you need to modulate your performance, so you give them A, B, C, D, E, and F, so that they can pick and choose. And if you keep your movement the same, right, if you keep your movement the same every time, but you modulate the rest of your performance, then they can pick and choose as they go through each setup and each take, and they can build it and they can go down, they can go up in energy, they could do whatever they want because you’ve given them that range of choices within the scene. So you got to think about all that stuff. And it’s all game time decisions, because they might be up against a tough deadline on the day, and they’re giving you one take. And if you get the lines right, they’re moving on. So I always think, the first take should be a middle of the road, really good, crisp, clean, verbatim take. No extra movement, just a good, clean, solid take. That way, if they have to move on, they can, right? But then, if they have time and they can add extra stuff, you can give them little wrinkles. The director might say, “Okay…”
Like the last note I was given on, I did The Good Fight and the director said, “Okay, ratchet it down a little on this one, Jeremy.” Which I did, so that’s great to get that. Then when you move to a new setup, you got to go back to one and say, “Okay, now I’m modulating. I’m going to do one good, solid, clean, middle of the road take.” And then, if they give me more takes then I can start to play it a little bit. So on your question on the scenes with a lot of coverage, you want to help the editor and the director by giving them those choices. But the first choice should be a really good solid choice.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. And we thank you for that. Like actors that remember their continuity is extremely beneficial. I mean, it sounds kind of like you’re almost doing parts of the role of the director to me, because in theater, when I direct theater, I can’t control how you’re going to feel. Especially, I can’t control how you’re going to feel an hour and 15 minutes from now on the stage. So what I always try and do is stage in a little actions like that, things I can control. What you do with props, the way you cross towards somebody when you sit down, how you move… I can control through physical actions to try and engage some kind of emotional response. So it seems like you’re kind of doing that within your scenes, even where you’re taking your hat off to dismiss somebody. You’re giving yourself physical motivation to help tell the story that you don’t have to manufacture it. It literally tells the story in and of itself.
Jeremy Holm: That’s right. And also, when you do things like that, you can remember them three hours later. And that’s a huge part of acting in film and TV, is being efficient so that people can make a profit. It’s a business, right? They want to make a profit, and they don’t want to have another day tack on because they’re paying 30 people a hundred bucks an hour plus whatever else other costs there are.
Steven Pierce: What about if you have like a super high emotion scene, I’m thinking like a really tense scene with somebody, and it’s really high energy. You’re yelling. You’re right in somebody’s face. It’s a fight. How do you gauge your energy level to make sure you don’t emotionally exhaust yourself before it’s the right take? Is that a communication thing also? Do you say, “How much am I doing this?” So you know, like…
Jeremy Holm: So I have two examples for you. I recently did an episode of Prodigal Son, and I had a scene with the lead in the show and Lou Diamond Phillips. I’ve played the serial killer. And it was a scene where the serial killer is experiencing remorse and glee, and he’s out of his mind, and there’s tears and laughter in the scene. Like it’s all over the place. Always, when you’re a guest star, the star gets the closeup coverage last, because it gives them a little more time to learn. Because they’re doing a lot more work than you. They’re going to have big scenes all day long every day. So they always give them the later coverage, so they have a little more time to prepare and to get used to the scene. So I knew that once we did the wide, it was going to be on me. I knew that. So when they put it on me, I knew that I could take my time within the take to let whatever I needed happen happen. So I slowed down Jeremy the actor, so that the character could let happen what needed to happen. So I think it worked pretty well. There are other times… Like I did this movie Silo a few years ago where I was inside of a grain bin, and a guy’s drowning in corn. And it was a very emotional scene, and I knew I only had maybe two takes. I knew I had 20 minutes and it was a big jib, and it was really-
Steven Pierce: Lots of money, lots of pressure on you.
Jeremy Holm: Yeah, lots… It was tough. And so, I just think simple is always better in those. It’s always better to do less, even though I as a human being is I’m always tempted to do more. And actually, when I watch it, I’m like, “I could have done less. I could have done less.” The other thing that I did to prepare myself and be ready for that, was I just made sure, I told the director, I said, “I’m going to go find a different place. I want to be alone. I don’t want anyone talking to me.” You know? And then right before I did the scene, someone who wasn’t involved directly at the production came up and tried to talk to me, like right as we were about to roll, and I just walked away. And I didn’t want to be rude, but I was like, “I’m not even going to say I’m sorry, I’m just walking away.”
Steven Pierce: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. On that, are you an amp up sort of person? Do you like music and get really intense to it? Or are you one of those people that like to throw it away and kind of like joke and laugh and be… just think about other things right until go and then snap in.
Jeremy Holm: You know, it depends on the project. I can tell you that, for instance, Kevin Spacey and even Robin Wright, they’re both like joke around, throw it away people. Christian Slater’s the same way. But there are other actors who are not that way, who are… Like they’re in it the whole time. Like Jeremy Strong is an actor who’s in it the whole… even when he’s not… You could be at lunch, and he could be a jerk to you because he’s a jerk to your character, which I think is weird and unnecessary. But some people are like that. And I think it also depends on the role. Like, different roles demand a different process. Another point on this. I think it’s always important to have common decency, and to remember that all the other people there are more important than you are. You’re just an actor. They could replace you with just about anybody. And everybody there is working towards a common goal, to make something exciting and beautiful. And at the end of our lives, we just die. We don’t get to take any of this money, we don’t get to take away any of this stuff. What we leave behind, are how we affected the people we were with, and how much love we gave to the world. And that to me is the major point. You don’t get to be a dick to people just because you can. It makes no sense to me.
Steven Pierce: Right. I think that that goes well beyond actors. I think having healthy humility. If you can’t be a decent person, like in work with them, you’re not, in my opinion, you’re not someone I want to work with. Like, even if you are extremely good. You have to be so, so, so, so good if you’re an asshole. I mean, you just have to be beyond good for any to have any interest to work with you.
Jeremy Holm: I would argue that it’s never justified. Even if you’re a genius, it’s still not justified.
Steven Pierce: It’s also just unnecessary.
Jeremy Holm: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: I love one of the things you said, is like just doing simple, and simple and do less, and do less. That is something that a constant note I find myself giving and trying to constantly work with people on, and myself whenever I’d perform. It’s really hard to learn that lesson, that you are enough. As a performer, you already bring a whole lot of energy, a whole lot of stuff. If you can just exist and not add, not manipulate, that’s so much of it.
Jeremy Holm: Yes. And it’s… takes a lifetime to get good at that. Absolutely.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely. Well, Jeremy, this has been a lot of fun, honestly. I love getting to catch up with you and talk about all the projects. I could talk for hours about this.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.