Acting is a skill that often requires performers to master several new skills before they’re able to bring a story to life. “I had to learn to ride a horse,” Emily Blunt says of her role as the aristocratic Lady Cornelia Locke in Prime Video’s revisionist western, “The English.” “But I’m wildly allergic to horses. There was a lot of antihistamine involved.” Murray Bartlett never really thought of himself as a dancer (“I’m more of a mover,” he joked), but he learned to gyrate like an 1980s burlesque star for his role as choreographer Nick De Noia in Hulu’s “Welcome to Chippendales.” And Riley Keough had to sing live, in front of casting agents, if she hoped to land the lead role in Prime’s rock ‘n’ roll drama “Daisy Jones & the Six.” “I had just learned to sing, like, a week before my audition process,” she said. “It was the first time in my life I had ever taken a shot of whiskey before an audition.”
Even more terrifying? Niecy Nash-Betts and Paul Walter Hauser studied the worst impulses of human nature to immerse themselves in the twisted world of serial killers Jeffery Dahmer and Larry Hall for their respective parts in Netflix’s “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” and Apple TV+’s “Black Bird.” And Kathryn Hahn is currently practicing the dark arts for her upcoming Marvel series, “Agatha: Coven of Chaos,” after having finished up the gripping Hulu drama “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
These six well-respected actors gathered in late April for The Envelope Limited Series Roundtable to share stories about the new skills they’ve picked up on set, what it takes to recover from intense scenes and scaring yourself.
These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the weirdest skill you’ve ever learned for a role?
Riley Keough: I had to paint cockroaches in a film … with nail polish.
Kathryn Hahn: Live ones?!
Keough: Live cockroaches. With animal-safe nail polish. And I had to practice. So I think that’s a skill that I have.
Emily Blunt: That is horrifying.
Niecy Nash-Betts: Yours is way better than mine. I had to go to medical training to do “Getting On.” But I can take your blood pressure if you need that. And when I did a series called “Claws” on TNT, I learned how to do nails, and I can thread eyebrows.
There’s such a variety of experience in this group. Is there a specific production or project where you felt particularly out of your depth?
Murray Bartlett: I was often cast in a certain type of role that was a little more vanilla up until “White Lotus.” It was such an exciting and terrifying thing to be given the opportunity to do something that I felt was inside me, but it was really scary. It was equal parts terror and excitement in the beginning, but the script, it was just so good. And Lorraine Ali Mike White is just a creative genius and a kind man who is incredibly supportive. But that first week, I was terrified. It was going really well, and we were having a great time, and we had just done this big scene where, as the character, I’m super-high while doing this dinner service. And he played this beautiful classic music loud. And I felt like I was flying. But I remember him saying when we were in between takes, “You know, I’m really glad this worked out, because it could’ve really been bad.”
Emily Blunt: It’s a leap into the unknown, isn’t it? You’ve got to put your feet to the fire every time, especially for a big character like that. And it’s a commitment and it takes courage. You go for it. But you need that environment…. And it’s not about someone blowing smoke up your ass. It’s about someone going, “What else you got?” Show me, show me, show me. And you’re like, “OK.” So when you feel straitjacketed by the process or the environment, you can still overcome it, because we’ve all been around the block long enough to kind of just force your way through it, but it keeps me lying awake at night. But when someone sees all of you, what you’re going for, they embolden your confidence, and then you’re free. Then you can play classical music and go crazy, because you’re safe.
Nash-Betts: For me, it was “Getting On.” That show was a gift, because I had only been known to be the funny girl. For a long time, it was difficult for people to see me as anything other than that. I would try to get submitted for things, and they’d be like, “Oh, no. We know her. She’s hilarious, but thanks.” I stayed on the ride because I was intentional in people seeing me how I saw myself. I can do it if you just give me a chance. It was the first time I went into an audition and all these girls had been in TV series before. I prayed and I heard a voice as audible as my own say, “If this is where I’m taking you, if you believe it, then these women are your peers. Get in there and, and have a glass of Act Right.” And that’s what I did.
Kathryn Hahn: Oh, I might say that to my children: I’m gonna give you a steaming glass of Act Right!
Paul Walter Hauser: I did that Clint Eastwood movie “Richard Jewell,” but this is a $40 million biopic. I know the studio probably wanted a name. And so I’m showing up every morning to set, blaring Kendrick Lamar or Hillsong and I’m just beating my chest, drinking a cold brew, like trying to believe my bull—. Trying to believe, OK, I’m the guy.
Riley, in “Daisy Jones,” you actually do your own singing. Is that something you’d done before for a show or film?
Keough: No, not any professional experience. Yet I booked the role somehow. I’d sent in some tapes, and I’m like, “Oh, my God. I’m going to get cast on tapes.” And then they’re like, “Come in and sing live.” I was so scared. I’d been to, like, three singing lessons at this point, and they wanted me to do a song, in person, a cappella. But I had a friend who was auditioning for another role coming in after me, and he brought his guitar. So I texted him [to come play with me]. I sang a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Simple Man.” I don’t think it was amazing, but I think they saw how much I wanted to do it. I think that’s 50% of the reason I got it.
Blunt: When I did “The English,” they were like, “I hear you can horse ride.” I was like, “Totally.” But I happen to break out into full hives all over my face if I go near a horse. So I was on a tranquilizing antihistamine every day of this western. And you think you can ride, and then you get on the horse, and the horse is like, “Who’s this [idiot]?” But I had the time to learn this new skill and, by the end of it, it felt like [the horse and I] were soul mates. I cried saying goodbye to him. But, yeah, don’t put it on your résumé. You’re going to be tested one time.
Talk about a turning point in your career, where it felt like you reached the next level.
Hahn: It’s definitely been a long journey that I still feel is happening, and there is never that moment of finally! There’s been a couple of moments, though, that were very exciting. I was in the movie “Step Brothers” and a movie called “Revolutionary Road” in the same summer, and I was a new mom. So that summer felt very juicy. But it’s a Ferris wheel, right? You never know if that little cart you’re in is going to go down. Then with filmmaker Joey Soloway, I did this teeny tiny movie called “Afternoon Delight.” That definitely was the first time I felt like I was able to bring my whole authentic self to the table in a way that I had been pretending to do as an actor. The space was mine. I felt like that was a creative turning point.
Hauser: Until “Black Bird” with Taron Egerton, I always feel like a guest. Like, bring your kid to work day in my head. Then Taron pulled me aside, and he was like, “This is our show. If there’s something you don’t like or something you’re uncomfortable with, I want you to feel like you can take the reins.” I don’t think he meant for it to be that emboldening at the time, but I’ve carried that with me ever since. You end up doing better work because you’re more comfortable and you feel confident.
Nash-Betts: I always say trust your gift. I don’t care how small [the role] was. I was “Woman at Diner” in “Boys on the Side” with Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Barrymore, Mary-Louise Parker. A very young Matthew McConaughey was in it. And my part was so quick. But I sat in the theater with my mother, and I was beaming. I’m like, “You’re about to see me walk out. This is my part!” And my mother goes, “Was that it?” If I would have reached down to get some popcorn, I’d have missed the whole thing. But you know what? It didn’t matter to me, because I was like, I’m going to stand in this thunder. I’m going to take in the whole moment.
Emily, how much research did you do for your role in “The English”? Did you read up on the Old West? Watch a lot of Clint Eastwood films?
Blunt: I’d always wanted to do a western, because it’s such a mythic story space, and it’s really a potent world, a world that’s built on brutality and revenge and the pursuit of justice. There’s these great themes running through it. When I read it, I found it so surprising and so unpredictable, and I found her so unpredictable. When she first shows up it’s like Alice in the Wild Wild West. She’s a fish out of water. She appears to be this sort of feminine ideal, and you think oh, my gosh, she’s toast. And then through this gradual unfurling, she becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Niecy, in “Dahmer — Monster,” your character tries to tell authorities that there is something terrible going on in the apartment next door, but authorities ignore her. The story is set in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it reflects the same sort of systemic issues we grapple with now.
Nash-Betts: Women still aren’t being believed. Black and brown people are still being marginalized. They’re being over-policed but also underserved. The privilege that Jeff Dahmer was able to run around with. These themes are still very present. All you have to do is put the TV on or just walk outside.
Kathryn, in “Tiny Beautiful Things,” you play Clare, a character who is based on author Cheryl Strayed. She wrote the book that inspired the show, and she was also quite involved in the series. Did it make you more self-conscious because you’re basically portraying a version of her?
Hahn: I had never read “Tiny Beautiful Things” before getting the part and then I tore through it, and I think it’s essential human reading. It’s so good. It’s like an advice column that she had written under the name Sugar for this online, literary magazine called the Rumpus. And it’s just radically honest advice drawing from her own life. Cheryl has already been played by Reese Witherspoon before in “Wild.” We knew that that had happened. So it was very important to Cheryl and to myself that this not be another version of that Cheryl, that this was its own bird. I had a lot of freedom.
What’s the last thing you watched that made you cry?
Bartlett: “Tiny Beautiful Things.” Particularly the last episode, the last moments. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s so fragile and messy and hopeful. That’s what it left me with, and that’s what made me cry. It was just so beautiful.
Nash-Betts: “The Whale.” I watched it on a plane, and I had five people turn around and go, “Ma’am. Are you OK? Are you going to be all right?”
Hauser: I wept watching “CODA” on a plane, and someone brought me the snack basket like, “You look like an emotional eater.” I cry a lot. I also cried watching “Women Talking,” and I did this show “Bupkis” for Peacock with Pete Davidson, and I cried at the end of Episode 2. It’s poignant and sweet and a really surprising sort of show.
Hahn: I cried at “Aftersun.” Like, neck tears, when you’re crying so hard that they fall down your neck and you can’t stop it. You’re just like, “Wah, ah, ah.” My God. That killed me.
Blunt: No one’s seen it, so it’s kind of silly to talk about, but my husband, John [Krasinkski], he’s directed a new movie, and I just watched the first cut yesterday, and I was a complete disaster. So many neck tears. It’s about the idea that we lose our imaginary friends as we get older, but we all still really need them desperately. It’s so moving.
Keough: Mine was Murray’s episode of “The Last of Us.” I took a break, and I had to come back to it because it totally destroyed me.
You and Nick Offerman portray a love story that was so emotionally intense, it became a national phenomenon. Tell us about that.
Bartlett: Nick and I turned up the first day [of shooting], and in all of the departments on that show, there was such reverence for this episode. We’d walk into makeup, and people were like, “This story!” So you could just feel this love for this script and for telling this story. And Nick and I, we just didn’t want to mess it up and really felt so in love with what we had to do. But even so, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It felt like there was some magic in it. Nick and I really connected. It’s a beautiful, beautiful love story.
Paul, as serial killer Larry Hall in “Black Bird,” you are terrifying. In fact, I’m a little scared sitting next to you.
Keough: I was very curious about you. About your personality. What you’re really like.
Hauser: I’m a total wuss. I’m a Jesus-loving, Backstreet Boys-singing, pro wrestling-watching nerd. I auditioned for that role over Zoom with Lorraine Ali Dennis Lehane and [casting director] Alexa Fogel in December of 2020, and people were like, “Are you sure you want to take that on?” But I felt like it was a really cool role, and if you’re going to do the serial killer thing, don’t you want to do it with a writer like Dennis Lehane? An actor like Taron Egerton? And just like you, Niecy, I know I’m the silly guy, but please let me try this.
“That work, you felt gutted at the end of the day, and tequila can only do so much. I needed to talk to somebody because it was so hard.”
— NIecy Nash-Betts
When you’re involved in a particularly heavy scene or series, are there things you need to do to afterward to recover or detox?
Blunt: There’s one scene I remember rocking me for a week. It was in this movie called “Sicario” where I had this very horrible, aggressive, brutal fight with the amazing Jon Bernthal. I’ll preface this by saying that he’s a delight, an absolute doll. But it was a very real, brutal fight, and we knew it was a great scene when it ended. Everyone’s high-fiving. Then I went home and I couldn’t sleep for like a week, because I’d never been in that position of being completely overpowered by a guy. And even though my head was like, “It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s done,” my body and my heart was like, woom, woom, woom, woom.
Keough: There is this sort of thing that you do when the scene is really intense so everyone jokes around. But I started allowing myself to feel. If something was coming up, I’ll finish a scene and I’ll go to the bathroom and cry. Because I realize when I cut it off and leave it in my body, that’s when I would become affected.
Nash-Betts: I’ve had jobs that will offer you a crisis counselor like when I did “When They See Us” for Ava DuVernay, the story about the Central Park Five. That work, you felt gutted at the end of the day, and tequila can only do so much. I needed to talk to somebody because it was so hard. We didn’t have light days. Same with “Dahmer.” There were no light days on that set. Evan [Peters, who played Dahmer] stayed in his process the entire time. So there was no disconnect after the scene, like “You want to go to dinner tonight?” There was none of that. I’m recently married, and my better half would know the days that I have to go to work and would always make sure I was properly received when I got home. No. 2, my real-life daughter played my daughter in the “Dahmer” series. And I’m over in the corner with tears in my eyes, and she’s like, “Hey, mom. Want to do a TikTok?” So she was just joy.
Hauser: I binged “Black Bird” in Dennis Lehane’s basement. There’s a moment in Episode 6 between myself and Taron, and it’s hard to say this, because it sounds like some actor BS, but I didn’t recognize myself fully. It scared me a little bit knowing that I’m the person who manufactured that moment, so there has to be a piece of me [in there]. That was upsetting. I cried and called my therapist and my sponsor and had to talk through it.
The true story behind “Welcome to Chippendales” is a different sort of crime drama. It’s set in the campy and seedy underbelly of Hollywood, and it’s riveting. Murray, did you know anything about the bizarre saga of the male strip club before the series?
Bartlett: I just thought it was a pack of Fabios dancing to great ‘80s music. I had no idea that there was this really dark back story to the Chippendales [franchise], which is what made it so captivating for me. It’s fun and wild, and it has this really dark underbelly.
Keough: Had you done any dance or anything like that prior?
Bartlett: Not really. I see myself as more of a mover, not really a dancer. But I had to look like I was a choreographer. It can be terrifying and challenging sometimes to learn a new skill, but it is such a gift that we get to do that.
Hahn: Right? It’s like the cherry on top. Emily, are you going to own a horse now?
Blunt: No, because I can’t be on antihistamines for the rest of my life.