For some actors, being the star of a TV show is a dream come true. But it’s also an incredible responsibility — one that, if ignored, has mammoth repercussions for the careers of those around them.
If your show gets canceled because of something you did, as with Roseanne Barr earlier this year, a hundred or more people on the crew could be out of work. Similarly, production on “House of Cards” stopped for three months after sexual misconduct allegations against Kevin Spacey prompted his removal for the show — the series returned, but with a shortened episode order.
“I think it’s fair to say that there is a responsibility that does exist,” said Yvonne Strahovski of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “You set the bar for the day and how things play out.”
The “number one on the call sheet,” which refers to the order that actors will be listed on the daily production record, isn’t ostensibly the one in charge on set; that’d be the showrunner. But while a show like “Last Man Standing” might be officially run by Kevin Abbott, it’s the star power of Tim Allen that defines the public perception about the conservative family sitcom — even if, as Allen said at the Television Critics Association press tour, “I’m not the character I play. If you want to know what I really believe, come see me at the Mirage in Las Vegas.”
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However, as it’s been seen repeatedly over the last six months, that role can have an immense impact, good and bad, not just on the show but the life of the people making it.
For a series to function, after all, it’s not just about the star — and the best leaders of a set don’t forget that a hundred-plus people work on the average show. “It’s important that every person’s job is taken seriously and that their opinion matters and that everyone listens to each other, so that you’re creating the best product in the end,” Amber Stevens West, who currently stars with Damon Wayans Jr. on CBS’s “Happy Together,” said. “When you’re in an environment where you feel like you’re being seen and heard, you’re only gonna give your best work.”
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Sarayu Blue, who after years of supporting work now leads the cast of NBC’s “I Feel Bad,” saved every single one of her call sheets from shooting the pilot. “But for me, the actual show and the shooting of it and the being the number one, to me feels really collaborative. I don’t feel like it’s mine when I’m on set,” she said.
However, “I certainly feel like it’s my responsibility to set a tone for a kind, fun environment. I’ve been on sets where, as a guest star, you feel like, ‘Oh God, I can’t ask for another take.’ I don’t want that feeling here. I want to make sure that everyone feels welcome and included.”
There’s also huge pressure because she knows that she needs to be careful about what she says publicly about anything: “There is an element of like, ‘Oh God, this is scary.’ But there’s also an element of, ‘All I can really do is be a good human and do my best.’ I would hope that’s the bare minimum, right? You hope that people are kind and generous and supportive. But that’s not always the case. People operate out of fear a lot.”
One “number one” who also happens to be the showrunner of her series is creator/star Andrea Savage, whose truTV comedy “I’m Sorry” is on the verge of launching its second season. And she bears a double load as a result. “I am responsible for creating an environment that people like to work in, and I take that very seriously,” she told IndieWire.
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In addition to creating “I’m Sorry,” Savage has appeared on a wide range of series from “Two and a Half Men” to “Veep” to “Episodes,” and noted that “there were definitely shows that I’ve been on where the [star] has no respect for the time of the cast and crew. And that makes it suddenly that a 12 hour day is a 16 hour day.”
So on “I’m Sorry,” she doesn’t just work to set a tone for the crew, but hires everyone personally with a strict “no assholes” policy. “We work long hours, and people aren’t buying vacation homes off this show,” she said. “I want to make sure they feel listened to, and proud of their work there.”
West has also seen the bad side of things. “The ego gets in the way and it can totally demolish a project,” she said. “It’s easy to think that the star of a TV show, the face that you’re seeing, is the show. And, it’s so not true, and if you are leaning on that one person the whole thing’s gonna fall apart.”
That’s just what happened with Roseanne Barr’s infamous Tweet from last May, which led to the immediate cancelation of “Roseanne” and several weeks of limbo for the rest of the cast and crew, who were then out of work.
The reasons for ABC bringing back the show as “The Conners,” a Barr-less spinoff starring John Goodman and Laurie Metcalfe, are many. ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey told IndieWire’s Mike Schneider this summer that “there were a lot of stories to be told in that family.”
She also noted that “I was also happy to put the crew back to work, and we were able to bring back the majority of people who were involved with ‘Roseanne’ and so the idea that those people who were adversely impacted by the decision to cancel, the idea that they were able to go back to work is a good thing.”
Another show with high-profile turnover at the top this year was “House of Cards”: Production on the Netflix drama’s final season was shut down in October 2017 following allegations of sexual misconduct against Kevin Spacey, resuming in January 2018 for a shortened episode order.
Michael Kelly, who plays Doug Stamper on the series, told IndieWire that when it was revealed that the show would return with Robin Wright assuming the lead, “I knew going in we were going in for something special. To see her actually take charge and lead all of us, she was very much a part of us being able to finish it at all. She really took the lead on all of that.”
Kelly said that because of the rushed nature of the season — which was completely reworked during the hiatus — “we didn’t have time” to really discuss Spacey’s departure. “There wasn’t the typical downtime that we had in previous seasons,” he said. “The first day that we got back to work everyone was like, ‘Oh, what was the environment like?’ But we were all so focused on finishing this show, and she was driving the bus.”
Losing a star doesn’t necessarily need to be dire straits for a series, but personality plays a major role in what the impact will be: “The Walking Dead,” following the exit of Andrew Lincoln, now finds itself as much more of an ensemble for rest of Season 9: Norman Reedus claimed at Comic-Con that there was no one leader for the series, with co-stars Danai Gurira and Melissa McBride taking on increased leadership roles.
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But while there may be no official leader on set, Lincoln’s nine years on the series has had a lasting impact on the remaining cast and crew. Gurira said, “Andy left an amazing example. He really is a quintessential leader… What he built on his back over nine years was a family, and there’s a way that we know how to love each other, respect each other, and do what we do with joy and enthusiasm because of what he brought.”
McBride noted that the cast still echoes some of Lincoln’s pre-shooting traditions. “We’re all going ‘Rrroar!’ before a scene. ‘Hu-yaah!'” she laughed.
Added McBride, “The way that he presented himself every day — he was there early. Nobody else is there that early. Nobody on the cast, I mean. He was there hours before his call time. He was just such a good example of professionalism and passion for what he does.”
“I think that he really allowed us to understand how to move forward. And that’s what a great leader does,” Gurira added.