Jeff Newburg is one to watch. He is one of the most audaciously talented individuals I’ve yet had the privilege of encountering. And I’ll be honest with you: it’s easy to write him off because, at least in person, he’s a little too good-looking to take seriously. (Ladies!)
As an actor, Jeff Newburg is subtle and careful. Which is interesting, because Everyday Newburg is emotive and animated and very loose. The interview format actually shortchanges him, and this is very much my fault: it’s difficult to translate how funny and wry and serious he can be.
Jeff Newburg’s first starring TV role arrives in the January 18 episode of Criminal Minds (“True Genius“). The crime procedural is in its seventh season; “True Genius” marks its highly-anticipated midseason return to television.
Jeff agreed to lend us this fly-on-the-wall account of what it’s like to become a serious television actor. He’ll even describe working with the likes of Robert Duvall, Tim Roth, and Matthew Gray Gubler—but you’re also going to read a conversation between two old friends.
Evil Beet: So what is this show called?
Jeff Newburg: It’s this little independent project called Criminal Minds.
Oh! I’ve heard of that!
‘Cause you’re super plugged-in to the art film scene.
Yes. That’s right. Explain to me who you are?
‘Cause I have never seen you before in my life.
Yeah, very good. I am an actor and a writer. This thing, Criminal Minds, on that one, I’m, uh…. When is this gonna get published? I just need to be a little bit careful about, uh, spoiler stuff. On this one, basically—you saw Fincher’s Zodiac, right?
Oh, man! I highly recommend it.
I haven’t seen a David Fincher movie since Alien 3.
Oh, my gosh!
That’s not true.
So this episode of Criminal Minds is in San Francisco, and it’s centered around a seeming return of the Zodiac Killer to, you know, slashing and shooting folks. And I am in fact tied up in all that and—yeah, can’t tell you exactly how I’m tied up in all that—but I think it’s worth watching.
Did you actually have to go to San Francisco to do all this?
My word, no. Yep, Los Angeles: it stands in for every town in America—
Right. [Laughs] Canada stands in for a lot of towns in America these days.
Yeah, they did some reeeally good—that was kind of the theme of the show, was how amazing at their job, while being amazing people, everybody was. And I mean everybody. Like, the giant stars on the show are the most amazingly kind people, in addition to being great actors. And then, like, everybody, the technical people—I, you know, I spent a lot of time with the camera department and they were great.
And the episode is going to look great! They’ll do, you know, a little bit of CG, maybe slap the Golden Gate Bridge in here and there? But generally they just did a really good job with picking locations that were really “buyable.” Like, we did LA’s Chinatown; parts of it are really good, really really convincing “San Francisco Chinatown”—
Have you been to San Francisco’s Chinatown?
Oh, yeah. A couple times.
So, okay, LA is super convincing; it has a convincing Chinatown, is what you’re saying.
Well, yeah. It works—
I mean, I won’t be fooled, because I lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown—
—but someone will.
One of the things I liked about my experience on the show, one of the things that was great about it was, a lot of times, you know, you’re kinda stuck on the lot? Doing built-up sets that are not—not real, they’re just built-up sets—and not getting outdoors that much?
But on that show in general, and this episode in particular, there’s a lot of shooting on location. Like, some of the best scenes were shot in—LA has a ton of parks, and there was this beautiful park that we shot in. I’d never been there before, and it was just a really cool location, and it worked.
The way the show works is, there’s sort of these two separate plotlines the viewer follows, and they eventually converge. So most of my stuff was with the guest cast, until those plotlines converge, and the actor—the series regular I dealt with the most—is Matthew Gray Gubler. And I’m a huge fan of his. He is—I think he’s amazing. I think he’s an amazing actor. And an amazing dude. You should follow him on Twitter, he’s hilarious.
Okay! Or… are you telling me that, or everyone that?
I guess everyone? I mean—
Just, everyone should.
He’s a really funny dude.
Remind me who all is on Criminal Minds now?
Well, Joe Mantegna. Shemar Moore—
Oh, yeah! Or. Didn’t he—? Uh. Oh. Maybe I’m thinking of Joe Montana.
Could you please find a way to include your confusion of Joe Mantegna with Joe Montana? Could you please? My word! “It’s like that time Joe Mantegna threw that touchdown pass to Dwight Clark! That was so great! Remember?”
You know I love the 49ers.
The one football team you could have gotten right.
No, it’s horrible, I know. No, I know—I kind of know—who Joe Mantegna is.
He’s Fat Tony, Jenni!
He’s Fat Tony! From the Simpsons!
Oh! Is that true?
The mob boss? Yeah. I mean, he’s a million things; he’s got an amazing résumé, but yeah, he’s Fat Tony, for one.
Okay, who else is on the show. Mark Harmon?
No. That’s NCIS.
Oh. Who is the guy?
Oh, yeah, him! He’s great. So you’re thrilled about this Criminal Minds thing, not only ’cause it’s good for you and your career, but because you’re a student of the art—
You mean, just to be able to be around those folks?
I mean, I think Gubler is fantastic. To watch a guy sort of be able to do all the artsy-fartsy stuff I love about acting, the improvisational spirit of taking a scene as it comes and surprising yourself, and surprising the actors, and maybe surprising the writers and director for a little bit—to be able to do that, within the strict form of a procedural crime drama? Is really, really something to me. And I think he does that to great effect.
Oh! Oh, hold on! I know exactly who this guy is.
Yeah. Yeah he was in Zissou, [The Life Aquatic with] Steve Zissou! He did a show, an episode of my friends’ Internet show, that is one of the funniest things you will ever see. It’s called “Clark Kent Has a Dream.” It is so good, Jenni. You need to watch every episode of that. And it’s only five three-minute episodes, but it is so funny. My friends Adam Nee and Ryan Judd made this show that is just so, so good, Jenni. But, like, [Gubler] did a guest spot on it, Tony Hale did a guest spot on it—
Hngh. Yeah, Tony Hale is good.
I think Buster is the towering comedic performance of our time.
Um, let’s see. What—what am I supposed to be asking you, Jeff?
You’re such a pro.
No! You’re right! I’m really awful, actually! At interviewing people!
Well, the focus for me is just, it was a really shocking opportunity for me. It was a really great blessing and exciting thing, to do a guest lead for the first time and to sort of have more… more to do, more screen time and more dialogue and all that stuff, than I’ve ever had before. And to have that thing of being on-set every day, pretty much every day that they’re filming the episode, and sort of be, for that short time, become one of the bolts in this big… in this big, efficient, excellent machine. And be a part of the “whole” of the episode.
And in terms of the actual part, it was just great to get a chance on a TV episode to play a part with that much breadth and depth, you know, of character that is… very intelligent, and very troubled, and kind of all over the place, in a way.
And I try not to get too cynical about the business of acting, but I think, like most jobs, you don’t often get to do the stuff that really gets your motor humming. So the chances that you do get to do it are kind of—kinda sublime. And that’s sort of how I describe the whole thing, is—[laughs]—getting the part was a good thing, and then the experience of acting it, in conjunction with the experience of working with…. Like, Glenn Kershaw was the director, and he was just such an amazing guy; he comes from a photography background, he started out as a cinematographer. It was so strange to get a guy who has such a good photographic eye, who also really takes the time, and really cares about the performance.
And then the writing in the episode was so good! Sharon Lee Watson was the writer on the episode. And, you know, again, just really refreshing to read this thing that—it’s an hour-long episode on a show that’s been on for seven years, but—
Has it really?
Heh, yeah. Well, this is its seventh season. But nobody is sitting, nobody’s resting on their laurels, you know, just because it’s a successful show and people like the show and they’re gonna watch. It seems like, top to bottom, everyone there is actually striving to do something they’re proud of. And everybody around you is happy! Because they’ve got a great job, doing great work that they’re in love with! It was very inspiring, to just have such a positive experience, that’s just, like—“Everybody here is awesome! Thanks, guys!”
Is this a really—is this an authentic glow?
No, it really is. I’m totally—yeah. It was crazy. Like every day, I’d go home and I’d just glow. And it was very surreal, because of the amount of respect and deference they showed? You know, most of the scenes I was in, because of these—like I said, these two different plotlines—the series-regular cast isn’t around. And so I’m, in some sense, the… the star. And to be treated with deference and respect, and just, like, have my weird, off-the-wall acting choices, to have that stuff “go over,” and have them be encouraging in that way?
It was just, yeah, walkin’ on a cloud for eight days.
That’s interesting! Because, yeah, you kind of come from the, um. I mean, you’re not Vincent D’Onofrio neurotic—
But you are kind of on the fringe, and this is sort of mainstream, for you to—who else is neurotic? You’re not Jeremy Davies neurotic. These are men, though—and you need to be careful!—because these are men who are becoming more neurotic with their acting, with age. And they… I’m sorry! I shouldn’t say that in your interview. What I meant to say is, your method of acting—that must be so vindicating, and gratifying—
—I hope so—
—to have them encourage—
At least a handful of people on one show vindicated it! For me, it’s just as simple as…. I didn’t think about it for awhile, but a few years ago I starting thinking about why, with a background in music, and visual art, and writing for the page—fiction and poetry—like, why, why did I mostly land on, and really try to pursue, acting and writing for the screen?
I’ll tell you, that surprised me, too. Like, when that ended up being a direction you went, I was really surprised.
Well, I realized the answer just a couple years ago, and the answer is, audience is important to me. I think if I had lived in the 50s I might have chosen to be a poet. But I don’t [live there], and since I know that—since I know that audience is important to me—I don’t look down my nose at television. And I don’t want to become this person who is, you know, eccentric to the point of people can’t work with him. I want to be eccentric to whatever extent makes me interesting and, and challenges myself and my collaborators, and—
You don’t want to alienate your audience.
I don’t want to alienate my audience or my bosses, man.[Laughs]
You know? It’s like, I’m really thrilled to get the opportunity to do what I love and actually get paid for it, because most of the time, most of the time we artists do it for free! You know? If I’m not on a real job, I’m doing stuff for the Internet, you know? And I really enjoy that but [verging on giggles] it’s not like that can feed me.
So. Yeah, once I came to that conclusion on “audience,” it makes a lot—it helps you make sense of the rest. It helps me understand that, no, I’m not going to become an insanely eccentric whatever, because if I wanted to do that I could’ve kept writing poetry that nobody’s gonna read.
Shifting gears, I have a few questions. Of course I have watched your stints on Crossing Jordan and Cold Case—
[Suppressing a laugh]
—repeatedly. And! I would say—
—that every guy I’ve dated since you did those—
—I have made watch—
“Stint” is very generous. My “stint” of twelve seconds—
—your bit on Crossing Jordan. You had a lot of screen time on Cold Case!
That was a very rewarding part. I quite enjoyed that.
It was heartbreaking, too.
But! I still laugh at it when I see it—
That’s all right.
—because it’s you. But that was really good. And you did Lie to Me…
See, that sort of points out the flip-side of the coin we were just talking about. I was on-set on that show for six days.
Wow! [Note: Jeff does not have much screen time in ‘Lie to Me.’]
And it was a very long episode, so they had to edit down a lot, so a lot of what I did, you know, didn’t end up in it. There’s a little bit more, but not a whole lot more [of me in that episode]. And the experience of that was amazing. Depending on the show and the dynamic of the show on TV, who’s really in charge isn’t always the director. And on that show, when you’ve got a creative genius like Tim Roth—
Right! Which I wanted to ask you about! Because I think the average TV-goer… is… my mom…
…and has no idea who Tim Roth is! Or why that guy is fronting a show like Lie to Me. Which, what an amazing actor! If I walked past Tim Roth in life, I would probably crap where I stood. Because, what an amazing actor.
His level of investment on that show was through the roof. It’s not like he was sitting back and cashing checks ’cause he had a lucrative TV gig. It was amazing, it was amazing to work with him. It was one of the best creative experiences of my life. That scene—it just wasn’t working? We were doing it, we did it a few times, and the writing on the page was just a little ‘off,’ and it wasn’t working, and I was having trouble acting it. And you know, when you’re this guest coming in, it’s not your place to say “Hey, hey Tim! I don’t think this script’s really working!”
But he’s a really perceptive guy and, like I said, on that, when he’s around, you know, he’s kind of the boss…. He very much saw that it wasn’t working, and did like an on-the-fly rewrite, and it was this amazing independent film experience of “let’s rewrite this on the fly, let’s find something that works, let’s play and collaborate and make something that is actually worth watching.” I don’t know if you’ve seen his movie—he directed one movie in the late 90s called The War Zone?
It’s unbelievable. It stars Tilda Swinton before she was Tilda Swinton and Ray Winstone before he was Ray Winstone. A TV set has a lot of downtime, so we talked quite a bit about art, and specifically about that film, which—you get the sense in talking to him it’s sort of this towering thing in his life that, you know, some part of him certainly wants to do more of. And he’s just one of those guys, the kind of guy I hope I am where—he’s just an artist, period, and he acts most of the time, but… it’s either his mother or his father is an accomplished painter, and it’s like, this guy could be a painter. This guy could be a whatever.
He’s just a brilliant dude. And he never stops. Like, he would outlast everyone on that show; he would be there, like, trying to do rewrites, trying to talk about plot arcs, at like 3AM, and everyone else is like, “Dude, it’s been an 18-hour day.”
Remind me when you met Robert Duvall.
That was when I first got out here. I’ve known a few people who did this: just to be on a set, to see how the machine works, I did “extra” work. I’d heard that he and Will Ferrell were doing a movie together—and they’re two of my favorites, for very different reasons—so I actually tried to get on that one. And I did! And I got really lucky to, just, the whole day was this scene with Duvall and me and these kids playing soccer. It was called Kicking and Screaming. A movie about soccer, with Will Ferrell and Robert Duvall in it. I don’t think anyone remembers this movie.
But for me, it was—he’s one of my favorites. I don’t know, I just got the gumption to open my mouth and say “I like your work and let’s talk about some stuff!” So we just talked about art films all day. He’s seen everything. He basically gave me a lot of prescriptions, like, “Oh, if you like that you need to see this.” We talked about Bergman a lot.
Can you give me a list of movies Robert Duvall has seen?
No! Because he’s seen them all! He really likes movies, man.
Okay. And you did Victorious. What is Victorious? Isn’t that the Tori Spelling show?
No, no. It’s, uh—
Oh, no! I saw this, too! This is a Disney show, yes? [Oops, it’s Nickelodeon; in the episode, Jeff plays an engineer in a recording studio.]
It was a blast! That was so much fun.
Your sideburns in that episode. Your facial hair did such wonderful work—
—on that television show.
Thank you very much! That was a blast. I was really shocked that I got that. I’ve never done a sitcom in my life, and—
Well, you told them you’d been a WNUR Rock Show DJ.
I didn’t tell them a thing![Laughs] Your sideburns did all the talking for you.
But that was the strangest experience, ’cause like I said, I’ve got no sitcom experience, and it was just so different from the acting I’ve been a part of, very in opposition to my training or whatever. Which made it a ton of fun. Like, the rehearsal process for a sitcom like—you know, there’s four cameras, and everything has to be very precisely timed in terms of… um…
Yeah, it really is! Like, choreographing your movement with your speech, and your turns, and everything like that. And it’s really funny because [on] a day off between rehearsal and shooting it, I found myself rehearsing at home and it was like I was rehearsing a dance, because you’ve got to do the movement with it or you’re not going to remember it.
Which is completely in opposition to my process and my training but it was so much fun.
But you got a lot of stage experience, I mean, in college, at least. Like, you know not to turn your back on someone, or—
It’s a rule I love to break.[Laughs] No, because it is believable, and in a drama you should, because human beings do turn around and then expect you to be able to continue hearing them with their back to you. But in a sitcom you’re in a fantasy world that is a lot more like, uh—I don’t want to say sitcoms are staged like Noël Coward plays or anything, but a little bit! You know what I’m saying?
Yeah. That’s what they say, that the closest you can get to theater acting is sitcom acting. You’ve got an audience—that show didn’t have a live audience, but a lot of them do—and you’ve got a lot of those same rules. And it was really fun to go to work and, as much as I enjoy and find it rewarding to do soul-dredging stuff, it was great to go to work and make some silly jokes and be around an incredibly talented bunch of kids. Like, every kid on that show is really funny, and they all play, like, five instruments, ’cause it’s a musical, too? It was really something.
I don’t know if you’ve watched kids’ TV recently, but the quality of kids’ TV on Nickelodeon is remarkable.
I have heard that. Also, my job forces me to kind of look at, um, kids who are currently doing Nick or Disney stuff. Also I have watched several episodes of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, just because I wanted to find out what is up with that girl Ashley Tisdale, so I mean, I do have to watch some of that, and it is nowhere near as painful as I want to believe it is.
There’s this guy, Dan Schneider—he was on Head of the Class?—he’s an exec producer, creator on a few Nickelodeon shows, and a lot of people credit him with transforming kids’ TV into actual quality. His shows, like iCarly and Victorious, they’re actually good!
I think it’s great that you’ve found fulfillment working with Tim Roth and working on Victorious. Not to say that you’re easy to please…!
Well, it’s hard not to get excited. In an age where—not only most people, but you, you know?—if you’re not doing your own stuff to keep your brain satisfied on your off-time, you’re probably going to go crazy. But when you’re doing that… I think I’ve told you about this pilot I’m working on?
And if everything goes right, and nothing goes wrong [laughs], I’ll have my own TV show. And I’m incredibly excited about it, I think it’s the best and also the most marketable thing I’ve ever written—
You actually haven’t told me anything about your pilot, except for, you have alluded to “my pilot that I’m working on.” And that’s it! That is all that I know about the pilot that you’re working on, is from the phrase “this pilot that I’m working on.”
Okay. Well! I’ll clear that up, then.
Is this the interview? Do you want people to know about this, or will this jinx it?
I have no problem with people knowing about it! I’m pretty happy about it!
It’s an hourlong pilot about a washed-up exorcist, called “Jack Mather’s Demons.” And it’s sort of an exploration of faith and doubt and, uh, you know, evil. A lot of comedy in it! There’s a lot of comedy in it, but by the end of the episode it sort of sets itself up to take place in this weird mega-church culture that our protagonist has left and sort’ve gotten sucked back into. Yeah, I’m really excited about it.
So if that works out—it’s been placed in a production company, and it’s sort of making the rounds to their family of studios, and they’re excited about it, and I’m really excited about it. And if things keep going well, the pilot’ll get made, and I’ll be the creator and writer and actor of my own TV show! But it’s all such an incredibly long and hard process to do that stuff, where you’re trying to build this thing that’s yours. You’re trying to build this thing that’s yours from the ground up. And you’ve got to worry about every aspect! You’ve got to worry about, who’s the director gonna be, who’s the writing team gonna be, all these things.
When you do that stuff with the rest of your time, those opportunities you had to just walk into a room and audition for a part in this established show that—they’ve figured out everything! Somebody else is going to write it and direct it and produce it and air it on a TV show that exists, on broadcast, and you just need to go in, think about acting, give a good audition, and then work your ass off and act the part well. It’s like this huge relief? To only have to worry about that one thing?
It’s so much more clearly a blessing. I think there’s a real risk for actors to sort of ride this entitlement train, like “I’m so much better than those actors I see on TV; why don’t I work more?” And—I’m not saying that’s not valid sometimes, but… when you work your ass off to produce your own stuff, all of a sudden auditioning isn’t like this great burden. [Instead] it’s this amazing blessing, to be like, “Oh! All I have to do is act.”
In that context, like, I always enjoy myself! Most creative people are perfectionists, and you know I have issues with every piece of work I’ve ever done, and I have issues with every script of someone else’s I’ve ever read. But I think both the healthier and the more ‘right’ perspective is to be like, “Holy s—t! I get to go do playtime today! I get to go play pretend and get paid for it!” And thank you, God, ’cause usually I don’t get paid for it! Most days I do my creating for free, ’cause I’m trying to start rolling these boulders from point A. But this guy’s boulder is already rolling, and I get to just climb on. …Not the best metaphor.
Okay: what else do you want to tell your future fans about? And your preexisting fans. But look to the future, also.
Let’s see. I directed this music video for my friend John Isaac Watters, who is an LA musician. And that should be hitting in a couple weeks. We’re going to premiere it at the opening of an art show. The video is us filming the creation of a bunch of paintings we made. And so we’re gonna do kind of, uh, an art-show-slash-video-premiere at the same time in two or three weeks, and then at the same time it’ll be up on the Internet. But I definitely want to direct people to his work, he’s really great. He’s got a Bandcamp, and he’s got a band called Coyol that he’s playing with. And I’m a big fan of that band as well—a couple of my other friends are in that band.
And hopefully this week the first episode of this web series I’m doing with my four-year-old niece—
—is gonna be up. I don’t really want to spoil it, but it’s mostly-improvised with me and little Penny. This kid is sunshine, she’s amazing. I’m really excited about the first episode, but I’m also excited about continuing to do stuff with her, ’cause it’s just a lot of fun.
So you would say that, of all your artistic collaborators, in the sense of emotional and intellectual fulfillment, you’d rank them Penny, then Tim Roth, and then the kid from the Chipmunks movies.
Is that…? Is that how it goes?
I would probably qualify with, just plain fun. It’s just plain fun to screw around with three of your friends, your wife, and your niece and, you know, make a little video that maybe a couple thousand people will watch and really enjoy. It’s a totally different mode. I’m glad it’s there.
I’m glad it’s so easy to make a thing on your own, sort of for yourself and… for your friends on Facebook.
Do you have a Facebook page where people can “like” the-actor-Jeff-Newburg yet?
In theory. I haven’t ever done anything with it. Like, it’s there.
You know you’re supposed to do that, right? To cultivate your career. I know about this.
Yeah, let’s do the Twitter thing instead.
We’re gonna send people to your Twitter.
You are at Jeff Newburg. And Jeff Newburg is where it’s at.
Uh-huh. That’s it in a—oh! Hey! I’m starting to get followers on Twitter who are big Criminal Minds fans.
Is that true?
Is that really true?
I haven’t even typed this yet!
Uh, it’s not ’cause of you.[Laughs] I am keeping that. I am keeping that in the interview.
(‘Criminal Minds‘ airs tonight at 9/8c.)