Interview: 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' star Andre Braugher still isn't sure he's funny
Andre Braugher has a pair of Emmy wins for drama and one could easily argue that it's a minor travesty he only won one Emmy for "Homicide: Life on the Street." He's mastered a wide range of portrayals of heroes who are stern, capable and flawed, giving them authentic, raw life.
And at least for the foreseeable future, it's going to be hard to interview Andre Braugher without suddenly finding humor in his thoughtful and entirely earnest answers.
Captain Ray Holt on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" isn't Braugher's first role to feature humor. As he correctly notes, "Men of a Certain Age" offered him the chance to get humane, ego-free laugher and earned him two Emmy nominations, though they were technically for drama. Braugher's "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" nomination was his first for comedy and was a recognition of how swiftly Braugher has eased into the rhythm of the single-cam and how instantly proficient he has become at the fine art of the deadpan.
When Braugher discusses his initiation into the world of comedy, he's humble and introspective, but it's hard not to hear hints of Holt's deadpan, even if they're not at all intentional. When Braugher discusses how he needs distance from acting projects in order to evaluate his work, for example, I ask if, in five years, he'll finally be able to know if he's been funny on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."
"I will," Braugher responds. "In retrospect I'll be able to. Yes. History will finally confirm that that was a funny episode for me."
Braugher isn't going for laugher, but if you imagine Captain Holt saying it? Well, it becomes a bit hilarious. The same is true when Braugher initially forgets the name of the Candy Crush knockoff that was a key plotpoint in one "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" episode last season, followed by his pleasure at repeating the name when I remind him.
In our conversation, Braugher discusses what it's like to find himself at the funny people's table, to suddenly be a guy asked to deliver punchlines during the Emmy telecast. He talks about the way this role challenges his process and the co-stars who challenge him most.
It's a great conversation, but if you read the transcript with Captain Holt in your mind, you may laugh a little.
"Brooklyn Nine-Nine" airs on FOX on Sundays at 8:30.
Check out the full Q&A...
HitFix: So, I really enjoyed the comedy bit with you in the audience at the Emmys and I was sort of wondering... [I pause, because he looks confused. It takes him a second.]
Andre Braugher: Oh right. Okay.
HitFix: You've already forgotten about that? [He laughs.] It was a good moment!
Andre Braugher: I'm glad.
HitFix: Do you like being at sort of the funny person's table now? Is that something that's amusing for you?
Andre Braugher: No, funny people, they're too dangerous, do you know what I'm saying? You could never think as quickly as they do. So I do, because they're funny but if they call upon me to be funny I would be out of my element so I'm much more of a voyeur at the funny person's table.
HitFix: But here you are now going into your second season as a lead on a funny person's show. What was the learning curve like in the first season for how to make either Holt funny or how to make Andre Braugher funny?
Andre Braugher: I thought it was steep in the first couple of episodes. Holt is, the Holt that they designed is just much more stoic than I am and deadpan is the entrée to the comedy with Holt. So that deadpan was pretty hard for me because I'm usually trying to explore the range of a person's emotions and this is much more internalized. So it was really about putting a lid on the bottle. And it took me four or five episodes to really sort of embrace the fact that I was playing a stoic.
HitFix: Well, a stoic who everyone else seems to think, or everyone in his personal life, seem to think is rather hilarious.
Andre Braugher: Briefly yeah. I'm rather hilarious at home. There's no one funnier than Ray Holt. [He lets out a big laugh.]
HitFix: With that deadpan though, what do you have to know to feel confident that it's working, to feel confident that you're actually delivering the punch lines so that they'll land?
Andre Braugher: I don't know. I'm always surprised that people think it's funny. I sit there, I'm saying to myself and I ask myself, "Is this funny?" And there's no definitive "yes" answer like, "Ha! This is funny!" So I'm always a little surprised. Mike Schur said the other day he just said, "You just have some incredible moments in episode," two or three or whatever it is that they were cutting in that moment. I just said, "Oh I'm so glad." Because when you're sitting there doing it it's like, "Wow... Wow, I hope this is good." And not because I'm... it's uncertain, do you know what I mean? It's an entirely new tone. And in 2017 or '18 when we're doing this, I think I'll be much more confident, but as it stands right now it's like, "Okay I think I understand what the tone is."
HitFix: Do you watch episodes afterwards and sort of... Do you find yourself funny when you watch?
Andre Braugher: You know, I have to say it's always kind of a mixed bag. I think the show's funny, but when it comes to me watching my own work it's a little bit weird and that's always been true. I've finally gotten the chance to see "Homicide" and "Gideon's Crossing" and "Thief" and all these other shows and I'm like, "Oh yeah these are good shows" and I can watch them without self-consciousness, you know what I mean? "Men of a Certain Age," it's been like five years. I can watch that without self-consciousness, but the closer the things are the more I remember about how they were made, so I get very, very into the footnotes; I get very into the weeds with those. So I'm not there yet. But it takes about five years to be able to sit down and forget all the details that I knew about it and really embrace the show just look at it and enjoy it.
HitFix: And you think by that time maybe again 2018 or 2019 you'll be able to tell if you were funny on "Brooklyn"?
Andre Braugher: I will. In retrospect I'll be able to. Yes. History will finally confirm that that was a funny episode for me.
HitFix: Now, you talked about sort of needing to dial back to get this character. How much control do you feel like you have over the volume control? How much range do you think Holt can realistically have or does he just have to be between two very restrictive lines?
Andre Braugher: He doesn't have a lot of... It's not going to be an expression, it's going to be in the intellectual and verbal aspects of the comedy. It's not going to be in terms of, you know, flouncing or tantrums or anything like that, it's just a smaller range without a doubt, unless you go to an episode like where I was playing Gerald Gimes, where we've set up for comic effect that Holt is going to go to an extreme and we've never seen that out of the stoic. But typically I think I'm going to be in a smaller range. It's just a much more internalized range because I'm feeling and thinking similar things to the stuff that I would naturally display, but my first choices, I have to think twice about them because they just need to be fine tuned for comedy as opposed to just simply thrown out there.
HitFix: But Holt has sort of begun to become closer to the people in his precinct. Is there actually a chance that he could show the at-home-warmth that everyone apparently everyone loves and find hilarious or do you think that he's always going to have the professional tone?
Andre Braugher: He has at certain issues... I mean there was an episode with Candy Crush, what was it…
HitFix: Kwazy Cupcakes!
Andre Braugher: Kwazy Cupcakes! Right. [He laughs, thinking about it.] Kwazy Cupcakes... where he's sitting at the table confessing to Gina that he's has a remarkable amount of self-control his entire life and he finds himself baffled by his inability to deal with this Kwazy Cupcakes. And when I played it, I played it with the same sort of I think bewildered desperation that an addict feels, you know what I mean? But I played him a lot of different ways. So much of my career has been about rehearsing so that we can get it right, so we can rehearse, get it right and then film that. And the way this comedy works is we're never going to settle on anything, we're going to actually rehearse and then we're going to do it a thousand different ways. And so I've had to open myself up to the kind of ease that allows me to quickly switch between a different take on the scene. Quite often our directors, one of their biggest notes is, "Let's just do something different, you know what I mean? Let's just break it up." Because my habit is to find out what I think is "right" and do that again and again and again. And comedy just demands more variations. So I feel at times that I've been quite vulnerable with them, but which takes they use I have no control over that.
HitFix: Have you warmed to that process? Have you begun to see how this is a process that could probably help you in drama down the road as well?
Andre Braugher: I'm not sure it translates. I have to wait and see. The proof is in the pudding. The next time I get a dramatic role that's when I'll get a chance to see how much this ease in facility with the language and the situation is going to help me, do you know what I mean?
HitFix: Sure. Had you been avoiding comedy? Had you been looking for comedy? Had you been not feeling like you were up for comedy? Why had you and comedy been strangers I guess is the question?
Andre Braugher: Because drama was always clogging up the phone line. It's like that's what people call me for. I mean when Ray Romano called me to play Owen Thoreau Jr. in "Men of a Certain Age," I viewed that as a very much a comic role. And I jumped at the opportunity. I said "I'm going to get to learn essentially at the feet of the masters." And so I was happy to get that call. And here it is a couple of years later, what three or four years later, I get another call to be on this sitcom, a very successful sitcom but I think a well designed one and a well cast one, and I'm overjoyed because I get an opportunity to learn on the job as opposed to just being thrown out there, "Here's the comic genius Andre Braugher;" that's absurd. So comedy and I were never strangers, it's just that I was doing a lot of drama. I mean two years ago I was doing "Last Resort," a nuclear submarine hostage drama, do you know what I mean? So here I am in the land of comedy and comedy has finally gotten through and I like it. I just like the joyous aspect of playing comedy.
HitFix: Now Holt, as we've talked about, has to be stoic. Who is the hardest costar to be stoic opposite?
Andre Braugher: It's Stephanie Beatriz, because we have the same sort of comic dynamic. She's a straight man for all the other hijinks. I mean she's a scary sort of tough urban detective kind of thing, but her deadpan is her thing too. I mean they actually made fun of it last season because there's a whole thing when I'm asking her how to behave to other people in a manner that doesn't humiliate them, there's a scene in which I'm teaching her how to say "I'm sorry." And so she has a deadpan "I'm sorry" and I have a deadpan "I'm sorry" and they're like you're dueling "I'm sorry's" and it last for 16 or 20 "I'm sorry's" before it finally ends, before I say, "Oh, that's the one; you finally got it." But yeah, Stephanie and I both have the same like deadpan dynamics, so two deadpan people in the same scene.
HitFix: But does anyone crack you up? Do any of the other actors just make you constantly break or are you pretty good at keeping it together?
Andre Braugher: I'm pretty good at keeping. I don't constantly break. I mean Joe and Andy are pretty good. Chelsea cracked me up last year with – she had all these different ways of describing herself and she used – she called herself "sexy" twice by different words and I was sort of stunned by that, the egoism of the Gina character. So that was one time I cracked up. And I cracked up on rotten trout milk and I've cracked up on some other stuff. [From the other room, we can here Terry Crews arriving in jovial Terry Crews fashion. Braugher drops to a whisper.] That's Terry Crews. That's Terry Crews, man.
HitFix: Does Terry make you crack up?
Andre Braugher: Terry and I have a similar dynamic too. I mean what you find is you find a lot of Holt/Boyle/Santiago. I act a lot with Santiago and I acted a lot with Chelsea, the Gina character and Terry and Andy. Those are the people that... it's pretty rare for me to have scenes with Santiago. We just have the same dynamic. That's what it is.
HitFix: Are you enjoying this? Are you having fun with this role with this sort of change of pace?
Andre Braugher: I'm having a great time. I wouldn't change it for anything. It's fantastic.
"Brooklyn Nine-Nine" airs on Sundays at 8:30 on FOX.