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Friday, June 09, 2017

The Gatekeeper

Written by  Gregg Shapiro
Erich Bergen Erich Bergen

An interview with ‘Madam Secretary’s Erich Bergen

As Blake Moran, the newly out bisexual assistant to Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) in the CBS drama “Madam Secretary,” Erich Bergen is the picture of perfection. Handsome, fit, conservatively-attired and well-groomed with very important hair, Blake has it (almost) all together. Sure, there are loose ends – a difficult mother and a recently resurfaced male ex – but he is nothing if not good at tying everything up so they don’t come undone again. I had the pleasure of speaking with Bergen, whom many will recognize from his portrayal of Bob Gaudio in both the film and touring stage productions of Jersey Boys, about Blake and much more.

Gregg Shapiro: Erich, a recent episode of ‘Madam Secretary’ opened with your character Blake Moran waking up to the opening number from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. You played Bob Gaudio in the movie version of Jersey Boys, and also appeared in the stage production. What has been the most rewarding aspect of theatre in your life?

Erich Bergen: I started in the theatre. That’s the entire background of my career. I’m also not a religious person, but the little I know about religion is that it often involves a group of people getting together in a room, sitting in seats, watching someone stand before them and present a new way to tell a story that they’ve already heard before in hopes of it affecting and changing their lives. It’s something that cannot be replicated ever again. It’s something people feel in that moment in that room. The connection between church and theatre is obvious and strong to me. It’s something that I understand. It’s the part of organized religion that I do understand. Theatre has been my church, my religion (for) my entire life. The understanding of what we can do with an old story to make it new and relevant for the people who are seeing it for the first time, but also for the people who think they know the story. That is why we continue to do Shakespeare’s plays and shows like Company and Gypsy and things like that. What we learn from Shakespeare and from Sondheim we also learn from the Bible. They are great stories that we take with us for the rest of our lives and shape our lives. That’s what theatre has given to me.

GS: You have been portraying the super-efficient and impeccably dressed Blake, described as the “gatekeeper for American diplomacy,” on Madam Secretary since the show began. What was involved in your being cast for the part?

EB: It was a simple audition. The casting director for “Madam Secretary” is a wonderful guy named Mark Saks. Mark has known me since I was 10 years old. He worked at Stage Door Manor, the theatre camp in the Catskills where I grew up going for seven summers of my life. He said to me, “I’m going to get you your own TV show one day.” He finally did! It was one of those things where the audition came in like any other. It was in between me filming the Jersey Boys movie and the movie coming out. I walked into a room and there were one or two callbacks. Two weeks later I was on-set with Annie Liebovitz doing photos with Clint Eastwood and the Jersey Boys cast and I got the call.

GS: There’s a wonderful framed cartoon print on the wall in Blake’s bathroom with the word “Mother!” that we see in that previously mentioned episode.

EB: Yes [laughs].

GS: Shortly thereafter we overhear a cell phone conversation with Blake and his mother in a coffee shop. How would you describe Blake’s relationship with his mother?

EB: The first part of that is funny because I actually called my mom “mother” as a joke. I call her that very tongue-in-cheek. It was funny when I showed up on-set, not only was that poster in the bathroom, but near Blake’s dining room table is a stack of Playbills of shows that Blake has loved and seen over time. I did not plan this, and I didn’t ask for it, but the second Playbill in the pile was the one for the national tour (of Jersey Boys) from San Francisco that I happened to be in. I still don’t know to this day if it was planned like that or if it was purely coincidental. Regarding his relationship with his mother, we don’t know a lot about it yet, but it sounds very strained, almost competitive and very defensive. It also sounds like he probably learned a lot of his great qualities from his mother, but maybe the relationship has turned.

GS: In the episode that follows, Blake comes out as bisexual after an ex-lover briefly appears again in his life. Do you think it would be fair to say that the episode with the song from Company set the stage for his Blake’s coming out to occur?

EB: I don’t think that that was thought through. In episode 21, which was called “The Seventh Floor” and was written by Matt Ward – Matt designed that episode so that each character who was taking over the narrative Rashomon-style – I think he was attaching a song that that character would love – and be part of their daily playlist – to their respective part of the episode. I don’t think there was a thought-through connection with Bobby, a character some might say is struggling with his sexuality, and Blake coming out a bisexual. I think it was a happy accident. I don’t know it to have been intentional by the writers in that sense. Maybe on a deeper level there is a connection there.

GS: The scene in which he comes out to his boss, the Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), is very touching and ends with her getting out of her car and hugging him. Have you ever had the experience of having someone who was nervous about coming out to you?

EB: That’s a good question! I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone come out to me. But I grew up in an alternate universe, like the musical Zanna, Don’t! I grew up in Chelsea in the 80s. My dad had a club act at The Duplex. My mom was in the fashion world. Of course, there were tons of straight people. There was everything. I had many different forms of relationships, sexuality, identification and labels in front of me. I think when you see it from that young of an age, you learn to not judge it. You don’t really know how to judge. You’re just learning your world. Like I said, I went to Stage Door Manor, this theatre camp, starting at age 10 where there were people anywhere between nine and 17, and there were 11- and 12-year-olds identifying as gay. It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina for college that I understood that there was such a misunderstanding of people. I was the first Jew that a lot of people had met when I went to college.

The coming out episode was trending on Twitter. What does that mean to you as an actor and personally?

EB: The trending on Twitter thing is so funny. I get that it’s a good thing and I get that Tweeting the show is a “smart” thing. But it’s kind of annoying. If it’s trending on Twitter, obviously they’re looking down at their screens and they’re not looking at the show. I’m kind of a purist. Every moment of the frame, the set, the light, and the actors’ performances, all these different things; there’s something in each moment. I wish people wouldn’t skip that. I don’t want them to miss anything. The theatre is still hanging on desperately to being the last safe place where that can happen. Even that is kind of ending because people are now taking out their phones in the theatre. I’m torn about the Tweeting thing. I know it’s the right thing to do from a business perspective. But the purist in me is scared of eyeballs looking at the wrong thing. I think that as a show, what we saw with me live Tweeting those episodes is that there’s a strong demand from the audience to see character development on our show. The response to the episodes that focused on character development of the staff at the State Department has been through the roof. It’s the best response we’ve gotten to the show since we premiered. That is very telling to me. There are only so many countries we can cover on the show [laughs]. We’ve had this show on for three years now that takes an aspirational look at our government. While it’s aspirational and inspirational, I think there are a lot of ugly truths about what we cover, whether it’s terrorism or politics or things like that. If you go a few channels over, you see so much of that on the news. The real version of it. What’s going on is this desire to have shows like The West Wing back where we focus on the humanity inside government and the people who are about public service. I think the desire to focus on that is creeping into our consciousness and the consciousness of the fans of Madam Secretary.

GS: Then, would you say that acting in a political TV series at this time in our country’s history is beneficial?

EB: I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing. As an actor, it’s still a job. I don’t mean to downplay it. The job of the actor is to serve the material. We are public servants to the material. Our job is to go out there and present these scripts that are so beautifully written for our show. I don’t know if it being a topical show really matters to me as an actor. What if I was doing “The Walking Dead”? It’s interesting that politics swarms my life and that people make funny jokes to me, like “Boy, I wish we had you in the White House!” I don’t know if it really affects me more than if I was on “Modern Family” or something.

GS: You are starring in Sam Hoffman’s upcoming movie Humor Me. Sam directed an episode of “Madam Secretary” – is that how you came to be in this movie?

EB: Sam is actually one of the producers of the whole series as well. It’s a very funny story. I got a call from someone working at my agent’s office. A new employee or an assistant who didn’t have all their ducks in a row yet. They called me to say that there was a director who wanted to bring me in to audition for a new movie early last year. I asked them to send me all of the information. I got an email and it said that the director’s name was Sam Hoffman. I thought, “Well, I guess there must be more than one.” I work with Sam every day. He’s a dear friend of mine. I can’t imagine that he would do this, nor would he have me audition. I called him and asked if it was his movie and he said yes. I told him about the call from my agent’s office. He said, “Not only did I not say I want you to audition, but you are totally wrong for the part. Obviously, you don’t have to audition for me for anything. I know what you are capable of doing. This just isn’t your role.” None of us are really sure about the chain of events that led to the agent’s office phone call. He called me three days later and said, “You know what? I’ve been thinking about it and we could change the role a little bit for you and you would be really good for it. Would you be interested in doing it?” I’d read the script at point and I said, “Yeah! It seems really funny.” He called me a day later and offered me the part. It ended up being this weird blessing in disguise. It was a blast working with Elliott Gould and Jermaine Clement.

Gregg Shapiro

Gregg Shapiro

Entertainment journalist Gregg Shapiro's interviews run in a variety of regional LGBT publications and websites. He is the author of three books, including the short story collection Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels, 2014).

Website: facebook.com/gregg.shapiro
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