The Desperate Housewives star talks about about his foray into very unfamiliar territory

Moving from a "chick show" like Desperate Housewives to a genre anthology might seem like a stretch but stretching is precisely what actor James Denton is hoping to do with, Masters of Science Fiction. Narrated as by Stephen Hawking, this four part anthology series features a host of top notch acting talent such as Denton, Judy Davis, Brian Dennehy and John Hurt. Directing the installments are such sci-fi veterans as Sam Egan, as well as sci-fi writing stalwarts like Harlan Ellison.

Recently, James Denton took part in a press conference to talk about Masters of Science Fiction and his role in it.

Tell us a little bit about your involvement in the "Masters of Science Fiction"?

James Denton: Well, thanks, Jack. It was a kind of a strange occurrence really, because they shot in Vancouver, and I really -- I came to find out that they seemed to only have budgeted to bring in a couple of actors from Los Angeles, or I should say from outside of Canada. And they had set Brian Dennehy and John Hurt, which I think anybody would admit is a pretty good start to a project.

My manager happens to handle John Hurt, and has for most of his career. John Crosby is my manager, and he handles John as well, so he knew about the project, read the script, and saw this role of Curran and thought I'd be perfect for it.

And so he pitched me and they said, well, we've already got the two guys that are going to be not local hires. But I think because John Hurt was also not American, I guess not a citizen or didn't live in the States, he was coming over from Europe, that's who -- he sort of got in the back door and got them to hire another American, besides Brian Dennehy, and that's how I ended up getting involved.

Basically, when I saw that those two guys were attached, I just told John, my manager, to just tell them I'll do it for scale; I don't care. Just the chance to work with those two guys and I'd never done any kind of science fiction, really. I did one episode of a series called "Sliders," they ran here for a few years -- and Jerry O'Connell, which was a lot of fun. But it was primarily the attraction of working with Hurt and Dennehy.

I had a quick question about the shift, going from Desperate Housewives to science fiction. I mean you're working with some greats, Harlan Ellison; Josh Olson, great writer; and even Stephen Hawking. What was that experience like?

James Denton: Well, it was -- it was pretty -- pretty crazy working with Harlan. You know Harlan is a -- I don't know if he's famous or infamous, but obviously he's very talented and very prolific writer. Has quite a reputation as being a character.

And he was actually in the piece. I'm not sure what technically his role was, but he was in the makeup trailer the day that I showed up, being made up to be one of the discards, one of the people up on the satellite. So I think that fun for him.

But if you had to pick one guy to work with, and I'm not really familiar with the genre, I don't know the writers well, like many fans do, but I knew who Harlan Ellison was. So that also was a real bonus for me to get to work, not only on something he wrote, but also be in the trailer with him and listen to him tell stories and -- and it was -- it was a real bonus that I was -- that it was Harlan's project.

As far as the difference between Housewives, I was doing a -- the science fiction Saturn Awards here for science fiction work, I was presenting an award there, and I mentioned that I -- not being really very well versed in science fiction, I always thought that, well, it was something unbelievable or outrageous, or unrealistic. And then I realized that that's Wisteria Lane, so I was already on a science fiction show. But it was a lot of fun working with Harlan.

Can you tell me a little bit about the story of "The Discarded," and particularly your character in the film?

James Denton: Yes, Discarded is -- it's a really interesting piece, in that it's very dark, it's very sad. It's about a group of people who have been just that, they've been discarded, put on a satellite and shot up into outer space because they were, I guess "defective" is the term that was used. They had different types of diseases, sort of the satellite of misfit toys, kind of.

And so -- and from that respect, as you get to know those people, and John Hurt and Brian Dennehy among them, some really fantastic local actors from Canada, you just -- it was heart-breaking, the different things they suffered from, different kinds of illnesses and deformities. And it's -- so in that respect you immediately empathize with that group.

My character is sent from Earth to make a deal with them, and obviously I'm not very well received because the healthy, normal -- for lack of a better term -- Earthlings had sent them into outer space to get rid of them. And I -- and it turns out, in effect, that we need something from them. And I'm sort of the envoy that's sent from Earth Central to come up and dock and go into the satellite and approach them with this request.

So I'm sort of, on the surface, the one normal, healthy human from Earth who comes up to -- sort of as an emissary to this group.

What were you surprised to learn form William Hurt and Brian Dennehy about their process as actors.

James Denton: Well, the great thing about Brian Dennehy is, I'm a theater guy, and he's done a huge -- has a huge theater resume. He was actually doing "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman in Chicago when I was there, slumming around in [that ugly] theater.

It was fun just being around him and listening to him talk about other actors and different experiences and doing work on the Arthur Miller plays he did in -- in New York. And, again, he's just one of those guys that he's sort of bigger than life, not only as an actor, but as a -- as a person. So I made a point to kind of hang around with him a lot on the set, and just listen and try to learn from a guy like that.

For John Hurt, the most fascinating thing for me was he had never done television. This is his first American television performance. And he may not do many more, because I don't think he was real crazy about it.

He's a wonderful guy, really, really sweet. I had never met him, but very serious, obviously, about acting, if you've seen any of his work.

And in television, as you all know, you don't get any rehearsal, you move very quickly. Instead of shooting three or four pages a day, like you would on a feature, we were shooting seven to ten pages a day. And he was a little bit overwhelmed, or surprised, by the amount of work that we did in a day's time in television. And I don't think he was real crazy about it.

So it was kind of fun seeing him be a little bit insecure or self-conscience about trying to work so quickly when he's such a brilliant actor. So that was kind of interesting for me, coming from a primarily television background, watching him try to adapt to the television pace.

But, of course, he was absolutely brilliant. And just standing there in a scene with those two guys, because they're sort of on the same side, representing the discards, and I'm pleading with them. And so most of the scenes were sort of triangular, in that it was me going against Hurt and Dennehy.

And I would just -- there were times during the day where I would just laugh to myself, or have to pinch myself, and realize I'm -- I'm in a scene with Brian Dennehy and John Hurt. It's not exactly where, as a guy on Desperate Housewives you end up being in an acting situation.

So those two guys were just a -- really, really fascinating to be around on a television set.

I'm just kind of curious, ABC had let this show sit on the shelves for quite a while, and now they're bringing it back. And it seems like it really hasn't had a lot of promotion, hasn't really been pushed very much by the network. What are your thoughts on that, I mean especially coming from a show that ABC hypes all over the place, and now doing some work that you sound very proud of, but it just seems like it's almost being forgotten by the network?

James Denton: Yes, it's been a little bit frustrating for us. You know Jonathan Frakes directed this, whom I'm sure many of you know from Star Trek or different things. Really great guy and really good director.

Many times actors don't make the best directors, or they suffer from the same sort of traps you can fall into as an actor. And Jonathan is a brilliant director. So he and I sort of stayed in touch through the process, trying to figure out when it might run, when they might air it, and what was going on with it.

I did get the feeling that -- that The Discarded was one of the installments they were happy with. Apparently it is, since they're airing it. And they're airing it last to -- they're promoting it and the other three.

So that was nice, that we were included. I've worked for Steve MacPherson for a long time. I've been on ABC for eight or nine years on different programs and pilots. And Steve was at Touchstone when I first started. And I trust him.

And I read -- didn't want to talk to him about it, because I didn't want to put him on the spot, but I did read a couple of interviews, one from Up-Fronts, where he's commented that the work was just really uneven. That the six installments didn't fit together in the way they had hoped, and didn't make as much sense to air as a group.

So I'm guessing, from the inference, that there a couple that they really weren't pleased with the outcome. And I have no idea why, and it's certainly no comment on the people that were involved in those two.

But the four that they did air, I think fit together a little better; they were a little better cross-section, and a variety of science fiction. And Steve's one quote was that the work was really uneven through the six installments. So I trust him, and I assume that there were things in the other two that they couldn't fix, and through the process realized that they only had four of these to air.

And, of course, Saturdays in August is not exactly where you're going to put your most prized programming. So I didn't see any of the other installments. I have seen ours, and I'm really proud of it. It's not perfect, but it's very entertaining, and it's a really touching story. So that's all I can get from what I've heard from Steve MacPherson.

Yes, I saw a screener of this episode, actually, and I just wanted to say you did a great job. I really enjoyed it.

James Denton: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it. It's a weird little role. It's -- there are a lot of traps in it, I think, in that in the beginning Curran seems like the bad guy. He comes in and misleads these guys.

I don't know if you guys have seen it. I don't want to -- I'm so used to not being able to give away anything on Desperate Housewives and be very tight-lipped about what's going to happen, is the reason I'm being a little vague about The Discarded.

But my character, on the surface, is a real bad guy who comes in and presents himself in a certain way, and then double-crosses these people. And Jon Frakes and I decided, with Harlan's consent, that it would be much more interesting if -- if Curran was an unwilling participant, and really didn't come in there dishonestly, but was also sort of a victim of circumstances by the end of it.

And so it was fun to sort of play him a little more sensitive, and not -- not fall into the trap of him being the stereotypical bad guy in the story. So, thank you. It was a lot of fun, and obviously a real departure from a Wisteria Lane plumber.

Now that you've done science fiction, you said that this is your first science fiction project, are you looking to do something again, and would you work on this show again?

James Denton: Absolutely, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Especially if I had a chance to work with Jonathan Frakes or somebody like Harlan, because the piece was really so much more than -- people that aren't really familiar with science fiction, everybody has a different perception of it. But this had so much humanity in it and the story is so heartbreaking, and yet it's, I guess futuristic, obviously, does have to do with some space travel. But science fiction is so much than that, I've learned.

But, yes, I would absolutely work on something like this again, whether it was a Masters of Science Fiction, like a mini-series, or a chance to work with Jonathan, who I know does a lot of -- has directed the Star Trek series, and films, or a chance to work with him again. So, yes, it was a lot of fun. And it's nice to do something that's a little surreal and a little bit -- quite a departure from, obviously, what I -- what my day job is.

What type of other roles are you being offered, and how's it been challenging to break outside of the mold you've set for yourself in television.

James Denton: Well, it's funny. I did just say that I haven't done science fiction, and that's probably because I don't really know the best way to -- to define it. I did a movie last hiatus called Wanted: Undead or Alive. It was a zombie comedy, which is a whole different genre. Not a lot of zombie westerns out there -- it was Chris Kattan and myself -- end up fighting zombies in the old west, which is hysterical and obviously very surreal.

It was such a rare genre that they couldn't get a distributor, and I don't know if anybody's ever going to see it. But the reason I took that was because it was a comedy; big, broad comedy that I never get to do. And a zombie film, which was a lot of fun.

And then this past summer after Masters I went to Canada and did a couple of films. One's called Tortured, it's a psychological thriller, is what they're calling it, and FBI story with Laurence Fishburne in the lead, and James Cromwell, and [Kevin Pollock] and Jon Cryer, a really interesting cast. So sort of a very violent, dark, FBI movie. And then couple of months later went to Ottawa and did a "Lifetime" movie with Rob Morrow, Kay Panabaker, called Custody of the Heart about two guys fighting over custody; one's the biological father, and one's the father who raised the daughter.

Which one are you?

James Denton: I'm the guy -- I'm -- well, again, I'm sort of the bad guy. I'm the guy who's the biological father who shows up when she's 13, wanting her back after Rob Morrow has raised her when her mom died. So Rob is not the real dad, but has raised her, and she thinks he's her real dad. And I a rich real estate developer who shows up and just decides I want her back now. And so it's, again, a nice sort of touching, but funny, better than average "Lifetime" movie. So, it's fun. The first summer I got offered Mike Delfino as a cop, Mike Delfino as a fire fighter, Mike Delfino as a lawyer. All the same guy, pretty much, in different walks of life.

Yes.

James Denton: But between Undead or Alive and this one, Masters and then those two I got to do this summer, it's been a pretty good -- pretty good variety. And it's fun when you spend ten months out of the year tossing softballs to Teri Hatcher. It's -- I'm not knocking it; it's putting my kids through college. But it's fun to go do something a little different and kind of stretch your legs a little bit on a different project.

I wonder if I dare ask this, but what can you tell me Mike Delfino and what he might be up to in season four of Desperate Housewives?

James Denton: That's a great question. I purposely didn't ask Marc Cherry this year, because it get's hard to -- I hate lying to reporters and I hate trying to mince words. So I don't really know exactly where they're going. We're three episodes in, and so far it's just been really fun, romantic comedy. But I know there's some darkness that's creeping in from Mike's past toward the middle of the season that's going to cause a lot of problems for them, because it's Wisteria Lane. Obviously they can't be happy.

But, so far, we've had a lot of fun with Mike kind of being a fish out of water. Is he going to be a dad to Julie, this 17-year-old girl that he doesn't really know, or just try to be a buddy? How's he going to fit in to that house with two women? And the three episodes, it's pretty light-hearted, but I understand that it's going to take a turn, and things are going to get tougher for them, which, of course, it has to, to be interesting.

But that's about all I really know. And it's a -- quite a difference from going the first three years on a pretty high profile show. I was the only single guy and kind of a -- sort of a mysterious, even shady character that you didn't know much about, which made him kind of interesting to being the father of a teenage girl in just another family on Wisteria Lane.

So it's not the sexiest character move, but it's going to be a lot of fun, and I love Teri. And I didn't get to work with her that much last year, between the coma and prison, and all the other stuff. So that's one big benefit to the changes that I get to work with. Teri and Andrea Bowen, who's just a brilliant little actress. So, so far it's just -- it's been a lot of fun.

I was wondering, is there going to be any writing or directing in your future. Or have you thought anything about that. And what kind of projects would you like to write or direct?

James Denton: I've never been -- I've never had any aspirations to write. I've written some music. When I was in Chicago I wrote music for a few plays, and that was a lot of fun. I grew up in Nashville, so it's kind of part of the deal that you at least dabble in music.

But I've never attempted to write at all. I do want to direct. I've directed some theater when I was in Chicago. We're trying to put together a film called Damaged Goods that I guess you would call a romantic comedy that a friend of mine wrote, that I want to direct this hiatus. Our problem is the upcoming strike. And it's hard to get too enthusiastic about a project when either a strike or a lockout seems eminent.

So that's frustrating, but that would be my first directorial debut of anything on camera, would be this film called Damaged Goods, which we were hoping to do in May in New Mexico, and now it's -- you know between the writers strike coming up the first of November and us the first of June, or the potential lockout in the middle, it's going to be tough.

Hiatus might not even happen for us. We might shoot straight through May, whereas we normally wrap May 1st. There may not be a hiatus. So that's going to make it tougher. So whatever happens may just have to wait until this little Housewives run is over.

Masters of Science Fiction airs Saturday, August 18 at 10/9c on ABC.

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Evan Jacobs