The Cast of Monk Comes Clean

Tony Shalhoub and Ted Levine tell you everything you could want to know about the 5th Season of their show.

We recently had the opportunity to sit on a teleconference with Tony Shalhoub and Ted Levine for their hit USA Network Show Monk. Following the exploits of a master detective who just happens to have obsessive compulsive disorder, this show seems to be gaining steam as it continues it's 5th Season. It returns Friday, January 19 at 9:00 pm on the USA Network.

My first question is for both of you. I think that Monk now belongs right up there with some of the greatest charismatic TV salutes of all time, you know, the same league with Columbo and Rockford. And Question 1, what do you think of my saying that do you dare to believe and to admit publicly that Monk runs with that crowd? And two, who are some of your favorite TV detectives?

Tony Shalhoub: This is Tony. I'll start. Well I - that's very flattering. I don't quite think - those shows have been around for so long and they just have - they have such enormous, you know, such an enormous fan base, a huge following. I don't know if we're quite up to that level yet. I mean, you know, we follow - we're sort of humbly following the footsteps. But, who knows, if Monk is around long enough and, you know, if Ted and I, you know, if our - if we're alive long enough and our health stays good, then - and who knows, we may join those guys. But those are huge shoes to fill, thank you for that.

Ted Levine: Yeah. I agree. The Rockford is great stuff. Columbo is a wonderful show. I like The Andy Griffith Show. I thought that's...

Tony Shalhoub: Yeah. Now, that's a good detective show, right?

Ted Levine: That's a good detective show, right.

When I interviewed Tony one time before and I asked him if he had even the slightest touch of Monk in him, the most that he would bring himself to admit was that he's the only one at home, he knows how to absolutely the right way to load the dishwasher. But now that I get to ask you, you know, a colleague (and an observer) of his methods, how normal or how not normal is he?

Ted Levine: Tony is a bit of a perfectionist. I think that's one of the big successes of the show -- of the character. I mean I think that the actor is - and producer is a bit of perfectionist. And he'll, you know, he'll - he's working all the time. And so I think that that is one of the things that's sort of Monk-ish about Tony.

And last thing for me for Ted, in the episode, I think last year when (Stanley) thought he was the actor playing Monk, was it (a trip) to watch Peter Weller, do his take on you?

Ted Levine: Oh, well, it was just an (article). Peter Weller did it great. He did a great Stottlemeyer.

Tony, can I get your reaction to your Golden Globe nominations and congratulations.

Tony Shalhoub: Thank you. Yeah. It was great. I was kind of left out of the Golden Globe's and the SAG Awards last year. And then this year it came around again. So it was kind of a surprise and kind of a relief. Unfortunately, I'm in New York doing this play as was mentioned. So I don't - it's very unlikely that I would - well, it's impossible really for me to go to the SAG Awards because they take place on a Sunday. And I have (unintelligible) on that day.

I might be able to go to the Golden Globe's because they're on a Monday so I could sort of theoretically fly back for, you know, maybe 18, 20 hours. But, you know, it would be a little bit of a push. We have, you know, we have shows on Sunday and on Tuesday of course so...

Yeah...

Tony Shalhoub: But I really love - I'd love to attend. And I'm, you know, because there are always - especially those two award shows are really a lot of fun to go to.

You've been in the awards circuit for a while though, do you have any special good luck rituals?

Tony Shalhoub: Well, you know, I usually...

Ted Levine: He doesn't wash his underwear.

Tony Shalhoub: Damn. I told you not to tell them that.

Ted Levine: I'm sorry.

Tony Shalhoub: I wash them, I just don't wear them. But, usually what I do is I try, you know, I - my ritual it's kind of an involuntary ritual. I lie awake the night before, worrying about it. Try and think of something to write in case I actually get up there. I write it at the very last minute like either in the car on the way to the ceremony or, you know, in the bathroom before the show starts. It's all of jumbled mess written on a napkin or a piece of toilet paper. That's my good luck ritual. It's just like being in college waiting for the last minute to do everything.

So going into this new run, is there anything in particular you're excited to do this time or is it very comfortable?

Tony Shalhoub: Are you talking about the -- I'm not sure what you're asking.

So going into the new run of six episodes, I mean I know you...

Tony Shalhoub: Oh, you mean the shows, the upcoming shows that we're going to air -- the upcoming shows?

Yeah. What are you excited about us getting to see you do?

Tony Shalhoub: Well, we have so much - so many good ones in the can for this winter season. And some really, really great guest stars -- Charles Durning is in an episode, Ricardo Severo who's from Desperate Housewive... is a kind of a farmer who's like growing pot and Monk stumbles on this big pot field. And we have Steven Weber, my old colleague from Wings. He played the shock Jack sort of (unintelligible) in one episode and Sean Astin in another episode. We have some really, really nice things coming up.

I would like to know, Tony, after three Emmy's, one as best actor in a comedy series, what's the challenge when you face a new season with the same character? And I would also like to know if there's something as Monk in you and something that's yours in Monk?

Tony Shalhoub: Well, first question, yeah. The - well, you know, the challenge with all television - all series television is, you know, to, you know, as you get into later seasons and now we're in the middle of our fifth season right now and getting ready to start shooting our sixth. You know, the challenge is always to give people what they have come to, you know, what they've become familiar with and what, you know, the qualities of the shows that they recognize without, you know, letting it get staled.

You want to change it up but you don't want to change it up too much because then people will go, "Oh, now that, that's not what it used to be" or they jump the (shark) or whatever else. So it's a very common problem. It's a balancing act. Our writers are really, really good at changing it up for us throwing us, you know, all of the actors and (Paul) and (Samuel), you know, they throw us (curved walls) all the time. They develop a relationship, they're really, really good at in some ways, you know, breaking their own rules, breaking our own rules, you know, which we've established. And - but never to the degree that the show becomes something else. I think Ted, you would agree, right? That it's - it, you know, we're always in somewhat familiar territory but there - it always seems to be evolving in a way.

Ted Levine: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean I think that there's a bit of a, not a consensus but I call, well a kind of a, I think that the writers take a certain queue from the actors as the show goes on and sort of right to the strength. I think that the character that (unintelligible) has evolved nicely during the course of the thing, you know... I mean sort of.

Then, you know, as Jason's (strength), I'll never forget in the one - in the Panic episode they left the stage direction was Ted tries to get the monkey to shoot him. I mean they were - they were deliberately non-specific about how that action would take place and they kind of left it to me and checking ideas around with Tony and with Jason, you know, as to how would I do that, you know? So I think that that's one of the things that gives the show, you know, a life that's sustained...

Tony Shalhoub: Yeah.

Ted Levine: ...rather than something that's sort of to come by road I think that, you know, that it's just - you have the - it's the whole thing has a life, you know, and...

Tony Shalhoub: This is Tony again. And to add to what Ted said, writers, you know, and this in not necessarily a common practice -- but in other, with other shows -- but our writers are also very open to taking suggestions from the actors, you know...

Ted Levine: Uh-huh. Yeah.

Tony Shalhoub: ... when they - when we feel that something isn't really working or isn't really going to pay off. They are very willing to adjust to us. It's a real - it's always kind of an ongoing negotiation between what they're looking for and what we feel, you know, we're able to add to it. And so that's - it really has become over the years, now it's really become like a true collaboration. And there's a very - it's a warm atmosphere and it's a really productive I think atmosphere. And there's a kind of a, you know, a real mutual respect going on between this. Sometimes that's not the case. Sometimes it's like two separate camps that are...

Ted Levine: Uh-huh.

Tony Shalhoub: ...have much more than adversarial or kind of relationships. We just don't seem to have that and we're really fortunate.

Ted Levine: Yup.

Now, since the writers are willing to take suggestions from the actors, does - I mean, this is obviously a popular show for guest starts. You have Steven Weber, David Eigenberg, a lot of Andy Richter and just in an upcoming season, do you have those people constantly saying, "Hey, I'd really love to do a spot on Monk," and then you have to go back to the writers and say, "Hey, you know, Steven Weber said he wants to do a (thing), can you write something for him?"

Tony Shalhoub: Well that does happens -- this is Tony again. That does sometimes happen. We're - and it even happens with the writers, you know? The write - our writers have been, you know, (unintelligible) has been around a long time. Some of them - they're comedy writers, they've worked on other shows. Some of them had worked for Saturday Night Live and, you know, like The Tonight Show with Letterman or various...

Ted Levine:The Simpson's.

Tony Shalhoub: Yeah, The Simpsons. So they have relationships with actors too. And sometimes they're approached by actors who express a desire, and sometimes the writers might meet someone, you know, at a function or out somewhere and solicit jokes just to go up to the actor and say, "Hey, how do you like to do a stint on our show?"

And so it happens in all different kinds of ways. And we do, you know, when we hear about an actor who has interest in doing the show, the writers do kind of -- they don't necessarily build one episode around that particular actor -- but they look for certain stories and characters that - where it might be a good fit.

Henry Kissinger appeared on Dynasty. Have you had any celebrities outside of the, you know, the film or acting realm that have said, "You know, I'd love to do a bit part or something," you know, a sports star or a politician or?

Tony Shalhoub: This is Tony again. Well, other than Willie Nelson, our -- was that our first season, Ted? I think it was.

Ted Levine: Yeah. We were in Toronto.

Tony Shalhoub: Yeah. Other than Willie Nelson, I don't - we haven't had any politicians. I would love to get a sports figure on, that would be great. I'm from Green Bay, maybe I can convince Greg Farr to come on the show.

Ted Levine: There's a bunch of guys who are fans -- this is Ted. There's a bunch of guys who are fans. I know, (Lyle Laggard) wants to do a show, (Tom Weights), you know, people like that enjoy the show. So I just didn't, I would love to work on it.

Basically, through the five seasons that you've been working, have you learned anything, any new aspects about Monk? For example, his extreme loneliness wanting a best friend in the Andy Richter episode.

Tony Shalhoub: Well, that's kind of the beauty of doing this part and doing this kind of material. You know, I - sometimes I open the script and I discover a thing about my reading that I can really - that I hadn't really thought of. And, you know, this whole notion of Monk wanting and needing a best friend. It was something that hasn't occurred to me that there wasn't a friend from childhood that he - he'll have a great memory of. And so, I guess to answer your question, yeah. I mean, it's - the writers are always helping me to, and I think all of the actors, to, you know, to add to their back story.

And along the similar vein Ted, how is the relationship going to be changing? Are there any new developments with Monk joining the force now or backing the force between...

Ted Levine: That remains to be seen. That issue hasn't been addressed lately. I think from Stottlemeyer's perspective, things are working pretty well for him, you know, with Monk as sort of as a tool who's not really, you know, a part of the force, you know? It works well for Stottlemeyer and that he's, you know, he has a higher (sought) rate than (most practice) because of Monk.

And Tony, with the (Shaun Ashen) episode with the butler, did you do any sort of research as far as like the pride and responsibilities that butlers take in their job?

Tony Shalhoub: No. That's a good question. But, basically, just in doing the episode what I do at home, you know, with my own family.

I heard a rumor that Purell that Tony feels - I'm sorry - that your character feels that Purell should be the invention of the year -- Purell hand wash.

Tony Shalhoub: You heard that?

Yeah, yeah.

Tony Shalhoub: That's funny. That's all news to me.

I'm just wondering if as time goes on, you discover that maybe he's neurosis or his OCD is not as crazy as it seems with the concentration now on dirty food, on people having constantly to wash their hands, maybe he seemed to be more normal in society.

Tony Shalhoub: Well, yeah. I think you're right. I mean, I certainly, in the five years that I've spent with the, you know, living with the character, I certainly see him as more and more normal. At first, I think I thought of him as a bizarre, you know, outsider sort of character. But, you know, the more I - time I spent with him and the more I think about his problem, which are now becoming my problem frankly, the more normal he seems. You're right.

I mean, I just had a revelation the other day living in New York, that sort of that (batching) each year. I am - I've been going out to eat a lot and it just struck me. I was in a restaurant, and it just struck me, something I'd never thought of before. And it's menus in the restaurant, you know, it just hit me. I was ordering and I thought, "God, think of all the people who handle these meals day in and day out" and they, I mean, you know, you're going to a restaurant, you can be pretty - you can feel secure that they wash the silverware in the kitchen and the linens and all that stuff, but they don't wash their menus, who washes menus? Now, I've got to worry about that for the rest of my life.

If you could just give me some information and tell me why you chose to do America East? I know you signed on and you're executive producing a new film called America East and it's about post...

Tony Shalhoub: It's actually called American East.

American East, okay. And it's about post 911 and how it affected the Arab community. Why was this important, these - the American Arab community? Why was this important to you to do at this time?

Tony Shalhoub: Well, because, you know, I'm from a Lebanese-American, you know, family. And I've been, you know, I've had lot of contacts and - with Arab-American community, especially Arab-American filmmakers and actors and so forth. In fact, last year, I started something called an American Filmmakers Award, which is - which was soliciting short screen plays and - from Arab-American filmmakers. And, you know, we gave a cash prize and everything and can help the winner get the - their film made.

It's something that, you know, it's a community that, you know, a minority that really hasn't been heard from enough. And so many of the stories that are told about Arab-Americans these days are, you know, just negative portrayals in the news, but also in television and film. So we're - we set out to try and offset some of those stereotypes. That's what this movie American East is dealing with.

You guys referenced just at the beginning a little bit. If your household is up, you know, you'll be around, but I mean is there a point when character fatigue sets in, how long do you think you can carry the show on and how long would you like to carry the show on?

Tony Shalhoub: Ted, any thoughts on that?

Ted Levine: No, no, as long as it's good.

Tony Shalhoub: Yeah, I think - this is Tony again. I think that's really the - I think that's really the right answer. I mean we want - we would like to keep it alive as long as the quality is maintained. And I think we'll all sort of (unintelligible) in our guts when it's, you know, when the writers have, you know, have hit the well, then that will be time to, you know, hang up the holster and the gun and the badge.

And just one more quick question for Tony. I caught your voice performance in Cars the other day. You've done a couple of Italian voices now, do you ever think that there will be - have you ever asked for or contemplated an Italian Monk episode which goes to Italy or suddenly infiltrate the Italian-American community or anything like that?

Tony Shalhoub: That's a good idea. We're - I'm always trying to convince the network to do an episode somewhere exotic like, you know, like Hawaii or Paris or Rome or something. I mean maybe one day before we end, we'll actually do that.

Tony, I wanted to ask, you said some - in one of the earlier questions that you're beginning to get like Monk, did you mean at home? And what characteristics have you taken over in your personal life?

Tony Shalhoub: Well, I mean, I would be lying if I said, you know, that it hasn't kind of effected me in some way. I mean, because I'm sort of in the mindset of the character so much of the time. You know, it does tend to make you think about things like, well, things that never bothered me before, like shaking someone's hand, I have to - I have to have that horrible thought now, you know.

You know, I mean I still do it, I haven't become - I haven't become completely, you know, neurotic about it, but just those thoughts are just rolling around in my head. Like I said the other day, you know, I was thinking about these menus in these restaurants, and things like that just start occurring to me. And then I have to worry about, you know, it's not just my hands that I have to worry about children's hands and everybody - you know. And it just, I don't know, it's just more a heightened awareness I guess.

Does your wife ever notice it when you do that? Something like that she'll say, "Now you're being Monk?"

Tony Shalhoub: I think she would - if you ask my wife this question, she would say that she noticed it even before I did Monk.

I may have missed a few - I had been kind of out of it for a while. I'm wondering, did or did I not see a show, a program, maybe this would be for Ted, where Monk ran into somebody exactly like him on the show? Did he run in to a character like himself? And if not, would you ever think of doing that?

Ted Levine: I'm sorry, I don't understand the question.

No, Monk, Monk is, you know, you can't touch his hands (unintelligible) all the pictures, he takes care of everything, he's such a perfectionist. Have you ever thought of having Monk run in to a character exactly like him on the show? And I seem - I thought I recalled somebody doing that, Ted, but I'm not exactly sure.

Ted Levine: Yeah, Stanley Tucci character played, actor, he played a character - he played an actor who was going to portray Monk in a show and sort of assumed Monk's persona. That was a very funny episode...

All right, just one other question for you -- will Monk, even though - will he ever meet some woman that he can fall in love with although he's still madly in love with his late wife? Would they ever have any idea about that in the future episodes?

Tony Shalhoub: I would not rule it out, this is Tony again. I would not rule that out. I - you know, we've had conversations, the writers and the actors, they had conversations about this. I don't think that it would - I don't think it would be a kind of a permanent situation because I think we like to keep Monk in that, you know, in that sort of that sad, lonely kind of mode. But it's possible that he would become attracted - he had - we have done episodes where he is attracted to different women because maybe they remind him of Trudy...

And done - you've done episodes where he is so - where his wife is very prevalent, where the thoughts about his wife is very prevalent, and as a viewer I felt sorry for him, you know, because he had that.

Tony Shalhoub: Yeah.

But I wondered, after five years, you know, it's the normal thing, sometimes two years, three months, whatever, somebody meets somebody that is, you know, and so I just wondered if they're going to do that.

Tony Shalhoub: So that would be a good question for the writers.

I really understood that you are very happy and you still feel fortunate to be in the show. But I was wondering, do you still have the same excitement by playing Monk? And this project to do this play, is it because actually you would like to do maybe something else?

Tony Shalhoub: I mean all actors want to do a variety of things I think, most actors do. But that's kind of what the beauty of doing Monk, is that, you know, the fact that it's on USA Cable Network, we do - we only do 16 episodes per year, per season, and we do them in two blocks so that we don't do 16 consecutive. That gives us downtime, two months off in the summer and four months off in the winder. And that affords all of us, all of the actors, the time to pursue other projects.

And, you know, Ted will, you know, go off and do a film or will - somebody else will go off and do a play. And sort of that kind of - that provides us with hat opportunity and satisfies the appetite to vary our work. And then when we come back to do Monk, we're ready to - ready to get back into it, because we've had a chance to sort of wash it out of our systems.

Ted Levine: Yeah. I just - I think that what it does too also is reaffirm the fact that we've got a really cool thing going with Monk. When you go and work someplace else, when you join another staff and another crew (unintelligible) you really - I really appreciate coming back to work with people that I love and I've worked with for a long time. And so I think it's kind of - for me anyway, it's a reaffirming experience, you know. And also as an actor, your job is to keep your character fresh, that's one of the sort of right up there, you know, no matter what you're doing, no matter if you're going to work. You know, if you're doing a film and you're working for a few months on one character in the film, that can become redundant. You know, it's just sort of - a big part of the job is to make every - try to make every experience that the character has a new one.

Well, lately some fans have complained that the show has turned its focus from the murder/mystery to the character lives, with Monk getting to know his father and reuniting with his college classmates. Do you see that shift? And if you see it, how do you like it? Do you appreciate it? Because maybe it gives you the chance to dwell into other aspects of the characters?

Tony Shalhoub: This is Tony. Well, I - yeah, I like the way the show is evolving. I don't really sense from my point of view that there's been an enormous shift. There's always, you know, there's always a murder, mystery, there's always something for Monk to solve. We do like to develop, you know, the back story, we do like to see the character in different situations. We like to develop the relationships between main characters on the show. So it doesn't, you know, it all feels like it's moving in the right direction for me.

Ted Levine: I agree. The core of the show is the murder - the mystery deal, and I appreciate the strength of the mystery thing. But I think that they've been pretty solid. I - I don't know what to say.

Tony Shalhoub: I think the - this is Tony again. I think the thing that sets Monk apart from shows like Columbo or things like that, because we've been compared to Columbo a lot, the thing that sets us apart is that we do go home with the characters. We never really, you know, Columbo was always a show about, you know, the workplace and the relationship between Monk and his, you know, his prime suspect.

And our show tends to have I think a lot more kind of character development, it's part and parcel to the kind of - the way the humor in the show factors in. So I think it's kind of a unique characteristic of the show overall.

And still on that matter, do you think that maybe some case, if you knew what was ahead for your characters, you would have played and acted so differently or a special scene differently?

Tony Shalhoub: No, I don't - that don't - that never really comes up for me. I, you know, we - it's always a problem, again, with television and with films, you always shoot things out of sequence, so you just take your best stab at every moment. You can't really - you'll drive yourself crazy if you dwell on the, you know, on the negative aspects of it or, you know, your shortcomings.

If you knew in advance that something was going to happen with your character, would you have played a scene in a different way?

Ted Levine: It depends on how far in advance and the specifics of it. But, yeah, I think that, yeah, I agree with Tony in that you can, you know, just you hit the ball (unintelligible) get the job done as it's presented to you and not anticipate something, I mean if you knew that you were going to - there's something that's going to happen, I think you'd have to forget about that thing and just sort of approach, you know, if your character was not supposed to know it was going to happen. You know what I mean? You'd have to forget about that thing and not let that get in the way of the immediacy of what is presented to you.

Tony, I would like to know, in your opinion, what has made possible for Monk to stay in television in times when we see so many series come and go? Very few of them stay for more than five years.

Tony Shalhoub: Yes, that's - this is Tony again. That's, you know, a good observation. It's a bit of a - all - the whole television landscape right now is very strange and hard to understand, hard to predict. I can't really explain it. I mean I think the USA Network did a good job of platforming this show, publicizing it, of, you know, I think the writers, the whole creative team along with the network and the publicity people have done a nice job of building it slowly over time. Maybe the fact that it is on cable, as I mentioned before, and we only do 16 episodes a year, that kind of helps to maintain a sort of appetite in terms of the viewership, that they don't get oversaturated with, you know, with it. You know, the seasons are - the little mini-seasons are short. So it leaves the audience, the viewers wanting more maybe. I think there's a whole number of factors to it.

But also it probably has something to do with the fact that this is the kind of show that crosses a lot of demographics. It's, you know, it's not the kind of show, you know, where parents would have a problem with their kids watching or that it's just geared to kids and adults don't really have a taste for it. I mean we hear over and over again that - from people that they love it because the family can watch it as a group, you know, the grandparents, the parents, the - and the kids can all watch it at the same time and there's nothing too objectional - objectionable about it, and yet it's kind of stimulating enough and clever enough that it, you know, it holds - gets the attention of adults, you know. So I think there's - I think that's a factor too.

The 5th Season of Monk resumes Friday, January 19 at 9:00 pm on the USA Network.