Monday, June 12, 2006

TV Guide Interview with NiCole Robinson, aka "Margaret"

From TV Guide:
" After the series finale, I thought my season-long Watercooler coverage of The West Wing was complete. Thankfully, not so. A few weeks after the series wrapped up, I heard from NiCole Robinson (aka “Margaret”), who had read some of the posts (Pretty cool.) and she was nice enough to agree to an interview. What follows are highlights from a fun and funny conversation which touched on the West Wing finale, Margaret’s “baby daddy” and the late, great John Spencer. Enjoy.

Watercooler (Jon McDaid): Let’s start at the beginning. How were you cast for the role of Margaret?

NiCole Robinson: I was in an acting class and Jeff Roth from Warner Bros. casting saw me. As a result, I got 12 auditions in the Warner Bros. casting department. Those were the first professional auditions of my career and number 12 was The West Wing. It was the very first pilot for which I ever read, the other 11 were shows already on the air, including Friends and ER . I was only given one page of the script because, after all, I only had one line and when I read that page I knew for sure it was a very funny comedy. Luckily, before I walked in the door, I was told that it was definitely not a comedy and Aaron Sorkin was the writer. This kind of freaked me out because I am really a comedic actress. So, I walked in the room and there was John Wells, Tommy Schlamme, two of the biggest casting people in the business, John Levy and Kevin Scott, and I am told that the person I am going to be reading with is Aaron Sorkin. Aaron said to me, and I will never forget it, “this is going to be the shortest audition of your life.” He was right. It was the shortest audition and, ironically, the longest job.

My one line was “Is this for real or is this just funny?” This is exactly how I feel now, seeking Emmy consideration, for the role that came from my one line audition.

WC: Emmy consideration, how does that procedure work?

Robinson: You have to be sponsored into the Academy. Two of my sponsors were John Spencer and Martin Sheen. Isn’t that cool? Once you are a member, you’re automatically eligible for Emmy consideration. So, basically, all you have to do is fill out a form. You have to pick the episodes that you send them to consider you for.

I have never put myself in. John Spencer, every single year, would get on my back and say "Put yourself in, kid, put your name in the hat, put your name in the hat.” I always felt like, you know, I don’t have as big a part as these other actors. Three weeks before he passed away, we had dinner up as his house and he invited me over to grill me about putting my name in for the Emmys. And he went over all the procedures. Then when he passed away I felt, like, disrespectful to be quite honest. I thought if I don’t do this, it would be weird, and wrong, and I’d feel funny if I didn’t honor him in that he felt so strongly. So, I’m doing what I was told.

WC: Could you talk a little bit about working with John Spencer?

Robinson: On the very first day we worked together he said to me “I’m going to say your name in a way that, if I do it right, people will yell it at you.” Five years later, on my wedding day, I was in a room while the guests were entering and even then I hear one of them shout “Margaret!” Just like Leo would. Let’s just say it happens a lot. John was a master. He was my teacher and my friend. This question is very hard for me. I’m sorry. I just miss him so much.

WC: At the time of the pilot, did you sense the show was something special?

Robinson: Well, once I realized that it, in fact, wasn’t a comedy and got to set and Tommy Schlamme gave me a tour of the set, an exact replica of the White House, yeah, I sensed this might be a pretty important show. I’m quick like that.

WC: Seven seasons is an eternity in TV time. Were you surprised at all at the show’s success and longevity?

Robinson: No, absolutely not. When you have the combination of Aaron Sorkin writing, Tommy Schlamme directing and John Wells producing, topped off with an awesome ensemble cast (Don’t forget me, cast member No. 11 on this cast of nine.) the success and longevity is not surprising. I knew the potential because I got the whole script, about a week after I shot the pilot, and when I read that script I saw that it depicted politics and government without the usual cynicism.

WC: Margaret has a very unique kind of regal quirkiness. How did you create the character? How do you feel she changed over the years?

Robinson: Don Richardson was my teacher and mentor and he would always say to me “Think of what everyone else is going to do and then do something different.” When I auditioned with my one line, the line was pretty sassy and I thought everyone would go in playing the old-school sassy secretary so I thought I would play the proud and devoted secretary. I guess that would be the regal part. As for being quirky, I have been called “quirky” my whole life and I’m not even sure what it means exactly. Wait, I think that was a quirky answer, right?

Margaret changed a lot! I think like anyone in a new job she was more timid at first, but after dealing with heads of state day after day, year after year, she gained a lot of confidence, just like the people in Washington.

WC: I know some of your fellow cast members talked to their real-world counterparts in the White House. Did you feel that kind of research was necessary?

Robinson: I did extensive research. When the cast was invited to meet our counterparts at the White House, I went. Who knew you needed an ID to get in? I was stuck at that little guard hut at the front gate. By the time I got in, I became painfully aware that the cute little sundress I wore was not exactly “inside the beltway” attire. The Rose Garden pictures are pretty funny. I definitely stood out, I guess it’s that quirky thing. Now, here’s the cool part: the woman’s name who was the Assistant to the Chief of Staff was Josephine Robinson. Kinda weird that we had the same last name. She showed me that she actually had a peep hole looking into the Chief of Staff’s office so she could tell if a meeting was wrapping up or what was going on before she entered. Cool, huh?

WC: Did you create a whole backstory for Margaret? Did she have a home life, hobbies, any superpowers?

Robinson: John would always say to me he thought she had a lot of cats. I have no idea where that was coming from. There are a lot of actors who do create this whole life and that tends to fall more for a method actor. I was trained by a man who had a very different philosophy, who was very writer-and-director driven. For me, if it’s not on the page, it’s not there yet. I was taught “don’t try to make things up,” because that’s the writer’s job. My job is just to interpret what’s on the page in front of me.

WC: As an actor, how hard is it to develop a character, when you only have a limited number of scenes in a given episode?

Robinson: I take offense to that question. It shows that you obviously do not understand how poignantly someone can say, “Excuse me, Leo. Line one.”

WC: Do you have any favorite “Margaret moments” from the show. Mine was when she confided to Leo that she could forge the President’s signature.

Robinson: That was definitely one of mine, too! That was during the Aaron years. He gave me that and Margaret’s muffin mystery, telling the French joke, listening at the door when Ainsley came…man, that was fun. After Aaron, I loved “Lift-Off”, when we get to see the power the assistant has, because Margaret is indispensable to CJ when she becomes the new chief of staff. One moment that I will never forget is in the first season, when we are meeting Charlie for the first time and Leo calls on John Amos’ character, Admiral Fitzwallace, to talk about the President having a black kid carry his bag. The work that John and John were doing was so interesting to me, NiCole the actress, that I was watching them shoot from a crack in the door. All of a sudden I noticed that I could see the camera. And if you can see the camera, it can see you. I was sure they would fire me for ruining the scene when, in fact, that is the take they used. I guess I have a little Margaret in me. By far, my favorite of all, was the scene when they mention Margaret being pregnant. I got to watch it from my hospital bed with all the nurses, my husband and my brand new baby in my arms. That was cool.

WC: I thought it was great that so many characters were given “curtain calls” as the West Wing wrapped up. What were the last few weeks of production like?

Robinson: In the last weeks, we had to shoot the episode about Leo’s passing. That was weird, it was like the ultimate method acting or some sort of ultimate reality TV. We had to go to work every day dress in black, and mourn the passing of our friend over and over, take after take. That was incredibly hard and extremely draining for everyone. We loved him so much. I can only speak for myself when I say that was the fat lady singing.

WC: It still seemed to me the series got a little short shrift at the finale (one-hour episode, no finale special). Did you think NBC should have made a bigger deal? I mean, Will & Grace got a two-hour sendoff.

Robinson: I’m not going to tell NBC how to run their network, but a Margaret clip show could have commanded some serious ratings. “CJ, you're needed in the Oval.” That’s gold! And, let’s be honest, the fans want to know who Margaret’s baby daddy is.

WC: All right, I’ll bite, who is Margaret’s baby daddy?

Robinson: I get that a lot. A lot of people think it was Ron Silver.

WC: My two choices are Bruno [Silver’s character] or [Secret Service agent] Ron Butterfield, because you know that guy could keep a secret.

Robinson: I hadn’t heard that one. The UPS guy and Bruno are the two that I heard. I like the Ron Butterfield one.

WC: With the West Wing wrapped, what’s next for NiCole Robinson?

Robinson: I always dreamed of being a theatre actress in New York. I was too poor to go to college and get a theatre degree that might get me that chance, so I thought the next best thing would be to go to Hollywood and get some TV credits and maybe then I would get a chance. We have moved to New York, I am pursuing my dream and enjoying the city with my family. I am also keeping my finger on the pulse of my fans by doing a lot of stand-up comedy at the bar attached to the Denny’s in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

WC: Stand-up, really?

Robinson: I’ve been doing it for a few years. I actually started just prior to getting on the show and I really had to stand back from it a lot, because everyone thought that I was going to be some genius stand-up comedian because I got on The West Wing. They didn’t realize I was brand new. I was very young in that. Now, I’ve been for doing it for quite a few years and I really enjoy it.

WC: Stand-up always seems like a really tough gig.

Robinson: It is hard, but I don’t see how it’s any harder than being an actor. I’ll tell you what’s scary: when you are on a set and there are no less than 50 people scuffling around, doing their jobs, and then they yell “action,” and everybody stops and stares at you. And all you can hear is the film ticking in the camera. That, to me, is pressure. A bunch of drunks in a comedy club? Like I care!

WC: Finally, as a TV GUIDE writer with copy editors who always doubted me, I have to ask: why the capital C in NiCole?

Robinson: Why not? Life is too short to be all lower case. Seriously, it’s what poor people do to look fancy. I was born in a potato plant town in Idaho of 1211 people, 1210 of whom are related to me. I actually had to be born in the next town because there is no hospital in Paul, Idaho. People think I made it up for show biz, but the honest truth is it was made up, by my mother, for no reason at all. Truth be told, I’m just grateful she was too drunk to figure out where to put the accent mark.

WC: “Life is too short to be all lower case.” I love that. That’s my new motto. I won’t even read the poetry of e.e. cummings anymore. Thank you so much, NiCole.

Robinson: Thanks a lot. This has really been fun."

1 comment:

Mike said...

I love this interview! I thought Margaret was a lesbian and was artificially inseminated. There was some bit of awkward west-wing-speak dialogue about her pregnancy. It could have been talking about her being married, but I like the lesbian idea.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the lower case quote. I changed my name on facebook as a result.

thanks you two!