Josh Charles has one foot in drama and the other in comedy: He plays a fragrance entrepreneur on Showtime’s Masters of Sex and a preppy jerk in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Here, the 43-year-old actor traces the key steps in his diverse career.
At 15, Charles landed his first Hollywood role — a bit part in John Waters’ musical comedy as Iggy, a dancer on The Corny Collins Show.
“Getting to work with John Waters and Divine, and Debbie Harry, and Sonny Bono—it was an absolutely incredible summer, and so much fun to put on the costumes and do all the dance rehearsals. I love John, and he’s such an important person from my hometown, and to have my first movie with him was special.… What’s funny is that we had our first dance rehearsal for Hairspray at my dad’s office in Baltimore. My dad had a studio office, and it was a lower-budget movie and he knew all the people from the movie and he said we could use his space to rehearse. When I whip out the Mashed Potato on a dance floor and people don’t know how I know it — these are all things I learned at 15 years old. [laughs]…. I had my first line in a movie, “Would you ever swim in an integrated swimming pool,” and I had a cold. I sound really stuffed up, and it looks like I’m making some kind of choice to make the guy really snobby. In fact, he’s really snotty.”
DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)
Next, Charles played lovesick prep-school student Knox Overstreet in the coming-of-age drama that featured Robin Williams as an inspirational, irreverent teacher.
“It was an unforgettable experience. We were all on location in Delaware, making this movie as boys with a fantastic director like Peter Weir, and working with a bona fide star in Robin Williams, and telling a story that we all knew was really special. Robin really took his craft very seriously, and he was the first true star I had ever worked with of that caliber. And he worked very hard to disarm that persona. He knew he was not here to just tell jokes, and also that he wanted to be a member of the ensemble as much as possible. He knew who he was to all of us, both as a character and a person, and was incredibly gracious and kind.
“I remember shooting on my bicycle through various parts of the countryside. Peter Weir wanted a shot of me on my bicycle, coming down the hill, riding through these geese, and having them fly off. It was really wet on the hillside, so we didn’t think it was safe for me to ride, and the geese wouldn’t fly— they wouldn’t be scared. I said to Peter, ‘Let me just ride through them. If that doesn’t scare them, I don’t know what will.’ He’s like, ‘Do you feel comfortable doing that?’ and I was like, ‘I think so.’ It’s a shot, cinematically, that when I saw it, I was blown away. It speaks so much to the story, and you got to really see what Peter was going for, this sense of taking flight.”
DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD (1991)
As earnest, grunion-loving fast-food employee Bryan, he toiled at a burger joint and romanced fashion designer wannabe Sue Ellen (Christina Applegate).
“The first thing that comes to mind is Christina and how supercool she was. She still is. What a fan I was from Married… With Children. I had so much fun working with her and shooting all around L.A. This film makes every 24-year-old girl I meet happy…. It’s a film that has apparently developed a real cult status, and I appreciate that. I remember working with David Duchovny and really having a laugh with him, and of course, Christina, and Jayne Brook, who I ended up working with again on Sports Night, who I absolutely adore. We weren’t curing cancer. We were really having a fun time making a movie that was entertaining, and part of the reason why it endures is Christina at the helm. She’s super charming and talented and funny…. The fast-food place we shot in, [which served as] the Clown Dog, was on Sunset, and I read somewhere that it’s now a Chipotle.“
Charles, Stephen Baldwin, and Lara Flynn Boyle played a trio of college roommates (Eddy, Stuart, and Alex) who forever alter their close friendship with a ménage à trois.
“I had already done a movie with Stephen, and Lara was in Dead Poets Society with me, so we all kind of knew each other… I remember really liking Andy Fleming. It was his story. He was the director, and he wrote this really funny film that dealt with a subject matter that other people weren’t making at the time. It felt like this coming-of-age movie in college, and one of the characters was dealing with his sexuality, and being gay, and it was refreshing. I think we made it for $1 million…. It’s a real testament to him that we made this film that ended up getting bought by TriStar and actually having a successful theatrical run. It was dealing with subject matter that now seems pretty commonplace, but at the time, it wasn’t. I’m so proud of being a part of that film, and telling a story for somebody who may appear different to other people, but their story is just as interesting.”
SPORTS NIGHT (ABC, 1998-2000)
In this Aaron Sorkin comedy-drama hybrid, Charles and Peter Krause starred as Dan Rydell and Casey McCall, a pair of smart-mouthed anchors on a SportsCenter-like program.
“The second episode we shot [which contained Dan’s emotional speech about his younger brother] showed me the potential power of what this show could do — of having humor and then dropping in moments of intense drama. But the ability, tonally, to turn on a dime was part of why I wanted to do the show. That was the idea behind it, that it wasn’t going to just be a yuk-yuk show…. When I read that episode and that moment, I knew, ‘Wow, this is something special. It’s capturing all of this in a half hour.’ There were a lot of moments like that.
“It was not the easiest show to make — it’s tricky to turn all that out quickly — but I laughed so hard making the show, so many times. I loved everyone on that show. Working with someone like Robert Guillaume — his grace and calm and absolute badass charm was memorable — and the friendships that have endured: Josh Malina is still a very good friend, as is Peter. Peter and I spent a lot of time together. He and I just saw each other and were just talking about this: We made each other laugh so hard, it was hard to get through takes sometimes. No actor I’ve ever worked with has made me laugh harder…. It was a great two years. I don’t really look back with any regret. The positive of doing something for only two years is you never have the ability to wear out your welcome or jump the shark, you know? You get in, you get out, and you keep people wanting more. And there’s something to be said for that.”
IN TREATMENT (HBO, 2008)
Charles delved deep into the world of therapy as Jake, a husband who was clashing with his wife, Amy (Embeth Davidtz), over her desire to terminate a pregnancy, prompting the pair to seek help from Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne).
“When I saw the first few episodes of the Israeli version of that show, I was just riveted to the intensity, to the quietness, to watching something that you just don’t often get to see on TV. It felt like that you could almost be onstage. I loved the idea of being on that show, so when the opportunity came, I jumped at it, because it felt like I had real potential to do something that was scary and different and challenge myself…. I loved working on that show. I remember we had some takes that would be 10, 12 minutes long. The cameras would just be rolling. You never have that ability. I remember they would specifically set the cameras a little further back — with a little bit longer lenses — so it was almost like they weren’t there, in this very dimly lit set at times, and you could feel like you were just talking to your therapist.”
THE GOOD WIFE (CBS, 2009-2014)
Fans certainly had no objection to his portrayal of romantic pragmatist lawyer Will Gardner in this legal drama starring Julianna Margulies; Charles would earn two Emmy nominations for his performance.
“Huge smile. What a great gift it was to be able to work on that show for five years. I’m just so thankful to have had that experience – as a television experience that succeeded. Going into In Treatment, part of the allure was we knew we were going to work really hard but it was going to be this short period of time. But to have this classic run on television with The Good Wife was fantastic. I learned a lot working on that show. I got to direct a few times, and that really helped me as an actor – opened me up and realize what’s important in scenes. Julianna and my darling Christine Baranski made going to work fun every day.
“At the time, I wasn’t really looking to do a TV show. I got a call from Julianna, she said, ‘We’re making this show, we’re going to shoot the pilot somewhere else, but if the show goes, is going to shoot in New York. There’s this great role for you. Are you interested in it?’ And Mark Saks, our casting director, reached out to me at the same time. I really liked the script, and I liked the fact that it was going to shoot in NY, which is where I live. Will didn’t have a ton to do in the pilot, but I was told his character was going to be an important character in the run of the show. The writing was smart, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would keep eclipsing itself. You have no way of knowing that. Pretty soon, I realized the brilliance of [creators] Robert and Michelle King and ‘Wow, I’m very lucky to be a part of this.’ Any TV show is a leap of faith. So you take it, and I’m really glad I did.
“Knowing that I was leaving, the choice they made to make it more of a concrete ending [with Will being fatally shot] was a much more dramatic and ballsier choice — and one that I fully supported. The tougher part than that, actually, was just keeping it a secret. The fact that we were able to do that is something that is impressive, because we live in a world today where everybody knows everything before something’s even been released, how much this movie cost, and how they shot this scene. Speaking personally, as an audience member, as a fan, I don’t want to know everything. I like to just go in and be surprised. So it was nice we were able to do that. Dramatically, that was part of the effect of it — and part of the idea.”
BIRD PEOPLE (2014)
Charles journeyed overseas to film a surprising indie drama directed by Pascale Ferran, in which he starred as married Silicon Valley exec Gary Newman, who upends his life on a layover at a Paris hotel, where he crosses paths with a soul-searching maid named Audrey (Anais Demoustier).
“Certain things fall to you at certain times that you need to experience them, and it’s important with a little distance to look back and go, ‘It’s really cool that came my way, because I needed that at that time.’ Pascale said that the reason that she thought of me for the film was that she was watching In Treatment while she was writing it with her writing partner and I stuck in her brain. The casting people sent her ideas of people who were giant movie stars and I think she was looking for something different and presented some other ideas — and I was one of them. I read [the script], and the film was so dense and multilayered and complex and narratively ambiguous and the character was going through a real crisis. I knew it was going to be an intense experience to work in a foreign country with a director who doesn’t speak my language and to play a character who is going through a very existential crisis. ‘Well, that sounds kind of scary… Sure, let’s do it!’ I hadn’t had that experience in awhile — to be able to work with a filmmaker that is really commanding, knows what she wants, and is so smart. She hasn’t made that many movies in 20 years and she pours every fiber of her being into her work. That, to me, was inspiring. And I knew that she was attempting to make something that was different that probably not everybody was going to appreciate, but those who did were in for a ride, and that was really cool to be a part of.”
INSIDE AMY SCHUMER (Comedy Central, 2014-2015)
Charles scored laughs in three pieces on Schumer’s sketch series, most notably in “Football Town Nights,” a Friday Night Lights-like spoof about a new-to-town high school football coach that futilely tries to teach his players not to rape anybody under any circumstance.
“I’ve done comedy my whole life, but I guess I’ve done more drama of late. People that know me know that I like to do comedy and I enjoy working in that environment. I think a career is always about doing so many different things. I want to explore different realms of what I’m capable of in a world where people want to tell you, ‘This is what you do, and you’re this person, and this and that.’ And that’s a challenge for any actor, just constantly trying to say, ‘Oh, look over here! I actually do this.’… Quite often the thing you are choosing to do is a 180-degree shift from what you’ve just done.
“I was a huge fan of the show, and I knew Jessi Klein, her head writer. They reached out to me about doing the “Foodroom” piece, and I jumped at the chance, because I thought it was really funny. My wife and I watched it a lot and laughed. I watched the first season and was like, ‘This woman is incredibly talented, so funny, and I would love to work with her.’ So when we worked together, we had a lot of fun together, and they asked me to do the news anchor one. I was able to do that on a day off The Good Wife. Amy and I have a really easy rapport, and I think she is truly genius, and is such a good actor and a great scene partner. Now that I’ve worked with her, they know that I love being over there, and they reached out to me for ‘Football Town Nights’ and said, ‘We got this one for you.’ I don’t even have to read them, I’m just like, ‘Yeah, I’m doing it, let’s go!’ Amy, Jessi Klein, and that entire writing staff take these subject matters that seem taboo and turn them on their side. It was clear in that piece that was what we’re doing. That was probably my favorite one that I’ve done because it’s a funny sketch but it does hold a mirror up to everyday, and for that, it has real power… Working with Amy, I laugh. She just makes me laugh and giggle. You shouldn’t be allowed to get paid and have that much fun.”
WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP (Netflix, 2015)
Charles jacked a Polo shirt collar — three of them, actually — in the movie’s eight-episode prequel as Blake, the snobbish leader of a wealthy camp across the lake from Camp Firewood.
“I was such a fan of the film and all those guys’ work. Having been friends for years and working with [David Wain and Michael Showalter], the opportunity to just get in there and mix it up with those guys was just too good to be true. Blake is the Darth Vader of this experience who rains on people’s parades. It was a blast to put on those pastel duds and be a real douche.”
MASTERS OF SEX (Showtime, 2015)
Charles has joined the season 3 cast of the retro drama as real-life businessman Daniel Logan, who is interested in bottling the scent of sex — and in Virginia (Lizzy Caplan).
“I’d seen a good amount of the first season of the show and was very interested in the world. I certainly think that Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are fascinating characters, and the depth of their story seems to know no bounds. I was reached out to by Lizzie and [Masters of Sex creator] Michelle Ashford about this character that was a very pivotal and important person in Virginia’s life — personally and professionally, more personally — and it sounded interesting to come play for a summer, to be able to work with those people and that world and that time period… Our relationship on a show that’s already complicated will just get more complicated — it’s all very messy and fun.”