Our favorite TV assistants
EW joins Rex Lee, Jack McBrayer, and Michael Urie for a roundtable discussion about the role of an onscreen subordinate
Grunts. Gophers. Peons. Subordinates. Helpers. Whatever you call the poor souls who occupy the lowest rung on the corporate ladder, we here at EW love ’em — especially when they’re portrayed so deliciously on TV right now. Which is why we convened a roundtable discussion with three of our favorite onscreen assistants: Rex Lee, 38, who suffers gloriously as agent Ari’s personal punching bag, Lloyd, on HBO’s Entourage; Jack McBrayer, 34, who shines as obliviously happy-to-be-here page Kenneth on NBC’s 30 Rock; and Michael Urie, 26, who sparkles fabulously as Wilhelmina’s snippy right-hand man, Marc, on ABC’s Ugly Betty. Want to see what they had to say about life at the bottom? Read on — we’re not going to do it for you.
EW Do you guys have assistants? And if so, how well do you treat them?
MICHAEL URIE I don’t have an assistant, but if I did, I would treat them as the scum of the earth that they are. [Laughter] No, anytime anyone helps me, I definitely say ”thank you” and ”please.”
JACK MCBRAYER I don’t think I’ll ever have a need for one. I just keep a whole stack of thank-you notes on hand and they come in very handy.
REX LEE What a good idea. Why didn’t I think of that?
URIE Did you know that Vanessa Williams gave us all thank-you-note stationery with our character names on it? That is so helpful. I wouldn’t have any stationery if she hadn’t done that.
EW Were you at all bummed about playing low man on the totem pole, or did you view this underdog role as a scene-stealing opportunity?
LEE I feel like I’d played a lot of subservient roles anyway — I don’t know if that’s because I’m Asian, or what. I hope not… [To McBrayer and Urie] I don’t know about the two of you, but my role wasn’t necessarily going to exist in the future. I was just happy for the work.
URIE Me too. I didn’t care what it was. My part in the pilot was tiny. [But] Vanessa kept saying, ”Oh, why don’t you come do this at this point?” If it had been another actress, I could’ve just faded away, but she included me and we’ve become this little team.
LEE She sounds really secure. I love that!
McBRAYER I think there’s some joy and pride to be had in a role like this, where we’re not the star but it’s fun to spark up every now and then. Well, not ”spark up.” [Laughter]
EW What personal experiences of corporate abuse and mistreatment inform your performances?
LEE I was an assistant to various casting directors in the commercial world. I did five and a half years of research without knowing it. There were days when people — I’m gonna swear now — treated me like s—. When actors didn’t treat me well, I didn’t take it upon myself to treat them well. If they wanted to change the time of their audition, I’d just say, ”No, no, no, we’re not on that category yet; you have to wait two hours for your planned time,” when it was all a big lie.
URIE [To Lee] Good for you!… I’ve watched people get mistreated and stuck up for them. I had these managers and they were horrible to their assistants; they ran through assistants like Kleenex. One day I heard them yelling, and I was like, ”God!” and I stuck up for the assistant. They were always very timid around me from then on. But I’ve never really been mistreated personally.
LEE [To Urie] You’ve led a charmed life.
MCBRAYER [To Urie] Go back to your castle in the clouds! [Laughter] I don’t have stories of abuse, but on 30 Rock, we have a lot of guest stars come in, and not all of them have seen the show or remembered me from it. So I’m sitting there in my page outfit and they’ll think I’m a real page. They’re like, ”I don’t like this dressing room! I want this sofa out!” And this poor little PA, she started lifting this sofa, and I was like, ”I guess I’ll help?” It was just bananas! I was moving furniture for a guest star.
URIE And you’re a series regular? Hilarious!
MCBRAYER But what are you going do? It wasn’t like I was going to tell Tina Fey, ”Have this person fired!”
LEE [To McBrayer] When they were shooting Dreamgirls, the director told Jennifer Hudson that she had to learn to be more ”diva.” I wish that for you — that you learn to be more diva. Don’t move the furniture.
EW In your opinion, who are the classic TV assistants? Did you draw inspiration from any of them?
MCBRAYER I thought Don Knotts as Barney Fife was such a good assistant to Andy Griffith’s character. And this is so random, but I always loved me some Agnes Dipesto from Moonlighting. She was so dippy.
LEE Back in the days when I couldn’t get arrested and was trying to define who I was to people, I would say, ”I’m sort of like the Asian David Spade on Saturday Night Live and Just Shoot Me.” He was a sassy and mean assistant if he needed to be, and he was a little full of himself, and I just thought it was hilarious.
URIE Smithers is perfect because he’s completely in love with Mr. Burns, will throw himself under a bus, jump in front of a bullet — anything. Marc is definitely that to Wilhelmina. He’s, like, absolutely obsessed with her. Would do anything with her. For her. To her. [Laughter]
EW What kind of reaction do you get on the street? Do fans ask for your autograph before ordering you to fetch them a cup of coffee?
URIE People always want me to be really bitchy to them. I’m good friends with [costar] Becky Newton and we’ll be together a lot, and people always want us to be catty and mean to each other or to them. Sometimes I’ll just give them a look. I’ll glare.
McBRAYER When I’m at Rockefeller Center, the pages go a little bit bananas. They straighten up a little bit and they’re like, ”I know what you’re going through.” I’m like [apologetically], ”I wish I did.”
URIE That’s cute. When I was at Rockefeller doing Conan, there was a page with me and I was really nervous and I was like, ”You probably get this all the time, but it’s funny that you’re dressed just like Kenneth.” And I was expecting them to be like [annoyed expression], ”Yeah.” But they were like, ”I know!” They were so excited!
McBRAYER I’ve really put the spotlight on the NBC page program. [Laughter] People on the street have been nice. I thought people were going to come up and say, ”Your show ain’t funny. And you’re stupid. And you’ve got no chin. And your haircut is ugly. And you’re from the South.” But they’ve been nice. A couple of times, people were like, ”Can I hug you?”
LEE AND URIE Awwwww….
McBRAYER Then they stab you with a hypodermic needle.
LEE I’m just honored that agents’ assistants come up to me and say, ”My family in Kansas had no idea what I did, and now I can say, ‘Watch this show; I’m Lloyd.”’ Agents come up to me too. In the beginning they were like, ”If this Entourage thing doesn’t work out, will you come work for me?” And I was like, ”No.”
EW If all three of your characters worked in the same office, who would work for whom?
McBRAYER I would be below the customers who walked into the building.
LEE Marc would think he was in charge, but I’d be trying to undermine him at all times.
URIE I’m the face, but I don’t know that. [Pause] We should totally pitch that show when our shows go off the air.
EW And what would you call it?
EW This interview was great. So, which one of you is going to transcribe it and file a story to me by 5 p.m.?
LEE AND URIE [Overlapping, pointing at McBrayer] Jack McBrayer as Kenneth!
McBRAYER [Sighing] With a smile on my face. I’ll probably attach a thank-you note. And handdeliver it.