As the constantly put-upon Dr. James Wilson on House, Robert Sean Leonard could resort to a million exasperated-authority-figure TV tics (slow burns, blown stacks, bellowing of the rebellious main character’s name: ”Ha-ouse!”). But he’s broken away from his family tree of Col. Klink, Maj. Frank Burns, and Mr. Woodman, and made Wilson likable, witty, and occasionally even able to get one over on his friend House. For his summer hiatus, Leonard has returned to his beloved New York City, where the 38-year-old theater mainstay — and Tony winner — will happily do no work at all before heading back for season four of his hit series. We talked to him about adjusting to the TV grind, how he avoided becoming a teen star after Dead Poets Society, and why he’ll take a New York City bus over a limo any day of the week.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to do a series now?
ROBERT SEAN LEONARD: I think age and financial need. I’ve been doing plays for so long. I didn’t really have any money saved. Buying an apartment in New York City [a few years ago] was a big thing: ”Oh, okay, I really have no money.” This is kind of a uniquely New York experience, but when you can’t afford an apartment nicer than the place you’re renting, there’s something so inherently depressing about it. The idea of moving to a place less nice than the place you’re in now, as you get older, because that’s all you can afford. It’s very common, but I just thought, I refuse, I can’t buy a place that’s not as nice as I’m renting. And I like movies, I like watching them a lot, but I don’t like traveling. So I thought, if I could somehow do a TV show that I liked, and that I was comfortable with and happy with, that’d be great. It’d be great to be in one place, to make a little money, and come back home and do plays.
Had you ever been approached to do a show before?
Not really. And I never really auditioned. It worked out mostly because [House executive producer] Bryan Singer directed the pilot. He went to school with Ethan Hawke. I met Bryan when I was 19. We were in L.A. and Ethan and I had just done Dead Poets Society and Bryan was directing a little 20-minute film with Ethan in it. I helped him out. He ran out of money. I think we got like $25,000 for Dead Poets or something. When you’re 19, you think, ”Oh, I have $17,000,” you can’t believe it. And if your friend needs $2,000, you think, ?Well, I have 17…” So I think I gave him a thousand or two. So anyway, karma, because 25 years later or whatever, I walked in and went, ”Oh my God, Bryan!” And I hugged him. I auditioned for the pilot. I don’t think Fox was too nuts about me, but I think Bryan went to battle to get me the part. So I could never prove it, but I’m pretty sure I owe my job to Bryan. I don’t think I was the favorite.
Did you read a lot of scripts when deciding to try out for TV?
No, I went out there. I read Numb3rs, and I liked that. I thought it was interesting. But ultimately, not a great job for me because it’s like a mathematician kid who solves crimes? [He pauses, and looks in the air, as if finding what just came out of his mouth ridiculous.] Well…it seemed very good at the time. But he had a cop brother, and I thought that sounded kind of cool. But then I read it and said, ”Oh, I will never see my dog again.” [My character was in] every scene. So I preferred this one. It’s a nice side part. It’s a good part, because I don’t work that much. The less I work, the happier I am. I discovered that, as most people discover at some point.
Were you hungrier when you were younger?
No. There are roles I want to play for selfish reasons. I like the roles. But filming, the hours are so…the experience of filming is so dreadful. I guess there are people who like it. I did [the movie] Much Ado about Nothing in Italy. That was exciting because of Ken Branagh and Emma Thompson and these incredible English actors that I love, like Brian Blessed. And it was exciting. But now, to be honest, I’m just very lazy when it comes to that. At this point, the least I can do for the most amount of money is fine. I want to read books and go for walks and make dinner. I guess there are people who love working and that’s great. I’m not one of them. I love tackling roles and I love theater, but filming, I don’t get it. It seems mind-numbing to me.