Reiko Aylesworth interviewed by TWOP

Michelle Dessler in 24 Season 2
Michelle Dessler in 24 Season 2

Television Without Pity has scored an in-depth interview with the wonderful Reiko Aylesworth. She talks all about the second season, dishes on lots of behind the scenes stuff, and much more.

Gustave: When I nicknamed you “Bitchelle,” I didn’t think I’d ever have to talk to you.
Reiko Aylesworth: I was actually pretty pleased with “Bitchelle.” I was like, if it’s going to be between “Nina 2.0” and “Bitchelle,” please let it be “Bitchelle.”

Yeah, sometimes I’ll make up a nickname that makes sense, but for whatever reason, no one uses it in our forums. Everyone said they liked Nina 2.0, but no one really used it. For some reason “Bitchelle” just caught on. I guess it just rolls off your tongue or something.
Thank God! I mean, at first I was wondering why I was being called a bitch, but then I looked back at those early episodes and I totally had “bitch face.” And when you come from New York, “bitch” isn’t really that bad. It’s like, [cheerfully] “Hey bitch!” “Bitch” isn’t a name that bothers me. I can think of a few other names that might…[laughs] And hey, at least I’m not a Poor Man’s Something or a SomethingOfKiefer.

So you’re the first person I’ve spoken to from the second season. Last year, 24 was something new. The cast and crew were discovering how to do something that had never been done before, and no one knew for sure it was going to be picked up for a second season. So now it’s an established brand and you’ve been picked up for a third season already. What’s it like to be a part of it now?
Well, I just felt lucky to be cast, because I already knew it was a good show. I actually hate talking about this, but I tested for Nina originally, so when I read the pilot, I didn’t exactly know where it was going to go or if it was going to be picked up. Oh, and then I also tested [laughing] for Sarah Wynter’s part. I wasn’t right for either part but I think they knew they wanted to use me. Also, I couldn’t really do 24 last season because I wasn’t available. I was already committed to another pilot called All Souls.

What did they tell you about both parts?
Not much. Just a short history. For Nina, they told me about her history with Jack and that she worked in his office. That was it. And for Kate, they told me that I was this tough lawyer — a lot tougher than Sarah Wynter plays her. I think they basically picked a bunch of people they wanted to work with, and then the writers more or less wrote for the actors. Both of those parts would have gone a lot of ways depending on who got cast. And they rewrite the scripts a lot. For both readings I just came in that morning, read the script, and started testing.

That’s what everyone told me last year — that it was a really fast audition process. And ironically, it’s one of the better casted shows around. Maybe because they didn’t overthink it?
Definitely. One of the problems with the casting process for television is that you have too many cooks around the pot. Everyone has something to say about the process and then you end up casting the person who no one objected to, as opposed to casting the one who some people really wanted.

So who picks you?
Mainly Joel Surnow. But in terms of the main characters, the Fox network has the final say. It was actually really funny when I read for him for the first time. I hadn’t really had any time to prepare or anything. I was in the middle of something else so when I got called in, so I was like, whatever. So I went in and they were like, “Could you wait outside for five minutes.” So I went outside and someone came up to me and talked to me and, um, I got some digits. It wasn’t anyone I was going to call or anything. [laughs] So then when I went in and met everyone, I was like, “I just got hit on!” And I think that stuck with them and made them keep me in mind.

So then did you read for Michelle?
No, they just offered the part to me. They’d already met me twice at that point.

And what did they tell you about her?
Honestly, I don’t think they knew what they were going to do. I think that at first the Paula [Sara Gilbert] character and the Michelle character were going to be the same person. But then they realized they were going to kill her off or something.

And they needed a female character to survive and stay behind?
Yeah. The only thing they told me was that I was a tech person and she’s supposed to have some sort of romantic thing with Tony… oh, I mean “Soul Patch.” [laughs]

Had you, at that point, seen the show?
Not exactly. I did a marathon. My aunt is a huge fan and she taped all of the episodes, so when I got the part, she lent me her tapes.

She must have been thrilled!
Oh yeah. She certainly was. So I stayed up for a couple of days and watched the whole thing. It was like candy.

In my mind, or at least in the minds of the viewers, you’re this year’s Nina. It’s not that you’re evil or sleeping with Kiefer, but you’re the dark and mysterious office babe, if you know what I mean. Is that something that crosses your mind while you’re playing Michelle?
Actually the very first thing I was worried about when I got the part was being compared to Nina. You know, Sarah Clarke did such a great job. We’re different actresses and our characters are supposed to be different. I wouldn’t even try to do what she did last season.

But is it hard not to be Nina?
Yeah, kinda. I mean, I’m sure it’s difficult to pioneer something when you don’t know where you’re going or what the tone of the show is — that’s what Sarah had to deal with. But I came in having seen the show, and that was definitely an advantage. But, yeah, you can’t help but have people compare you. Everyone in this season’s cast is being compared to everyone in last season’s cast. Sarah [Wynter] gets compared to Leslie [Hope]. Even Lourdes [Benedicto] gets compared to Tamara Tunie. There’s no way to avoid it.

But that’s the thing about being a part of something culty. People were so in love with the original characters and there’s something about being part of the first year of a maverick show. In some sense there’s nothing you can really do, because it’s been done. So of course people are going to draw comparisons.

I guess it’s a way for the viewers to make sense of everything. I do it, myself. Every time there’s a new character, my first thought is, “Who is she supposed to be from last year?”
I hoped that maybe I could escape the comparison because my outfit is so different from Nina’s.

And so is your hair. Plus you’re more professional looking. Nina really looked like the office skag.
[laughs] But that’s what I loved about her!

[laughs] Yeah. Like, she always looked a little damp. I loved that!
But you know, in actuality, I have Tony’s old job. He’s got Nina’s job this year.

Wow, I didn’t realize that. I guess it was a sexist reflex on my part to assume that you have Nina’s job because…you’re the “girl.” But, yeah, when you think about it, Tony is your superior just like Nina was his superior last year.
Everyone thinks I have Nina’s job! It’s so weird. When I first came in to rehearse, I was asking the writers, “Okay, what’s my job? What do I do?” And they were like, “You work for Tony, but beyond that we don’t want to get too specific. We want the freedom to have you guys go out into the field, do interrogations or just analyze stuff on the computer. We don’t want to pin you down to a specialized job like ‘the tech person’ or ‘the gun person.'” So they just set up the hierarchy: Mason, Tony, and then Michelle. And now that Mason’s gone, Tony has his job and I have Tony’s job. So, come to think of it, I do have Nina’s old job.

There you go! And now Carrie has your job. No wait, she has Paula’s job. Who has your old job?
[thinks] No one. No wait! The bald guy! [laughs] We told him [Val Lauren] that there was an entire thread on him.

Yeah, there is. Have you gone into your thread?
Oh yeah. But I can’t do it too much. Some people come to the set and — I don’t know if it’s your site — but people get really upset when they read what’s written about them on some of these forums. I know there were a couple of people who went to the Fox site and got really bummed out.

Yeah, people get really weird about this show. It brings up a lot of weird emotions. Some people totally confuse the character with the actor. A lot of people on the Fox boards blame Leslie Hope for getting raped, for instance. Sometimes my editor and I get these angry emails from viewers who read my recaps. They are so over-identified with the show, they truly believe that my recaps are a personal attack on them. The irony is, I actually love the show. I just nitpick.
You see, that’s what’s fun about the show. My friends and I all get together and watch it and we completely tear it apart. You can’t take it too seriously. It’s a Fox show! It’s really good, smart, brilliantly done pulp. It’s not The West Wing. It’s way too earnest not to rip it apart. And, hello? I’m on the show and I feel this way. I can’t believe people get all in a bunch about that! Some people act like “Trekkies” about 24 sometimes and it’s truly confusing to me.

There are these moments that I refer to in my recaps as “ambiguo-glances.” An “ambiguo-glance” is a look that various characters give each other where you’re either checking someone out or you’re plotting to kill them. It’s impossible to tell which. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Yeah. Actually a lot of that is the editing and the camera work. By that I mean, they catch things. Little things. Originally I was only signed up for thirteen episodes. Now I’m in all of them. It’s because there was this one scene early on where I was just standing around but my hair was in my face so I tucked it behind my ear and everything sprung from there. A lot of viewers started asking, “Is she evil?”

So it’s not like you are trying to act a certain way. You’re just doing what comes naturally, and certain gestures are highlighted by the editing process?
Exactly. The way it’s shot makes a difference too. The camera guys are so good at voyeurism. They’re constantly shooting through the slots of the wall divider or from behind a doorway or something. It makes the audience feel complicit. And then once you begin to see how it looks in the final edit, you start playing it. [laughs] When you realize it’s going to keep you on longer, you keep up the ambiguity. Plus it’s better to be ambiguous since it serves the storyline, since nothing’s set in stone.

Also there’s just this sexual charge to everything because of the urgency. “We have to stop the bomb, now! This might be our last day on earth! We’re all going to die, let’s get our rocks off!” That kind of thing. And then you’ve got Kiefer and his velvety voice. He’s got chemistry with…the lamppost…anything.

Last year, I got the feeling from the actresses I talked to that the writers were “making it up as they went along” so they had to act ambiguously, just as you said. However, this year feels like a lot more planning went into it. So are they not telling you stuff because they don’t know where your storyline is going? Or are they deliberately keeping you in the dark so that your performance doesn’t give too much away?
Both. Definitely. From what I hear, they have it planned out at least six episodes in advance. Meanwhile, we only know what’s happening when we get our script. There were a lot more loose ends last year, but this year they’re looking further ahead.

You are still filming now? I’m allowed to ask that, right? You haven’t died or anything?
Yeah, I’m still filming. I was shooting episode twenty-two today.

So do you know what happens?
I’m not supposed to know what happens, but I sort of figured it out. They wrote a dummy script for the last couple of episodes — you know, so that the crew could start setting up the locations, sets, and costumes. But they’re giving us the real script at the last minute. Last year they shot alternate scenes. This year they’re just not letting any of the actors know what’s in the script until the day they shoot.

My money’s on something interesting happening to you. You’ve been so quiet and sweet all season. I bet we’re being faked out and you’re going to turn out to be evil or something. I feel the same way about Rolaide [Lynne].
Actually, something cool is going to happen to Lynne. I didn’t see any of it but she was telling me about it. I think I know what’s happening to me in the end but I’m not sure. Plus it could totally change. I think that I’ll end up alive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be back next season. I don’t know for sure if anyone will be back next season. And it’s not like they were planning on keeping me this long, so I’m just counting my blessings at this point.

Excuse me, I’m getting over this cold right now. There’s going to be this episode you’re going to see in a few weeks — we just finished filming it — where I am so sick.

Yeah, I always wondered what happens when you’re sick but you still have to go on…and pretend to be just as healthy as you were an “hour” ago.
It’s a nightmare. But the hair and makeup people are so great. [laughs] They literally saved my life this week. Plus, I can chalk it up in my performance to being, you know, tired.

Hey, your building was just bombed…
Yeah, and sometimes you just have one of those really bad, uh, hours. Like there was just this point where it all hit me really hard…and then I got my second wind an hour later! [laughs]

So I’m sure you’ve heard this before and it’s probably bugging you by now, but we’ve all been getting a serious lesbian vibe between you and…
Lesbo-rific? [laughs] Yeah. Actually it’s really funny. All I can tell you is that we were told to play it like that. And we were told that it was going to turn into this whole lesbian storyline. And that’s exactly what we did. It was like what you were saying in your recap about “get your figurative hand off my ass.” That’s completely what it was.

So we’re not imagining things?
No. So were playing it like that and it was totally cool and all of a sudden, they’re like, “We’ve changed our minds.” It turns out that it’s not a lesbian thing at all. They rewrote the script and our “secret” turns out to be something totally different. So then they said they were going to reedit those scenes and make them looks less sexual. But then Lourdes and I were watching the episodes and we were like, “What?” They totally kept all of that stuff in: the winking, the staring, my reactions to her…everything. [laughs] I guess ultimately they didn’t want to miss out on some lesbo action.

Who doesn’t want lesbo action?
Right? I mean, c’mon! It’s Fox! You should have seen how excited the crew got when we were shooting those scenes. You’d think we were ready to get out the Crisco and the bikinis.

And what’s the crew like? Are they these old teamsters?
[laughs] They’re older, but they’re some of my best friends. My only friends since I’ve moved out to L.A. I’m actually becoming a teamster myself. I gotta make some girlfriends. I’m totally one of the boys — beer shots, fart jokes, you name it.

You’re the Shirley MacLaine of the Rat Pack.

There’s been very little sex this year…
Yeah. Well, that’s going to change a bit.

No one else agreed with me, but I got a lesbian vibe off of you and Paula. Was that intentional?
No! [laughs]

It’s just that there was this moment in the bathroom…
Oh, right, where you wrote she was going to ask me for a tampon? [laughing] I don’t know. Now you’re making me nervous. Or maybe they saw those scenes and said, “Oh, we’ve got to bring in a chick for her!”

What was it like to work with Darlene?
Darlene? Oh, it was great. She’s really mellow and really sweet. She was nothing like the character she played on Roseanne. You know, she wasn’t all surly and sarcastic…and that’s how I expected her to be in real life. But she was completely sweet and low-key. It’s funny, I seem to have this Roseanne connection in my life. I’m friends with Lecy [Goranson, who played Becky on Roseanne]. I was in this Eric Bogosian play and she had worked with the director on something else, so I met her when she came out and saw the show. She lived in my neighborhood so we’d see each other all the time. She’s funny. Not like “Becky” at all. And this same director directed this other play. There was a girl in that who was dating the guy who played David [Johnny Galicki].

Who would you say are your pals in the cast?
We all go out as a group.

You mean even the actors from the other plotlines?
Yeah, Dennis [Haysbert] will come out with us sometimes. Although not as much anymore, because he’s a big old movie star now so he’s always working. No, but the producers threw a party the other night and everyone came out, Penny [Johnson Jerald], Dennis, and Jude [Ciccolella]…

When you all go out, is there this sense that the Palmer people and the CTU people are rival gangs?
Hah! Penny would kick all of our asses. Well, at the beginning of the year, we were all having lunch and Dennis said to me, “Well, I’ll see you at the Christmas party.” So, yeah, a lot of the time we don’t see the people who are on other sets. Actually, the plus side of that is that it’s an ideal working environment. The days that the other storylines shoot, we get to stay home. We actually get time off. No one works all the time. Even Kiefer gets days off.

But yeah, we all get along really well. I go out with Michelle [Forbes] all the time. I’ve gone out with Sarah [Clarke], Laura [Harris], and Kiefer. Carlos [Bernard] is hysterically funny. He has this dry sense of humor where he lets you think he’s serious for the longest time. One week he had Kiefer convinced that he was wearing a hairpiece. He kept coming up to Kiefer and saying, “Is this on right?” And he’s always doing stuff like that.

He’s my favorite, actually. I’ve never been into blonds, so I appreciate Kiefer aesthetically, but I prefer…
You like the darker guys. Yeah, it was funny. When I had the whole lesbian storyline coming up, we were wondering who they’d cast. We thought with the name “Carrie Turner” she was going to be another blonde. And I was like, “Please, there are enough blondes on this show, she’s gotta be a brunette!” So Carlos found out who they were casting and he was like, “Well, let’s just say that Michelle has a thing for the Latins!” I guess he is kind of cute…it’s just weird, when you work with someone, you just don’t see them like that. I mean, he’s married. It’s not that I don’t see him as attractive, it’s just he’s Carlos, you know? He’s my buddy.

So what’s Kiefer like? Sorry, I have to ask.
[mimicking] “What’s it like to work with Kiefer?” [laughs] It’s great. He’s great. He’s so professional on the set and he’s so much fun off the set. He sets the bar for the cast and crew. We all look to him to set the standard. It’s the best set I’ve ever worked on and I think a lot of that is due to Kiefer. He comes in — even if he’s not supposed to be on camera that day — and does off-camera work with the actors. A lot of actors won’t do that, especially if they’re…well, Kiefer. It’s really funny, because you read what’s posted on all of these websites and you’d think they’d have to have smelling salts on the set to revive all the “ladies” but it’s not like that at all.

Were you a fan of his before you met him?
I’d heard of him, but I’d actually never seen any of his movies. Or what I’d seen, I’d seen so long ago. But I knew he was a really good actor. Although I had no idea how good he was until I got this job and started working with him.

Are there any big romances on the set?
Would I tell you?

Well, what about Sarah Clarke and Xander?
Yeah, they’re the married couple of the show. They’re a very sweet couple. And it’s so funny because they play such creepy characters on the show. But, yeah, no dirt.

Is anyone else having an affair?
I’m not giving you any dirt!

So the answer is “yes” but you just can’t tell me?
[laughs] No comment.

Are you being recognized now?
I guess, but I live in Los Angeles. And everyone’s famous here so it’s no big deal. Plus in New York, you’re around people more often. Here, you’re in your car all the time. But a lot of people do come up to me and tell me I’m the mole.

Are you the mole? Or rather, if you were the mole, would you know at this point?
I’m not the mole.

You are going on the record and stating that you are not the mole?
Well, let’s just say that — at this point — I don’t think I’m going to be the mole. I suppose that could change, though. It’s weird with my character, though, because I could live and/or not get arrested for treason but still not be back next season. They could send Michelle out for donuts and I could be out of the office all “day” due to cross-town traffic. [laughs] You never know with this show.

“Hey, Michelle, would you go to Kinko’s?”
Exactly! I’d look mournfully over my shoulder as I left the office.

And you’d walk really slowly with your big manila envelope. “Plink…plink…plink.”

Source: Television Without Pity