Paul McCrane knows the value of working in front of a camera in calling the shots from behind one.
Familiar from roles on “Harry’s Law” and “24,” and also from such movies as “Fame” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” the actor arguably is most famous as tightly wound Dr. Robert Romano — who had fateful encounters with helicopters twice — on “ER.” He got his first directing opportunity on that show, and he has built that into a steady second career, the latest evidence being Monday’s (Aug. 27) episode of TNT’s new “The Closer” spinoff “Major Crimes.”
“I know a lot of the folks over there,” McCrane tells Zap2it, since he also directed one of the final “Closer” episodes. “I was very flattered that they asked me to do that, considering that obviously when a show is ending, they want it to go out strong. I guess I didn’t screw it up too badly, so I was invited back to do one of the first ‘Major Crimes,’ which was again an honor and a thrill.”
Monday’s story revolves around a fatal car crash at a nightclub, and McCrane acknowledges feeling added responsibility in helping a new show get on its feet. “The honest truth,” he reflects, “is that every time I go to work, and every time anyone with any integrity goes to work, they’re going to do the best they can to do the best show they can. Period.”
Now directing an episode of ABC’s upcoming “Nashville” on location in the title city, McCrane notes, “I certainly am honored to do shows in the early stages, and I certainly recognize the fact that it’s a new show. That makes me want to pay a little extra attention to detail … but the guys at ‘Major Crimes’ know what they’re doing, and all the actors and department heads are professionals. As are the writers, of course.”
McCrane finds “a different tone in the storytelling” on “Major Crimes,” having also had his “Closer” experience. “While Mary [McDonnell] is clearly the lead, the way they’re structuring it, it’s a bit more of an ensemble show. Some of the other characters carry the ball a little bit more than on ‘The Closer,’ which was clearly and intentionally structured so that all the spokes were in service to Kyra [Sedgwick].
“To be honest, I think these other actors have risen to the occasion,” adds McCrane. “I think it is exciting to them to have a little more opportunity, and they’re also aware that they’re in a show where everyone kind of goes, ‘OK. What’s this going to be?’ That’s the different energy I found on the set.”
Also having directed episodes of “The West Wing” and “House,” McCrane says that bug bit him “a long time ago, when I was an actor in the theater. Like many young actors, I thought I knew more than everybody else in the room … and have since learned I was mistaken. Directing felt like a very foreign thing to me, but when I was on ‘ER,’ I started getting interested in it.
“Sidney Lumet‘s book on directing was really helpful to me. It suddenly gave me a way to access a lot of the technical aspects, which I realized were all in service to storytelling — which was something I certainly understood.”
McCrane surely understood it during his “ER” arc, which ended in a memorably and spectacularly gruesome way when a fiery helicopter plunged onto Romano (after another chopper had taken his left arm, which was reattached, earlier). “Oh, I get that with some regularity,” McCrane confirms of viewers mentioning that scene. “It was my Moby Dick. It got a part of me, then came back to finish me off.”
Acting out both of those helicopter-involving sequences gave McCrane yet more lessons in directing: “Both of those directors are guys I’ve known and respected and worked with for a long time, and they’re friends. Jonathan Kaplan did the first one, and Chris Chulack did my ‘demise.’
“I’ve done a fair amount of effects work as an actor, so that wasn’t particularly unusual to me, but I did admire the way both of those gentlemen designed and executed those shows. Those were big productions that could have gone a lot of different ways, and speaking as a director, I thought they both did terrific jobs.”