Emmy-worthy guest performers deliver under pressure

Wed Jun 9, 2010 12:41am EDT
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By Christopher Lisotta

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Elizabeth Banks had a request for her producers when she shot her first scene as a guest star on NBC's "30 Rock."

Banks was playing CNBC anchor Avery Jessup, and the scene involved her meeting executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), making a rapid-fire appearance on her "Crossfire"-like news program. The actress knew her lines, but wanted to deliver them as quickly as she could.

"I begged them to put it on a prompter for me," she says, noting her quick delivery would help sell the comedy and her character. "They said, 'No problem.' But I got there that night and there was a problem. They couldn't figure the prompter out! It came down to me throwing fastballs at Alec and him battling them back as fast as possible and hoping they could cut it together faster than we were doing it."

Tough, but Banks pulled it off -- and doing so gave her an epiphany. "It was my 'I belong here' moment," she says. "There are shows where you show up and they want you to service the (other) actors, and that's not '30 Rock': They want the guest star to be funny. That's why they get great guest stars."

Being a guest star on a show that has been humming along for several seasons often comes with benefits: The writers know the voice of the show, series regulars are comfortable with their characters, and everyone on set has dealt with guest stars long before you show up. But there are some challenges for guest actors as well: Will they fit in, will they get the cadence, or worst of all, will they mess up a good thing?

Jared Harris, who guest-starred as British invader Lane Pryce on AMC's "Mad Men," says he was attracted to the period drama's strong writing, which he calls "sort of a blessing and a restriction." A show known for its specific scripts and creator Matthew Weiner's exacting attention to detail, "Mad Men" was a place where Harris felt he would need to deliver.

"They knew the world so well, which is great but a little intimidating," he admits. "Everyone has a shorthand and you're trying to get up to speed. You're only given the one episode to read. They're all extremely friendly and nice and welcoming, but trying to figure out who the character was, that took a couple of episodes just because there wasn't a lot of material yet."

The 1960s elements worked in Harris' favor because it reminded him of the world he grew up in, and of his stepfather, who became a model for Lane. "I never realized I would feel grateful to my mother for marrying Rex Harrison," Harris quips of the "My Fair Lady" star.   Continued...

<p>Actress Elizabeth Banks arrives on the red carpet at the 82nd Academy Awards in Hollywood March 7, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES)</p>