On Monday evening, 15 or so of America’s finest character actors could be found taking a night off from scenery-chewing in order to break bread at Craig’s, a restaurant in Los Angeles. These meals are a regular tradition for a group that calls itself the Character Actors Dining Society, and at this year’s holiday dinner, the percentage of “It’s that guy!” familiar faces was, perhaps unsurprisingly, higher than that of megawatt household names. For every Jason Alexander—George from Seinfeld!—there was a Michael Nouri, he of Yellowstone, Damages, The O.C., and Flashdance. Bryan Cranston and LeVar Burton were there too, mingling with the likes of Paul McCrane and Rob Morrow. What do character actors talk about when the wine starts flowing? Kevin Pollak (whose credits include The Usual Suspects, The Whole Nine Yards, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), member in good standing of CADS, seemed sworn to some degree of secrecy, but he nevertheless agreed to answer a few of Slate’s questions. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: Do you know how CADS got started? Were you part of it from the beginning?
Kevin Pollak: I was in it on the second one. The first one was organized, I believe, by [Air Force One and Public Enemies actor] Spencer [Garrett] and maybe Alfred Molina.
How did you get involved?
It was at a holiday party on my back deck where [Wings actor] Steven Weber had asked if he could bring Spencer Garrett, and I said, “Of course, my goodness.” That’s where I actually met Spencer for the first time. And he said, “You know, we just started doing this Character Actors Dining Society, you have to join us.” I said, “I’m in, of course.”
Before the pandemic, we were doing our best to meet once a month. Then during the pandemic, we had several of them over Zoom. And then we resumed in person, as soon as the coast was clear.
How often do you hold meetings these days?
Well, they’re really a dinner among friends more than meeting. The frequency is pretty close to once a month. We have a group text thread of about, I don’t know, 15, 16, maybe more as we slowly added more and more. Someone’s always trying to cheer somebody up or share good news or “happy birthday” or congratulations on this or that gig.
So there’s no official membership card or anything?
A few have suggested a secret handshake. And a card—I think Steven Weber’s been threatening to make a card. And in terms of qualifications, much like, I guess, the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences], your work has to be acknowledged by these peers to garner entrance to this group of idiots.
How do you all know each other? Is there one person who’s sort of the biggest connector or do you just pull in people here and there?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s any one person. Very few of us have worked together. You know, when I started doing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, that was the first time I’d ever met Tony Shalhoub, and people find that hard to believe. We did, too, but the truth is, a production would choose he or I, not both.
Many of us in this group would sort of, quote unquote, “compete” over the decades against each other for various roles. The beauty of this group is now we’re just rooting for each other. In our youth, maybe we felt a sense of competitiveness towards whichever one of us was doing the best at the time, whereas this is just unconditional love and support. So some of us have worked together and many of us have now met for the first time at one of the CADS dinners, which is another big bonus of the whole function of it.
It sounds like Steven Weber kind of brought you in. Is there anyone that you brought in?
Is there? Yeah, maybe [ER actor] Noah Wyle. We did A Few Good Men together. He was a very, very young actor. This is 30 years ago, the movie came out. It was, I guess, his first big thing. He has one scene in the film. I made him feel like he belonged, according to him. So we go back a way.
I’d love to hear more about the holiday dinner a few days ago.
We’ve been gathering more and more at Craig’s in L.A. We had been changing it up every month, and then we really settled into Craig’s, which was very Christmas-themed. Some of the guys brought Christmas gifts. [Will & Grace star] Eric McCormack’s wife had made CADS coffee mugs for everybody. Spencer made hats that some of us are wearing [in the] pictures you may have seen. And he also made a copy of a photo of [A Serious Man and Inside Out actor] Richard Kind’s face that he put in front of everyone’s placemat at the table for a laugh.
I thought I noticed some kind of headshot in one of the pictures. Why Richard Kind?
Because he’s affable and so good-natured and sweet. But at the same time, he’s the one that everyone loves to, as the British would say, take the piss—tease them a little bit. But in a flattering way. When he arrived, we all held it up to our face.
And he sort of embodies character actor, in a lot of ways.
Oh boy, yes.
What did you guys talk about at dinner?
Well, a lot of the stories that we’re sharing with each other are private in the sense that they’re from the trenches of work, which, out of context, I’m not sure would mean much to anyone. We’re talking about this director, we’re talking about that cinematographer. We’re not really coming down on anyone or venting. They’ll want to know, “Kevin, what was it like to work with Scorsese?” Or I want to know what Bryan Cranston was thinking during the last day of work on Breaking Bad, you know; certain things that maybe we’ve individually been asked a lot by strangers, but when you’re asked by someone in a similar walk of this business, there’s a sense of sharing that comes with a sense of pride, as opposed to, “Oh, I’m answering this question for the 1,000th time.” It means a little more when someone you respect and admire wants to know what this moment of your work was like.
One unofficial requirement might be being a real Hollywood veteran.
Yes, for the most part, that’s absolutely true. There are no youngbloods. Noah Wyle would be the youngster.
With someone like Bryan Cranston, he’s obviously become so famous, but does “Once a character actor, always a character actor” kind of apply?
Well, that’s just it: A character actor is really an actor who does great character work, and character work can reach a so-called movie star in terms of the kind of work they want to do. So, for example, George Clooney is an exceptionally gifted actor, but a lot of his performances are very George Clooney. Whereas Brad Pitt is constantly doing weird characters, and even Leo [DiCaprio], too, they’re making very specific choices that are 180 degrees from their own personality. They don’t use their own charm and personality very often. Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors over the last 40 years. And there are times where he was a very sexy leading man—The Fabulous Baker Boys—but also just, you know, The Big Lebowski, the strange bizarro character. So in terms of what a character actor as a title or category really means to us, it’s an actor who does great character work and has a very wide range, as opposed to someone who does small supporting roles. I think that might be the misnomer about the term character actor.
So Brad, Leo, and Jeff Bridges would all be welcome in CADS?
Technically, what does that mean? They’d still have to get someone to vouch for them?
That means I’m being a smartass.
I’m wondering what kind of reaction you get when you guys are all together, from the waitstaff and other people in the restaurant. Does it kind of dawn on them? Like, why do all these people look sort of familiar?
Yeah, especially as a group. One or two of us out in the wild with our families is one thing, a little out of context, people look, but when we’re all together, suffice to say, a couple of nights ago, there were a couple of dozen selfies [taken] throughout the night by our neighbors. As I say, it beats the alternative, where we’re sitting there and nobody cares.
Would you ever open it up to character actresses?
Oh, yeah. We got Diane Keaton to sit with us one night, although it was just because she was at a neighboring table. She said, “I want to be one of the CADS,” and we said, “Sit down.” We haven’t made any effort to not include women. It started as like-minded actors who admire each other’s work. And we’ve often talked about actresses that we just adore and would love to have join us.
Who’s an actress you’d love to see there?
Oh, my goodness. Kathy Najimy, Allison Janney. There’s so many actresses who also are doing great character work. Even though they may be more famous, they transform themselves every time. So technically Cate Blanchett should be at our next dinner.
Right. Are there any other character actors who you’d love to bring in or see at one of these?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I think I’ve made it clear that Leo and Brad need to join us. But, you know, Tony Shalhoub, for example, comes to mind. Oliver Platt. The “Tooch”: Stanley Tucci. There’s so many of us over the years, and there’s younger guys obviously doing some pretty exceptional character work now as well. So the list could be hundreds. That’s why we haven’t been posting that much. It’s not that we’re being secretive. It’s that we don’t want to each get hit up by 20 other actors who want to join. There’s only so many tables to handle so many people, ultimately.
In fact, this group, this 15, was the largest we’ve had. We’re usually about seven or eight. Because the idea really is we want to be able to hear each other, and anytime that any one of us has a story to tell, everyone can listen and participate and bounce other stories that come from it. When we did the 15 a couple nights ago, they put two big tables together to sit us all at one long table. The ends of the tables can’t really hear each other, so they’re breaking off into their own stories. Which is fine, because we ended up getting up and playing musical chairs throughout the course of the three hours we were there. Nobody really stayed in their seat because there’s just such a strong bond now that everyone wants to share in the evening.
Do you feel an extra little thrill now when you see one of your fellow CADS on screen?
Yeah, of course. In fact, Fred [Molina]’s got a new show, Three Pines. We were all very sad when he had to go off to Montreal to shoot it, and we were all very excited when we heard it was finally dropping so we could watch it. Most of us are working all the time. Richard Kind has a new show. Jason Alexander got to be on Maisel—I had nothing to do with it, but we got to share those excitements. Among us there’s a lot of work being created and made and executed—and a lot of proud pals.