For a long while now television has been where the creative action is in Hollywood. But once the terrain of character actors like James Gandolfini and Bryan Cranston, the new so-called Golden Age of Television is increasingly looking, well, hot. All over cable television, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are actors who look as good in negligee or boxers as they do in period costumes. There’s Tom Hiddleston, Taylor Swift’s newest paramour, stomping around in The Night Manager in a well-cut suit that barely hides his six-pack. Then there’s Sarah Paulson, in the most infamous perm in American history in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, vamping it up in the sort of come-hither number that explains her varied romantic life. And, speaking of perms, what about Juno Temple? A vixen with frizzy curls in Vinyl she is sexpot in a coquettish pink romper. All these actors and more – Liev Schreiber, Anthony Mackie, Thandie Newton, Krysten Ritter – dress down for W’s August issue, and show that television isn’t just giving us creative gold, but plenty of eye candy, too.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Which TV character did you want to be growing up? Alyssa Milano as Samantha on Who’s the Boss? It was my favorite show—Tony Danza reminded me a lot of my dad, and I wanted Judith Light to be my mother. What made you want to play Marcia Clark? Total abject terror. The more I read about her, the more I felt a responsibility to get it right for her. I didn’t want this to be another opportunity to pile shit onto her and continue the sexism that went on during that trial.
How did doing the show change your perceptions of the trial and of Marcia herself? It changed everything. I was one of those women who didn’t like Marcia Clark. And that was based on believing what I was told by the media—that she was this total monster and a bulldog and so aggressive. It was really transformational to realize, God, I had it all wrong. Most people did.
The Night Manager (AMC)
You play Jonathan Pine, a soldier-turned-hotel-manager-turned-spy. Do you think you’d make a good spy? Right now I’d make a terrible spy, because everybody knows who I am. They’d be like, “What are you doing here?” But Susanne Bier, the director of The Night Manager, said that she thinks I am very enigmatic and good at keeping secrets.
When a shot of your naked bottom was cut from the American broadcast after being left in for U.K. audiences, the story made headlines. Was that surreal? I was surprised to hear that they cut my butt out! I’m here to tell you that my butt is not dangerous. And there are many, many more dangerous things that people are happy to broadcast. I don’t know what that says about the world we live in, but it probably says some
Your role gets a little racy. Are you comfortable taking off your clothes for the camera? Yes, I guess I’m very European in that sense. In the pilot, I have a sex scene with James Jagger, and I had this mad moment filming it. It was my 25th birthday, and I had to be completely naked with Mick Jagger’s son, being directed by Martin Scorsese. That’s a birthday, in my birthday suit, that I’ll never forget.
This is your first series. Is it different from film? It’s like a marriage. I’ve always loved hopping from project to project, but getting to spend so much time with a character is titillating.
Who was your first TV crush? I really liked Kermit the Frog. He was a reassuring kind of guy. I didn’t watch real people on TV. I found real people creepy.
You are all about female empowerment. How do you reconcile that with playing a madam in Westworld? Exactly! If you know me at all, it’s like, What the hell is that all about? But that question is precisely what got me hooked. The show looks at things that stick in your craw. It poses these odd existential questions. It’s fascinating. It’s like being in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, except set in the Wild West.
Underground (WGN America)
What is it like to play an escaped slave, someone who is literally running for her life every minute of the show? It’s incredibly challenging emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When you see us swimming in swamps or if I’m fighting Christopher Meloni in a bayou, I’m really doing it. The conditions shooting in Baton Rouge are brutal. But it deepens my appreciation for my ancestors. I’m the product of an African–American woman and a Jewish man. I come from such strong people, and it’s something that I just kept thinking about the whole time. I come from survivors. I come from revolutionaries.
What was your first role? A Pepsi commercial with Joe Montana. I was 3 years old. I remember sitting on his lap and playing with his collar and flirting with him. It was weird.
Which TV character did you want to be growing up? I used to fall asleep to reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I loved how Mary could break down and cry one minute and tell her boss off the next. And she was really skinny, like I’ve always been really skinny, so I’d look at her and think, That’s me!
Ray Donovan (Showtime)
What made you want to do TV at this point in your career? The script, really. I have a couple of small kids, and the things that Ray was dealing with in his life resonated with me—the idea that once you have children, it’s your responsibility to put your demons to bed.
What’s been the toughest part about acting in a long-running series? The darkness. Ray carries a lot of tension and inner turmoil, and it’s not easy on your body to be in that state all the time. It’s like exercising every day, but you’re building up your emotional muscles around rage and sorrow and fear.
Have you found an antidote to that? My kids were always my go-to. But they’re back in New York this season and I’m in L.A., so it’s been rough. I’m relying a little bit more on meditation and trying to stay away from the vodka. But vodka always works, too.
Vikings (History Channel)
Have you ever idolized a television character? Tony Soprano. I still want to be like him—not the gangster part, but he was such a force and very manly.
What’s it like playing a Viking? It’s been really fun, though shooting in Ireland, we’ve had to deal with some pretty bad weather. And I have to get up very early because the hair-and-makeup is intense. It takes 45 minutes just to get my scalp tattoos painted on.
Who was your first TV crush? Kylie Minogue from Neighbours—probably because of something she wore. Who knows what goes through a 10-year-old boy’s mind…
The Path (Hulu)
Cal, your character, is the charismatic leader of a religious movement, called Meyerism, which has been described as cultlike. Do you see it that way? Honestly, at this point I no longer distinguish. I think it’s really true that my cult is your religion.
What was the first part you ever landed? I was 13 and at this very British school, the kind of school where someone could just come up to you and say, “We’re doing The Tempest next year, and you’re going to be Ariel.” And you would have to say, “Ah, okay…” I didn’t realize at the time I was taking any sort of plunge. Professionally, my first role was in a TV miniseries called Trial and Retribution. I played the acolyte to a serial killer—and I then spent several years after that doing costume dramas, which some would say was more what I was destined for. I’ve had to claw my way back to playing a serial killer’s acolyte.
All the Way (HBO)
What TV character did you want to be growing up? David Hasselhoff on Knight Rider. I just wanted to be the guy driving that car.
What went through your mind when you were approached to play Martin Luther King Jr.? “Oh, no…” I’ve gotten that call to play Dr. King a few times, and I’ve always turned it down because I never read a script that depicted Dr. King in the light that I saw him. This script was the first time that I saw my Dr. King. He’s portrayed as a leader of the movement, not a saint.
Were you at all intimidated? It was one of the most daunting experiences of my career. I didn’t want to impersonate him—that would be disrespectful. So I didn’t watch much footage. I read Tavis Smiley’s Death of a King, which chronicles the last 365 days of Dr. King’s life, and just kind of ran with it.
There’s been a lot of speculation about which unseemly billionaire hedge-fund manager your character, Bobby Axelrod, is based on. Is there anyone specific you looked to for inspiration?
No, Bobby Axelrod is his own man. And he’s certainly not like any of the hedge-fund guys I met while researching the show. He is a far more flamboyant and rock ’n’ roll kind of guy. He believes in the individual’s right to do what he likes, make something of himself. If Bobby Axelrod could vote, I think he might vote for Donald Trump.
Who was your first TV crush?
Daisy Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard. I mean, come on!
Jessica Jones (Netflix)
Were you a comics fan before taking on this role, which is based on a Marvel superhero? I had actually never read a comic book in my life, but I got the entire Alias series and just devoured it. It’s very noir—the first word is “fuck”—and it’s this R-rated world, which is not what I was expecting.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Mind control, like the villain in our show—you can make anyone do anything you want anytime! I wouldn’t abuse it—but I would just make things a whole lot easier for myself, all the time.
What’s your kryptonite? Chocolate ice cream.