Tony Shalhoub On 'Mrs. Maisel' And Questioning His Worth As An Actor
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. Our guest today, actor Tony Shalhoub, has been appearing in American television, film and theater for more than 30 years. He's probably best known as the obsessive-compulsive detective in the USA Network series "Monk," a role which earned him a Golden Globe and three prime-time Emmy Awards. He's also had memorable roles in the films "Big Night," "Galaxy Quest" and "Men In Black." And he recently won a Tony Award for his leading role in the Broadway musical "The Band's Visit."
Shalhoub's nominated for an Emmy this year for his supporting role in the Amazon comedy series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The story revolves around Midge Maisel, a young, affluent, married woman in New York in the late '50s. When her husband announces one night he's leaving the marriage, she gets drunk and ends up at a comedy club, where she improvises a set and discovers that she has a gift for stand-up. Tony Shalhoub plays her father Abe Weissman, a Jewish-American math professor who has pretty conventional views about gender roles. In this scene, Midge, played by Rachel Brosnahan, has just told her parents her husband's left. While her mother wails in the background, her father tells Midge, it's really all her fault.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL")
TONY SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) When I agreed to send you to that fancy goyishe college, what was the one thing I told you?
RACHEL BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) They'll have terrible deli.
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) The important thing I told you.
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) That was about deli too.
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) The other important thing I told you.
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Don't pick a weak man. This isn't my fault.
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) Of course, it's your fault.
MARIN HINKLE: (As Rose Weissman, crying)
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Mama, please stop crying.
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) Everything we bring on ourselves is our own fault.
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) He was a good husband. He was a good provider.
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) What are you going to do now? What are your children going to do?
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Mama, for the love of God, please stop crying in that bedroom. This isn't fair.
HINKLE: (As Rose Weissman, crying)
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Much better, thanks.
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) Life isn't fair. It's hard and cruel. You have to pick your friends as if there's a war going on. You want a husband who will take a bullet for you - not one who points to the attic and says, they're up there.
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) How can you say that about Joel? You liked him.
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) I knew what he was.
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Why didn't you tell me then?
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) I did tell you.
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) When? When did you tell me?
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) When you first came home with him - that night. I looked at you. I asked, is this the choice? And you said yes.
BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) That was telling me?
SHALHOUB: (As Abe Weissman) I have to spell it out for you?
DAVIES: That is Rachel Brosnahan and our guest Tony Shalhoub from "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," the Amazon series. Well, Tony Shalhoub, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the Emmy nomination. I know it's not your first.
SHALHOUB: Thank you.
DAVIES: This is a guy who's suddenly having his world turned upside down, isn't he?
SHALHOUB: Yes, he is. And also in this time period - and it kind of speaks to everything kind of that's going on in our culture today - women had certain set roles at that time. And so, you know, as a father, he is - you know, he has a certain expectation. And that expectation is toppled because he cannot imagine how his daughter - now that this has happened, he can't imagine how she's going to survive, you know, having two young children, no job, no career. How's she going to manage? And, you know, he has to make a very large adjustment.
DAVIES: Right. You have grown children yourself, don't you?
SHALHOUB: I do. I have two daughters.
DAVIES: That's what I thought. Yeah, I have grown kids myself, yeah.
SHALHOUB: In their 20s, right?
DAVIES: Yeah, so you must have connected with this idea. You know, you can't control their lives. They make their own decisions. And yet, you know, you want to help. But it's hard, and it affects you.
SHALHOUB: Yeah, yeah. And it's one of the things as a parent that we - it takes us I think for - took me forever to come to. And that is that, you know, you only have so much of an effect. And I think what's sort of fascinating about approaching this character of Abe is that it goes beyond just, you know, the breaking of conventions. It goes beyond expectations. What he's really facing, as is his wife - the character of the wife too, is that their daughter is not really who they thought she was.
And that's a much larger problem. You make certain assumptions as a parent. And you kind of think, at a certain point, you've figured things out. And then all of a sudden, that person that you raised and nurtured and thought that you knew is someone else completely. And, you know, that means that the sands beneath your feet are - they're not just shifting. They're sort of disappearing.
DAVIES: Right. And it can be wonderful too, but it is unsettling.
SHALHOUB: Yes, it is.
DAVIES: You know, the other interesting thing about this series is that it's different from - I don't know - an awful lot of plots in TV and film in that the story is really driven by the women.
DAVIES: I mean Midge, who is this brilliant person, and her manager Susie, played by Alex Borstein who's terrific - and the men are kind of reacting to...
SHALHOUB: Exactly. I was at dinner with a friend the other night. And she said - she referenced that same thing. She said what really hooked her was there was a scene - I can't remember which episode - but one of the middle episodes in the first season where Midge and Susie, played by Alex Borstein, her manager, they're sitting at a bar. It's after-hours at this club. And they're sitting at a bar, pounding back shots and talking for - it's a really long scene. And there isn't one mention of a man, a relationship, the marriage. You know what I mean? And she just found that so refreshing. And so it's sort of almost groundbreaking, you know, for a series. And that was where, you know, the hook was really set.
DAVIES: I wanted to talk about the film "Big Night" in 1996, which I remember very fondly. This is co-written and co-directed by Stanley Tucci. It's about two Italian immigrant brothers who own a restaurant in a New Jersey town. I guess it's the early '60s, right?
SHALHOUB: It was actually, I think, in the '50s.
DAVIES: In the '50s, OK. And the two brothers are you and Stanley Tucci. And it's about family and ambition and food very much. And I thought we'd listen to a scene. This is where you're in the kitchen of this small Italian restaurant that you own with a woman that you're sweet on, who is played by Allison Janney. You're kind of just getting to know each other. And you're stirring a vegetable sauce and talking about food.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG NIGHT")
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) It's a Florentine sauce - you know, quick, fresh, nice. See. Sometimes you can put in the cream if you like - but no for me because it's no good for my stomach. Allora.
ALLISON JANNEY: (As Ann) My mother cooked with cream - everything, cream.
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) Have you ever been to Bologna?
JANNEY: (As Ann) No.
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) Oh, I take you someday then. I mean, you like cream?
JANNEY: (As Ann) Yes.
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) Yes, I thought you do. Yes, well, you will love this place. Bologna, it's sad a little. The city is old - no, old is nice. But it's dark. But the food anyway - whew. They make this dish called - listen - lasagna.
JANNEY: (As Ann) Lasagna.
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) Lasagna bolognese. You can't believe how good this is. And when my uncle, in Rome at his restaurant - when he make this, you eat. And then you go, and - ahh - you kill yourself. You have to kill yourself. After you eat this, you can't leave. Si, OK, it's mad. I'm mad. Here, it's good, right? It's nice?
JANNEY: (As Ann) Oh, that smells good.
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) OK, this is done. Now, taste. Taste.
JANNEY: (As Ann) Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) It's good, huh? You like?
JANNEY: (As Ann) Oh, my God.
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) Oh, my God is right. Now you know to eat good food is to be close to God. You know what they say? To know God - to have the knowing...
JANNEY: (As Ann) Knowledge.
SHALHOUB: (As Primo) Knowledge - si, the knowledge of God is the bread of angels. I'm never sure what that means, but it's true anyway.
DAVIES: And that is Allison Janney and our guest Tony Shalhoub from the 1996 film "Big Night." You're speaking there in the accent of an Italian immigrant who's still kind of learning English. And before I want to talk about the language and dialect, I want to play another quick clip. And this is later in the film. The two brothers are very angry at each other. At night, they're on a beach. And they get into a sort of an argument and a physical fight. And this is just a little bit of your character Primo yelling at your brother. And I'm not going to translate. I just want people to hear you yelling at your brother here in Italian. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG NIGHT")
SHALHOUB: (As Primo, speaking Italian).
DAVIES: Tony Shalhoub in "Big Night" - the scene at the end of "Big Night," where you are fighting with your brother, kind of evokes classic Italian films, like "La Strada." Were you thinking about any of those films when you were preparing for that role - for that scene?
SHALHOUB: Well, Stanley certainly was. I think he was actually a student of those films, and that's how that fight on the beach came about. He didn't want it to be, you know, a - too choreographed. These are guys who have never probably had a physical fight, and they don't know how to do it.
DAVIES: You can tell that. Yeah.
SHALHOUB: And it's - he wanted it to feel awkward. And I think he was - I remember at the time, he was saying that he was basing it on this one - it was some - I think it was Marcello Mastroianni. And so I don't remember the film. But there's - he's kind of wrestling this guy, and maybe it's even on a beach. I can't remember the exact scene. And they're fighting and fighting. And all of a sudden at one point, (laughter) Marcello Mastroianni just sort of stops. And he's prone, and he sort of leans his head on his hand. And he just kind of catches his breath in the middle of this fight. (Laughter) And they're both tired, and then they go back to it. You know, it's that kind of thing 'cause real people, you know, don't punch each other in the face and ever have a boxing match. He just wanted it to feel like two brothers who really loved each other but were completely frustrated and fed up with each other. And in some ways, I see that fight when I watch it. I see that fight as a way of embracing each other because, in their lives, that's - any physical contact is kind of longed for and yearned for. And...
SHALHOUB: ...You know, they get to be close even though they're - you know, they're furious at each other.
DAVIES: Did you know Italian before you did this film?
SHALHOUB: No. I had been studying Italian a little bit, but no. I had to learn a lot of that Italian phonetically. Stanley's favorite (laughter) story is that - you know, we had this scripted dialogue. And we would be doing these scenes and speaking in Italian back-and-forth. And then he would kind of go off script and start improvising in Italian, forgetting that I didn't know Italian.
SHALHOUB: Then I would just stare at him with his blank look, like, I got nothing here, pal.
SHALHOUB: But that whole experience of shooting that film was a great education. I mean, I got to work with a Italian chef to train me...
SHALHOUB: ...Just look like I knew what I was doing in the kitchen. And I had a great dialect person to help me with the accent - with the Italian accent speaking English. And then another person to help me with the Italian and Stanley, too. It's hard to imagine that was 20-plus years ago because it was such a turning point for me. I think that movie - I kind of look at things as sort of pre-"Big Night" and post-"Big Night."
DAVIES: Was it a turning point because of its success or because of your own kind of craft and connections?
SHALHOUB: In all ways because it was - it became a kind of a cult hit. And it still holds up so beautifully. People still talk to me about it and ask me about it. And some people are just discovering it for the first time. Some people, you know, watched it 12 times. But it - working with Stanley and all these other actors, like Allison, for example, and Campbell Scott and Ian Holm...
SHALHOUB: ...Who played our competing restauranteur - Ian Holm had been a hero of mine since I was an acting student. So to be on the same set with - you know, he's a God really. And...
DAVIES: Yeah, it is an amazing cast when you look at it - Minnie Driver and - yeah.
SHALHOUB: Oh, my God.
DAVIES: Yeah. Isabella Rossellini.
SHALHOUB: Isabella Rossellini.
SHALHOUB: I just - I felt like that was maybe the most fortunate thing that had ever happened to me.
DAVIES: Tony Shalhoub is nominated for an Emmy for his performance in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," the Amazon series. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "AIN'T THAT A SHAME")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm speaking with actor Tony Shalhoub, who's nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the Amazon series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." When we left off, we were talking about his performance in the 1996 film "Big Night."
The final scene of that film - it's in the kitchen. And after you and your brother, played by Stanley Tucci, have had a terrible night and a big fight. And you - it's about two minutes, I think, with one camera. And...
SHALHOUB: It's 4 1/2 minutes...
DAVIES: And you basically are sharing some scrambled eggs. I don't even know if there's dialogue. All I know is - I don't know anything about filmmaking, but I know that I saw that 20 years ago. And I remembered that scene for 20 years. And everybody in our control room - we were talking moments ago...
DAVIES: ...Everybody else remembers that scene. Could you tell you were in something that special when it was happening - making the film?
SHALHOUB: You never know. I mean, we believed in the material because the movie, essentially, is about art and commerce...
SHALHOUB: ...You know, balancing art and commerce. And as actors, we all have been, you know, faced with this kind of dilemma. We all were struggling with this. You know, how much do we want to sell out (laughter)? And, you know, how much do we want to live the - you know, the starving artist, purist existence? That's always a balancing act, and that's what Stanley was really exploring here.
DAVIES: Your character is named Primo because you were the first son, I guess, and your brother...
DAVIES: ...Played by Stanley, was Secondo. And...
DAVIES: ...You're militantly committed to your own vision of Italian cuisine. And it's not exactly catching on, and so that's the dilemma. And Stanley, your brother, wants to be a little more commercial. We've got to pay the bills here. And it's about these two brothers and, you know, their values and ambitions. You're the son of an immigrant father - big family. Did you kind of identify with this kind of family because of your own background?
SHALHOUB: Absolutely. You know, and like the Italians, the Lebanese are all about food (laughter). But I - yes, I feel like there's so much of my father in Primo. You know, the thing about that character is that he's in it for the long game, which doesn't exactly - isn't a great fit for the American culture and the American dream - which is, you know, how much can you accumulate, and how fast can you accumulate it?
Primo is more old-world. And, you know, whatever time it takes - whether it's the preparation of food, the consuming of food or, you know, the understanding for people to learn about a different kind of cuisine and quality and - however long it takes, that's how long it takes. So, yeah, there's a bit of a cultural tug of war going on there.
DAVIES: And in what way was your father in it for the long game, if that's the connection between him and Primo?
SHALHOUB: Well, he was - my father was an independent businessman. And he built up his own business. He was a meat peddler basically. He was - he sold sausage and things to stores. And he figured out a way to do it basically in four days of the week. And this is a guy who's, you know, got 10 kids and a lot of mouths to feed and schools to pay for. But he built it up to a certain degree, could've worked six or seven days a week and made more, but he worked it out so that he got what he needed but also had time. Time was very valuable to him - time with his children, time with his friends, time with extended family, time for himself.
DAVIES: Tony Shalhoub is nominated for an Emmy Award for his role in the Amazon comedy series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." After a break, he'll talk about playing the neurotic but brilliant detective Monk and whether the role made him a more obsessive person. Also, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new release of recordings by American soprano Bethany Beardslee. Here's one of many great songs that are featured in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" sung by Dinah Washington. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART")
DINAH WASHINGTON: (Singing) I let a song go out of my heart. It was the sweetest melody. I know I lost heaven 'cause you were the song. Since you and I have drifted apart, life doesn't mean a thing to me. Please come back, sweet music. I know I was wrong. Am I too late to make amends? You know that we were meant to be more than just friends. Oh, I let a song go out of my heart. Believe me, darling, when I say, I won't know sweet music until you return some day.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We're speaking with actor Tony Shalhoub, known for his roles in the films "Big Night," "Galaxy Quest," among others and for his eight seasons as the neurotic TV detective Monk. He's currently nominated for an Emmy Award for his role in the Amazon comedy series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."
Well, we have to talk about "Monk," the series that you starred in.
DAVIES: Eight seasons - right? - on USA channel. You earned, I think, a Golden Globe and three Emmys, and I can't even remember all of it. It's about this detective, Adrian Monk, who's this brilliant criminologist. But he's obsessive compulsive, has lots of phobias partly, we learn, because his - stems from a tragedy. His wife was killed years before. A crime is yet unsolved for most of the series. But I thought we'd listen to a scene. This is actually in the very first episode. You've arrived at a crime scene in...
DAVIES: ...With your nurse Sharona, played by Bitty Schram. There's a dead woman on the floor. There are detectives all around. They want to get your observations because you're kind of legendary for your skill at it. And you're helping, but you keep turning to Sharona because you're worried you might've left a burner on at home. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONK")
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) The stove...
DION JOHNSTONE: (As Lieutenant Gitomer) Over here. It's in the kitchen.
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) No, I mean my stove. I think I left it on.
BITTY SCHRAM: (As Sharona Fleming) It's OK. I checked it as we were leaving.
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) Are you sure? Did you turn the knob?
SCHRAM: (As Sharona Fleming) Yeah.
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) The little knob, though.
SCHRAM: (As Sharona Fleming) I turned all the knobs. The stove is off, Adrian.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Excuse me. Sir, we believe it was a burglary gone sour. She walked in. She surprised him. He panicked...
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) ...Left the knife in the kitchen. He...
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) No. No. No. No. No, this was no burglary.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It wasn't?
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) He tried to make it look like one, but this guy was cold as ice. He wore slippers to avoid leaving shoe prints - not something your neighborhood crackhead is prone to do. He was in here. He was waiting.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Waiting for what?
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) You know, for her. He was here at least an hour. He was smoking. You can still smell it on the curtains. Menthols - Salems, possibly Newports.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Maybe she was the smoker.
SHALHOUB: (As Adrian Monk) No. No. She was a Dutch Calvinist. They don't smoke. They consider their bodies to be a holy - a holy chalice of - I'm sorry. I'm having trouble concentrating because I think I smell gas. Did you hear the click? Because you got to hear the click, not just feel the click - hear it.
DAVIES: (Laughter) That is our guest Tony Shalhoub in the very first episode of "Monk," which ran eight seasons on the USA channel.
How did this role come your way?
SHALHOUB: Well, this was a script that had been around for quite a while actually. And various people had been circling it. And I don't know how many people were offered the part before it came to me, frankly - probably a lot.
DAVIES: I heard Michael Richards was in the picture at some point.
SHALHOUB: Yeah, I think there was - that's right. I heard that, too. And then around - this was right after "Seinfeld," I believe. And then he took a - it was actually about a detective. It was a half-hour sitcom, though, not an hour long. And he must have decided to do that. And that kind of opened the door for me to get this part, and it was an amazing experience. That whole run was really a game-changer for me.
DAVIES: Now, one of the reasons I picked that scene was that you - we both see Monk being kind of phobic and obsessive but also kind of brilliant at analyzing a crime scene. And there are times when the - it's - you're sort of almost uncomfortable with what he's going through. And it's also really funny. Was that conscious?
SHALHOUB: Yeah. I think we - the writers did such a brilliant job of walking that line, you know, between making him interesting and lovable but also irritating.
SHALHOUB: I always - and once we were into it a couple of seasons, I just - I thought - I always felt that the point we wanted to reach - if we were really doing our job well, I have this vision of, you know, a person sitting at home in front of their TV watching "Monk" and holding a remote control in their hand wanting really desperately to change the channel because they were being so - because they were squirming and being made uncomfortable but not being able to change the channel because they wanted to see what happened. You know, being caught in that problem, in that dilemma, that's - if we could get people to that point, then we were - I thought we were succeeding.
DAVIES: Right. You know, you could overplay the whole phobia thing. I'm wondering, did you improvise some of his quirks? And - I mean, the way he kind of - you kind of paw the air as you're looking at a crime scene, it's sort of really fascinating.
SHALHOUB: Yeah. That - some of that just - it just developed over time. I can't explain it. It just made sense to me that he has super sensitivity to all these - all this outside stimuli. And he sees the world so differently. He looks at it so differently. His vision is unlike anyone else's. And I can't really explain how some of that stuff evolved. I just - I always describe it as sort of uncorking a bottle and just letting all this...
SHALHOUB: ...Stuff kind of come out that normally sane people - or normal people - would somehow keep bottled up or have learned how to control. He just doesn't have that ability. And so he does things and says things in social situations that are - he just can't help himself.
DAVIES: Right. Are you at all obsessive? And did playing the role make you more obsessive?
SHALHOUB: I am. I mean, I have - I think, you know, people that know me - and especially my wife - would tell you that I'm very, very obsessive. I don't see myself that way. But I have to say that the show did - it did have somewhat of an impact, doing it for so long. You know, I started to think about things that hadn't really bothered me before...
SHALHOUB: ...Like shaking hands and things like that.
DAVIES: Right. He would...
SHALHOUB: But you know, it didn't overtake my life like it did for Adrian Monk. But it got the wheels going (laughter), I guess you could say.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Right. He would always get a wipe after he shook someone's hand. Our guest is Tony Shalhoub, who starred in "Big Night." He's also earned an Emmy nomination for his performance in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," the Amazon series. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTEFIORI COCKTAIL'S "GNE GNE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with actor Tony Shalhoub. He is nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the Amazon series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."
You were raised in Green Bay, Wis., right?
SHALHOUB: That's right, born and raised.
DAVIES: Tell us about your family, your childhood.
SHALHOUB: Well, I grew up in a large Lebanese-American family. I'm 1 of 10 children, the second youngest of 10. And it was a chaotic and wonderful childhood. All of my siblings - we still stay close and, you know, get together whenever possible. In fact, we just finished a family reunion, a yearly family reunion, in Wisconsin in July. And I always feel that I - in my work, I always have a sense that I sort of carry all of my siblings and the various personalities with me and use them and I guess you could say exploit them in my work. And they are a great source of support and - in my life and in my work.
DAVIES: When you were growing up, were you a mimic? Did you - I don't know - did you think about them as characters in some way? I mean, you're - obviously, they're your family. They're not characters. But kind of think about what they (unintelligible).
SHALHOUB: (Laughter) No, I didn't really see them that way until I, you know, grew up and left home. And then, you know - and then kind of in hindsight but not just my siblings, too, you know, other people that were part of our lives - my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, friends of my parents. There was this whole kind of tapestry out there, you know, kind of wonderful, crazy, bizarre characters, some with accents, some with strange habits. And they've all - they all sort of still live in me in a way.
DAVIES: When did you begin to think that acting could be a career, a profession for you?
SHALHOUB: I think that started to - it started to become more real when I was at the drama school, when I was at Yale. You know, in college, I was a theater major and all that, but it didn't seem so plausible. I mean, it seemed more likely that as much as I liked it, I didn't know that a viable career was possible. So I imagine maybe I would become a teacher or something like that. Then at the drama school, it was a conservatory situation. So the students were at the school, were being fed into productions at the Yale Rep, which was a professional company. People were coming up from New York - directors, writers, actors - and from other places.
And so I was really rubbing elbows with people who were doing it for real. And that's when I began to believe that it was viable. And - but at that time to be totally honest because we were being trained for the theater, I imagined that I would have a life in the theater. And that was - that seemed fantastic to me if it was - you know, if it was doable. You know, I wasn't really kind of setting my sights on film and television because that wasn't the focus of the program.
DAVIES: Right. But you got there. You went to New York eventually, yeah.
SHALHOUB: Even though people like Meryl Streep and others, you know, Sigourney Weaver - they had been at the school before me, years before me. And they were out there doing films. So, you know, it all started - the picture started to become somewhat more vivid.
DAVIES: Why didn't you see yourself going that direction?
SHALHOUB: Because we all understood that there are a lot of people trying to do it and very few roles and you have to be - you know, we're not all Meryl Streep. I mean, come on. She's amazing. And I mean, some of these - you know, we - I guess there was a certain sense of, you know, insecurity and uncertainty about how possible that would be.
DAVIES: You said you felt insecure. Do you still feel insecure?
SHALHOUB: Well, I mean, in the sense that we all - all actors - I think most actors do. I mean, not insecure. I mean, you know, in the sense that you question your worth and you always feel like every job is you're - going to be your last job. And I'm not alone in that. I mean, you could talk to any actor and I'm sure they'd tell you this - that same thing.
DAVIES: Well, it seems like you're really at a great point in your career. What kinds of roles do you turn down?
SHALHOUB: There have been things that I have turned down, but, you know, there was a lot more things that I really wanted to do and didn't get.
SHALHOUB: We don't have time to talk about all those. I guess I steer clear of things that are - I think I did a - back in the '80s when I was first in New York, I did an episode of an hour-long show where I played a terrorist. And I - you know, I kind of - I don't - I've been asked to do those kinds of things since, and those are things that I just steer clear of. I don't know. I kind of - I sort of feel like I want to do things that are - that I - I choose things that I don't fully understand when I first read them or are that I don't feel that I could necessarily knock it out of the park. I try to choose things that are slightly out of my reach and, you know, give me an opportunity to explore new ground.
DAVIES: Tony Shalhoub, it's been fun. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
SHALHOUB: Appreciate it.
DAVIES: Tony Shalhoub is nominated for an Emmy Award for his role in the Amazon comedy series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The award ceremony is September 17. Here's a song Randy Newman wrote for the opening titles of Tony Shalhoub's hit show "Monk." This version is from Newman's album "Dark Matter."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE")
RANDY NEWMAN: (Singing) It's a jungle out there, disorder and confusion everywhere. No one seems to care. Well, I do. Hey, who's in charge here? It's a jungle out there, poison in the very air we breathe. Do you know what's in the water that you drink? Well, I do, and it's amazing. People think I'm crazy 'cause I worry all the time. If you paid attention, you'd be worried, too. You better pay attention or this world you love so much might just kill you.
(Singing) I could be wrong now, but I don't think so 'cause it's a jungle out there. It's a jungle out there. It's a jungle out there - violence and danger everywhere. It's brother against brother pounding on each other like they were millionaires. It's a jungle out there. It's a jungle in here, too. You've got a tap right on your phone of microphones and cameras checking out everything you do. Call it paranoia. As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. I'm not the one who's crazy. I'm not afraid to live. They're afraid of you and me. I could be wrong now, but I don't think so 'cause it's a jungle out there. There's a jungle out there.
DAVIES: Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new release of recordings from American soprano Bethany Beardslee. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF "MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET AND RON SODERSTORM'S "A.M.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.