Tomorrow night summer television gets a whole lot sexier when Michael Vartan returns to the small screen opposite Jada Pinkett Smith in TNT’s new medical drama, HawthoRNe. Vartan plays Dr. Tom Wakefield, the compassionate Chief of Surgery who may or may not have a thing for the recently-widowed Chief Nursing Officer, Christina Hawthorne (Pinkett Smith). In an interview last week, the implausibly down to earth former Alias star opened up on working with Pinket Smith, what makes him squeamish, and who he’s been spooning in bed lately (don’t worry ladies, the companion is in canine form).
Cloris Leachman is one of the first big guest stars, which just begs the question – did she hit on you? She did not [laughs]. I actually never got to work with her. We were never in a scene together, but she is absolutely insanely wonderful. She’s so funny. What a character.
From the looks of things in the pilot, you and Christina are moving out of colleagues territory and more into the potential lovers category. What’s happening there? You know, it’s definitely a possibility. This is television, after all. But let’s not forget she just buried her husband about six months ago so I think the decent thing to do is let the poor woman heal before he makes a move. That’s definitely an element of the relationship that I’m sure at some point will be explored. We’ve not shot any of it. It’s been talked about very loosely. My guess is that if something happens it certainly won’t happen in season one. And of course the husband aspect would make it a little more creepy.
Fans might not be so happy about that. Yeah, and the forbidden fruit aspect is always so much more fun to play.
There’s a pretty substantial height differential between you two. Any concerns about a back injury for you in a love scene? [laughs] It’s never come up. She wears heels a lot, which helps the height difference. But she’s a tiny little thing, for sure.
How’s it been working with Jada? She’s amazing. She’s got so much drive, determination, energy and focus on this particular project. Number one obviously because she’s starring in it, but also she’s the executive producer, and her mom is a registered nurse. I don’t want to put words in her mouth but I think she raised Jada as a single parent. So I think the story has a lot of personal inspiration to her. Getting to work with her is awesome. If something isn’t working on set she has the ability and creativity to change it. It’s an instant fix. I’m constantly amazed with her energy. When I’m done with my 14-hour day I go home, sit on the couch and watch Sports Center. She has to go home and be a wife and a mother, and God knows what other adventures she’s involved in. She basically works every day. She’s in every shot of this show. It takes a lot out of you.
She’s also a musician. Aren’t you as well? I play the guitar and the piano. I love music. It’s a great way to just escape and empty your mind for a while.
Have there been any impromptu jam sessions on set yet? No, not yet [laughs]. I haven’t brought my guitar to set yet. That could be fun.
What music have you been listening to lately? What do I have in my car right now? I have a CD I made that’s all Jimmy Hendrix. Selected tracks. He’s a genius to me. I’ve loved his music since I was a kid.
Have you ever been admitted to the ER? I had my appendix taken out when I was 12 in France. I’ve had stitches for various different hockey injuries, but nothing too serious, knock on wood. I’ve never met anyone who likes hospitals. I like to stay away from them as much as possible.
How much does HawthoRNe’s Richmond Trinity Hospital mirror a real life hospital? It’s pretty damn close because we actually shoot in a real hospital that shut down a few years ago. So a lot of machines are still there and working. That’s a great thing because you can lean on a wall and it won’t collapse, like on most sets. You can turn on the water and it actually comes out of the faucet, which is nice. We have an amazing technical team who are actual nurses in real life. They keep us true to what is real and what isn’t; just the little details that someone who works in that profession would notice. We’re in good hands as far as that stuff is concerned.
Have you gone exploring? Any creepy floors or former wards? Yeah, it’s definitely creepy. The morgue! I went in there for five seconds and turned around immediately. We often end up shooting late at night and I’ve gotten lost a couple of times walking down hallways by myself. You know, I’m a 40-year-old man, I’m not a pansy, but definitely the hair on your neck stands up a little sometimes.
Does all the fake blood bother you? I’m not too squeamish in general. Needles don’t bother me, and blood doesn’t bother me. Seeing a bone pop out of skin, now that bothers me.
Have you actually witnessed a bone pop out of skin? I have. A friend of mine when I was a kid fractured his tibia while playing soccer, and it just came popping right out of his skin. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen!
And it was at that moment you knew you were destined to play a doctor on TV. Yes, exactly [laughs]. Certainly not in real life.
So you don’t have much of a gag reflex when it comes to some of the sights in the show, but what about storylines? Has anything been difficult to deal with? I’d love to give a cool juicy answer, but the truth is no. The reason I say that is that the line between acting and real life is very clear, and it’s a very thick line. I never get into my characters so much that I forget that it’s just pretend. And as we said earlier, the fake blood is fake blood. I was operating on this kid the other day and it’s actually rubber that they laid on his stomach that I just cut open.
Has it been tough for you to memorize all the technical terms? Do you have a trick? Not really. We go episode to episode so whatever nonsensical medical verbal diarrhea I have to spit out I learn for that day, but when the scene is over I forget it immediately [laughs]. We’re not bombarded with it, which is nice. The show is more about the relationships between the people. I remember watching ER and every other word was triglyceride something.
Think you could name your favorite TV doctors of all time? Hmm. I liked Doogie Howser, to be honest with you [laughs]. He was probably my favorite.
Why Doogie? Well, I play the head of surgery right now and I struggle a little bit with my age. I kind of feel like I’m a little bit young. So I’d draw on Doogie Howser for my inspiration [laughs]. My mantra was ‘if Doogie can do it, damnit, I can do it too!’
Anyone else? Dr. Cliff Huxtable? Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H? I’m not a big TV watcher. I can’t remember the last time I watched network television. I’m more of a cable person; The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Sports Center, that kind of thing. M*A*S*H was an amazing show. The Cosby Show was insanely funny.
Would you ever consider doing something on Sports Center or Animal Planet? Oh absolutely. I love animals and I love sports. Maybe I can do something about animals in sports. Sports Center would be awesome, but I don’t think I’m cut out to be an anchor. I don’t do that well in front of the camera when you have to speak a lot and it’s not lines you’ve memorized. Animal Planet would be a lot of fun. Note to whoever is the program director over at Animal Planet – I’m interested.
I don’t know how often you Google yourself, but one of the first searches that surfaces under predictive text for your name is “Michael Vartan Girlfriend.” Really? And is it a picture of my dog?
Is she your current girlfriend? Oh yes [laughs]. Girlfriend, therapist, drinking buddy, you name it. Milly wears all those hats for me.
So she’s your partner of choice at the moment? Yes, I’m a very lucky man.
Is she named after anyone in particular? No, not really. Her real name is Millicent, but I only call her that when she’s really in trouble, like parents do. ‘Millicent Vartan, you get over here immediately!’
Does she have a middle name? Scolding is always better when you can insert a middle name. No, she doesn’t [laughs]. I’m obsessed, but I’m not quite that obsessed. She’s still a dog at the end of the day. She’s not a human, but there are times when the line is blurred. When you find yourself spooning your dog, it’s time to get out a little more.
HawthoRNe premieres Tuesday night at 9 PM on TNT.