Esten’s first big job was on one of the most popular sitcoms ever, though at the time he had no idea guest gigs like this would become the (wait for it) Norm! “I got to walk through the door in Cheers. Even then, that blew me away. Like, who gets to do this?” he says. “It might’ve been the last season.” It was. Esten played a Marine whose surprise appearance at a bar-set party provides the punchline for one of Cliff’s harebrained schemes.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
The same year as his Cheers job, Esten shot an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But he was no easily expendable Away Team member: Esten played a Klingon named Divok on hand as Worf practiced an ancient ritual. “It was a very emotional scene that I was [in] over my head pulling off. But I managed to give enough there and learned. I got more out of that than they ever got out of me.” He’d later return to the franchise with a role in a 1996 episode of Star Trek: Voyager.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Esten spent six years making it up on the fly on the American version of the British improv comedy show, hosted by Drew Carey. “Those Whose Line years… Those are purely happy places,” he says fondly. “Talk about a universe away from Deacon!” However, he admits, he wasn’t always as reverential about Hoedowns and Scenes From a Hat. “I’m gonna be honest, there were times where, because I wanted to be an actor, I sort of did disrespect it in my own mind.” A fan encounter changed that. “I remember meeting a woman whose mother had passed, and she said for the last year, she couldn’t really do anything. All they would do as a family was watch Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and they’d all just bust a gut laughing. And I was suddenly ashamed of my take of what the show was. And I haven’t forgotten that ever since.”
Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Cont’d.)
If you watch a few of Esten’s Whose Line episodes, you’ll realize that he sings a lot. ” Yeah, that’s the one thread… to what I’m doing now,” he says with a laugh. “It struck me more than once [that] in the history of the world, I lived in the 20 years when you could make a bunch of money making up songs off the top of your head.”
When The Office debuted on American TV, Esten — a fan of the British original — knew he had to be a part of it. He even had an in: He and Rainn Wilson had done an unsuccessful pilot together years before. “Very quickly, I went to my agent and said, ‘Eventually, they’re gonna get to the part where they need the other boss, the one that’s got his stuff together and knows how to do it. When they get there, please make sure I get in on it.'” And that’s how Esten became Josh Porter, the anti-Michael Scott who heads Dunder Mifflin’s Stamford branch.
Dr. Barry Grossman was a recreational hockey player, so Esten spent a lot of his County General time on skates. “I got to play a bunch of hockey with Scott Grimes, and had a ball with him,” he says. “They really trained us. It was almost a month, every day, playing hockey” to prepare for a Season 14 orthopedists-vs.-emergency room docs game. “And of course, by the time it was on air, we were on ice maybe six minutes,” he says with a laugh.
“Mostly, Chloe [Sevigny] is what I think of,” Esten says of his Big Love arc, which spanned Seasons 3 and 4. “I was a fan, and I was intimidated going in, because she’s such a strong actor, one that doesn’t suffer fools gladly… It turned out to be one of the great roles and experiences of my life.” Esten’s Ray Henry – a prosecutor who has a fling with Sevigny’s Nicki — was part of the series during a time of tummult. “When the whole house of cards fell down, those were some of my favorite scenes I ever got to do, when I go to her house and bam, bam, bam. It was like all the fireworks went off at once.”
Esten sympathizes so strongly with his character — the boss and married former lover of Laura Dern’s unhinged Amy Jellicoe –that he’s still defending him. “Yes, I had my part in her breakdown and everything that went wrong,” he says. “But from my perspective, that was sort of like Fatal Attraction, like she’s Glenn Close. But instead of just boiling our family rabbit and dying in the bathtub, she goes and heals and comes back to inhabit my life again. Like, ‘Heeeey! Can we talk?’ I get what an ass Damon is, but in a real way, a lot of people were like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what you would say to her at that moment.'”
“The best part of being on a Disney [Channel] show is just to play along with all the craziness,” Esten notes. So when he was approached to be dad Morgan Ross on the tween series, “I thought, ‘This could be something that I think [my kids] would really, really enjoy. I might as well.” Morgan’s been MIA since Esten’s ABC gig came calling, and “It’s hard now, because I feel like such a bad dad. Dad went to Nashville, and now he’s drying out and playing guitar,” he says, laughing. “But they were wonderful. Those kids are just amazing, just so funny and so great… I hope they’re missing me, because I miss them.”
Did you recognize Esten from his previous roles? What were your favorites? Sound off in the comments!