Kelly Alto

"Paul Scheer On the Desperation of His Closeted Wall Street Broker" [Awards Daily]

Kelly Alto
"Paul Scheer On the Desperation of His Closeted Wall Street Broker" [Awards Daily]
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The comic actor flexes some dramatic muscles in Showtime’s underrated comedy-drama series, Black Monday.

Black Monday is a comedy series that’s flying a bit under the radar this season, but it’s so successful thanks to its hilarious ensemble cast. Led by Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, and Andrew Rannells, Monday centers on that fateful day in 1987 when the stock market experienced the worst crash in history. Lives were ruined and things got a little less grand and sparkly. This isn’t The Wolf of Wall Street, though. Sure, there is Wall Street debauchery, but the characters feel real and fully rounded. One of the best performances of the entire show is from Paul Scheer, who plays a broker with a secret.

Scheer is one of comedy’s most valued and consistent players, and his performance as Keith really took me by surprise. I thought he was going to be an antagonistic douchebag–he’s that too, don’t get me wrong–but Monday allows him to create a character with a lot more depth. As that fateful day approaches, Keith gets increasingly more desperate. The FEDS are onto him and his marriage (to The Big Bang Theory‘s Melissa Rauch) has zero passion. The only thing giving Keith any comfort or drive is his relationship with Jason Michael Snow’s Mike, a dancer in the original Broadway production of Starlight Express.

We have seen Scheer in a wide variety of comedies (I first remember him as the NBC page who tortured Kenneth on 30 Rock), but Keith’s desperation allows you to pity him and feel for him simultaneously. There is a moment when Keith embraces himself and Mike briefly caresses Keith’s bald head. Keith doesn’t flinch or move away. It’s a fleeting moment, but it tells you how much Keith is longing to be loved. He would never allow any of his coworkers or Wall Street bud touch him in that way. Everything around him is crashing down, but Scheer brings a tenderness and yearing to a Wall Street “bro” like we have never seen.

Somehow, the Television Academy has failed to honor Scheer with an Emmy nomination despite his impressive resume. His performance as Keith Shankar is one of his most accomplished to date, and I hope he is serious considered for Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. It would be a well deserved nomination.

Have you ever suffered through a performance of Starlight Express?

Oh, no, but I want to so bad. Before this, oddly, I’ve done research on Starlight Express.

Really?

If you were to talk about big spectacle disasters, it’s this and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, right? Big, Broadway mistakes. I’m fascinated by it. Obviously, with my podcast, I’m fascinated with things that don’t go right. I always wondered what it was about. What I kind of love about it is that somebody thought, ‘Yup, everything about this is right. People are into rollerblades—let’s do it!’ Nobody is saying no.

When I studied theater in college, that show would get brought up occasionally and everyone would instinctively cringe.

It also goes to show you that good people can make bad stuff. There’s a great divider there. A lot of people had to agree to that show.

What was it like for you to dive into unhinged, 1980’s debauchery? We’ve seen it so many times in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street.

What I think is so fun about this show is that it presents what we’ve seen in the world of Wolf of Wall Street, but as it goes on it gets deeper and you see more of their inner lives. It makes you second guess it. The stories we were pulling off of were from David Caspe’s dad who was a soybean trader in the Chicago stock market, so stories are taken directly from me. We have the whole LaGuardia Play episode, and that was taken from David’s dad—I think it was the O’Hare Play.

Oh, wow. I had no idea.

For me, I think documentaries are the best way to get into people and see them in their natural habitat. These people don’t exist anymore, and if they do, they are going to whitewash it a bit. I watched all these docs—even some that are only available in the UK—about these traders, and you got to see this energy. They’re living the life of a rock star without any of the fame. There’s no consequences. So it’s sadder because most of these people are married. There’s ultimately nothing cool about it, but they are playing this high, intense game, and all that cocaine was very in vogue. It was the 80’s. There needs to be this idea of ‘I need to be at THIS LEVEL…ALL THE TIME!’ Having that kind of energy is really fun to play.

There’s an honesty to the 80’s that’s fun to play because the fashion is big and the attitudes are big. We did that sexual harassment seminar episode and there’s a freedom in the fact that they are so un-woke. It’s less about the cocaine and more about the energy behind the cocaine. Where I think Wolf of Wall Street presents it as bigger—and that’s no offense to Mr. Martin Scorsese because he’s a brilliant filmmaker—I think Wall Street with Michael Douglas is a little big realer. Michael Douglas had a robot butler in that movie, and that wasn’t for comedic affect at all! It’s about walking that line. We tried really hard to not make it too crazy and ground it a little bit. It already was crazy, so we had to embrace it.

(Photo: Erin Simkin, Showtime)

(Photo: Erin Simkin, Showtime)

When I was re-watching it, I saw the scene in the pilot where Andrew Rannells comes back up to the office and says, ‘I’m the guy with the coke’ and everyone is so relieved. The coke guy is here! And I thought to myself, ‘Surely that happened…at some point in the 80’s.’

Absolutely! I feel like there is that energy. These guys aren’t scoring drugs on the street or anything like that. It goes back to that rock star mentality. This is the life! This is what we do! One of my favorite documentaries I watched was about this guy who made a million dollars in a day and three months later, he was managing a gym. Not owning the gym—he was managing a local gym because he lost everything. That ying and yang of that was fascinating to me. There were prostitutes, there was coke—it was all out there for the taking. When you watch that Not The Michael Milken Party scene, that’s real. There are books that are insane! It was the titans of industry doing insane things behind closed doors. When you’re so rich, you can create this world where there are no consequences.

How do you keep upping the ante every day?

It was all about how big you could get. Oh, you have that? I’m going to get this! You have a 100 foot yacht? I’m going to get a 120 foot yacht! It was a game of inches just to be better.

Game of Inches is probably the title of something seedier, but it feels very apt to the time period.

Yes!

One of my elements of the show that I didn’t expect is the chemistry between you and Jason Michael Snow who plays Mike. How do you think Keith reacted when he realized he was attracted to Mike?

I’ll tell you what I think about it. Keith lives a life where he knew this about himself and whether he wanted to acknowledge it or not is a question mark. He totally either had affairs or sex with random people. With Mike, I know Keith is in love with him. There’s something about his youthfulness and his youthfulness. Keith is in a world not surrounded by that. Mike is allowed to live his life freely and clearly and I think Keith is always at odds with that. One of the big choices was for him to wear a wig. This is a guy that is hiding a lot from the people around him and is trying to fit in. It was important for me to wear a toupee on the show because that small detail represented him in a big way. He has to get a comfortable place to take his toupee off in front of his boyfriend. Mike is the only person he’s able to do that with. It’s a pure love—it’s not about money or what he can get him. It’s really about this connection. When Keith first saw Mike, I think he was doing more random hookups that didn’t mean anything. I believe there was a flirtation and a courtship and there was an immediate connection between them.

This is one of the only shows or movies that I can remember that has characters from the gay community living in the 80’s and it doesn’t mention HIV or any form of sickness.

Yes.

Was that a conscious choice?

We didn’t want to fall into a stereotypical trap. We wanted to tell a story about love and identity. For me, it is much more complicated that Keith has to live this life where he is hiding. And at the end of the season he essentially puts his boyfriend up to be arrested. I feel like it has more weight because you’re responsible for it. There’s more control it to a certain degree. The show tried to move really hard away from what was expected. This is the first time that you see someone on Wall Street that is a person of color. That whole office is pretty much made up entirely of people of color. We tried very hard to do something that was different and tell stories that you hadn’t seen before.

As someone who is gay, that was very refreshing. Just saying.

That means a lot to hear. Really.

The chemistry between you and Mo is really interesting to me. I don’t want to say Keith is desperate for Mo’s approval, but I wanted to know how you approach that relationship.  When Mo tells Keith in the final episode that he was probably his best friend, that feels like a real gut punch.

Keith is a character that is so desperate and feel loved. He draws that line with everyone in his life. His marriage is of convenience, to a degree. Mo represents the business side of it. Mo hired him when no one else would. Maybe there was a rumor about Keith and people would avoid in. There is one line in the third episode where he says, ‘I can’t come out. It’s not accepted in my world.’ I think Keith will do anything to make Mo happy. It’s a fatherly relationship, and when he does give him that moment of acceptance, it’s the biggest thing he could ever have. And Keith just betrayed him and his own boyfriend. He’s essentially wrecking his entire life. He fucked everything up. Mo is the one person who always had his back, and Keith just betrays him. He’s in rough shape at the end.

Do you think he can bounce back from that in season 2?

I don’t know where season 2 goes. When I signed on to do the show, I was only supposed to be in one season. I was supposed to be the jumper, but the show kind of retrofitted itself once I came on board.

(Photo: Showtime)

(Photo: Showtime)

Oh, I didn’t know that.

Yeah! Late in the game, the show just made a left turn. It was building and building and it got to a point where everything was going wrong and we wanted Keith on that ledge and have him jump. From a story perspective, we thought it would be a cheat if it ended that way. It would be way more interesting to see where this character goes next. In a way, if he jumps, he’s dead, and his problems are kind of over. He’s a martyr. Now he’s a guy who has to live with his actions and his consequences and where does that take us? With his wife, his boyfriend and Mo. I really love the idea of coming into season 2 and seeing where he is. I think he will be in a worse spot than season 1 because he has seen how dark he can go and how much it hurts to open himself up. Why would he ever subject himself to that ever again?

The way the season ends, the darkness really comes in with Keith and other characters like Blair. The show revolves around one day where everything will blow up, but by the end, everything is completely destroyed.

What I love about this show is that it has all the pieces of a good, serialized drama, but it leads with comedy. Sometimes you have drama with comedic elements. That final episode doesn’t have that much comedy at all. I love that every week you had to deal with the consequences of the previous episode and it builds off that. So where does season 2 go? Blair is almost Tony Montana. Does season 2 start the day after? Does it start with the 90’s? We can really jump wherever we want. We do the full year in season 1, so season 2 could start with a completely blank slate. It’d probably deal with revenge. Maybe Mo and Keith, and probably Dawn, set their focus on Blair? It’s more about what’s the most fun.

And with how TV works now, you can sort of be experimental with that.

Which I love! If this show started its second season in 1991, that would be awesome!

I heard you were considered for the cast when Black Monday was being developed a few years ago?

Yes.

It was called Ball Street?

Yes, Ball Street.

You were considered for the Lehman Brothers.

Yes.

Watching it now, is there something Ken Marino got to do that you wish you could’ve done?

I’m so thankful that I didn’t get to be the Lehman Brothers. It seemed like the most tedious thin you could do. Not only is Ken an amazing actor and writer, but he’s a great director. Ken has almost an ability to remember hand gestures and movement that he was doing on the other side. He was doing a full one man show. I don’t think I could come close to that. It’s such a nuanced performance he’s not acting off anyone else. They got the best guy for the part. For me, I was excited about playing Keith, because it’s not something that I normally get to do. It’s something with more weight. Sometimes when you cast a person in comedy, you already think you know what they are going to do with the character. I did Andre on The League for 7 years. He was fun to play, but that character doesn’t change because that’s the nature of a sitcom. This was a lot more daunting, and I got to act opposite Andrew, Don, and Regina all bringing their A game. Don is a consummate actor. Regina can go from being funny to dramatic on the flip of a dime. Andrew has this amazing control. I love watching him and playing that love/hate relationship. Me being the Ghost of Christmas Future to him was fun to play.

In that scene where Blair tells Keith that he knows he’s gay, I kept wondering whether Keith wanted to fuck Blair or destroy him.

I love that scene and I love the scene where I am chugging the stew. Keith knows he can sexualize Blair in a way that will make him uncomfortable. It’s the only time we see Keith using his sexuality as a weapon which totally puts him off. I loved getting to do that with him because it came off angry.

I love that a Nintendo becomes a huge moment of stress for Keith.

Yes, now that they are all being reissued, they’re everywhere and we want to play with them again.

I was surprised to see you in this part. Not to keep bringing to that, but when I saw you were a part of the show, I thought  knew what to expect. And I was wrong. The entire show is a lot deeper than I expected. I hope more people search it out, because it’s a great, little show, and you bring something new to the table.

That just makes my day. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever gotten to do.

Black Monday is streaming now.

(Photo: Showtime)

(Photo: Showtime)