I had the pleasure of speaking with D.W. Moffett about his role on ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” last week during a conference call with a few other news outlets. D.W. also chatted about the episode titled “The Girl on the Cliff” that airs on ABC Family tonight (August 11, 2014) in which he directed! Can’t wait to see it!
Take a peek:
D.W.: First of all, it’s so exciting for me to finally direct our show. It’s with the support of our really loyal fan base that keeps us around.
Q: What is it that you enjoy most about directing an episode?
D.W.: My life in entertainment began in the theater community in Chicago. I was a producer and director, primarily, in the early days of my theater company. I was only called in to act when certain members of our company would either get injured or didn’t want to do a certain part, I would get tagged to do that part. So one could argue that my first passion, really, was directing.
Added to that is the fact that I view my fellow castmates as family. We are incredibly close, we are incredibly well behaved with each other, and we are that kind of cloyingly nice cast to each other that you read about and you go “oh that cannot possibly be true,” but in our case it actually is true. Just the honor of being able to work with people that you feel so close to and the trust that they gave me was amazing.
In the episode I direct, airing on Monday, August 11, it’s a very emotional episode, and the cast was just spectacular. They gave me every nuanced emotion that I could ask for. It was a very demanding production schedule because we were nearing the end of our season and things get a little complicated as we get near the end. It was a dream deal. I hope the rest of my episodes go as well, but this one I’m very, very proud of, and I’m particularly proud of the work that the cast achieved.
Q: Was it challenging directing such an emotional episode?
D.W.: I knew that I would have a shorthand with the cast because of our closeness, so that allowed me to get emotional results quicker than maybe other directors could. Also, to ask for nuances in those emotional portrayals that maybe other directors wouldn’t want to even try.
When someone’s crying their guts out, it’s kind of hard to go in and say “can you not cry your guts out so much on this line and maybe save it and cry your guts out two lines later?” A lot of directors are afraid to do that because the actor might have a negative reaction to that kind of response. In fact, my actors understood what I was asking for and were able to deliver all of those nuances, some of which I used in the final cut, some of which I didn’t, but I was able to ask for it and we were able to collaborate on it.
Q: What it was it like directing yourself?
D.W.: If you watch last week’s episode, you’ll see I’m not really in that episode very much. That was originally going to be the episode that I was going to direct because I wasn’t in it very much! But for scheduling reasons and budgetary reasons and location reasons, it didn’t work out that I could direct that episode. So I wound up directing an episode in which I appeared more than I would have liked to have appeared.
The good news for me is that I’ve been doing this for 35 years, so I kind of know when I’m on and when I’m not. I don’t need someone to tell me I flubbed a line or that wasn’t quite as believable as we’d like it to be, so that’s good!
The other thing is I’m usually a one-take actor, in general, so I’m usually pretty happy after the first take with what I’ve done, assuming I’m not completely distracted, or something. But I have to say, I was able to sort of split my brain in two and do my acting work and do my directing work. I know that our show runner, Lizzy Weiss, was quite pleased with my performance. I don’t have a big load to carry in this episode, but it is an intense episode, I had to do a little bit of that, and I thought it came off quite well.
I have to say, though, I am not the shining star of this episode at all. Many, many other cast members have a much bigger load to carry and shine much brighter than I do!
Q: Did your castmates try to give you a hard time as director? Did they play any practical jokes on you?
D.W.: I believe there was, at one point – I received a message from one the Assistant Directors that the cast was in their trailer and they weren’t coming out. A little bit of that funny stuff. Our production schedule was so unforgiving on this episode that there may have been many more pranks planned, but at the end of the day there wasn’t time to actually pull them off. They would have just been cruel because we had no time [laughs]
Constance and Lea, being more of my generation, were particularly cutting in their responses to my directorial suggestions, in a joking manner. But at the end of the day, they were so supportive and really, really helped me out when I needed it.
Everyone was so sweet and so wonderful. My hats off to them for putting up with me and for putting up with that production schedule and for really, at the end of the day, making themselves look fantastic, because it’s really a great episode.
Q: How will John react when he finds out that Regina is working with Chip Coto?
D.W.: You get a taste of it in my episode, but I think the full weight of that has not yet been explored. You’ll see in the upcoming episode, the look on my face when his name comes up is pretty priceless. I had a couple of good looks to choose from, but they’re all pretty good.
I think if we were on an HBO show, the language would have been a lot saltier. But you get the picture [laughs]
Q: Are there any specific moments that were your favorite while directing the episode?
D.W.: I think my favorite part of this episode was the prom scenes. There was a lot of great stuff in this, but I’m going to bifurcate this and call it two, two favorite parts. One was the prom scenes and the various interactions between Bay and Emmett. And number two – the very emotional scene at the end of the episode involving Kathryn, Regina, and Daphne. Those are my two favorite elements that I got to direct and I think the results are wonderful
Q: Apart from directing, do you have any other hats that you want to wear?
D.W.: I actually do write. I sold a pilot to NBC three years ago that never got out of anybody’s shelf; it’s sitting in there somewhere. It’s sort of a fun police show. But I’m actually about to go out with a show that I’ll be pitching. It’s sort of a sophisticated teen show. It’s been written, and I just have to fine tune it a little bit.
Q: How is John feeling after Angelo’s death?
D.W.: Our writers wrote this wonderful scene when John kind of busts himself about feeling glad that Angelo’s restaurant was failing. It’s been the reason that I’ve always been attracted to John, from the pilot. From the pilot, I could tell that they were writing a man who was sort of this cliché, suburban dude, but flawed, and we saw the flaws, but with enough humanity that he could actually experience a little bit of the vulnerability that some of these flaws might bring up in him.
I don’t know if we’re going to see a lot more of his vulnerability, vis a vis Angelo, but I know that Angelo’s death is probably going to soften John a little bit going forward in terms of how he deals with the girls. Anytime mortality becomes an issue in life, people tend to soften or reevaluate their own situations.
I love being able to be John in all of his conservativeness, but I also love the fact that he’s this really caring family man. It’s been a very interesting journey for me because I’m this hippy, I live in Topanga, we eat crunch granola – I’m not John [laughs]. But I really love being John, the same way I loved being that really mean Dad on Friday Night Lights. It’s just really interesting to play someone quite different from yourself, but find the truths in that person that make him a human being.
Q: Has it been easier to pick up learning ASL? Have any of the actors on set helped you out?
D.W.: Well, we have an ASL Master on set every episode that sign language is used, which is basically every episode, so we have someone on set all the time. That is because Lizzy Weiss was adamant that if we were going to embrace this language, we were going to embrace it correctly, and we were going to embrace it completely authentically.
That said, I got the easy pass, because the writers decided that John would be A) the last person to embrace ASL, and B) would probably be the worst at it. So I’m given a great deal of leeway with my ASL.
Jack Jason, who’s our primary ASL Master, will send videos to us two or three days before the scene is shot so that we can practice our signs for that scene. Over time, you begin to remember signs, like “thank you,” “yes,” “no,” “nice to see you.” You remember certain words and phrases. But he sends us a complete breakdown of all of our lines that we need to speak in ASL. But he also says in my videos, “D.W., you can probably just say this, because you’re not very good at ASL.” He lets me get away with murder [laughs]
We have certain cast members, like Vanessa Marano, who are almost fluent at this point, it’s crazy. So it’s differing degrees of expertise, also differing degrees of character mandated expertise, but in general we’re always taught what the ASL should be, correctly, by an ASL Master.
Q: What do John, Kathryn, and Regina think of what’s happening with Daphne and her recent bad and self-destructive behavior?
D.W.: This shadow that is over Daphne gets reconciled over the course of next week’s episode and the finale. This shadow is lifted, but then reimposes itself. There’s a twist at the end of the finale that literally no one in the cast saw coming, and I think is going to surprise our viewers and delight them, because it sort of opens up a whole new vista for the show’s future.
There is understanding and there is forgiveness, but then something happens which causes a lot of concern.
Q: Are there plans to do another all ASL episode?
D.W.: I would not be surprised if there were another. We enjoyed doing it a lot. They’re always looking to do an event episode every ten or so episodes, every half season. So I would not be surprised if she revisited that, or something very similar to that.
Q: What are your hopes for your character and the future of Switched at Birth?
D.W.: I think just the continuation of the authenticity that has been established. I know that sounds a little general, but I don’t think that there are a lot of shows on the air right now, across all of the networks, where the family dynamic is investigated in quite as specific and as honest a way as our show is. I think The Fosters does it; I think that other shows on ABC Family do.
I like the fact that our show is about family because I have a family and so I can sort of relate a lot to what’s going on a lot of the time. I just love that I get to play an adult in a show that’s basically about teenagers and I’m not just two-dimensional, and that I’m three-dimensional and that my voice is a real component in the show and not just a “don’t get home late, get good grades,” that it’s much deeper than that. I really appreciate that. My fondest hope is that kind of depth continues.
Q: Are there any organizations or charities that you are dedicated to in the hard of hearing community?
D.W.: We have a very wonderful relationship. I was invited to come out to Minnesota recently for a huge gala where the where the organization sends hearing aids to third world countries.
Honestly, my awareness of and involvement with the hard of hearing community began with this show! Our interface with charitable organizations and fund raising organizations involved with that community is at the highest level.
Q: Is Kathryn’s old fling Chris Washburn going to return?
D.W.: I think that sometimes in the writers’ room they just decide to have a little fun with us [laughs]. I think the writers just decided how do we get Kathryn and Regina to kiss? What plausibility factor can we attach to these three scenarios, and they picked the one that was the most plausible. As you noticed, at the end of the episode, John kind of made light of it, so I don’t think there’s any wreckage in terms of the marriage. I think it’s all fun and games and in the past. I like that the fact that the writers are willing to take a shot at stuff like that. I’m also appreciative of the network trusting us that we’re not going to do cheap stuff, but every once and a while it’s not a sin to have a little fun [laughs]
Q: What has been your greatest lesson on working on this show?
D.W.: I have to say probably the greatest lesson that I’ve learned from this show is an awareness of the deaf community. That has been the deepest lesson because I was so unaware of that community, their issues, their struggles, their language.
At the first table read, I kept forgetting my place in the script because I kept staring at Sean Berdy, who is signing his lines. I was in awe of how beautiful it is. I remember thinking to myself it is so beautiful. It is such a dance. I thought to myself if America has the patience to deal with the subtitles, we’ve got a real shot of making a very interesting television show. I think a lot of people in America were as similarly unaware of that community before this show hit the air. It’s also been a revelation to the hard of hearing community because finally there’s a show on the air that speaks about them.
Q: What’s it like to be on set of Switched at Birth?
D.W.: Imagine a family that gets along really well, but we’re packing for a four month trip around the world and we’ve got 20 minutes to do it. So there’s a lot of running around, there’s a lot of running into each other, there’s a lot of energy because there’s this large task that needs to be achieved and not a lot of time to do it. But at the same time, we have fun, we laugh, we giggle, we gossip. We share each other’s struggles, if someone’s sick, if someone’s having a hard time personally, that comes to the fore.
But in general, it’s all hands on deck, everyone gets along, but we’re already 30 minutes behind before the day starts. We all know it and we all want to make sure we do the best job we can so we don’t sit around wasting time or being divas or difficult, because we know, at the end of the day, that kind of behavior just really harms the show, and everyone gets that, and therefore is wonderfully professional.
Q: If there was an alteration that you could make to your character, or any of the other characters, what would they be?
D.W.: It might be fun for John to either assume ownership of a minor league baseball team or, in some way, shape, or form, or reenter the world of professional sports. I think that might bear fruit and might be an interesting storyline to pursue!