Doubting Thomas

Good guy or bad guy? Manipulator or manipulated? Thomas Lennox's character raises many
questions in
24's sixth season - and we try to prise some answers out of ubiquitous actor
Peter MacNicol

by T. DiLullo Bennett, 24 Magazine, May/June 2007
There's a storm raging in the White House of Wayne Palmer. With a
nuclear detonation in Los Angeles, the threat of three more bombs in
terrorist Abu Fayed's control, and countless cities across the nation
crippled, it's not hyperbole to say the landscape of
24's Day Six is
that of a nation under siege. The newly elected President Palmer is
overwhelmed by the violence being wreaked on domestic soil, so he's
relying heavily on the recommendations and policies of his National
Security advisor, Karen Hayes and White House Chief of Staff, Thomas
Lennox. Unfortunately for Palmer, his most trusted staffers happen to
be at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and so a much more
personal war is also playing out against the back-drop of a dire
national threat.

With Middle Eastern terrorists taking responsibility for the mass
bloodshed, there's a climate of fear permeating the nation as citizens
are focusing their anger and mistrust on all Arabs in the US. With
such uncertainty about just who the enemy could be, there's a quiet
ground-swell, supported by Lennox and Vice President Daniels
(played by Powers Boothe), to intern all Arab nationals of Muslim descent in camps similar to those Japanese
nationals were forced into during World War II. It's a policy that is an immediate lightning rod of controversy
and one that
24 has never explored before, despite two prior seasons that featured villains of Middle
Eastern origin. With Hayes and Palmer firmly on the side of Constitutional rights for all, even during a climate
of such extreme danger to the populace - the stage is set for a political stand-off unlike any the series has
ever introduced.

It's certainly new territory for actor Peter MacNicol. With a 30-year career spanning theatre, film, and
television, MacNicol's made a name for himself as a character actor who shines in any genre - from absurd
comedy (
Ghostbuster's 2) to the most heart-rending drama (Sophie's Choice). At the age of 27, he made his
big-screen debut in the fantasy classic
Dragonslayer, and jumped back and forth from film to theatre for a
decade. In the 1990s, the actor made a huge splash on TV with prominent roles on shows like
The Powers
that Be
and Chicago Hope. But it was his role as the oddball lawyer John Cage, on Ally McBeal, that showed
his acting chops to mainstream audiences. With a host of guest appearances and series regular roles on
legal and medical dramas on his resume, MacNicol can practically claim honorary degrees as a physician and
legal eagle! But it's his experience on those kinds of dramas that paved his way, and to a degree, prepared
him for his tenure on
24.

As it happens, when the new season of
24 was being cast, MacNicol was already a recurring character on
the mathematically inclined CBS drama,
NUMB3RS. He plays the eccentric but brilliant theoretical physicist and
cosmologist, Dr. Larry Fleinhardt, who consults on cases. But the producers and casting directors of
24
approached the actor with the choice role of Lennox. "It just sprang up," MacNicol reveals. "I'm on another
show, but this seemed like a nice little bit of blue sky in my schedule to do something different." An admirer
of
24, MacNicol says the mysterious agenda of Thomas Lennox was an immediate hook. "The attraction is not
the known, but always the unknown with a show like
24. All one knows is one's name and I think that is
compelling. It obviously presents any number difficulties in playing scenes where you have no back-story and
no forward-story. You are simply in a moment suspended in time."

Such was the case as MacNicol immediately hit the ground running, appearing in the premiere episodes of
the season at the height of the terrorist turmoil. Since he received his first scripts, the actor says all he truly
knows about Lennox are the basics. "All I know is that he is Chief of Staff. By Episode Three or Four, the title
Chief of Staff made its entry into the scripts. I don't know who I am. I am an advisor and at least a speech
editor and a policy advisor. But beyond that, everything is surmise."

According to producers, Lennox has a long history with the Palmers, acting as Policy Advisor for both Palmer
administrations. Their trust in the man comes from his expertise in foreign intelligence and public policy., and
his recommendations obviously take a conservative path in the arguments for how to handle and terminate
the terrorist threats. "I have very definite political viewpoints," he says of Lennox's political agenda. "In
some cases, I am sort of a rabid version of the most hawkish people we have in [current] power now. It's
very amped up though, because I can't think of anyone in th current political scenes that openly espouses
the same views that my character holds."

Muslim internment, authorized raids of corporate and personal files without warrants, lockdowns and more.
The views of Thomas Lennox being crafted by the writers are made to shock and prompt reactions from the
audience, but even with such hot button issues being explored, MacNicol says he has no idea if his ideology
comes from a pure place or will be exposed as corrupted in future episodes. There's a history of moles and
turncoats for power on
24, and the actor admits he is just as intrigued as the next guy as to his ultimate
motives. Working only from script to script for his character's motivation is truly a new experience for the
actor, and one he is enjoying. "I think that's kind of fun," he thoughtfully muses. "I really do. I don't find it as
frustrating as I thought I would. I feel, I might be operating under a complete delusion here, but I feel that I
can buy a tweak here and a tweak there that might affect my own outcome on the show. So that keeps me
very positively engaged in every scene. I never feel as if anything is a fait accomli, because I feel that it's a
blank slate that we are all painting on - all of us at once. I can't see what they are doing over in their corner
and they can't see what I am doing over in mine, until the end of the day, then we see what we have all
painted together."

Chuckling, the actor admits it also bring out a bit of the paranoid in him when interpreting notes from the
writers or directors. "Your creativity
is limited. So what it feeds is your natural suspicions as a human being. I
wonder if they are telling me [a direction] because they are really thinking [this]. Or I wonder if I am saying
this because I am really thinking [that]. It's a constant game of paranoid double-think."

In order to give his best, MacNicol admits he did his research beforehand to know the artistic language, in
terms of dialogue flow, pacing and editing, to prepare for what he was getting himself into. "I did watch last
season. I wanted to know the pace of the show. It affects our delivery. Without knowing their editing
pattern, you don't know how to parse something out." He also made sure to really provide alternate
interpretations of his lines and dialogue so the producers and editors have the tones they need to craft their
stories. "I've done that twice in key scenes," he reveals. "I've given what I would call a very loaded look and
then in another take, I have given it very little weight so they have 'it,' whatever 'it' is. You do frame things in
certain ways - more looks than lines because the show is written so sparely, so you wind up having very few
lines, but many looks and reactions."

MacNicol also cites the way
24 is shot, with long master-shots involving active on-camera performances by all
the actors in the scene, as something that fits well with his past acting experiences. "Back in the day, I've
done a lot of these law shows and sometimes we'd have to do five pages at a lick. We'd have all these long
witness examination scenes and jury summations that would stretch over several pages. So I don't think it's
new to me," he considers. "This does feel like a film and the scenes don't run very long to me. The amount of
coverage is what you see on a $100 million movie. I can't believe the care they give to that here. I have
never, never in television worked around this kind of painstaking coverage."

The
24 creative staff is also one that MacNicol relishes for its ability to listen and adapt to the needs of the
story and character. "David E. Kelly [creator of both
Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal] works very much the same
way. I would guess that these writers, much like David, are relying to some degree or another on the energy
and dynamism [of the actors] to shake them loose from any situation where they might feel stymied. They
are brilliant plotters. They really are. I think that is the most shining quality about the whole show. I don't
see that outside of really, really high budget films, I don't see such plotting going on. They are wonderfully
accepting about actor input. They are discerning always, but they do welcome it."

With Lennox's true agenda becoming clearer as each hour ticks by, MacNicol is excited to see where his
character eventually washes out in the whole canvas of the day. Regardless of labels or terms applied to him
such as good or bad, patriot or traitor, the issues ultimately provoked and discussed by the
24 audience is
what interests the actor most. "I'm interested in reactions. It's very, very provocative and the whole way of
dealing with the problem and the domestic terrorism scene will definitely get people talking around the water
cooler. I haven't played anybody so on the nose, serious-minded, and aggressive in their ways. I think it will
be new for an audience to see me this way."


Peter MacNicol Online
CHARACTER CONFLICT:
24 MAGAZINE:
Dr. Larry Fleinhardt
(from
NUMB3RS) versus Thomas
Lennox - is it confusing jumping
back and forth?
PETER MACNICOL: "No. With the
NUMB3RS character, I really have
just come in as a guy to add a little
bit of cardamom. I'm like a guy that
comes in and seasons the soup at
the last minute. I'm not there very
often, about two days out of eight,
so it's nothing to come over and do
this. In terms of character, he's a
Hawaiian shirt and mussed up hair
over there. For this, I part my hair
and have a tie and suit."