A Sidekick with Substance
USA Network’s entertaining U.S. Marshal dramedy In Plain Sight kicked off its current second season on April 19. The series stars Mary McCormack (The West Wing, Murder One) as central character Mary Shannon, but longtime fans realize her trusted partner Marshall Mann — yours truly’s favorite character — is just as integral to the show’s impressive success.
Stage veteran Fred Weller (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Missing Persons) is the talented actor who brings Marshall to life during each episode, and as the following interview demonstrates, the real man behind the fictional marshal seems just as fun — and funny — off-screen as his alter ego definitely is on-screen. How cool is that?
How is the overall tone of In Plain Sight‘s second season different from Season One?
FRED WELLER: Well, the drama is ratcheting up between— You’ll see the Mary/Marshall drama increase. Raphael (Cristián de la Fuente) figures very largely. Probably bigger. Raphael probably is bigger this season, whereas last season, I think Mary’s mom (Lesley Ann Warren) was sort of more a key figure, and Brandi (Nichole Hiltz). I think Raphael, in this season, is going to be a bigger component. Without giving anything away, some big events will go down.
How is Mary’s post-traumatic stress affecting Marshall?
FRED WELLER: Well, it’s one more occasion to evoke Marshall’s affection for her, his simmering romantic feelings. In a way, it helps him to be able to be there for her and to try to strengthen the bond between them, but it also concerns him because he is truly concerned about her well being and does want the best for her.
But it enables them to bond and enables him to come in and try to be the knight in shining armor. It’s right up his alley. He dabbles in psychology. He dabbles in every other field. He’s ever the dilettante, so it enables them to bond. So, like, of course, there’s good and bad for Marshall.
Speaking of his feelings for her, how does Marshall feel towards Raphael?
FRED WELLER: He feels competitive towards him. On the one hand, I think he’s also somewhat dismissive of him. I don’t think he takes their relationship seriously.
Raphael is a big, handsome guy, so there is a lot to be jealous of. But he’s a nice guy, so Marshall’s— Whatever resentments and jealousies he has — and he does have them — he’s got to keep a lid on them. He’s got to keep them repressed.
How will Marshall and Dershowitz’s relationship evolve this season?
FRED WELLER: They will become closer. You’ll find out— Well, I think we, actually, you already saw on the first episode that Marshall and Dershowitz (Todd Williams) bonded over the near-death experience. They’re hanging out a lot, but we’ll actually take a road trip to Philadelphia to help out, in an unofficial capacity, an aging mobster go back to his son’s funeral, and that mobster will be played by Martin Landau.
So, Todd and I had quite a great episode together, working with Martin Landau, who’s an amazing person and really loves to socialize and tell stories about all the many great directors he’s worked with. So, that was a wonderful experience.
How fun is it playing not just any old lawman but a U.S. Marshal? Have you learned anything that helps you in your real life?
FRED WELLER: It’s really fun to play a lawman who, in theory, has jurisdiction anywhere in the country. Also, an undercover lawman is, I think, an especially cool thing to play because you’ve got an inherent inner— Well, not a conflict, but an interesting dynamic that you are enforcing the law but, at the same time, trying to appear like you’re not.
Our technical advisor, who is the head of WitSec in California, is on the set every day now, and one of his favorite reminders is that you’re always scanning the horizon for danger. In fact, we poke fun at him whenever he walks over to the set. We just say, “ABS, ABS,” which stands for “always be scanning.”
I don’t know if I’ve learned anything I’ve applied to my life. My life is pretty safe. I don’t have too many run-ins with unsavory characters, but when I do, I plan to really scan the hell out of them.
We know tons about Mary and her family but very little about Marshall. Are you just as in the dark about his background, or do you know some details you can share with us?
FRED WELLER: Well, I’d love to see more on the air. We think about it and secretly joke on the set about what his apartment must look like with all his myriad interests. We hypothesize about what musical instrument he plays. There must be one, and it must be weird. I’m thinking the bassoon, sometimes a French horn. Does he have a bird? I don’t know.
I do conjecture about his family life. All we know about his family life is he is a fifth generation U.S. Marshal. I imagine his father was a hard-ass and his mother was an intellectual, but this is just conjecture.
The creator might decide something else, something I think is even better. He never ceases to surprise and amaze, I think, with his ideas. He’s a great writer, David Maples, and I’m sure what we do learn about Marshall’s personal life, it’ll be interesting.
What scenario would you like to see Marshall in that he’s not been in yet?
FRED WELLER: Well, I’d like to meet his parents, or one of them. But David likes the mystery of Marshall. He’s said as much. He likes to just discover little tidbits of weirdness that emerge through the course of the story, rather than making the story about Marshall.
But I’m sure at some point we’ll see a little more about where he comes from. He claims to have gone to college at the University of Albuquerque and to have been the star of the badminton team there, for example. Does that mean he’s from Albuquerque? I don’t know. I’ll have to sit down and just write out everything that we know about him sometime and his various interests.
How does this role challenge you?
FRED WELLER: Well, it’s challenging for the same reason that it’s fun in that it requires comedic and emotional ability. Now, my emotions are not as … as frequently as are Mary’s. Her character is in emotional turmoil much of the time. But at least a couple times a season, and certainly more times this season than last, Marshall is in some kind of emotional turmoil. And any time that you’re asked as an actor to exhibit some state that is out of control or should appear out of control, it’s a little more challenging.
And then I think comedy is an exacting science. You don’t want to blow the humor if it’s there. If you do it wrong, it’s either funny or it’s not. So, the fact that it’s a little, has comedy and emotion, is what makes it rich, and it’s also what makes it challenging. You don’t want to disappoint. You don’t want to when you’ve got such great material. It’s important to rise to it and get it right.
You mentioned Marshall being a bit of a dilettante. Which of his many interests is your personal favorite and why.
FRED WELLER: Well, let’s see. I suppose my favorite would be his medical ability because it’s so far removed from anything I can do. The fact that he can patch up his own bullet wound to his lung, it’s an interest that I think would be useful, and it’s removed from my own fields of interests.
I’m a little more of a music and literature person. My big brother is a man of science, an electrical engineer, and I always really admired him growing up. He had this strange capacity that didn’t seem to come from anyone in the family.
It was just something that he was born with, and he was always intrigued by how things worked and just had an aptitude for it. And everybody else in the family is basically literature and arts. So, that, to me, is fun because I get to pretend that I have that aptitude.
How did you get the part of Marshall? Did you audition, or were you given the part?
FRED WELLER: No, I auditioned. In fact, I went to Los Angeles for pilot season. I had been in New York, and I still live in New York. And for years, I had been avoiding going out to Los Angeles for pilot season because it’s quite a grind. You audition for five TV shows a day.
And so I’d been doing mostly theater and indie film out of New York, and I hadn’t been for pilot season in, I don’t know, six, seven years. And so I just went out, and it went well for me.
And this was the best pilot that I read, and I was fortunate enough to go to network for, I think, half a dozen people wanted me to go. So, this was, I think, the second thing I went for, and I was very excited to get it because, well, it’s not your average TV show.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
FRED WELLER: No, not really. I’m putting together, I’m editing a short film that I wrote and directed, with Mary actually acting in it. Mary and I both act in it, and [I'm] putting it together and now I’m hopefully going to submit it to festivals. That’s all I’ve got right now. I believe it’s going to be called The Sheriff of King’s County.
Have you brought your kids to the set, and do you have any interesting tales from their adventures there?
FRED WELLER: I brought my daughter to the set a few times. She’s not yet as sophisticated as Mary’s kids around the set. Mary’s kids will actually say, “Shh, we’re rolling.” She’s not really at that level. Let me see. Do I have any child-related anecdotes? Gosh, maybe one will come to me. She—
Well, she’s a little bit of a social butterfly, something that I want to nip in the bud if I can. I’m hoping to eventually groom her into a very bookish child who doesn’t date boys at all, but, at the moment, she loves just being around crowds of people.
So, that was basically my experience of her being on the set. [It] was just one more setting in which I was concerned that she might get to be popular in school, and I want to avoid that at all costs. She just loves crowds and people, and she seems most content when she’s away from home and around a bunch of people who aren’t her parents.
Does that mean you’d shy away from letting her have an acting career?
FRED WELLER: I’m going to try to keep the secret from her that I’m an actor at all. It’s going to be tough. Obviously, you want to have publicity as an actor, but I’m going to try to persuade her I’m a professor of something. Maybe, I don’t know, something really nerdy [like] comparative literature. I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ve got to figure it out before she really masters the alphabet.
In Plain Sight airs Sundays on USA Network at 10pm ET
Fred Weller/In Plain Sight photo courtesy of Justin Stephens/USA Network