Talk Nerdy With Us recently chatted with actor Joe Adler. Adler is best known for his roles on The Maze Runner and The Mentalist. He is currently reoccurring on ABC’s long running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Isaac Cross. Keep reading to see what Joe said about his Grey’s audition, Isaac’s storyline this season, working with Denzel Washington, Lost and more.
How did you originally get involved with acting?
In elementary school, I did an after school program. We did like an elementary school version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was pretty dense for 11 year olds. (Laughs). I started doing that, and then when I moved on to middle school and high school I really got into doing school plays and theater, and before I knew it I was doing all the plays and I was vice president of my thespian troupe. Then I decided to take it more seriously.
What character did you play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
I was Oberon. It was a hoot. It was obviously a very truncated version of Shakespeare (laughs), but I wish there was footage somewhere.
Is there video?
It was pretty hilarious. There’s got to be a VHS running around somewhere.
Tell me about your audition process for Grey’s Anatomy.
That was an interesting one. I’ve read for Linda Lowy, who’s the casting director over at Grey’s … I’ve read for her several times, for Grey’s Anatomy as well as other projects, so she knows me and my work. I came in there and I read for one of the other interns. I didn’t get it, and I was like, “All right, moving on.”
Anyways…that weekend was the weekend of Coachella, you know the music festival out here. I was going to Coachella that Thursday, and I was in the car with my friends, I got to my hotel, and my manager calls me and he’s like, “Hey, Shonda Rhimes really likes you, but she wants to see you read another character.” I’m like, “Dude, I just got to Palm Springs, I’m like two hours away, what am I supposed to do?” He’s like, “Well, do you have a camera?” I’m like, “No.” He’s like, “Well, you have a fancy iPhone don’t you?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So he said, “Just put it on tape.” (Laughs).
I go to the hotel and get my friends who are not involved in acting or the business in any way, shape, or form. I’m like, “Guys, would you mind doing this audition with me,” blah blah blah. I look at the sides and of course it’s a fat monologue, and I’m like, “Oh no…” and I look like crap, and I’m like, “Oh crap, what am I going to do?” I read through it a couple of times, and I had one of my friends holding my phone as still as possible, and then my other friend with the sides right behind her trying to read the scene with me.
We did it a couple of times in my hotel room, and I’m already sunburned even though I haven’t even been to the festival yet, I look so horrible. We put it on tape, sent it out in pieces because you can’t send the whole, long version of it. (Laughs). We sent it out in pieces, and the next day I’m walking onto the Coachella grounds and my manager calls me and was like, “Hey dude, you got it, you’re going to work on Monday!”
I’m at Coachella saying, “This is the best weekend ever! I’m at Coachella and I’m going to go be on Grey’s Anatomy this week, yeah!”
I’m assuming that’s your craziest audition story.
Oh, for sure. Well, there was one time where I auditioned for Shameless, and they brought in like 15 guys, and it was elimination round, and they were hiring somebody on the spot. They were hiring two brothers, and it was literally like Survivor, and we were just there. They tell people, “Sorry, you’re not making the cut, but we want to see you again, now paired with you, and you with you.” I ended up booking it and going to work that night. That was pretty crazy too, but I think the Coachella one trumps it!
What was it like booking Grey’s Anatomy? Had you seen the other 10 seasons before joining?
In all honesty, I’ve seen many episodes because I had an ex-girlfriend who was a huge Grey’s Anatomy fan, and my mother is a huge Grey’s Anatomy fan as well. I was not an avid Grey’s watcher, but I was familiar, and obviously knew the tone of the show, and knew the style of what was going on. This cast really welcomes these new interns with open arms, you never know what you’re going to get when you step onto a show like this.
For one, they’ve all been together for 11 years. For two, there’s so many series regulars that sometimes there’s ego involved. I really haven’t any of that on Grey’s, everyone has been so cool and so nice, and happy to be there, and making me feel welcome. I’m stoked when I show up to work with these guys, they’re all awesome honestly.
When you auditioned for Isaac, did they give you his storyline, or was it kept under wraps?
It’s funny, the character Isaac that I auditioned for, is so different from what Isaac has ended up being. Isaac has kind of become this very eager to please, naïve, puppy dog character. Whereas the Isaac that I auditioned for, was this guy who really had a chip on his shoulder, and had a fair amount of animosity towards the world. It’s interesting to me that obviously I got hired from that performance, yet as we started to get to know each other, and as they started writing, the character has really morphed into something else.
I’m curious to see which direction Isaac’s going to go in, whether I stay on this route, or whether Isaac matures and takes another route. They gave me a very loose sense of who Isaac was, and then in that monologue I auditioned with, there was a big spiel about Isaac’s history and Isaac’s past. It’s interesting that you bring that up because there are two very different characters.
When you originally auditioned for Isaac, did they tell you how many episodes you’d be around for, or has that kind of grown?
No. Basically, I was told it was going to be one, maybe two, episodes because we came in the last two episodes of last season, and so I was told it’s probably going to be for those last two. We had no idea whether these interns were going to come back next season. Everyone kind of kept saying, “Oh you’ll be back, you’ll be back,” but nothing is set in stone until you’re on set in front of the camera. I had no idea.
Then they hired me on for that first episode this season, and then it’s kind of episode by episode. To be honest, I don’t even know if I’m in the next episode that we’re shooting. (Laughs). I’ve been fortunate enough to stick around. I’ve been in almost all of them so far that we’ve shot this season. It’s kind of one of those things where I have no idea, I could be gone next episode, who knows?
Do they call you week by week and say, “Hey, you’re needed on set.” How much of an advance do you get?
What happens is we do table reads for every episode, and we usually do those table reads a couple days before we start shooting that episode, so we’ll be finishing up the episode prior. On one of our lunch breaks of that episode we’ll do a table read for the next episode, so I usually find out if I’m in that episode a couple days before the table read.
Is the Isaac that we’re seeing now more similar to you, or was the Isaac that you auditioned for more similar to you?
I’d say I’m actually an honest mix of the two, because I’m definitely not this nice puppy dog of a human being. I’ve got a little more confidence, not arrogance, just confidence. (Laughs). Then again, I don’t walk around with this chip on my shoulder either, so I’d say as Joe, I’m a blend of the two Isaacs, for sure.
You got to be part of the 250th episode! What was it like filming that?
I feel like I cheated (laughs), because when we did the 250th I’d only been around for like 6 of those episodes. It was so cool, it’s like a historical thing to be part of that, so that was awesome. The fact that they wanted me to be part of all those photos and stuff, that was so cool. Again, everyone has been so welcoming that I feel very at home there, but it’s more just cool to kind of sit back and watch how all these people who have been there for so long, especially Chandra Wilson, Jim Pickens, and Ellen Pompeo. They’ve literally been there for all 250, and that’s mind-boggling to me. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be the same character for 11 years, or for 12 years now. You know what I mean? It was really cool, we took that cast and crew photo which was pretty awesome. It’s a huge accomplishment for Shonda and for the producers, and for all the regulars on that show.
Right now, Isaac is the only intern who knows about Penny, and knows her history with the rest of the doctors. How does that play into his storyline next week, since she’s going to be coming to Seattle Grace? Does it influence your storyline at all?
I think it’s an interesting dynamic to have Penny there. I don’t know if it will necessarily directly affect the interns, per se, it’s obviously going to be a big deal for Meredith. It was pretty cool that I got to be at that party, what an awkward party though!
Definitely! Did you guys actually eat while filming?
Oh yeah, we were eating. Girl, we were eating! (Laughs). We were eating some room temperature flank steak for like 12 hours. That dinner table sequence, where we’re literally at the table, we shot that … it took us two whole days to shoot that, just because there’s so much coverage. That just takes awhile. Obviously the whole episode was the dinner party, so I was only there for a couple of days because I kind of show up in the middle there. All those other guys were literally in the same room, essentially, for like 10 days.
I don’t know if you saw this, but we did a Grey’s Anatomy 250 Green Screen Challenge that’s kind of hit Twitter. That was because while they were doing writing setups, there just happened to be this green screen that was right next to our cast chairs and so we decided, we were just so bored, we were just all together all the time, and we didn’t have a break, and so we were just like, “How do we keep this interesting and fun?” In between takes we’d go and take these silly photos of recreating iconic movie posters, and then Sarah Drew and kind of the whole cast came up with this idea of doing this challenge for the 250th episode. That kind of kept it lively. It was pretty cool for me to be part of that.
You’ve said on Twitter many times that you’re not really good with social media, and that it’s not really your thing. Has being on Grey’s made you more active?
Not that I have to be more active, because Chandra Wilson, she doesn’t have a Twitter. I don’t think at least. Jim Pickens just got one. No one told me I had to do anything, but there’s definitely a sense of … everyone in the cast is relatively active on Twitter and Instagram, and I had an Instagram and I was decent with that. I have Twitter obviously, I just wasn’t using it a lot, so now I’ve kind of started using it a lot. Then this green screen stuff … I usually never really respond to fans, not in a mean way, but in a … it’s like I feel once I respond to one, I feel obligated to respond to everybody, and that’s so completely overwhelming.
With this challenge I started responding, and so then I was getting thrown down the rabbit hole, now I need to respond to everybody. Then the fans see that you’re responding, so they start bombarding you with questions, I was like, “Oh my God, this is why I don’t do this!” (Laughs). It’s also very cool to be in touch with your fan base, even though I like to think I’m a relatively private person, so most of my social media posts are not too personal. It’s cool to interact with your fans, and you know we appreciate their love, it’s crazy in this new age how it’s all right there at your fingertips.
Can you tease a little bit about what’s coming up for Isaac’s storyline? For the episodes you have filmed?
There’s slight development with my crush, that’s pretty obvious, that I’ve got. Other than that I can’t really say too much. There’s some drama coming up. This episode we’re shooting right now is with Denzel Washington. That’s so cool, like unbelievably cool to have him on set. Whoever thought that when I did my horrible self-tape of an audition from Coachella, that a few months later I’d be on set working with Denzel freaking Washington. That’s pretty cool.
Grey’s had some pretty great directors, does it make you want to pursue work behind the camera? Writing or directing?
Kind of. I just don’t think I’m very good (laughs)… one, I don’t know enough about directing. What I know about directing is what I’ve learned being on set for five, six years now. That’s a fair amount, having said that, I don’t really know a lot about lenses, and camera angles, and stuff like that. In terms of writing, I’ve recently decided that I really want to start writing stuff with a buddy. I’m going to start getting into that, but for the past several years my sole focus has been acting, and trying to get that ball rolling, and fortunately enough I’ve had a little momentum.
I’m so happy, and lucky, and fortunate for that. I think at some point I’d definitely like to explore other facets of the biz. It’s hard. I’ve worked with Kevin McKidd as a director twice, and he’s also obviously an actor, so it’s interesting for me to see how an actor directs especially when they’re in the scene. I ran across the same thing when I was on The Mentalist with Simon Baker. It was very interesting as an actor to see how another actor is when they’re directing. It’s hard because you totally enter a different head space, and it seems rather chaotic to be honest. I feel like I’d be overwhelmed as a director.
Debbie Allen, who’s obviously an actress but she recurs because she’s not in all the episodes, she directed this dinner party episode that was last night. She’s unbelievable! She is next level! The dinner party episode was so difficult [to direct] because it’s so contained, and because there’s so many people, and because she’s creating tension and dissonance between so many of the relationships, and of the characters. I thought she did an incredible job, but she’s also got that choreography, that brain, head space, from her dancing days where it’s a big play, it’s a big performance, it’s all choreography for her. I think it was quite fortuitous that we had her as a director for that episode. I’m sure that was very planned out as well. She was incredible.
People have said that the medical terminology can kind of be the hardest part of Grey’s. What’s the hardest part for you?
Absolutely, 100% that’s the hardest part, because as an actor I work in grounding everything. I like to make everything as real as possible for me, and unfortunately I don’t have much medical experience (laughs), so you’ve got to research a bit. We have obviously, tons of medical consultants on set, and they help you out with teaching you what you’re doing, why you’re doing what you’re doing, how you pronounce what you’re saying. That stuff is hard, those words are not easy to say, that’s some real stuff right there. In this last episode with Denzel, I have this huge medical jargon of a speech, but then the irony is you’re not going to hear a word of it because while I start speaking, Meredith has a voice-over.
I put all this hard work into memorizing this giant thing, and also it’s for Denzel, I don’t want to screw up in front of Denzel. I worked my tail off to get this speech together, and then they’re not going to use any of it. The scene’s not really about me so I get it, but Denzel was cool, he’s like, “Oh that guy’s been working his ass off, let’s get him some coverage.” They gave me a little coverage, so hopefully there’s a take somewhere. Maybe they can send it to me so I can just throw it on my reel as a skill set of mine. (Laughs).
What is the hardest word, or sentence, that you’ve had to say?
Of course it’s one of those things that once you don’t need it anymore, you lose it entirely. I was saying something about antigular jugular veins, and the antithesis via something muscle, it’s total gibberish to me, it’s absolute nonsense to me. I took a photo of my lines that day and sent it to a couple buddies, to be like, “Look at what I’m doing today,” and my friend who’s in school for sports medicine goes, “Wow, that line is incredibly accurate, everything there…” and I’m like, “Of course it is, we have doctors as writers.” Everything’s accurate, it just makes literally no sense to me.
Besides Grey’s Anatomy, what are you currently working on?
Right now it’s Grey’s all day, I’m their player. As I said, side project wise, me and a buddy are starting to write a little something something, but as far as what’s actually in the works, Grey’s is it. I’m auditioning for other projects as well, and so we’ll cross those bridges when we get there if I end up getting job offers, but for now I’m happy to say Grey’s is where it’s at!
Do you have a preference between TV or movie? Do you enjoy one medium over the other?
I find both to be incredibly rewarding. With film it’s pretty cool because you get a beginning, middle, and end over the course of the month, or two months, or three months, or however long you’re shooting, so that’s very cool. It’s also pretty rewarding to be the same character for however long you’re doing it. I’ve been Isaac now for 6 months, and when I was doing The Mentalist I was Jason Wylie for a couple of years, so that’s been really cool. That’s why I’m in awe that Ellen has been Meredith Grey for 12 years, that’s crazy.
Would you want to be a character for 12 years?
A part of me is like yeah, of course because that means what you’re doing is totally successful, and it’s working, and that’s awesome. At the same time, creatively you’d think, do you get bored? Do you get restless? I don’t know, I’m sure you do. It’s one of those things where I think you’ve got to feel blessed about it. That’s the first thing I asked Chandra actually, my first season ever on Grey’s with Chandra Wilson, and one of my first questions was, “How do you feel still being here?” She was like, “Blessed, I just feel blessed.”This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be the same character for this long, so why not rock it?
That’s the nice thing about Grey’s, is that even though you are the same character, you’re not the same character because they do really grow…
Totally, and that’s also the conversation I was having with Sarah Drew the other day. She’s been on the show now for 6 or 7 years I believe, and I was like, “How do you feel being April Kepner for 6 or 7 years?” She goes, “I feel like I’ve actually played three different characters because April has morphed over the years, and because of storyline and because of circumstance, people change. I change, you change, that’s how it is in life.”
That made a lot more sense to me too, of how someone could still be excited and thrilled to play the same character, it’s because the character is not the same anymore. You’re always discovering and learning something new about your character, much like you’re discovering and learning something new about yourself, so I thought that was pretty cool.
Since our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us, what makes you a nerd, or what do you nerd out about?
I was a huge Lost fan, I don’t know if you remember that show. Of course, it was like 5 years ago …
How do you think it ended?
I think it’s purgatory, I think they were all dead all along. I think it was all a figment of Jack’s imagination. You know, the opening shot of the series is his eyes, and the closing shot is his eyes. I think he needed to internally go through this journey in order to accept what his life had become, and his life had amounted to, and once he had fully accepted that he could then move on to whether he believed in Heaven or Hell, or whatever it is. I think he just needed to go through that to accept what had happened to him in his life.
Were the other characters part of his imagination?
I think they were real people, but that was all totally his imagination and his story, that’s what I think at least. I want to get a Lost tattoo, it sounds so silly now. Like some kind of a Dharma Initiative thing, or the numbers, or I don’t know, there’s so many ways I could go! Do I get it on my forehead, do I get it … there’s so many routes I could take. (Laughs). So yeah, as you can tell, huge Lost nerd. Other than that, I’m a big sports fan. I know that sports isn’t traditionally nerdy but I’m super into fantasy football, and so that’s pretty nerdy.
Who’s your football team?
I’m a Colts fan, big time. I’m from LA, but I’m a Colts fan because we never had a team, and I was a huge Peyton Manning fan growing up, and obviously Peyton plays for the Broncos now. I’m a big Peyton Manning fan, but I can’t just abandon my Colts. Anyway, long story short. Colt’s fan.
Watch Grey’s Anatomy Thursdays at 8/7c on ABC.