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Exclusive Interview with Trial and Error’s Amanda Payton

You might not recognize her name, but Amanda Payton has been in the acting game for a while with roles on TNT’s Animal Kingdom and NCIS. Now, she’s landed a series regular role on season two of NBC’s Trial and Error. I got the chance to talk with Amanda about her new role, how she got involved in acting, her love for anything in the murder mystery genre and so much more. Keep reading to see what she had to say!

Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in acting and the entertainment industry in general. 

I’ve been interested in acting ever since I can remember. I don’t remember this story, but the story is that my mom took me to see my dad in a Chekhov play, The Cherry Orchard, when I was like three years old, thinking I would just fall asleep. Apparently, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and after the play, I went up on stage and crawled back and forth on hands and knees [and] became obsessed with becoming characters, because I saw my Dad transform in front of my eyes into an old man. He had silver hair and spectacles and I just thought it was the coolest thing.

And ever since then, they thought it was a phase. It was not a phase. I was into it. The bug had bit me. And then I just started studying theater, so I ended up going to LA County High School for the Arts for high school and then going to Carnegie Mellon to study more theater in college. I really didn’t think so much about TV and film in terms of studying. I wanted to get my BFA in theater. And then I moved out to LA and realize that there’s not so much theater out here. 

Did you end up studying any Chekhov in college? I’m sure you did.

I did. And you know what? It’s not my favorite. I like it, but it’s surprisingly not my favorite. 

Three-year-old you liked it apparently.

Three-year-old me was just probably a better thespian than I am now [laughs].

Was there any specific experience that you would credit as the moment when you knew acting is what you wanted to do, more than just a hobby and something you wanted to make your living off of? 

Was there one moment…

Or a person or just something in your life that you were like, “Wow. This is what I need to be doing with the rest of my life.”

Well, I do remember becoming obsessed with Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. It was not the cartoon version, but the live stage version. I remember becoming obsessed with that at an age where I was cognizant enough to realize that this was a human who was making a living doing this. So I didn’t know if it was going to be a possibility for me to make ample money doing it, but it was something [where I realized that] this was an adult playing a little boy and still living her adult life. So that was pretty big to me. 

You’ve had a lot of different roles on different mediums. Do you have an acting bucket list of things you’d like to accomplish in your career? If so, what are some of the things on it? 

I want to do everything. I want to do Shakespeare in the Park, I want to do Broadway, I want to do gritty indie movies, I want to do big feature films, I want to do more comedies like Trial and Error, I want to do drama. It might be a problem, we might have a problem [laughs]. But I truly want to experience everything and I never want to get pigeonholed into one genre. Although what a quality problem that is, to get pigeonholed. That means that you have to be doing something so well that people want to see it over and over again. 

Right. And you’ve had a lot of different roles in that same genre. 

Exactly. So it’s a real quality problem. I won’t cry if I get pigeonholed. 

But you still don’t want to get pigeonholed. 

No. I want to do all of it. It’s all so different. You know, I have friends who are on Broadway right now. They’re having just a completely different experience of acting and theater than I am. And I wouldn’t trade it. I love what I’m doing. I couldn’t have even imagined it when I was a kid; it was living beyond my wildest dreams, but I want to experience all of it. I think that’s probably why I became an actor because I want to have experiences of all different types of people. 

Yeah. And it’s the one thing that allows you to, even though it’s theoretical, step into someone else’s shoes and see what life could be like. 

Exactly. 

Is there a role to date that you have played that you think has had the biggest impact on your life and maybe even has changed you as a person? 

I really think that every role I have stepped into has changed me as a person in some way, just because you have to broaden your horizons and knock down your personal walls to see the world from a different point of view. So Nina, my character on Trial and Error, she’s very similar to me in that she’s very driven. She’s from New York, my parents are from New York. She’s obsessed with podcasts, I’m obsessed with podcasts. She’s really going for her career, I’m really going for my career. She’s very similar to me, but even to play her, I had to broaden outside of my own what’s right and what’s wrong, just all of it. So I feel like every single other person that I step into shapes me in some way. Even if it’s just to question things about my beliefs.

You were talking about Nina, so I want to address Trial and Error. How would you describe the show for people who aren’t familiar with it? I know it focuses on different cases each season, so people could easily jump into season two if they wanted.  

Okay. So Trial and Error as a whole is a crime-spoof mockumentary and it’s Serial-style. In other words, you can follow the case from episode one to the last episode. Now, last season chronicled the murder case of John Lithgow. This season starts all from the beginning with a murder case of Kristin Chenoweth, her character as Lavinia Peck-Foster. 

What was your audition process like for the show? What originally drew you into wanting to work on Trial and Error? 

Well, when I first got the audition I was familiar with the show, so that’s always really cool to already be a fan of the show. I didn’t have to research what this show was or what the flavor of the show was, because I was familiar with the writing, because I had seen the show and I was a big fan, and I was familiar with all of the [main] characters and the situation and what a mockumentary is and all of this. So I was very excited when I got the audition. Then, as soon as I opened up and read Nina, I immediately connected to her way of thinking, her way of speaking, and what her role was within the show is. Nina is one of the straight men. So everyone else is a big character and yeah. And this town, East Peck, is absolutely absurd, but no one in the town can see how absurd it is. The audience can see how absurd it is and Nina can see how absurd it is.

Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Because she’s not from there.

She’s not from there. Yeah. So I kind of serve as the audience’s eyes and ears, asking the hard-hitting questions and questioning the odd behavior of the people within the town.

And the audition process, was it a long process for you? Or was it one of the shorter processes you have had? 

It sure felt long. It wasn’t that long, but it felt long just because I wanted it so bad. I went in probably four or five times.

Were you one of the last people to be cast? Was it a quick turnaround in terms of your auditioning and getting the role and then being on-set?

Pretty close. So there were six of us, six series regulars this season, four of which were already series regulars and knew each other from last season. And then, of course, we had Kristin Chenoweth, who the casting director actually told me we got Kristin Chenoweth at my test. So I didn’t have a role yet. I was like, “No, don’t tell me that.” I got so excited and nervous and I had seen some of the script. I was like, “This is perfect, but I don’t want to get too excited because the role is not mine.” So I was the last to be cast. 

Tell me a little bit more about your character, Nina, and how she fits into the whole story. 

Okay. So Nina is a podcast host who relocates from New York to East Peck to follow the trial for her podcast, M-Town: Where Murder Happens. M-Town is loosely based, well, not so loosely based, on Serial and Nina is loosely based on Sarah Koenig. And the season tips its hat to S-Town and The Jinx. And season one was very close to The Staircase. Yeah. And so our season still tips the hat to that as well. But Nina comes in to make a great podcast and ends up in a little bit of a love triangle, as one does. And a very complicated love triangle, seeing as the man in the love triangle may or may not have impregnated the other female. 

Ohhhhhh, interesting. The cast for the show is just incredible. It’s also unique because, like you said, it’s very small – only six regulars. Then you have guest stars come in and out.

Which by the way, I will say that we had some iconic guest stars. I was so excited to see the guest stars as well, which I can’t give away right now because I haven’t gotten the okay on that. 

What was it like working with everybody? 

It was amazing. So they already knew each other, but they truly opened their arms to Kristin and I. We immediately all had a dinner. And the show already was such a well-oiled machine because they’d already done 13 episodes. They were so kind and generous with their time and energy and let me ask 1,000 questions about how it was going to all run and then we just jumped in. There wasn’t really time to freak out or overthink. 

That’s awesome. 

So generous. 

Were you a fan of Serial and all those other murder mystery podcasts before you landed the role? 

Obsessed. Obsessed. I was obsessed.

Which one’s your favorite? 

Serial was amazing. The Jinx might be my favorite of the documentaries. 

I haven’t seen The Jinx. I’ve listened to Serial before, though.

The Jinx is so good. I made my mom and all my friends watch all the episodes except the last episode and then come over to my house to watch the last episode, even though I’d already watched it so that I could watch their reactions watching. I had to pause it and we had to have “moments,” like I had to pause and be like, “What do you guys think is happening?” I’m obsessed. 

Where is it available?

When I saw it, it was on HBO. I think it’s still on HBO and it might also be on Netflix now. It’s so good if you like those ones. Oh, it’s so good [laughs].

I will have to check it out.

But Serial was my first ever podcast that I ever listened to. I didn’t know what a podcast was before Serial and someone opened my eyes to it and I became obsessed with it and now whenever I drive anywhere or do anything I’m listening to a podcast. 

I feel like that was the first podcast for a lot of people. It just had a huge cultural impact, so much so it became the first for a lot of people. 

Yeah, I think you’re right. I think you’re right. 

Yeah, it’s crazy that a podcast about murder mysteries and all that stuff had that kind of cultural impact. 

And it was also just like so mockable, because it’s so ridiculous in so many ways. We’re all so obsessed with murder mysteries right now as a culture [laughs]. 

[laughs] It’s crazy. So my last question — our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner-nerd. What is something you nerd out over?

Okay. First of all, murder podcasts, like I just told you. I invited everybody that I know to watch it at my house. Also, just theater and acting, like I’m kind of just a musical theater and theater geek. That’s what I was as a kid and I’m still like so excited about it. 

Do you have a favorite play or a musical that you’re still, to this day, just obsessed with?

Well, obviously Hamilton right now. So amazing. But I still have got to say maybe Rent for a musical. It was the first one that I saw in New York, when I was out there by myself, and my friends took me to go see it. It was so magical. And then play, I’d say Tartuffe by Moliere.

Interesting. I’m not familiar with that one.

It’s a good one.

You can follow Amanda on Twitter and Instagram. Make sure you catch Trial and Error on NBC on Thursdays at 9/8c.

Written by Bryna Kramer

I could have followed in my father's footsteps and become a doctor. But there was just too much good television on.

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