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May 23, 2017

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Gil Bellows of Ally McBeal
by Bob Blumer
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.4

With the exception of our randy president, Ally McBeal's Gil Bellows (as Billy Thomas) is this season's most talked about homewrecker. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, actress Rya Kihlstedt, and their newborn daughter, in W.C. Fields former "hunting lodge" (a euphemism, Gil says --you can bet he wasn't stalking deer). As luck would have it, the former den of debauchery is a half mile from my humble perch. We arranged to meet halfway inbetween, in an eccentric and enchanted mosaic tile garden beneath the Hollywood sign. Over a bottle of Franciscan Oakville Estate 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon, the affable Canadian transplant proved to be more articulate and relaxed than the attorney he portrays on the show.

Bob Blumer: When you were growing up in Vancouver did you ever imagine yourself acting in a classic film like the Shawshank Redemption and staring in this years most talked about sitcom?

Gil Bellows: I think everybody has a hope that they're gonna be connected to quality material on a consistent level. But I'm beginning to realize how difficult it is, how miraculous it is, when anything is good.

B: Especially on TV. Do you watch much TV?

G: Not really, except for sporting programs or news, films or interviews, biographies and periodically The Actors Studio will have something interesting. NETWORK TV IS NOT A PLACE TO STIMULATE YOUR LIFE. MY SENSE IS, WATCH A MOVIE OR READ A BOOK OR GET THE FUCK OUT. We have TV's in our dressing rooms on the set and if I have 20 minutes to wait, I'll just sit there and go from channel to channel. I don't understand what I'm doing, but it's like passive hypnotism.

B: What would you have done if you hadn't become an actor?

G: I don't know. Maybe a sportscaster. Or maybe I'd be in jail. I knew when I was leaving high school, right before I decided to try acting, that I didn't want to go to university. I couldn't make things with my hands, and the idea of an office with fluorescent lighting just disturbed me.

B: Did you excel in any particular sports?

G: As a little kid I was a great soccer player and an okay basketball player. But an oaky Canadian basketball player probably doesn't merit much consideration.

B: How did you get the Ally McBeal role?

G: Hmm, I don't know if it's a really good story.

B: Embellish it if you'd like.

G: Well, I knew about the project because my wife was auditioning for it. While she was putting a tape together for it I told her she wasn't right for the part. We kinda got into a bit of an argument about it. It wasn't the right time to tell her, but ultimately she agreed with me. A few weeks later I got a call from the producer saying "Well, would you like to play this part?" I had to think about it a great deal. Most actors will tell you television is not the way to go. I always thought if I was going to do TV it'd be my show. I'd be the exhausted one but I'd get all the good lines and attention. But after thinking about it -- I'd been working on the road for three to four years straight, having intermittent connections with my wife and home -- I thought it might be nice try something steady for once. So I said sure, thinking it would last thirteen episodes (the guaranteed number) and no one would watch it. I really did. I still remember talking to this executive at the party right after we shot the pilot, before anyone had seen it. I said "whad'ya think?" He said "It'll never last. You'll do thirteen episodes and it'll be over". "But did you like it?" I asked. He quipped "No, and nobody's gonna get it." Initially I got upset, then I realized that's what I thought in the first place so what did I care. But actually I wanted people to get it, and I saw the way audiences respond to things they love. AUDIENCES HAVE A VERY DIFFERENT ATTITUDE TOWARDS TELEVISION AND ITS CHARACTERS THAN THEY DO TO FILM. FILM THEY CAN TAKE OR LEAVE. BUT TELEVISION... THESE ARE THEIR FRIENDS. It's a very bizarre, but wonderful, relationship that you can create with these people.

B: Can you put your finger on what attracts such a broad audience to Ally McBeal?

G: I would speculate that it works for so many people because they identify with the plights of young, professional people and the desire for something other than professional fulfillment in their life. That's part of the cosmic search on Ally McBeal, not just for Ally but for the others as well -- the idea of having an enriched life that goes beyond whatever professional triumphs you have. It's something that everyone, regardless of gender, age or race, has to deal with and fret about. And the idea of being with your soul mate, and first loves, everybody can connect to that, as well as the idea of having a life with somebody who understands, accepts and nurtures them. So webbed around these silly takes on law and people are these very poignant issues. They laugh at the goofy, but stick around because there's a level of sincerity and poignancy that underlies everything. So even at it's most outrageous it feels real, I think. They want the ability to laugh at their own suffering and the ridiculousness of life itself but they don't want anyone making fun of the important things they value.

B: When you get scripts like the recent show about the lawsuit over "bathing suit day" at a software company, do you just laugh out loud?

G: I just shake my head and think here's another perfect example of us exaggerating the point. But not by much. The fact is there's probably a lawsuit equally as stupid going on right now. Granted, it does provoke a very important argument. I do think the plaintiff had a valid point. We as a society totally misunderstand what the legal system is about.

B: What does it mean to you?

G: It's to protect the individuals within the society, to allow them fundamental freedoms as written under the charter of the U.S. Constitution, to protect and to serve society. But what has evolved is exploitation of victimization and of loopholes. Interpreting the letter of the law has become a business. Any opportunity to sue... and what's unfortunate about that is it's made society conservative in strange, hypocritical ways.

B: That's a good defense of the position your character took. How would you feel about your character taking a position you couldn't personally defend?

G: At first I thought it'd be tough, but then I realized that the audience wants to see conflict, whether it be inner or external, and you revealing things about yourself or other people. To play a lawyer...

B: ...with a conscious would just be no fun.

G: Yeah. It sort of limits certain things you can do. I think Billy should be principled, but then you end up disappointing. When Billy kissed Ally it was a violation of his commitment to Georgia, but in others' eyes his marriage to Georgia was a violation of his feelings for Ally. In many ways he's a schmuck who can't win.

B: It was probably the most talked about kiss of the year. Were you shocked when you read the script?

G: Shocked? No, I was thankful. There were a few weeks before that where I was hardly doing anything. I asked [the producers] "Am I gonna die soon?" They started shaking their heads and said "just wait!" We have ten people in the cast, so we all go through our little vacations.

B: What was it like taping that scene?

G: Both Calista and I are pretty good dancers but there's this certain kind of dance they asked us to do as part of the montage around the kiss. We'd been working for 15 hours up to that point and we're sort of kissing and dancing, just so clumsy, banging into each other, so against the grain of what the image is supposed to represent... this heightened passion, romantic, connecting moment and we're just sort of knocking knees and banging into furniture. I feel like that's very much life as a whole really because when you're involved in something that you feel strongly about and for whatever reason it captures other people, they also infuse it with a perception that there's no way you can envision or conjure up yourself.

B: How's it feel to know that in 20 years your daughter may be dating the next generation of Fishes and Biscuits?

G: I used to think I'd be the potential boyfriend's worst nightmare. But now all I want is for her to have an extremely positive view of sex and intimacy. If we succeed there, she'll be able to take care of herself.

B: There seems to be a lot of wine poured out in the show. Is there any consciousness about that?

G: No. In fact, what we try to do, in as many ways as possible -- of course they edit around it -- is to give the impression that we're all full-on drunkards.

B: Is any forethought given to what's poured?

G: Yeah, they think about it in the simplest form -- like who's giving it to us. There's no aesthetic consideration.

B: What images does wine conger up for you?

G: I've spent a lot of time in France. I love the feeling of going to the market and grabbing the baguette and the tomatoes and the prosciutto or the sausage and putting some butter on the bread... getting it all together and just taking a couple little sips and smelling it. You engulf about half the sandwich because you're so hungry and then just sit and sip for a little bit. That feeling that you're connected someway to the future and to the past, like you're participating in something that is primal and beautiful.

B: What are your wine preferences?

G: I like cabernets -- wines that you can enjoy all day long.

B: Starting at what time in the morning?

G: I'm really not very much of a drinker, but if given the opportunity, the right environment, I'll have one at lunch sometimes.

B: You're going out on a limb there Gil. I remember my old rock manager days when we'd wake up on the tour bus and have a beer for breakfast.

G: Yeah, that's a very Canadian thing. I never really got into that. Many of my friends got up to a beer and an Egg McMuffin.

B: Was there wine at the table when you were growing up

G: Always, and if I wanted it, it was there. And I always thought it was cool that I didn't want it.

B: Do you cook in that [beautifully renovated] kitchen of yours?

G: Yeah, but Rya's the big cook. I'm still sort of perfecting spaghetti sauces.

B: What's in your wine stash?

G: We always make sure to have at least six or seven bottles of red in the house and some white in the fridge. I like wines from the Napa Valley, and France, and there's always one bottle of Chianti in the house. We have the white for guests... can't imagine drinking it unless it's a hot, hot day with shellfish or something. Other than that it'd never cross my mind to drink white wine.

B: Your parting thoughts on this wine?

G: Mmm... I haven't eaten so it's giving me that warm and fuzzy feeling.

On that blissful note, we corked the bottle and drove back to Gil's field house, so he could prepare for the next day's taping of Ally McBeal's season finale. With his good looks, nice-guy charm and ability to tango on cue, chances are the curtain will rise many more times for Gil.

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