HOLLYWOOD -- James Woods is the first to admit that his first full-time TV job isn't much of a stretch. On CBS' new hit Shark, he plays the loud and egotistical Sebastian Stark, an ostentatious Los Angeles defense lawyer who switches sides and joins the district attorney's office.
Woods, after all, has spent much of his on-screen career playing versions of himself, even spoofing that persona on HBO's Entourage last season, when he guest-starred opposite his real-life 20-year-old girlfriend, Ashley Madison. Instead, Woods said, the bigger challenge presented by the current role is that Stark has just assumed primary custody of his 16-year-old daughter, Julie, played by Danielle Panabaker. (Woods, 59, does not have any children.)
Woods considers Shark his most enjoyable work to date -- "I actually, gleefully would do it for free" -- even though it comes at "the worst time of my life": Woods' younger brother, Michael J. Woods, 49, died of a heart attack on July 26, just days after the pair had completed a cross-country trip together.
Some highlights from the show's premiere day, which Woods spent on the Fox lot where it is shot:
In his trailer
Since arriving on the lot early in the morning, Woods has been muttering repeatedly that he needed to learn his lines for a courtroom scene but seemingly never stopped long enough to do so. Yet, when the camera rolls, his words match the script verbatim. In between scenes, he coos to and plays with Angel, his tiny black terrier, and talks about his photographic memory.
His cell phone rings, and he asks his publicist to answer it in case it's his 80-year-old mother in Rhode Island.
"I had a 184 IQ. I used to be smart before I was an actor," Woods says.
"I can't remember names anymore or if I've got a lot on my mind, I'll forget who I played golf with yesterday. For some reason, I've kept my capacity to reason, my conceptual ability and sophisticated logic.
"I had the highest test scores in my school system, and so when my brother went through school 10 years later, he had the highest test scores. My brother was the single most erudite person in the world. ... When we drove cross-country, no matter what we talked about, we'd be in the Missouri Breaks and he'd go, `Oh yeah, Lewis and Clark when they were here ...' and he'd go on and on."
On the lot
After shooting a courtroom scene, Woods must head to an interview with former Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark for Entertainment Tonight. He decides to commandeer the golf cart his staff was using to drive him around the lot. On the way, he sees a woman, a script in her hands. He brakes and asks her what part she's reading for. The young woman yells, "I just sold a single-camera comedy!"
Woods congratulates her.
As he drives off, he says, "She was a hottie. She looked like an actress. Good for her."
During a 45-minute interview with Clark, the former O.J. Simpson prosecutor asks how he is doing in the aftermath of his brother's death.
"I never was a believer of this before," Woods says, "but here's something I will tell you for sure: If you ever know someone who experiences an important loss in their lives involving a loved one of any kind, send flowers, send cards, send food. ... Just the fact that people are thinking of you or thinking of your loved one, it's just remarkably important and touching. I heard from so many people. Bob De Niro sent my mother flowers -- my mother, not me. That was so smart."
The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Woods had been working on the second episode of Shark when he learned his brother had died, and production shut down for nearly three weeks. That episode has since aired, and the show's creator, Ian Biederman, added an "In Loving Memory of Michael J. Woods" card at the end. The show's audience, nearly 15 million viewers, had grown in its second week, giving it an impressive win over NBC's ER in total viewers. A subdued and introspective Woods reflects on these bittersweet times.
"I very much accept the fact that this took a big piece of my life. I don't know if I necessarily want to feel better, to be honest with you. You know, I'm not afraid of deep sadness. ... I don't think being happy is necessarily the most important thing on Earth. I think sometimes it's important to be sad. Right now, I'm sad and that's OK. I'll handle it, even if it's forever."
Maria E. Fernandez writes for the Los Angeles Times.