Eric Mabius is probably best known to audiences as fashion magazine editor Daniel Meade on “Ugly Betty” and as Tim Haspel on “The L Word.” He currently stars as a postal detective with old-school charm and values on Hallmark Channel’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Sundays, 8/7c). I had a chance to chat with him recently about his career and his new role.
What draws you to a project, and what drew you to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”?
Martha [Williamson] had been writing this, developing it with Hallmark for some time, and because of the films I’d done for them, I guess they sort of had me in mind and … waited until everything sort of coalesced. They sent me the script as I was leaving – I was shooting a film in China – so I read it on the plane over to Shanghai. By the time I landed, I wanted them to set up a conference call. I wanted to speak with Martha because I thought that TV really needed a show like this. Martha had created such a memorable show in “Touched by Angel” and had left the business to raise two girls of her own and came back. I really felt she brought her breadth of experience to this new show, that it was an evolution, certainly for Hallmark and her writing.
I think there’s something about intention and will and moral compass that appeal to me in Oliver. I felt that television really needs that now, and I always make this reference, but it’s still so true, that I was raised on – Martha and I talk generally about our favorite shows and how the archetypes don’t exist anymore, really much anymore. There are some exceptions — a show like “MASH” – I always will remember as long as I live because I felt like part of me was raised by that show and the characters they grew and topics they addressed … when no one was allowed to talk about our involvement in the Vietnam war, they said it in the Korean War and yet it was social commentary at the time. The show’s creators had enough guts to take on some of those things that were uncomfortable and no one wanted to talk about.
Certainly, Martha does it in a more gentle way, but there are things each episode addresses – you feel at the end of the experience that you learned something without being preached to. That’s the important thing about entertainment – it’s there to enrich and uplift and not to be mired down…
What passes for television nowadays is something that stirs up dark emotion without really much intention. I don’t think there’s an excuse to be doing that. I think television can be a great tool. I think putting something good into the world is a lost art. It’s much easier to shock than to care for and follow through and to teach. Maybe I feel much more strongly about that because I have kids of my own, but maybe that just sort of happens when you’re not 20 anymore. I think Martha’s onto something.
What do you think of the celebs that live in the middle of the paparazzi, that choose to do so with their kids in tow?
To each his or her own. It’s what is convenient for them or how they’ve chosen to structure their lives. I have no business judging other people’s choices. I know what works for me, and I know what makes me happy and the family happy.
That’s the other thing, having kids – our parents aren’t getting any younger and we don’t want to deprive them of the company of their grandchildren. It’s just worked out in such a wonderful way. My boys are going to school and there’s still one of the same teachers my wife had when she was in elementary school! It’s so great, it’s really great.
I can guess why some people do that … this business is very tough because it will expose your weaknesses in two seconds. That’s why most actors appear like they’re crazy. Everyone’s a little off base in their own ways, but if you’re under a microscope, then it’s multiplied a thousand-fold. Bad behavior gets worse and good behavior gets eroded over the course of a career when you have successes and failures that are so public. I seriously try to stay away from that.
Do you still live here in Los Angeles or on the east coast?
I have been in Vancouver for the last four and a half months shooting the show. We moved back home – my wife and I – we tried to raise kids in southern California, and it just didn’t suit us. We thought, what we would we want to give as a gift to our kids, and that was the environment we were raised in — Amherst, in western Massachusetts. It’s the rare mix of rural and progressive. It’s a very special place in the world. There’s no place like it. It’s a lot of writers and professors and people who own small, organic farms and people who are trying to live considerate lives and again, people who are connected to things that are most important.
We had a such a great learning environment. [Mabius and his wife met in high school, but didn’t date until years later.] The high school in Amherst – the Amherst public school system is one of the best — it really is – and we wanted our kids to have that.
No matter how good of a parent you are, you can’t raise your children going to school with other kids living in $20 million dollar homes. You just can’t have your head screwed on straight. It’s just impossible. We didn’t have any family out there. We moved last year, and it’s one of the smartest things we’ve done. The boys are so much happier, I think, and we’re happy and connected to the outdoors in a way that’s a little hard to do in a more populated area. We dig in the dirt almost every day, and we live on a horse farm. The boys take horseback riding lessons. Grandpa lives two miles down the road in the house my wife grew up in. It’s kind of an ideal, perfect, environment to raise children.
You said you were on your way to China to film a movie [“Amazing”] when you first read the script for “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” What was your experience like filming in China?
My dear friend is a director. His name is Sherwood Hu, and he’s just such a brilliant director. He studied under Joseph Papp in New York. He’s a great theater, opera, film and television director. We had always tried to find something to work on together, and the timing worked out for this. It was a great experience, and it was unlike anything I had ever done. I’ve worked in South Africa and Europe and all over North America, and this was a totally unique experience.
I’d like to go back [to China] and not view it through my “work” eyes. I’d like to just go and be a tourist. Especially, the western part of the country. I tend to not like cities more and more as I get older.
On “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” your character, Oliver, is reluctant to embrace technology. As an actor, what is your take on the instantaneous reaction from fans when you’re live tweeting the show on Twitter [@Eric_Mabius]?
I set up my account for the pilot. I had never really tweeted before, so I’ve only had it since early winter and the response … I think I really like, it’s like having a question and answer period, which is something that people would love to do when you go to watch a film – you want to sit with the actors sometimes afterward. So it’s sort of like being at a festival all the time. It’s like Sundance – that’s the big selling point – to sit and talk to the filmmakers and actors afterwards.
I think it’s a wonderful aspect of the Internet – that as a tool – that’s usually something that I answer when people say, “What about the post office being a dying organization?” I say, “I don’t think it’s an Internet OR mail service. I find that having Internet is a tool to enrich one’s life and should be treated that way. I enjoy, for instance, being able to point and click, rather than going to a store and dealing with a frustrating salesperson who doesn’t enjoy their job. You find something, you click and it comes to you. I think that’s very useful.
Similarly, certainly for television, being able to have a more complete and immersive experience as an audience member, I think Twitter is a really indispensable tool, especially when the actors are made available to tweet. I think it’s a great thing, although I’m completely torn because a lot of times it’s the first time I’m seeing the shows and I miss them because I’m tweeting. And I want to interact with people, so sometimes I just have to hit pause and keep on tweeting. I just think it’s a great way to fill out an audience’s experience. It’s one aspect of the immediacy of the Internet that benefits everyone, because the people putting the product out there can see in real time how the audience responds, and the people watching can have access to the people who are making it, as well.
Are we going to ever meet Oliver’s wife who fled to Paris?
Yes you are.
Well, there’s a constant sort of deepening that occurs and their bond gets stronger with every episode. That’s the thing that people always go to because it’s easy – when are they going to kiss? Audiences think that’s what they want, but in the end, what you end up with is something much stronger than that – the bond that’s being formed by achieving successes, going through challenges and trials together.
What’s going on here, when people are waiting for them to kiss, is actually a wonderful deepening of the relationship. They go through these challenges and the relationship becomes stronger and they become closer. Not only are the characters more invested in one another, the audience becomes more invested in the characters and the relationship.
That’s what I love about Martha’s writing. She’ll always try to fold in real life facts or events into every episode. They find their way, in small ways, and sometimes in every scene a story she’s been told or something that’s happened to her or us. Or she’ll have a question, she’ll come to us.
In the first episode with Valerie [Harper], she tells me about my grandfather whom I never really knew. You learn a lot about Oliver in those scenes.
Like my grandfather, who worked for the post office for 25 to 30 years. He was working at the post office Christmas Eve day, and he didn’t come home and they got worried. A farmer had shipped a big egg shipment through the mail and they started to hatch, so he stayed with them and that story is in the episode. That actually happened to my grandfather.
Are we going to learn more about Oliver’s background – why he dresses so dapper, how he is able to afford a Jag on a government salary?
Absolutely. We establish in the pilot that he’s been with the post office so long he could have any job he wants, virtually. He’s a very high pay grade level. If you actually look that Jaguar up, you’ll find how inexpensive it really is.
So I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, BUT he’s been there for well over 20 years, and although it’s a cool looking car, it’s not a terribly expensive car. He’s frugal. He enjoys things that are practical and well made, and that is sort of consistent with Oliver’s edict.
Will we get to hear you sing in the church choir?
I hope not! I don’t think you’ll want to hear me sing. I’ve had the question three times, and I realize they’re hoping one of the answers to be a “yes,” that I can sing and it’s not going to happen. I’m a wicked shower singer, but when we go out for karaoke, I sit and watch.