From show creator Joshua Safran (Smash, Gossip Girl), the Netflix original series Soundtrack is a romantic musical drama that looks at the love stories of a diverse group of people in Los Angeles, as they navigate relationships and explore how the music in our hearts connects us. The series stars Paul James, Callie Hernandez, Jenna Dewan, Madeleine Stowe, Campbell Scott and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Collider had the chance to speak with James about his role on the show.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Paul James talked about how he came to be a part of Soundtrack after the pilot had already been shot, the evolution of understanding the concept of this series, the challenges that came with lip-syncing in big production numbers, the song he most enjoyed and the most challenging one to get right, sharing this experience with co-star Callie Hernandez, his hopes for a second season, and the types of projects he’d like to do next.
Collider: I had no idea what to expect from this show, or how it would work, and I really enjoyed it and was just completely fascinated by it.
PAUL JAMES: That’s so great to hear. Yeah, I feel like we were all in the same boat, where we didn’t know how it was going to work, so I’m really glad to hear that.
How did you come to be a part of this? Was it a typical audition process, or was there anything different about it because this is such a different kind of thing?
JAMES: Yeah, it was a little different for me because they had shot the pilot with another actor. I had originally auditioned for the role during that round. I remember getting the audition when I was snowboarding, up in the mountains, so I had like cornrows and I had some friends holding lamps next to my head, as I did the audition. So, I didn’t get it, and then I was working on something in Toronto, The Hot Zone for National Geographic, and it came back around and I had three auditions for it. I liked the role when I first read it, so when it came back around, I was really happy because I thought it fit what I can do relatively well. That’s how it happened.
Was it one of those situations, where you had already gotten attached to the role when you found out you hadn’t gotten it, or did you not allow yourself to do that?
JAMES: I’m very lucky, in that I have really good agents and managers, so I audition quite a bit, and I only start to get attached when it goes further and further. So, that first time, when I just had an audition, I really loved the material, but as soon as we did it, I started snowboarding again. You just can’t get attached, as an actor, ‘cause you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.
When did you really get exactly what the show would be? Was it through conversations, or was it actually getting on set and doing it?
JAMES: It was an evolution. I remember talking to Josh [Safran], the creator, after I had gotten the role and he told me all of these ideas that he had and about the different numbers, and what he was thinking for my soundtrack. The tricky thing that about what Josh has created is that there are so many little moments that rely on other moments, that you don’t really know, until you see the whole picture. There are little lines that we reference. In Episode 7, there’s a moment where me and Madeleine Stowe are sitting at a diner, and she talks about listening to Penny Marshall’s audio book on my phone ‘cause her phone wasn’t working. That little moment sets up how, in Episode 9, her phone isn’t working. There are all these little moments that are character revealing, which is unusual from how I’ve worked before. So, Josh told me a lot of these things that I needed to be aware, and then we got on set and were running at a breakneck pace and filming a lot. I wasn’t really sure what was going on. It wasn’t until I saw that I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s pretty beautiful. You really pulled this off.” We just weren’t sure how it was gonna work, especially with following two different people, every episode. For me, I think it’s one of the strengths of the show that everyone gets to be the lead of their own episode. You really get to delve into the backstory of every character, in a beautiful way. I hope people will enjoy it.
When you came to this series, there was already a pilot and it was originally going to be on Fox, but then it ended up at Netflix. Did you know about all of that, or did you come in late enough that the show was already set to go, as a series?
JAMES: Yeah, the show was already set to go, as a series, which made it great. I didn’t have to do any of the pilot thing. I’ve actually been really lucky in my life because I believe that all of the shows that I’ve been on have gone straight to series. I’ve never really done a pilot. With Greek, we did a pilot, and then it got picked up, but that was so long ago. But with this one, the other actors had been in a holding pattern for a year and were dealing with all of that minutia, where I just came on with Netflix and was able to just start rolling, right away. Our show would have been a much different show on Fox. The people at 20th could see that this was a show that they wanted to get behind, but that it wasn’t a great fit for Fox. We were able to do a lot more, and get a little raw and real are on Netflix, which is cool.
Your creator, Josh Safran, has talked about how the series was inspired by Pennies From Heaven. He’s also talked about taking inspiration from Cameron Crowe and James L. Brooks, as well as the ‘90s and different indie movies. Did he have you watch anything, along those lines, to give you a better idea of what he was going for?
JAMES: No, he didn’t. I watched Pennies From Heaven, just ‘cause I wasn’t familiar with it. That was actually really helpful, in a way. The weirdest thing that we all didn’t know how it was gonna work was the lip-synching thing. With Pennies From Heaven, I got to see what I felt worked really well, and I noticed some things that maybe didn’t work so well, and we were able to apply that. Josh’s brain is insane, in the best way possible. All the references that he’s pulling out mean a lot to him, but I wouldn’t have been able to follow it, if I’d tried. So, I just trusted him to lead me where he needed me to be. He did say that he wanted it to be like an independent movie, every episode, which was shown in his choice of some of the directors that we had. You really feel that in the eighth episode, Gigi’s episode, which is just beautiful. Because of that, we have a little bit more lee-way. Him and Beth Schacter, the co-EP, write really long scenes and, on set, we didn’t have to rush all of these little moments. Most of the episodes are almost an hour long. It was nice. We were allowed to be a little bit more free, the way you are on a movie. Traditionally, you didn’t have that freedom on television, although it’s definitely changing.
What were the challenges that came with trying to get the lip-synching right, with the big production numbers?
JAMES: We had two lip-synching coaches, over the duration of production, which was really helpful. It was one of those things where, you know that if the lip-synching is wrong, it’s gonna take away from what you’re trying to do, so you just have to practice it. There was a lot going on, with this show. We would have regular filming and maybe be rehearsing some scenes, and then there would be dance rehearsal, and we’d have lip-synching rehearsal somewhere else. Everyone was going through that process. The lip-synching coach gave us some techniques to slow songs down, so that you could get the vocal gesticulations. And we’re still learning things. You just don’t know ‘cause you’ve never really seen it before. For me, I would just throw those songs on, on repeat, at the gym, walking down the street, heading to work, to just get them in my body. As soon as you get on stage and you’re doing all of the choreography, the lip-synching tends to leave, if you don’t have it in your body.
Was there a song that you most enjoyed getting to do, and was there one that you found the most challenging to do?
JAMES: The most challenging for the lip-synching was “Que Sera,” just because of the vocal gesticulations. But they’re like my children and I love them all the same, so I don’t really necessarily have a favorite of my stuff. I enjoy the show more when I’m not on it. It’s easier to be able to look at Gigi’s episode and marvel at the beauty, and not be critical of it. I love “Both Sides Now,” the medley at the end of Episode 4, that Madeleine [Stowe] and Campbell [Scott] do. I think that’s one of the best moments. I love all of Gigi’s stuff. Callie kills the Talking Heads mash-up. They’re one of my favorite bands. We did that in one take. She had all of the choreography. We didn’t get a lot of time to do it, and she really murdered that. There’s a lot of cool performances. For me, I’m happy with the way they all turned out, but I look at it as work and I’m a little bit critical of it.
Your character makes a point to say, “Every song is a love song,” and the relationship and journey between Sam and Nellie is really important to the series. What was it like to share this experience with Callie Hernandez?
JAMES: It was really cool. I think Callie is the reason that I got the part. When I read with her, for that final test, we had this electricity. We were going off script and having a really good time. Everyone was so wonderful to work with, but when it’s Callie and I, I just never know what she’s gonna do. She really keeps you on your toes. She’s so free, which makes me much freer, as well. We were creating this life together, as we were going on this journey. Callie is relatively new to acting. She’s only been doing it for about four or five years, and she’s so wonderful. No one will ever read a line like she does. She’s so natural. So, we had a lot of fun. We’re both Geminis, too, so we were going through this together.
Along with love and relationships, this series also explores family, and you had two incredible actresses that you’re working with, between Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Madeleine Stowe. What was it like to work with actors of that caliber?
JAMES: It was crazy. And there was Campbell Scott, Amy Irving and James McDaniel. We had these legends around, and they’re all different. Me and Madeleine had a lot of scenes together because one of the journeys of the show is our relationship, as well. I’ve been doing this for awhile, but I learned a lot from all of them. Madeleine can do so much with a look or an inflection of a word that she says. It’s really amazing. There aren’t really movie stars anymore, but Madeleine Stowe is a movie star. She’s got these great stories of hanging out at Bobby Altman’s house, watching dailies. She’s just wonderful. She’s so giving and so complimentary, and she was really good to me. And Marianne Jean-Baptiste is one of the most talented women, ever. She can do so much. Her preparation is wonderful, too. We had a lot of fun. I’m in contact with both of them, and Campbell, as well. Campbell’s also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, which is funny ‘cause he doesn’t usually play funny roles. He’s very dry, but he comes on set, keeps it light and is very loose, which makes everyone else loose and I appreciate that. I think that’s the strength of our show. There are a lot of strengths, but it’s not just show about young people. There are people of all generations, who are looking for love, and that’s really cool. I love when Marianne goes on the date with James McDaniel, and we see them interact. You see love, at a different age, and I think that’s cool.
And then, on top of all of that, you throw in a kid, which can be very unpredictable, and there are so many beautiful moments between your character and his son. What did you do to bond with Isaiah Givens and set up that relationship?
JAMES: We had a good time. He’s a pretty smart kid. He picks up on everything. He’s super intelligent, super quick, and really a joy to be around, with no attitude. His mom is great. Every time he’s on set, he’s like, “Hey, Sam!,” and would jump in my arms, like he does on the show. It’s really cool because, when you’re acting, it’s easy to get heady about things and tired, and then you see a kid on set and you realize that you’ve gotta be better and try to put a smile on your face, even when you’re not feeling it. That energy can turn a day around, really. He’s just wonderful.
After doing a project like this, that is so unique and different, how do you approach figuring out what you want to do next?
JAMES: That’s a good question. I have no idea. I don’t have an answer to that, at all. I’ve never been at a stage where I get to pick what I wanna do, so I audition for a bunch of stuff, and when it’s right, people choose me. I would definitely like to do a play ‘cause that’s where I started. If we get another season, I could do a play. But if all we get is this one season, I’ve gotta keep working and keep making money. There is a part of me, as someone who studied acting in school and who’s been doing it, I feel like, after this experience, I’ve done it. I did what I set out to do. So now, anything that comes after this, I could even stop being an actor tomorrow and be like, “I was on some great shows, and I got to be a leader on this wonderful project, and I could do something else now.” I don’t feel like I have that need, besides just wanting to tell stories, which will always be in me, to prove anything to anyone anymore. I probably didn’t have anything to prove, to begin with, but I feel really at peace with it now. Recently, I’ve been having a lot more fun. At this stage, I just wanna play around and try to have fun, and not worry so much.
Have you already had conversations about what a second season could look like, if you get to do one?
JAMES: Josh has the whole thing in his head. He knows exactly what he wants to do. We know how the series ends, and what the show morphs into, which is really cool, if we ever get to do it. I don’t know anything about songs, but he definitely has told me a bunch of his ideas. I watched Episode 8, and I texted him and said, “I feel sorry for Gigi, but I feel like she needs to figure out herself, without a man around.” And he was like, “Oh, I’ve got plans. Don’t worry about it.” Josh has got everything under control. So, hopefully, we get to do that.
Soundtrack is now available to stream on Netflix.