Gabriel Macht is a genius.
It isn’t in the conventional sense. Measuring him by his IQ – whatever that may be – wouldn’t do him justice. Neither would examining his lengthy filmography of over twenty years. Yet spend a few minutes in his company, and it becomes quickly apparent that he is brilliant. It’s in his verbal acuity, which would make many professional writers envious. It’s in the thought he gives to even the most casual of conversations. He’s just plain smarter than you or me.
He’s not the type to need to prove that to anyone. Yet with the success of USA Network’s original series Suits, Macht has gotten noticed. As hotshot Manhattan attorney Harvey Specter, he’s enjoyed plenty of snappy banter, an expensive wardrobe, and even his hair gel has become a topic of conversation.
It’s nice work if you can get it, the kind that would put many actors on cruise control, but not Macht, who made Harvey an incredibly layered, nuanced and engaging character who arrested the audience. It took him only twelve episodes to establish himself as the smartest actor on television.
The only thing he might not know is just how good he is.
“I don’t know,” he says with a laugh during our phone conversation on a slow afternoon, when I ask him what he thinks the secret of his success is. “I think if you’re artistic in any way, you’re probably born with it. I guess it’s a talent that can be learned here and there, but I think the instinct to tell a story or to create something happens maybe in the womb.”
In Macht’s case, that might be fairly close to the truth. His father is veteran actor Stephen Macht, and his younger brother Jesse is a successful musician who is as talented with lyrics as his older sibling is with scripts, currently recording in the studio before starting his 2012 tour schedule at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco on January 28. Both of the brothers are class acts, so well-spoken and gifted in their respective fields that it’s hard not to think there might be something in the gene pool.
Whether or not talent was in the DNA, it was certainly nurtured from a young age. I recall an earlier conversation with Jesse, in which he told me that their large family is “super supportive of everyone; we believe a lot in family.” And no doubt they were behind Gabriel when he made his acting debut on film at the young age of eight.
Coming back to acting as a teenager, he also did what many actors don’t: obtained his college degree, from the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University. Perhaps being educated at one of the best schools in the country is another piece of the equation of success.
He first came to my attention in 2005, when he appeared in the television movie Archangel, adapted from the Robert Harris novel. Macht played relentless news reporter R.J. O’Brian, who badgers and bullies his way into accompanying college professor Fluke Kelso (Daniel Craig) on a quest to find Stalin’s son. It was a tricky character in a complex novel, who on film could have easily become insufferable. If that wasn’t enough, the role was opposite the man who would become James Bond a year later.
I was viewing the film for Craig, but was surprised at how Macht sold me on O’Brian. He had charisma, wit and unexpected depth. And so, I filed a thought away in my head: This guy’s an actor I ought to watch.
Maybe we’re just now catching up, but Macht has been good for a very long time. There were all too brief appearances in Behind Enemy Lines with Owen Wilson and The Recruit with Colin Farrell and Al Pacino. In 2004, he starred opposite John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson in A Love Song For Bobby Long, which he calls a film “that I’m really proud of.”
He played a superhero in 2008’s cult hit The Spirit. Just before stepping into the Tom Ford suits of Harvey Specter, he deftly handled two vastly different roles: dark comedy in the film Middle Men (“that needs to be seen by more people”), and action hero in the sequel S.W.A.T.: Firefight, where he matched wits with one of film’s hardest-working actors, Robert Patrick.
Which brings me to another reason why Macht is so good at what he does. Perhaps talent is born, not made. Education is a matter of learning. But you cannot create his work ethic. Not only does he put his best effort into each role, but once a part is in hand, he probes in places most actors wouldn’t even think to consider.
“I read the script a few times. I try and find whatever hints there are in the script to create a backstory. I’ll ask all the questions – the who, what, when, where, why and how. If it’s not there, I’ll try and create it for myself,” he explains. “I sit down with the director and we talk about the script, and I try and get his vision of the material. It’s my job to expand on his vision. I usually like to sit down with the wardrobe designer, so I’m simultaneously working on the outside and in, trying to create a look for a character and why does he make those decisions. I’m trying to use what’s inside the lines and merge the outer and inner lives.”
I can name actors who work very hard. I can even name a few who write their own backstories; my friend Ben Daniels, late of Law & Order: UK, had pages of things he envisioned for his character on that series. Macht is the only one I know whose acting process involves collaborating with the wardrobe department. It seems different at first blush, but makes perfect sense. He knows there are many more pieces to the character than the ones we see and strives to put all of them together.
That belief that he’s just one part of a greater whole extends to how Macht handles himself. While he may technically be the star of Suits, he doesn’t put himself first – except to be a leader on the show’s Toronto set. Even in that, he works in concert with his equally underrated co-star, Patrick J. Adams.
“You’re the guy who works the most, but your role is no more important than number thirty-five, because we’re all trying to tell the story,” he says. “Both Patrick and I sat down before we started working, and we said, ‘Look, we’re number one and two,’ and very often those are the two characters that create a certain kind of atmosphere on the set. We didn’t want to approach this with ego, we wanted to be very supportive of each other and work as a team, from the cast on down through the crew. And I think we did a pretty good job of that. The crew is lovely and we’ve got a really great ensemble.”
He might not give himself enough credit, but I’m happy to do that for him, having found it a true joy to watch Macht take Harvey from potential caricature to one of the most complex characters on the small screen. His work in Suits was the only time I’ve ever been asked to write less about a show, as I was spending too much time each week analyzing his peformances. There were many moments where he caught me by surprise, leading me to once write that he was the finest actor to grace USA since multiple award winner Tony Shalhoub starred in Monk. Asked if there’s a moment from the show that he’s particularly proud of, Macht zeroes in on the season’s second-to-last episode, “Rules of the Game.”
“The moment at the very end, when Jessica comes to Harvey and says, ‘You don’t have to worry about the Gary Cole character [Cameron Dennis] outing you,'” he recalls. “There’s a moment where I find out that Clifford Danner is innocent and I was part of the many people who put him in jail for the last twelve years. There’s a moment there where the guilt sort of washes over [Harvey]. The director, [series creator] Aaron Korsh and I sort of collaborated on that moment; I think we found that moment.”
I know he did, I tell him, because I know the moment he’s talking about. It was one of the best scenes of television in the summer TV season. It’s the only one during which I openly wept.
That scene leads into Macht’s tour de force outing in the Suits season finale, which sees Harvey on a crusade to right the wrong from his past as a district attorney. The turn was remarkable for everything it wasn’t. In today’s ever-competitive TV culture, the season finale is the episode where the actor usually has at least one moment to clamor for an audience’s eyeballs or an award nomination. Everything must be bigger, more emotional, more attention-grabbing.
Macht was bold in his acting choices by giving a performance that was subtle and restrained, as if he’d forgotten what episode he was filming. There was no shouting match, no emotional breakdown, no grand speech for Harvey Specter. None of that would have been true to his character, and none of it was needed to show the audience more about Harvey than we’d ever seen before.
It was a success on every level. From a fan’s eye view, it was moving and thoughtful. From that of the screenwriter, it was an inspiration to match the level of talent. From a journalist’s perspective, it was a reminder of the true beauty and complexity of the craft of acting.
I ask him what was going through his mind as he delivered some of the brainiest, riskiest work I’ve ever seen from an actor on television.
“I find that Harvey is so put together and he’s sort of got it throughout the whole season, and it’s the last two episodes where they peel a lot more of the layers off,” he tells me. “I felt in the final episode, he was sort of reeling underneath. He’s just bubbling up like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I find that I’m trying to keep my integrity together throughout – trying to sort of bottle it up, trying to cover up the angst underneath it all. That’s what people do.”
It’s no surprise that Macht occasionally drifts from referring to Harvey in the third person to speaking in the first person. Not when he’s put so much work into the character, and probably knows Harvey at least as well as Korsh, if not better. He fits with the character in that unique way that only a handful of television actors ever do, where you could never imagine anyone else playing the role.
It’s a perfect union attained by his commitment and belief in himself. He doesn’t dwell on what wasn’t and is confident in what is. “I think that most people that get that opportunity to play that role, it was meant for them,” he says.
Naturally, his grasp on the character makes me wonder what he’d do next were he the one plotting out season two of Suits, which begins shooting in April. “I’d like to see a bunch of things,” he says. “I’d like to see a little bit more of [Harvey's] personal life. I’d like to see what he does in his off time away from the firm. I’d like to see him involved in a charity – something to do with kids. I’d like to see a different side of him that we haven’t seen that explains who he is a bit more. I’m hoping that’ll happen.”
With his intellect and the benefit of decades of experience, Macht is a natural fit for that aspiration of many actors – working behind the camera. When he says he’d like to direct, it doesn’t sound like every other actor who says it; it seems like a natural fit for someone who’s been around filmmaking his whole life. “I’m going to see at some point, if we go a third or fourth season, I’d like to direct one of those,” he confides. He’s even tried his hand at “writing bits and pieces here and there,” though he calls himself “probably a bit of a better director than a writer.”
It’s clear what has made Macht the most underappreciated actor on television. He is gifted with a natural talent, and has benefited from a supportive family and a top-flight education, but all of that would mean nothing if he didn’t choose to put a remarkable effort into his work. Watching him act, you can see and feel that it isn’t just what he does for a living, but who he is.
Yet it’s not all he is. There’s one last crucial piece to the equation, and that’s the fact that Macht is also one of the small screen’s gentlemen. He’s a devoted son, brother, husband and father. His Suits co-stars, with whom he’s genuinely close (he and Adams lived together in Toronto at one point, and he’s known Sarah Rafferty, who plays Harvey’s assistant Donna, for years), speak with respect and admiration for him.
As for this writer, I’ll always look back fondly on the night Gabriel and I first met. We happened to be sitting across from each other on the closing night of Adams’ recent play, 9 Circles. I was so nervous that we had to be introduced before I could find words, but he put me at ease with his warmth, making me feel as if this was the hundredth time we’d met instead of the first.
We were soon having a conversation about the emotional response engendered by the play – not the usual small talk between an actor and a fan, or even an actor and a journalist. I was honored to have gotten to meet him, and touched at how sweet he was toward me, but most of all I was thrilled that here was someone with whom I could raise the level of discussion. Someone who saw more in the material. Someone smarter than me.
Back in the present day, it doesn’t surprise me that as we conclude another chat, I once again feel wiser for having spoken to him. After all, Gabriel Macht is a genius. Now, he’s simply seizing an even broader opportunity to show us what that genius can do.