Why the mystery-comedy 'Only Murders' pushed Nathan Lane to the dark side

Nathan Lane
"I actually made this decision about 12 years ago and made a concerted effort to take on roles that would be more challenging for both me and the audience," says Nathan Lane, here at the LongHouse Reserve Sculpture Gardens in East Hampton, N.Y. The actor has been nominated for his darker role in "Only Murders in the Building." (Clark Hodgin / For The Times)

The first time Nathan Lane was Emmy-nominated for guest actor in a comedy, he played a thief who steals Frasier Crane’s briefcase and identity on “Frasier” in 1995. He followed that impressive turn with more nominations for appearing on “Mad About You,” “Modern Family” (three times) and “The Good Wife.” This year, when he landed his seventh Emmy nomination — this time for appearing in Hulu’s comedy-mystery “Only Murders in the Building” — he became the most nominated guest actor in the history of television. The versatile performer, who has also won three Tonys for his roles in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “The Producers” and “Angels in America,” spoke about his career to The Envelope on a hot summer day from his home in East Hampton, N.Y.

First of all, congrats on being Mr. Emmy Record-Breaker! How does being nominated again feel, and what do you remember from the first time you received such notice with “Frasier”?

[Laughing] It’s wonderful, and it makes me feel old. As you know, for some reason, they give out the guest actor award at the Creative Arts Emmys, in the middle of the technical categories, and it’s a very long evening. This year they’re breaking it into two nights, because there are just so many awards. That’s why people discourage you from going, because it’s best to see if you win first. Then you’ll be invited to the Primetime Emmys with the big boys a week later! Since that was my first nomination, I wanted to be there. I don’t know why nobody talked me out of it, because I was up against people like Sid Caesar (“Love & War”) and Carl Reiner (“Mad About You”). There was no way I was going to win. And of course, I lost [to Reiner].

On “Only Murders in the Building,” you play Teddy Dimas, one of the first-season suspects who has a Deaf son. You have been friends with the show’s leads Steve Martin and Martin Short for a long time. How did you get involved with the show?

Yes, we’re all friends. I knew that they were doing a show for Hulu, and they offered me this wonderful role, and it sounded like it would be great fun. I thought it was just going to be an out-and-out comedy. Of course, it’s a far more complicated show. It’s a mystery and a comedy and also an exploration of loneliness and life in the big city and what it means to get older. Teddy Dimas turned out to be much more complicated and darker than I imagined it would be.

Nathan Lane
Nathan Lane. (Clark Hodgin / For The Times)

You have some heartbreaking scenes playing a father who is unable to accept that his son is deaf. How did you prepare for them?

They explained the details of my role earlier on and that I would have to learn my scenes in American Sign Language. It became a really great challenge, because I only had six weeks until we had to shoot those scenes. I had a brilliant interpreter and coach named Doug Ridloff. I also owe a lot to James Caverly, who played my son. He was wonderful and gracious to me in all our scenes together. The character I played was ashamed that his son was deaf, so he put off learning ASL for a while, which is something that happens an awful lot. Somehow, these parents think they’re going to change their kids. That’s why Teddy’s not very good at it, because he learned it later in life.

In earlier film and TV career, you were best known for you comedic roles such as Albert in “The Birdcage” and Timon the meerkat in “The Lion King.” But in recent years, we have seen you in darker, more dramatic roles. How did this change come about?

I actually made this decision about 12 years ago and made a concerted effort to take on roles that would be more challenging for both me and the audience. That’s when I did “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago with my late, great friend Brian Dennehy. Doing Eugene O’Neill and playing one of the most difficult roles was a life-changing experience. Then I did a couple of seasons of “The Good Wife” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” came along. I also did the revival of “Angels in America” in London and on Broadway. All of that other work led me to play Roy Cohn on stage. I was able to do this almost impossible thing, which was shifting people’s perception of me a little. So it’s not such a shock that I’m playing more serious roles.

You also seem to be having a lot of fun playing Ward McAllister on HBO’s period drama “The Gilded Age” this year.

Yes, he is a very colorful character who was a real historic figure. The joy is not only being on those sets and wearing those costumes, but also being part of what feels like a great New York repertory company. You get to work with people who are either old friends or those whose work you have loved from afar. It’s also a lot of fun to play Ward on a show where everyone seems to be a little bit repressed! There’s a lot written about him, and I also read his book, “Society as I Have Found It.” It reminded me of what happened to Truman Capote, because people were offended by some of the stories that he told, and he was shunned by the very people that he worshiped. He was a fascinating and odd little man!

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.