Interview: ‘Scorpion’ star Katharine McPhee on stunts, fictional motherhood and her ‘Smash’ Tony loss

Going back to my failure to get on-board with the Soul Patrol, I'm accustomed to supporting Katharine McPhee in ill-fated circumstances.

It's no wonder, then, that we're simpatico when it comes to Karen Cartwright losing the Tony to Ivy Lynn.

“That's a great question,” McPhee says when I inquire about her disappointment regarding this fictional theater award. “I wanted Karen to win!”

“[M]y heart kind of like broke for her,” McPhee admits. “I'm like, 'Really? She ends up with this loser guy who goes to jail and she can't even win the Tony?' And she has to have this nasty catfight with a girl who she could have potentially had a great relationship with? And she can't win the Tony. At least she got to play Marilyn for a little bit.”

McPhee's two-year run on “Smash” taught her many lessons, which we discussed in July when we sat down to talk about her new CBS drama “Scorpion,” premiering on Monday (September 22) night. The buzzy NBC musical shaped her approach to subsequent acting roles and also impacted what she was looking for in pilots when she looked at scripts last spring.

In “Scorpion,” McPhee plays Paige, who begins as a diner waitress trying her best to raise a wildly introverted young genius. Through an odd set of circumstances, she comes to meet Elyes Gabel's Walter O'Brien and his rag-tag team of socially maladjusted whiz-kids and this somehow leads to car chases and a massive stunt involving an airplane.

In our conversation, McPhee talks about what attracted her to Paige and the challenges of playing both a young mother and also playing the “normal” character in a show about prodigies. 

She explains how much, or how little, she got to do in those huge stunt scenes and admits that she has no clue what “Hit List” was actually about.

Oh and how long before her “Scorpion” character takes the gang out karaoke singing? Or at admits her life-long dream has been music? McPhee hopes it's a while.

Check out the full interview…

HitFix: So, let's just sort of go back to the beginning of this. It's spring, were you looking to do to get back into the TV biz?

Katharine McPhee: You know, I really loved so much being on a show. When I got “Smash,” I was just thinking, “Wow what a perfect storm for me as far as just all the essentials put into one on a show.” But the other thing I wasn't sure of was, will I like being on a TV show? And the schedule, I'd never been on something where you shoot like nine months out of the year. And I just loved it. “Smash's” schedule in particular, they're very difficult schedules. Like you literally never get a day off. And sometimes they call you in on a Saturday saying, “We really need you to pre-recorded this song” and you're like, “Oh my gosh.” So you lose a lot of your…  I think I'll find myself with a day or two off a bit more frequent on this show than I probably would on “Smash.” So to answer your question, honestly I think pilot season for me, yeah sure, I was interested in what pilot season had to offer, but that being said, just like anything else that I try and approach as far as projects, I try to make sure that I'm not taking a job just to take a job, but because I really genuinely am excited about something and feel like it's the right vehicle for me. And I kind of went through pilot season and I was particular about things that I wanted to go in for. And I kind of thought, “You know, t's not my season. I'm not going to get something.” And this came in rather late in the season and I got cast on a Sunday and was shooting on Tuesday. So, it really was an amazing thing for me to nail down and to have it something be so different from what I did on “Smash.”

HitFix: Well, what resonated about Paige for you?

Katharine McPhee: I think for me I felt like I was getting finally an opportunity to play an adult character, a young adult character who displayed lots of strength and responsibility for her life. I think Karen on “Smash” was supposed to be a little bit younger and the writing didn't continue to write her as this sort of strong character. I think she was a lot more timid, she was short-winded sometimes. She would get cut off a lot by stronger personalities. And this is, I think, really exciting to kind of be able to have an opportunity to play a character who's a strong woman. And that was what was intriguing to me. She's strong but also still very sensitive and sees the world with a sensitivity and can help translate that to other people who can't really… I just think there's all these dynamics, like to be able to play a young mother and things that I don't even, as a human being, know about. Karen was easy for me to connect to as far as the love of wanting to be a performer and the struggle of being an actor and all that stuff. Whereas this is, you know, you really do have to think about the love of a child, because I don't have those things.

HitFix: Well, were you sort of scared? Was there fear to that when you sort of see “young mother” on the page do you wonder if you can do that? Find that?

Katharine McPhee: Yeah. Sure. What my thought was was I don't want people to not feel like this isn't my son. That was a concern to me. That was my main thought when I first started on the first day was I was working with Riley B Smith, the little kid who plays my son, and I just had to really focus myself and just say like, “This is your son” for that. I don't really have a hard time kind of taking a motherly role with my own friend's kids and things like that. Sometimes I probably tell them what to do and I probably shouldn't. So the thing that I like about her is that she doesn't have a hard time asserting herself. And I can in real-life have a hard time asserting myself. But when I do it feels great. So I don't know, there's lots of interesting dynamics that is exciting for me to play.

HitFix: Does it help that sort of the son's relationship with the mother is sort of a somewhat, not a “strained” relationship but there's a distance at least.

Katharine McPhee: For sure. Absolutely. But that was sort of what the director was wanting, that balance between this disconnect with her son and yet not letting the audience see that that rattles Paige. Because she's never going to give up on him. And so how do you like convey that in such a short amount of time? So yeah, she was challenging. It was a lot of information for those first few days because I was just thrown into it.

HitFix: So, all these other actors they have to play these geniuses and you're playing the “normal girl”. Is it sort of deceptively hard to play “normal” in this environment?

Katharine McPhee: Yeah. I mean the thing I think about is we use that term a lot, a “normal” person. What is normal? Like who are we all to say what one should feel or one should think? So I don't know, I don't really know what normal is. As long as you're not running around killing people, doing really awful things? Most people are, in my book, relatively normal. I'll probably take that back.

HitFix: Well, did you watch sort of the other actors have to go through the jargon that they had to do?

Katharine McPhee: Yeah. I think the dialogue in itself helps them sort of not be “normal.” The sort of loose tongue, the things that come out of their mouths where most people sort of think things through before they actually speak something. So I think it was more in the writing that that kind of thing was more apparent to me.

HitFix: Now, do you have any sort of experience like this sort of herding friends? You talked about your relationship with friends and that to me feels like what your character is doing she's sort of the herder. So do you have any sort of that side in you?

Katharine McPhee: Sure. Yeah. It's interesting being in this business as a woman and you're going to events all the time. I have a lot of friends and wanting to organize staying connected to your friends and family and having them be a part of your journey in this career and stuff. I feel like I'm constantly texting and organizing meeting up with people. Like, “Okay I'll get you the pass for this event and you just got to put your name in here.” So that part of me does exist in that way. I think other than the nonprofessional side of me, I'm not really one to get together and throw like a massive get-together with friends. I'm probably not as, I don't know, within the confines of my business. People are intrigued, I think friends and family are intrigued with this world that we live in, this entertainment world, and it can be really fun. And so because you're so busy it's convenient to include them in your world and find a way to see them within your business. So does that kind of make sense?

HitFix: It does. Are we going to find out that Paige has her own sort of oddities and peculiarities?

Katharine McPhee: You know, I'm not really sure so much about that yet. I've only got the second episode, honestly, so I can say that so far you don't see that yet. But you do see her really be able to assert herself and not be afraid of, you know, calling it like it is. And it's pretty impressive in front of a roomful of people she really doesn't know that well. That's impressive to me.

HitFix: Now, the last 15 minutes of this pilot are very action-packed. What did you actually get to do? What were you out there getting to do?

Katharine McPhee: I got to sit in a car for two days that didn't move and I got to have the wind blown at me at like 100 miles an hour. I got to stand up in a car that doesn't move with a green screen behind me.

HitFix: See, people don't understand how glamorous Hollywood is.

Katharine McPhee: Yup! I got to grab a rope from basically the bottom of a plane, the fake bottom of a plane on a green screen that wasn't moving. Basically the car never moved. That was shocking to me. I was like, “Wait I'm sorry, we don't move at all? Like the car doesn't move? I don't understand like how does that work?” And when we were shooting in Ontario, and across the way, across the other airport field or I guess you'd say tarmac, you could hear the stunt doubles shooting on the other unit. And we were just like, “Ugh.” I was like, “So are you sure?” Because we were going to Justin like, “So your lead actors in 'Fast and the Furious,' they never drove the car?” And he's like, “I'm telling you they never are moving in that car.” The difference is they spend two weeks shooting every little tiny angle. Ours is in two or three days. But that was kind of like “Wow, this is going to be really hard.” It was, I have to say that scene and the scene with me in my red car driving through the red lights, that scene was very… I mean it was cut quite quick, it was much quicker then what we ended up actually shooting, those are the hardest thing as an actor that I've done. Harder than having to do a crying scene or an emotional scene. It's just really, really difficult to know if you're coming off real. And I think that I, you know, as an actor I'm like, “Okay I can improve on that a little bit…” Because it is a whole other set of skills to learn and work on. I'm incredibly excited to be running and climbing up staircases and running from all kinds of possibilities in these next episodes, because the episodes are going to allow for some of that. And having something be really physical in that way where it's emotional and scary and dangerous, is stuff I've never done. So it's exciting.

HitFix: Do you feel like there's sort of an extension from the choreography that you've gotten to do at various times in your career to just getting out and doing stunts on a low level?

Katharine McPhee: Sure. Yeah, there's a level of all of it that's sort of choreographed, but there is a point where it's like letting go of the choreography and trying not to think about it too much. I think more in particular for this action stuff than the dancing stuff because you can't turn right when you're supposed to turn left and then hit somebody.

HitFix: So, how much did you want Karen to win that Tony? 

Katharine McPhee: [She smiles.] That's a great question. I wanted Karen to win!

HitFix: And when did you know that she wouldn't?

Katharine McPhee: Well, not till the finale. I wanted Karen to win. Sure, it's like you become very protective and defensive of your characters. It's like it becomes an extension of you. Yeah, my heart kind of like broke for her. I'm like, “Really? She ends up with this loser guy who goes to jail and she can't even win the Tony?” And she has to have this nasty catfight with a girl who she could have potentially had a great relationship with?

HitFix: And she can't win the Tony.

Katharine McPhee: And she can't win the Tony! At least she got to play Marilyn for a little bit.

HitFix: But then who understood what “Hit List” was even about?

Katharine McPhee: You know what, I'm going to say I agree with you. That was a common theme while we were shooting was, “Okay, what is this show about?” So… Yeah.

HitFix: Was there anyone who had an answer?

Katharine McPhee: No. I don't think we ever really knew what the show was about.

HitFix: It seems like that's the kind of thing someone should probably have known. The songs were catchy so that's all that mattered.

Katharine McPhee: Well, yeah, the songs were catchy and there were a lot of other great things about that second season.

HitFix: What did you sort of come away from “Smash” thinking in terms of sort of your understanding of your strengths and the things you wanted to work on as an actress? Because it was obviously as you say it was, you know, it was a big step for you.

Katharine McPhee: Yeah. I mean I think that… I think it's very… Oh God, I have to think about this! I think I could see a difference. It's very easy for me to be really silly. A lot of people don't know that about my personality. I can be really goofy, because I just love to have fun and I love to goof off. But I think I could see a difference in moments where I could have been more focused in particular scenes. Like just for the sake of or for the craft, whether you thought that the storyline should have gone a certain way or this or that. Just the respect of like what it is that, you know, it is a big deal you got cast as this part and you have a job to do. Clearly I always did my job, but I think there's moments where… Like when I went to go do this little Hallmark movie that aired on ABC, sure it was a silly premise and it was a sweet, you know, non-offensive movie. But when I got it, I took it as a challenge to myself because I really wanted to, it was something fresh and new, but I really wanted to challenge myself. Even with something that may not be Shakespeare, that your job as an actor is to make it 110 percent better than even what it is. And I think that I, you know, I actually think that I did that with that movie. I was actually really happy with my performance. And I think it's just like a mental state. I think it's something like just for me going, “Okay let me just refocus myself. This is fun. There's a time and place; it's really fun.” And that's part of growing up too. “Smash,” we just had such a great time and “Scorpion” we're going to have such a great time, but I think I have to really remind myself that I need to take those few beats to really focus and center myself. Because I think that it shows up, that sort of groundedness, that moment to take a deep breath and remember why you're there. It's important to not get complacent and not allow yourself to get bored. That is not acceptable because it's your job to keep creating. That's it, and keep exploring and finding something new. So that's the most important thing that I kind of just think I discovered on my own.

HitFix: Well, when you sort of thing back on the second season of “Smash,” is there sort of a moment that you're particularly proud of, sort of a scene or a song?

Katharine McPhee: Yeah. There's a couple things. Sure. There's a scene with Jack that I was really waiting for. I was constantly like… You know, each actor is hitting up writers saying, “When are you going to write this for me?” And there was a particular scene, I can't remember what episode it was like episode 13 or 14 or something like that with me and Jack in an alley and we were really having at it with each other. And it was cut rather quickly and there were some things that were cut out, but I was proud of that scene. I really was. And that was the moment where I thought like, “You know what, I finally got some meat in a scene that I'm really looking forward to doing and I'm going to really make sure that I take care of this moment.” Yeah, I mean I don't have, unfortunately, the scene number but it was when I was confronting him about…

HitFix: But you spent that whole season confronting him about one thing or another.

Katharine McPhee: Confronting him. Yeah. Yeah sure, but what else was there? I mean there was some, as much as it was difficult to follow what that show was about, there were some beautiful numbers that we did do. Like “Don't Let Me Know” was a pretty beautiful number. And I flew back from the Golden Globes that night before and had to shoot all day the next day that number and it was a long day. I think it came out really nice. And I also look back too, it's important how you kind of conducted yourself on-set and how you like treated people. It's so easy, you get tired and this and that and I think that was the thing that was so important to me, it was just being nice and respectful to people. I think actors are sort of there, they set a tone for the rest of the crew and everything. So I find it… Those are a couple things that I'm proud of.

HitFix: And have they already talked to you about the first on-screen situation where the characters all go off to a karaoke bar on “Scorpion” and how soon that's coming?

Katharine McPhee: I think that will be nixed rather quickly if that ever does come up. And it won't certainly come up for me.

HitFix: Okay. You don't figure that Paige has the secret that she's always dreamed of singing?

Katharine McPhee: I don't think so. You know, if you really look back Harmony in “House Bunny” did a little karaoke. She did. She did a little karaoke. “Smash” had some singing in that, quite a bit of singing. What else had singing in it? I think I don't need to do anymore singing in anything until there's a proper movie musical that comes my way.

HitFix: I honestly spent five minutes today trying to remember if Harmony had been a sort of nerdy outcast or what exactly it was but no, she was pregnant…

Katharine McPhee: She was just pregnant and you're not supposed to be pregnant in college. [She laughs.]

HitFix: So that was the lesson to that. I was trying to remember if she was also a nerd.

Katharine McPhee: She wasn't really a nerd. She was just like pregnant.

“Scorpion” premieres on CBS on Monday, September 22 at 9 p.m.