The Reinvention of Dylan McDermott (Exclusive)

Standout Performances
Getty Images

McDermott opens up about life as a character actor and working with 'Hollywood' creator Ryan Murphy.

“I would never say no to Ryan, so whatever he brings me I’m happy to do it,” Dylan McDermott tells ET by phone about Ryan Murphy, the prolific TV creator behind such hits as American Horror Story, Hollywood and The Politician, all of which the 58-year-old star has appeared in over the past decade. While all three wildly different projects have given McDermott plenty of opportunities to shine onscreen, it’s his role in Hollywood that’s garnered him critical acclaim and awards season buzz ahead of the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards. 

“It’s been really remarkable. I’ve gotten emails and texts and calls from around the world and people really responded to it on such a deep level,” McDermott says. 

On the Netflix revisionist history drama about the Golden Age of Tinseltown, McDermott plays well-endowed actor turned owner of a local gas station and pimp Ernie West, who is loosely based on the notorious Scotty Bowers

“There were a lot of pitfalls in that role that you could have easily fell into,” the actor says of the part. “It could have been of a snidely whiplash guy with a mustache, kind of like a cliché in many ways… so it was really important for me to have him be a real person.” 

Over the course of the limited series, Ernie proves to be more than a disillusioned pimp as he helps out budding actor Jack Costello (David Corenswet) fulfill his dream of becoming a star and even gets a chance to dust off his own, long-forgotten aspirations when he’s offered a small part in the groundbreaking film Meg and later falls in love with studio executive Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor).  

A moment that really sums up Ernie for McDermott is when he tells Jack at one point, “I wanted to be a movie star, too.” He notes that “Ernie sort of gave up somewhere and then it all came back around, which is such a beautiful arc for him.” 

While there were plenty of great scenes that made the final cut, including a tender reunion between McDermott and Taylor after first working together on The Practice, he reveals that three or four sex scenes were cut. “There was a lot more sex in the show than what actually ended up onscreen,” the actor says, joking there’s enough for a bonus episode. “Maybe someday we’ll have that footage of Hollywood.” 

David Corenswet as Jack and Dylan McDermott as Ernie. Netflix

Meanwhile, Ernie is just the latest reincarnation for McDermott, who is all too aware of being typecast or known for one particular project. “The bad news about being successful is that people know you. So you have to change people’s minds. Perception is reality in many ways and people think, ‘Oh, he’s just that guy from The Practice,’” he says. 

McDermott credits Murphy with helping him change that perception, and creating a new reality for him. “It’s really hard for actors, over time, to sustain [momentum]. So, you always have to reinvent yourself, maybe every 10 years,” he explains. 

So when Hollywood came along, he saw an opportunity. “This is my reinvention now,” he says, thanking Murphy. “When you look at the performance of Ernie, you kind of have to question that now. And that’s all I needed, was an opening and you have to maybe take a second.”

The role is also the latest in a string of parts that’s cemented McDermott’s transformation from leading man to character actor -- and he couldn’t be happier about it. “In my heart of hearts, I’m a character actor. And I kind of got caught up in the leading man thing for a while,” he says, adding that he now feels “at home” as a performer. “I love building characters. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Dylan McDermott as Ernie. Netflix

And Ernie was the perfect opportunity to truly do that, the actor says of getting to build him from the ground up, from having his underwear made to the jewelry selection to growing a mustache. “I really fell in love with the man. And I would finish work and I would sit in my trailer and not want to go home because he wasn’t done with me,” the actor says. “I think that love translates onto the screen.”

He adds, “I was just locked into Ernie in such a way that you couldn’t help but respond to it.”  

The praise for his performance also comes 20 years after the actor earned his first and only Emmy nomination in 1999, for The Practice. “Anytime that anybody appreciates my work and on any level is always a great day because I work really hard at it. I appreciate it so much and I love it so much,” he says.

“I’ve seen so many actors come and go during this time. It’s so hard to make it as an actor and I think it’s even harder to sustain a career,” McDermott says, adding that not only is he grateful that he’s still here, but that he’s “still in the conversation after all these years.”

ET’s “Standout Performances” recognize the best of the 2019-2020 TV season. See more of our favorites below: