Richard Schiff never thought he would be an actor.
He had a busy career as a director in his own New York–based theater company when famed acting teacher William Esper invited him to take his class.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to be an actor,’” he says with a laugh. But Schiff took the class, and a new career was born.
“I still kind of go, ‘This isn’t my life, is it?’”
Now the Maryland native is one of television’s most prolific performers. He’s been seen recently in HBO’s Ballers, Showtime’s House of Lies and The Affair, BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Audience’s Rogue and WGN America’s Manhattan.
His guest stints last season included CBS’s Mom and Fox’s The Grinder, where he reunited with his West Wing costars Allison Janney and Rob Lowe, respectively.
Schiff always envisioned this kind of busy, eclectic career, but the juggling does get tricky.
“My character in Rogue was named Marty, and that was Don Cheadle’s character in House of Lies,” he says. “So I’d get the House of Lies script and start reading Don’s lines.”
When he landed the role of White House communications director Toby Ziegler in The West Wing, he spoke to former staffers of the real West Wing: Dee Dee Myers, Marlin Fitzwater and George Stephanopoulos. The experience gave Schiff, who previously had a “severe distrust of government,” a newfound respect for working for change from within the system.
Now the Emmy winner regularly attends the Democratic National Convention and goes on the campaign trail with candidates. “Whenever a cast member of The West Wing goes to a convention, they are treated like Elvis coming home to Memphis,” he marvels.
Although The West Wing ended more than a decade ago, young people have discovered the drama, Schiff says, “and are freaks over it. The show is clearly going to generate interest in politics and issues for generations moving forward.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2016