Since he's a relatively youthful 45-year-old, it's genuinely hard to think of Hal Sparks as an elder statesman of broadcasting. But then again, given that Sparks booked his first professional TV hosting gig while still in high school (at 18 years of age, Hal was the host of Treasure Mall, that short-lived syndicated game show), he's already got over a quarter-of-a-century of in-front-of-the-camera time under his belt.
"And I've been in this business long enough that I've seen people come up and then just go away. I've seen performers who were more successful than me, who had a leg up, had more resources to draw upon, had more wealth when they started out their careers then completely flat-line or disappear or worse," Sparks recalled during a recent phone interview. "That's why -- when I'm talking about the business with the kids that I work with these days -- I always try and get across the idea that they're doing right now isn't really about now. It's all about your career. More importantly, how you always have to be thinking a few moves ahead if you expect to last in this business. Have long game."
Which is perhaps why -- on the heels of Hal's first foray behind the camera (Hal directed the "Brother Battle" episode of Lab Rats, which airs on Disney XD tomorrow at 8 a.m. and then again at 5:30 p.m. on November 1) -- he seemed genuinely excited to be adding something new to his skill set.
"I mean, I have directed before," Sparks was quick to clarify. "I directed sketches and produced segments while I was on Talk Soup. But that was all single-camera stuff. Whereas on Lab Rats, this was the first time that I've ever directed a multi-camera show."
"And there are a lot more moving parts on a production like this. It's a giant octopi of technology and human beings," Hal continued. "That said, I have to say that I enjoyed this experience immensely. And while I do plan to continue acting -- my dream is to eventually become one of those performers who's been around for a long time and has this huge list of projects. Which is why they then get to play juicy supporting roles like Mickey in Rocky -- I also hope to get the chance to direct more multi-camera shows in the future."
Mind you, one of the main reasons that the people at It's A Laugh (i.e., the production company behind this Disney XD series) decided to let Hal try his hand at helming is that Sparks really goes out of his way to make life easy for the crew.
"Look, making a television show and movie in a communal activity. So knowing as much as you can about the other processes, all the other jobs involved with production is incredibly helpful," Hal said. "Which is why -- when you're acting on a TV show -- you always have to be camera-aware as an actor. Not to mention being editor aware. I have always prided myself as an actor of being very editor-aware, knowing that -- when they cut this stuff together -- it's gotta match."
"I know, I know. When you're acting, you're supposed to always be concentrating on conveying a true emotion or delivering a really funny or poignant moment. But at the same time, when you're working on a TV show or a movie, you always have to remember Rule Number One. Which is hit your mark and bark," Sparks continued. "As long as you're standing where you're supposed to be standing when you make that noise which comes out of your face and the camera crew then gets everything that they need, you've done your job."
Of course, given that Lab Rats regularly makes use of special effects, that then made directing an episode that Hal's character also appeared in something of a challenge for this first-time hyphenate.
"When we do effects on this show, we typically do four layers of shooting. And when we were shooting the episode that I was directing, there were oft-times where I was one of those layers. So I'd then be the only person being filmed on set while everyone else stood out of that shot," Sparks said. "It can sometimes get a little weird when an actor has to direct themselves. There's this social awkward moment when they have to turn to a member of the crew and then say 'You see these reins? I have to hand them to you for one second. But as soon as you're done, could you please hand them back to me as soon as possible?' "
"But in my case, because I've worked on Lab Rats for a number of years now and that I know & trust this show's crew, this honestly wasn't a problem. I just had someone call 'Action' for me just when the director of photography was ready. I then came onstage, hit my mark and said my line. And if everyone was happy with what had just been shot, we then moved onto the next thing that needed to be filmed," Hal stated.
Which -- I know -- doesn't exactly make the process of making a television sound glamorous or exciting. But Sparks believes that it's important to be plain spoken, especially when he's sharing insights about the business with the younger members of the Lab Rats cast.
"I keep telling these guys that if you want to keep performing, you have to remember that the episode you're shooting today isn't just a single episode on your show. This episode is one out of a thousand that will help you build the skill that you're going to need if you're going have a lengthy career in this business. Which is why you have to take it all seriously. You have to milk every episode for as much as you can, learning-wise, skill-wise, developing yourself, all that stuff," Hal said.
To hear Sparks talk, you have to apply this same level of care and thought to all aspect of your career. Especially when it comes to selecting which projects you should appear in.
"Take -- for example -- Lab Rats. I read five scripts for five different sitcoms that I was up for that particular pilot season. And this Disney XD show was the only one where the jokes were organic, the only one where the jokes sprang naturally from the circumstances," Hal explained. "Plus when Disney greenlights a show on one of its networks, it usually gets a full run. You're not going to do six episodes and -- no matter how good your show is or if it doesn't find its audience right away -- it then goes away."
"But what really sold me on doing Lab Rats is that my character is the head of a mixed race family. I thought that that was a wonderful add to this show's story. And the fact that Disney doesn't make a meal of that, they just let it be, is even more extraordinary," Sparks enthused. "Every other network would have just pounded that aspect of Lab Rats straight into the ground. Here on Disney XD, we're just a family."
Which isn't to say that there isn't a down side to appearing on Lab Rats. Take -- for example -- those Disney XD fans that Hal encounters whenever he goes to the airport now.
"When I was on Queer as Folk, I'd have adults pretend that they were texting on their cell phones when they were really taking a picture of me. That's the classic grown-up I-saw-so-and-so-at-the-airport stuff that you have to deal with. But when it comes to Lab Rats fans, they're short and they follow you in little packs. It's hilarious," Sparks laughed.
"I mean, there's no polite way to say this: 11-year-olds are terrible at stalking. They think that they're sneaking around and that you can't hear them. But they whisper so loudly," Hal continued. "And given the way that they behave, that then allows you to shoot a look over your shoulder every so often and then watch as they scatter. They'll then try and hide by ducking behind some trash cans. "
"But then -- without fail -- the old one among them who come up and go 'My brother loves your show, but he's too afraid to say it. Can you sign something or can we get a picture?' And it then turns into a lovely group hangout. Or the boldest kid will be the one who doesn't believe that it's you. They'll walk right up to you and say 'I don't think that you're that guy from Lab Rats. My brother and my Mom think that you are. But I don't think so.' It's so funny. 'Yeah, I am that guy.' 'No, you're not.' 'You're right. I'm not.' 'I told you it wasn't him!' And then they run off. It's a hilarious social interaction that's completely unique," Sparks concluded.
Well, here's hoping that the young performers that Hal works with on Lab Rats do a better job at listening than those Disney XD fans that he encounters at the airport.