Legal roots: TV actor comes by his lawyerly look naturally

David Costabile (right) is pictured with Gabriel Macht and Gina Torres in a scene from the legal drama “Suits.”

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When it comes to playing lawyers, actor David Costabile has always had some reliable sources available to him: his brother’s a lawyer, his brother-in-law is an attorney, his father-in-law’s a judge, and his grandfather also was a member of the bench.

“I’m not a lawyer. I just play one on TV,” quipped Costabile, 47, of New York City, who’s played several lawyers on “The Good Wife,” “The Closer,” “Franklin & Bash,” and “Suits.”

However, he’s remembered by many Detroiters as Simon Boyd, an internal affairs investigator on the 2013 crime drama “Low Winter Sun,” which was filmed and set in Detroit.

Of all the lawyers he’s portrayed, the most notable is Daniel Hardman on the USA legal drama “Suits,” its fifth season having premiered in late June. Hardman’s one of the founders and a former partner in what is now called Pearson Specter Litt, a prestigious and high-powered New York City-based law firm.

“When I first got that job, the thing that was the most fun about it was… you’re walking into a series loaded with backstory and everyone had a negative reaction to who this person was because he had such a negative backstory to who he was. What he was doing in these early scenes was very difficult to construe as negative or bad. It was very fun to be set up as the bad guy but not have to play the bad guy,” explained Costabile. “The thing that was really attractive to me was he’s a guy who enjoys what he does: the jousting of it all, the legalistic fencing that goes on – he takes great pleasure in it… He’s one move ahead or potentially 2-3. There’s something really fun being able to play someone who’s really intelligent and delights in sparring with somebody… You don’t really know what he’s up to; there’s a devilish streak to him that I enjoy playing.”

Costabile’s role on “Suits” is a recurring one. So far this season, he’s committed to three episodes and will appear before “Suits” goes on its mid-season hiatus. As for why he’s not a regular, he stated that’s a question for “Suits” creator Aaron Korsch. However, he did offer his own theories as to why. 

“When you have a particular flavor with a certain character, if he becomes the diet every day, he might become a little too rich,” said Costabile. “In the beginning, on some level, (the creators) wanted him cycling in and out. They’re not beholden to showing him every week… There’s something fun about bringing him back and making him a fly in ointment that gives them a great deal of flexibility in their storytelling.”

Actress Gina Torres stated she enjoys working with Costabile, whom she called a “fantastic actor.” On “Suits,” Torres plays Jessica Pearson, a co-founder and managing partner of the law firm mentored by Hardman. 

“It’s great that he comes in and out of our show as he does. He’s a consummate professional with a wacky sense of humor which I appreciate, especially since they always have him do his scenes late at night when the stakes are high and everybody wants to go home; he keeps things light and we get the job done. He’s such a joy to work with,” said Torres.

In turn, Costabile feels the same way about Torres.

“I was just working with her just the other day. We have a lot of fun together because she plays my main sparring partner. She’s got a great sense of humor. I can make her laugh, which is good because we spend a lot time together on set,” he said. “We work hard to push each other’s buttons… I have an excellent working relationship with her. She’s a fantastic person and wonderful actress.”

Both Costabile and Torres offered their opinion on why “Suits” stands out from other legal dramas currently airing.

“One of the things about the show (the creators) were very clever about is when it started, they didn’t want it beholden to a procedural, where you have to write drama around courtroom scenes or cases where you’re standing in front of a judge or a jury because you get so locked into the plot of that case,” explained Torres. “This allows them to show you more about what’s going on behind scenes in the legal world rather than just what you do when you’re in court or before a judge, a lot of other things happening in the legal scene that aren’t about being in court. That allows them to spend more time concentrating on the characters.”

Costabile has fond memories of working on “Low Winter Sun.” He really enjoyed Michigan and its people.

“I liked the people there. You became a rooter for the underdog — you want the city to come back, and things to go back where they were. It was sort of a natural flow—you just fell in love with the place. That certainly has a lot to do with the people. Everyone we met there have been incredibly kind to us. All the people working on the crew were really nice and especially very welcoming to us, welcoming to outsiders; there wasn’t any sense of ‘You don’t belong here. You’re not a real Detroiter.’ People were psyched we were there,” he fondly recalled.

Costabile continued: “Detroit’s an incredible place. In addition to the bones of it being so extraordinary – the architecture – but the people who still live here, to a person, are the nicest people I think I’ve ever met… There’s something so honest about the people who live (in Detroit), but they’re not afraid to look at you and say, ‘Yeah, it’s terrible, it’s difficult, and it’s hard and horrible. But at the same time, it’s my home. I live here.’”

“Sun” was a remake of the British TV series of the same name. In it, Detroit homicide detectives Frank Agnew (Mark Strong) and Joe Geddes (Lennie James) murder a dirty cop named Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady) and make it appear to be a suicide. However, unbeknownst to them, Boyd was investigating McCann and now shifts his focus on Agnew.

The show only lasted a season. There were a couple of levels of disappointment when it got cancelled, according to Costabile. The first was he lost a job – and this was a role he really liked – and had to find another. He also liked his co-stars and the world they created, especially since they believed “Sun” was gaining momentum.

“The creators and the writers were getting better at telling stories that were working. In a way, we really needed a longer story arc, a longer time to develop interesting ways to tell a story. The expectation that it should be fully formed within 2-3 hours or 4-5 hours is foolhardy.”

His next project is “Billions,” starring “Homeland” alumnus Damien Lewis, which is slated for a 2016 debut on Showtime. Lewis portrays hedge fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, who becomes the target of a U.S. Attorney. Costabile is Mike Wagner, Axe’s right-hand man.

“Damien’s a very nice guy. We have a lot of fun together – it’s great. We have a very easy working relationship,” he said. “It’s an excellent match that I could be his No. 2 guy.”

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