'Madam Secretary' Star Erich Bergen on Acting vs. Music, Bisexuality & His Sexy Single 'Better In the Dark': Premiere
It's five days before, arguably, the most significant midterm election of our lifetime, and I’m standing just outside the Oval Office, watching the president conferring with his chief of staff. I’m introduced to the secretary of state. Okay, okay. Not that Oval Office exactly, but a very reasonable facsimile on a sound stage in Queens—home of Madam Secretary, the CBS series that for four seasons-plus has immersed viewers into the administration of Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine) and the titular woman who manages to balance weekly global crises with family drama and more, Elizabeth McCord (the exquisite Téa Leoni).
Taking Billboard on a tour of the set is Erich Bergen, who plays McCord’s impeccably dressed, tightly wound bisexual executive assistant Blake Moran, a man who knows his way around a show tune, diplomatic protocols and a cup of coffee just the way the secretary likes it. Bergen, like all the Madam Secretary cast, is pitch-perfect—but even if this CBS Sunday night staple has been his most high-profile gig to date, he already had an impressive CV before joining the show, including playing the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio in the film version of the jukebox musical Jersey Boys, and releasing a self-titled album in 2014. This week, he returns to pop music with his second single of the fall, “Better In the Dark”, premiering below on Billboard (and out Nov. 9).
After getting a look at the Situation Room, the West Wing colonnade, and Secretary McCord’s family’s well-appointed town house (complete with stocked fridge), Bergen and I duck into a room to talk about that resumption of a recording career, his '80s and '90s idols and more. But because I’m a Madam Secretary stan, we begin with the show.
“What’s shocking to me is how many people in the industry talk to me about how much they love this show,” says Bergen. “And yet, people don’t talk about it in the way they do other shows like Netflix, limited series-type things.” It’s true. What underpins Madam Secretary—and sets it apart from other perhaps more buzzed-about DC-set shows of recent years like House of Cards or Veep—is its earnestness and lack of snark. It may be the most accurate representation of government goings-on since The West Wing, with a host of political reporters, Washington wonks and elected officials among its faithful viewers—former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton have made cameos on the show. But, Bergen acknowledges, that doesn’t necessarily make it “cool.” After all, it airs on Sunday nights, following football and 60 Minutes on the “dad” network.
“It may be that we’re on CBS,” Bergen concedes. “But I think a lot of it has to do with how devoid of cynicism our show is. I don’t know that that’s very cool right now? I think that because the real thing has gotten so dark, in real life, that I think that maybe the vibe of House of Cards and the vibe of Veep, where thing are just so absurd, I think that’s maybe what people either think real politics is, or they want to think it is. But everything that’s geared toward a younger audience, the next generation, tends to be very cynical. And I think our show just embraces this non-cynical approach to life and country and patriotism.”
Likewise, Bergen is decidedly non-cynical when it comes to pop music. After lunch and a short car ride, we arrive at the U.S. State Department, as it’s rendered on a sound stage in Brooklyn. Though I’ve never been to the real Foggy Bottom, the set feels spot-on. They’re filming an episode for January, so the State offices are still decked out in holiday décor, and the plotline, like many on the show, has to do with an issue that’s very much on our front political burner. But our conversation, in Bergen’s dressing room and in makeup, turns to music, and the new single “Better In the Dark,” produced by Matt Anthony and Kathy Sommer. It’s a smoky, sexy, finger popping track with acoustic guitar that’s not unlike something Shawn Mendes might deliver, or, more to the point, the two artists Bergen calls his greatest inspirations growing up as a Manhattan kid of the late '80s and '90s, George Michael and Michael Jackson.
“I think out of all the music I’ve recorded, it’s the most obvious example of wearing-my-idols-on-my-sleeve,” he concludes. “I wrote the song with three women—Kathy Sommer, Dana Calitri and Nina Ossoff—and at first we wanted to write an update of Brenda Russell’s “Piano In the Dark”  because we all loved that song. Then the song just kept kind of morphing.” He plays me an early version of the track—featuring piano rather than its current acoustic guitar, more musical theater-sounding than current pop radio, no real surprise since Bergen’s resume is theater-heavy. “But then it morphed into this kind of sexy, R&B type of deal, very inspired by like ‘Father Figure’ and all of those kind of unabashedly sexy songs,” he explains.
The track is remarkably different from Bergen’s last single, “Running Through the Night,” released in September, which married a U2 “With Or Without You”-meets-M83-doing-Saturdays=Youth sound to a very personal lyric stemming from a cancer scare. But “Better In the Dark” is in its own way also personal, says Bergen—in how it approaches sex. It’s his most overtly thirsty track to date—something of a leap of faith for a guy who was admittedly a “late bloomer” sexually. “I was such a nerd growing up, that I didn’t care about dating and hooking up,” he admits. “That was just not my thing. It didn’t happen until later for me. And I think still people don’t really look at me sexually. So when we first started talking about the song we were like, 'Well, do you want to go down this road? A song that says we shouldn’t talk about this, we should just fuck? Is this really what you want to be saying?' And I thought, well, I’ve never done anything like this! I’ve never gone down that road.”
If Bergen has something of an asexual image, he believes much of it has to do with the relatively chaste characters he’s known for—Jersey Boys’ Gaudio, and of course, Madam Secretary’s Blake. “Blake is so bottled up,” he explains. “He’s married to his work, like so many people I meet in DC.” While we’ve had very few glimpses into Blake’s private life on the show, there was one that made a big impact. In the spring 2017 episode “Revelation,” in a sputtering, endearing moment of I’ve-got-to-do-this-now-or-I-might-not-ever, he comes out to his boss—as bisexual. Bergen and Leoni are flawless, it’s one of the most affecting representations of bi-identity in television history, and the effect was immediate. “I was getting all these messages on Instagram, direct messages on Twitter, from people saying how much that scene helped them to come out or it gave them to courage to even think about coming out,” he recalls. “One person in India said I helped him come out to his family. Especially the night that the episode aired—I got hundreds of them. But now that the show is on Netflix and things, people are experiencing it later and later and I’m getting more messages all the time.”
Bergen plans to continue regularly releasing singles—the next is a gospel-styled track, “I Believe In the Sun”—with an eye toward an album late next year—but he is under no illusions that sustaining a pop career will be easy. Changing lanes in a “stay on brand” entertainment world is tricky business, and many an actor has been met with skepticism when they’ve begun a sentence with, “You know, my first love is music.” Still, in Bergen’s case it’s true. “It was my first passion, the first thing that I was obsessed about and continued to be obsessed about,” he says. Asking the public to see you in a new context once your “brand” is implanted can be a challenge, and harder the older you get. While Bergen is only 32, it’s a fact he’s keenly aware of. “I think when you’ve established yourself as I have as an actor, especially in your thirties, I think reinventing yourself gets harder. And also—I’m not even sure I want to reinvent myself. I’m just reminding people that I do music, and I love music.”
Like the TV show that’s made him famous, he’s not interested in—to use a Madam Secretary-ism—chasing the youth vote. While he’s a fan of Mendes, Troye Sivan and Charlie Puth, and although “Better In the Dark” is well suited to an iHeart Radio playlist, there’s no guarantee that his future music will be. He’s recently had to stand his ground against attempts to falsely “youthen up” his sound. “Co-writers would say, ‘Oh no, we can’t do that, it’s not gonna fly on contemporary radio,’ or ‘that’s not hip enough’ or whatever,” he recalls. “We would have those fights until finally I said, ‘That’s not me. That’s not how I would say that, or sing that. So what are we fighting for here? Are we fighting to get on the radio for a minute? Or are we fighting to have a song that really resonates with people?’”
Bergen is quick to defend pop music against rockists who would disdain it as “throwaway” music. But he’s also a pop classicist who extols names like Quincy Jones, David Foster, Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond, asks why there seems to be no room in 21st Century music for “well-crafted songs” that aren’t necessarily computer generated, and wonders aloud how well some of today’s white hot of-the-moment hits will age. At the same time, he has no interest in being a golden oldies revivalist. He walked away from a deal with a Sony-affiliated label last year because the suits wanted to cast him as a latter-day Michael Bublé—understandable, perhaps, considering his theater-filled CV and solo cabaret shows, heavy on covers, but it wasn’t for him. “I don’t sound like that! I don’t sing the music of Frank Sinatra. My gold standards are George Michael and Michael Jackson and they just lend themselves to more of a pop sound. Putting on a tux and singing standards, and reminding people of these old great songs? That’s already been done, and Michael Bublé did it better than anyone.”
So what lane of music does Bergen see himself occupying? One that’s, frankly, not often taken anymore—the adult-oriented pop artist. Throughout our afternoon hang, one name comes up more often than any other: George Michael. The late superstar wasn’t just musically influential on Bergen, with his Tamla-Motown suffused take on pop, but was a kindred spirit in the seriousness of his approach to music. Post-Wham!, and certainly post-Faith, George wasn’t particularly interested in running after mercurial teen tastes. Similarly, Bergen sees adult pop as an underserved market. “It’s like David Foster said to me,” he recalls. “He said, ‘They’re not making new music for adults anymore.’ And that I think is a big mistake. Except for Adele. If everyone is doing one thing, my rule is, do the opposite thing. And that applies to being an actor, a musician—do the one thing that nobody else is doing! And that’s what Adele did, and that’s why she had such success. Great songs, too, of course. Because it’s actually adult music.”
He’d rather be timeless than trendy, and he knows that might mean doing it all himself. “I think my career is going to be long-haul,” he concludes. “Which I am really grateful for, but my sense is that I’m never gonna be able to get my next job because of my previous job. I’m always auditioning for the next thing. I’ve realized that much in the way that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s great work, what he was best at, was something that no one was ever gonna give him. That was not a part you could audition for. He had to create it. And that’s how I feel with my music. The music that I want to make is not gonna come from a label saying, ‘This is who we want you to be.’ It’s not gonna come from a songwriter saying, ‘Here’s some songs that are perfect for you.’ I’m gonna have to do it. I’m gonna have to make it with like-minded people, and hope that it finds an audience. And if it doesn’t find an audience then I need CBS to give me a lot more seasons of Madam Secretary to pay for all of the music that I want to make!”
And about that day job: Madam Secretary is waiting to find out whether it will be renewed for a sixth season. It’s hard to imagine it not being around at least through 2020—Elizabeth McCord is considering a presidential run, for God’s sake! As long as they can come up with global crises to manage and the audience is still there—Bergen says that when you factor in DVR numbers the show still averages “ten million a week”—why wouldn’t it be? But the Dalton Administration has been through a lot in the first four seasons, and six episodes of a fifth, among them the hacking of Air Force One; the invoking of the 25th Amendment; numerous bomb attacks; near-nuclear Armageddon at the end of last season, and only weeks ago, an IED strike on the Oval Office—not to mention the family trials the McCords have endured. Is Bergen ever concerned that the writers might be jumping the shark? Or, given our present reality in Washington, is there no such thing as too far-fetched? “I think there’s always times when we think, ‘Holy crap! This poor administration. Does Bess really want to run for president?’” he laughs. “But you know, that goes into the bigger issue that our show is not a documentary. For as many things that we try to depict as real, we still have to make it television. At the end of the day, you can’t have an hour of people just talking about policy. You still have to give it a little bit of entertainment, and so that’s why those things happen. But yeah, the poor McCords and the Dalton Administration, they have got to be exhausted by now! There have been a lot of things going on. If you think our real world is bad, you should live in that world.”
I don’t know. That’s a tough call.