Conversations: Smithsonian 'Stories From the Vaults' Host Tom Cavanagh

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tonight, Tom Cavanagh, the lanky "Ed" actor with the skeptical expression, opens the second season of "Stories From the Vaults" on the Smithsonian Channel. In each half-hour episode, Cavanagh, 45, prowls the various museums' halls, selecting items from their millions of artifacts and talking to curators. We recently caught up with Cavanagh about the series, a co-venture with Showtime Networks that is distributed by a half-dozen major cable providers.

-- Jacqueline Trescott

Are the host and subject matter a good fit?

I have always had an interest in astronauts and the space program. So there I am in a room in front of Alan Shepard's spacesuit. It is a thrill for me. Then we go to the collection of musical instruments and there I am with the chamber musicians playing a Stradivarius. If you are curious, it is awesome to have this kind of access.

What kind of balance are you trying to achieve between being Everyman, not the nerd, and funny but attentive?

There is a perception about the Smithsonian. Occasionally people don't know how vibrant it is. I wanted to treat it with respect but treat it with humor. These are people who have been interviewed their whole lives on their expertise. At the same time I didn't want to bore people, and neither do they. I didn't try to balance. I am not playing a character. I am listening, I am learning.

What about the pace of the Smithsonian series vs. television?

When you do the television series, you are used to the $2 million budget, all the people, all the apparatus. This has a splinter crew of five or so. You can move quickly. You can say, "Hey, guys, let's go over here and get this." It is a nice way to go.

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