Welcome to "On the Futon With...," a new (hopefully) weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.
THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "Heroes" star Greg Grunberg.
Here's three things you might not know about Greg Grunberg: he's addicted to A&E's "This Old House," he can name the nearest sushi joint to any cross streets in the San Fernando Valley and his band - featuring the likes of Hugh Laurie, Bob Guiney, Bonnie Somerville and James Denton - will very likely play your birthday, Bar Mitzvah, corporate retreat, etc. if you donate their fee to charity.
Conversely there's one thing you can probably guess about Greg Grunberg: he's excited about his new show "Heroes," which recently earned the distinction of being the first new series this fall to receive a full season order.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Greg on location, where we talked about "Heroes," his band and some dude named J.J. Abrams.
Brian Ford Sullivan: So lay it out for me, what's it like to do this every day?
Greg Grunberg: It's a lot like it was on "Alias" or "Felicity" at the beginning. I've been so unbelievably lucky that I've been part of sort of special shows that are really kind of cool and getting a lot of hype. That tends to be everything J.J. touches so for me to go from that to this was just luck. You know how pilot season is - you have no idea [what's going to be good]. I was offered a couple things but they didn't read like shows. This read like a show, it didn't read like a pilot. It was like "this is a cool idea, how do you keep it going?" Even "Lost" felt the same way. It was like "this is the greatest pilot ever - how do you keep it going?" And J.J. looked at it, and Damon looked at it like "we can go anywhere with this." I mean that was the thing - people were like "where the hell are you going to go with it?" and they looked at it like "it can go anywhere." And ["Heroes"] just felt like I wanted to know more and read on [past the pilot].
BFS: So were you always up for Matt [Parkman]?
GG: No, no. This is the craziest thing - I didn't know that the Matt character was even a character on the show. It was a one-hour pilot that I read. I was about to go in. I had just worked with ["Heroes" pilot director/executive producer] Dave Semel on "House" and I was supposed to come in and read for Peter [Milo Ventimiglia's character]. I found out [Semel] was attached to it, I called him and he said "you're so wrong for Peter I can't even tell you." I said, "I'm coming in tomorrow." He said, "I don't know what to tell you, you're just not the archetype we're looking for, you're not the character." So I said I'm going to come in anyway and try my best... so I went in and I was doing this Peter character and ["Heroes" creator/executive producer] Tim [Kring] was like squirming, like he was thinking about something else, I could tell. And then when I left... he had the second hour, it was supposed to be a two-hour pilot and I'm driving home and Semel called me saying "we're going to send you this [second hour of] the script - I think you're going to love this other character. It's good news/bad news - the good news is you really inspired him [to create this Matt character]." Tim tells this story where he was originally thinking of like a Matt Dillon-type character from "Crash," like that kind of a cop. And then I came in and he was like "wow, it would be great if he was this kind of everyman." Tim didn't even know anything that I had done. Nothing. It was so weird.
BFS: Are you the type of actor that takes the character home with you, like he rubs off on you a little bit? Or is it do you pour a lot of yourself into it so the character is more of a reflection of you?
GG: Yeah, that's pretty much it. You know, some actors can literally morph into anything... that's so not me. I know my limitations... I'm always Sean on "Felicity," everybody's shoulder to cry on, best friend kind of guy, guy you kinda pull for. And I'm happy doing that. I'm happy being that character. I love the idea of carrying a show, I did it in ["The Catch" for ABC and "Grand Union" for NBC], but this is the best situation. These actors are awesome, they all have different stories, it's the best thing for my time... Because it's like "Lost" - they'll spend time with me, they'll spend time with this character, that character... and hopefully everybody's going to find a character that they love. I think Masi's character going to be [the big breakout character] - I know literally everyone's saying it already, but it's true. Because he embraces his ability, he's been working it, he knows, he's been convinced - I can do this, I can do this... and then he does it. To see a guy enjoy it that much, people are gonna love [him].
[It's at this point Jesse Alexander, a co-executive producer on the show, overhears us and we spend the next five minutes showering Greg with praise about "The Catch." Why? Read this.]
GG: I actually got a call from NBC saying like - "You want to do this? Because you just did a pilot, a sitcom, where you're the lead." And I was like, "I don't give a shit, I want to work. And this feels really good." And I didn't get an offer on this, I had to audition... but it was one of those things where they were like, "We've got other comedies coming out, comedies are always the last ones out." I said "no, this feels right, just so cool to me." [I just wanted] to be part of it. I just got lucky.
Jesse Alexander: The show got lucky too.
GG: But all the actors, honestly.
JA: Particularly with you.
GG: Yeah that's true. [Laughing.] Tim Kring basically sends me a check each week, let's be honest.
BFS: Do you feel like you need to know where the character is going? Or do you prefer to just let it happen organically.
GG: I kind of enjoy letting it happen, I really do. It's tough at times where I'll read a script, I'll just send Jesse a thing that just says "holy shit, this script's so great." And Jesse's been great to send me back... we've been having this relationship for a long time, on "Alias" it was the same thing. And also what's funny is Jesse gets e-mails from me and it's gotta seem so fucking selfish - "what's happening with me next week?" Not what's happening with the show.
JA: Greg will e-mail with "I think Matt... if the president came to town, that Matt would be involved, protecting him... the Secret Service would come to Matt and put him at the forefront of the Secret Service security detail, sitting at a meeting able to read the mind of the enemy."
GG: And he's like "what are you talking about, he's a beat cop?"
JA: So I'm like [sending back a one-word e-mail] "AWESOME!"
GG: [Laughing.] That's all I need.
JA: [Laughing.] I could have just substituted "FUCK YOU!"
GG: A couple little ideas have actually gotten in.
JA: They have.
GG: But that's only because I'm thinking about it and reading it. I mean this is so much fun to read, it really is, for all the characters. I'm not really like "c'mon, c'mon, c'mon." I really like not knowing. I really do.
JA: The idea that's in this episode, and I can't remember if we used it elsewhere, where you hear a song that's in someone's head.
GG: Yeah, we used it. I suggested that I'm like sitting at a bar and I turn to the guy next to me and I go, "can you go sit somewhere else, please?" And I turn back and Clea [Duvall] would say, "what was that all about?" And I said, "that guy had a song in his head that was driving me crazy." I love that because... we used it in a much smarter way. It shows up in the script as I'm planning this great dinner for my wife because I read her mind - this wine you've been thinking about, this meat you love and then I put a song on and she goes "oh my God, I've had that stuck in my head." And I go, "I know." And that's so great! It's much more organic to the character.
JA: It's important, especially on a show like this, to have that kind of collaboration with the actors, you know, especially with a serial. You're all in it together. They track the stories different than you track the stories. And they can say, "we just did that scene!" And we'll be like, "God you're right, we have to change this up." To have that kind of rapport is kind of invaluable.
BFS: I get asked this a lot, so could you just explain why you're not in the pilot?
GG: You know, I couldn't care less. I could care more, because I definitely would have loved to have been in the pilot. But the truth is once the pilot gets rolling, the pilot's just fantastic and the show stays with it. And there's so many people to establish, that they were smart to take the amount of time that they did to establish those characters in the pilot. They actually.. we had a discussion about peppering my character throughout the pilot, just to show me in a cop uniform, to show me looking at the eclipse and everything. But the truth is you know what, unless you do it right, people aren't gonna remember the character the way they should or connect and the second episode, I play a really big part in. Plus, I think this is sort of my pat line, I think I told you this, I wasn't in the pilot of "Felicity," I wasn't in the pilot of "Alias" and I was on those shows for nine years. And then as soon as I was in the pilot to "Lost" I get killed in the first five seconds. So I had no interest in being in the pilot.
BFS: So that's the message to producers wanting to create a hit show out there, have Greg in your pilot and kill him off or wait until the second episode and keep him on as a regular.
GG: [Laughing.] Exactly. You see, I wasn't in "Six Degrees." We'll see what happens there. "What About Brian" only stayed on the air because I was in the car on the freeway. Amy Jo was having that argument on the side of the freeway and I pull up and say, "hey, you guys need any help?" And she's like "no, we don't need any help!" And I just drove away. It was over my shoulder [so you probably didn't catch it]. J.J. was like you have to be in everything I do. Bryan Burk was joking that I should do a radio ad that plays [in the background of some "Six Degrees" scene].
BFS: Speaking of J.J., what's been his reaction to "Heroes?"
GG: I don't even want to say what his reaction is because I don't want to jinx... he's so excited about this that, you know when someone's like "this is going to be a huge hit!" And I'm like, "shut up, just let it happen!" He is though, he's genuinely really excited. He talks to Jesse more than I do about the scripts. He's been so supportive. You know, the only thing that just sucks at the end of the day, because I had it for so long and so did he, is that I'm not [around my best friend] all day. So if there was one downside at all, it would be that I'm not working with J.J.
BFS: So do you think you'd be watching "Heroes" if you weren't on it?
GG: 100% Absolutely. Especially in the climate of TV right now - it's got to be something cool, something special, something different. I wasn't a comic book geek but I'm... [Greg notices Clea walking by] a huge Clea Duvall fan. Is she on it? Then I'll watch it. What I love about us is... we are investigating the stuff, the questions that the audience is gonna have. Which I have to say, there are some really interesting twists and discoveries, but nothing is like too hard to follow. I mean so far. We're seven episodes in... but our characters are sort of the Mulder and Scully of the show, taking people through it and investigating, hopefully explaining the questions people have.
BFS: So have you [onscreen] met any of the other "special" characters?
GG: I haven't but a few have come together already. And a couple have actually told each other... it's going to be great when we all come together, I don't know when that's going to be, but I can't wait. Really it's going to be one big unstoppable team.
BFS: Like your own Justice League?
GG: Exactly, except you're not getting me in tights.
BFS: So let's back up a second, how did you get into acting? Was it that you saw J.J.'s filmmaking aspirations and got inspired?
GG: Sort of. We were in elementary school together and he was always interested in making little movies and I was there to go, "Sure, I'll be the dumb guy who walks through the door." And he made a bunch of spoof commercials, a lots of things - he was incredibly creative, like a Renaissance man. He knows how to play music by ear, he can pick up a pen and draw anything, he's a good actor, he's an incredible writer obviously, just well rounded that way. Anyhow, you know how they say some people like to dabble in everything but are only good at one thing? He's really a master of all the things he dabbles in. But yeah, so just growing up around him, with him and just taking advantage of everything in school that I could... but I always wanted to act, and seeing J.J. taking off in the feature world, I just decided I have to try this. I was an assistant to Joel Silver and I drove Joel Silver around for a year. And I got a taste of how the biggest producer in Hollywood works and how smart you have to be, how connected, everything. If anything I learned from Joel that if you want to do it, you can do it, you just have to have the balls to do it and be ready when the door opens. So I went backwards from there. I probably could have stayed with Joel if I wanted to but I didn't want to be behind the camera I wanted to be in front of it.
BFS: How old were you when all of this started?
GG: Oh... 19, 20 maybe. So yeah 20 years ago.
BFS: So what was you first break?
GG: I was on this show called "Flying Blind" on FOX.
BFS: With Tea Leoni right?
GG: Yeah. I was a recurring on that show. And then Larry Trilling, of "Invasion," "Alias" and "Felicity," he kind of discovered me and took a chance on me in this film "Dinner and Driving." And it was a big role for me and your balls just get bigger and bigger as you work. That's what happens. You just get these opportunities to fill these boots and then you go, give me some bigger boots. And I've just been really fortunate that guys like Jesse, guys like J.J. are so successful and want to work with me. As an actor, you can't really call the shots. You can when you get to a certain level, but for me I just want to keep working, working with good people and friends... and I'm lucky they want to work with me. That ABC, NBC and the WB want to work with me. My middle name is "ratings," let's be honest here. [Laughing.] I saved the WB, I saved ABC and I'm going to do it again with NBC.
BFS: So here's the big question then, if I wanted to start a band with Hugh Laurie - how do I accomplish this?
GG: [Laughing.] It's easy - Hugh loves his bacon crisp. You know, I did this episode for "House" and I had this garage band for a while. It was all sort of meant to be. Hugh plays with a great band in London... I had no idea. These guys play blues and they rock. And then he plays with them when he can. Well, I had this garage band and James Denton and I knew each other so I asked Jamie to play and I did an episode of "House." And I just realized there was more attention paid to celebrities who love playing music than actual musicians. We played a bill with Macy Gray and YES and CTA... all these huge acts, no one wanted to interview those guys, everyone wanted to interview us. It was crazy. So I realized Jamie alone could raise a ton of money for charity and I have a charity, Jamie has a charity... so I asked Hugh to come to one of our rehearsals and he did, and he rocks. And so now we have this great band and we raise a lot of money. [Click here to visit the band's official web site.]
BFS: So do you guys do covers or your own stuff?
GG: Right now we're making a DVD with Rehearsals.com, this great place where we rehearse and they film us, and make a DVD of the process of this. And that's going to be coming out towards the holidays - a CD on one side, a DVD on the other. And that's going to be called "Hogging All the Covers," it's only covers. And hopefully if it's successful we'll do another called "The Originals" with all of our original tunes - which we haven't even figured out or started. That would be a DVD full of arguments and "that just sucks!" comments... That's the thing though, we want to play huge corporate parties, for a ton of money, like a quarter of a million dollars will get us at your party or Bar Mitzvah. You have that kind of money, we will show up. Because then all that money goes to charity.
BFS: So back to "Heroes," so you said you haven't "met" any of the other characters. Is it weird not actually getting to work with the other cast members?
GG: It's really weird. It's like being on a network together, when I talk to people doing other shows. I'm like "hey Milo, how's your show?" We all have our own little show going on. And then we're going to come together like the CW. I have no idea how.
BFS: So when you do socialize do you speculate about where the show's going?
GG: Yeah, a little. Well, we all joke that if you don't behave your character will wake up with a growth on their neck or something. And then the next script will be titled "Goodbye, Mr. Parkman."
BFS: So to wrap up, in 30 seconds tell me why someone should watch "Heroes?"
GG: For me.
BFS: [Laughing.] Outside of the Greg Grunberg completists or the guys who have VHS copies of "Flying Blind."
GG: [Laughing.] Seriously, I think people should really watch the show because it's a take on everyday people. I really do. Don't get me wrong superhero fans, comic fans, etc. are going to be absolutely fulfilled. But I think everyone is going to relate to someone on the show because it's a great question - what if you woke up one day with superpowers? It's one of those things you can fantasize about or live vicariously through, moreso than on another show.
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: "How I Met Your Mother" executive producer Greg Malins.