There was one person who wasn't surprised that Ray Romano, best known for his Emmy-winning titular role in the popular sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" and stand-up work, was just as adept at delivering a solid, dramatic performance when the role called for it. That person was Mike Royce, who had worked with Romano on the sitcom and helped co-create the drama "Men of a Certain Age," which returns for a second season tonight on TNT.
In the series, the lives and friendship of three late-fortysomething men - Romano as newly divorced Joe, Andre Braugher as car dealer Owen and Scott Bakula as horn dog/wannabe actor Terry - is explored as the guys continue to try to figure out where their dreams went and when they're going to reach the point of happiness. To find out more about this new crop of episodes, our Jim Halterman chatted with Royce, Braugher and Bakula about the easy chemistry between the three leading men, what is to come with Joe, Owen and Terry this season and the advantages of finding a home on the TNT network.
Jim Halterman: Mike, when you were working together with Ray on "Raymond" did you see that there was this dramatic actor brewing under all that comedy?
Mike Royce: Well, I think he was always underrated. People took it for granted what he did and I think when the show first came on he was unfairly lumped in with Jerry Seinfeld, who makes no bones about not really being an actor and having limitations. I think because Ray did stand-up and the show was built around his stand-up people lost a little bit of appreciation of the nuance and what he was bringing to the show. I had an unfair advantage in knowing what Ray was capable of because we were friends from the stand-up days in New York City and that's how we met.
He actually took an acting class in the early '90s like many stand-ups do like Mike Sweeney, who is the head writer of "Conan," and a bunch of other guys. I went to see their [showcase] and Ray did a monologue where he did a little bit of his stand-up and it transitioned into a serious thing and he was doing jokes about his father from his act and then he became more conversational with the audience. It was heartfelt and something obviously he didn't do onstage as a comic. It was so natural and it just sort of blew everybody in the crowd away and he's had no outlet for that for a long time.
Andre Braugher: I was surprised, too. I hadn't seen this side of Ray's work but the more I think about it, he's quite an accomplished comedian and the observational humor that he does means that he's been watching carefully all these years. So, I'm not surprised that he knows these things and I thought he did a really fine job especially in terms of [Joe's] gambling addiction and the secrecy when he hides it and it turns into a compulsion. He's really proven himself at another level.
JH: From the pilot episode, you totally buy that these guys are best friends. Can you talk about the chemistry between Ray, Scott and Andre?
MR: That's really gratifying to hear because that was our most important thing. The moment it feels like "It's the guy from that show and the guy from that show and they're in a booth together talking!" and it doesn't feel like they're friends from long ago then we're dead. We're dead if it ever feels like forced chemistry. They just nailed it. The most important thing was that all the conversations should feel like they know each other's rhythms and it feels like there's almost nothing that they haven't already talked about in a way. We take some of our cues from "Friday Night Lights" and that's a big touchstone for our show. On "Friday Night Lights" they sometimes go far from the script which we don't do but sometimes when we're in the diner we like to let them loosen up a little bit to make it more conversational.
Scott Bakula: We didn't know each other before this started and that was the big question mark for the whole show. Are people going to buy these three guys as lifelong friends? I think we share a lot in common in our real lives off the set so I think that helps a little bit. It probably also helped that the three of us had our own shows so we're all on equal ground. Ray and Mike have been really good about saying from the beginning that this is a show about the three guys and they work very hard to balance the show. It was just a natural thing.
AB: It worked from the get-go. We knew our characters and we'd all been around a long time. I think it was really just great characters and it shows.
JH: You always hear cable is king compared to working on broadcast but do you see a difference in your experience?
MR: I know intellectually there are differences. I never ran "Raymond" so I never got involved with things network-wise. The way TNT treats us is extremely more hands-off than probably happens at most places. I don't know that for a fact but I have that on pretty good authority just from other writers who worked other places. TNT hasn't been shy about giving notes by a long shot and they're up for an argument if they feel like they want us to do something that we're not doing or going in a wrong direction. However, they never make us do anything and there's plenty of times when they'll come to a table read and go "Great! Go do it!" But they don't feel compelled to give a note on every page. They're not big micro-managers and they basically trust us so it's been a good process.
AB: In essence, the relationship with the network is always, I think, the make or break aspect of the show. I've been on several shows that the chief determiner is how the network feels about the show. It's rarely about the confidence in the writers and the producers or the quality. I've been on some really great shows and the chief determiner is whether or not the network has confidence or whether they're willing to let it go. In my experience, TNT is one example of a network that really supports its shows and really gets behind them both in terms of their commitment and their commitment to air them and promote them as well as they commitment to develop them in the right way and give their writers and producers the kind of support and attitude. So far, TNT has turned out to be one of the best situations in which I've ever worked.
JH: What are we going to see play out with the guys through this second season?
MR: I think the first season was a bit of a wake-up call of where they were in their lives and by the end of the season they made some decisions about where they needed to go. Joe's going to try this thing that he always felt was a crazy dream as well as the senior tour goes and he also has to unravel himself from his divorce and he finally licked his gambling problem. Now he's going to deal with the reality of "Am I really going to do this thing with the Senior Tour?" And the dating world he's in a really odd situation where he feels he's not in the place to make a commitment right now. He's trying to navigate all that stuff and meanwhile his bookie lives in the neighborhood and there's temptation around.
SB: Owen Sr. (Richard Gant) has said to Terry that he's a charming guy and he could be a good salesman. That's what actors are. We try to sell ourselves in different parts. Terry gets good at it and there's some good competition with Marcus (Brian J. White) at the dealership that kind of pushes him more than if he didn't have someone like that there. Then there's a relationship twist that opens up in the course of the twelve episodes that leads us through the season and there's some interesting possibilities for a serious relationship.
JH: Owen's relationship with his father is so compelling. Last season Owen was trying so hard to prove himself but is it safe to say that Owen should be careful what he wishes for?
AB: From the very beginning, there was the idea of Owen is maturing right before our very eyes. He started out in essence as not a very accomplished salesman and not a very mature figure at all. Over the course of the first season he matured in terms of his relationship and confidence and his gumption. The second season takes his confidence into a whole other sphere. It's rocky and it's got its ups and downs but, then again, that's where all the fun comes from in taking these new challenges and having these ups and downs.
JH: In the second episode, there's a bit of Terry's past that comes back via a YouTube clip. Is there anything you'd like to just delete from your past?
SB: Oh gosh, that's the world we live in now. Everything is out there. I did a bunch of old commercials and a lot of them are pretty silly from when I was younger but they're all a part of the journey. I don't think there's anything I would say I would erase if I could because it's all a part of the collective experience that got me where I am, good and bad. It's good to have some of those experiences to look back on and say "Well, I learned from that to never do that again!" We make a million decisions in this business as actors - take that job, don't take that job, don't audition for that - and you never know how they're going to all add up.
The second season of "Men of a Certain Age" premieres tonight at 10:00/9:00c on TNT.