While fate is often a plot device for storylines in many television series, it may have intervened in the casting the lead role of the new series "Necessary Roughness," which premieres tonight on USA. The series, based on the true story of therapist Dr. Donna Dannenfelser and her work with pro athletes, was written by married writers Craig Shapiro and Liz Kruger with "Rescue Me" actress Callie Thorne in mind. However, even though the Denis Leary series was winding down (the final episodes begin airing on FX July 13), Shapiro told our Jim Halterman during his recent visit to the Atlanta set, that getting Thorne looked as though it might never happen since she was committed to a new FX project at the time of casting the USA series. "Very lucky for us," he explained, "literally at the 11th hour and 59 minutes she was freed from that other commitment, we snapped her up and we were shooting 4 weeks after that. From then things rolled very quickly."
In the series version of Dr. Donna's life, Thorne plays Dr. Dani Santino, a therapist who suddenly finds her life turned upside down when her marriage crumbles and, after a one-night liaison with pro football trainer Matthew (Marc Blucas), lands a job counseling troubled athletes including self-destructive football star TK King (Mehcad Brooks). Thorne explained that the huge differences between the unbalanced Sheila on "Rescue Me" and the more grounded Dr. Dani is a welcome one. "To go from playing someone like Sheila, who is a diagnosed bi-polar, manic depressive to then get the script about this very normal, very loving, compassionate, stable woman and to have this moment be the moment when everything was pulled out from under her... I like to see that kind of journey, that kind of change."
That said, Thorne made sure to add that while it would seem playing 'normal' is easier, she said that it is not exactly a walk in the park. "It's as hard to play normal as it is to play a bi-polar woman and be able to play it honestly and also to find [Dani] at this process of changing gears of being a new single mom, a new divorcee and her job being thrown up to a level that was never even conceivable with the celebrity aspect of it."
Despite the fact that Dr. Dani is quickly immersed in the football world, Shapiro wanted to stress that she will be treating all sorts of people both in and out of the sports arena to keep the landscape of the series wide open. "We told [USA] that we'd always have a case of the week and it wouldn't always be football and it wouldn't always be sports. We have NASCAR, we have a top golfer but then we have a top poker player in the world who has gone cold and he thinks he has a tell and he comes to Dr. Dani to try to figure out what his tell is... and then the wives and girlfriends [of the football players] are a serious problem when you're trying to keep the players on track while the wives are becoming unglued."
Going back to the impending romance between the characters played by Thorne and Blucas, the actors both expressed their happiness that their characters did not fall too quickly into a relationship despite being a seemingly good match. "Here is someone who met a guy she's really interested in and attracted to," Blucas explained, "but suddenly she needs some stability in her life. She better get her practice up and running, she's in the middle of this ugly divorce, she doesn't know what her finances are going to be, her kid time and all the things that come with that so she needs to focus on things and keep it simple." Thorne agreed that the timing isn't right at the moment for Dr. Dani and Matthew and added, "What I love is you see how much they enjoyed each other but they're both smart enough and healthy enough to know that there is more than just lust."
Blucas admitted he was concerned at the onset, though, that if Matthew and Dani weren't going to get together that his character could become very one-note and he voiced his feelings to the show's producers before committing to the role. "I said if I'm the guy for 13 episodes that's just pining after a girl then that's uninteresting to me and I'm going to be unhappy [and] if that's what you want the role to be then you're going to be better off with another actor. I like to create a character who has passions and commitments and he has goals in life." However, the actor said he and the producers were on the same page and one way that Matthew's character will continue to develop is to open up his past, which includes a former relationship in an aggressive publicist (played by Andrea Anders) who comes in to possibly rekindle things in the bedroom while also getting under Dr. Dani's skin at the workplace.
Anders, who was shooting her first scene during the set visit, took a break to explain how her character will contrast with Thorne's Dani for at least three episodes, maybe more. "The idea is that [Dani is] a therapist and she believes very strongly in changing or healing from the inside out. My character is more 'if you fix the outside, the inside will follow.' I don't think my character believes in therapy... it's not necessarily good guy/bad guy but more of a different view of the world."
Another regular character in the series is the dark and mysterious Nico Careles, a "fixer" for the football team that becomes a big part of Dani's life. But, in watching the first episodes, is that a little romantic spark seen between the two characters? Scott Cohen, who plays Nico, admitted "there's definitely a connection between [Nico] and Dani, which I think will be fostered over time. I think there's a real attraction between the two of them and I have no idea if it will ever come to fruition but I think that that's something that could help her. You find out as episodes go along that he ends up helping her in a lot of other ways than just through the patients that she's getting from the team."
With all the beginnings of any new series, one glaring change that Thorne, who has appeared on ensemble series like "Rescue Me," "The Wire" and "Homicide," is clearly aware of is that she is the centerpiece of "Necessary Roughness." "It was incredibly scary to think about being number one on a call sheet for the first time in my life," she said. "I've been extremely lucky and grateful to be a part of ensemble series. I love that and I thrive in an ensemble environment, which, thankfully, this is still an ensemble environment." Thorne is fully aware that with her new position on the call sheet comes a responsibility to set the tone for the entire set and she didn't have to think too hard for a role model - Denis Leary. "I thank him for every blow up he's ever had, every party he's ever thrown, every joke he's ever told on set," Thorne gushed. "I watched Denis take care of his crew with such loyalty and with such a sense of humor that that's the step I try to lead with... I learned everything from him!"
With "Necessary Roughness" starting just as "Rescue Me" is ending, Thorne was happy to give a little peek into what to expect with the last episodes of the FX series that she is best known for. "Part of the final season is very anti-'Rescue Me' and then other parts are very true to form. It's really a full-circle thing in terms of the people who rescue and who also need to be rescued and about coming to terms with where you are in your life and what you've done and what you want done to you. That has a lot to do with Sheila." In winding up the series, she added, "nothing with 'Rescue Me' could ever be tied up in a bow but there is something that will slowly form this season and I think audiences will be really surprised at what is coming out of the mouths of this world."
"Necessary Roughness" premieres tonight at 10:00/9:00c on USA.