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Rob Lowe on his meta new show 'The Grinder,' the art of the fan selfie

Because Lowe asked: ‘What I relate to is the Grinder’s well-meaning but often badly executed plan for authenticity in his life’

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Ray Mickshaw/Fox

Rob Lowe will see you in court. Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m. ET on Fox, to be more specific. The forever-handsome veteran of The West Wing and Parks and Recreation is returning to TV in the promising legal/family comedy The Grinder as Dean Sanderson, a winning actor who’s been playing never-settling lawyer Mitch Grinder on a show called, yes, The Grinder.

Now that The Grinder has ended, Dean returns home to Boise to spend time with his sensible attorney brother Stewart (Fred Savage) and proud father Dean Sr. (William Devane). While there, Dean decides that his eight seasons on a legal procedural surely qualify him to litigate and that he should join the family firm with Dean Sr. and Stewart, the latter of whom is slightly skeptical. (“Let’s say you’re at a restaurant, and Noah Wyle is two tables down,” Dean says in an attempt to enlighten Stewart through analogy. “You go into cardiac arrest. You don’t think Noah Wyle could step in and help?”) It’s a double playground for the more-than-game Lowe — he’ll not only appear as Dean, but also as Mitch, as we see scenes from the show within the show that thematically tie in to that week’s story. 

How did Lowe prepare to play an actor who wants to stop playing lawyer and be one for real? What kind of material is the show borrowing from his life? Let’s get the Lowe-down from the man himself and call him to the witness stand.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Given that you had an exclusive deal with ABC at the time, how exactly did this Fox show come into your life?

ROB LOWE: After Parks and Recreation, I was looking to do something really specific and that was something that had Parks level of smart, cool-club comedy, but also had the potential to maybe become more than a cult hit. I tried developing and could never really get there, and had an exclusive deal at ABC. Out of the blue I was sent The Grinder and at the opening of The Grinder, the first scene, where it’s a very knowing, tongue-in-cheek, eviscerating parody of many of today’s network hit dramas, I was like, “I am in. I am so in.” The show within the show, The Grinder, is a legal drama, but we recognize and destroy all of the hideous tropes throughout some of the bigger contemporary dramas on television. And what’s fun is we all know what they are so everybody’s in on the joke.

The creators were skeptical that they could get you because of the ABC deal. When this negotiation was going on, were you thinking, “I have no idea if this will work”?

What is nice that [Fox Television Group CEOs] Dana Walden and Gary Newman in their new jobs with the authority to do whatever they want to do, went out and got me out of that deal, which just does not happen. It doesn’t happen for two reasons. The other network was so gracious, and so great — it’s just one of the nice stories in the business of everybody working together to make something happen. On paper, there was no way it was ever going to work. There were too many entities, too many agendas and too much money involved. But this is one of those rare instances where — forget that we’re talking about me. If there’s a piece of talent that really is going to elevate something, that is not the time to stand on corporate policy.

Good thing that the Grinder never settles.

It’s not in his nature.

What else attracted you to this role?

I’ve done how many episodes of — I can’t even keep track — between West Wing, Brothers and Sisters, and Parks? It’s a lot of television and really most of it has been drama. I felt that I had a way to do this character without making him douchey or entitled or any of the qualities you see when you’re doing the self-centered, rich Hollywood star. Because that on its face isn’t that interesting to me.

What kind of research did you do? You have some resources to draw on: Your dad’s a lawyer and you played Sam Seaborn on West Wing and Jack Turner on The Lyon’s Den. Whom did you model the character after?

One of the benefits of being in this business for so long is you meet so many people, you play so many different parts and use pieces all of it. I would say in the Grinder, there are even elements of Eddie Nero from Californication. But more than anything, he’s not a real lawyer, in spite of the fact that he thinks he is. Sam Seaborn really isn’t helpful. Aaron Sorkin wrote it. That was really real! [Laughs] My dad’s a real lawyer. If I were playing Fred Savage’s part, my dad would be great. So really the inspirations for the Grinder are various actors that I’ve worked with.

Who shall remain nameless?

Who shall remain nameless. But then personally you have to find a hook. And what I relate to is the Grinder’s well-meaning but often badly executed plan for authenticity in his life … If you have a pull quote, please make that the pull quote.

What was the biggest challenge in tackling this role?

I think the biggest challenge is the one that is ongoing and I’m really pleased that we’re finding it and it’s: What is the tone of this show? What I love about it is it is weirdly completely believable and yet completely absurd. And it’s quite remarkable how we get away with it and that’s a testament to really deft writing. And in terms of the longevity of the show, it’s finding the balance between that and the performances. In any moment, the Grinder is one part cartoon character and then one part real person. And that’s what it makes it so fun to play and that’s what makes it so rare, as an actor to find a part that can be incredibly larger than life and also you’re able to play moments of real legitimate acting.

The producers said you were very willing to poke fun at yourself and your image—

Oh, I have so many stories. Listen, when I go into the writer’s room, if they go, “We’re thinking of doing a story where the Grinder has to deal with public perceptions in his hometown,” I’m like, “Oh!” And I’ll talk for 20 minutes and I’ll give them the story of flying home to my grandmother on her deathbed. They literally unplug my grandmother, I hold her hand, she dies and the nurse reaches over her body and asks for an autograph.

Oh, god. That happened?

Oh, yeah — absolutely. In this world of someone who has been famous a long time — and an actor who has navigated Hollywood, an actor who has family in the Midwest, an actor who has brothers — we go to my personal well all the time. We may not use it exactly, but a lot of times it inspires them to go in other directors or just confirm their instinct that no, that’s not too over the top, that could absolutely happen. And I use a lot of my own stuff. There’s a bit in the pilot that people like a lot where [guest star Brian Huskey, who plays the plaintiff] asks to take a selfie with me before he gets on the witness stand, and I turn him around because the lighting is going to be better and he doesn’t want to be backlit — that’s all me. I literally do that all the time with fans. I’m like, “Look, if we’re going to f—ing do this, let’s at least make it look right.” That’s just an ad-libbed moment. That moment is right out of my life.

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I understand that every episode is going to open with the show within the show, which is comedic gold for you guys.

It’s so fun because I get to be on two TV shows for the price of one. I get to star in what could almost be a big primetime hit soap and then I get to do the Grinder. And I love it. I showed The Grinder to an actress who shall remain nameless who laughed all the way through it and then at the end looked really disturbed. I said, “What’s so disturbing?” And she goes, “I realized the show that I’m on is actually The Grinder.”

What are some of the inspirations for the show within the show? Are you pitching moments where you’re like, “Oh, when I was Sam Seaborn or Jack Turner, we did something like this …”?

Absolutely. I pitched a lot of Lyon’s Den stuff to them. Even showing them the opening credits for The Lyon’s Den, we were half-tempted just to use the opening credits for The Lyon’s Den as The Grinder credits. I mean, they’re literally perfect. And there’s a scene in Lyon’s Den where the will-they-or-won’t-they is with Jewel, the singer-songwriter-actress, and at the end, of course, he sweeps the desk clear and they go at it on the desk. We’re doing something very similar to that in episode 3 but it’s where the Grinder misreads the cue in Boise and sweeps the desk off and it’s like, “What are you doing? Are you … cleaning?” I love taking all of Hollywood TV moves and attempting them in real life. That joke, for me, I never get tired of.

I heard that it was your pitch to borrow a pair of glasses from a juror [and use them to help sell your courtroom speech in the pilot].

On The West Wing we used to joke that we were the best file actors ever. Like, you give me a file —a mimeograph sheet or whatever — and dude, I’m telling you: I can act the s— out of that. Nobody can carry a legal pad in a scene better than me. I am all over it. That’s my training from West Wing. So, on The Grinder he would do a lot of glasses acting and for my inspiration for that, I watched that beautiful supercut of Caruso on CSI: Miami. Which is one of the most delicious two minutes of TV genius there ever was.

Let’s talk about the brothers’ relationship. Dean is the golden child who can do no wrong and Stewart is the incredulous voice of reason. What can we expect from them and what do you love about their dynamic?

One of the things I like about the show is that even though it’s a TV show within a show and an actor that comes home to find himself, most people don’t have any personal experience with that. I think they’re going to be really into it and interested in it but it’s not a part of their lives. The other big part of the show, though, is. And that is, favorite son, black sheep, sibling rivalry, carried into adulthood, interpersonal dynamics with the dad who worships one but doesn’t really see the other — themes like being seen for who you really are, which incidentally is both Stewart’s issue and the Grinder’s issue, and yet they’re totally different people. And the concept of the grass is always greener. Stewart’s like, “I work all day, I do the right thing, I get no attention.” The Grinder is like, “You know what? I want to sit and talk about carpools because that is the s—, baby. That’s life. Explain to me how it works. One day you take the kids and then on other days somebody else takes the kids? How do you negotiate that?” The Grinder finds that stuff fascinating.

You didn’t know Fred before the show. What preconceived notions, if any, did you have about Fred and what impressed you when you started working together?

Clearly I am the only person who doesn’t have a relationship with Fred Savage because everywhere you go, people are like, ‘I love Fred! He’s the nicest guy! My kids are in school with his kids!’ But I didn’t know him. I’ve always been a huge Wonder Years fan and obviously a huge Princess Bride fan and thought the idea of reintroducing him was really a cool idea. But then when I met him, we had the kind of chemistry together and shorthand that a lot of times you don’t ever have — or if you do have it, it takes many episodes to develop. And from the get-go, it was like Simon and Garfunkel. When he would sing high, I would sing low. When he would sing low, I would sing high. And we just naturally did it.

What stands out to you about his acting? I understand that there was some difficulty in casting Stewart, and Fred brought less of a doormat feel to the character, in that he was able to stand up to the Grinder.

Fred was able to thread a very difficult needle in that you believed him as somebody who could be completely overlooked, underappreciated, undervalued, and yet was still a man of substance, and fire, and passion and excitement — and funny. And at the end of the day you need somebody who the audience is going to enjoy seeing fighting for their piece of the pie as opposed to feeling bad for them when they fight for their piece of the pie. Fred just has a natural ability to do that and then I think the capper was that he was able to ad-lib and to improvise extraordinarily well … He’ll go wherever his muse takes him. And has no second-guessing or self-reflective vanity involved.

The Grinder tells his brother that he’s been playing a lawyer for eight years and he’s got this down. How much of that element could you relate to, because you did recite a lot of those lines over the years. I know it’s exaggerated, but do you feel that a little bit, too?

For me, where it’s really relevant, I watched the Republican debate last week. And I’m sitting there going, “Oh, you should spin that this way.” Or, “That was a bad answer.” Or, “What you really need to do is this.” I feel like because I played Sam Seaborn, who did that for four years, there’s a part of me that honestly feels like I could do a way better job than a lot of the people running messaging for the campaigns I’m seeing. So I really do get that. I was like, “I don’t need to go to the Kennedy School of Government, I worked in the White House for four years!”

Anything funny stick out to you about shooting the pilot?

It all builds to the big courtroom scene which we obviously cannot and will not do every week but it’s perfect for the introduction to the show. It’s the trope of everything — it’s A Few Good Men, it’s every courtroom drama ends with the big courtroom showdown so we had to do it and we did it. And there’s a lot of extras, there’s the jury, there’s the audience, so there’s probably 100 people in the room who don’t even know what show they’re on. They don’t get to read the script. They’re background artists and they’re there to do that. And so it’s always interesting to get their reactions. And after the first take through the whole thing they all just burst into gigantic, spontaneous applause and I remember turning to [executive producer] Jake Kasdan and thinking “Well, that can’t be bad!”

Want more? EW’s Fall TV Preview mega-issue has the scoop on 115 shows! While the issue has left newsstands, you can still buy it here.

The Grinder premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on Fox.

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