'The Grinder' Brings Fred Savage Back to Acting: "It's Great to Focus on One Job"

The ex-'Wonder Years' star feels good enough about his directing career to go back in front of the camera.
Ray Mickshaw/FOX

It's been almost a decade since Fred Savage was in front of a camera — because for much of that time, he was behind one.

The former Wonder Years star has directed dozens of TV episodes in the past decade — everything from kids' shows (Hannah Montana) to mainstream network sitcoms (Modern Family, 2 Broke Girls) to adult cable comedies (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Party Down).

It took Fox's new comedy The Grinder, however, to bring him back to acting. Savage plays Stewart Sanderson, a lawyer and family man in Boise, Idaho, whose heretofore happy life is disrupted when his older brother, Dean (Rob Lowe), comes home after finishing a long run playing a TV lawyer on a show called, yes, The Grinder.

"The material was just terrific. Then I loved the creative team behind it," Savage tells The Hollywood Reporter. "[Executive producer] Nick Stoller is a friend of mine, and creators Andy [Mogel] and Jarrad [Paul] just wrote a fantastic script. I've loved [director and exec producer] Jake Kasdan and his work for many years. Then, of course, Rob being part of it — it was really an impossible package to say no to."

Savage talks with THR about his directing career, why he's not planning to helm an episode of The Grinder at the moment and building chemistry with Lowe, among other things.

What else about the show made you want to get back in front of the camera?

It was a combination of a few things. Obviously, the material — I read the script and absolutely loved it. Over the years, here and there, people have sent me scripts to look at to act in, but I was really focused on directing and building that side of my career, and there was never anything that made me want to put that aside. ...

Anyone who's transitioning from some job in the business, whether you're coming as an actor or cinematographer or editor or script supervisor — I know so many people from all those different fields who have gone on to successful directing careers. But you really need to commit to a directing career. You need to convince people you're not just a dilettante, you know? I finally feel after working for a decade pretty consistently that I could maybe take this respite and try my hand at acting again without hurting my directing career that I worked so hard to establish.

Having directed so much — and so many different shows — how does that now inform your acting?

I've directed almost exclusively TV comedies. As a result, I've been exposed to an incredibly wide variety of comedic styles and approaches to comedy, whether it's your classic, iconic comics like Robin Williams [on The Crazy Ones] and Michael J. Fox [The Michael J. Fox Show] or a more actorly approach to comedy like Frank Langella or Bradley Cooper [Kitchen Confidential] or a ribald and raunchy comedy like the guys from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia to the up-and-coming alternative comedians that I worked with on Garfunkel and Oates. ... There are so many different approaches to comedy, and I worked so closely with all these incredibly gifted comics and comedic actors. I feel like I got exposed to such a wide variety. They all can work, and they all have their merits.

I feel like I've cribbed from a little bit of each of those — not intentionally, but when you're working with people, that style rubs off. You think, "Oh, that's not an approach I would have thought of right off the bat. That could really work." Or, "That's a really interesting way to come at that scene or that joke." I've just been exposed to such a wide variety of comedic styles. The directing has really opened up my vocabulary as far as what works comedically.

Do you have to curb any impulse to direct from in front of the camera on The Grinder?

I was surprised at how easy it was to turn off. (Laughs.) It's very nice to be able to come to set and just worry about my part in the system, as opposed to the whole system. It's really nice. It's great to be able to dig in and really focus on one specific job. I've really enjoyed the specificity of it, and I'll be honest: I do enjoy, if it's 6:00 or 6:30 in the evening, that's the time [as a director] when your chest always tightens, and you're a little behind. You have a two-and-a-half-page scene you've got to get in an hour. (Groans.) Just the stress in your chest. ... Even when I'm not shooting, it's like this Pavlovian nervousness I get around 6:30 p.m. every day. It's nice to be on a set and not have that. I don't miss the tight chest.

What's your sense of the history between Stewart and Dean?

There's not competition between the brothers. That's one of the things I loved about the script Andy and Jarrad wrote. Writing a sibling-rivalry story is a very tried-and-true formula. But they've written something much more interesting. They're not rivals. They're not trying to outdo one another, they're not trying to sabotage one another. Both of them feel very comfortable about the paths they've chosen.

Both of them covet what the other person has, to the exclusion of the great things in their own life. Stewart looks at Dean and sees someone who is heard and admired and valued and celebrated in a way he's never been. Stewart's a guy who's done everything right. He went to school, he studied hard, he went to college, he went to law school. ... He followed life's playbook to a T, and he's ready to reap the benefits of that. Then he sees his brother, who, in a way, took some shortcuts, and he sees him celebrated and recognized and viewed as important.

Conversely, Dean is this very successful, very famous Hollywood actor. He looks at Stewart and sees someone who has a family and who has deep roots and is really loved by his wife and his children. There's a depth to the relationships in Stewart's life that the relationships in Dean's life lack. He looks at that and wishes he had that.

There are a couple scenes in the pilot that show how uncomfortable Stewart is in front of an audience in court. ...

He's an excellent lawyer, but not a performer. Dean is the exact opposite — he knows nothing about the law, but he's one hell of a showman. ... Together, they'd probably make one superlawyer. It really draws the contrast between them, style versus substance. Stewart is definitely all substance and zero style.

Do you kind of have to put aside your instincts to give such an awkward performance?

(Laughs.) Yeah, you just play a level of discomfort. Dean pushes everyone out of their comfort zone, most of all Stewart. He's trying to grin and bear it and be as good a sport as possible, but he definitely is not prepared to be shoved so far out of his comfort zone.

Your chemistry with Rob is pretty strong from the outset. Did that just happen, or did you two have to work at it some?

It felt that way from day one. He was on the show first, and I came to the show without having met him or really performed with him. So the fact that it came together was just really fantastic. It was something we discovered on set. It was like, "Oh, my gosh, this could really work." ... I think, comedically, we have very similar sensibilities. We have very similar work ethics. I feel like our priorities in our lives — he's a really dedicated husband and father, so our priorities are similar in that respect. I think we make a great team.

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

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