'The Grinder' Star Rob Lowe on the Joys of Playing a "Simpleton"

Dean is more than an "entitled douche," Lowe promises.
Courtesy of Ray Mickshaw/FOX

Twice in the span of a 20-minute interview, Rob Lowe describes his character on The Grinder, TV star-turned-would-be lawyer Dean Sanderson, as a "simpleton."

It's not meant as a knock — Lowe is clearly is having a blast playing Dean opposite his attorney brother, Stewart (Fred Savage), on the Fox comedy. Dean is still having a rough time letting go of the role that made him famous (on a fictional show also called The Grinder), and "get[ting] to really play two different characters" in Dean and Dean's TV character.

The first couple of episodes made it seem as though there was very little separating Dean from the role, but Lowe thinks that as the show progresses, more of the real guy will peek through.

"Dean is sweet-natured, really tactile, insecure, upbeat and a little bit of a simpleton," Lowe says. "His Grinder character is sophisticated — he was almost done in by a bullet in Macao. I'm not sure that Dean knows where Macao is. Things come easily for the character, for Mitch Grinder, that don't come so easily [for Dean]. It takes a couple of episodes for that to become illustrated."

Lowe also talks about working with Savage, Dean's place in the TV world and the comedy sweet spot he thinks the show is hitting.

Can you identify at all with the way Dean feels so adrift after his show ends? Have you ever felt anything like that after leaving a role?

I think the closest thing in my life would be probably the legacy of The West Wing. It still resonates with people, people still very much identify me with it and I'm really proud of it. It has arguably almost as big a life now than it ever had when it was on. I enjoy it, and I'm grateful for it.

I think Dean, however, has not figured out how to live with his post-Grinder legacy [laughs].

What kind of show was the fictional Grinder, in your mind? It ran for nine years, so it was obviously successful, but was it good?

Well, it was a ratings juggernaut. My sense is it was one of those shows where two or three seasons in, he cracked the best actor Emmy category, but only for one year and didn't win it. He probably lost to Jon Hamm or Bryan Cranston or Don Cheadle or somebody like that. But he won the People's Choice Award every single year. One of those shows.

Last week's episode seemed to start drawing a clearer line about where Grinder ends and Mitch begins.

One of the things I like about the show is I get to really play two different characters. There are moments when Dean tries on his Grinder persona, for sure. ... I'm really excited about the episodes we have coming up, particularly one where you see Dean deciding to quit doing The Grinder. Jason Alexander plays the auteur showrunner of The Grinder in the mode of John Milius, and Timothy Olyphant, as himself, plays a very significant role in Dean's decision to leave the show. It's some of my favorite stuff we've done, and there's nothing like that on network television, nothing even close.

Your chemistry with Fred is pretty apparent onscreen. Was it that way from the start, or did you have to work at it?

Chemistry is a mysterious thing. You can't manufacture it, you can never predict it. Fred and I just had it from the first moment, and like any real chemistry it's sort of effortless. We've never discussed the relationship, even. But he's a family man, has brothers — same with me. He was a child actor — same with me. Seen and done everything in the business over the years — same with me. I think we're naturally just on the same wavelength.

Does Dean realize the amount of discomfort he causes Stewart?

[Laughs] One of the things I like about Dean is — he's a simpleton, he's unbelievably self-involved, but it doesn't cross into the caricature that we've seen a ton where he's just an entitled douche. One of the ways we're able to do that is with little moments, like in the pilot, at the very end he says to Stew, "I know you don't love having me here" — with no judgment. It's just a statement of fact. ... If he were totally oblivious and totally self-involved, I think people would get tired of the character very fast, and I would definitely get tired of playing him. ...

Every episode, we take great pains to ground Dean so he's not a cartoon or a caricature. Just in terms of the storytelling, you have to be able to earn the big swings the character is going to take, because he is a larger-than-life character. But you can only do that if it's also grounded.

Can you talk a little about his attempts to win over Claire (Natalie Morales)?

I think Natalie is a little bit of a good luck charm. The very first day I was on set of Parks and Recreation, Natalie was working. Hopefully The Grinder will work out as well as that did.

There's a reason that the cliche of will they or won't they exists. You need it to drive story and conflict. We're certainly going to do that. But again, what makes The Grinder special is we have a great laugh at the fact that we're so overtly doing it. Most shows on television would have you believe that this is something that happens every day in life.

The writers seem to be pretty good at incorporating some meta-humor like that without that being the entire show.

I love that we can do 10 broad-appeal jokes without being too cool for the room, and still do really strong meta-jokes that are fairly smart. My favorite shows get the right blend of that. I'm not a huge broad comedy, popular comedy type of fan. But I'm also not a fan of shows that are so insular and cool for the room, that feel too hip. I like just the right mix, and that's what we're hopefully doing here.

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