October 21, 2011 10:00am PT by Lesley Goldberg
Kelsey Grammer Previews 'Boss,' Talks Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and Running for Office (Q&A)
In the span of a week, Kelsey Grammer has gone from being a villain to a hero for playing a villain.
The 14-time Emmy nominee started the week slinging a bit of mud during an appearance on Piers Morgan Tonight where he claimed ex-wife Camille Grammer married him because The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star thought he was his titular character from Frasier.
Then, before the buzz about the former Cheers star’s controversial appearance had even died down, a second round of very different headlines began pouring in as critics across the country raved about Grammer’s turn in the new Starz political drama Boss, declaring the series an “it show” that marks the cable network’s arrival.
Grammer stars in the series as the morally devoid Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, a leader who battles political opponents while suffering from a degenerative neurological condition that he isn’t keen for the world to find out about before he can ensure he’s leaving a legacy that’s worthy of his stature.
As critics are raving about Grammer’s performance – THR’s Tim Goodman compared his comedy-to-drama transition to Bryan Cranston’s – Starz has already renewed the series from writer-creator Farhad Safinia for a second season a full month before its premiere.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Grammer to discuss making the move from comedy to drama, the ruthless character’s demons and the devout Republican’s thoughts on the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and whether or not he’ll seek office at some point in his career.
THR: What drew you to the project?
Grammer: It was one of the first times I've been on the ground floor of creating something. [Writer-creator] Farhad Safinia and I spoke for several weeks before he started writing about what we thought the show could and should be. It wasn't like being drawn to a project; it was like, let's create a project. It turned out we sold it at the right time and people were interested in it at the right time. Chris Albrecht looked at it and said, 'I'll buy the whole show instead of just a pilot.' All the things we needed to have happen happened and we were given a license to make the show we believed in. I've been drawn to the idea of doing a drama for some time and creating one seemed a lot better than just waiting for one to hit me in the head (laughs).
THR: After three failed comedy attempts (Fox's The Sketch Show, Back to You and ABC's Hank) what was it about doing drama that was of interest to you?
Grammer: It was a natural progression; it's just like going home, honestly. It wasn't really like something I was drawn to. It was just something I hadn't had a chance to do on television. It was about time to get it done. Since Hollywood doesn't spend a lot of time thinking of something new for someone they think they know everything about. We thought we'll just have to help Hollywood figure out something and go back to my roots and give t hem a show we thought would be surprising to people. And we think we've achieved that on certain satisfactory levels.
THR: Tom is such a complicated character. How have you been describing him?
Grammer: He's a fighter that's the first thing I think about him: He's a man that has a tenacity that rarely exists in the world, possibly in the world of politics it exists. He believes in doing good but is quite comfortable doing what he has to do to affect the greatest good so is conscience is clear; he's a man that's actually almost devoid of conscience, which is fascinating.
THR: How did you prepare to play Tom? The character is said to be loosely based on former Chicago Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Grammer: Not really -- he's based on the idea of mayors for over 100 years in Chicago. It doesn't go back to one guy because honestly to pin it on one guy would limit our ability to do the show. It's a fantasy, it's world that actually doesn't exist but it's like a parallel universe. In terms of Chicago, it echoes things that we know about Chicago. As Farhad would say, there's a kind of operatic corruptness about Chicago. What also appealed to us is that Chicago is such an amazing city for big ideas; the city has big shoulders on which to sit. That was something that because we were arguably trying to talk about a man and his kingdom and not letting go of that kingdom, Chicago as a city lends itself to that sort of metaphor better than most because it's big but it's still manageable somehow -- you can still imagine one man wilding power there.
THR: What's Tom's biggest demon: the degenerative neurological condition, his political foes or himself?
Grammer: His biggest demon is the book he's written for his own life: suddenly, he has to do a lot of rewriting. He's definitely concerned about what his legacy is going to be and he's now crafting that but he also knows that the only way he maintains any kind of control over that is to maintain his position and his power.
THR: Will he eventually confide in anyone in his personal or professional camps what's going on with his health?
Grammer: That's the very first set-up in the domino; there are so many things that follow afterward. Tom is very good at what he does so even though there are many things put in his way as obstacles, many people do start to sense the weakness in him – or the perceived weakness in him – Tom Kane is not dead yet (laughs). The best of him is what you see toward the end of our first season.
THR: Starz's decision to renew early, what kind of expectations does that set for the series?
Grammer: I think it’s a giant vote of confidence from Chris Albrecht that says, “I want to see what happens next.” And that’s good enough for us. We’re not sure what it is but we have a few ideas. (Laughs.)
THR: Which aspects of Tom are more challenging, the emotional or political?
Grammer: The most challenging part is to find the activity in feebling him, if that's a word. He's strong politically, so that's fun to play. I love how if he gets backed into a corner he’s going to fight hard and I love that about him. Those are simple, super objectives. But the nuance line through him is the line he'll play with his daughter and the line that he plays with this almost romance with his disease: It’s like all the sudden he has this companion that he never thought would be something he’d have to deal with. And this companion is this wasting character that is himself and that’s fascinating because there’s moments where he feels ironic about it and even slightly glib and a little humored by it even. In the midst of some of his behavior the very perceptive viewer might notice that Tom is leaving and he knows it. Those are the moments that I enjoyed the most: where he was in the world he was in but also floating above it.
THR: It’s a very subtle scene where if you’re not paying attention you might miss it on the rooftop when Tom is meeting with his protégé where the buildings almost appear as if they’re playing a trick on the viewer’s eye.
Grammer: I love that scene. He's actually talking about his hopeful place in history in that moment and at the same time he’s talking about the extraordinary history of the people who have gone before him. That’s why the character can’t be pigeonholed to Mayor Daley – it’s the idea of a mayor like that that Chicago can produce.
THR: Do you personally have any aspirations of running for office someday?
Grammer: I've always thought that maybe someday I’d try my hand at it do something to kind of give back to the community in what ever capacity it might be. But it is still down the road and God only knows what it would actually be. A guy with as much history as I have, it might be hard to win any office. (Laughs.) But then you never know!
THR: How do you feel about the state of political discourse in the country right now?
Grammer: The state of political discourse in the country right now is simply to teach each other to hate, which I’m hoping to get off of. We’ll get there. It’s subtle but that is what it is, you’re either a pariah and the only way to get elected is to make everybody hate somebody. It reminds me of regimes that have taken place throughout history that didn’t end so well and I hope we snap out of it.
THR: Do you think the Tea Party has been unfairly maligned?
Grammer: I don't really pay attention to what people say about people that hate. I know that when the Tea Party was first created, what I was hearing is that there were people saying, “Enough of the spending,” and to me that makes sense. Past that, I haven't heard they’re a bunch of nuts or a bunch of people who will insist on defining rights for others. I’m hearing that from the other side mostly right now and that’s confusing. But I do not know anybody in the Tea Party that actually is a hateful human being. I just think it’s unpleasant that we actually have to start labeling people that way. I think they’re on to something about taxation and about spending that makes sense. We can all point a finger and say, “Look at how awful they are,” but the only way to diffuse the argument is to actually turn them into enemies.
THR: Do you see any similarities between the views espoused by the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protesters?
Grammer: The Occupy Wall Street folks, it seems to me this redistributive justice – a phrase that’s been coined by our president – has only one guaranteed result: that everybody will be poor. (Laughs.) I’m not sure it’s a really good idea to work real hard for that but we’ll see. That fringe group will always exist in terms of its obstreperousness and its vehemence. Maybe they’re similar but honestly, I haven’t had that much truck with the Tea Party guys or the Occupy Wall Street guys. I’m at my most comfortable just to right of center; I prefer my position there. I like to take long views in terms of politics and stop making hasty decisions because the hasty decisions are the ones we usually pay for dearly down the road.
THR: Is Tom a Republican or a Democrat?
Grammer:We made a conscious decision not to portray him as any particular party because both parties are capable of doing the same stuff (laughs). You can put your own sort of interpretative overlay on whichever party you want it to be, but it's really about a man and his behavior and his love of power and his longing to be important, his desire to be a good man even though he does terrible things.
Boss premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Starz, or watch the full premiere on Starz.com.