Why 'The Office' Showrunner Is Prepared for More Cast Members to Exit Show (Q&A)

9:05 PM PST 08/16/2011 by Philiana Ng
Chris Haston/NBC

Paul Lieberstein tells THR that James Spader has given the NBC comedy "new energy."

After seven seasons as Dunder Mifflin's bumbling Scranton boss, Michael Scott, Steve Carell took his final bow at The Office in May, paving the way for James Spader, who -- to be clear -- is not Carell's replacement. At the center of the chaos is showrunner Paul Lieberstein, who's also an actor (that's him playing mundane HR manager and Scott nemesis Toby Flenderson) as well as a writer and executive producer. Lieberstein tells THR how Spader is fitting into the family, how "bizarre" showrunning is and when he thinks The Office will wrap.

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The Hollywood Reporter: James Spader has joined the cast as the new CEO, Robert California. How is he settling in so far?

Paul Lieberstein: He has a way of taking on his character so fully, even in rehearsal, that it's changing the mood on the set. Everyone is discovering who they are with this new energy. It's like the first day of school -- you have your old friends, but there are some new classes and new teachers.

THR: Is the vibe at work strange in Steve Carell's absence?

Lieberstein: Actually, it's remarkably similar. There were months of discussions about how to tinker with existing characters and enter new ones, but in the end, it continues to be writing for people we hear a voice of very clearly.

THR: What is the most difficult part of being an actor, showrunner and writer?

Lieberstein: It's making sure nothing gets the shaft. Also, time management. During table reads, I read stage directions as the showrunner, and I might read, "Toby will approach Phyllis." Then the first line in the scene is a Toby line. It can get very weird.

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THR: What about showrunning has surprised you most?

Lieberstein: It's bizarre how much management is in the job. We come up as writers, and we always look forward to the day when we get to make all the creative decisions ourselves. It turns out that there is so much management to be done that so many of the decisions are made by so many people. There is nothing I loved more than being assigned a script, and I would go off for one week, whatever I had to write. Now, it's nothing. If I can get in 20 minutes of uninterrupted writing time, I'm pretty lucky.

THR: Do you spend much time interacting with social media?

Lieberstein: I used to. When new episodes air, sometimes we watch the Twitter feed -- especially during the finale, when I was curious about what people were saying about our different bosses. I see what the critics are saying. They're not always kind, but I'm interested.

THR: What is your approach to dealing with criticism about the show?

Lieberstein: I'll adjust to what criticism I believe to be true, either from a critic, a fan or someone on the set. But usually it's the writers, producers or network talking to us directly.

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THR: What was your toughest moment last season?

Lieberstein: There were some tough calls like how to exit Steve and making the decision to not do a big, fancy story. It was the right time for it to happen. One of your friends is graduating first, like a month before everybody else. I had spent the year dealing with, "How are we going to replace Michael Scott?" I was surprised when the personal side of Steve leaving hit me on the very last day. I was glad Michael got to be happy.

THR: In the season finale, big-name actors like Ray Romano and Jim Carrey had guest-star roles. What feedback did you get on their appearances?

Lieberstein: It definitely worked. I wasn't trying to audition anyone [to potentially return as the boss]; that was not the intention. We did bring James Spader on just for that cameo -- he had no intention of staying, and we didn't have the intention of bringing him back. It worked so well that we had to pursue it.

THR: Will the search for a new office manager be an ongoing arc next season?

Lieberstein: No. The search will be answered in the premiere. We're not going to drag it out.

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THR: What else can you reveal about Spader's role in the new season?

Lieberstein: He enjoys the power he has over people. In the premiere, he accidentally leaves his notebook on Erin's [Ellie Kemper] desk. She finds it and passes it around because it's open to a page where everyone's name is listed. There are two columns, and you're either on one side or the other. No one can figure out what it is, and everyone's terrified of what it might mean.

THR: Do you have an end date set for the series?

Lieberstein: I think it has a couple more years, for sure. I think we have a total of eight or nine in us.

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THR: Are you anticipating more cast departures in the near future?

Lieberstein: Probably. It will morph into a new office, maybe the way ER changed. But I think a lot of that was driven by actors having their fill. If people want to stay around here, we are happy to have them.           

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