'New Girl's' Resident 'Fancyman' Dermot Mulroney Praises Show's 'Controlled Improv'

"Sometimes you are saying lines on camera that you’ve never even heard or seen written down before," he tells THR. "They are just shouting them at you. It’s kind of like a peanut gallery."
Greg Gayne/FOX

To see the cast of Fox's New Girl tape an episode is possibly funnier than watching the show itself.

While many series go through scripts with frequent notes, adjustments and suggestions, the team behind the freshman comedy spouts a constant stream of alternate lines and variant jokes to get the funniest take. It's something Dermot Mulroney had never experienced before his recent arc on the show, playing a distinguished divorcée who's currently wooing Zooey Deschanel's Jess.

"The way they throw the material at them on the fly is fascinating," Mulroney tells The Hollywood Reporter of his time on set. "Sometimes you are saying lines on camera that you’ve never even heard or seen written down before. They are just shouting them at you. It’s kind of like a peanut gallery... like some kind of controlled improv or rolling ad-lib within the script itself. It’s a really interesting process, and they are all really good at it. I'd never done that type of shooting before, it was great fun."

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Mulroney likens the experience to a "choose your own adventure," where the producers and editors pull together their favorite parts to assemble the final product. And while it took him some getting used to -- "It’s like they are heckling you while you are trying to act" -- he credits it as the reason the finished product is different from many other comedies on TV today.  

"It’s time consuming, of course, but it’s smart," he says. "The whole cast and crew work long hours to get the best on television they can, which I really admire. There is no slouching on this show."

The 48-year-old actor was initially a bit hesitant to sign on for the role. Best known for his film work, Mulroney confesses that he didn't actually watch the series before the call came through. But his admiration for Deschanel and the few episodes he caught while considering the offer were enough to persuade him.

"I was coming into a close-knit group, so it’s always a strange thing," he says. "I’m also sort of half-generation older, which is part of the storyline, so I didn’t know if I was going to be the grumpy middle-aged man in the captain’s chair on the side. As much as I tried to be that guy, I failed, and they drew me in to their antics and we had a blast."

The affection seems to be reciprocated. After signing on for an initial three episodes, New Girl extended Mulroney's role of Russell to four episodes, boosting his storyline to include a fellow high-profile guest star in Jeanne Tripplehorn. The Big Love actress will appear on the series as Russell's ex-wife who accidentally spends a lot of time with Jess.

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"They have more scenes together than I do," says Mulroney, "but we do have a scene with [Tripplehorn] at a restaurant, so you can really look forward to that one."

Mulroney says guest casting on New Girl and shows like it has opened a lot of doors for actors who like series work but maybe aren't ready to land a full-time gig. "On this show what’s cool is that they are calling in really cool actors to play these parts," he tells THR. "These days bigger name actors are coming in to do different types of material. This is such a great experience, I’d do it again for sure."

And while Russell's inevitable exit may end up being open-ended, a long-term romance for he and Jess isn't very likely.  

"I think the biggest obstacle is that Jess, as we’ve seen, really hasn’t dialed in who she wants to be and who she wants to be with," he says. "I think I get to play somebody on her path of figuring that out."

Mulroney's second episode on New Girl, "Fancyman Pt. 2," airs Tuesday on Fox at 9:00 p.m. ET.

Email: Michael.OConnell@THR.com; Twitter: @MikeyLikesTV