'The Rookie': Nathan Fillion on Returning to ABC and the Network "Machine"

The Rookie Episodic - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of ABC

After spending eight seasons playing the title character on ABC’s Castle, Nathan Fillion is back with his first series regular role on network television in two years.

The Rookie, which reunites the actor with former Castle showrunner Alexi Hawley, follows John Nolan, a middle-aged man who re-evaluates his life after a brush with death. Nolan signs up to be a police officer — and at 40, he’s the oldest rookie cop on the beat.

Fillion, for his part, kept busy since Castle concluded in 2016 with a sizable arc on Modern Family; playing himself on American Housewife; and reuniting with his Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Blog co-star Neil Patrick Harris in A Series of Unfortunate Events, among other projects. But he opted to come back to ABC for his next full-time role.

He spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about choosing network television, his input as a producer on The Rookie and more.

Television has changed quite a bit even since Castle ended. What made you want to return to network television?

There have been a lot of changes in the entertainment industry [since I started]. Quantum leaps, you might say: the internet, streaming. But at the end of the day, my job has changed almost none. We have a few more responsibilities in terms of digital content, but it’s a treat — it helps you and it helps your show. My job, I go to work, I try to tell great stories, we try to entertain people. That much is pure, untouched, unchanged. That’s the part I’m good at.

Network television has become a bit more flexible in what makes a full season. Are you looking to do a full 22-24 episodes, or is the intention that the show will have shorter-run seasons?

My experience has taught me 22 is the norm. I’ve had shorter, I’ve had longer. I try not to have too many expectations. I hope for the best and plan for the worst.

You signed on to The Rookie without a script. Outside of your history with Alexi, what convinced you to commit yourself to this project?

It was the pitch. You want a character you feel you can serve — you can serve the character, serve the story. Being in the business as long as I have, I’ve broadened my scope. And the core idea of the show, it has to be something strong enough to carry it a number of years. You want the potential for more. You don’t want to hit a roadblock where you’ve run out of stories because our engine isn’t built that way.

This one has an engine. [John Nolan] is literally starting his life over, from scratch. He has an incredible history behind him, but he’s starting everything brand new. It’s a very attractive prospect that people can relate to.

There has been a good amount of humor infused in many of your previous roles; this appears to be more dramatic. What challenges have you found in tackling something more straightforward?

I learned a long time ago it’s very hard to make people laugh; it’s very easy to make people laugh at you. Knowing that difference, it’s simply a mindset. And it simplifies things.

The Rookie has comedy in it. It’s not broad, it’s not overreaching; it’s reality-based. I’ve met a lot of cops — they’re funny guys. They have to have a decent sense of humor to do the job they do. There’s a lot of opportunities for comedy in this program. If you compare it to the comedies I’ve done and are bigger, you just have to dial it down. It’s still funny, it’s just a matter of how you do it.

John Nolan is starting this job relatively on a whim. What discussions have you had with the writers about what kind of learning curve he should have?

One of my strengths is knowing what pies to keep my fingers out of. You delegate responsibility. The guy in charge of story knows exactly what he’s doing. My forte is in front of the camera; I can take care of that. I also know to hand off the other jobs to guys like Alexi Hawley.

However, you are a producer on the show. What input do you feel you’ve made on that front so far?

Being a producer on a program you’re acting in simply means you have more of a voice. It’s permission to solve problems based on the experience you bring along with you. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I don’t think you can do anything for 25 years and not get sort of smart about it.

I love solving problems. I love hitting a set and seeing you have this much hallway, you have this many words to say, you have to get from point A to point B. Those are easy problems to solve, but you have to make sure it works. We’re making art, but it’s a machine. You have to respect the machine, which has its own time restraints.

There is a deep ensemble on the series. How much did you get involved in the casting process?

I was there for all of it. I was there for all of the casting. I’ve been involved in casting before, but I’ve never seen it go so smoothly. We had our ability to pick and choose from everybody because we were the first pilot to start casting. We had a head start, which worked in our favor. We were very particular in what we wanted.

The worst problem we encountered was we had two people we thought were phenomenal, but they weren’t right for the role. So we simply changed the role so they would fit the people we had. Just a little flip.

Which roles were those?

I don’t want to say. But just a little flip, and it solved every problem. We just had two people who were so fantastic; it was just the way it was written. You change this word, and the character description is flipped and we have two people we love.

You also recently participated in the Dr. Horrible anniversary panel at Comic-Con. Has there been any update about a potential sequel?

No progress, yet. I just know that everybody involved, if it arises, will say yes.

The Rookie premieres Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.