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Ten episodes into production of the Apple TV+ grief comedy Shrinking, co-creator Brett Goldstein insists the cast and crew were still asking, “How the fuck is Harrison Ford here?” In truth, Goldstein (aka Roy Kent of Ted Lasso) has often wondered it too, incredulous that the Indiana Jones star agreed to make his comedy debut in the small-screen ensemble rolling out Jan. 27. But there he is, playing a gruff shrink opposite Jason Segel’s grieving, widowed therapist in the half-hour series from Segel, Goldstein and his former Ted Lasso showrunner Bill Lawrence. The trio — Segel and Goldstein in person, Lawrence later by phone — joined THR in late January to preview the show that’s as likely to make viewers laugh as it is to make them cry.
Like many good ideas, I’ve read that this one was hatched at a London pub. Is that right?
BILL LAWRENCE It started even before that. I pitched my version of this to Peter Roth and Susan Rovner years ago [when they ran Warner Bros. TV] as something I wanted to work on. Because my neighbor, who’s this great dad, had been on vacation, and … this is really bleak … his parents, one of his children and his wife were in one car and he was in another car with his daughter, and there was an accident, and [those in the other car] passed away. He’s remarried now and has a new kid, but I remember pitching this idea back then and it being received with, “Dude, you’re a comedy writer, you can’t do shit like this. This stuff’s bleak.”
BRETT GOLDSTEIN We were both working on ideas about grief, and I think my version was much darker.
I don’t know, Bill’s idea sounds plenty dark.
LAWRENCE My idea started with that moment, then tonally got much lighter, and his idea started in a more neutral place and got much darker, and we kind of smushed them together.
GOLDSTEIN We’ve been asked a lot, like, “How hard is it to make a funny show about grief?” But that’s how I feel every day. The one thing I hate in film and TV is when you watch something that is just grim, grim, grim, and has no humor. I always think that’s badly made up. I’m like, “You didn’t watch life.” Because that isn’t how life is. Like, you read about people who survive the Holocaust, and they talk about laughing. People in war zones, they make jokes.
Then you recruit Jason. How did you land on him?
GOLDSTEIN He was the dream because Jason’s fucking funny but he also has an inherent vulnerability. Like, you just love him. I just love him. (Laughs.)
JASON SEGEL That’s so sweet.
GOLDSTEIN And it meant that with this character, you can take him quite far into doing the wrong thing or making bad decisions. So, we FaceTimed with him, and I wasn’t sure how it went.
SEGEL I was really listening, and then I do this thing that maybe is not the smartest thing, career-wise, but I take time to think if I’m actually the best person to play the part. And sometimes I have been offered things that I would’ve loved to do, but I tell them, “I think somebody else might be able to do it better.” Because I make stuff too, and I know that whoever’s pitching you the thing wants their thing to be great. But this one I really felt like Liam Neeson in Taken, when he says, “I have a unique skill set.” (Laughs.)
SEGEL It felt like the real wheelhouse of what I wanted to do if I was going to make another TV comedy, because I did one [How I Met Your Mother] for nine years, which is a really, really long time. And I thought, “OK, I’ve kind of had that experience.” But this was a beautiful mix of drama and comedy, and making people laugh through tragedy is my favorite form of comedy. Even Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which I did when I was 25, was [about something] as dramatic as you might go through at that age, which is losing your girlfriend. Full-frontal nudity was the best I could do at raw vulnerability back then. This is the grown-up version of that.
What was the appeal of therapy as a setting?
LAWRENCE Look, we’re Hollywood guys, so, spoiler alert, we’re all shrinked up …
GOLDSTEIN And I’d recommend anyone who has access to it, does it. I mean, we are all crazy and we would’ve been much more crazy without it. But I also think it’s such a unique relationship between a therapist and their patient. It’s so intimate and they know everything and it can go on for years and years, and yet, there are these boundaries. You don’t really know about them. And you’re paying them. It’s such a strange relationship. And, of course, they are people, too, and they have their own problems in their own lives. So, there’s drama and comedy inherent in that relationship, and we had so many consultants and therapists checking everything. We didn’t want it to be a joke about therapy.
LAWRENCE One of the things I’d noticed is that therapists always exist on TV as a way to expand on a principal character’s personality. I did it on Spin City. We were like, “How could we get into what’s bothering Mike?” And we cast a shrink for two episodes.
Do you prepare your own therapists for a project like this?
SEGEL I told my therapist when we were starting to write it. Like, “I want you to know that in some of these sessions, I’m gonna be just looking at you and you’re gonna feel very different energy.” (Laughter.)
So, Harrison Ford. What made you even think you could get him?
LAWRENCE I don’t have a lot of epiphanies anymore, but one that I had recently was that people saying “no” doesn’t sting as much as it used to. I used to feel so rejected all the time that when you’d reach out to somebody you idolized or admired and it was a no, and sometimes it was a “Fuck no,” it hurt. But I got to a point that I wish I was at as a kid trying to date and taking chances on things, where I can be like, “Hey, you wanna do this? No? Cool, see ya around.” Here, the only real thing for me was how ill-prepared I was to get anything but a no from Harrison Ford.
GOLDSTEIN I think it was like a joke. Like, “Obviously not Harrison Ford, but someone like Harrison Ford.”
SEGEL Yes, you offer it to someone like Harrison Ford, so that for like a week you can say out loud, “Oh, we’re out to Harrison Ford.” And then you’ll go to the real person. Then Brett heroically got him.
GOLDSTEIN I was in London and he was filming Indiana Jones [and the Dial of Destiny], and I suddenly get a missed call, “Hey, it’s Harrison Ford.” I was like, “What the fuck is happening?” I went to his apartment to discuss it. And the discussion was very, very quick because he wanted to do it. I thought I’d be there to convince him. Nope.
And there you were presumably sweating.
GOLDSTEIN Oh yeah, I’m going to meet Indiana Fucking Jones. And he was so lovely. There’s a line in the Mike Nichols biography where he says Harris Ford was amazing because he was like, “Tell me how to serve the story.” He wasn’t a diva. And when I met him, he had thoughts about how the character dressed and he wanted to talk about all the things that related to his life. He was like, “I see this and this is what I would like to bring to it and tell me about the rest of it.” It wasn’t all just, “How do I shine?” And you see him in it. It’s Jason Segel and an ensemble, and he is fucking brilliant but he’s in the ensemble.
SEGEL He does something really amazing from the moment he arrives, which is he makes you feel like a peer. He breaks down that “you’re supposed to be in awe” thing real fast.
How does he do it?
SEGEL He used to be a carpenter, and he said this thing to me, which was, “I’ve been hired to build a house and all I want is that when we’re finished, the people who hired me are happy with the house.” And that’s pretty cool. He’s been hired to help build someone’s dream home, metaphorically.
So now you’re writing for him. Are there places you’re not sure you can take him, comedically?
LAWRENCE You’re doing your best with what you think someone might be good at or how they would want it to go, right? Initially, your thought is, “OK, you’re gonna write Harrison Ford gruff and everyone will do comedy around him, and he will respond, gruffly, to people being funny.” A couple of episodes in, you’re like, “Oh, he’s doing moves.” Like, Harrison Ford’s here to make comedy, not to react to comedy.
GOLDSTEIN When I watched the read-through of the pilot, I could see glee in his eyes. Like, wow, he’s fucking excited to be funny. And when he was getting big laughs in the room, I was like, “Oh, this is new for him.”
SEGEL I think all of us have parts of ourselves that we think are unseen and we’d like to have known.
What does that like for you, Jason?
SEGEL When How I Met Your Mother ended, I was like, “Oh, this is the first time that I get to choose something.” Because I’d started Freaks and Geeks when I was 19, and I went straight through and I made a bunch of romantic comedies. And so, at the end of that run, I was like, “Do I keep doing what I’ve been doing until that train eventually hits a wall?” Because you have the experience of people sitting around at dinner parties being like, “Well, if I had directed The Revenant, I would have …” (Laughs.) And I never wanted to be that guy about any of the things. I wanted to find out if I could do dramas. I wanted to figure out if I could write. I wanted to figure out if I could showrun. And so you try them to various degrees of success and failure, and I think that exorcises some of the things that keep you up at night.
Brett, you joined Ted Lasso as a writer, and five or so episodes in, you’ve said that you saw yourself as Roy Kent and pitched yourself to the other writers. Did you had a similar inclination on this show?
GOLDSTEIN No, this just felt like I was writing for these guys and I was very happy with that. It didn’t occur to me on this one.
Is it a different exercise when you’re writing lines that you don’t have to deliver?
GOLDSTEIN I don’t really think there’s much difference between writing and acting. It’s just that one happens behind closed doors and one happens on camera. They’re both like, “How do I feel? What am I trying to do? How am I relating to the people in this room?” You’re just imagining it when you’re writing.
SEGEL I agree. But I find the writing so hard, it’s so much work that I can’t imagine putting out the effort not to be in it.
GOLDSTEIN Don’t get me wrong, I fucking love it when I do it.
SEGEL I really want him to be in it. If we get future seasons, I really want that.
You willing to commit to that, right here, right now?
GOLDSTEIN Now? (Laughs.) Yes. Of course. I’d love to play with these people.
What did you learn from the Ted Lasso room that you brought here?
GOLDSTEIN The main thing I learned from Jason Sudeikis is about intentionality. The funny stuff’s easy. I don’t mean that flippantly, I just mean when you find people who are funny, it’s quite easy to make the show as funny or as unfunny as you like. The decision is, “Why are you doing this? Why are you putting this scene in? Why is this character doing this?” Everything should matter.
SEGEL Judd Apatow said something very similar to me when we were writing Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He said, “Write a drama. This is going to be funny because of the way you see the world. I guarantee it. And if it’s not, we can add jokes all day long, but the only thing people are going to care about is the drama.”
What were the biggest fights or debates in the writers room?
LAWRENCE The biggest issues on this show were always tonal. The sweet spot and when we knew we had a show was when the crew laughed at a line in the second episode. Michael Urie’s character says, “Everything goes my way.” And [Segel’s] Jimmy says to him, “It’s hard to be around someone who always says, ‘Everything goes my way,’ when your wife just died.” Michael Urie’s a great actor, and he goes, “I didn’t say everything goes your way.” And that’s how my friends and I talk to each other when we’re dealing with real dark shit. And if that line had not worked, I don’t think the show works.
SEGEL My big thing, and I said it to them at the beginning in a stroke of uncomfortable self-awareness, because I have to write for myself sometimes, was, “People will feel like he’s a good guy. You can push him right up to that line. If you cross the line, I’ll tell you. But otherwise, I’m pretty sure I can land him back into likability. And it’ll be more fun if we make him unlikable.”
GOLDSTEIN If you think of that very first scene, you’ve got a man doing drugs by the pool where he’s hired sex workers and he’s keeping up his neighbors, like, that’s your intro to him, and I don’t think there’s a second where the audience doesn’t go, “I like this guy.” (Laughs.)
SEGEL I know! “Aw, he’s going through a tough time.”
Looking back, what were the high points in making this show, whether or not they made it to screen?
SEGEL I have one. So, you change into your wardrobe very quickly when you arrive, and I started thinking it makes no sense for me to waste energy picking out an outfit for the beginning of the day. So, I started wearing a jumpsuit. But I didn’t have the guts to show up [in my jumpsuit] when someone else might see me, so [I planned to] intentionally show up, like, 30 minutes before my call time to sneak into my trailer and change. The first day, I got there early and Harrison Ford was waiting outside my trailer to run lines, which I didn’t see coming. So, we started talking and he kept, like, eyeballing my jumpsuit. He would talk to me, but he kept looking down at it, and I said, “You checking out my flight suit, Harrison?” And he said, “I sure am, kid.” I was really embarrassed. But the next day, I showed up and Harrison Ford was wearing a matching jumpsuit.
SEGEL Yeah, how ‘bout that? And now we are best friends. (Laughs.)
LAWRENCE This is very self-serving, but my daughter [Charlotte Lawrence] is a successful musician and she’d never let me put one of her songs on my shows. She was always like, “I don’t need the favor,” and she’s been on plenty of soundtracks. But then I got lucky because this whole “nepo baby” thing started, and once she was labeled one, I was like, “Now can I put one of your songs in the show? You’re already getting the backlash.” So, that’s my daughter’s new single in episode six.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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