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“Heroes” Set Visit, Talking with Greg Grunberg

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
“Heroes” Set Visit, Talking with Greg Grunberg

It was a warm, August afternoon in Los Angeles when I made my way over to the Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood, California to visit the set of “Heroes,” the new hit series on NBC. The traffic was bad – as it usually is driving into Hollywood in the middle of the day – but some how I made it without being late, something of a miracle in Southern California.

I was really looking forward to this set visit. For one, it would be the first time I’ve visited the set of a television show. I’ve visited a number of film sets around the world and I was really looking forward to seeing how different a television set would be when compared to a film set. As I arrived at Sunset-Gower I learned we’d actually not be staying there and that we’d in fact be headed to a location about 10 minutes away. So, my day would be a bit different than anticipated, but that’s OK – much like the show, it’s all a big adventure to me. I was also looking forward to meeting Greg Grunberg, best known to television viewers as Special Agent Eric Weiss from the television show “Alias.” Greg plays Matt Parkman, a down-on-his-luck LAPD beat cop who begins to hear the thoughts of others, which puts him on the trail of a serial killer. Much to discuss there.

We left the Sunset-Gower studios and after a short drive we arrived at a two-story 1930s era ranch style home at the base of the Hollywood Hills. The location shoot provided an interesting perspective into film making for me. Previously all my set visits have been in large studios or outdoors where you have plenty of room to work. Today, the crew was shooting a scene that found Greg and his wife sharing a meal inside this house. While the house itself would be roomy enough for a four person family, when you throw in an entire shooting crew with all their equipment and five members of the press, it got crowded very quickly. You’re constantly bumping into people and tripping over cabling, but everyone made do.

The crew were mostly set-up outside, with director David Semel watching the action from the front porn on monitors a series of monitors. Greg was inside, waiting at the small, circular dining room table, appreciating the meal he’s prepared for his wife, played by actress Lisa Lackey. They were shooting a scene from the fifth episode of the season, “Hiros,” and apparently the night before Greg’s character Matt came home very late and was in quite a bit of trouble for staying out so late without giving any notice. So, to make it up to his wife, he prepared the perfect meal for her by, well, probing her thoughts. The scene was a relatively short one, with the camera tracking his wife as she walked into the dining room. As she entered the room, a look of surprise and happiness took over her face as she took in the scene – a wonderfully laid out table with purple flowers, a bottle of fine wine and a well prepared feast. Greg reached for a bottle of wine and poured her a glass as she entered the room. While we couldn’t hear the dialogue, it was clear that Greg was doing a bit of apologizing while also describing all the delicious food he had prepared. Apparently it did the job as shortly after she entered the room and enjoyed a toast, she was all over Greg, straddling him in his dining room chair with a deep embrace and passionate kiss. Clearly, the dinner did its job nicely.

We watched the scene filmed three or four times. In between scenes the actors would come out to talk with the director. Greg asked, “How’d it look?” Semel responded jokingly, “It almost looked professional!” As they shot for a second time, the camera was moved in closer on the characters with other small adjustments here and there. By the fourth shot, the scene began with the camera focused on Greg pouring some wine into a glass, then pulled back for a wider shot of the room and scanning to the right as Lisa entered, then following her left back to the table and Greg.

After four shots, they took a break and we walked over to the back porch of the house to talk with Greg. It was about 5:00 in the afternoon and for a guy who was up and working since 7:00 in the morning, he was remarkably fresh and energetic. In talking with Greg, we immediately found he was a sociable, engaging and humble actor, who clearly had a love for the material and enjoyed very much getting the chance to share that enthusiasm with us. He was funny, charming and much like the parts he plays – a good guy you’d enjoy throwing back a few with.

Greg, you weren’t in the first episode of the show that we’ve all seen. Apparently in the original two-hour pilot you were in there, but with the change to a one-hour pilot your reveal was held until the second episode. Talk about that.

If you watch the pilot it’s very clear they spent the right amount of time with these characters and established them in a great way. They were going to pepper me throughout the pilot, but it just wouldn’t have done this character justice and you wouldn’t have had enough time to get to know him.

The pilot process is so weird here, for so many reasons. I was in London recently and a guy from the BBC was telling me that they give them as much time as they need to get the pilot done. I mean literally months to shoot a pilot. Here, we have no time and no time to prep. So, the two hour pilot that Tim originally envisioned and wrote, they didn’t have time to shoot or post it. So, when I found out it was cut down, Tim and I had a talk and I just deferred to him. It’s better to wait and do it the right way.

Your super power is the ability to hear others thoughts. What do you think of your super power on the show?

I think it’s pretty cool! I think it’s extremely relatable, as much as you can with a fantasy element. I really do think people can grab onto reading minds more than they can being able to fly or any of these other things. It plays into what I like to do, which is to add a little humor to a show like this. If I turn this show into a comedy, I’ll be so happy! [laughs]

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Were you hoping for a different power? Did you ever beg Tim for one like, “Please let me be the flying guy!”

No, but what’s funny is when I auditioned for the pilot, I was auditioning for the part of Peter [the male nurse and politician’s younger broth played by Milo Vetimiglia]. I had just worked with the director David Semel on “House” and so I called him up and said, “Hey, I heard you got this [“Heroes”]. I’m so excited.” I told him I had auditioned and he said, “You couldn’t be more wrong for the role of Peter.” [laughs] That’s like saying, “You look terrible. Are you ready for your close-up?” [laughs] When I got there I could see Tim’s wheels were spinning and he was thinking about me for a different character that I didn’t even know existed. When I was driving home I got a call and they asked me if I’d read for this other character, Matt. When I read it, this is the character I connected with more than the others.

Your character is funny, but he has a pretty serious task in the show – isn’t he hunting a serial killer?

Well, no, there’s like a dark force that has been going around and killing a bunch of people and he’s hunting us down as well. I’ve been told that I’m going to be used as the investigative side of the show and hopefully I’ll be finding out clues and unveiling things the audience need to know.

Since you’re one of the Los Angeles based heroes, how much contact do you have with these other characters who are peppered around the world?

I haven’t shot one day with any of the other actors so far, except for maybe a guest star or people involved in my storyline, but that’s about to change. We’re on episode five and I know that that is coming. We’re all being hunted down and I’ve been taken already and spit back out. One by one he’s trying to get to all of us.

Is that a challenge for you as an actor not being around the rest of the cast?

Yeah. People ask me, “Hey, how’s it going? How is it working with so-and-so?” And I say, “Well, it’s great partying with them! That guy can drink!” [laughs] What else can I say? I admire them all and admire what they did in the pilot. It’ll happen in time.

Greg Grunberg as LAPD Officer Matt Parkman.

My favorite eopisode on “Alias” was the Ricky Gervais episode because it was like we were working as a team where we all had our assignments and things to do – if we could do that and we could work as a team on this, that would be great.

Has there been much mention of a team dynamic for this or next season?

I think it’s going to happen before season 2. I think it’s pretty obvious that a few of us will get together. I know that in the script that I just got that a couple of characters are already together and have revealed their powers to each other. It’ll be cool when it does happen. I don’t know who’ll be the ring leader, but if I can have that Mulder and Scully role in the show, I would just be thrilled.

In recent years you’ve worked a lot with your friend J.J. Abrams on both “Alias” and “Felicity,” as well as in his latest film, “Mission Impossible III.” How’s it like switching to working with Tim Kring?

He’s great. One of the reasons why I loved the script so much is because it wasn’t so different [from what I’m used to]. I loved it. All of the scripts I’ve been reading and some of them read like great pilots, but this really read like a show and that’s how J.J. writes. It felt like a story Tim wanted to tell his whole life. Then I asked him about it and said, “Wow, this must have just been sitting inside of you and thank God for ‘Lost’ and its success.” And he said, “Nope, I whipped this thing together and it just poured out of me.” I think he’s a big, fat liar! [laughs] You can’t just sit down and write something like this!

Outside of this, there wasn’t another genre show that I really loved. This is an escape and it’s something I would want to watch. It’s just one of those shows like “Lost” where you can loose yourself for an hour and get invested in these characters. He’s written some really interesting characters and it’s a character show with enough visual stuff to keep it going.

Do you read comics or have you in the past?

Nope. I was never a comic book guy. I’ve always been a fan of Batman and superheroes in TV shows and movies, but no. I really wish I had collected them as a kid.

Is genre programming like “Heroes” what you find you gravitate towards?

No, not really. Usually I just gravitate to whatever the hell J.J. is working on. [laughs] That’s what I want to do. I don’t want to work with anyone else – I love working with JJ. But, from the J.J. camp comes all these people [to “Heroes”] that I’m just as close with.

When I met Tim, instantly I felt like I want to work with him forever. He’s really great creatively. If I’m on the set and there’s a line that doesn’t make sense to me, he’s all about helping it make sense. Jesse Alexander came over and he’s co-exec producing. We have the greatest front office, it’s unbelievable. [Director] Greg Beeman, [Co-Executive Producer/Writer] Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, [Co-Executive Producer/Writer] Michael Green, these guys are all working on the same show and it’s pretty great.

Speaking of J.J., any chance of you ending up in his Star Trek movie?

I hope so! Man, do I hope so! We joked about it. I was talking to JJ about it and know I’ll be asked this question and asked him what I should say? I know I’ll do something. I won’t have a big presence, but I would love to be some evil character or something. With “Mission Impossible III,” I had a small part and it was only four days, but it was so great working with Tom and JJ, but I told him there’s no way I’m sitting for 18 hours in make-up for two lines and JJ said, “Sure there is!” [laughs] I was like, “Dammit!” I want any part. If I’m in it, I’m in it. We love working together and hanging out.

Do you have a preference between television and film?

No, as long as it’s good material and good people. I love TV and I’ve been really lucky because I’ve had a chance to play characters who are the guy that everyone likes to hang out with in their living room. With film, you have to have a huge presence because you have a very short amount of time to get that point across. I’m like everybody’s best friend, that kind of guy, and I don’t mind playing that kind of guy. I’ll be that guy forever.

What do you know about your character in “Heroes” thus far?

I know what’s happening through the first nine episodes with my character and it’s pretty incredible. The stuff they’ve had me do so far is really amazing. And like I said, I like to infuse some humor and with this role and my ability, it’s easy to do that. You can walk by a guy who thinks some comment and you can give him a look. They’ve come up with some incredibly moving things. [What we’re filming today] is a set-up for a scene where I’m making love to my wife and I’m doing exactly what she wants me to do without even telling me. That’s just awesome!!! Cmon! [laughs] That’s the best thing ever! I’m the best lover on the planet! [laughs]

With some of the heroes thus far, we can’t be certain which direction they’ll go in, good or evil. But you seem like you’re a pretty nice guy …

But that’s a pretty nice set-up isn’t it? Look, when I was working on “Alias,” I pushed so hard for the last scene to be Arvin Sloan walking into an office and saying, “Sir, I did the very best I could.” And I spin around in a chair and say, “Very good. Thank you.” J.J. would never take me to the dark side. But in this I very well could have moments where I take advantage of people. It’s very tempting – imagine if you could read everybody’s mind? Here we are five episodes in and I still can’t control this. All of these thoughts just come at me and now I’m having headaches and it’s something I’ll have to deal with. Tim and I have talked about it and eventually I’ll be able to master it. But none of us really know whether we’ll be good or bad.

Masi Oka and Hiro Nakamura

Outside of yourself, do you have a favorite character on the show yet?

That has to be Hiro. That’s everyone’s favorite character because he just embraces his ability and loves it. That moment when he does it and screams, “Yipeeee,” you just have to love that. He’s a guy who knows what he’s got and wants to show the world. I love his character because of the innocence and who [actor Masi Oka] is. He’s going to be the breakout character, but I’m trying to steal that with some love making! [laughs]

In playing a character who spends a lot of time listening intensely to the thoughts of others that has to be present some very real challenges for you as an actor.

That is a real challenge because I had to find a way – and I hope that it’s believable – but I didn’t want it to be [rubbernecks and puts an overly inquisitive look on his face]! [laughs] To a certain extent there is that kind of thing where you want to listen where it’s coming from. The challenge for me is to not look stupid. Really, it could be just dumb, but the promos they took from the two hour version of the pilot I shot, well, I was very happy with the way it looks.

Did you talk to any psychics or those who supposedly can read minds before tackling this role?

No, no! [laughs] No, that would have been so odd. [laughs] I do want to shoot a scene in this where I sit down with a tarot card reader. It would be so great to just give it right back to them and freak them out where they’re like, “Holy shit! How do you know that?” That could be really cool!

I did do a ride along with some cops. The main thing for me is to look natural in that situation with the gun and all that stuff.

Thanks, Greg.

Once things wrapped up on the set, it was time for us to head back to Sunset-Gower to tour some of the regular sets you’ll see on the show in the coming weeks. Easily the most impressive set would be the loft of Isaac Mendez, the heroin addicted artist played by Santiago Cabrera. Just like the artists lofts you’d find in Downtown LA, it was an expansive, multi-level room filled with art supplies and finished paintings. As viewers learned in the first episode of the series, Isaac has the ability to see the future through his paintings. Throughout the room were dark, violent and apocalyptic paintings, including a massive mushroom cloud painted on the floor. It’s a grungy loft with a very industrial feel. Seen on a number of the paintings was a symbol, sort of two F’s situated on top of one another, which was a prevalent symbol seen throughout the different sets we visited.

“Heroes” series creator Tim Kring.

The next set was Mohinder Suresh’s New York City apartment. Suresh is played by Sendhil Ramamurthy, a genetics professor from India whose father’s disappearance leads him to uncover a secret theory that there are people with extraordinary abilities living amongst us. There was a classic, almost English feel to the apartment, with at its focus a map of the world with a series of pins which were all connected by stings to one another. There was a very gothic feeling to the room, with heavy wood furniture all around. That symbol I mentioned was seen in a number of places in this room.

We left that set and made our way to the apartment of Peter Petrelli, played by Milo Ventimiglia, the male nurse who believes he can fly. This was a very lived in apartment with a small air hockey table at the end of his bed. Above his desk was a very creepy photo you’ll be seeing more of on the show, I’m certain, and all around the room the book shelves were filled with a variety of scientific books.

Our day finally came to a close and I left with a bit of insight into the show I didn’t have before, but it became clear the answers I had about the direction of the show would be met with further questions – who are these people, what is happening to them and where will these powers take them? We’ll all find out together Monday’s at Nine O’Clock on NBC.

Want to know more about the show? Don’t miss our exclusive one-on-one interview with series creator Tim Kring and join in on the “Heroes” discussion right here on the CBR Forums.

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