Known for roles on such television series as “Alias,” “Felicity,” “Lost” and “Masters of Sex,” actor Greg Grunberg crackles with enthusiasm when discussing his return to his favorite character, telepath Matt Parkman, in NBC’s upcoming revival of “Heroes.”
In “Heroes Reborn,” which Grunberg characterizes as “’Heroes’ on steroids,” a terrorist attack devastates Odessa, Texas, famous as the home of Claire Bennet from the 2006 drama. Blamed for the event, people with extraordinary abilities — they’re called evolved humans, or “EVOs” – are in hiding or on the run from those with nefarious motives. While much of the cast is new to the franchise, the event series also boasts some familiar faces, including Jack Coleman, Masi Oka, Sendhil Ramamurthy and, of course, Grunberg.
The actor spoke with SPINOFF at Comic-Con International about his return to the "Heroes" universe, Matt Parkman's awkward reunion with Coleman’s HRG, and his character's potential for darkness. In addition, Grunberg talked about his involvement with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," his upcoming graphic novel "Dream Jumper," and why epilepsy fundraising hits home with him.
SPINOFF: How did you end up reprising your role as Matt Parkman in "Heroes Reborn”?
Greg Grunberg: The Super Bowl ad comes on, and it's a tease for the show. The second that happened, the coolest full-cast text went out. It was, "What's going on? What have you heard?" They told us nothing. My first reaction was, "This is the coolest thing ever." I've been talking to Tim [Kring, the series’ creator]; he's a friend of mine, and he's always looking out for me. I knew, hopefully, there was a possibility I would be involved and then it all came together. It was crazy. I can't believe it. I can't believe we're here. I can't believe I'm watching these buses go by and promoting the second round of this show.
When Tim started those conversations about reimagining the "Heroes" universe, what were some of the elements that drew you in?
What's interesting is, I don't think he's done much of a pitch. He kind of just said, "Do you want to come back and have fun with us?" I said, "Yeah." Then, when I got the script – and I've only shot one episode – that's when I found out different things. The stuff I've been seeing, and the cast that I've met, it's honestly "Heroes" on steroids. Tim picked up five years where they left off. It's a really interesting place to leave off. What's amazing is if there was an end, if we really did have a scripted ending, this would be a true rebirth. You'd be, "Wow. This is completely new and different." It's interesting and beneficial that it didn't end the way they wanted, so they can pick it up where they left off and say, "OK, here are the unresolved stories."
You only began filming your episodes a few weeks ago. What was it like on that first day on set and stepping back in Matt's shoes?
For me, when I work, it's all about the crew. It's like a family. I love it. I try to tell my kids the same thing, which is, “Go into a situation and try your best to put yourself in a situation where you feel like you've already been there.” You feel like it's very familiar, because then you are going to do your best work. I stepped onto that set and it felt extremely familiar. I gotta say, I missed everybody on the crew. That crew that is up there now is unbelievable, and there are people from different shows that I've done that have found their way to that crew in Toronto. Ten minutes in, Allan Arkush is directing. Then there's Jack Coleman and I together. The scene we were doing was very similar to a scene that we had done previously. We were like, "Wait a minute. This was almost like déjà vu." I was having a flashback, and I was actually able to correct some of the performance errors I made. It was really fun and that's sort of the way it's been for me. I'm like a kid in the candy store. I get to play this character again, which is my favorite character of any character I've ever played, and I've played some really cool characters. I'm very lucky.
Where do we find Matt five years later? How are we re-introduced to him?
HRG [Coleman’s Noah Bennet] is in a very vulnerable situation, and they want information from him. He won't give it up. The only person who can obviously extract that information is Matt. We haven't seen each other since we left off. I walk in the room and he's like, "Matt Parkman." It's so awesome. They gave me an entrance, and it's a cool scene, but with the history of these characters and reading a little bit deeper, it's a lot of what we used to do. The writers would write some really cool stuff that would be more of the story arc, but then the relationship stuff, which I think is really what made the show what it is, we would find it. That's what Jack and I did. "Wait a minute. This happened and that happened." It makes the scene so much richer. I ad-libbed one line that was a callback to the first series. Tim was like, "Are you kidding me?" They are very particular about the dialogue. It's so well written, but Tim was so thrilled. He was like, "What?" It was a line that Jack had said to me and now I'm saying it to him. It was great.
Matt initially struggled with his telepathy. How comfortable is he with those abilities now?
Ratings-wise, Matt is the most powerful character on the show. I'm totally joking. He's very powerful. I know I control my powers like nothing. Again, I've only shot one scene of four episodes we're doing. I know that it's going to get to a very powerful situation. Five years have gone by. The last time we saw Matt, he was just mastering the evil side of what his dad dipped his toes into. I hope I go to a really dark place. That would be interesting to me. There were elements of that before, but it's always been for a good reason. It's a justification that we can relate to, like protecting your family and the ones you love. When you are offered an opportunity, you are going to take care of your own. That's what Matt does.
You have a role in the new "Star Wars" film. What does it mean to you to be a part of that franchise?
To say it's a dream come true is trivializing it, and I don't want to. As a fan, I shot it, I did it and I cannot believe I am a part of this history of Hollywood. I cannot believe my best friend [J.J. Abrams] is up there and everybody loves him. There's no one better. He's the greatest guy in the world. I am the luckiest person in the world to have him as a best friend. Our families are so close, so it's really surreal. It's not unexpected. It's well-deserved. If anyone should have the reins on “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” it's J.J. He has so much respect for what George Lucas did, which is unprecedented. George Lucas got it so right -- and Kathleen Kennedy. It's amazing.
Details about the movie are scarce. What can you tease about your character?
All I can say is I didn't know what I was doing. It was like with "Lost," where J.J. called me and up and says, "Hey, come on out and have some fun in Hawaii." I'm like, "Great. I am on a show already." "Oh, don't worry about it. It will be fine." I come out and end up getting the coolest cameo in “Lost.” I am the pilot of the plane. It's funny because people are like, "What are you playing in ‘Star Wars’? You were a pilot in ‘Lost.’" But I can't say anything. There's so little I know about the movie and I want to keep it that way. J.J. talks about the mystery box. I don't want my mystery box opened. I want to see this movie like everyone else. I had the time of my life on this movie. I am so thankful to be a part of it.
One big Comic-Con announcement was that you co-wrote the graphic novel "Dream Jumper," which will be out in 2016. Where did the idea stem from?
I'm always trying to come up with ideas. I write. I did "Group Sex." I was a producer on "Big Ass Spider." I'm always looking for ideas, and something my kids could be a part of or watch. One night, my son Sam was having a nightmare. He wakes up, I go into his room and I was cuddling him. It was bad; it was almost like a night terror. He couldn't tell if he was still in it or out of it. I said, "Don't worry about it. You're sleeping. Tell me about it." He said, "It was a bunch of nightmares, dad. A bunch of nightmares." I said, "What do you mean?" He goes, "It was all my friends' nightmares and I was able to jump in and out of their nightmares and save them from the evil forces." I was like, "Don't go to sleep, I am getting my laptop." I took that and expanded on it and then co-wrote "Dream Jumper" with Lucas Turnbloom. He's an award-winning cartoonist. Here at Comic-Con, I went up to him and said, "Hey, is anybody doing this in the graphic novel space?" This was a few years ago. Graphic novels had been around for a while, but they are really hitting their stride right now. Even three years ago, I didn't know what was out. You don't know what's in the pipeline. Is that a fresh idea? I'm sure it's not if you look up comic books, but Lucas just went nuts. He was like, "We have to do this."
He illustrated the entire thing, which is over 200 pages. J.J. is doing the forward on it. It's inspired by a dream by Sam Grunberg. It's the best of all projects. Then to come down here and have Scholastic – everybody thinks of Scholastic as the book fair – to do that and to know your book is going to be at the Scholastic book fair is amazing. Honestly, I pitched this to J.J. and he said, "Write a graphic novel. It will have longer legs." I pitched it to Scholastic, and it's going to be a series of three books to start. We'll see what happens after that. The first one I'm really proud of. Lucas is an incredible collaborator. His illustrations are beautiful. He's not just an illustrator. He's really a storyteller. Our editor has been great. I've never gone through this process before on the book side of things, so it's been a blast.
Introduce us to the lead character Ben and this nightmare realm he gets sucked into.
The character of Ben has had trouble sleeping. His mom takes him to a sleep study and sort of hints that, "We've had trouble in our family. We don't want to talk about your father and your grandfather, but I don't want the same thing to happen with you." Ben, between his waking up and his nightmares, has drawn certain people. He's drawn characters or people he's seen and trusted. He goes to this sleep place. The guy who runs the top sleep center in the city looks at Ben because people who have been stuck in nightmares, when they wake up, they have been drawing him. As innocent as, "I'm gonna drop in and out of my friends' nightmares" sounds, we really do take it slowly in so far as he doesn't realize what he's in for. The baton has been passed to him. There's a Nightmare Lord and the minions that work for him. Ben has to battle a lot and save himself and he has nowhere near control over this by the end of the first volume.
You are heavily involved in charity events for epilepsy, and a portion of the proceeds from “Dream Jumper” is going toward that. Why is this cause so near and dear to your heart?
The most important part of the interview starts now, which is my love for everyone in the epilepsy community. Our son, Jake, when he was 7, started having seizures. We didn't know what they were. Over the course of the last 12 years, I've learned a lot. He's gone through hell and back. He's doing great, thanks to great doctors and great medication. I'm constantly fund-raising. I just had a 12-hour fund-raiser marathon online. We raised over $210,000 in 12 hours. Me and Rick Harrison from “Pawn Stars” did this non-stop. There were a lot of music acts. It's going to be an annual music festival online. We broadcast on Twitch. Fiverr was our creative partner, and were incredible.
I cannot stress how important Sunovion was. They are a pharmaceutical company and really care. My foundation is TalkAboutIt.org. If people want to go to TalkAboutIt.org and donate, that would be best thing because it goes right to the epilepsy foundation. There's a stigma attached to epilepsy and we've got to remove that stigma. It's scary to see someone have a seizure. Yes. It's scary to see someone have a cut and blood come out, but if you see it enough, then the next time you are like, "Oh, I know the blood is going to stop. It's no big deal." Well, guess what? The seizure is going to stop, too. It's not going to hurt anybody. Don't stick anything in their mouth and turn them on their side. Those are brief messages that I want to let out to people in the community. For the five million plus people [with epilepsy], I want them to know they are not alone. It's important. We were alone when Jake started having seizures. It shouldn't be cool and there shouldn't be a stigma attached to it. A company called IRA Apparel – Impact Reduction Apparel – have an insert that goes into any baseball cap and makes it a helmet. Jake can wear a helmet everywhere and no one knows.
”Heroes Reborn” premieres Sept. 24 on NBC. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” arrives Dec. 18.