As Matt Parkman on the NBC series Heroes Greg Grunberg can read people’s minds. In real life, he is much more down to earth and, well, cool. Not just an actor, Greg is also a producer, writer, musician and fantastic parent. I recently spoke with Greg about Heroes, his work outside the show and what got him to end up playing drums on stage. In part one of this interview we cover Heroes with a little tease for the latest episode. Note: Part two of this interview can be found here.
PCZ: Shooting-wise, how far along in the season are you?
GG: We’re actually on episode seventeen of twenty-five. We just started seventeen and I am a huge part of that episode!
GG: Yeah, exactly, we’re in “Fugitives” right now which is awesome because there’s so much tension and so much at stake in this last volume for the season. It’s pretty crazy. We’re on the run and there’s a guy hunting us, a whole team of people hunting us, and we’re trying to use our powers individually and then hopefully come together to fight it off. It’s not just a bunch of scattered stories, we’re all together.
PCZ: One of the great things about Heroes is that [the writers] pick up the box every few episodes and shake it up to see what’s going to happen. Along those lines, do they let you know your arc for the season or do you find out as the scripts come in?
GG: I pretty much find out as they come in. They’ll tell us if there’s something dramatic that we need to know and they’ll warn us like, for example, “You’re going to get shot.” At the end of season one they told me “You’re going to get shot. You approach Sylar and you want to kill him, but the bullets turn around and they all go through your chest.” And i was like, “…Okaaay. Should I warn my wife about this? Am I going to be looking for work??” And Tim [Kring, showrunner] was like, “No, the good news is we pick up the next season four months ahead and you would have already healed and everything.” So, I’m like all right. Other than that, all we get are teasers. I’ve learned, even from my best friend J. J. [Abrams], is that if I stick my head into the writer’s room, what you see on the wall on sticky notes is all just ideas floating around. Even if they write a first draft the network has notes so as an actor you can’t attach yourself to any of that stuff. The most warning or heads up is I’ll get a “holy shit” email from Tim saying “We’ve got some amazing stuff coming up for Parkman!” and that’s just great to hear.
PCZ: Well, even if your character gets bullet-ridden or killed, on Heroes it’s just a minor setback anyway.
GG: (laughs) I don’t know, those false threats of death are pretty much going away. They’re listening to the fans in that respect. It’s like raising kids, you can’t keep saying “This is my last warning!” You gotta walk the walk.
PCZ: You mentioned they’re listening to the fans and that seems to be a double-edged sword. The audience says “We want to see more of X” and then they go in that direction. Then the reaction is “We don’t like that after all.”
GG: The problem is, like you mentioned at the beginning, we’re seven or eight episodes ahead of what’s airing so it’s kind of hard to fix. Years ago J. J. responded directly to the audience and at the time that was like “What? You’re actually talking to the audience??” This genre has a really smart audience and there’s nothing wrong in listening to at least an overall feeling of the stuff they like, don’t like or the characters they’re responding to. I think Tim is really smart to address the audience directly and/or listening to them directly. I’ve been doing it. I’m on Twitter as Greg Grunberg and people at first don’t believe it’s me. I’ve got like 3000 people following me and I talk to as many as I can after each episode and it’s amazing, it’s so great. I got these guys last [Monday] night that said “There are millions of gay men that love that they saw your belly last night.” That’s hilarious. So I emailed them back and said, number one, that wasn’t my belly, it’s a stand-in belly…
PCZ: A stunt-belly…
“This genre has a really smart audience and there’s nothing wrong in listening to at least an overall feeling of the stuff they like, don’t like or the characters they’re responding to.”
GG: A stunt-belly! And we had this whole blog about stunt bellies. It was really funny. I have a lot of fun with Twitter, I love it.
PCZ: You can get that kind of instantaneous feedback unlike anytime before. Seconds after an episode airs people are dissecting it on-line and if you’re part of the show you can go and participate in that.
GG: Last night people were like “I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you.” For us, the actors, there’s so much that goes into each episode so it really is almost like watching it through fresh eyes. I know the story, I’ve read the script a million times, but to see the special effects put in, to see what music is used and what takes they used. I’ll give them an A, B, C reading on each scene, starting with huge emotion and bringing it down, whatever works best with how they’re going to cut it. Especially that dream sequence from [last week]. That was bizarre. [Episode director] Greg Yaitanes is one of the most incredible directors, he won the Emmy this year for House and he had a vision for that whole scene. I jump around from here to there, no sounds, it’s really spooky and weird and he says “Trust me, I think this is going to be really cool.”
PCZ: What do you go through shooting a scene like that? You’re told “Stand here for a few seconds and do this.” So you have no idea what it looks like until the finished episode.
GG: Exactly and I had no idea that it was going to be so hollow, too. The sound is really hollow and creepy. There’s a game I did called Condemned: Criminal Origins and I was the main voice for that game. It was the same sort of thing. It was really sparse and really creepy and what that does is, like the dream, make you pay attention to all the details and you feel like you’re almost there.It’s very cool.
GG: There are times. [Last week] is a perfect example. When I tell Angela I’m going to get a doctor and I come out of the room I run into Peter and Claire. When we’re rehearsing, blocking out the scene, Milo [Ventimiglia] brings up that the last time Parkman saw Peter, Peter sent him off to Africa. It wasn’t written that I slam him up against the wall or anything like that. None of that was written. There’s so many characters on our show it is hard for the writers to always be on top of what the last situation was. There’s so many different combinations of people getting together. Milo brought that up, we called up stairs, Jesse Alexander came downstairs and said “Great idea, let’s infuse some energy into this” and they put a pack on Milo so I could slam him up against the wall. We had some tension there which was great.
PCZ: You don’t shoot an episode in a week, you’re shooting two or three episodes at any given time, right?
GG: Yeah, that sort of changed a little bit recently. Dennis Hammer, one of our executive producers, is so good at using locations. If we know a location is going to exist over the course of two or three episodes we’ll get that location and then we’ll shoot those scenes, if they’re pre-written and the final drafts are up. We’ll shoot two or three episodes worth there. By the way, that’s a weird thing because you start the day with one director and then they suddenly switch and another director is sitting there behind the camera. Again, they’re trying to manage it as not necessarily bottle episodes, but they’re trying to make it so we don’t jump around as much.
PCZ: One of my favorite scenes this season so far is Parkman following the turtle.
GG: Oh, thank you!
PCZ: And while it is a humorous scene, to me it kind of defines Parkman in that he’s willing to do whatever it takes, no matter how inane or crazy, to get answers and to do what he thinks is right. I thought that was a great moment for your character.
GG: Thank you. I love that what he wants is a family, he just wants the simplest thing. At first it was cool; a cop getting these powers, it was probably the most important power a cop could have, the knowledge of someone else’s thoughts. At the same time he’s kinda now in over his head, it’s kind of John McClane going [nervously]”Ok!” That’s why I try and play him as absolutely relatable as possible and as real as possible. Those crazy moments where we go from zero to a hundred miles an hour or a casual conversation to the end of the world so quickly, I try as best I can to play it as real as possible.
PCZ: You also have an almost unlikely love interest this season. That must be fun to play. Are we going to see that continue? In the future they get married, but that can change…
GG: We’re not going to have the outcome that we saw. Those futures never really come out to be exactly how they are, but this next episode has a huge reveal for her character and her backstory. Remember she keeps saying she can’t go back to where she was. Well, we’re going to find out what that is and it’s huge and it’s a real bonding moment for our characters. Plus, I think and I hope it’s going to be a real sympathy moment for her character. She is working for the bad guys and she is setting me up, but not in her heart of hearts and I think that’s why Parkman knows that she really does love this guy. And it is an unlikely pairing. I love working with [Brea Grant] though, she’s just great. We were in London and we did a sci-fi show together and she’s like this manga character. They love her, she looks like one of those characters, it’s just amazing. They really did a great job casting her as Daphne.
Watch Heroes Mondays at 9:00PM on NBC.