The hilarious new Fox comedy The Grinder is about two brothers – Dean (Rob Lowe), a spotlight-grabbing actor who plays TV’s most popular lawyer, and Stewart (Fred Savage), a real-life, small-town attorney who has yet to find his spotlight. Despite having no law degree, no license to practice and no experience in an actual courtroom, when Dean Sanderson, Jr. moves back to his hometown of Boise, Idaho, where his brother is poised to take over the family law firm from their father (William Devane), he uses his charisma and flair for the dramatic to his advantage. And if these two brothers can manage to stop arguing with each other long enough, they will make a formidable team, both in and out of the courtroom.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Fred Savage talked about how he was lured him back into acting with this project, how much fun he’s been having on this show, that this is ultimately a family story, the brotherly bond, working with Rob Lowe, playing the straight man, fun guest stars, and whether he’d ever consider directing an episode of the show.
Collider: How did this show come about? Had you been thinking about going back to acting and jumping into another TV show?
FRED SAVAGE: No, I hadn’t been thinking about going back to acting, at all, actually. I’ve been directing for quite awhile and it’s been going well. I’d been directing a lot of episodic television, and I was doing pilots. It was all going great. But then, out of the blue, I got the script sent to me by a friend of mine, named Nick Stoller, whose daughter is in class with my daughter. He sent me the script for the pilot, and I was like, “Oh, my god, this is fantastic! I’d love to direct it! Thank you!” And he said, “No, no, no, this is not for you to direct. This is for you to be in.” And I was like, “No, thank you. That’s not really the direction I’m heading in right now, but thank you so much.” And he said, “Why don’t you come in and meet everybody.” So, I did and I met with him, Jake Kasdan, who directed it, and Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, who wrote it, and we started talking about the show and the character. And then, we started improvising scenes together, and they were so nice. Then, I had that Rob [Lowe] was going to be doing it. So, it popped up out of the blue, but it seemed like too much fun to pass up.
After you decided to jump back in, did you have one of those moments where you were like, “Oh, my god, I could be acting again and playing this character for years”?
SAVAGE: Honestly, I didn’t. I just thought about doing the pilot and really was taking it one step at a time. The decision to do the pilot was literally just about wanting to spend a week with this great group of people. I wasn’t really looking past that. And then, the pilot came out well and we got picked up and we’re on the fall schedule. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I really went into this excited to work with these people, and now I get to do that every day. I went into it with the best intentions, just trying to do something that seemed fun, with a great group of people that I respected and loved to work with. Now that we’re doing this every day, it’s pretty great.
This show has that fun element of watching a successful actor playing a successful actor on a show within a show, but even with all of that, when it comes down to it, this is really a family story with the comedy and drama that comes with that. Was it important to you that, even though it had this hook, it also had that balance between the two?
SAVAGE: It really was, and I’m so glad you pointed that out. Making a comedy is one thing. People can think up jokes. There’s a lot of things you can do to make people laugh. But to make people really care about characters, that’s a much higher bar and a totally different skill set. And Andrew and Jarrad, who created the show and run it, do that incredibly well. You’re right, there is a big concept to the show, and tonally that can get very meta and broad at times, but at the core of it, it’s really about this family. It’s about these two brothers, and fathers and sons, and husbands and wives. There’s something to it. There’s some substance to the comedy. That’s what I always look for, not only as an actor or a director, but also as someone who loves watching television. You want to be there for a reason. If a show can make you care about the characters and make you laugh, that’s a real high bar, and I think we do that and we do it well. We’re really happy with the show, so far.
We start to see the relationship these brothers have, once Rob Lowe’s character comes back home, but what sort of relationship did Dean and Stewart have before then?
SAVAGE: I think these guys have genuine affection for one another. Writing a sibling rivalry show is simpler and a little reductive, but human relationships, especially ones with a family, are much more complicated than that. They’re not so black and white. And the relationship between Stewart and Dean is a more nuanced, layered relationship. Yes, they get on each other’s nerves, but they also really support one another. At the core of their relationship, they really want what the other person has. Stewart sees Dean as someone who is revered, respected, valued, appreciated, and all these things that Stewart, who feels like he did everything right, doesn’t have. But Dean, who is successful, famous, and all of these things where everyone thinks he’s got it made, looks at Stewart as someone who has roots, a family, a home, and who’s genuinely loved by a wife and his children, and that’s something that Dean doesn’t have. We both really admire one another and covet what the other person has, and that makes it a much more interesting relationship.
As annoying as it is to have Dean doing what he’s doing, it also pushes Stewart to be a little bit more confident and outgoing. Is that a good thing?
SAVAGE: The style of the law that these two guys practice is very different. Dean does fake law, where everything is very dramatic, there’s big music, there’s grandiose speeches, it’s very bombastic, and there are back-stabbings and betrayals. But actual law, which Stewart and his father practice, has a lot of contracts and real estate transactions. It’s law, but it’s not made for TV law. I think that Dean is pushing Stewart out of his comfort zone. He wants everything to be dramatic, and there’s some push and pull there.
As far as work goes, do you think Stewart is threatened by Dean, even though he’s not actually a lawyer?
SAVAGE: Oh, no, not at all. I don’t think Dean poses a threat to Stewart, in any way. I don’t think he’s at all threatened by him. I think he’s just waiting for the rest of the world to realize that the emperor has no clothes. He’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop. In some of our subsequent episodes, when Dean is exposed, Stewart really feels for him. All Dean has is this make-believe world. The second you start poking holes in it, Stewart begins to realize that that’s all Dean has. If you take that from him, there’s nothing there. He’s just a lonely guy. In those moments where the bubble starts to burst, Stewart does what he can to keep the illusion going for Dean’s benefit.
How does your relationship with Rob Lowe, as actors, compare to your relationship, as characters?
SAVAGE: There is absolutely no similarity. He’s been incredible to work with. Rob is someone who I’ve been a fan of for my entire life, really. I can chart the highlights of my life based on Rob Lowe roles. He’s played some iconic characters that are just seminal in people’s experiences. To be working alongside him is just such a thrill, and it’s a big reason why I’m even there. I was excited to work with Rob, and it’s been incredible, from day one.
Your comedy on this show really comes from being the straight man to the flashy, showy guy, which is a talent in itself, but you also have some physical comedy. Do you enjoy having that balance, so that it comes from different places?
SAVAGE: Yeah. When you’re doing a television show, which will potentially last for several years, I want to find a way to tell jokes and tell stories in different ways. You want to find different approaches. As the straight man, you’re already limited, a little bit, in what you can do, so you want to find ways to tell jokes while you’re being physical, or you underplay or overplay things. There’s a lot of lee-way. We’re just trying to figure out how far you can go.
It seems like there are endless possibilities for guest stars to make fun appearances on this show. Is there anyone that you’ve worked with in the past, that you’d love to see come on the show?
SAVAGE: We’ve had some fantastic guest stars already. Christina Applegate came. Nat Faxon came. Jason Alexander is going to be coming. The exciting thing about getting actors of that caliber, so early on before you even air, is that it’s just based on the strength of the show, the pilot and the scripts. That’s incredibly encouraging and really validating. If the show continues to hold up, and people like it and talk about it, I think we really can attract even more terrific talent to guest star on the show.
With your own directing history, have you thought about whether you’d want to direct an episode of the show, or do you prefer not having to direct yourself?
SAVAGE: No, I prefer not having to direct myself. I have my hands full, trying to figure out how to do this character well and how to do a good job, as an actor, on the show. I’m not going to be directing anytime soon, that’s for sure.
As a director, when you switch gears to do the acting, does it take a bit of adjustment to keep yourself from thinking about how you could be doing things differently?
SAVAGE: No, I’m only too happy to turn that part off. I really enjoy just focusing on the acting in the scene and putting all of my attention on how to make it good and funny. The director has so much responsibility to keep them busy that I’m not, for a second, going to try to interject.
Once the season is done, are you going to continue to juggle acting with directing between seasons?
SAVAGE: I certainly hope to. I was able to direct this new show for Hulu, called Casual, that’s fantastic. Jason Reitman is executive producing it, and I directed that before we started on the show. And I’ve been directing a lot of commercials, just to get as much in as possible. I hope to continue it. We’ll see how it goes, but that’s definitely the plan.
The Grinder airs on Tuesday nights on Fox.