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Friday, February 20, 2009

Tony Shalhoub: The Channel Surfing Sit Down

Contrary to popular belief, the words "Green Bay native and Emmy Award winning actor" have not been legally attached to Tony Shalhoub's name.

So aside from the deluge of information the Press-Gazette continually disperses about its hometown boy done good, the fact remains: the hometown boy has done, well, pretty darn good.

The three-time Emmy winner and star of "Monk" is a known commodity in Hollywood, and more than a year into Channel Surfing, we always thought it'd be fun to have Green Bay's biggest TV star talk shop with us. That opportunity came this week when Shalhoub, in town this week filming the independent movie, "Feed the Fish," sat down with us at his hotel in Door County.

Starring Shalhoub, Ross Partridge, Kathryn Aselton and Barry Corbin, "Fish" is about a California writer who comes to Wisconsin to rediscover his creative sensibilities -- particularly by jumping into icy Lake Michigan as part of Jacksonport's winter Polar Bear Plunge ritual. The film is directed by Shalhoub's nephew, Michael Matzdorff, also a Green Bay native.

Because of slippery road conditions, Press-Gazette photographer Corey Wilson and I left early on Wednesday so we could give ourselves enough time to arrive in Sister Bay for the 11 a.m. interview. When we walked into the hotel at 10:50 a.m., we were surprised to see "Fish" producer Alison Abrohams already waiting in the lobby for us.

Oh, and Shalhoub was standing right next to her ... except because of dim lighting, we couldn't really see his face and realized kinda late that he was waiting to shake our hand. That and his thick mustache kind of made him look like the Soup Nazi from "Seinfeld."

Shalhoub couldn't have been more polite and pleasant; it's great to see he's maintained his humble Midwestern roots. The bulk of the interview was spent on the film, but we snuck in some TV questions at the end since we had this blog in mind. Plus, "Monk" wraps up its eighth and final season later this year.

Special thanks to Abrohams and producer Nick Langholff for making it happen. Look in Saturday's Press-Gazette for a full behind-the-scenes story on the film, and check our Web site for an awesome video produced by Wilson (who also took the photos in this post.)

On with the Q&A ...

I have to ask about the mustache. I assume it’s for the role.

Yeah, the director said he’d like to see him with the mustache, the local sheriff. It’s always good to try and make something different from what people are used to seeing, like Monk. I first grew an entire beard just to see what we’d end up with, and this is how it came out.

You seem like the kind of guy that could get a full, grizzly beard going.

Oh yeah, I had a few weeks to work.

Let’s talk about how you got involved with this project. You’re the uncle of the director (Michael Matzdorff), correct?

The writer/director, correct.

So does he just call and ask if you’re available?

The project, you know, has kind of been evolving over a couple years, various drafts of the story, of the movie. And so he showed it to me early on, gathered some people, and we did some reading, table reads. I was intrigued by the whole idea. And he said, obviously we have to shoot it in the winter. That works for me because I’m usually on hiatus in the winter for my show. And he said, do this part of the sheriff, if you’re interested. And I liked it.

Is there room to improvise or create beyond what’s written on the page for the Sheriff character?

You always sort of bring your own kind of spin to it. That’s sort of the challenge and the frustration of acting (Laughs.) Sometimes what’s on the page does not lend itself to an individual’s input. Sometimes, in the case of this material, it really does. It’s more of an outline. Obviously, there’s dialogue written. But the characters are well rounded, they’re diverse, they’re interesting, they’re multi-layered. In a way, they’re dependent on each actor really engaging and participating in the creative process.

I’ve read that “Feed the Fish” is a romantic comedy of sorts – a down on his luck writer (Joe) who uses the Polar Bear Plunge to serve as inspiration …

Yeah, it has comedy and it has romance …

You don’t have to label it as a romantic comedy if you don’t want to.

(Laughs.) Sometimes that term, romantic comedy, I don’t know, it turns me off sometimes. This is a lot more, this is better, than just a romantic comedy. It’s really kind of, as you say, about this guy who has been down on his luck, a failed children’s book writer. And he winds up in this very unlikely and harsh environment. But instead of getting completely turned off, he’s sort of inspired by the characters he meets. He finds love. He sort of gets back in touch with who he is and what he’s really all about. I think that’s really at the heart of this movie.

So do any of the characters have ties to Wisconsin, or is Joe coming here having only heard about the Polar Plunge?

He comes to visit a friend, who does have ties to the area. His friend does the Polar Plunge every year. It’s kind of tradition for his family to do this plunge. He asks his buddy out in L.A., our lead character, to come out and join and help train for it. This guy agrees to it. And he has no idea what he’s in for.

His reaction must be the same as when anyone hears about actual people in Wisconsin jumping into Lake Michigan in winter.

Yeah, and once he arrives and sees … this is a character we establish early on when we first meet him in Los Angeles. He wears a coat there. So he even thinks that’s too cold, running around with a parka. So when he gets here, he’s completely out of his element. And hopefully, comedy ensues.

There seems to be a lot you can pull from in terms of Wisconsin, interpretations around the country of what Wisconsin is really like, who we are. We endure this brutal weather every winter … you can probably mine some unique material out of those elements.

You can. But in the end, in a way, it glorifies the place. And the sort of hidden beauty of it. So it’s as much a homage to the people and the area as it is a comedy about it.

What’s your specific role as the Sheriff and what level of impact do you provide on Joe’s journey?

I’m a guy who is all about the locals. A guy who has been here his whole life and is protective of it. Suspicious of any outsiders. Why would this person be here at this time of year? (Joe) then befriends my father and my daughter, so he’s not high on my list. And he appears to be a complete idiot.

Ultimately, though, (the Sheriff) is about his family, his community, and he kind of sees himself as the guy who makes sure that it all stays together.

The glue, if you will.

Yes. Hopefully.

Do you consider yourself to be in a unique position having Green Bay roots, having spent time in this area, at least for the Wisconsin imprint of the film? Are these unique circumstances for you to work under?

It’s very unique in the sense that I’ve lived in a lot of places, worked a lot of places as a director and an actor, and yet, the few decades I’ve been doing this, I have not worked here, since college really. So it’s long overdue.

You’re a supporter of the tax incentives for film making in Wisconsin. Do you see the film industry thriving here? (Note: This was asked before Gov. Jim Doyle's proposal to end tax incentives was revealed.)

I hope so. It’s a fantastic thing that the state is trying to do. And hopefully this will be one of the early things that really kicks it up a notch. We want to come back and do more. If this movie does well, and we think it will, we’ll want to do more things. Some will be in Door County, some in maybe other areas of Wisconsin.

Not that you can ever stop thinking about work when the camera is rolling, but is it also unique to be working with family? So close to family?

It’s the best of both worlds. I get a chance to see my family and friends. Locals up here we’ve known ... my folks started coming up here the year I was born, so to be working and contributing something to the whole area, it feels good -- rather than just coming in, a week or a few days, and eating as much smoked fish as you can. Actually, I can kind of bring something back here, and as I said, hopefully, helping to launch films in Wisconsin.

You’re still a fairly regular visitor to Wisconsin, right?

I still have Packers season tickets. My family, we have a reunion in Door County every summer. It’s a big part of our lives.

Does anything from childhood frame your perspective of the area, anything you can bring to the film?

In the summers, it’s the water. That’s the thing that really, is kind of the focal point, (being) in and around the water as much as possible in the summer.

Does being here in the winter still offer a lot of natural beauty that can really showcase the area in the film?

I hope so. I hope it inspires people to come here in winter, to see what it has to offer. It’s really special. Beautiful in the fall. A lot of people come for foliage in the fall, or at least people in Wisconsin who know about it. If the movie is seen around the country, maybe it’ll draw some more folks into the tent.

Any chance to get away and make some other stops in the area this week?

I’ve been really, really busy. I did make a trip to Green Bay, see some family. Mostly I’ve been focused on the film. Can’t get away too long.

Are you pretty hands-on as a producer?

Mike and I have lengthy discussions that have to do with story and casting. He and I sat just prior to coming out here, and went through the script, did extensive last minute notes. As a producer, I try to draw other investors into the project, and make sure that we can do it right. It’s something that I’m kind of used to. I’ve been a producer on “Monk” since the beginning, well, seven years now.

Is it a pretty organic process for you, pulling in the community for a small independent film?

Over the years, I’ve become familiar with the area and have a lot of really good relationships here in the community. They’ve bent over backwards to embrace the whole project, given us the benefit of the doubt. They could not be more supportive.

What expectations do you have for the movie?

Obviously, we’ll have to – when all is finished in post-production and sound mixing – find a distributor for it. I assume we’ll try to get it in film festivals. That’ll be a good place to find a company that will help us get it into the theaters. We want to get it in theaters all around the country … slowly or all at once ...

I wouldn’t characterize this as an art film, so it’s not just for a niche audience. It’s not going to be in art houses, there’s nothing pretentious or super … it’s really a commercial product. It should be able to do well in a mainstream theater.

What are some of the obstacles involved in getting it that kind of mainstream acceptance?

The whole key to, well, my understanding, the whole key to getting movies released is that advertising can really, really be prohibitive. It’s so expensive. What we’re really trying to, what we’re looking at, is a way to do it on the Internet. Not to show the movie on the Internet, but to promote the movie on the Internet. Get some eyeballs, raise awareness … Mike, the writer/director is really knowledgeable about how to roll something out, and taking full advantage of the Internet. I think that will be the tack.

Does the recent history of films like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno” and this year, “Slumdog Millionaire,” give some hope that smaller films can really catch fire and make an impact that forces the mainstream to take notice?

It’s possible. If you look at Academy Awards pictures right now, very few are gigantic studio blockbuster-type movies. With the economy the way it is, and the entertainment business going through these kinds of growing pains, you know, in terms of people downloading material, that sort of stuff, is going to be a challenge. But I just think, this material and the way it’s being handled, I think it really has a great shot.

What’s the biggest difference between film and TV work?

I do hour long episodic TV, and especially on cable where the budgets tend to be lower, it’s very similar to independent movies. You’re shooting a lot of material in a very short period of time, with limited funds. So there’s a real crossover. Unlike studio movies where the budget is enormous and schedules are strung out over months. If you don’t finish something, someone throws some more money at it. I’ve done those kinds of movies, too. But with independent movies, cable television, in a way it’s more fun. It’s really about problems being solved quickly, and sometimes that fosters that little creative side of everybody involved.

You’re making do … something might not be the ideal location, or the ideal thing, so you need people to really start to get creative. Sometimes happy accidents occur and you get some really good stuff.

Did you always want to do some behind-the-scenes work?

For a while I was only focused on acting. I worked on a series or two, and really wanted to have a voice. I wanted to, I could see things, how to solve a problem, or fix a situation in short order. When you’re just an actor, you’re not always allowed to kind of stick your (opinions) in there. So when I started “Monk,” I asked about being a producer. And they were really open to it, the network totally embraced the idea. It can be really gratifying. Because (as an actor) we have enough experience, I think, that we can really, actually contribute something.

Where’s “Monk” at in terms of production?

The second half of Season 7 finished in December, and has been airing over the last month and a half. Season 8 starts filming in March.

Do you know how it’s all going to end in the final season?

The writers are holding the secret and not sharing it with me. I’m pretty sure they’ll wrap up Trudy’s murder, that mystery, that case. Possibly Monk will get reinstated to the police force. But there’s really… I can’t get it out of them. Believe me, I tried.

Have you thought about your post-“Monk” life?

I’ve been kicking some ideas around. I would like to produce some things, I have some ideas. Maybe not jump right into a series. I don’t know. We’ll see how it all plays out.

You took some time away from TV after “Wings,” right?

I did films for a number of years. Then I realized I wanted to stay local in Los Angeles where my family was. “Monk” came along and it was the perfect, perfect situation.

Do you want to always be working on TV in some form?

No, not necessarily.

Have you had time to reflect on “Monk’s” legacy, how the show will be remembered?

I feel and have felt proud of the show and what we’ve done, and I think it will have a long life in syndication …

I guess I’m primarily asking because some shows are made, have nice runs, but peter out after they’re off the air. “Wings,” it seems, had a nice life in syndication and is thriving on DVD …

I have no regrets. I did “Wings” for the right amount of time. I feel the same is true of “Monk.” Had there been fewer seasons, I’d probably feel a little frustrated that we didn’t do everything we could. Had it gone on too much longer, you know, eight seasons is a good amount of time. By the end of eight seasons, we’ll have done 124 episodes. That’s a huge number. If it had gone longer, maybe it would have started to dwindle. People’s interest might have begun to wane. It feels like the right amount of time. The right amount of episodes.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski, trozwado@greenbaypressgazette.com

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3 Comments:

Tom, sincere, sincere thanks for the interview with Tony. I have followed his career and been proud to call him a Green Bay native. This is by far the best thing the paper or website has done with him. A joy to read about him, and as you said his being so humble still is a unique pleasure. Thanks again.

By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 20, 2009 at 10:19 PM  

Nice interview, Tom. Great read. Tony seems like a genuinely nice guy.

By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 23, 2009 at 12:32 PM  

he's no jonathon brandmeier

By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 8, 2009 at 10:22 AM  

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