Justin Kirk played ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Andy Botwin for eight seasons of Showtime’s Weeds, but his latest role finds him giving up plants for animals: Beginning September 26, Kirk can be seen as the prickly, misanthropic Dr. George Coleman on Animal Practice. The NBC sitcom pits Kirk’s disorganized, animal-loving-yet-human-hating doctor against ex-flame JoAnna Garcia Swisher in a battle for control over the veterinary clinic founded by Swisher’s late grandmother. The morning after shooting concluded on Weeds’ series finale, Kirk spoke to The A.V. Club about reworking the Animal Practice pilot, becoming acquainted with the star power of his co-star Crystal The Monkey, and receiving a good omen by way of Clint Eastwood.
The A.V. Club: You had Animal Practice lined up just as your previous gig, Weeds, finished its run. Is that an actor’s dream?
Justin Kirk: Well, I don’t know. It’s good for me. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, and so I like to go to work. I mean, it’s funny. I wrapped Weeds late last night. I’m a little shell-shocked. It’s obviously been an enormous part of my life, and there’s really no time to mourn, because I’m right back on a set for another show. So I’m going to say yes. [Laughs.] In the sense that I feel very fortunate to be busy. I’ve had much of my life sitting on my couch waiting for the next one, so when they’re coming quickly, then you have to be happy about it.
AVC: As the human face of Animal Practice, is there an added pressure going into this new gig?
JK: We do have other humans on it. [Laughs.] But I’m glad that I’ve gone, in a matter of weeks, from the star of Animal Practice to the human that happens to be in the background. The thing besides Crystal [The Monkey], who I love dearly—we have a crack comic cast all around. So I don’t actually feel that it’s totally on my shoulders, as I’m surrounded by several extremely accomplished comic performers.
AVC: The show was recast during the pilot process, with JoAnna Swisher Garcia coming in to replace Amy Huberman in the role of Dorothy. What was that like?
JK: Well, you know, it happens. My first TV series, Jack & Jill, when that got picked up, Amanda Peet replaced the original actress in that pilot. It’s a fairly common occurrence when a pilot gets picked up. We loved working with Amy Huberman, she was great and I thought she did a great job, but you know, I think that JoAnna was the final puzzle piece of this show, and she is definitely meant to be there.
AVC: So there was definitely a different feel, going back and reshooting those scenes with JoAnna?
JK: Yeah. And just for me, it’s nice because you don’t often get a chance to go back and tweak stuff or streamline some writing stuff. The funny thing is that making a pilot is sort of an audition, at least for me. There’s something psychological there, where you’re sort of asking for the job while you’re acting. And then when it’s been picked up, it’s a completely different psychological dynamic. I never book auditions. The last audition I booked was Weeds. So every job I’ve had since then has been an offer, but I’ve continued to go audition for things and I just don’t get them. I think it’s because somehow you’re in that room and you’re saying, “Eh? Eh? See what I can do?” And there’s a certain desperation to it, I think. And I think, at least for me, there’s a similar vibe with the pilot, like, you’re just throwing stuff out. [Affects an insecure whisper] “Oh, I hope this is going to be right.” And then when you’re picked up, you’re a big swinging dick and you’re like, “Hey, we’re on TV.” And you’re shooting the scene and you’re like, [affects an arrogant voice] “This is going to be for the show, so, uh.” So I guess long story short, I’m glad we’re on the air.
AVC: So there’s a noticeable additional confidence to the Dr. George Coleman that exists in—
JK: —in episode two. And also, yeah, in this case [the pilot], luckily, since we got to do reshoots. Yeah, exactly.
AVC: George is a very self-centered character; he’s a little cold to his co-workers. How do you play that aspect, that characteristic, while still maintaining likeability?
JK: Anyone that’s antisocial or misanthropic, it’s simply a choice that he’s making. The more you try to hide your emotional side, the more it wants to bubble up. So that’s the fun part of playing that conflict. And then I think you get to see him at his job and what he cares about in terms of, uh—I don’t fucking know, man. [Laughs.] I was getting there, I swear I was getting there, but I was working so late last night. But I don’t know, I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure it comes out. And don’t we love assholes, really?
AVC: Would you say his warmth comes out in how much he cares for his patients?
JK: That as well. Yes, indeed. The animal ones, not the people ones. You also get to see this person who broke his heart a couple years ago. And who has returned in some sort of situation where she’s above him at his job. And the people that break our hearts—especially for this guy, who’s like, a single guy and is never settling down, and yet this woman got away—she owns him until he can change that situation.
AVC: So she’s a physical manifestation of the things he’s trying to avoid and the things that he’s closing himself off to?
JK: That’s right, that’s right. And we’ll see where all that goes as we go forward.
AVC: Forward into the “sexy tension,” as it’s described in the pilot?
JK: As Betsy Sodaro points out. I’m going to tell you another thing now, since we’re talking about Betsy, one of the many things I’m excited about with this job: One of the coolest things for me is the introduction of Betsy Sodaro to the world. She has never done anything, film or television—she’s from sketch comedy in Los Angeles at Upright Citizens Brigade, and she is, without hyperbole, one of the funniest people I’ve worked with.
AVC: How soon did you feel a connection between yourself, Betsy, and your other co-stars? When did you think to yourself, “This is a cast that could sustain several episodes of a sitcom”?
JK: Yeah, well, that’s exactly right. TV’s weird when you’re making a series, because I’ve been attached to this thing from the beginning, and so I’ve watched the script go through changes based on people that are joining us, and it’s a really interesting process. But yeah, it became clear that we have a special cast. [Laughs.] And I don’t mean that in the short-bus sort of way, although occasionally… And it’s really great now that we’re moving on, moving to the next one, and it’s all starting to gel, it’s great to watch and be a part of.
AVC: Coming to Animal Practice from a television family that was together some eight years, how do the experiences compare?
JK: You know, the reason that I did this show was, it was very far—character-wise, tonally, all sorts of things—from Weeds. I would never have wanted to play an Andy Botwin-like character. You know, just move on and go do a network half-hour where I’m the fun-loving uncle who’s kind of horny. [Laughs.] So this is diametrically opposed, and yet completely fulfilling actorially on other levels for me.
AVC: You mentioned your desire to always be working. Is part of that desire to always be challenging yourself with different types of roles?
JK: Well, yeah—I mean, challenging, I don’t know.
AVC: Maybe a more positive, fun term?
JK: No, no, of course you want to be challenged. But yeah, you want to explore new territory, absolutely. And also, Weeds is sacred to me. I would feel stupid doing something that felt like it does. And so with all jobs—before Weeds it was Angels In America, and then Jack & Jill. If you’re fortunate enough to have some longevity, then you have to keep saying each one is a new and exciting thing. I never imagined I was going to be on a job with animals. You know? And that’s part of this gig, and it’s cool and different and exciting.
AVC: Before taking this role, how would you describe your relationship with animals in real life?
JK: Well, people ask me if I have any. It’s sort of like kids: I don’t have any at home, but I’m happy to go work with them as long as I get to go home by the end of the day. But no, I probably would have a dog or a cat, but my job takes me away—if I were to do a movie or a play, I leave town for months at a time, and so that sort of precludes it. Having said that, I’m looking at a stuffed dog that my manager gave me when I got this job, who is essentially my dog, Dwayne, on the show. Staring right at me while I’m talking to you. And he frightens people when they walk in the door.
AVC: So no pets even in childhood?
JK: Oh sure, yeah, absolutely. Had a dog. I had many. I grew up in rural Washington before I moved to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and my first dog was—his name first was Bear, but then it changed to Big, and he sort of looked like Old Yeller. And then we also had a three-legged dog named Foxy, who we found because her leg was in a trap. And cats running around, litters, yeah. We had the animals. No monkeys. So that’s all new.
AVC: Are you carrying any of that experience with rescued animals into this veterinary character?
JK: I am. And that’s part of the thing that I get to discover as we go forward. One of my dear friends in New York is a veterinarian, actually, at an exclusively cat hospital called the New York Cat Hospital, or the “Cathospital,” as they call it. So he was one of the first people I talked to about this, and I think it’s really an untapped environment on television. For me as a character, I mean, people and their animals is a deep and profound thing in the world. And it’s something that I am just starting to think about and explore and I think it’s a big part of this whole story that we’re telling.
AVC: What kind of questions did you ask your veterinarian friend? What did you want to know?
JK: Well, I’m going to trail him as soon as I get a couple days off. I’ve been on Weeds, but I’m going to go to New York and hang out. But I haven’t gotten too specific with him yet. [Laughs.] Luckily we’re a half-hour comedy, so I don’t have to perform surgery. But pretty much I gave him the script and asked him what he thought, and he said, “I think this is a great idea and a great concept for something that hasn’t been done.” And also just from the perspective of this guy who’s sort of broken by life and the people around him, and so he saves all of his good things for the animals.
AVC: Did he have any notes on the plausibility or the accuracy of the script?
JK: [Laughs.] He has not yet. He is smart enough to not do anything but say, “You go get ’em.” I don’t tell him how to scrub up, and vice versa.
AVC: You’ve gone against both pieces of advice in that old W.C. Fields quote: “Never work with children or animals.” Which are easier to work with?
JK: We had a lot of kids on Weeds this year. And with kids you usually have doubles, if they’re young enough. So when one starts flipping out, you just switch them. I’m told Crystal has a double, but I’ve never seen it. That’s how sharp Crystal is, she pretty much does it all. The other thing you do is you often shoot out a scene with the child or the animal first, so you do the takes with them, and then you can use like a rubber version of them off-camera for the rest of it. It’s only been a positive so far, although make no mistake—this show is a ticking time bomb and I’m waiting for someone to be maimed or worse by some kind of animal at some point.
AVC: Well, you’ve had a tiger on set, albeit in a cage.
JK: In the script it said they wheel in this tiger on a gurney. [Laughs.] And luckily on the day someone said, “Maaaaaybe we might want to put that thing in a cage.” We’re feeding it enormous legs of some kind of meat through the bars. That was a pretty exciting scene. That was one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever witnessed. So it’s cool. I mean, obviously that’s just one part of the job for me, to see all these crazy animals come and go.
AVC: And you haven’t had one wrapped around your neck yet, so you’re getting off easier than your co-star Bobby Lee.
JK: Speaking of our committed comic-performer cast: When we did the reshoots, Bobby was like, “I want to do the snake scene again.” We did not. We just shot our side with JoAnna and I pretending to look at him. We did not do it. He talked about this at [Animal Practice’s Television Critics Association press-tour panel], how it emitted an “I don’t want to be here” juice on his face and caused an allergic reaction. [Laughs.] So I said to the producers, “I’ll work with JoAnna and some other pretty girl guest stars, and maybe the occasional dog or cat. Leave the scary animals to Bobby.”
AVC: Did you ever think that the most dangerous acting job you would ever take would be on a half-hour comedy?
JK: [Laughs.] Well, that’s the great thing about being an actor: Stuff shows up that you never thought was going to go down. You get to play or experience an area of the world that—you know, I live a pretty simple life, I’m not much of an adventurer. I like my couch and my television. So when stuff comes up in the job, it’s a good deal.
AVC: Before the show, were you aware of Crystal’s stature within the animal-actor circuit?
JK: As people ask me about this show, or they say, “Oh, I saw the commercial,” and then I start telling them and I mention Crystal—[affects breezy tone] “Oh, I worked with Crystal.” At this point in the process they’re leaning fairly heavily, in the marketing, on the Crystal of it all, to get people talking about the show, and it seems to be working. Which is a good thing. She’s just, like, in a couple of these scenes, but when she showed up on set it was like, “Ohhh.” And you know, it was written as a chimp. But you can’t work with chimps anymore, because they’ll tear your face off. And so I think it’s so much better to have it be Crystal because she leaps around and stuff. It’s a lot better than just cutting over to a chimp. No offense to the chimps that may be reading The A.V. Club.
AVC: So you’re not a fan of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, the all-chimpanzee Saturday-morning series from the ’70s?
JK: I don’t know that one. Listen, I love the chimps, I’m just happy I don’t have to get in the ring with them. I’ll tell you another thing: When we were doing the reshoots with JoAnna, I went out to dinner at a restaurant in L.A., and Clint Eastwood was there. And I took that as a great omen. Because that’s the best track I think you can get after working with a monkey. Every Which Way But Loose, etc.—so I did take that as a good omen.
AVC: So it’s on to directing Academy Award-winning films from here.
JK: Clearly I will be, at 80, one of our finest directors.