Greg Grunberg has been a familiar face to TV viewers for more than a decade, slowly making his way up from regional commercials to one of the lead roles on the hit show Heroes. As Matt Parkman, a cop who can read minds, Grunberg gets at the heart of the show's once-ambivalent attitude toward superpowers, and by extension, the burdens of being a hero. For years now, Grunberg's ordinary-guy qualities have made him a successful TV sidekick, most notably in series created by his lifelong friend J.J. Abrams. On Abrams' Felicity, he played a man whose entrepreneurial instincts usually got the best of him. From there, he segued into a regular role on Alias, where he served as a pal and buffer to on-again/off-again fellow agents Jennifer Garner and Michael Vartan. Grunberg also starred as a bounty hunter in The Catch, an Abrams pilot that wasn't picked up, and he co-starred with Jason Bateman in the barely aired, pre-Arrested Development sitcom The Jake Effect. During a break from filming Heroes, Grunberg talked to The A.V. Club about what makes a successful sidekick, and what it's like leaving sidekickdom behind. And also frozen yogurt.
The A.V. Club: When we decided to put together a sidekick-themed issue, you immediately came to mind as a good person to talk to, even though you've graduated from those roles lately.
Greg Grunberg: You know, as much as I've graduated, I love sidekicks. For me, it's the greatest position to be in, because, first of all, you always need a sidekick. It's always that familiar face that you can count on. I've been J.J.'s sidekick go-to guy, and for me, as far as work's concerned, if you're a sidekick, you'll work forever. I love it, I always love it. What's funny is on Felicity and Alias as well, even going back to Seinfeld, on all those shows, sidekicks are the ones you remember. They always have the zinger, they're always the support system, or they get all the information. They're the shoulder to cry on. So they're always good characters to play.
AVC: What's the key to making your part memorable without overshadowing the lead?
GG: Hopefully, it's well-written… It's weird. I hate to steal a scene, but you've got to have… I always try to find something or some way of delivering the lines or playing the scene that you wouldn't normally expect. And I know that sounds weird, because it's not like I surprise people with shocking performances. But in an interesting way… Just being real and as interesting as possible. Usually, that stuff is the spine of the show. It's the humor that you need in a scene, in an intense moment or something. [On Alias,] I'll pop through the scene and ask Vaughn if he wants to have a calzone. It's that sidekick moment. You don't get that many moments, so you've got to make the most of what you get.
AVC: Did you admire any character actors who played sidekicks as you were forming your own acting style?
GG: Not really. Senior citizens compare me to a guy named Jack Carson. He was the character actor's character actor way back, and he was able to play comedy, he was able to play drama, and he crossed over. He could get some leading roles, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and some other big parts, but he was mainly the "God, wait a minute. I know that guy!" You were comfortable with him in any film, in any genre, and he worked forever. I have, actually, his headshot from the '30s, and a signed autograph on a napkin from when he was coming out of some club in 1939 or '49, and it's just that classic, go-to sort of character that you can count on. But there isn't anybody I've really studied to do this. It's kind of been like my life. I mean, I know my limits. I try and just become the best actor I can possibly be. Heroes has definitely given me more leading-man stuff to do, and I love it. I'm still staying in my comfort zone, but you know.
AVC: So how would you define your limits?
GG: I'm not going to play someone too far from who I am. Although I did a movie where I played a killer, and that has yet to come out. But that's someone I love being able to shock people with. I will hopefully be able to do that on Heroes. There are decisions that these characters, they get to a crossroads, and it's like… Well, take what's just aired. I could steal these diamonds, I could do something you would not expect me to do. My limitations are—I'm not Meryl Streep. I'm not playing anything in a foreign language, or anything too far from who I am.
AVC: How did you get started acting?
GG: I was, throughout school, in the theater program. Through elementary school, junior high, high school, and then J.J. Abrams, my closest friend in the world, we were living together. He was writing and I was trying writing, I wasn't getting paid for it like he was, but I always had the acting bug. And then I just realized, "I've got to do this." I started with commercials, and then through commercials, guest-star roles. You know, a natural progression. And I got very lucky. There are so many great actors out there, friends of mine, who are not working right now. It's a tough time. It's a great time, but it's also a tough time. And I've just been really, really fortunate. People that I work with have gone on to do other things, and then they've been kind enough to want to work with me.
AVC: What was your first commercial?
GG: Oh God, my very first commercial was for a Computer Learning Center. It was daytime TV, but it was local, and I was so excited that I booked it. Without an agent. It was one of those just-submit-yourself things, and I booked it, and this is how I know that my career had to go up from here: I had a 7 a.m. call time. I lived in Sherman Oaks, I had a 7 a.m. call time in Orange County. I woke up at 9:30. It was literally the worst possible situation ever.
I did over 60 commercials, but the most memorable commercial I ever did was one for Rolaids. It was me, tailgating at, it was either the Super Bowl or a Buffalo game. My body was painted, and they had a character playing my dad and a character playing my grandfather, and the tagline for the commercial was "Mom doesn't make it out to the games. I don't know why." It was very memorable, it ran for over two years. I actually went on Leno because of that commercial.
AVC: Looking at your filmography from '90 until Felicity, you did work on syndicated shows, Fox, and off-network programs, vs., say, independent films. Was that a conscious choice?
GG: It's certainly easier to get those roles. Nothing is a conscious choice as an actor at that stage. There's so little that's a conscious choice even now. The offers, as absolutely limited as they are even at this point in my career, I have to really think about. I have a family, and it's a job. There are times when you take work that you normally may not dig. I did V.I.P. and Silk Stalkings, and looking back, I don't know if I would have done that stuff. It was fun to do, and my dad taught me a long time ago, just go. If someone says, "I want to meet with you," and they're about a hundred miles away, just go. You never know what might come out of it, and if you can make it, make it to the meeting. If you can do a job, work. Work begets work begets work begets work, so I really have always been about that. I was a series regular on Alias, and then I had a deal with NBC, and I did this funny show with Jason Bateman [The Jake Effect], and I was waiting for this other pilot to get picked up, when my buddy at House called. Did I want a guest spot on House? I said yes, when another actor might have said, "No, I'm a series regular. I don't do that!" But I really believe that if it's something good and it's work, why not do it? Why sit around on my ass? That's what I do, I'm an actor. To work, I take any opportunity I can get.
AVC: You've known J.J. Abrams all your life, right?
GG: Yes. Since we were 3.
AVC: As kids, did you talk about going into this business?
GG: I didn't have any family in the business, so I didn't have that leg up. But seeing as J.J. and I are as close as we are, it's sort of like having family in the business. His dad, Jerry Abrams, very successful TV-movie producer, and he's got a couple films and stuff. I was very lucky, my parents just encouraged me to pursue something creative. Although my dad was in the clothing business for 35 years, so I had business in my blood. I opened up a frozen-yogurt business out of college. I didn't finish college, I went halfway and then I worked for Joel Silver, the producer, as a driver for a year. And I was sort of like, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I learned a lot from Joel. He's a really, really smart guy, and I just learned if you put your mind to it, you can do it. Don't be intimidated by anybody. Joel was one of the biggest movie producers in town, and I wasn't hanging out, I was in the car driving him, but it was one of those things you through osmosis pick up. If those bozos can do it, I can do it.
It was a great experience, but after that, my business side took over and I opened up a frozen-yogurt business on Melrose. And out of that frustration of sitting in a yogurt store and waiting for people to come in and pay $1.50 for yogurt… I remember feeling so trapped at times doing that, and realizing, "Okay, I'm single, I have to try before I settle down, I have to try acting and do what I want to do." So I closed the store and started a frozen-yogurt delivery business called Yogurt Runners, and I would send fellow actors out in the afternoons, to all the agencies and studios around town, and the hair salons, and we would sell nonfat frozen yogurt that was prepackaged. And that way, I could go on auditions during the day and sell frozen yogurt in the afternoon, and still make a living. It was a great way to earn my income without having to wait tables, which is just not for me. So I had that business for a while, and that business actually grew. It was a pretty successful business, as far as a little business in LA, and I kept a lot of my actor friends employed. And after that, I was a telemarketer at night for a knee-brace company. I've done everything to try and keep my… I didn't want to wait for success to find me. I didn't want to wait and say, "When I hit it big, that's when I'll start a family." I met my wife, I had no money, I had nothing, and I started my family without really, my career was nowhere, but I had these other businesses, I had these things I was doing to be able to afford a small home.
AVC: And you got out in time, before the collapse of the frozen-yogurt market, too?
GG: Exactly, and now it's back!
AVC: Now that you're in a more straightforward heroic role, have you felt increased pressure?
GG: I do, at times, but I really enjoy it. I feel like I'm ready for this. I learn from everybody that I work with. Leonard Roberts [who plays D.L. Hawkins] is on the show right now, and that guy… He just has to smile, and he scares the shit out of me. It just shows that you don't have to play into what's written for you. You don't have to play heroic to be heroic. There are these moments, and directors—we have guest directors every week—I can't tell you how many they'll be like, "Okay, this is your hero shot." And on this last episode that aired, it was right before Ali comes out, and she's chasing us around the building, and I go "Okay, I'm going to buy us some time." I cock the gun and I'm standing there, and he goes, "That's your hero moment!" And I just go, "Oh my God, come on. Let's just shoot it, and I don't want to make that hero face. I don't want to attempt to do that." Ricky Gervais was the best villain we had on Alias, because he didn't play it scary. He had the cards. He had the bomb on the plane, he didn't have to threaten us, or start screaming. It was just, he held all the cards. And that, to me, is as scary as you can possibly make it. We're shooting an episode… we're about to shoot, where it's five years in the future, and it's not the Matt Parkman that anyone is used to seeing. My character is in a place that is really dark, and I'm not going to play it like this menacing, evil guy. I'm just going to play it as normal as possible. That, to me, is the way to make the most impact. Let the actions speak louder than the words. Horned-rim Glasses, Jack Coleman, has that job on our show, and so does Zach Quinto, who plays Sylar. It's like he's got to put on a face, and when the character he's talking to turns away, his face drops and he's evil. That stuff's really hard to do without looking corny. So I'm not planning on adding any extra pressure to me to be heroic. I'm just going to do what I do, and hopefully people buy it. I want to be as real as possible.