Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: John Ross Bowie has worked steadily since first appearing on the big and small screens in 2000, often in one-off guest spots and recurring roles on TV series. That makes his co-starring role as Jimmy DiMeo, patriarch of the DiMeo family on ABC’s Speechless, feel like the culmination of years of putting in the work. The comedy, about a family of limited means and unique challenges (a son who has cerebral palsy and can’t speak), makes the most of Bowie’s comic chops without being shticky, with affecting moments that don’t feel treacly. Bowie co-stars with Minnie Driver and newcomer Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy. As Speechless continues its second season (Wednesdays on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern), it may eventually eclipse the role people most recognize Bowie for: The Big Bang Theory’s alpha nerd bully Barry Kripke. Or the weird documentary possibly funded by a cult.
John Ross Bowie: I had heard there was a pilot script for a show about a family with a child with special needs, and it was kind of being prejudged by a lot of my friends. They were like, “It sounds like it’s going to be really treacly and sentimental,” and honestly, I’m not just saying this, but I was like, “Well, yeah it could be, but if it’s done properly, it could be really interesting, and it could be really innovative.” I got a chance to read the script, and I was like, “This is great. There’s not a chance in hell I’m going to get it.” And sure enough, it looked like I was not going to for quite some time, and then the night before the table read, they couldn’t close the deal with another actor, who shall remain nameless, because of some scheduling thing. So they called me frantically at 9:30 the night before the table read and said, “You’ve got the gig.” I did the entire pilot pretty sure that I was going to get fired if we got picked up, but I just watched the season premiere, and I’m still on it, so cautiously optimistic.
The A.V. Club: Why did you think you were going to get fired? Just because the scheduling was going to open up?
JRB: When the schedule would open up and they could get a bigger name, which is just the nature of it. That is going to sound bitchy or more resentful than I want it to, but that’s just the nature of the business. They’re trying to get recognizable people up on TV, and I get that, but I was very pleasantly surprised to have my services retained when we went to series.
AVC: It’s a tricky part to play too, because there’s the whole “sitcom dad” thing. Not that all shows come from that template, but there’s more nuance to that character than I think you typically have on a lot of shows. How did you approach building him?
JRB: Well there’s a couple of challenges inherent in the script: It’s sensitive material, and I’m also playing a character loosely based on our executive producer’s dad. Those are two pretty big minefields, but [Executive Producer] Scott Silveri and I sat down, and we talked a lot about his dad and what his dad did for a living and his mom and just looking at what Minnie was doing. She was this incredible lioness of a character, and we just decided it would be really fun to just play things kind of small and really cool and really unflappable, and it’s been really fun to do—a pretty subtle performance I hope, anyway—on a network sitcom.
I look at Paul Reiser as one of my favorite sitcom dads, even though he wasn’t a dad until halfway into the series. I loved Mad About You. I loved that show, and I loved the work he did on that. And I looked at guys like Bryan Cranston. Malcolm In The Middle was a far more absurdist show, but everything he did was rooted in something very truthful, and when he turned around and started showing us what a great dramatic actor he was, it was no huge surprise. I’d watch him on Malcolm In The Middle, and I’d be like, “Oh my god, this guy’s incredible.” He’s able to go to the crazy places but keep one foot in our world and keep it really grounded and honest, and it was so cool to watch. So it was sort of a process of figuring out what the show needed to balance Micah’s performance and Minnie’s performance and the kids while still remaining true to the character and to Scott’s family. I finally met Scott’s dad a couple weeks ago, and we’re very, very different types, but he likes my work, and that’s the ballgame, pretty much.
JRB: Scot Armstrong, who co-wrote that movie with Todd Phillips, was a UCB student when we were in a show together, and a bunch of people from UCB read for the main roles, the main guys who go on the road trip. I had read for the part that Paulo Costanzo got, but none of us got work. But apparently they did a table read down in Atlanta, and the guy who was playing Waiter showed up late, and they got really pissed off and they fired him, but they frantically needed someone to play Waiter. Scott suggested me and said, “He’ll fly himself down.” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll fly myself down. Sure.” So they put me on tape and I auditioned, and a couple weeks later, they’re like, “You’ve got it. You’re Waiter.” I went down to Atlanta and stayed with a friend and did the scene, and I remember being struck by the fact that my scene was with Fred Ward—and Fred Ward was in Tremors with Kevin Bacon. Boom, right out the gate, first credit I have with Kevin Bacon, number one.
JRB: They were just pulling people from the school. A lot of us got our first time on camera doing background work or tiny, little one-line parts on the UCB show. It was sort of this mutually advantageous situation where they had this fledging TV show on a basic cable network. They didn’t have a ton of money, but they also had this massive school filled with really hungry, struggling actors who were eager to get any kind of camera time. So it was a win-win for everyone involved. They had this talent pool to pool from, and we got to figure out what “back to one” means and what it feels like to be on set. There’s a bunch of us who have our first credits. It’s me and Rob Corddry and Paul Scheer, Rob Riggle, and all those guys from that generation of UCB, we all started just working on their TV show.
JRB: A.U.S.A. was my grad school. I had just moved to Los Angeles, and I got incredibly lucky. I moved in January, and I think I booked that thing in February, which is the opposite of a cautionary tale. “Wow, you move to L.A. and you will automatically book a pilot,” which is not the case. Terrible, terrible example to set for people. It was just a right place, right time thing where I had just a couple of credits, but I went for an audition on a Saturday morning, and I just got the momentum. I was to be the goofy paralegal on this legal sitcom. The thing about A.U.S.A. was that absolutely everything went right in that we shot a pilot, like a single-camera pilot—it looked like Scrubs with lawyers. That was the pitch at the time.
Then the head of the network, a brash young man named Jeff Zucker, decided that he didn’t like single camera and wanted to try it again as a multicam, so they shot a second pilot, and I got a second pilot fee. So I paid off my student loan, I bought a car—instantly more money than I’ve ever seen in my life. I was just thinking, “This is incredible. I can’t believe my good fortune.” But there was a voice in the back of my head that said, “This might not last.” I bought a used Honda Civic—I didn’t go out and get the new Audi.
So we had all this momentum and the wind at our back, and then they put us on opposite the second season of American Idol, and we just got bludgeoned to death every week with ratings that, by the way, nowadays would get you five seasons and a movie. We were doing 11 or 12 million viewers in 2003, and that made us a flop, which is hilarious in hindsight. But they ordered 12 episodes, they shot 10, and they aired eight. The thing I remember that was really funny about what really ended that gig was in April of ’03, either Variety or The Hollywood Reporter put out these two lists of shows that their TV writers really wanted to see return and shows that the TV writers really wanted to see get canceled, and A.U.S.A. was on neither list. Literally nobody cared if we lived or died. But yeah, it was fascinating. Absolutely everything went right, and then everything went wrong. It was an incredible experience and taught me so much about how this business works, for better or for worse.
JRB: Life Of TheParty was written and directed by a first-time writer and director named Barra Grant. She was Bess Myerson’s daughter—Bess Myerson was a Miss America winner—and she had alcoholism in the family. She had written this story about an intervention that goes horribly wrong. It was clearly designed to be this smart, little independent film that was going to hit Sundance and maybe see a small theatrical release. I was super excited, and I worked with some great actors—I remember Ellen Pompeo is in the movie right before she booked Grey’s Anatomy. It was a really strange experience on set. She was a first-time director. I had done a couple movies, but I had never done this much work on a movie. I worked like two weeks on this set, which was a lot for me. It looks really good. We had a really good director of photography, and there are some good performances in it. It doesn’t quite hold on, and at one point, about halfway into production, I came home, and I was saying to my wife, “I feel like we’re making a Lifetime movie that just has cursing in it.” We wrapped, and I didn’t hear a thing. And a year later, the film showed up on Lifetime with all the cursing taken out. [Laughs.]
JRB: I will stop you right there. I don’t know why the Arrested Development credit is on my page. I never did that show, but I’m a huge fan, so I’ve never bothered to correct them. What does it say? It says I’m like Spa Employee or something?
AVC: Yeah, and I was like, “Oh, he must have been one of the masseuses or whatever at the tent,” though I didn’t remember you specifically. But I haven’t seen that episode in forever.
JRB: I have no idea why that’s there. Honestly, I didn’t put it there, but it also seems somewhat ungrateful to correct such a mistake.
JRB: It was the series finale, directed by Ken Marino. That was interesting. I really liked that show a lot, and it obviously had an amazing cast. That was a really interesting episode. The cast was kind of intimidating. Alex Rocco’s in that episode—Moe Greene from The Godfather! So that was pretty intense. I have a photo—I don’t take a lot of photos with famous people as a rule, but I do have a photo of me and Moe Greene.
Ken was directing the episode, and I had to punch him at the end of it. So I take a swing at him, and he’d say “Cut,” and he’d go over and talk to the writers and the producers. He’d come back and then he’d go, “Okay, try to punch me this way.” I thought, “Okay, we’ll do that.” So I’d punch him again, and he’d say “Cut.” And then he’d go back and confer with the writers and the producers, come back and he’d been like, “Okay, maybe be surprised that you’re punching me,” so I was like “Okay, that’s fine.” I worked with the stunt coordinator where you come right up to their face, and your fist makes a hard left away from their face—and that’s terrifying. I’m like, “I’m going to deck Ken Marino.” I remember we just did so many takes, and I was like, “Ken, every extra take we do is just spinning the barrel and hoping we don’t land on a bullet. I’ve got to tell you: This is really risky stuff here.” He’s like, “No, I want to get this right.” And I’m like, “I do too, man, but I also really do not want to punch you in the nose.” But the episode came out great. I’m always fascinated by, here was this show on Starz and got canceled after two seasons, [and] I get recognized from that episode more than you would think.
The A.V. Club: Speaking of that, is this what you get recognized for the most?
JRB: Yeah, it’s still pretty huge. The international reach of that show is pretty crazy. I was doing a gig in South Africa about three years ago, and I’m on a subway in Johannesburg, and this law student comes over to me and wants a picture. I am literally on the other side of the world. That is crazy, and I’m not saying this in a self-aggrandizing way. It’s just amazing how many people watch that show and how it connects with all these different cultures. It’s huge in South America. It’s huge in India. It’s funny because I live in Los Angeles where nobody cares. You can walk into a Starbucks, but 10 minutes later an Oscar winner is going to walk into Starbucks, so you don’t get recognized in Los Angeles a lot because it’s a company town, and everyone’s like, “Who gives a shit?” The barista’s got an Emmy. But I’ll go to visit friends in London, and I’ll step off the plane at Heathrow and [British accent.] “Are you in Big Bang Theory?” It’s so strange how people really connect with the show and see themselves in those characters. It’s pretty cool.
AVC: That role too is a scene-stealing one. You said it’s like Newman on Seinfeld. He comes in and says something funny and then leaves.
JRB: It’s just fun to be the villain anywhere, but on a sitcom where villains are kind of few and far between, it’s just really rewarding. Another photo I have actually—again, I don’t take a ton of pictures of actors—but I do have a picture of me and Wayne Knight, who plays Newman. It’s two generations of sitcom douchebags, and it’s one of my treasured possessions.
AVC: I haven’t seen a lot of that show. Does he always have that voice, the R-W switch?
JRB: Yes, he does. That was suggested during the audition. I came in and was playing Kripke, who just on page was this nerd bully and this incredibly smart but incredibly alpha guy, and they suggested he should have some sort of vulnerability. I’m sorry, this story feels a little canned, but they wanted some sort of Achilles’ heel, and they suggested a very subtle impediment like Tom Brokaw has. The thing about an actor, they ask, “Can you do this?” The actor says, “Yes. Of course I can.” That’s just how you end up dying on horseback and stuff. But they asked for something subtle—I came out with this Elmer Fudd thing, and Chuck Lorre started giggling like a mad man. I was like, “Well this could go any number of ways.” But I got it in the room—they gave me the job right there, and I went to work the following morning. That was nine years ago.
JRB: This is a long one, but I’ll try to economize as best I can. I had a brand-new agent. I had just booked A.U.S.A., but we hadn’t started production yet. They said, “We are sending a script over for you to look at via messenger,” because we weren’t sending PDFs yet. “So take a look at this. There’s an audition in the valley tomorrow.” What shows up on my doorstep is this fucking phonebook of a script. I picked it up, and I was looking at it, and about 30 pages in, I finally figured out that what they had done. They had interviewed a bunch of physicists and scientists and spiritual leaders and gurus about the nature of reality itself, and then they had strung a story across these interview segments to illustrate the points therein. It was billing itself as a “hybrid documentary,” and I thought to myself, “Well, that’s not a thing.” I’ve seen re-enactments of stories, like The Thin Blue Line, for instance. Okay, I got that. This is something else.
So I go in for the audition, and it’s in the second floor of a strip mall in the valley—and this is how a lot of cautionary porn stories start, in the second floor of a strip mall in the valley. But I do the audition, and it’s this weird scene at a wedding where I’m hitting on the lead, and we’ll just see what happens, I guess. I had just enough experience at that point to say, “Okay, I’m going to audition, and I just am going to leave it there. I’m not going to think about it.” Three days later, I’m told that I’ve got the gig, and they’re going to fly me up to Portland, Oregon, and we’re going to shoot all weekend, and they’ve cast Marlee Matlin as the lead. The script has to be rewritten to accommodate the fact that the actress is deaf.
I go up, and the director is a guy named Mark Vicente, who was a director of photography originally and then moved into directing features, and it’s very strange. It’s a bunch of extras from the greater Portland area, where they don’t do a ton of production, and Marlee is very, very sweet, and I learn a little basic sign language. We’re on the phone right now, but she showed me how to sign improv, which is sort of the way she did it was just the letter I going across the stage. That was kind of cool. We dance together in this wedding scene, which was really fun, and I picked her up at one point and we were kind of spinning around, and when I put her back down, they were like “How are you, John?” I said, “I’m a little sore, but I’m okay.” And they were like, “We have a chiropractor on set,” and so I got into this guy’s trailer and the chiropractor works on me for like 20 minutes, and I feel amazing afterward. I finish my weekend on the scene, and I have no idea what’s going to happen with that thing. Who knows?
Literally two years later, they’re finished with the special effects. We shot in summer 2002. In 2004, it comes out, and I go in to see my therapist, and he goes, “I saw you in a movie.” I’m like, “Really, you did?” Then people start coming up to me, and they’re just gushing about “I saw you in this film. It was incredible. I never go to see movies, but I saw this movie.” I said, “What is it about this movie?” So I go to a screening.
AVC: It was released theatrically?
JRB: It’s a unique piece of work. It was released theatrically. It played in a goddamn mall here—in the Beverly Center Mall here in Los Angeles. It was released, I won’t say wide, but wider than a hybrid documentary would expect to be released, and kind of like all this stuff starts coming down the pipe. I’m getting recognized for it a lot, and then I find out that it was funded by this weird sort of quasi-religious organization in Washington State, and that’s really weird. Then IMDB lights up—they still had comments on IMDB at the time, god help us—and comments were all like, “Oh look, it’s a cult movie that is actually a cult.”
Then I find out that the movie is huge in the recovery community because it discusses the higher power without actually naming god per se. It’s got this massive following within AA and NA, and so I’d be walking through a Barnes & Noble on my way to the bathroom, and I’d pass the New Age section, and some guy going through the stacks would stop me and be like, “Oh my god, you’re in this movie. It’s incredible.” I’d be like, “Oh, thank you, man. Put some shoes on.” It was such a strange experience to be involved with it, and I’m incredibly grateful for it. The film has some amazing ideas in it—the movie is called What The Bleep Do We Know!?, not Here Is What We Know. So it asks more questions than it attempts to answer, which is probably for the best. But it is probably the strangest credit on my IMDB page. It’s a hell of a thing. I still get recognized.
JRB: The way Curb works, and you’ve probably heard this from other people you’ve interviewed: You go in, and you’re given a paragraph of things that have to happen in this scene, what the scene is for and what has to be accomplished in it. Then you go in and you improvise with Larry, and Jeff Garlin is there just kind of supervising and maybe giving notes. So they called my wife [actor Jamie Denbo] and I in together. My wife and I met at UCB. We met doing improv. We had done some Reno 911!s together, and Curb called us in to play a married couple. We go in and we meet Larry, and we start the scene: We’re running into Larry on a busy street. I remember, she’ll kill me for telling this story, but Jamie said, “Larry!” and gives him a hug. I was like, “You don’t hug Larry David! Jesus, honey, you cost us this job. Don’t hug Larry David. It’s a whole thing! C’mon, this guy’s got a brand to protect.” But we got laughs in the scene from Larry, from Jeff. I remember actually that evening I ran into Jeff Garlin at UCB, and he was like, “Yeah, you’re getting the part. You guys are doing it.” It was incredibly fun.
It’s interesting to look at that episode in hindsight because, given what I do for a living now and what my current job is, the whole episode is about Larry trying to curry favor with his neighbors by dating a woman who uses a wheelchair and who is entered in his phone as “Wendy Wheelchair.” It’s done in a manner where it’s interesting—it’s thematically kind of similar to some of the stuff we talked about on Speechless in the way that people will congratulate themselves for being friends with the disabled. This is something that Larry was playing with years ago, and we’ve sort of done a deep dive on some of those issues on Speechless, so it’s an interesting bookend to Speechless in a manner of speaking.
Then a year and a half ago, I’m at a party in the Hollywood Hills. It’s one of those parties where I’m like, “I don’t belong here. I’m friends of a friend. It’s just crazy that I’m there.” But Larry David walked by me, and I’m like “Oh, he’s never going to remember me. I’m not going to say anything.” He suddenly stops and grabs my arm and goes “Hey!” And I’m like “Hey!” He’s like, “Good to see you, man.” And I do not hug him. I shake his hand. He walks away, and my friend Dan Swimer was there, and he comes over and says, “I saw that. He said hello to you.” And I said, “He did, right?! Okay.” I need the record to reflect that I did not bother Larry David. He stopped me. That is for some reason incredibly important for me. So yeah, I guess Larry and I are besties now.
AVC: Another talking point for Speechless is that you and Minnie Driver appeared together on an episode of About A Boy, where you were her boss, right?
JRB: Yeah, it’s actually another Jamie and I credit. Jamie and I were the married couple who ran a toy company where she worked. We only did two [episodes], and they used one, but that was the first time [Minnie and I] met. I honestly remember thinking, “Oh, she’s really funny. I hope she gets a chance to be this funny.” I had obviously seen her on Will & Grace, where she got to be kind of goofy and get into her inner clown, but we had this really funny job-interview scene that they cut on About A Boy, and it was just her bullshitting her way through a job interview. Jamie and I were both afterward like “Yeah, Minnie Driver’s really funny.” Obviously, years later, when she got the part on Speechless and I had just sort of been in the mix for a while, I was like, “Huh. I wonder if this is going to help or hurt because I do know her.” I guess it worked out.
AVC: Why do you think it could have potentially hurt?
JRB: You never know. Because I had only done two episodes of About A Boy, and they hadn’t had us back for more, and maybe it was something I did wrong. Actors are diseased people, you’ve gotta understand this. There’s all sorts of realistic reasons why they will not have you back for particular show. The story doesn’t accommodate it. They’ve gone in a different direction. It’s rarely personal, but there’s always that part in the back of your head that goes, “It’s personal. You suck. You disappointed people. That’s why you’re not going back to that show.” So I didn’t know what was happening. But yeah, it certainly helped to go in, and one of the audition scenes for Speechless was her walking in on me in the shower and us having this kind of heart-to-heart moment. It’s in the pilot. But if it had been an actress I had absolutely never met before and had never ever encountered on any level, I think it would have been weird. It being Minnie, someone whom I’ve met and whose son I had met, I think it made it that much easier. I think it definitely gave me an edge.
AVC: There’s another weird Speechless crossover in your filmography from Melissa & Joey, because Speechless consulting producer Seth Kurland wrote the episode you were on.
JRB: Seth Kurland, that’s right. He was an EP on the show, and he wrote a crucial episode of Melissa & Joey, it must be said. In that, my character was actually the reason that that show, I was the premise for that show. The whole deal with Melissa & Joey—of course you remember from seeing every episode—Joey had been conned in a Ponzi scheme by Melissa’s cousin or something, who was this Bernie Madoff type and was on the lam from the law. Because of their dire financial constraints, they had to move in together, and hijinks ensue, and take care of my children. I was the Bernie Madoff type, so I came back for one episode, and then I guess a few episodes later, my wife, who was also on the lam, she came back, and she was played by Jaime Pressly, whom I’ve never met. But in the multiverse of Melissa & Joey, Jaime Pressly and I are married and fugitives from the law.
AVC: I read the episode synopsis. You hide in the attic.
JRB: I had to hide in the attic. What’s really funny about that episode is that it was a Halloween episode. But it was a Halloween episode on The CW, and I say this because there’s just not a lot of money changing hands on your smaller networks. You look at the Speechless Halloween episode from last year. We have a Star Trek costume. It ends up with us dressing up as the characters from Back To The Future. We do an Aladdin costume change at one point, where I’m dressed up like the genie, and I’m head to toe blue paint—and all this copyrighted intellectual property. That’s the ABC subsidiary of Disney Halloween episode. You go watch the Melissa & Joey on The CW, and the Halloween party is like a cop, a princess, a knight in shining armor. It’s a public domain Halloween party. It’s fascinating. But yeah, that was a fun episode, and I’ve now worked with Joey Lawrence, I’ve worked with Mayim Bialik, and I’ve worked with Ted Wass. He directed me on something one time, so I’ve worked with the lion share of the Blossom crew.
JRB: It was the first crop of Amazon pilots, and it was a sci-fi comedy we had written for ourselves. We had tried to get it picked up for a live-action thing, and nobody was interested. We got a script deal at Sony through it, so it kind of indirectly made us a little bit of money. Then a couple years after we had written it, my manager pitched it to Amazon, who was getting into scripted television, which is only a couple years ago, but it was this completely uncharted territory at the time, this idea of an original streaming series. But we worked with a terrific animation studio called ShadowMachine to make a stop-motion pilot, but the problem was that all the pilots for Amazon were on the same schedule, and stop motion takes longer than anything in the world to shoot. At the end of the week, you have literally about three minutes of footage you can show. So the pilot was posted with about five minutes of finished footage, and the rest was just animatics, which isn’t particularly interesting or fun to look at. So we kind of got hosed. You know how Amazon does their pilot season: They put all their pilots up and people vote on them. So we didn’t really have a chance there, but when they did not pick us up, they called us personally. They didn’t go through our agent. But Joe Lewis at Amazon called us on the phone and gave us the news man to man, which was a menschy thing to do. All that’s really left of that pilot is a really cool trailer, and it is a really cool trailer.
JRB: It was crazy. [Jennifer Aniston] was at the time the biggest actress I’d ever worked with, and I remember seeing a call sheet because her and Ben Affleck were numbers one and two on the call sheet for that movie, and both of them were using pseudonyms to ward off the paparazzi. She just used her character’s name. Her character’s name was her actor name on the call sheet, and he was using David Ortiz, from the Red Sox. I hope I’m not loosing a trade secret. I imagine he changes up the Red Sox players from movie to movie.
The whole idea was that Jennifer Aniston breaks up with Ben Affleck and spends a little bit of time out on the singles’ market and realizes what a nightmare it is. Enter me as a Wiccan who talks her ear off at a wedding. So I go in and she’s very, very sweet and she’s stunningly beautiful. It’s like looking into the sun. It’s also really intimidating, but she’s also very friendly and she’s also a magnificent straight woman. You look at her, like her timing is impeccable. So I do the scripted stuff, and I just start improvising about the rocks at Stonehenge and all this other stuff, and the vernal equinox and all these other things, and the scene comes together pretty well. She takes the scene with her on some talk shows. It was like her talk-show clip for a couple things, so that was kind of fun.
The only real aftermath to that movie was there were some members of the Wiccan community who found my portrayal insensitive, and I’m not dismissive of that. There’s a part of me that’s like, “Why do you have to pick on the Wiccans? Don’t pick on the Wiccans. Don’t pick on the Buddhists. What have they ever done to you?” So as much as I want to rail against outrage culture, I don’t feel great that I made fun of the Wiccans. Low-hanging fruit, man. They’re just trying to worship nature. Why do you got to be a dick?