Playing Kevin Arnold on The Wonder Years, Fred Savage came of age alongside two separate generations: The baby boomers who grew up during the time period depicted on the show and the adolescent viewers in the same age bracket as Savage and his onscreen alter ego. Following The Wonder Years, Savage’s career underwent its own coming of age, as he went from toplining series like Working and Crumbs to directing shows that included It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Modern Family, and Party Down. And while his name will appear under the “directed by” credit on episodes of the upcoming Hulu series Casual, Savage’s biggest role this fall is that of Stewart Sanderson, attorney-at-law and brother of Dean “The Grinder” Sanderson (Rob Lowe), who isn’t a lawyer but who played one on TV. The Grinder marks Savage’s first series regular role in nearly a decade, casting him alongside Lowe, his Crumbs co-star William DeVane, and It’s Always Sunny’s Mary Elizabeth Ellis. While promoting The Grinder at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, Savage spoke with The A.V. Club about returning to acting full-time, developing a lawyer’s vocabulary, and making an impression as a different, less likable character named Stuart.
The A.V. Club: What was it about The Grinder that made it the project that got you back in front of the camera?
Fred Savage: I was never reading any scripts as an acting vehicle. I read this and I thought it was really funny, and I thought, “Oh that’s great, I’d love to shoot it.” Nick Stoller, who was an executive producer on the pilot—and a friend of mine—was like, “No, it’s for Stewart.” And I was like “Oh, no, no. That’s not for me. But I’ll take a look at it, tell you what I think.” And I read it again and I really liked it. I thought it was really funny, I love the creative team behind it—I went and met [creators] Andy [Mogel] and Jarrad [Paul], and I met Jake [Kasdan, executive producer and pilot director]. And the more I read it, the more I thought about it, I was like, not only is it funny, but there’s something really at the core of it that struck me. As a consumer of entertainment, as a director, I’m always interested in these questions of identity and who someone is and how they’re perceived and who they are versus who they thought they’d be. And I feel like this show really addresses that. So at its core it was really about something, and on top of that, it was funny. Couple that with the creative team, and I just felt like, “Why not?”
AVC: As someone who’s still associated so closely with a past TV role, do you have some sympathy for Rob’s character?
FS: I think Rob’s character is someone who’s just demanding to be associated with the role. I don’t know if anyone’s doing it, but he wants them to. The character of Dean is so eager and so naïve and so happy at everything around him, it’s hard not to root for him.
AVC: What lessons have you learned from directing that you can now apply to your acting?
FS: My experiences behind the camera exposed me to a wide variety of comedic approaches. Working with actors who are great improvisers, actors who are really thoughtful, emotional, sense-memory actors and take that approach to comedy—and everything in between. But it also exposed me to the writing aspect of comedy. I’ve worked on really broad comedies, I’ve worked on really subtle comedies, I’ve worked on really emotional comedies, I’ve worked on really crass comedies. Slowly things seep in—I can’t point to one particular experience that translated directly to working on The Grinder, but I do know that when I got in front of the camera, I felt very comfortable again.
AVC: Is there a possibility that you might direct on The Grinder?
FS: I really want to focus on acting in this show and doing a great job playing Stewart. Coming onto The Grinder, I didn’t see it as an opportunity to direct the show—I saw it as an opportunity to come act on something. I think I’m going to focus on that part for a while [Laughs.] let that be my main concern. I want to be a good actor on the show—that’s basically what I want.
AVC: How are you finding adapting to the legal world of the show?
FS: That’s been the hardest part, memorizing the legal jargon. For me at least, because I have to know what I’m talking about, just to rattle it off really quickly. Rob and Bill—from Bill’s experiences on 24, and Rob’s on West Wing—are helpful coaches, because they’ve definitely had to rattle off jargon at a fast pace. Names and dates and places. They’ve given me some pointers, but that’s definitely been the hardest part.
AVC: It’s weird watching you play another character named Stewart, because that was the name of the lecherous professor you played on Boy Meets World—albeit with a different spelling.
FS: Oh my gosh! That’s right!
AVC: It’s night and day, because The Grinder’s Stewart is so sincere and not at all lecherous.
FS: It’s so funny—no one has pointed that out to me. I’m glad that my Boy Meets World Stuart had such an indelible impression on you—I’ll take that as a compliment. These Stewarts share only a name.
People are still so creeped out by it. It’s crazy. People mention it to me, they’ll tweet it to me. Which, again: If your work can live on for a decade or more, you’ve done something right, I think.
AVC: Though it precludes you from ever appearing on Girl Meets World.
FS: It does, but I think I’ll be okay with that.