In what is perhaps this summer’s sweetest and most romantic comedy series, the CW’s SIGNIFICANT MOTHER,co-stars as Harrison Marlowe, the man foolish enough to let his soon-to-be ex-wife slip away into the arms of a much younger man — worse yet, his son’s best friend. The show deftly conveys a tale of love and longing and reminds us why it is important to cherish the ones we love — because if you don’t, someone else will — told through the eyes of both Harrison, who ignored and cheated on his wife, who naturally is moving on with her life without him and through Harrison’s son Nate (Josh Zuckerman), who is loving his great love from afar and has lost her to another. It is applaud-worthy that SIGNIFICANT MOTHER dares to tell the tale of love lost and found in the most unexpected of places.
In an exclusive interview, startalked about finding the joy and humor in Harrison’s life in SIGNIFICANT MOTHER, and the fun in revisiting one of his most iconic film roles in “Weekend At Bernie’s.”
This week’s episode is a fun one. What did you think when you first heard that the show was going to do an homage to your prior film “Weekend At Bernie’s”?
JONATHAN: (Laughs) I was very honored and very surprised and shocked, as well. I had no idea that the writing team was thinking of an episode focusing on an homage to “Weekend At Bernie’s.” When we made that movie in 1989, first of all, I was lucky to have a job. I was in my early 20’s and I had only done a couple of films and I certainly never imagined the impact that this movie would continue to have on people. I thought at best it would be a comedy — a dark comedy. The fellow that directed it was a wonderfully, talented and sweet man named Ted Kotcheff, who was predominantly known for making action films, like “Rambo: First Blood” and “Uncommon Valor.” So I did not necessarily know we were making a comedy. Then the movie came out and it did okay. Yet it somehow developed this cult following over the years on cable and video, and then the film would be referenced if a political figure had passed away — like perhaps Yasser Arafat had passed away and they’d drag him around and the joke would be Weekend At Yasser’s or you would hear little homages on other television shows. Even FRIENDS had a mention and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER had a mention. So when I read this back in the early stages before we started filming, back in pre-production, I was like, “Okay, I can now sort of pay homage/make fun of my own movie myself.” So I was thrilled and I immediately brought up the idea of, “Hey, why don’t we try to get Bernie himself — Terry Kiser — to come to Portland and play with us?” And they were like, “Do you think he’d do it?! Oh my god!” And the way we were shooting, our schedule was constantly fluctuating. But somehow the producers and Terry all made it happen and he came and he was hysterical. It was like having a rock-star on the set. Everyone was so excited to meet him and take pictures with him and hear stories. So it was pretty thrilling. I haven’t seen the episode in its entirety, but everyone says it is quite wonderful.
How did it feel to recreate some of those classic scenes?
JONATHAN: It was hysterical. I suppose everyone was looking at me as some sort of technical adviser, like, “How did you get the shoelaces to the actual feet? And whose hand goes on his head and whose hand goes on his arm?” And I was very perplexed because it was obviously something I had done 25 years ago! And I really have watched the movie since then. (Laughs) So I was a bit useless, but it sure was fun. I adore this cast so much. Josh Zuckerman, who plays my son, was in a way playing the corpse after he accidentally ingests some edibles. In the state of Oregon, starting July 1st, it has legalized marijuana. So Nate’s mom and his best friend have a little stash for some fun times and Nate accidentally ingests it hours before he is about to have this very important interview to save his restaurant and we all have to keep him alert and make him looking like he’s doing just fine. So we, in a way, turned him into Bernie.
Now that you have had some experience with people who are supposed to be dead, what is the biggest challenged of carrying around someone who is dead-weight like that?
JONATHAN: Oh, good question. I think it is a matter of trust — both for the two actors suspending the pretend dead body or passed out body in this cast — and a trust by the actor who is playing the lifeless person must have for those supporting him. So it is a bit of a team effort so that no one gets hurt. Trust would definitely be the key word.
Josh had to trust that you were not going to drop him.
JONATHAN: Exactly, and that we’re not going to hurt him. But Josh is so wonderful. He’s one of my favorite actors I have ever worked with. I have so much respect for him. He is so method. I was so worried about his safety. I was like, “You can just pretend you’re passed out. You don’t actually have to be passed out and break a body part. Let’s all just get through this scene unhurt.”
This episode seems like it brings your character Harrison a bit more into the action, as up to this point we have only seen him a bit peripherally in the episodes. What was that like?
JONATHAN: When I was asked to do this project last summer for the pilot, it was a relatively smallish but important role — and I definitely relished the opportunity of getting involved in a series where I wouldn’t necessarily have to work every single day and be in every single scene. But the way the schedule worked out when we were asked to make nine episodes — and I was asked to direct one of them, which I was thrilled to do and that episode is coming up — unlike like every other television show that I have been involved with, we shot this series almost like a movie, in terms of its shooting scheduling. To try to simply, what I mean is sort of cross-boarded everything. If there were scenes that took place in the restaurant, if there were scenes that took place in an office, like in episodes 1, 5 and 9, we shot all of those in one day. So, in a sense, I never got the same flow that I would have if we had shot the show in the normal manner of Monday through Friday work week, which is how most half hour series shoot. So I never got the feeling of, “Am I very heavy in this episode or every light in this episode?” Because any particular day we could be shooting 3-4 episodes all at once, and I was directing one of them. So I would be running front of the camera and then running behind the camera, yelling “Action!” It was always wonderfully hectic. I never felt moments of waiting around and relaxing. It was constant, fun scramble.
Why did you want to direct for the show? What sparked your interest there?
JONATHAN: (Laughs) Why did I want to direct? What an idiot I am! I supposed it was something I have always been curious about. Even in high school — and as a matter of fact, that was the first time I ever directed and that was with my pal David Schwimmer, who is an amazing talent both as an actor and director, and we co-directed a play — maybe I got the bug that early, but when I was finally given the opportunity to direct a movie a few years ago I definitely got hooked. Then maybe a year and a half ago, my wife Jennifer Finnigan and I co-directed as a team a feature together “A Bet’s a Bet,” which just recently came out on cable. So when we started production on SIGNIFICANT MOTHER back in May, they knew that I had some directing credits on my resume and said, “Hey, you’re going to be here anyway, why don’t you direct one of the episodes?” And I was like, “Yes, I’d love to.” So hopefully my episode turns out well and everyone enjoys it as much I did. I know the actors got a kick out me stepping behind the camera and giving them all kinds of love and guidance and wisdom — and hopefully the show will have me do more.
We also know that Linda Gray is guest-starring on the show as Harrison’s mother-in-law. What can you share about that working experience?
JONATHAN: She is so lovely. She came into Portland with such a fresh, exciting take on the character and she was so happy to be there and so happy to be doing a comedy. Often an actor can be doing years and decades of heavy, dramatic work and nobody realizes how funny they really are. So she was thrilled to be silly and to play, and she can ready to play. She was a pistol. There was a lot of laughing, a lot of stories and a lot of good times. She was a joy. (Laughs) If I could pick anyone to be my TV sitcom mother-in-law, I think I hit the mother-lode there!
Does Linda Gray’s character as Harrison’s mother-in-law support his quest to win back her daughter’s heart or is she totally against him?
JONATHAN: I don’t know how much I can spoil, but I think it is safe for me to say she wants her daughter and son-in-law to get back together. She believes in marriage and sticking through the tough times and she doesn’t necessarily approve of the shenanigans that are going on. So Harrison has the full support of his mother-in-law to try to win his wife back.
So what is up with Harrison? Is he just up for the competition of winning his wife back or is there a reawakening of his love for his wife?
JONATHAN: I think it’s a reawakening. He is ashamed that the situation had gotten that out of hand and that he philandered as much as he had. It’s a difficult thing as “the grass is always greener on the other side” and you cannot always get what you want. But, at this point, he realizes what he lost. Again, it is a shame that it took his wife to be desired by someone that much younger and sexier and vibrant and energetic for Harrison to go, “Whoa! Wait a minute. I blew it here.” He just wants her back and he is going to do whatever he can to get her back. He has moments of epiphanies, where he realizes that her happiness might be more important than his own, but he still wants her back.
Do you think he deserves her?
JONATHAN: (Laughs) Probably not! I tried to play him with a little bit of sweetness and likability here and there to rub out those mean edges he has. So, hopefully, someone believes he might deserve her back.
Does Nate think his dad deserves his help romancing his mom back?
JONATHAN: Yeah, Nate is stuck in such an awful position. It certainly helps the comedy aspect of the show. But the poor guy. He is just dealing with his parents splitting up and now he has to deal with his mom dating for the first time, he has to deal with his mom dating for the first time with his life-long friend, he has to deal with perhaps losing his life-long friend since he is dating his mother, then he also has to deal with his dad that is doing everything he can to try to convince him to help out and win her back again. So the poor guy is going through a lot. And that’s just his family crisis. He has his own personal issues to deal with and his own love life.
Harrison has clearly learned a little bit from his mistakes. Is he going to advise Nate that he might need to pursue Sam (Emma Fitzgerald) or risk losing her forever?
JONATHAN: Yes. Harrison is well aware of how much Sam means to his son. So he does give him some guidance along the way. Nate can pretend that he is not that interested, but we (his family members and the audience) know differently.
What for you has been the funnest part of working on SIGNIFICANT MOTHER?
JONATHAN: The entire thing has been such fun — even working on the pilot a year ago was such fun. Portland is an exciting, vibrant community and I adore this cast so much. I want to go and do a road company production with them and spend the entire year working with them. Directing them might have been the highlight. They all came with their A-game and so did I. It was really a very exciting time working with all of them.
To see if Harrison is indeed to late in winning back the love of his ex-wife Lydia and if there is any hope in putting Nate on track with his great love, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of SIGNIFICANT MOTHER on Monday nights at 9:30 p.m. on the CW.