Tag Archives: Grace and Frankie

Sheen’s Green dream

Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning actor Martin Sheen talks to Adam Benzine about his role in the remake of Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables, and looks back on his career.

Having played a president, a police chief and a federal judge, acclaimed actor Martin Sheen has taken on a different kind of authority figure in TV special Anne of Green Gables (pictured above), which premiered yesterday.

Sheen plays Matthew Cuthbert, who – along with his sister Marilla – adopts the titular orphan Anne Shirley in the classic 1908 novel, from author Lucy Maud Montgomery.

In Canada, the book was most notably adapted into an iconic two-part miniseries in 1985, starring Megan Follows. The production garnered huge ratings for pubcaster the CBC and swept the board at the 1986 Gemini Awards.

“I didn’t know quite how iconic it was until I got to Canada and started working,” Sheen recalls with a laugh, talking to DQ by phone. “It’s a remarkable chronicle of a character and a reflection of rural people in rural Canada.”

The new version of the story was made by Breakthrough Entertainment and Corus Entertainment for youth-skewing Canadian network YTV.

It features “a different kind of energy” from the 1985 production, the actor says. “I hate to make comparisons and I don’t think it’s really fair, but the story resonates in the same way.”

The original miniseries, he notes, “was an iconic production, and was lauded everywhere for its humanity and humour and all. But I think what we managed to do, without changing the century or the story, was accent the dangers of living in an isolated community, on an island.”

Sheen adds that the special has gained a contemporary resonance by way of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. “It has a very intriguing kind of energy that resonates today – particularly when you think of all of the horrors that immigrants are facing trying to get into Western Europe from the Middle East, how many hundreds of thousands are coming. Our hearts go out to them; we’re made aware of the plight of these people who, through no fault of their own, are sent out there to try to make it in the world.”

Sheen is best known for playing the US president in The West Wing
Sheen is best known for playing the US president in The West Wing

The role of guardian seems a natural fit for Sheen, who is best known for portraying President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet in acclaimed White House drama The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons on NBC from 1999 to 2006. The performance earned him six Primetime Emmy Award nominations across the show’s 156 episodes, which marked his longest TV commitment to date.

And while he has taken on shorter projects since, Sheen says he wouldn’t rule out another long-term commitment, although he notes that such a project “would be very hard to come by in the first place, because there are very few Aaron Sorkins out there,” referring to the drama’s creator and lead writer.

“I was once asked if I’d have done The West Wing if Bartlet had been a Republican, and I said, ‘If Aaron Sorkin wrote it, of course I would.’ Because I knew that he would be honest,” he reflects. “Anyway, I doubt that anything like that is forthcoming for me. But if it were, well, I make decisions based on the material and the offer, you know?”

One recent offer that appealed to Sheen was the chance to star opposite Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston in Netflix’s original comedy series Grace and Frankie. The show launched its first season in May last year and has been renewed by the SVoD giant for second and third runs.

“It’s become a very unexpected hit,” Sheen says. “My commitment is for another five years, so I’m in for the long haul. It’s a very special project that came to me from Marta Kauffman, who created Friends, so the pedigree surrounding this – besides Jane, Lily and Sam, who all are old friends – is immense.

“This was an ideal project because it was only 13 episodes a season and I would be free to do other things in the off-season, so we only work from July to November. The series, thankfully, is going very well.”

Pressed on roles that might appeal to him in the future, the actor offers a desire to play characters “that are closer to myself, that reflect a measure of my own personal life,” Sheen explains, “my involvement in social justice issues, per se.”

One such project he is currently eyeing is a new adaptation of Inherit the Wind, the 1955 play based upon an infamous 1925 court case that saw a high-school teacher put on trial for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, contrary to a Tennessee state law. The play has been adapted for the screen numerous times in the past, with productions starring actors such as Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly and Jack Lemmon.

“I presented a possible production to Netflix of Inherit the Wind, starring Sam Waterston and I,” Sheen explains, offering that Creationism “is still an issue in our country – people are still undecided in a large part of our country about the origin of the species. So, something like that… and some iconic theatrical characters still appeal to me. If I could do a character that is involved with social justice that would be very, very appealing.”

That said, he offers, half jokingly, that “the time has passed for Hamlet or Mr D’Arcy, I think… although I would never rule out a play.”

Sheen (right) also stars in Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie
Sheen (right) also stars in Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie

Stage acting, after all, served as the backbone of Sheen’s career early on, preparing him well for his work on camera. “I played Hamlet when I was much younger at the New York Shakespeare Festival,” he recalls. “All the theatre experience that I had, back in the sixties, stood me well for the rest of my career.

“I built a foundation in the New York theatre scene for 10 years, from 1959 to 1969, and I worked at some of the iconic venues, including The Living Theatre. I played on- and off-Broadway, and had a great learning experience all that time, which stood me well for the rest of my life. So I appreciate theatrical literature and I always look forward to that kind of a challenge.”

Certainly, Sheen’s acting pedigree made him a natural choice for Breakthrough, which produced Green Gables. The Toronto-based company has been aggressively pushing the 90-minute special to international buyers at recent markets such as AFM and Mipcom.

“When we began the thought process regarding Matthew’s casting, we wanted to make sure he exuded huge warmth, safety and security,” says Joan Lambur, the production company’s exec VP of family entertainment. “Martin came up right away because he has this very quiet and nuanced style – one that an audience immediately trusts.

“Because you have an 11-year-old girl capturing the heart of this older man, it’s important he emanates a sense of immediate grandfatherly love.”

In addition to his small-screen work, the now 75-year-old Sheen also continues to work on Hollywood features, having taken supporting roles in recent years on films such as Selma, The Departed and The Amazing Spider-Man.

But after playing central roles in two critically acclaimed films early in his career – Terrence Malick’s 1973 classic Badlands and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now – Sheen is somewhat downbeat about his future as a lead actor on the big screen.

“The reality is that I don’t have that kind of high profile that you need to get into projects that are widely seen, big-budget movies and such,” he reflects. “I’ve been confined mostly to television, which is fine. And every now and then I will play or get an offer for a small or medium role in a major film, which is rare these days for anyone my age, and that’s fine.

“But I do still continue to get significant roles in television across the board, and that’s a big surprise to me, frankly,” he says, modest to a fault. “I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to still work at my age, and to still have credibility.”

And despite the challenge in finding roles that appeal, Sheen says he has no plans to retire. “I’m still in very good health, thank God, and I love what I’m doing. I’m lucky enough to still be working at my age and to be working on projects that I truly enjoy.

“I’ve always loved being an actor, and I love it now more than ever. I guess that’s as good a sign as you can accept that I made the right choice for a career.”

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The UnREAL deal

UnREAL is a hit with the critics but its debut attracted disappointing ratings
Marti Noxon’s UnREAL is a hit with the critics but its debut attracted disappointing ratings

A+E Studios’ reality TV satire UnREAL launched on Lifetime in the US this week, and has attracted positive plaudits from critics. Time Magazine called it “dark, deft and empathetic,” while the Hollywood Reporter said the show “moves along at an engaging, entertaining pace.”

The LA Times, meanwhile, suggested UnREAL might help Lifetime shift perceptions about the kind of shows it airs: “Built on a pair of strong, nuanced, cliché-free performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer this is a Lifetime series that transcends the words ‘Lifetime series.’”

Created by Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro – whose short film Sequin Raze inspired the series – UnREAL is about the seedy goings on at a hit dating show that is loosely based on The Bachelorette. It follows a young producer called Rachel (Appleby) who is willing to do anything to please her executive producer boss (Zimmer). Her main job is to manipulate contestants in order to get outrageous footage for the show, which she constantly feels guilty about.

Noxon, the senior partner in the creative team behind UnREAL, is a TV industry veteran who first came to prominence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which she wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes. Since then she has written and produced for a number of projects. Looking specifically at writing credits, Noxon has penned episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee, as well as serving as head writer on the first season of Private Practice.

The last couple of years have been particularly fruitful for Noxon. In 2013, it was announced she would write a reboot of Tomb Raider for MGM and GK Films. Then, just ahead of the debut of UnREAL on Lifetime, she launched Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for cable channel Bravo. Centred on a self-help author whose private life doesn’t measure up to her public persona, the show was the channel’s first foray into original scripted production. Noxon wrote five of the 13 episodes, including the first and last. With a decent ratings performance and positive reviews, Girlfriends’ Guide has been renewed for a second season.

Grace and Frankie, from Marta Kauffman, will return for a second season
Grace and Frankie, from Marta Kauffman, will return for a second season

Noxon’s skill, it seems, is her ability to create storylines based around authentic female characters who attempt to juggle career progression, family, romance and friendship. In particular, she is able to run through the full emotional range, from humour to heartache. Commenting on Noxon’s early episodes of the Bravo show, the Chicago Sun-Times said they reveal a “nuanced, poignant tale, punctuated by some genuinely funny scenes.”

Having said all this, the initial audience figures for episode one of UnREAL were not good, with the show failing to pick up the ratings baton from Devious Maids, which led the programme in on its launch night.

Given the positive reaction from critics, this suggests two possibilities – first that audiences are not comfortable having the fantasy of ‘reality TV’ shattered (like meat-eaters who would rather not visit the abattoir); or, second, that the show is not a good fit for Lifetime (think back to that comment from the LA Times in the opening paragraph).

We’ll need to wait a few more episodes to develop an accurate picture of the show’s performance. But if it carries on in the same way, Lifetime will have to make a decision about whether it cut its losses or if renewing UnREAL will send out a message to audiences about where the channel actually wants to be in terms of brand profile. Internationally, the show might work well for channels that have a tougher, more satirical edge than we associate with Lifetime. Either way, UnREAL is likely to enhance Noxon’s status.

Sticking with talented female writers/producers, Marta Kauffman has been in the news this week. Kauffman will forever be known as the co-creator of Friends, arguably the most successful sitcom ever. But she has been consistently busy since that show ended way back in 2004. Her most recent project is Grace and Frankie, a sitcom for Netflix that was renewed late last month.

A US version of Doc Martin is in the works
Electus and Marta Kauffman are working on a US version of Doc Martin

This week it was announced that Kauffman is teaming up with Ben Silverman’s producer/distributor Electus to make a US version of Doc Martin, a British comedy drama about a successful London surgeon who moves to a sleepy village in Cornwall. Doc Martin is something of a phenomenon, having been remade in territories such as France, Germany and Spain and sold as a completed series worldwide. With Kauffman and Silverman on board, it now stands a real chance of cracking the US too – though the sedate UK version will probably need to be injected with amphetamines to appeal to US cable channels.

Commenting, Silverman said: “Doc Martin has charmed viewers worldwide with its excellent concept and unique style of comedy, and we’re proud to be working with Marta Kauffman. She and her team are brilliant partners.”

In one of this week’s high-profile scripted stories, Showtime’s hit series Homeland has just started production on series five. The new set of 12 episodes will be filmed in and around Berlin – making Homeland “the first American TV series to shoot entirely in Germany,” according to Showtime and Fox21 Television Studios.

Echoing our comments about Mad Men in an earlier Writers Room, it’s fascinating to see just how many people are involved in making big US dramas work. Typically, Homeland is credited to Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, the US and Israeli executives who successfully transformed Israeli series Prisoners of War into the long-running US show. But if you look at the executive producer line-up for season five, it also includes Alex Gansa, Alexander Cary, Chip Johannessen, Meredith Stiehm, Patrick Harbinson, Lesli Linka Glatter, Avi Nir and Ran Telem.

Gansa, who previously worked on The X-Files and Dawson’s Creek, is actually a co-creator of the show alongside Gordon and Raff, and has handled a number of key episodes throughout its life. Cary, Johannessen and Stiehm have also been writing on the show since the beginning, which presumably gives the production the kind of stable creative spine that ensures longevity.

Meredith Stiehm is part of the big team behind Showtime hit Homeland
Meredith Stiehm is part of the big team behind Showtime hit Homeland

Continuing this week’s bias towards successful female writers, it’s interesting to note how Stiehm has built her career in a broadly similar way to Noxon and Kauffman, mixing writing jobs with series creator/showrunner roles. After breaking into the business on classic series like Northern Exposure and Beverly Hills 90210, she went on to create Cold Case, which ran for seven seasons on CBS. After Cold Case, she came on board Homeland but still found time to adapt Nordic drama The Bridge for FX.

Stiehm was also linked to Cocaine Cowboys, a project originally developed by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay for HBO. In the endlessly shifting world of US TV, however, that project ended up being piloted for TNT and written by Michelle Ashford, the creator/executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Sex and a writer on HBO’s 2010 miniseries The Pacific. The latest word on Cocaine Cowboys is that it is undergoing creative surgery.

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