With more than just a little bit of irony, tonight marks the sitcom return of actor Matthew Perry in "Mr. Sunshine," the ABC series which is temporarily taking over the timeslot of "Cougar Town," the successful series that not so long ago marked the sitcom return for Perry's former "Friends" co-star, Courteney Cox. While the respective premises of the series are vastly different, all eyes are on the latest post-"Friends" project of Perry's to see if he can find the same ratings success that Cox has enjoyed in the coveted post-"Modern Family" time period. In "Mr. Sunshine," Perry (who also co-created the series) plays Ben Donovan, the self-involved manager of San Diego's Sunshine Center, where events like the circus, ice skating tours and big name concerts pass through to throw the lives of the Center's staff into a comedic whirlwind.
Earlier this week at a Sony Pictures Television junket held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, our Jim Halterman sat down with "Mr. Sunshine" stars Allison Janney, James Lesure, Andrea Anders and Nate Torrence to chat about working with the multi-tasking Perry, Janney's return to television and what famous faces we'll see passing through the Sunshine Center in the first thirteen episodes of the series' freshman season.
First up, of course, was talk of Perry, who was not present probably because, as each of his cast mates mentioned, he is doing a little bit of everything with this project. Janney, who plays the Sunshine Center's owner erratic Crystal Cohen, said she doesn't see much of Matthew in his producing role, which suits her just fine. "I don't like to know what goes on behind the curtain," she admitted. However, she was quick to say that Perry is a busy presence on the set nonetheless. "He's always around the monitor trying to think of a funnier line and the writers are there hanging out with him. He works very hard to think of something better." Perry also likes to work on the fly, she revealed, and oftentimes "we'll stop sometimes for half an hour to think of a better ending to a scene. He very much works in the moment and creates so I see that side of him quite a bit." Not that he has time for another job but Janney added that Perry is "very generous with giving ideas to the other actors as a director. I see him actually putting that hat soon and directing some of the shows."
Torrence, who plays Crystal's son Roman, is learning more than anything watching Perry master his many duties. "It's been cool to watch his process when we've had a table read and several script rewrites and we read [the script] that day and he doesn't think it's funny enough and to watch him go back and start pitching jokes or ask us 'Hey, do you have a funnier line for this?'" Anders - who plays Alice, Perry's love interest on the show (and did the same for Matt LeBlanc on his "Friends" spin-off "Joey") - added that the work never stops for Perry, who is "handling it with a tremendous amount of grace. It's funny because when Matthew does get to wrap at a decent hour he then has to go edit or write."
While television audiences mostly know Janney as White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg on the long-running drama "The West Wing" (a role for which she won four Emmys), this new role is just what the actress had been looking for. "Crystal Cohen is a woman that should not exist in the real world," she explained with a grin on her face. "She's unapologetically selfish and she doesn't have a filter system, she's very un-politically correct, she's just wrong on so many levels. I was interested in playing her because coming from playing C.J. on 'The West Wing' I was so politically correct... I thought if I were to come back to television I'd want to do something completely different from CJ."
The character of Crystal, in fact, was written for Janney by pilot writers Perry, Alex Barnow and Marc Firek and her decision to be a part of the series was made upon reading Crystal's introductory scene. "They sent me the script and I read the first line that Crystal said and I knew I was going to play it. The first line is 'Have you seen a small white pill with Spanish written on it?' I just love her. I love playing her."
One thing that helped Janney get comfortable with this new role is the fact that "West Wing" director Thomas Schlamme also directed the "Mr. Sunshine" pilot and serves as an executive producer, as well. Is there a difference working with Schlamme on a sitcom as opposed to a drama? "Tommy's always the same director. He's so specific and he's so visually brilliant and I love working with him. I'd follow him off a cliff. I think Tommy Schlamme is so enormously talented and I also love him as a person, too. I would do anything with him."
More admiration comes from Torrence, who is clearly still wowed by the fact that he's playing Janney's son on the sitcom. While the relationship between Crystal and son Roman is a new one (it's not entirely clear but the two have not been in each other's lives for a long time), the young actor is enjoying his new TV mom. "It is so fun to work with her not only because of what she brings to the scene but I think it's funny that I'm her son. Pretty early on I talked to her about it and it's funny that there are going to be similarities because I'm her son. Sometimes I like to look at some of the things she's doing and vice versa and 'Oh, that's where I get that from!' Like when I get sporadic or laugh really loud so we've tried to be purposeful in some of those things."
Also in the series is a potential love triangle in the form of Ben, Alice and Lesure's Alonzo, whose irrepressible sunniness is a stark contrast to Ben. To hear Anders describe where things start in the pilot for Alice, "I was having a casual sexual relationship with Ben Donovan (Perry) and I decided I wanted more of a commitment and he said he would do that with me and actually I said I was going to have more of a commitment with Alonzo (Lesure)." On the surface, however, Lesure's character seems a little too perfect. "Alonzo is a cat who's dedicated to doing good in the community," Lesure explained, "and he's also dedicated to being a great, positive force in his life and he's found this woman that he's into and wants to make his partner. Alonzo's got it going on right now." All that said, Lesure teased that the seemingly flawless persona won't last. "We see some wrinkles in that character, definitely, as the season progresses. We see he's not all Mr. Perfect."
With a sitcom set in a major city arena, viewers can count on a good number of cameos in future episodes including tennis great Jimmy Connors, Nick Jonas of The Jonas Brothers, singing legend James Taylor (who shares the mic with Janney) and some skating Smurfs. All cameos aside, Torrence explained that the writers and producers have been very careful to make sure each episode is not solely focused on the cameo or performing act of the week. "I think especially as we progress later on in the season that does start to become a backdrop and it's not a crutch for us. It's there and you have these bizarre characters walking in and out of the relationships going on between Ben and Crystal or Ben and Alice."
In a zany sitcom like "Mr. Sunshine," it's not a surprise, then, that an unlikely visit from some skating Smurfs at the Sunshine Center actually will inform one of the characters in a future episode. Janney explains that "Crystal, we find out, used to be a figure skater and had to leave because she got pregnant and was fired from the ice show she was involved with. This same company comes back and she was a dancer with the Smurfs so she gets to come to terms with that [and] have some closure with something that happened in her life."
"Mr. Sunshine" premieres tonight at 9:30/8:30c on ABC.