‘The Night Shift’ exclusive: JR Lemon on Kenny’s journey, love interests, and an explosive episode

After taking a break this week for political coverage, “The Night Shift” will be returning to NBC on Wednesday night at an earlier time (9:00 p.m. Eastern), and with a particularly dangerous story that could put lives outside the hospital in jeopardy.

In preparation for that, we were thrilled to have a chance to interview JR Lemon, who has brought the character of Kenny to life and has been a source for humor, heart, and also relatability. We have a great discussion here about everything from key storylines to the benefits of having a diverse cast and also being an underdog in an extremely-competitive ratings landscape.

CarterMatt – Has working on this season felt any different than the other two?

JR Lemon – From the look of it to the tone, we’re finding out what our lane is. We’re evolving.

On a personal level, I think it is the most exposure that Kenny has had, to where you get to see more of who he is as a person and some of his feelings. I think before, you got some of the happy-go-lucky practical jokester, but I think it’s cool to see some of what he goes through, his trials and tribulations if you will.

So when you first started getting to play Kenny, did you start thinking of ideas of what his backstory would be? Or, are you just thinking ‘I’ll wait, since I’m sure at some point we will get to it.’

It’s a great question, because I actually originally auditioned for the Paul role. I knew I wasn’t right for it, but I just wanted to do it and give it a shot. They ended up liking me, and I think it was a day before I went to Mexico, I auditioned for this role of a nurse Kenny, who was originally a dry-humored Asian-American character. The moral of that is that I figured they liked something about me, so I just had to bring that to it. You don’t want to create too much, since you don’t want to contradict something that is going to be coming up later. It’s more about trying to keep an open ear, and then when season 2 came around they started giving me some tidbits about how I played football and how I had a back injury and how I had a grandmother and I started building story around that. The cool thing about our writers is that you can show them what you want them to write through your behavior, through little things. They’re really great on picking up on little things you’re doing when watching dailies. Next thing you know, it’ll be a part of your story in that way.

Do you think some of your own history as an athlete or doing any specific things influenced where the writers went with the character?

I’m sure. It’s so funny. We’ll be in our private time just having conversations as a cast about whatever, and next thing you know it’ll turn up in the episode. They have a beat on who we are as people and try to incorporate that, not necessarily the most superficial layers, but just who we are as human beings. They really try to catch that and capture that.

Where do you think Kenny’s at romantically? He had a breakup at the start of the season, and he was just asked out. Is Kenny ready for a serious relationship?

That’s always the question. I think Kenny really got gutted by losing Gwen, or if you look further, by losing Krista. Krista was really a wake-up call where Kenny needs to take himself more seriously, and I think he felt emasculated when Joey comes in and kind of sweeps her off her feet when he’s been trying to put in the effort to spend time with her. I think there was a little bit of an upstairs and downstairs thing going on, where he hit this glass ceiling and he felt like there was nothing else he could really do to up himself in his job and his workspace. That’s where I think the lateral movement like opening a gym and being a life coach came in. It said ‘I’m going to increase my reach and therefore my self-worth.’

As far as dating is concerned, because he got gutted I think he said ‘I’m going to be single for a while’. It’s kind of that thing where right when you get your heart broken, you don’t want to jump into something super-serious right away. You just want to have fun a little bit, maybe play the field.

We’ll see – Kenny might be ready pretty soon!

You get to play some fun stuff in the midst of the drama, such as the whole thing with Topher and the Fitbit, helping him get into better health? Did you enjoy some of that?

Yeah, honestly that’s probably what I like most about playing Kenny. Most of my stuff is kind of outside the ER. It’s more the interpersonal relationships that exist within the hospital. I enjoy that a lot: Topher with the Fitbit, sort of being in on everybody’s dirt. I get a lot of joy out of that, the flirting and the love triangle that Kenny’s in now, it’s fun.

On the next upcoming episode, there’s an explosion outside the hospital. How will Kenny react to some of that?

I think you will see a Kenny under duress, which is something I don’t think we’ve seen thus far. I think that may be fun to watch, just an exposed, sort of under-duress Kenny. I think that’s Kenny contribution to this hour.

The cool thing about this episode is that as you sort of found in the race riot episode, we have a ton of different cast members from all sorts of different ethnicities and backgrounds. Everyone sort of has an opinion that is sort of different from the others. That’s what is beautiful about our show. We don’t have a diverse cast for the sake of having a diverse cast, we actually have a diverse cast that sort of illuminates the individual’s opinions. The opinions reflect the diversity of the cast, and you get to hear [something] from everyone. As an audience member, there’s always someone you can relate to and I think that’s really cool.

As that applies to episode 9, I think again you’ll get to see how different people react when a bomb goes off.

Do you think that professionally, Kenny is fulfilled with his life right now? Is he wanting something more?

Yeah, I think Kenny’s still on that path of growth and making the most of the situation. As he said in the third episode, he imagined himself being an NFL football player, or maybe being retired from an NFL career right now. That’s always in the back of his mind, even if he is content with the new path he’s on right now. There’s something in him that wants to be able to be where Paul is, have financial freedom and make decisions from there. Basically, to change his station in life. I think that’s in the back of his mind, for sure.

I don’t think he’s there yet. That’s what I think the gym thing is about. Not just being more of a man, being able to dictate more of the future, but the security of it also.

I know you can’t give anything major away, but is there anything that you can tease about where we’re going later in the season?

I can’t get too specific, but let’s just say that there are some surprises coming up that put all of our jobs in jeopardy.

How are you and the cast right now feeling about the show’s season 4 chances?

I think we’ve always been the underdogs and been in the same space. The little engine that could. We’ve sort of just learned to try our best to try to elevate [ourselves] as much of we can and let things take its course. We’ve gotten really good at knowing that there are some things that we can control; the things that we can control like live-tweeting and reaching out to our fans and viewers, or the work itself, I think we do the best as we can with and stay as optimistic as possible.

Is it fun in a way to embrace that underdog spirit? I’ve certainly seen it unify a show and an audience even more than you see with larger hits.

I think so for sure! I think it’s a combination of things. We’re the underdogs and we’ve been in this underdog position since the beginning, and there’s also the length of time. The last episode airing at the end of last season to the first episode airing this season was over a [year’s wait]. It was a year in between when we shot the pilot to when we started the first season. We’ve always been waiting or in a holding pattern it feels like, and when you add to that that we shoot in New Mexico, where none of us are really from, it forces you to bond with each other and build some camaraderie and a team-like atmosphere. It’s been good.

I’ll tell you one thing it does: When you are an underdog and you do have success, like when we had the ratings surge we did the last couple of episodes, it really makes you feel good that people are responding to your hard work.

We want to give a special thanks to JR for the time, and if you aren’t watching “The Night Shift” you really should be.

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