‘Speechless’ exclusive: John Ross Bowie on combining humor with heart in new ABC comedy

SpeechlessOn Wednesday, September 21 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, ABC is going to be launching one of their most promising new comedies of the fall season in “Speechless.” It’s funny, heartfelt, and it really fulfills what the network is doing now in telling stories of unconventional families who viewers can actually relate to as opposed to ones coming out of cookie-cutter molds.

In this case, the story is about Maya Dimeo (Minnie Driver) and her husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), parents to three children including JJ (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy and has his own unique way of communicating. The pilot is available online early at ABC’s official site, and hopefully you’ll get a chance to check it out following our interview below! We had a chance to chat with Bowie (who you may also know from “Chasing Life” or as Barry Kripke from “The Big Bang Theory”) about joining the show, some of Jimmy’s own backstory, whether he could revisit “The Big Bang Theory” in the future, and some of what the future may hold for “Speechless” beyond the pilot.

CarterMatt – So how are things going right now in production?

John Ross Bowie – We shot our Halloween episode a week and a half ago. I’m really happy with it — it’s a little bit sillier than what we’ve been doing on the show so far, so it was really fun to work on.

Let’s rewind a little and go chronologically. What was the process like for you deciding to be a part of this particular show? I don’t know when you were cast but I’m assuming it was some time ago.

It was really interesting. The first week of February pilot season was [underway] and scripts were coming in. I kept hearing about this show about a family who had a child with special needs. That’s all I knew about it; I knew some actors who were like ‘yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to go in for this, it sounds like a weekly after-school special,’ and I was like ‘I haven’t read the script, so we’ll see what happens.’

I read the script, and I thought ‘this is actually really funny. It’s not saccharine and it’s not desperately trying to teach a lesson. It’s a story about a family. I can relate to that.’ Lo and behold, I got an audition! I’ve auditioned for [executive producer] Scott Silveri before a bunch of times, we’d just never gotten the chance to work together. I really loved it and I loved the part; even though I don’t have a child with disabilities I am a father, and the part really resonated with me. They said ‘hey, you’re great, we gotta find the mom, and then we’ll circle back.’ I was like ‘okay guys, that’ll be fine.’ This is not my first rodeo. I figured that this was the end of the project and I moved on.

Then, two months passed, and I just assumed that pilot season was a bust, and I started Googling such things as ‘taking the GREs after 40’ and stuff like that. Then, I got the call at 9:30 the night before the table read that I got the job (laughs). It was literally two, two and a half months later after my first audition. I’d worked with Minnie before and we had a fun chemistry together, and it’s been a delight. For the thing to get picked up was an incredible shock. It really feels like a series of winning lottery tickets, you know? You book a pilot, and then the pilot goes, and then the show actually goes and it’s really good, and then your cast members are actually cool and you enjoy showing up to work. It really is a series of hurdles to cross to get to this position, and my gratitude knows no bounds.

Can you speak to the experience of the pilot? As you said you’ve been through things like this before, so is it somewhat strange getting to meet everyone on the fly and film this thing, not even knowing if people other than network executives are going to see it?

It was interesting. To be perfectly candid, there was a part of me that even after I got the job, felt that ‘well obviously if this goes to series, they will replace me with a name who is willing to do television, so my job right now is to be polite to everyone so that they will miss me when I’m inevitably fired’ (laughs). So I just went in and enjoyed myself and have a couple of really intense scenes with Mason [Cook], who plays my middle son [Ray]. He’s a great young actor and we had to have this really instant bond. All we really had to prepare for it was a lunch. We had a really good lunch where I got to know him a little better, that way I could feel like it was my son I was talking to.

But, the whole time I felt like ‘this was obviously a temp job, they’ll obviously replace me when the show goes to series,’ and I honestly didn’t really believe that I firmly had the job until I started seeing billboards all over Los Angeles (laughs)!

The pilot was really great. There were a lot of really long hours because everyone was trying to figure out if we had the right tone, and exactly what that tone was — making sure it was funny but also sweet but also edgy but also warm, and I think we struck a really nice balance with that, and that’s because we had a lot of 14-hour days on that pilot. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

I had the chance to check out the pilot and I really enjoyed it. Obviously there’s a lot of exposition you have to put in there, but you guys found a way to get some humor and heart in, as well.

It’s really hard to get exposition and jokes out at the same time, and I think the pilot does a really nice job of doing that. It’s also interesting because Scott and I have predominantly worked in multi-cam sitcom with just four cameras and the studio audience. Both of us are going into new territory in terms of how wide-open the show can be. We’ve had numerous scenes where we’ve been speeding through the Newport Beach streets and we’ve had a scene on a paintball course. We’ve hired stuntmen! We had stuntmen on this sitcom. It’s really interesting how dynamic the show is going to be visually, and it’s interesting to watch that having done multi-cam, which is a lot like doing a play. You come in, you say your line, you pause, and you do it again. That’s kind of it. I’m not knocking that, but it’s been really interesting breaking a sweat doing half-hour comedy.

Have you had a chance to learn a little bit more about Jimmy and some of his backstory beyond what we see in the pilot?

The episode we’re shooting this week, and I can’t give too much away, but we’re finally following Jimmy to work and they gave him a very interesting job that explains a great deal about his character. It’s not a particularly well-paying job as you can see from their house, but it tells you a lot about why he is the calm in the center of a storm in his family. Scott and I talked a great deal about the character of Jimmy and making sure he wasn’t just a put-upon husband who was scared of his wife and there was a lot more to him. This is a very near and dear story to Scott’s heart. He grew up in a working-class family and his brother has special needs. I’m not going to go far as to say I’m playing Scott’s dad, but there is a lot Scott’s dad in me and we wanted to make sure we got that across in the sense that I was paying respect to a real human being who has a lot on his plate and is just keeping his cool despite that. That’s been really fun to play, because I don’t necessarily think I’m the coolest guy in my family. It’s interesting to portray that on a TV show.

Jimmy just works really, really hard and he really loves his kids, but he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t necessarily have the time to show it. To kind of keep my emotional cards close to my chest is kind of fun for me as an actor. On top of that, they give him some great jokes.

What has the experience been like working with Micah?

He has the best attitude of any actor I’ve ever worked with. He’s a really hard worker, he asks a lot of good questions about what is required of him. He has much more speech and mobility than the character he plays, so he can communicate and express the same concerns that all of the actors do — ‘am I supposed to laugh at this particular joke,’ ‘how annoyed am I with my mother.’

I took his family to dinner before we started to work on the series and they were a lovely family. His mom lives out here with Micah and the dad comes out every chance he can — he works in New Jersey. His sister’s a musical theater actor who is going to college in New York right now. This is a really unique family, and we’ve had a lot of interesting experiences. Every morning when I see Micah he’s in such a good mood and he’s so psyched to be there it just makes the day exponentially easier.

You mentioned doing other multi-cam work, and with this show, is there that flexibility that if ‘The Big Bang Theory’ called you up for another episode you’d be able to do it?

I wish I had a better answer. Maybe? Sure? It’s a different lot, it’s a different network, it’s a different studio. It’s a little bit of a logistics headache. The ‘Speechless’ work week ends on Friday, the ‘Big Bang’ work week ends on Tuesday night. There’s a few things that would have to sync up, and they’d have to give us a great deal of notice.

Obviously I would love to go back. I love playing Kripke, I love harassing Jim [Parsons]; it is one of the great joys of my career. It’s really a question of schedules and logistics, but I’d love to get back there.

Finally, with the ‘Speechless’ pilot online I’m sure you’ve already had a chance to get some good reactions on it.

It’s interesting how many people have come out of the woodwork and talked about their experience with siblings or children who have disabilities. Friends from high school and college who I haven’t heard from in years have sent me these beautiful, moving emails about how they haven’t felt represented on television and now they feel like they have a voice on a show called ‘Speechless.’ The irony is not lost on me. It’s been really nice to see how engaged people have become. On the other hand there have also been comments like ‘she’s really a reckless driver,’ but if the internet has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t please everybody.

Hey, the internet loves its opinions, John.

The internet loves its opinions! Great, everyone gets a voice! (Changes tone.) Oh no, everyone gets a voice! (Laughs.)

————-

We want to thank John for his time and candor! If you want to just check out the trailer for “Speechless” before you decide if you want to dive into the pilot or not, you can see that below.

Also, be sure to head over here to get some other TV news sent over to you via our official CarterMatt Newsletter. (Photo: ABC.)

Love TV? Be sure to like CarterMatt on Facebook for more updates!