Interview With Mark-Paul Gosselaar of TNT’s New Show Raising the Bar

A couple of weeks ago I, other online media outlets, got a chance to ask Mark-Paul Gosselaar (NYPD Blue) questions regarding his new show, Raising the Bar. It stars Gosselaar, Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle), Gloria Reuben (ER) and is produced by Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues).

I wanted to know how the role came about for him, what most interested about the part, how much fun they have on set, and, as someone that watches lost of TV, it always interests me to find out if the stars of the shows I watch spend any time watching TV themselves. Someone else asked the first two, but I got a chance to ask the other two.

Below you will find the entire transcript, minus the hellos, thank yous, etc. Also, find a few promo photos and shots from the first episode.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar Interview – Raising the Bar

Question: My first question is just what attracted you to the project initially?

Mark-Paul Gosselaar: Probably three things, number one being Steven Bochco. The fact it was going to be a Steven Bochco production and written by him as well. Number two is the initial script. It was a pretty good pilot. And then three was David Feige, the character that – or the – my character is loosely based off of David Feige who was a public defender for 15 years in the Bronx.

So those are the three things that initially excited me and wanted me to pursue this project.

Q: Had you read the book (Indefensible) before?

Gosselaar: No, when I got a call from Steven to go and have lunch from him and David would be joining us and I was aware that Steven was writing the script about a legal drama. And he said I want you to read this final draft, and I want you to meet David and I want you to read his book. And I’d like for you to play Jerry. Tell me what you think.

So from that lunch conference, I went back and had time to read it and I read the script through the eyes of having read the book as well, and sort of had a better perspective on the kind of character Jerry was because before that, my perception of the criminal justice system was through what I watch on television. Through Law & Order and the paradigm of all the prosecutors are good, they’re fighting the good fight, and all the cops are good. And criminals are stupid and have no goals in life and that’s why they commit these crimes. And if they’re not guilty of this, they’re guilty of something else. So, it was – I’m glad I read David’s book as well as reading the first script.

Q: OK. In the first episode I mean there’s some really powerful scenes and your character seems like he’s very passionate about what he’s doing. Can you talk about how he evolves throughout this season?

Gosselaar: Well I think in terms of evolving, is Jerry going to change his passion or his relentlessness? No. Will there be more layers exposed of Jerry? Of course. But in terms of his ferocity of trying to – Jerry believes that the system is screwed so he’s going to do his best to screw the system to give back.

A great quote that David likes to use is it’s not his clients – Jerry’s clients that need protection from the system, but the fact that the system needs – sorry. It’s not his clients – it’s not the system that needs protection from Jerry’s clients but the clients need protection from the system. And Jerry’s using his law degree, the power of his law degree to help the powerless. And I don’t think that’s going to change. I don’t think that’s going to change, I hope, for as long as I’m on the show. I think that’s what sort of makes my character interesting, and sort of creates a dynamic with all the other characters as well.

Q: Talking about dynamics with other characters, there’s Judge Kessler that he pretty much goes head-to-head from the first ((inaudible)) I think and I was wondering if we’re also going to see him interact with other judges this season?

Gosselaar: Yes. Given the season that we only did 10 episodes, we were confined in a way due to the strike and the amount of time that we had. But most of my cases or – not my cases but the trials I have are in front of Judge Kessler. But yes, there are other judges that are sort of on a round table on the show and we introduce them as the season progresses. And hopefully next season we’ll have more judges and hopefully Jerry will be in front of them. But for the first season, and I think it’s really – I think it’s kind of fun to watch. We’re speaking about the dynamic between him and Kessler but it’s fun to watch the dynamic because they’re at such opposite spectrums of how they go about their – how they perceive the criminal justice system.

Q: And I guess my last question is something I noticed that was different about this show is that all of them are pretty much friends which I don’t think you really see in other shows. And he’s dating Michelle, so I Was wondering if you could talk about that dynamic which is different from other shows. How it works into the story?

Gosselaar: Well, what we’re trying to accomplish on this show is to see – I’ve said this quite a bit but the obsessive focus that we’ve had of only one side and I think the one side that we’ve seen the obsessive focus most centered on is the prosecution. The cops and the prosecution. And so, by having a relationship with prosecutors as well as public defenders, it just opens a door for us to see what is driving these characters in an environment like the bar that we have on our show.

Is it realistic? Maybe not. Maybe prosecutors don’t have a relationship with public defenders because they’re on such opposite ends and they disagree so much about the system. But I think it allows us to see inside and what generates these characters to do the job that they’re doing. My relationship with Michelle, that is something that we used in the pilot to – let me put it this way. By the end of the season that’s not necessarily the case. IT’s more complex than what you just see in the pilot. Even by the second and third episode you can see that was just used as a stimulant in the pilot that it manifests into something much more complex by the end of the season.

Question: I wanted to first ask, you’ve worked for Steven before. And as such were there any bits of advice or anything you told your other cast members heading into this new series with him?

Gosselaar: Yes don’t (expletive) with Steven.

Questioner: I wondered.

Gosselaar: No, Steven – there’s a reason why I like working with this guy. He is as loyal and as passionate as I am. He does the same for you. I know whatever I give him he’s going to give me tenfold. He’s an icon in the business and there’s a reason why, if you look at his resume, why it’s so strong. He knows what he’s doing. You have to trust him. Know that he’s not the kind of guy that’s on the set every single day, micromanaging every part of the show. But he knows what’s going on.

He allows people to do their work and you just feel like working with Steven you have that person in your corner who’s going to give you all the tools that you would ever want to make your creative product and he’s your biggest cheerleader. And he’s the guy that you want to work for. He’s the one that you trust. So it was such a blessing for me to be able to work with him for those four years on Blue. I feel indebted to him. If he came to me for the next 10 years with projects I Would take every single one of them just because I just feel so indebted to him. Also it’s always a great product that you’re doing good work.

Q: And as such, he almost has that cast people that he goes back to often over his career. And from the sounds of it, it’s not something that you would mind being part of his troop so to speak?

Gosselaar: Absolutely not. I know that Dennis Franz was one of his guys for a long time, and look at the outcome of that. Even if I could get a fraction of Dennis’s success would be a dream come true for me. But yes, he’s had such a long career that he knows what works and he knows which actors work well with certain people. He just has a great, I don’t know, backbone that just creates an environment. And when you walk on the set you know it’s a Steven Bochco production and it fits with this network. It fits with how this network is run by Michael Wright. And it’s a great time to be on this network, right at the – not even at the startup, but it still feels very fresh. And hopefully that’ll continue.

Question: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about – more about how you prepared for this role. Because I know you mentioned that you’d read the book, but did you actually get a chance to sort of trail public defenders, or get any sort of hands-on experience as far as that goes?

Gosselaar: What you mean prepare? All I did was grow my hair out and I’m ready to go. That’s usually what I do. I don’t change my acting, I just change my look. It’s a lot easier that way.

But no, for this role, once I met David Feige, read his book, I knew he was going to be a producer on the show as well as one of the writers and a technical advisor. And yes I – roughly from the pilot to the beginning of this season did about a week’s worth of being an intern for the Bronx defenders and got to do arraignments in night court, meet with clients, go through – I actually got to go to the Manhattan DAs office and speak with one of the head DAs there as well.

I don’t know why I would – we just did that just to see the system, but for me I stayed more on the side of the – on the public defenders side and got to go behind the courthouse to the pens where they – where the clients are before they get arraigned. So it was, yes, I did a quite a bit of extensive research on this role.

Q: Any epiphanies, any revelations when you were going through that experience?

Gosselaar: That I’m glad I hopefully will never have to go through the system myself. But even so, I think I would fare much better than a lot of (((inaudible)) clients that are back there. Because that’s what it comes down to. It comes down to how much resources you have and how quickly – resources equals how fast you get spit out of the system. So, I – is it a perfect system? In my eyes, no it’s not perfect. But it’s what we have and we have to work with. But Jerry doesn’t see it that way. Jerry’s – system’s broken and he’s not trying to fix it. He’s just saying, if it’s going to be broken, this is the way I’m going to deal with it. By giving my clients the best defense they can possibly have regardless of what they’ve done because they’re all humans, they’re all individuals and they deserve that.

Q: And one last question since you did bring it up. The hair.

I just – I was thinking about when No Country for Old Men came out and the Cohen brothers were saying how Javier Bardem’s hair was sort of like a character in and of itself, and I was thinking the same thing when I saw your mop. I mean, do you think that that’s – does that have some sort of bearing on your character? Or is it development of your character? What exactly – what role does that play.

Gosselaar: Well I Don’t’ think we started off as it being a character of itself, but it has become sort of a polarizing discussion as well, or sort of a polarizing element of a discussion. Because you either hate it or you love it. I know my wife absolutely hates it. I know that Steven Bochco absolutely hates it. But then Steven Bochco’s wife loves it. It’s become a very Jerry thing, this hair of his. And who knows where it’s going to go from here. It kind of goes with the character.

I know that when – Steven wanted me to be as far removed from John Clark Jr. of NYPD Blue as possible. He had asked David Feige if public defenders can have long hair, and he said of course, he actually had the hair my length at one point in his career as well. And it works with the character just to – he’s a big of a rogue individual who doesn’t conform to the system. And the hair is a symbol in a way. But it – more for the now, I don’t’ even know if it’s conscious to Jerry. I think he just doesn’t care about his appearance, doesn’t care about his clothes, because he’s not – it takes too much effort and he’d rather put all of his effort into his clients and into fighting the system.

Q: So what conditioner do you use?

Gosselaar: What conditioner do I use? I think I use something that the hair people gave me. Me, I could care less. The reason why my hair was long to begin with was because I don’t get my hair cut unless it’s on a set. I refuse to pay to get a haircut because I just think it’s a waste of time. If I can’t do it myself, why do it. And so, that’s why my hair progressively got longer.

You know, it’s been two years since I was off of Blue. And every show or character that I played after that warranted having longer hair. I was on John from Cincinnati, a network for that, I was on a pilot before this that my hair was a little long for that. So it’s all worked for each character that I’ve played in the last two years.

Question: I see that you have two kids, and obviously with a schedule being –shooting drama is grueling. So how have you managed to find time, do you have days where you are at least off and can decompress? And how do you make the time?

Gosselaar: Yes, it’s difficult at times. My son is four years old, and when he was born in 2004 I was just wrapping up the season of Blue. So he’s never seen me work days when I leave before he’s up and I come before he’s already in bed. So there was a couple weeks there when I wouldn’t be able to see him, and he didn’t understand. He is the most disturbed by my fame and my little girl’s two so she doesn’t really grasp what’s going on. But, weekends we’ll just be trying to do things with them that I didn’t get to do during the week.

My son would actually come to the set every once in a while. Usually about once a week. But he didn’t – as long as there was – I had to tell the Kraft service guy you have got to get – I don’t demand anything when I work. There’s rarely a time that I demand anything, but I demanded that the slurpee machine was operational when my son came to the set. It had to work. And know there was one time my son came to set and there was no slurpee machine and that was a bad day. He threw a tantrum. But as long as the slurpee machine was good, my son was – all was forgiven. Of course I’d bring candy that we’d get from the set back. But, no, we made it work. And weekends were just spent kind of trying to catch up.

Question: What about your role did you find challenging?

Gosselaar: What did I find challenging? Well, I personally sit on the fence of a lot of things. I’m not extremely on the left on issues, I’m not extremely on the right of issues. But playing this character, he’s extremely on the left and he’s very adamant and he’s very passionate about his views. And that to me was very challenging. And to not make him one note. It’s very easy to play Jerry because he’s always fighting. He’s always trying to make a defense. To make him one note – and I want him to have a lot of layers, and I don’t want the audience to get tired of Jerry’s lance and his fighting. So I’m constantly looking for new ways to sort of have that come across.

Q: In your opinion, why do you think people should take their time and tune-in and see this show?

Gosselaar: Because it’s on TNT. And most shows on – well all the shows, Saving Grace, Closer, they’re great shows. I think Steven put it correctly that they’re all thematically linked together, so if you like The Closer, if you like Saving Grace, you’re hopefully going to like our show. I think it also just shows a different perspective. I think it’s a perspective that we haven’t seen on television.

The side of the defense through the public defenders eyes as well as the prosecution and the sort of sacrifices that each side has to make as well as the judge. I think you’ll see from a new perspective. And I think it’s more relatable. Our cases are cases, misdemeanors and felonies, but are we going to hit the high-profile cases of the serial murder and the rapists – the serial rapists and things like that? I’m sure we will but the majority of our cases are the majority of cases that are going through the system right now which is the misdemeanors and felonies that you look at and you go wow I can’t believe that person is going to do that much time for. So, that’s – I think those are the biggest differences between our show and other legal law shows.

Question: I was wondering, the show deals with so many serious nature. I was wondering on set, is there anybody who’s sort of a practical joker who likes to lighten the mood or break the tension? If there’s any good stories you could share?

Gosselaar: I think all of us are pretty – we all have a pretty good sense of humor. We all have generally the same sense of humor, very dark humor. Which is good because you can get in trouble very easily if you didn’t have this same humor. In terms of practical jokes, we kind of keep that to – practical jokes can get ugly and I don’t think anybody –. I played one on David Feige because he’s so new to the business. He – I’ll try to say it as quickly as possible. But he had a conversation with the head of TNT, Michael Wright.

They had a conversation and David Feige did not back down from his belief from how a story should be told. And Michael said well listen I think it should be this way. And David said no I think it should be this way. And each one told me that story separately. And when Michael told me that he goes, you know I’m the head of the network, I don’t need anybody talking to me like that, completely in a joking manner. And I said you know what, we should get David back, he’s so green to this he doesn’t know that you’re the head of the network, you shouldn’t be treated like that. So David for a while, I would e-mail David and say, you know what?

Michael is completely pissed off at you. You basically disagreed with his views of how the show should be and he’s – you’re going to have to send him a fruit basket, and send him gifts to appease him. And so Michael was in on this whole prank and we probably had it going for about a week when David thought that he was in the hot seat for about a week with the head of the network. And there’s talks of getting me back, but all in all we’re a bunch of guys and girls in the set that are just out there to have a good time and we’re doing a legal – a legal show that deals with serious things, but we’re not serious people. We’re actors, we’re just having fun.

Q: And do you yourself get a chance to watch much TV? And if so, what types of shows do you like to watch?

Gosselaar: I don’t get a chance. I do TiVo quite a few things but the things I TiVo are usually sports-based programs or documentaries, or I really like VH1 Classic where I can TiVo the old concerts and things like that. But for the shows, no, my TiVo’s pretty much filled with those things and filled with things for my kids.

Question: I just wanted to know with the first season wrapped up for you filming-wise, what do you come away with as the most rewarding part of what you did for this season, either as an actor or just personally? How do you evaluate how the first season went and what you take from it that mans the most to you?

Gosselaar: I think from the pilot to the last episode that we filmed this year, I think we progressively got better and better and better, and I think I really enjoyed – I always enjoy the process and I always like being on the set and I like working. What made it so much easier is the fact that we kept getting great story after great story, and our characters kept developing in a progressive manner. And that just made it – the season went by so fast. But also, for me I felt challenged every episode.

My goal was to try to make a character that I haven’t played before. The worst critique or comment that you could ever get is yes, I’ve seen you play that character before. Or boy that’s just like you in real life. That to me is something that I’m trying to always strive to not hear. And I think I’ve accomplished that. I think there’s a lot of – I hope we get to do another season and seasons after that. I continually want to be better and work allows me to do that. But I was proud. I think this is a great start to a show and I think we hopefully will get some legs here and come back again.

Question: Hello, Mark. This is so great to hear you talk about this series. I really appreciate this. I know you have a lot of actors that you’ve worked with before, but also you haven’t worked with in this ensemble cast. Have you been learning anything from them? Able to pass on any of your tips to them about acting in this series?

Gosselaar: No, the sort of giving people advice on acting is sort of giving them a line read, something you generally steer clear from. But with the caliber of actors that we have and the work that they have done in the past, what I like is that we come on the set, and whether I’m working with Currie Graham, or Jane Kaczmarek, or Gloria Reuben, or J. August Richards, they all bring something every day that they’re on set and you’re working. So you feed off of their energy, you feed off of their talent, and it just makes you a better actor.

It makes my job a lot easier to find the emotions and to find the passion that my character Jerry has, when you have such talented actors opposite of you. And then of course, our guest stars that they cast are huge components to our shows because basically our shows are revolved around their case. So we have to have very strong guest stars and I think we’ve achieved that. And yes, I think we had some great guest stars this year that should be proud of their work.

Raising the Bar premieres on Labor Day, Monday, September 1st after a new episode of The Closer.

Update 8.28.2008: Had to remove the photos from this post, as the WordPress photo gallery seems to have developed a problem that was causing this interview not to display at all. Will repost the photos when I find a fix for the problem.

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