New City’s Skylar Astin has parlayed his star turn in “Pitch Perfect” into a leading role in the new sitcom “Ground Floor,” premiering Nov. 14 with back-to-back episodes at 10 p.m. on TBS.
Astin — a graduate of Clarkstown High School North — plays money manager Brody, an “upstairs guy” who is still trying to figure things out when a company party turns into a one-night stand with co-worker Jenny. He soon learns that Jenny works on the ground floor, in the building’s maintenance department, making her geographically undesirable to the suits upstairs, if not to Brody.
Brody is the kind of character who talks to himself a bit, is a bit too trusting, a bit too easily convinced, a straight man in an office of crazy characters, including John C. McGinley as the boss Mansfield.
McGinley (next to Astin in Peter “Hopper” Stone’s photo, inset), comes to “Ground Floor” from years on “Scrubs,” which was created by “Ground Floor” creator Bill Lawrence. Briga Heelan (of Lawrence’s other creation, “Cougar Town”) stars as Jenny. (That’s Astin and Heelan, top.)
It’s upstairs/downstairs, where each half has its share of crazy characters in a show whose pilot feels a bit like the late great “NewsRadio.”
There’s McGinley, as Mansfield the boss, who is part Denny Crane (from “The Practice”) and part Stephen Root as the boss from “NewsRadio.”
Downstairs, there’s Rory Scovel as Harvard, Brody’s nemesis who is in love with Jenny; James Earl as Derrick; and Alexis Knapp (“Pitch Perfect”) as Tori, a sexy club-hopper who uses work as a place to sleep. Brody’s upstairs co-workers include Rene Gube, of Upright Citizens Brigade, playing Threepeat, a go-getter.
After cutting his teeth at Danielle Rudess’ Helen Hayes Youth Theater, Astin burst on the scene in the original Broadway company of “Spring Awakening,” alongside Lea Michele (“Glee”) and John Gallagher (“American Idiot”). But it was “Pitch Perfect” where he made his name, as the love interest of Anna Kendrick’s Beca.
The “Ground Floor” pilot has Brody singing a bit, too, a welcome sight for Astin’s local fans who remember his musical roots.
(Photo by Peter “Hopper” Stone: The cast of “Ground Floor,” from left, includes Skylar Astin, James Earl, Briga Heelan and Alexis Knapp.)
Astin called from Los Angeles, fresh from a visit back home to New York. Here’s a bit of our chat.
PK: I saw your pilot episode. Funny stuff. With the upstairs-downstairs thing, it really feels like “Downton Abbey.” (A joke.)
SA: (Laughs.) I love that. That’s the first I’ve heard of that.
PK: Really, though, it feels like “NewsRadio.” Do you remember that show?
SA: Ooh, love that comparison. Love that show.
PK: Like “NewsRadio,” your character is the central character who plays it straight, but also gets to cut loose a bit. That must be fun.
SA: Yeah. It’s the best. I read a lot of scripts for broad ensemble comedies where there’s one main character who’s rooted and is just there to set up all the jokes. But Brody gets a lot of opportunity for comedy since, within the ensemble comedy, there’s a real two-hander between me and Briga. There’s always room for banter when you’re in a relationship odd couple.
PK: The characters, even after the pilot, are established. We kind of know where this is going. What’s it like to work with John McGinley?
SA: He’s amazing. And his resume is incredible. I knew him as Dr. Cox from “Scrubs,” but he has been in a ton of things. He was in “Platoon!” He’s great and we’ve developed a nice bond on and off the set. His character’s like a father figure to Brody and we really enjoy playing those moments. I know you’ve just seen episode one, but you’ll see how more and more involved he gets in my life. In my personal life and relationship. And it stays rooted in this boss/father-figure dynamic, which is fun to play with. His character is so well-written that there are plenty of opportunities to watch him drop the hammer on Brody and shift from father-figure to boss.
PK: You sing in the pilot. Tell me we’ll hear you sing a lot more.
SA: Yes, absolutely. We wove it into the storyline. If it wasn’t story-based and comedy-driven, I’d be a bit worried. I’d say ‘Where does singing fit into this grounded story about workplace romance. But they do it so brilliantly. It’s cleverly done and I enjoy playing my part in it. I know that people like to see it. I wanted to make sure it doesn’t look cheap. In the pilot, it really comes out of the story and it’s not too long and drawn out.
PK: I think if Brody starts singing Tom Jones, then we’ll know he’s jumped the shark.
SA: Exactly. Thank god these writers have integrity. That could be a big crutch for them. It’s really smart and it pops up in 40 percent of the episodes in season one.
PK: How many episodes will you shoot this season?
SA: We have shot 10 of 10. That’s TBS’s model. But if the ratings and reviews reflect TBS’s attitude toward this show, we should be back pretty quickly for a second season and I think we might get a few more episodes in the order.
PK: You’ve done Broadway and movies, but a TV set must be different.
SA: I’ve done some TV, guest spots and recurrings, but really what’s fun about this format is the multi-camera live audience sitcom format where I get to play to the camera and the audience at the same time. It’s a wonderful marriage of everything I’ve done up until this point and the pace is something I’m very used to. That run-and-gun, only a couple of opportunities to get it right. I work really well with that pressure, and so does the rest of the cast. It took me a little bit to get my footing in this world, but we just wrapped season one and I was telling my castmates ‘I’m so bummed! My feet are wet and I’m ready to do a full 24-show order,’ but we only got so many and we’re all itching to get back. Now we not only have the format down pat, but we have these characters learned. I can answer any question about these characters. And Bill Lawrence lets us do a lot.
PK: Can you ad-lib on this?
SA: When I did ‘Pitch Perfect’ and ’21 and Over,’ I had a lot of freedom as far as improv-ing goes. This is a little more scripted, but we do have a ton of liberty within the words. The show has a fun style that I really enjoy playing. Once we hit episode three or four, we were all willing to go further and further and see what we could get away with and where we had to pull back. It has been an awesome collaborative process.
PK: The upstairs-downstairs thing really works, even in the pilot.
SA: Pilots are tricky things. They’re really tough. You’ve got a lot to do in a short amount of time. And we’ll really get to know these characters.
PK: Even in the pilot, there were moments that weren’t setup-setup-laugh. Kind of real moments of heart.
SA: That’s Bill Lawrence for you. And he has cast actors who root themselves in reality. There are moments — I’m getting really ahead of myself, but even in the two-part finale we just filmed — that were just crazy the way we were playing these scenes. With humor but really grounded in a real-life situation. I think comedy keeps you laughing, but heart keeps you watching. We’re going to make people invested. We’re not going to hit people over the head with super sincere moments. It’s not sappy. It’s earned. We’ll never hit people over the head with some moral.
PK: Are you a California guy now?
SA: Yeah, that’s where work is. I’m a New Yorker at heart and I’m not against doing a play or a musical or shooting something in New York.
“Ground Floor” premieres Thursday, Nov. 14 on TBS, with back-to-back episodes.