Scott Grimes is a prolific actor and voice artist whose work spans some of the all-time greats of American TV. His long-running performance as Doctor Archie Morris on e.r. anchored that show’s final years. He was a vital part of Party of Five and Band of Brothers and has a string of guest appearances on other shows to his name.
But he’s most often found in one of the many worlds of Seth MacFarlane. The voice of Kevin Swanson on Family Guy and the long-suffering Steve Smith on American Dad Grimes has now joined up for MacFarlane’s first live-action TV show, The Orville. Alasdair Stuart spoke to him for MYM about The Orville, his character, Star Trek and more.
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MYM: So, tell us a little about the show.
The Orville is a mid-range exploratory vessel exploring a universe of cultures and planets in a world over 400 years in the future. It’s a very positive look at how maybe we figured it out as humans and now we’re trying to spread the love throughout the universe. It’s from the mind of Seth MacFarlane so it’s a different look at the future, very positive and optimistic. And it’s just a team of all cultures and languages and aliens and people who are thrown into a small vessel together.
MYM: So in a sense it’s a workplace comedy. It’s just the workplace is capable of faster than light travel.
It is! That’s exactly what it is, never thought of it that way. Obviously we explore other planets at different times so we’re not always on the ship…But yeah, just people working in an office together, but our office just happens to go at light speed.
MYM: Tell us a little about your character.
I play Gordon Malloy, the helmsman. He’s the Captain, Ed Mercer’s, best friend. Obviously we went to school together, we went to the Academy together. I’m the kind of best friend frat boy who’ll get you into trouble and also get you OUT of trouble. I might have a cocktail at the wrong time or make the wrong decision, but it’s always from the heart. And I can drive the ship like nobody’s business so that’s why I’m there.
MYM: How collaborative is the process of creating the character?
I mean it’s really written by Seth. We used to go out drinking together, so a lot of Gordon comes from how he thinks I’d speak. This whole concept, this whole show comes from him. He wrote all these 13 episodes at the same time…you know, I want to give him all the credit. But also it gives us plenty of room to bring ourselves to it, bring whatever flavour we want and I’m happy to say that we’ve all surprised him…by what we brought that he didn’t think of. You know, because he’s such a genius he could play all these roles himself if he felt like it. So… he’s not a stickler, he’s left it up to us to feel our way with our characters and opened his eyes to what’s going on and said, ‘Oh that’s a relationship I see developing’ ‘That’s funny’. We’re constantly off rewriting lines to make them even funnier, or not so funny, so we don’t take away from the stakes of the drama that’s happening at the same time. So he’s a great Captain, basically (laughs).
MYM: Has there been any improvising on the set? Because especially in the bridge scenes you all seem really comfortable together?
It depends on the person…Me and J Lee, who plays the navigator and are both down the front of the ship, we improvise all the time. Usually we go for 3 or 4 takes so we can really get what’s written down and I’m just really comfortable with that. Whether they use it or not is a different matter. But it creates a lightness…when the drama is happening we rarely do that. Because, again, this is from the mind of Seth…so there’s not much of that when we’re doing battle scenes because the bridge is a pretty awesome place to be and we respect it and we respect the hierarchy. And we respect all the different levels of your job when you get on that bridge because it IS a job. There really is something military about it…it’s a COOL feeling on that bridge.
MYM: We’re glad you mentioned John, because Gordon and John have a real kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern double act going on. Is there a spotlight episode coming up for you two?
I’ll tell ya, not really…something happens later when we’re weirdly kind of split up. I don’t understand where Seth wants to go with that, but I don’t question it. Because like anytime you’re ripped from somebody you’ve got to find your way back and the reunion is gonna be even better.
Everybody in this first thirteen kind of has their own episode and Gordon just kind of flashes into everybody’s episode because he’s…I don’t think we need to delve into who Gordon is or where he came from. I think he’s pretty shallow and obvious. But yeah, you’re gonna see…every episode a different character is explored and gets lost in some way and has to find their way back. Which is, you know, one of those top seven stories of literature (laughs).
MYM: You have a really long history working with Seth as well as knowing him. I love your work on American Dad by the way and Steve’s musical interludes in particular. The Trapped in the Closet parody just killed me. How did you prepare for that?
Really one of the hardest things in my life because I was so nervous to get it wrong. I could do that ‘trapped in a locker’ thing like on Broadway tomorrow. That’s how I learned that, verbatim.
MYM: Going back to The Orville, I love Gordon’s environmental simulator programs. So far we’ve had Justin the Ogre who was just adorable and the Wild West dance-off. Can you remember whether we’re getting anything like that across the rest of the season because they were really good fun.
I’m trying to think…We do! I can’t tell you! (laughs) Well, you eventually see John and me in like powdered wigs and pistols (laughs). And you can only assume where it’s going from there, but it is a running theme of Gordon’s desires…We have a whole episode coming up too, which is nothing to do with Gordon, which is about the environmental simulator that is…y’know…mildly sexual. Because that’s the question people have asked…that it could get a little risqué and we employ that a little.
MYM: The thing which has really fascinated me about the show so far is something you touched on when we first started chatting, which is that it’s this very unusual combination of comedy and fundamentally kind of hopeful science fiction. Why do you think that makes it work in the moment?
You know if it’s working then I don’t want to say it was by accident because it’s what we, and Seth, meant to happen. It didn’t look like it was going to for a while because the critics were saying, ‘Which one are you? Which one are you?’ And I think finally not speaking on it and just saying, ‘Well, why do we have to be one?’…I really believe that if Seth made a drama, given the way he looks, as a person, you know kind of funny, you’d take him seriously but it’d have to have this level of humour to it. If it was this guy trying to look macho, and Seth’s not macho, he’s a wonderful man, but he’s not macho (laughs)…
I don’t know whether it’s because of the place we’re at with Seth’s writing or acting, or our acting…and we struggled every day, with my character. I’d say something stupid or quirky and Seth and I would go, ‘Okay, where’s the line here? What Gordon’s saying is funny but it’s not taking away from the stakes of the battle we’re in.’ And that wasn’t easy, because if it was too funny it’d seem like an Airplane movie or something where you’d say something stupid or ridiculous. And if it was too serious the line wouldn’t be funny at all…I think we found that line in the whole show of, ‘When is the time to say something real?’ And ‘When is the time to say something funny?’ We cut so many things for that reason. I mean (in episode 3) we’re talking about a baby getting an operation to be a boy instead of a girl. You CANNOT say something funny around that. It’s figuring stuff out. I hope we get it.
MYM: The other thing that’s really interesting is how Gordon evolves. In particular, there’s a moment towards the end of episode 6 where he tries very hard to reason with the episode’s villains. Could you talk a little about that? And are you getting more dramatic stuff later in the season?
I agree with you about that episode and, weirdly I think that was part of why I was hired. When I did e.r. my job was to be funny and stupid and also to save lives, which is what a doctor does, you know?… And I like to bring that to this show as well…I think the rest of these episodes are going to be splashed with Gordon saying something inappropriate or ill-timed but also having the answer to a dramatic question that helps us shift, or save lives, or do our jobs.
Seth actually asked me early on in the show, ‘Do you wanna delve into Gordon and who he is and where he’s from?’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry about me.’ Eventually, if the audience likes this character we can figure something out. But it’s not necessary for me to have a whole episode where you find out who my father is or why I don’t have one. I find that to be self-important. Everyone else can have that, I’m not bagging on them, but that’s not needed for Gordon at all. That’s my job on this show and I’m really happy people respond to it.
You know the other thing? I love to play the person watching. And I think Gordon speaks to kind of the Everyman, the guy watching it who wants to drive a ship, or drink a beer at the helm. I think that’s a big part of that as well. I think that’s why they like him.
MYM: Finally, given the success of both The Orville and Discovery, we were curious about what it was like on set knowing a Star Trek show was in production at the same time. Did it inform production at all?
No it didn’t at all. It’s funny, I instinctively never though they’d be anything alike. And I also think there’s room in television for everything (laughs). It’s strange you said that but I should have thought of that. But I knew the entire time we weren’t making a show like Star Trek. We weren’t even parodying Star Trek. We were a nod to it, a thank you…
A friend of mine runs Discovery, you know? And we ran into each other and laughed about it. You can watch both, guys, you know? They’re two different shows. I never once thought of that and all I know is everyone on our show is a huge Star Trek fan and it was so weird to see people thinking we were mad at Star Trek or they were mad at us. That wasn’t it at all…we’re giant fans of Star Trek and we’re so lucky to be able to do our version of whatever the next level of space exploration is, you know? (Chuckles) And you can watch us for free (laughs).
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(In the US, Star Trek: Discovery is currently only available on CBS All Access, a subscription channel)
Thanks so much to Scott for taking the time to talk to us. The Orville begins on 14 December in the UK on Fox.