PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Eric Petersen, Co-Starring With Kirstie Alley in TV Land's "Kirstie"
By Carey Purcell
Playbill.com chats with Eric Petersen, star of the new TV Land comedy "Kirstie."
TV Land's new situation comedy "Kirstie" premiered Dec. 4. Starring Kirstie Alley, Rhea Pearlman, Michael Richards and Eric Petersen, the show follows Maddie (Alley), a Broadway star who is unexpectedly reunited with Arlo (Petersen), the son she gave up for adoption almost 30 years ago.
Upon meeting Maddie, Arlo is plunged into the glamorous world of Broadway, complete with opening-night parties, red carpets and Tony Awards. While these experiences are new to Arlo, they are not as foreign to Petersen, who counts Broadway's Peter and the Starcatcher and Shrek the Musical among his theatrical credits, as well as the national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. While auditioning for "Kirstie," Petersen frequently traveled between New York and Los Angeles, sometimes within the span of 24 hours.
The actor, who loved watching sitcoms while growing up, chatted with Playbill.com about his cross-country tryout for the pilot and sharing the screen with comedic giants.
How did you learn about the show?
Eric Petersen: It's funny because I think the reason they sent me a script is there was a line in the original pilot that ended up getting cut where Kirstie is like, "This kid can't be mine" — because I play kind of a frumpy, schlubby guy. "He looks like Shrek!" I think that line is what caught my agent's eye. They were like, "Oh, yeah, Eric looks like Shrek. He was Shrek!"
We sent [an audition tape] to LA and they loved it, and Kirstie saw it and thought I was totally right. So they flew me out to LA for my network and studio audition, and I was only out there for literally a day. Starcatcher gave me one day off to fly out there. I flew out there in the morning, I did my audition in the afternoon, they called me a few minutes after I left and were like, "Hey, you got it. You're the star of a new TV show." I went to my agent's office in LA, had a glass of champagne, flew back to New York and was in the matinee of Starcatcher the next day.
So how many frequent flier miles do you have?
EP: There's a lot! I definitely have quite a few from my back and forth travel. Once I got [the role], which was amazing, I flew back in December to do the actual pilot. We shot the pilot for a week, but we had three days of rehearsal the week before the pilot, but they weren't going to do anything on the weekend. We would rehearse Tuesday-Thursday, and we were given Friday-Sunday off, and then we were going to start shooting the pilot on a Monday.
I felt bad because I was in Peter and the Starcatcher at the time. And it was very exciting to be doing a TV show, but I felt an obligation to the theatre show that I was in. So I flew out for the three days of rehearsal, flew back to New York for the weekend of shows at Starcatcher, then flew back to LA for the week of the pilot, then flew back to New York after that.
How did you develop the role of Arlo?
EP: I feel like in theatre I've played so many interesting characters, offbeat characters — and ogres, pirates, stuff like that — William Barfée was a really weird kid.... This role is actually probably the closest to myself as anything I've ever played. Just because he's more a regular guy, a salt-of-the-earth guy, he's got a good outlook on life, which is how I think that I am. He comes into this world of Kirstie, Michael and Rhea, who are all very large personalities — both the actors and the characters they're playing.
He's from New Jersey, he's from a small town, he works at a donut shop, he doesn't have huge aspirations in life. He just wants to be a good person and be nice to people. And so when he gets exposed to this world of show business and NYC nightlife, it's very eye-opening to him.
You've done a combination of stage and TV acting. Can you tell me a little bit about the differences in your technique for each of them?
EP: I was definitely trained in theatre. That's what I studied in college and that's where most of my learning just through doing has been in theatre. A lot of times on a TV set I'm like, "Oh, God, I hope I do the right thing, say the right thing." I find at the core of it has to be honesty and truth and being natural. And while there are obviously technical switches that you have to make, and I look at some of my earlier TV stuff and am like, "That was very theatre-y." As I've been doing more TV, you learn the nuances you can take with a camera that you can't necessarily take with a huge stage. It was also a big change for me — while I did Peter and the Starcatcher in the middle — going from Shrek to TV. Shrek was so big, and because you're wearing all that makeup, you had to do everything twice as big as you normally would.
What's interesting is that when we do "Kirstie," we're taping in front of a live studio audience, so it has a feeling of being like a stage show. But you can't get tricked into feeling like, "Oh, it's theatre. Let's play to this audience here!" Even though there's 150 people who are watching it, who are very excited, you really have to play more to the camera, because that's obviously where the majority of the audience is going to be viewing it from. It definitely took some getting used to, but I think I'm figuring it out.
You're working with some amazingly funny people on this show. Have there been any good improvisations on the set when they've lived up to their giant reputations in comedy?
E: In regards to my co-stars being these huge personalities, they totally live up to the billing — yes and no. Yes, they do because their talent is just so undeniable. When you see Kirstie, she just knows how to work an audience so well. She's so great at being vulnerable and honest. And Rhea is so funny with how she can give you a look out of the side of her eye — so snarky — and can comment on something so well. But also at the same time she has such vulnerability as well, and we really connected on that. And Michael's just a genius. I consider myself a pretty funny actor, and I do physical comedy — I enjoy that stuff — and then when I see him do stuff, I'm like, "Oh my gosh, you're so funny. And you think of things outside the box." And he's so physical. I don't know how old he is exactly, and he's falling all over the ground, falling over couches, tripping... It's amazing.
They live up to it in that respect, but what's amazing is all three of them are just people. They're three actors who have accepted me as a fourth actor in our troupe of actors, trying to do a funny show. I feel so honored to be a part of that.
It sounds like it's setting up a good sort of lovingly dysfunctional family between the four of you on the show. There was some fun slapstick in the pilot, with the donut attack.
EP: When we filmed that, I was standing next to Michael when they were shooting the smearing of the donuts. At that point, it was just the pilot, and he said, "If we ever make it to air, this is going to be a classic sitcom scene that people will talk about for years." Because it's so good. You don't expect that she's actually going to smear it all over [her]. [We] could only do it in one take because they both got so messed up from it, they were like, "This is the one!"
Stage acting and the theatre has been the fodder for such great comedy and drama —"All About Eve," "Waiting for Guffman." Have you contributed anything from your own stage experience to the show?
EP: Definitely. I don't know of any storylines yet. Hopefully our show will run for years and years, and I'll have a chance to give story ideas. There have been a few moments where there was something I remember about show schedules. They had a line where she said, "Let's hang out on Sunday" or something like that, and I said, "No, you would have a matinee on Sunday." Just kind of reminding them of some of the realities of a working stage actor and how busy your schedule is and little things like that. I'm trying to keep the nuances real. I know all my friends in New York will be like, "Hey, that's not real!" if there's something that's a little fake.
Are you going to do any singing on the show?
EP: I am, actually. There's an episode called "Arlo's Birthday," where Kirstie wants to hang out with me and I'm going to a karaoke bar with some of my friends, so she comes with and hears me sing karaoke. I get to sing an 80s hair metal classic at a karoake bar, and she starts to be like, "Oh, wow, he's got talent. I didn't think he had anything special about him, and now I'm going to make him a star." But my character really has no desire to be a star. He doesn't want to be in show business. That's not something that he wants to do. So comedy ensues from that. It's a very funny, very sweet, charming episode.
What were some of the sitcoms you used to watch or still do?
EP: I loved "Seinfeld," and I loved "Cheers." Those were a little bit before my day, so I was watching reruns of that. Growing up, I loved "Home Improvement," I loved "Fresh Prince." That's what I was watching when I was in high school.
I come from the Midwest. I'm a family man. I love... the story of family and how families learn to love each other and learn to deal with each other through good times and bad — shows like "Family Matters" and stuff like that. I've always loved that dynamic of a family and seeing what happens in the living room. I love that sitcoms have a formula and they're fun and safe to watch, and you know it's going to be funny and at the end everyone's going to hug and everything will be OK. I love that. Some people might think it's old-fashioned, but I think enough people still think that it's relevant.
It seems like "Kirstie" has a modern take on the sitcom formula of a family. It's a mother who's working and chose ambition rather than being a mother earlier in life.
EP: It's definitely like that. It's not the buffoonish husband with the doting wife who's like, "Oh, honey," with wild kids. This is more like working mom, older son, the fact that I'm playing in my late 20s on the show — a lot of times they'll have a mom dealing with toddlers and maybe teenagers. It's very rare that you see more of the adult parent relationship, which I think is really fun. But we're also dealing with knowing each other for the first time, so we get to have those scenes you might have with a toddler, but with a grown man and a mom. Then you have these two wacky characters of Rhea and Michael. Rhea plays almost like an older sister to me. She sort of helps me along and really believes in me. And then Michael is almost like an older brother or father figure. Those were some of my favorite episodes of the season, where he and I were getting into trouble together.
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