TrunkSpace sits down with Danny Nucci to discuss the latest season of “The Fosters,” being funny in front of Carl Reiner, and the advice that has stuck with him throughout his career.
TrunkSpace: You’ve had a career that has spanned decades, and yet, if we’re not mistaken, Mike Foster, the character you portray in “The Fosters,” is the one you’ve spent the most time with. What’s the process like… being part of a character who develops over the course of years?
Nucci: In television, this long, each season you have new information and new ideas on who the character you’re playing is, so that’s kind of fun. And also, there’s a sense of you really know who this guy is without thinking about it because you’ve been playing him for awhile, so the minute they say, “Action!” you kind of have a pretty good idea. You’re not even thinking about who Mike is, you’re just playing the scene.
TrunkSpace: When you jump into a new season of the show, do you know what’s going to happen for Mike and the rest of the characters?
Nucci: No. Here’s what it actually looks like… and I’ve talked to the other cast members and they basically have the same experience that I do, which is, somewhere we have spent time either socially on the phone or something with one of the three executives (Brad Bredeweg, Peter Paige, or Joanna Johnson) and at some point they have said something or have given us an idea or a clue as to what may happen this season… just kind of off the cuff conversation… and that’s about the extent of what we know is going to happen. And a lot of times what they’ve said is, “we have a pretty darn good idea of what’s going to happen, but we’re open to seeing where it goes and what happens in the writers room and having it change.” So, sometimes they haven’t really known what was going to go on… they had a really good structure… but at the end of it, what was happening in the 11th episode of that particular season… they’re not exactly sure. So we’re all kind of trying to figure it out together. What they do know is kind of what the overall arc is and where it’s going, but how that happens, that kind of gets discovered when they’re working on it.
TrunkSpace: What’s interesting about Freeform is that it seems like it’s the kind of network that knows it’s audience and is willing to let their shows find their legs. How is that experience different for you in terms of working with a network that focuses on a specific audience demo as opposed to a network that will develop shows that aim to be a little bit of everything for everyone?
Nucci: I think you said it. Our show started off as an ABC Family show before it was Freeform and that had a much more homogenized audience. Freeform is a little more, I think, to use an old person’s word… “racy.” (Laughs) I think they’ve allowed, certainly our executives, to make the show that they want to make and yes, it’s geared towards that audience but that’s the show that they wanted to make anyway. Our major characters are 16, 17, 18-year-old kids and the issues that they deal with in this world and I think that is something that the majority of the audience that watches really relates to. I think it all works out. It’s not like we’re trying to shape a show for our audience. It naturally is that.
TrunkSpace: So did you see a big difference in the content of the show from ABC Family to its transition into Freeform?
Nucci: The truth is, it felt like a natural progression. It felt like they were both going in the same direction. The more sort of edgier stuff we wanted to do with the show coincided with where the network was going anyway.
TrunkSpace: And as the kid characters grow up, they’re naturally experiencing more adult-themed situations.
Nucci: Yeah. And I think it all sort of worked. But, in comparison to more of a network show… I just think a lot of the shows… that I have done… there’s so much more riding on it that it has to please way more people. It needs the audience for the numbers. It has to please what the network wants it to be. It has to please the producers and the writers in what they’re doing. The stakes are much higher and there’s way more people trying to shape the show into what they think will work. And I think that’s where things get wonky.
TrunkSpace: So does that mean the feeling on set in the case of “The Fosters” is one of ease in comparison to a network show?
Nucci: Well, it’s like a lot of the shows that have a strong executive producer or strong show runner… you get the sense of that this is their show and it’s going to work or it isn’t. “They’re either going to like it or they’re not going to like it. It’s either going to get an audience or it’s not going to get an audience, but this is the show we want to make.” I think that’s really the way to go because then it really comes from the best creative place. And if you have executive producers like ours who are open-minded and are looking to expand their own vision as opposed to being closed off, then it really gets fun because they’re taking input and you’re watching it happen.
TrunkSpace: And in that case, a show isn’t forced into a certain set of margins.
Nucci: Yeah, and there’s a certain creative humility where they’ve seen things that they could have not foreseen develop through being open and being collaborative. And they value that. That’s what I love about our producers. They just really value the magic of collaboration.
TrunkSpace: The new season is set to premiere January 31st. What can fans expect from Mike and the rest of the show this time around?
Nucci: For the most part, I think the manner in which all the unanswered questions from last season… they get answered in a way that is extremely entertaining. (Laughter) Entertaining, dramatic, and unexpected. I know that’s a very generalized description, but it’s true. One of the great things about our show is it’s very cliffhanger-based and there’s a lot of open-ended storylines and circumstances for the characters. Part of the way that the show is structured in that you have a winter premiere and a summer premiere… you have to sort of wait to see where it goes and I think it’s really satisfying for an audience. And also for us to kind of go, “Yeah, this is how we’re dealing with that… this is how we’re answering that question… this is where these two are going…”, I think it’s fascinating. But, there’s also some unexpected stuff, and, as usual, a tremendous amount of drama. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: You mention the cliffhangers and it’s certainly an interesting device to use because you tend not to see it utilized in family dramas.
Nucci: Where we left the audience in season 4A… there’s a lot of questions to be answered. And if you look at the preview, you can kind of start to see where it’s going, but you have no idea. (Laughter) You have no idea! And the execs… they love coming up with stuff that’s unexpected. They love it. They love the rug pull. They’re huge fans of the rug pull.
TrunkSpace: In this day and age, where everyone is online leaking and speculating… it’s hard to keep a rug pull until the actual pull.
Nucci: Well, that’s what has changed. At first, we would get our script and we would do the read-through and we would shoot the episodes and then at some point the interest in the show became so acute that they were trying to find scripts and storylines that would be leaked out. So just in terms of being able to shoot pictures or say things on social media about the show… that got severely limited. And then, just in terms of the scripts, whether it be digitized or a physical paper script, it has your name on it and everything is tracked because that’s such an important part of the show. So things have shifted for the best of reasons because people are really interested and they want to get ahead of it.
TrunkSpace: Which again, is not something you tend to see with a family drama.
Nucci: No. At this point, what’s fascinating to read and sort of participate with on Twitter for me is just how real these people are for the audience. They’re just people that they know of. (As viewer) “Twice a year, for ten episodes, I look into the window of these people.” And that to me is the best part of being an actor. I love the passion of the fans for this show. They’re so awesome… just in their desire for understanding and wanting more.
TrunkSpace: Having spent so much time portraying Mike… does the brain ever blur your own experiences with those of his fictional experiences? Does a scene ever feel like a memory?
Nucci: Well the truth is, that line never blurs for me because otherwise I’d be insane. However, I will say that as a result of playing the same character for such a prolonged period of time, just like in real life, I kind of get to discover who he is as time goes on. He becomes different. He changes. It’s similar to life. One of the things that I’ve had the most fun playing is that Mike has not had a lot of luck with romance in his life. (Laughter) Now that we get to this part of it where he’s become involved with Ana, you can’t separate the history of the relationships that he’s had… certainly with Dani who ended up sleeping with his son. (Laughter) Or the fact that he married a woman and had a child and a relationship with someone who was gay. Obviously he has not had a lot of good fortune and being able to take that experience that he’s had into what’s happening next is really fun.
TrunkSpace: Because people are a product of their experiences.
Nucci: Yeah, and generally speaking, when I’m doing a film, most of that information is stuff that I had to either come up with or had to sort of find as opposed to actually having experienced it. I didn’t get to actually play it. I didn’t get to do scenes where that happened. It’s not visceral. It’s not something that happened in 2014.
TrunkSpace: So they say nothing is stranger than life. That being said, who has had more unbelievable life experiences… Danny Nucci or the many characters you’ve portrayed?
Nucci: I don’t know. I think that’s a judgment call. However, it hasn’t been dull in my world. I can tell you that.
TrunkSpace: You’ve appeared in a number of huge box office successes, including “Titanic,” “The Rock,” and “Eraser.” What’s the one project that you wish more people had seen?
Nucci: I want you to know something. In all the years that I have done similar interviews, nobody has ever asked me that question and I think it’s a great question. (Laughter) “What would you have wished had done better?” But that’s not what you asked. You asked, “What do you wish more people would have seen?” and the answer is “That Old Feeling.”
TrunkSpace: Is there a specific reason why you wish more people had seen it?
Nucci: I don’t think I’ve ever been as unselfconscious as an actor as I was in that film. I just did not care if I sucked, if I was over the top, if I was good, if I was bad… it didn’t matter. I was just so free, A., and B., I just think it’s a really sweet, entertaining film. Dennis Farina and Bette Midler have tremendous chemistry and it’s got my wife and I playing romantic characters in it. It has a lot of meaning to me. But more than anything, I just love that character and how free I felt playing it.
TrunkSpace: Is it because you went into the project with a particular mindset?
Nucci: I think just the circumstances regarding the project and the time in my life… I read the script for “Titanic” while shooting that film, so that was sort where my career was on a real upswing. And also, the process of getting that film was having to audition a number of times and having to compete with all the guys who could do that role and in essence, winning that role is sort of the way it felt. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s the way it felt. And then having somebody like Carl Reiner go, “that’s funny.” The ability just to depend on the fact that he might know what funny is… made it so free. I just didn’t have to pay attention to anything. I just had to do what I do and if he thinks it’s funny and it works… it probably does. (Laughter) I’ve got Carl Reiner going, “Yeah, that works” or “Let’s try it this way… this might be funny.” He might know what he’s talking about! And just, going back and forth with Bette Midler… it’s like a dream. Doing comedic repartee with Bette Midler? Does it get better? I don’t know!
TrunkSpace: While having Carl Reiner oversee it.
Nucci: Right! And, a lot of my scenes were with Paula Marshall, my lovely current wife, as I like to call her. And, I didn’t know this at the time, but she’s a comedic genius in terms of that kind of sitcom tone and timing and ability. There’s not a lot better.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned Carl Reiner, a legend in the business, but you’ve actually worked with a massive list of iconic directors and producers, including Oliver Stone, James Cameron, and Jerry Bruckheimer. Is there any advice that any of them gave you at the time of working together that has just sort of stuck with you over the years?
Nucci: There’s been a few great bits of advice. I remember Tony Scott who directed “Crimson Tide” essentially saying to me that sometimes you adjust your performance for how close the camera is. It’s a subtle thing, but during that filming, a lot of the scenes took place where people were talking in different parts of the sub so Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman were having scenes with other characters in different parts of the submarine so it was just their voice. And I would end up doing Gene and Denzel over a microphone with the actors that were there. I remember specifically I did a scene with Rick Schroder and I was playing the Denzel part. So I sat next to Tony with the six monitors and for a lot of the shoot I was the voice playing the other characters and I got to see how it all worked. And Tony would say to me, “Make it just a little bit smaller because I’m really tight. I got it. You don’t have to work so hard.” So that was one of them where I really sort of learned that sometimes you just make a small adjustment depending on what the size of the shot is.
TrunkSpace: Which is advice that must carry over to television, particularly with a show like “The Fosters?”
Nucci: Yeah, and just with television in general, a lot of it is close up. Sometimes it’s effective in certain things and other times it’s not an issue. It’s like the difference between being a stage actor and doing tight closeups for the first time. It’s just learning that there’s an adjustment that needs to be made. You don’t have to hit the back of the house. It’s just not necessary because the mic will pick it up.
TrunkSpace: You’ve been working since you were a kid. You read so many horror stories about kid actors who go the wrong path. How did you stay grounded?
Nucci: Who said I did? (Laughter) Don’t believe everything you see or hear. There were a couple of big hiccups. I almost didn’t make it, but I did and I’m glad I did.
TrunkSpace: Have you had a single interview since 1997 where you did not get asked a question about “Titanic?”
Nucci: No, and why shouldn’t there be? Everybody on Twitter that follows anybody on the show knows this to be true already, but every time there is a new cast member or a guest star on the show, and Teri Polo is in the scene, inevitably when it gets quiet Teri Polo will go, “Hey, did you know that Danny Nucci was in ‘Titanic’!” (Laughter) Every time.
The Fosters premiers January 31st at 8pm EST on Freeform.