Wednesday (April 28) night’s premiere of ABC’s “Happy Town” is a big deal for Geoff Stults.
The 32-year-old actor has been steadily acting for a decade on the big and small screen, playing supporting roles in shows like “7th Heaven” and “October Road” and in features including “Wedding Crashers,” “The Express” and, most recently, “She’s Out of My League.”
“Happy Town,” though, finds Stults in leading man mode as Tommy Conroy, a police deputy content to live in his father’s shadow and enjoy the tranquility of a small town without any crime. When a bizarre set of circumstances unfold, Tommy finds himself having to investigate a series of crimes that may involve The Magic Man, the mysterious figure behind a rash of abductions years earlier.
Stults isn’t just the lead in “Happy Town,” though. The series comes from the team of Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Scott Rosenberg, who wrote the pilot specifically for their friend and former “October Road” star.
HitFix caught up with Stults to his quirky new series, the responsibility of stepping up as a star and how much closure viewers will be able to expect by the end of the first “Happy Town” season.
HitFix: Let’s start at the top. I’ve seen a few episodes of the show, but my readers won’t have. Tell me a bit about Tommy Conroy…
Geoff Stults: How do we explain Tommy? My opinion about Tommy and what drew me to Tommy is that he’s a sheriff in a town of no crime and he’s a husband and a father and he’s very happy and content to really not do anything, to just live in his father’s shadow and live what seem to be a picturesque, perfect All-American existence in the pilot. But then in the subsequent episodes, his very fabric and the foundation of what he thought was his life is just so fundamentally changed and shaken up that he’s forced, very reluctantly, to become the hero. He’s a reluctant hero. He’s not somebody who really wanted to take charge and be a grown-up and have the weight of his small little world on his shoulders, but every week he has to take on the burden even more.
HitFix: How pure of a hero do you think he is? The first couple episodes hint at a few dark things from his past. Is he the square-jawed hero, or is there darkness to him?
GS: My favorite thing about him and my favorite thing about this show is that it seems like, what’s the old saying, that things aren’t exactly what they appear. Tommy seems to be more and more the glue that that keeps the the town together, but there are little hints in there about some darkness to his past. Norman Rockwell, “Happy Town” isn’t, or Haplin isn’t.
HitFix: You’ve definitely done shows in the past that have been more black-and-white than that, where things pretty much were exactly what they appeared to be. Did you enjoy getting to play all of this ambiguity?
GS: Oh yeah. This keeps me excited to get up and go to work in the morning. When it’s five o’clock in the morning and it’s raining and sleeting sideways in Toronto and you have to get up and go to work, it’s exciting to be able to go out and do some stuff that you can sink your teeth into and just to keep you engaged. I’m so lucky that it’s a big ensemble cast. Every day I’m working with somebody different. It’s fantastic. For me, it’s a great opportunity to not just be like, “Hey, there’s a tall, half-way decent looking guy” or “There’s the frat guy” or “There’s the straight guy.” Tommy has so many levels to him. He’s trying to do the right thing. I’d say that Tommy is a good person and he means to be, but even good people make bad choices sometimes.
HitFix: You’re working again with the “October Road” guys and obviously they see you as more than the frat guy or more than just the good-looking guy. What do you think they see in you and what do you see in them?
GS: An unhealthy co-dependence. That’s what I see. [He laughs.] No, it’s a business. And in business you really want to be able to work with the people you want to work with. That’s the goal. If you can do some good work and have a good time all at once, that’s a win, I guess. I worked with these guys on “October Road” and they’d never met me before. I got that job and we just went through such a process on that. They grew as producers and I grew as an actor. It was one of those things where one day we were shooting a scene on “October Road” where I got in a fight and they were behind the monitor and one of them said, “We really should write a show for this guy. We should write a show for him where he’s a cop, something where he has a gun in his hand.” There’s where the idea came from originally and they just gradually bounced it around and came up with “Happy Town.”
My favorite part about it is that all three of them swore secrecy, like “Don’t tell Geoff, let’s not tell Geoff.” And then each of them, individually, slipped up and told me and then had to make me swear not to tell the other ones. So for a year, I knew about it and each of them know that I knew, but they didn’t know that the other one had told me, so it was great to just be in the room with these guys and each of them knew that there was a secret, but they didn’t know that who knew what. Then one day they finally told me and they were all together and they were like, “You knew?” “Oh my God, you told him?” “No you told him?” It was pretty funny. Part of the reason, too, when I finally found out about it, is I didn’t want them to tell me what the show was. I really wanted to get to read it for the first time and form my own opinion about it. My biggest fear, honestly, was that I wasn’t gonna like it, because I probably would have done it anyway, because I like these guys so much. That’s what I joke and say it’s an unhealthy co-dependence. But I’m flattered and super grateful. The gave me the keys to a really expensive car. I think it’s fantastic for me and it’s a huge opportunity. More than that, it’s my life and it’s what I wanted to do. I’m grateful for that for sure.
HitFix: They presumably know how to write to your strengths. What’s it like seeing a script that’s been tailored for you?
GS: This is the first time that I’ve done something like that, but it’s your voice. They’ve known me long enough that when they were creating this character, there’s definitely a lot of Geoff Stults in Tommy Conroy and probably vice versa. As “October Road” went along also, the scripts would start coming along with little sayings that Geoff Stults would say that they’d just picked up on being in proximity to me. When you have writers that are writing for you, it makes your job a lot easier and I hear my voice when I read the scripts. You can see the lines between me and Tommy Conroy getting blurrier.
HitFix: What things are in Tommy Conroy that are also in you?
GS: I think anybody can relate to the reluctance to have to lead sometimes. I grew up an athlete and I look at this business and my life kind of like the way I looked at sports. You’re just a part of a team. You might be the leader of the team, but without the rest of the team, you’re not doing anything. I think that’s the way I look at my job as the lead of a TV show. When people say, “They created a show for you and you’re the lead, do you feel the pressure?” But I don’t feel the pressure at all. I’m just a part of this mechanism. It starts with the writers and then it works its way down through me and through the rest of the cast. And you’ve got 150 crew members who are part of it as well. It doesn’t get done without everybody. I look at Tommy in the same way. He’s a little reluctant to lead, because he likes being a part of this little world that’s perfect and then he’s forced to be come the lead and he’s forced to take over. He’s still a part of it and he relies on other people around him, but he’s bears the bulk of the burden.
HitFix: And you took on a leadership role on set as well?
GS: You have to. If you’re there the most… I’ve been on sets where the lead actor or actors aren’t that easy to get along with and if that person — I wouldn’t say the person with the most power, because it’s not — the person who’s there the most, the person who is on-set the most, if that person’s not happy and rallying people are them to do their jobs and be happy as well, then that just makes the whole set miserable. Then you’ve got 150 crew members and they’re miserable, because they’re waiting for the actor to come out of his trailer or there are a million scenarios there. I look at it like I’m lucky to be there and everybody else just wants to do their job as well and if I’m having fun, then everybody around me is having fun.
HitFix: “Happy Town” feels a little “Twin Peaks” and a little Stephen King-y. What would you compare it to?
GS: Only because of my lack of “Twin Peaks” watching, it was a little before my time, I’ve seen episodes obviously, but I feel like it’s a little bit more grounded in reality than “Twin Peaks” was. There is a mystery. There is a small town. There is this unknown. Scott Rosenberg, one of his inspirations in writing and in life and on “Happy Town” is “The Stand” and also “Salem’s Lot,” so I feel like there are elements of both of those things in there. I’m always reluctant to compare. I think a marketing executive is sitting around saying, “What worked? Oh, people loved ‘Twin Peaks’ and it’s on the same network. It’s dark and it’s scary, let’s compare it to ‘Twin Peaks.'” I think those are little keywords that marketing people come up with.
HitFix: So you see the focus of “Happy Town” as being more on the realistic elements than the quirky or fantastical?
GS: I believe that it’s definitely more real. I don’t think anybody’s going to watch this and think that aliens are going to pop out of the sky. It’s not supernatural. It’s mysterious and perhaps magical, because it’s so unexplainable with the disappearances. One of the reasons it works in a small town is because if you’re sitting in LA or Detroit or whatever big city you’re from and you see these horrible things on the six o’clock news, it doesn’t effect you as much because in LA there are 14 million people and if you’re a town away or even a block away, you don’t know those people, so unless it’s somebody you know, it doesn’t effect you as much. There’s always that, “Oh, it’ll never happen to me” mentality. But in a small town, if something bad happens, you either know the person directly, or you know somebody who does. It takes on more of of an intimate or drastic effect. So if somebody gets kidnapped and you’re in a small town, you start to think, “I either know the person who got kidnapped, or I might know the person who did the kidnapping.” You start to question things. The mystery takes on a life of its own. One of the things they say in the show about the Magic Man, is that he’s somebody who passed by you on the street today. So you start to look at all of these people you thought were your friends or your basketball coach or whatever, you think, “Hey, this could be the Magic Man. This could be the person who’s created all of this hell around town.” All you know is if it’s not you.
HitFix: How much information did you know in the beginning about where things were going after the pilot?
GS: Partly because they screwed up and told me about the show, they made a huge effort to keep people in the dark. And I didn’t really want to be informed. I didn’t want it to inform what I was doing on screen. Part of Tommy is that he’s looking for answers and if I knew them the whole time, it would have been harder to do my work. Nobody knew. We found out who the Magic Man was on the last day of shooting.
HitFix: Would you guys speculate on the set about the mysteries?
GS: I’ve never been on a show before where people, even crew members, gave a s***. Every week, more of the crew people were asking for scripts so they could read them. I’m telling you, between every take, people were gathered around the monitor constantly talking about, “Well I have this idea” and “I have that idea.” It took on a life of its own, so much so that there was an office pool going to see who could figure out who the Magic Man was. Everybody had to sign a confidentiality thing and there was this whole idea that we going to not tell the crew and just shoot with a skeleton crew and not let anybody know, but the crew got so up in arms, because they really got invested and they really felt like they were a part of this and they wanted to know as well. They were pissed that they weren’t going to get told. So we decided, Josh and Scott and Andre and I, we decided, “We’ve gotta tell these guys. They’re a part of it.” They wanted to know, so we had a whole presentation and it was great. There were actually a few people who had guessed it and I was really surprised.
HitFix: As a last question… Fans always get paranoid about getting invested in these heavily serialized shows and being afraid they’ll never get answers, so you can say that by the end of the first season there will be some measure of closure for viewers?
GS: Absolutely. The biggest storyline is who the Magic Man is and we answer that at the end of the first season. But, again, with a show like this, it’s such a fundamental shakeup that it changes everything. I also will say this: Just because because the audience knows, doesn’t mean that Tommy Conroy and some of the other characters know. Some do and some don’t.
“Happy Town” premieres at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, April 28 on ABC.