Is The CW’s new drama “Life Unexpected” the show that puts Kristoffer Polaha in America’s living rooms for the long haul?
The “North Shore” and “Miss Guided” and “Valentine” star has kept busy with guest starring roles on shows as diverse as “Dollhouse,” “Better Off Ted” and “Mad Men” and with “Life Unexpected,” he has what is probably his best and most interesting character.
Polaha plays Nate “Baze” Bazile, a young man who peaked in high school and now drinks his life away as the owner of a grungy bar. Stuck in a perpetual state of adolescence, Baze gets a shock to his system when he discovers he has an adolescent daughter of his own, in Brittany Robertson’s Lux.
“Life Unexpected” is the sort of show The WB used to do and potentially new territory for The CW. It’s smart, funny and unapologetically sentimental.
HitFix snagged a few minutes with Polaha to chat about “Life Unexpected,” his own maturing process and even a little bit about “North Shore” and his other short-lived shows.
HitFix: We’ve seen three episodes of “Life Unexpected,” but our readers won’t have. So to start things off, tell us a bit about Baze…
Kristoffer Polaha: OK, so Baze was the quarterback in high school, the All-American, popular guy in high school and he impregnated a young lady named Cate Cassidy and did not take responsibility the way he should have. He actually didn’t even know that she had the kid, in fact. Then 16 years later, the little girl comes knocking at the door. Well, cut to Baze 16 years later and he’s basically the guy who has Peter Pan Syndrome and doesn’t want to grow up. He owns a bar and lives above it. He plays Guitar Hero all day long and drinks through the night and then all of a sudden there’s this little girl and she forces him to man-up and take some responsibility for his life.
HitFix: Presumably you don’t find yourself going out for many parts where the description reads “Father of a teenage girl.”
KP: Nope. I’ve literally never gone out for a father role like this, especially with a teenage daughter, but when I read the script, it wreaked of excellence, frankly. [Creator] Liz Tigelaar did such a great job of writing these characters and fleshing this world out. It’s funny, you’ll hear stories about actresses who won’t go in for Mom roles, because they don’t want to be seen as mothers and you’ll hear stories about guys who do the same. But Baze is such a child still and when people see him, there’s no mistaking that he’s a kid who hasn’t really grown up. This little girl who comes into his life, she has to grown down and he has to grow up and just in the same same way that Baze is still a child, Cate Cassidy — Shiri Appleby really knocks it out of the park with this role — she has the same thing, she has to grow up and take responsibility in a different way. She has to open up her heart and learn how to trust.
HitFix: Did you and Shiri on set ever reflect that you’re both much to young for this kind of thing?
KP: I don’t we ever sat and had the conversation. I don’t know how old Shiri is. I’m 32 and she’s not older than I am. But I know that I’ve thought about it like, “Man, this could be. I could have a kid this age.” I’ve thought that if I got a girl pregnant in high school and she had that baby, I could be a dad right now and the kid would be a teenager. So you think about these things and you think how differently… So Baze, Liz and I worked out, was told that Cate was pregnant and I think that the guy has three choices if the girl comes up and says “I’m pregnant.” One is “It’s not mine. I dnn’t know who you are. Don’t ever talk to me again.” Right? Then there’s the other choice which is like, “OK. I’ll do whatever you need. If you want to get married we can raise this baby. Whatever.” There’s that guy, who takes care of it. Whatever way he needs to take care of it, he helps. And then there’s the third guy who wants to be be a good guy and wants to do the right thing, but acts like a prick. That’s what Baze did. He basically at his heart is a good guy and didn’t want to hurt anybody, but he didn’t have the tools as a 16-year-old to man-up and take responsibility for his actions and he’s having to do that now. It’s that old archetype that Hollywood loves so much, it’s the Boy-Man and we’re catching him at the moment of conversion.
HitFix: In your own life have you had one of those “Well, it’s time to grow up” moments?
KP: Yeah. I’m a dad with two kids. When I met my wife, I was 24. Obviously, she wasn’t my wife. She was just a girl. I made her my wife later on. But that was definitely a moment. When I met her, her name is Julianne, I said, “I can either marry this woman and start my life and we can have a family and do this whole thing, or I can go off and keep playing.” And I was playing pretty hard. I said, “I can keep playing and this chance may never come along again.” So at a relatively young age, at 24, I made a pretty smart decision to grow up. It really is, it’s these little moments in your life were you say, “If I say ‘Yes’ to this and say ‘No’ to all this other stuff…” and you weigh those options and you take the “Yes” road and it leads down a whole other path. I did that at 24 and Baze is doing that the minute Lux knocks on his door. She knocks on his door and instead of turning her away, he says “I can help this little girl. I can love her. I can give her things that she hasn’t had for 16 years.” He doesn’t know how to do those things, so what’s fun to watch about Baze is watching him figure out how to do those things.
HitFix: Is the 23-year-old you still fresh enough in your memory that you remember what it was like to be that wild and crazy guy?
KP: Oh yes. Yes! Because when you’re a dad and your kids are keeping you up until four in the morning and all you want to do is go get a drink somewhere, you know what I mean? [Laughing.] It’s the other side of the coin and I think anybody can still hold onto that. I think monks in the Himalayas are still holding onto that.
HitFix: Liz has talks a lot about how personal and, in some places, autobiographical this show is for her. Does that raise the stakes for you guys on set knowing that it’s that personal?
KP: The stakes are definitely raise. I think that they’re raised not only because it’s personal for her and not only because it’s semi-reflective of her life, but also just who she is and how she comes to the table as a write and as a creator. As artists, there’s so much respect for Liz and there’s so much love for Liz that we want this thing to be the best that it can be for her. And, in return, she’s so open and willing to hear any ideas that we come to the table with. It feels like a collaboration on set because it is. It’s definitely a 100 percent collaboration on set. If you’ve talked to other actors on television shows, it’s a write-producer medium and you show up and you do your thing and you get the hell off. With this, Liz wants to know what we think. She wants to know how we feel. She talks to us about certain things. You come to set feeling like you’re part of this creative process and I think it’s showing in the episodes. I know that Shiri’s knocking it out of the park. Kerr took a part that could have just been a temporary foil for Cate and Baze, but he’s turned it into a character you actually root for. Brittany’s just knocking it out of the park. Without being arrogant, I think it’s definitely the best work that I’ve ever been able to do and it’s an environment that’s fostering all of that and that all goes to Liz. The stakes are raised not only because it’s personal to her, but because of who she is and what kind of team leader she is, so we’re all just doing our best work.
HitFix: Now, in recent years, you’ve had a number of regular roles on shows that had very short runs. When you look back on those shows, do you have any particular regrets that any of them didn’t last any longer?
KP: Yeah. They’ve all been pretty ephemeral, haven’t they? OK. So the first one was “North Shore” and that ran for one season and that was a pretty incredible experience. I lived in Hawaii and my first son was born there. It was fun. But when that came to a close, I didn’t regret that. It was an interesting year and I have a lot of great memories of that. Then “Miss Guided” was the next one, starring Judy Greer and Chris Parnell and again Brooke Burns, which was funny. And when I read that script, I was like, “Man, this is smart and this is funny. This is everything that a TV half-hour, single-camera needs to be.” And then the writers strike hit and then we literally only got seven episodes out, including the pilot. The strike hit and they shut production down. So that one was a regret. I think that character was a lot of fun to play. That was a fun gig. I think that one ended prematurely. And then I did a little thing called “Valentine,” which was also a lot of fun. It was through MRC and I never took it… I didn’t know how long that was going to last. We were picked up for 13 and we ended up shooting eight, so there was no surprise there.
HitFix: But do you stop and go, “Well, if ‘North Shore’ hadn’t been cancelled, maybe I don’t get to do ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Dollhouse’ or ‘House’ or ‘Better Off Ted.” It seems like you’ve had some great one-off guesting opportunities.
KP: Thanks. I think about that all the time. It’s the thing when you’re a working actor. That’s what’s interesting this cast. You’ve got Kerr, who had a really cool run on a really cool show, he’s had his moment in the sun. We’re all working. We’re all working actors. Shiri Appleby, same thing. She’s a working actor. She’s always working. But as far as being highlighted as an actor and going to that place where everybody knows your work and you’re out there in the conversation, I think this show has the potential to do that for everybody. It’s interesting how your career just leads you to that moment and you do think about it. Everything happens for a reason. At the end of the day, I’m always appreciative to get the jobs and never too, too terribly upset when they go away, because like you just said, one door closes and the next one opens up and you just have to walk through to the next thing. That’s an interesting part of being an actor, an interesting aspect of an actor’s life. There’s not a lot of consistency and there’s not a lot of stability, so you find that joy and you find that consistency when you work. That’s why this job has been so incredible, because it’s a really warm set and it’s a really warm cast and, like I said about Liz, she treats us with so much respect and, it’s going to sound weird, but equality. It’s not a “Them” and “Us” thing on that set. It’s a “We.” It’s a really great job and we all feel blessed.
HitFix: One last stupid question: Are you relieved that the capital “X” is gone from the title and you’re no longer going to have to explain that to people?
KP: Yes. I am relieved. What it was, was all of the capital letters spelled L-U-X. So it was an easy grab, but yes people were like, “Why is the ‘X’ capitalized?” And you have to be like “Well, because it spells out Lux.” And then they’d be like “Ohhhhh.”
HitFix: Someone finally just decided, though, that that wasn’t worth the effort?
KP: I’m not sure who made the decision. I’m not sure where that came from, whether it was the network or Liz was finally like, “Eh. Whatever. Let’s just move on.” I’m not sure how that happened. There was no committee on that one.
“Life Unexpected” premieres on The CW at 9 p.m. on Monday, January 18.