HitFix Interview: Nate Torrence talks ‘Mr. Sunshine’

02.16.11 7 years ago


Like many TV viewers, I first noticed Nate Torrence in a commercial.
But was it his national spot for Capital One? Or another national ad for Volkswagen? Or spots for Golden Grahams? Or Enterprise Rent-A-Car? 
There was definitely a period where practically every ad break seemed to feature Torrence in some live-wire capacity, which can be a difficult box to escape from. Torrence’s has made a full transition thanks to a regular role on Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” as well as scene-stealing turns in features like “Get Smart” and “She’s Out of My League.”
Torrence can currently be seen reuniting with “Studio 60” colleague Matthew Perry on ABC’s new comedy “Mr. Sunshine,” in which he plays Roman, the goofy, endlessly enthusiastic estranged son of Allison Janney’s arena owner Crystal.
“Mr. Sunshine” premiered last Wednesday to solid numbers after “Modern Family” and I chatted with Torrence earlier this week about his character, about moving past “Studio 60” and, yes, about the commercial work which established his early career.
Click through for the full interview…
HitFix: I had the chance to get a bit ahead and watch two future episodes. It’s been interesting to see the writers try to evolve the characters to the strengths of the actors.
Nate Torrence: I know! I think that’s the hill or the mountain in front of any new show and characters and writers.
HitFix: How would you say that Roman has changed and evolved towards your strengths?
NT: Honestly, it’s a combination of two things: One, you’re realizing the strengths that are happening with relationships that are on-set, as far as who you’re gelling with and what actors you have chemistry with. And then there’s where do the writers want to take it, no matter what. That’s even before Day One. Where do the writers want to go with these people? And then you have to try to mesh that in with what you’re bringing to the table and how you see the character. I think it’s been a really good back-and-forth. We’ve done that as well as possible, with the idea that our characters do evolve through this season and I think it’ll be that much more foundational  if we were to do a second season.
With Roman specifically, I love that he starts to become a little bit more confident when he’s in this relationship that grows with [Portia Doubleday’s] Heather. He’s not so man-child-esque and he’s not so completely down-trodden because everyone’s so mean to him. I think he starts to gain some sort of happiness in that area, or at least being confident as being a boyfriend, which is a really funny through-line that happens. Also, relationally, Roman starts to become a really good friend with [Matthew Perry’s] Ben. I think they do take that in a direction where his being so optimistic and Ben struggling with his just not being so pessimistic, he becomes a little bit more of a right hand man and a friendship just honestly occurs naturally between the two characters, rather than just Roman being forced upon him. Pretty soon, he almost starts choosing to hang out with Roman.
HitFix: Though obviously Roman can’t become *too* confident or well-adjusted.
NT: Oh yes. And when I say that, it’s only with Heather. That’s what I think is really funny and that’s where I think they did this great job. And even to say “confidence,” it’s almost a false confidence, because he’s hoping that Heather won’t bust him on it or that Ben’s character won’t bust him. But it makes it fun and it’s always fun to be switching up emotions and playing things differently with different characters.
HitFix: You described Roman as a man-child. How old is he really and, more importantly, how old do you think he is in his mind?
NT: [Laughs.] I’m pretty sure he’s around 30. At some point, we actually find out his birthday. He gets hurt and the doctors have to find out how old he is and Crystal has no idea. So he’s about 30. Otherwise, I think he’s like 11, but the truth is that most of his reactions, I find myself pulling from my six-year-old son, with that instant joy or instant sadness. I think he always wears whatever emotion he’s feeling on his face. And I find that with my son all the time, that whether he’s mad that we’re leaving Chuck E. Cheese or excited we’re going to Chuck E. Cheese, whatever that is, it’s immediate. It’s funny, because my wife’s parents saw the show and actually said that. They were like, “OK. That was so Cooper. The face you made here and the face you made there.” And I didn’t realize I was doing him *so* well, but it is my son Cooper. So in that aspect, Roman’s six.
HitFix: Do you have any sense of what sort of strange backstory would have shaped this guy in this way?
NT: Yeah, they slowly go into it. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about mentally… I’m talking emotionally, in terms of optimism. To answer your question, basically she’s been divorced several times and in the midst of those divorces Roman went off to school and didn’t go to school and kinda was just out there and no one really knew where he was or cared where he was. So he had this whole life and we don’t really get into whether he was wealthy doing it. Obviously he had to pay the bills somehow, but at the same time, it doesn’t even feel like Crystal even gave him that much, because I end up moving in with Ben, because she doesn’t let me stay in the house. So that plays into it as well.
With Roman, I also almost have to say that I’m a pretty happy guy and my dad is crazy happy all the time. Even though I’m comparing him, yes, to this young kid, there are also just these people you meet in life who are just crazy optimistic and crazy happy and I think that’s also part of Roman. Even though he has this naive aspect to him, from not living a well-rounded life, even if he did, he’d still be this extremely excited, constantly happy guy.
HitFix: Well we know that obviously Matt’s character isn’t supposed to be aspirational. He’s isolated himself himself for 40 years. Does that mean that on some level, Roman should almost be the guy we all want to be?
NT: I guess that emotionally you could say that. They do play around with that sage aspect, that there’s something in innocence and there’s something in purity that any character, no matter how much you make fun of them, they have an insight on life that sometimes you don’t relate to, but in that, they can have answers in life. We play on that a little bit with Ben and Roman. No matter how much I’m the fumbling sidekick or the guy who never gets anything right, at the right moment, I have these poignant outlooks on life that end up impacting Matt’s character to the good. So in that aspect? Yeah, I think that anyone would be like, “Oh, I wish I could have that demeanor toward life.” But on a physical aspect? Or mental aspect? I don’t think there’s that relatability. 
HitFix: So was this an instance of Matt remembering you from “Studio 60” and just bringing you in, or did you have to go through the usual audition process?
NT: Two years ago, he called me up because he was doing a pilot for Showtime called “End of Steve” and he actually wrote the role for me. My character’s name was Nathan and I was playing his assistant in it and he wrote that specifically for me and I never really had to audition or anything for it. We shot the pilot and we got along really well, but the pilot didn’t get picked up. So we went our separate ways and then a year after that, he gave me a call again and said, “Hey, I wrote something else. It’s with ABC and it just got picked up. I’d love to see if you’re interested.” With it being network, obviously there are that many more heads and that many more voices, so I went in one time for it and read with Matthew. I hadn’t met [producer] Jamie Tarses. I’d already met [director/producer] Tommy Schlamme before with “Studio 60.” We also had “End of Steve” to show to them and even though the show didn’t end up getting picked up, we did have really good chemistry together in that. So it was one of those amazingly thankful and great storylines or through-lines in life to be thankful for, that he remembered me and wrote something for me. 
HitFix: Was the dynamic between your characters on the Showtime pilot similar to this dynamic here?
NT: Oddly enough, Matthew’s character was even that much more of a horrible person [in the Showtime pilot]. He was really a mean person. And me being his assistant, my thing was that I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be him, so I was a “Yes I Can” kind of Yes Man, do everything for him. I was always aware of what was going on and I ignored it. Whereas I think that Roman’s character is completely oblivious that this guy is mean, or would be mean, because he’s just thankful he’s being his friend. So there’s that little difference, but in a way, as far as me being an underling to him, yeah…
HitFix: In terms of an acclimation process on set, what does it do that so many of you guys were on “Studio 60”?
NT: It’s kind of bizarre, because I don’t think that necessarily happened intentionally along the lines of, “Oh, we’re trying to recreate ‘Studio 60′” in any way. The shows couldn’t be more different. I mean, we are a sitcom. We’re not trying to be “Sports Night” or have that voice or anything on that Sorkin line, which is amazing, but it’s more dramatic. This one is definitely for the funny. I think it was more that we just worked well together and it was people we liked. I know that with Matthew and Allison, they wrote this role and it was like, “Who do you see in it?” and his dream was Allison and that’s who we ended up getting, not knowing that Tommy was so close to Allison. I mean, obviously everybody knew because “West Wing,” but I don’t think it was ever like, “Only people on ‘Studio 60’ can work on this.” I think it just gelled that they remembered us and they liked us. It’s always a compliment. That’s one of the hardest things to get through in Hollywood, when you’re trying to establish friendship, even on a real level rather than just on the screen level, chemistry comes so much more quickly when you know people, so I think it was an executive decision to say, “Oh, well if we have these people in place, why wouldn’t we just go ahead with this, because we know these people, we know how they work and they know us.” I’m always thankful for it. I love working with people I’ve already met, rather than getting through that, “Oh, this is how you like to do a scene or this is how you like to learn your lines,” just starting from scratch.
HitFix: Simply because of the nature of what that show was and who was involved, “Studio 60” was one of the most covered and reported on shows possibly ever. A couple years after the fact, how do you look back on that whole experience?

NT: I’m beyond happy for… I’m so happy with “Social Network,” just because, rightfully so, everyone gets a gun pointed at them in those times and I think he received the most critical oppression when things were going bad. But as an actor, I still look at it as this crazy, fond memory of being able to work on something that was just so… It was just high end. For television to be that high end? That was the experience that I got from it and got to be in it and resonate with it, to be with the people we were getting to work with and the process of what they would do just to get a shot… Tommy was insane. It’s just that high calibre movement of the camera, of our cranes and specifically the building of the sets so that you could get the walk-and-talks through them. And then even as an actor who has an improv background, to be chained to that script, as far as you just don’t go off a word, it was very Shakespearean in that way of just respecting the words of the writer and never adding. In that way, it was this amazing process that I don’t know know if I ever would have gotten a chance to be in and that’s what I’m thankful for. I feel comfortable in that setting now, even though my role was small, I got to do 19 episodes of it. So that was cool.
But with that said, there were things that happened on “Mr. Sunshine” that I was so thankful for. I’m thankful that we have 13 of them in the can right now, rather than having to deal with hearing the bombardment of everything that people don’t like about the show. I think that if you try to have a voice, that’s better than trying to recreate a voice to please the masses and I think that’s what happened with “Studio 60.” People were being so forthright with what they thought was wrong with the show that we tried to then change the show and in that, we lost the direction of where we at first wanted to go. To compare that with “Mr. Sunshine,” that’s what’s interesting. We can’t change anything. People are either going to like us or not like us and there’s a freedom in that. You don’t have to come to set and be like, “Ohhh. Our ratings went down again.” Or, “Ohhh. They don’t like this relationship.” Those are just the weird backstories that you find yourself with specifically in television, because television just keeps on going forever. It’s just season after season.
HitFix: So you guys couldn’t just completely turn off that feedback loop on “Studio 60”?
NT: I think we 100 percent were able to tune it out, but I think that from the creative aspect of the direction of the show, specifically, it’s just funny that so many people had qualms with some of directions we were choosing and little did they know that we were choosing that direction because of their advice prior to. So there’s where I think that if anything I learned, “Trust your instincts,” especially when you’re working with Aaron and people of that calibre, because the more we tried to cater it, the more people decided it wasn’t to your liking.
HitFix: Going back to “Mr. Sunshine,” given your improv background, are you a fan of single-camera, or do you like having the audience and having reaction?
NT: Oh no. I’m 100 percent single camera. I have my theater style, which is very loud, and I’m always known for having a boisterous energy on-stage, but I think comedy’s just changed so much in the last decade, specifically with the Judd Movement of everything being in the small, in the awkwardness and in the small reactions. Those don’t live, necessarily, in three-camera as much. You can’t pull in. You can’t push in and get these awkward moments and you’re playing off the crowd more. Personally, I definitely find single-camera a better fit.
HitFix: As a last question, you mentioned the idea that if a show is successful, TV just keeps going. But speaking of things that are forever, no matter how many people see your shows or your movies, they probably won’t get anywhere near the exposure of a single national commercial…
NT: [Big laugh.] Isn’t that crazy, man? That is so true. 
HitFix: And there was a period where you were in a handful of national spots simultaneously.
NT: I feel like I was in the last graduating class of commercial actors. TiVo! I was out there before TiVo came out, man. TiVo was just starting when my Capital Ones were going crazy and I had a Volkswagen commercial that actually I won an award for that was really popular and I found that commercials I had filmed a long time ago, that either never came out or maybe came out a little bit, started showing those commercials because I was getting exposure as a commercial actor. And I have yet to touch it. Even through “Get Smart” or “She’s Out of My League,” I have yet to have that instant recognition and at such an early stage, where people totally didn’t know my name, but they knew my face immediately. It was especially on the East Coast. 
I look back at it and it’s all good. It obviously made a couple speed bumps that I had to get through. People weren’t willing to bet on The Commercial Guy when they were casting movies and television in the beginning, but I stuck around and now it’s slowly starting to pay off. And it set me up for a while. That’s always nice. I had a bit of a financial cushion to continue out there.
HitFix: Is that still what people recognize you from?
NT: You know, it’s funny. I’d say specifically after “Get Smart,” people now know me either as The Guy from “Get Smart” or “She’s Out of My League,” when that came out on DVD, everyone was recognizing me from that. But as far as the amount of people in a time, nothing touches when those Capital One commercials were playing. If I went to a restaurant in LA, you could guarantee several people recognized me. Like I always had the joke when I’d pay, “What’s in your wallet? Oh, where’s your Capital One card?” And the answer was always, “No…” That was crazy to a point where I love that I got to see that at a younger place in my career, because then I never was infatuated with fame as much as a lot of my peers are. They’re so excited for that moment when everyone recognizes them and people want to talk to them and I’m like, “You know… It’s not that great. It’s pretty crazy.” You’re always worried about how you’re eating, if you drop something on your shirt. Or who you’re peeing next to. It’s bizarre. 
“Mr. Sunshine” airs on Wednesday nights at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.

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