Interview: Jordana Spiro & Josh Berman Dish On The Fall’s Hottest New Show, The Mob Doctor
My Boys star Jordana Spiro stars in one of the most anticipated new dramas on fall TV, The Mob Doctor, premiering tonight at 9pm ET/PT on CTV. Jordana plays Grace Devlin, a doctor who’s forced to do medical work for the mob in exchange for keeping her family out of danger. Ethical dilemmas ensue on a show that’s kind of like Grey’s Anatomy meets The Sopranos, but that’s an under-statement. We spoke with Jordana and show creator Josh Berman on a conference call about everything we can expect from the exciting new prime-time drama.
Q: Jordana, you were in Chicago for My Boys, but you didn’t really [go there to] film a lot. How has it been working in Chicago on this and shooting?
JORDANA: No, unfortunately not. We would just pack our exteriors onto the tail end of every season of My Boys. So, we definitely didn’t get enough time to spend here. You know, it’s an incredible thing that happens when you’re shooting in the place that the story takes place in, not just visually for what that adds. Obviously, it’s invaluable to what it adds to the picture of what you’re shooting. Also, when the entire crew is from where you’re shooting, the conversations you get to have on set just doing what you’re doing, going about your day; inform and ground what you’re doing as your character so much more than I anticipated.
I think that’s been the most surprising and pleasurable aspect of shooting on location is those interactions with the crew and with the local environment.
Q: What kind of things have you done outside of work while you’ve been there?
JORDANA: Well, there hasn’t been too much time outside of work. So, I haven’t yet gotten to go to the White Sox game, which I’m dying to go to, or a Bears game. I think I’ve just been doing a lot of eating.
Q: Josh, why was it important to shoot here, as opposed to faking it?
JOSH: I think there’s two reasons for me. It was a personal reason and a professional reason. Professionally, when you’re on a network show, and you have a studio that says you can shoot anywhere you want, and you’re writing a show about the mob; there’s no better city than Chicago. Since the post-9/11 resources have gone away from organized crime and into fighting terrorism, and there’s a whole new face on the mob and being able to place it in Chicago with such historical roots made the most sense.
Personally, it’s a real pleasure because my family comes from Chicago. My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and she ended up in Chicago, as well as five of her cousins, the only people that survived. They established a department store and for them, my family, Chicago represented the American Dream. So, it’s a real great return for me.
Q: Jordana, what was it about the premise of the show in general, about your character in particular, that made you want to do it?
JORDANA: I think there were a couple of reasons. Two things that really stood out to me is the fact that she is a surgeon, and with that there’s this inherent quality of wanting to fix things in a very direct, hands-on way. She wants to cut something open and fix it, and there’s a Godliness to that. Surgeons cross a line that isn’t just physical, it’s psychological and spiritual.
I thought there was something interesting that was going on with her choice of doing that, and this sort of inability to control her environment when she was growing up. She was the daughter of an alcoholic who abused her mother, and she had to really claw her way out of her background to get to where she’s getting to. I thought that there was such a fieriness to her and such gumption to her that was just really compelling.
Then when I read the pilot script and I read the scenes with Constantine, her debtor, I thought they were so fascinating because it could have been so easy for Josh to have made that relationship purely antagonistic, but it’s so oddly serene and paternal. I just got very excited to unpack that-that this isn’t just some financial debt that’s at the surface; it’s where she’s from, it’s in her DNA, this world that she’s trying to get away from and also being pulled to at the same time. Those two things really were pulled into the foreground for me when I read the script.
Ultimately, the overarching heartbeat of the show to me, which was so exciting and compelling, was that this woman is making choices that are very morally conflicted and yet at the beginning it’s to save her family. So, this question becomes how far do you go? Where is that line that you absolutely won’t cross? What happens when that line keeps edging further and further away from you? Is there a breaking point where you say, if I can’t beat them, I’ll join them?
Q: [Some] actors who’ve played TV doctors who weirdly were squeamish about blood and needles, even fake blood and fake needles. Where do you stand on that department?
JORDANA: Well, I shadowed several surgeons and surgical residents. I thought I was going to be a lot more squeamish than I was. I realized where my line was, was that if the patient was out and they weren’t aware of the surgery, I was actually okay because I was a bit desensitized just from what you see on TV and the fake blood and all this kind of stuff. When it was a smaller more minor surgery, and they were just numbing the area, and they were cognizant to what was going on, and you could see them writhe around;
that’s when I had to politely step away.
Q: Okay, so unconscious, they were almost like props.
JORDANA: Exactly. I hate to say it, but exactly. Watching their reaction to what was going on was what made me squeamish.
Q: Josh, what are your goals, other than the obvious of wanting to be a long running hit, what are your hopes and goals creatively for The Mob Doctor?
JOSH: Creatively, I would love for our viewers to tap into this show on an emotional level. I think the current show that I write and produce, Drop Dead Diva; I think it had longevity because people can relate to the lead character. Now in that show, it’s about a skinny model who dies and comes back to life as an overweight attorney; obviously, not something that most people go through.
In this case, we have a woman who’s a doctor and indebted to the mob. Again, not something that most people are experiencing in their lives, but the themes of what this character goes through and balancing the pressures of family and work and her brother. It’s the universality of trying to get through our days today when there are so many pressures on us. I think that’s something that viewers can really relate to, especially women, when so much is asked of us in today’s world.
So, I hope that at the end of the day people will fall in love and relate to Jordana’s character. Grace is so complex and so interesting. I don’t think there’s another character like her on television right now. I hope the viewers fall in love with her as much as I have.
Q: Jordana, obviously, this role is very different from your previous role. Is this a tougher role for you or is it just different?
JORDANA: Yes, I think it’s just different kinds of challenges on this one. I wouldn’t say tougher challenges, but different challenges. I think one of the things I do really appreciate is that there could be a lot more pressure doing a show like this, the things that aren’t fake, doing a FOX Primetime one-hour drama where you’re the centerpiece of it. It sounds like it could be a lot of pressure, more than a cable sitcom.
I think that it’s a real testament to how Josh makes the people around him feel. There’s a real support system around you, and in fact any kind of pressure actually comes from the pressure you put on yourself and not from the people around you. Everybody from the directors, the producers, the writers, the … just made me feel really at home here and really supported the work I’m doing. That’s been a really nice way to couch the challenges that this job comes with.
Q: Have you watched Drop Dead Diva? Are you familiar with Josh’s work?
JORDANA: I’m actually not too familiar. I’ve been holed up in grad school for the past two years, and then before that on my own TV shows. A funny thing happens when you come home from all day shooting a TV show; it’s the last thing you want to watch is TV.
Q: Josh, how did you come up with the idea for the show? Was this like an in-the-shower type of thing? Or were you watching The Sopranos?
JOSH: For me it’s interesting, I grew up in a medical family. My father’s a doctor. My mom’s a nurse. The siblings on both sides are doctors or nurses or psychiatrists. Yet, after writing on network television for fourteen years, it’s the one genre I avoided.
I spent actually nine years on forensic shows, and then a legal show with Drop Dead Diva. I’ve created other shows, but I never touched the medical arena because I felt like it had been done to death on TV. Then when the concept came of blending this world with the mob world, two absolutely diametrically opposed conceits; yet at the heart of it, there are families. There’s the family at the hospital, and there’s the family in the mob world. I love the idea of blending these two genres into something fresh and
original. It was really the first time I got excited and wanted to write a medical show, so that’s how we ended up with The Mob Doctor.
Q: Any notes from your family yet?
JOSH: Actually, it’s funny you should ask that. Before we were even picked up as series, I like to do a mini-table read just to make sure the dialog is all working. My mom came in, and I had a doctor in the room, I had a nurse in the room, and my mom represented the nurse. She gave me some good notes on the nursing dialog, but then she proceeded just to give me general script notes. At which point, I kicked her out of the room.
Q: She’ll love the show anyway of course.
JOSH: She’s still my biggest fan, and she feels very close to the Ro character who is the nurse played by Floriana Lima in the show.
Q: Josh, this is definitely one of the most buzzed about shows this fall. It’s getting really heavily promoted, and I know you just touched on this a little bit, but I was wondering is there a sense of pressure with that? Also, what do you think sets this apart from other medical dramas?
JOSH: It’s funny you talk about pressure because Jordana got asked a similar question. Her response was that she puts a lot pressure on herself. I think this show has attracted a lot of Type A personalities. We all put more pressure on ourselves then we do on each other. We’re a big support network for each other, but then we look internally and are like why didn’t we do better?
I think Jordana is flawless in her performance, and I know she’s her toughest critic. With the scripts too, I rewrite them so many times because I want it to be perfect. Of course it will never be perfect, but the pressure is just there internally.
In terms of support, we’re so lucky. You know we’re the only new drama on FOX this fall. We have so much support from the network who just loves the show and getting the phone calls when they say we just saw a cut and we love it, we love it, we love it. That’s music to our ears. We quickly forget about the accolades and then go back to being hard on ourselves because that’s our nature. We feel thrilled. We are energized. I know that the network is expecting a lot from us.
People aren’t sure when they hear the title, it doesn’t mean that much to them. Then, once they watch the episode and seeing the evolution in social media where screeners have somehow snuck out and people are writing great stuff about us online or on You Tube or Facebook; it’s really gratifying.
The second part of the question was about, why The Mob Doctor? I’m friends with Jamie-Lynn Sigler who played Meadow Soprano on The Sopranos, and she guest starred on Drop Dead Diva. When she came onto the show on Diva, we began thinking what would’ve happened if Meadow Soprano had gone onto medical school and had become a doctor, what would that look like?
Then my co-creator Rob Wright and I started talking about is there such a thing as a mob doctor? We were shocked by the amount of literature, nonfiction, written about mob doctors. We even came across a book called Il Dottore, the double life of a Mafia doctor, written by Ron Felber; which is the true life accounts of a mob doctor in the 1970s in New York. Sony optioned the rights for us of that book.
We don’t talk about it much. I just figure that the question hasn’t come up, so I’m glad you asked. That book was really inspirational. While we developed a very different character than the central character of that nonfiction novel, it was inspirational for us to see this is something real. This is something that exists. It is the underbelly of organized crime, have there medical fixers, so to speak.
When we found out that this actually did exist, it became even more compelling. That’s the point we decided, we have to write this. I think FOX responded immediately. FOX was the only network we pitched to. They bought it in the room and have been excited about the project from the beginning.
Q: In the series, we see both the drama of Grace dealing with the mob as well as her medical cases at the hospital. Can you talk about what kind of balance we’re going to see as the series goes forward of those two worlds?
JOSH: Sure, sure. I’m happy to answer it. When I’m in the writers’ room, we always say let’s not make any rules because we’re a new show and let’s write the best and most compelling episodes.
We have some episodes that take place predominantly in the hospital, and then some that take place predominantly in the field. I like
to refer to those cases as the dirty medicine cases because we get to tell stories without the bureaucracy of a hospital, and to me that’s what’s so compelling. I grew up in a household with, again, my dad as a doctor, my mom as a nurse. There was so much red tape that they had to cut through, and it was the aspect of medicine that my family hated, where they couldn’t
put the patient first.
Ironically when Grace is in the field, the only thing she needs to do is worry about the patient. I think she takes that energy and
that passion back into the hospital with her; which kind of gives her that I don’t give a … attitude when it comes to placating her bosses and instead she puts her patient’s interest first. I feel like that is what kind of governs where the stories go.
Q: Do you have a preference, Jordana, of which type of those scenes you’d rather do; the medical scenes or the in-the-field scenes?
JORDANA: I don’t have a preference because there’s some pretty extraordinary actors in both scenes and that’s for me where the real fun comes. I’ve gotten now to work with some of my heroes; Zeljko Ivanek and Bill Forsythe, Kevin Corrigan and Terry Kinney and …. They each have their own universes that they’re in, so for me I love being able to traverse both worlds. I think Jesse Lee Soffer, who plays my brother, is jealous of me because he wants to work with the hospital actors, and he hasn’t been able to yet. That’s one of the really exciting things for me are the other actors I get to work with on this show.
At first I was even saying this, I think it’s very easy to talk about our show and say its ER meets The Sopranos or something like that
and take two very archetypal, very known entities and say that we’re the marriage of those two. I think the risk in that is it almost sounds like we are trying to find a formula within two formulas; like marry two formulas to create one new formula. I think it’s different than that.
I think that this is really about a woman who dives head first into her problems, who is torn between two worlds that are at odds against each other but really trying to make good in both of them. We are kind of in a way finding own formula and our own balancing act. I think that from episode to episode there’s room for it to shift and change. It’s ultimately to me a show that’s driven by a character trying to make good and find who she is and where her identity is and not a strict procedural. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s how I see it.
Q: You’ve kind of started off the series with Grace Devlin having a relationship, no sexual tension, with Dr. Brett Robinson. What’s happening with Franco? Is there something going on with her and Franco also?
JOSH: You know, they have a history; Franco and Grace. Their relationship is so layered and so complex and complicated. Within the first couple of episodes, you’re going to see both her relationship with Brett get a lot deeper, played by Zach Gilford; and you’re going to see her relationship with Franco become a lot more interesting I should say. There’s a whole arc planned for Grace’s love life which is very much informed by her personal and professional pressures that will begin to unfold over the first half of the first season.
Q: Jordana, what have some of the highlights have been for you shooting the rest of the series?
Well, I just touched upon it but one of the biggest highlights so far has been the guest cast that’s come in. It’s really been a dream come true to work with Kevin Corrigan and Terry Kinney and … has been really just a remarkable experience. I think that for me right now has been the biggest highlight is who I’ve gotten a chance to work with.
Then, let’s see, some of the episode highlights. I’m not sure what I’m allowed to give away. So just speaking a little bit more generally, I think as every episode comes to me, I’m just watching the relationships get more complex, more entangled. That’s been a real
enjoyment to just keep continuing to add layers to all of these relationships.
Q: Can you speak on any of the craziest surgery?
JORDANA: We had a fun one the other day. Ken Olin was the director on this one, where I had to check for internal bleeding on a restaurant kitchen table. The only thing I could use were tubes from the back of a vending machine.
Q: Like MacGyver.
JORDANA: If that’s not a MacGyver doctor, I don’t know what is.
JOSH: That scene that Jordana is speaking of, it’s actually in our third episode, and it is the most incredible scene. When the editor
first saw the rough cut of it, he called all the producers in just to show us her performance. It’s incredible. We call it a dirty medicine scene. When we’re on Jordana’s face, she is so intense. It was so gratifying when she’s able to lift the material like that. I can’t wait for people to see that episode.
Photo Courtesy of: CTV